Welcome!

If you're just coming here for the first time, uh... you're late. The site is no longer updated daily (see HERE for the story). But it's still kicking 1-2x a week, and it's better late than never! Before reading any of the "reviews", you should read the intro, the FAQ, the MOVIES I HAVE ALREADY SEEN list, and if you want, the glossary of genre terms and "What is Horror?", which explains some of the "that's not horror!" entries. And to keep things clean, all off topic posts are re-dated to be in JANUARY 2007 (which was before I began doing this little project) once they have 'expired' (i.e. are 10 days old).

Due to many people commenting "I have to see this movie!" after a review, I have decided to add Amazon links within the reviews (they are located at the bottom), as well as a few links to the Horror Movie A Day Store around the page, hopefully non-obstructively. Amazon will also automatically link things they find relevant, so there might be a few random links in a review as well. If they become annoying, I'll remove the functionality. Right now I'm just kind of amused what they come up with (for example, they highlighted 'a horror movie' in the middle of one review and it links to, of all things, the 50 Chilling Movies Budget Pack!!!).

Last but not least, some reviews contain spoilers (NOTE - With a few exceptions, anything written on the back of the DVD or that occurs less than halfway through the movie I do NOT consider a spoiler). I will be adding 'spoiler alerts' for these reviews as I go through and re-do the older reviews (longtime readers may notice that there is now a 'show more' which cleaned up the main page, as well as listing the source of the movie I watched, i.e. Theaters, DVD, TV) to reflect the new format. This is time consuming, so bear with me.

Thanks for coming by and be sure to leave comments, play nice, and as always, watch Cathy's Curse.

PLEASE, GO ON...

Kong: Skull Island (2017)

MARCH 12, 2017

GENRE: MONSTER
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (REGULAR SCREENING)

I was rarely as excited for a big blockbuster as I was for Peter Jackson's King Kong back in December of 2005. It came out the night I flew home to see my family for Christmas, and I was so hellbent on seeing the film I barely even saw any of them before racing off to the theater for the next showing. And within an hour, I felt myself sinking into my seat, feeling guiltier and guiltier about ditching them for that slog of a movie. I knew it was long, but I figured Peter Jackson - the guy who made Dead Alive and was now free to do whatever he wanted post-LOTR - would dive into Skull Island's creatures and give us a $200m creature feature. Instead we got ice skating, and it was just the first of what has been an unbroken streak of disappointing movies from this former hero of mine. Luckily, twelve years later, I got to see most of that movie I wanted to thanks to Jordan Vogt-Roberts and Kong: Skull Island, which is an hour shorter and features twice as much monster action.

In fact, things start a touch quicker than I even expected. Jurassic Park was a clear influence on the filmmakers here, but there's no long buildup like that movie had - I think that scene from the trailers where Kong tosses a tree through the windshield of a helicopter comes at about the 30 minute mark. Since there's an action scene right at the top (a flashback that establishes the John C. Reilly character, who crashes on the island along with a Japanese pilot during a WWII dogfight), that means there's really only about 25 minutes worth of setup before the movie becomes, more or less, a nonstop chase/fight movie. Our heroes are going to the island to take photos and see what's there (John Goodman's character is pretty sure there are monsters there, but the mission is disguised as mere recon to see what resources the island may have, before the Russians get there first), and Kong's big initial attack wipes out about half of them and scatters the others into two primary groups. One group stumbles across Reilly and the other jungle inhabitants, and learn that Kong is actually kind of a good guy and acts as the primary defense against the real dangers of the island. The other group, for the most part, keeps running into those other dangers. We go back and forth between the two groups for a while, which allows for a perfectly balanced mix of adventure and character development; we're never away from action for too long, but we also get to know the people who may or may not be eaten by "Skull Crawlers" or giant squids, or stomped on by Kong as he makes his way around his home.

Well, to be fair, we get to know MOST of the people. Goodman, Sam Jackson, Reilly, and Shea Whigham (as one of Jackson's men) get to play fairly complete characters, but they're all billed below Tom Hiddleston, who really serves no function in the movie other than to look gravely concerned at whatever the next obstacle is. He is hired because the island is unknown territory and they need a badass like him to guide them through. He's basically Indiana Jones and Han Solo rolled into one guy, at least as far as his introduction goes - but once they're all on the island he really doesn't do a hell of a lot. He kills a few flying monsters with a sword (while wearing a gas mask, so his big hero moment could just be a stunt guy for all we know) and supplies Brie Larson with the tool that save their lives later, but I honestly think if you digitally erased him from like 90% of his scenes there would be zero effect on anything. He's just THERE, as if they hired him before writing the script and forgot to include his character in the plot, but didn't have the heart to tell the actor he was no longer needed. Near the end he becomes the voice of reason against Jackson, who just wants to kill Kong and everything else on the island, but that stuff could have been given to Larson or Reilly (the latter also serves as their guide once he's introduced, so at that point Tom doesn't even have a useful skill for the group anymore). Larson fares slightly better, but also feels a bit like someone noticed late in the development that they needed another female character in there, rather than an essential part of the plot.

Amazingly, the movie manages to overcome the fact that it doesn't give its two main characters anything to do. While the CGI occasionally suffers from that weightlessness that big movie monsters tend to have (when Kong is toppled during a fight, it feels like his size should be causing a tidal wave or earthquake, but the humans nearby barely flinch), for the most part it shows us the best money can buy. The designers have some up with a variety of monsters, including spiders with legs that are so long that they are initially mistaken for trees, and a four-legged creature that is made out of wood and bark, and acts like a scared dog when shot at. Kong and the "Skull Crawlers" get the majority of the screentime devoted to beasties, but I'm glad that they peppered in some others to flesh out the world of the island a bit more (we're also told that there are ants that sound like birds, but we never see them). And not all of them are antagonists, which adds to the Jurassic Park-y feel - some are just cool to look at and won't hurt you, like the "veggie-sauruses" of that movie. Stuffier types might find it annoying that the monsters are more fleshed out than the characters, but they probably also complained that Godzilla wasn't in Godzilla '14 enough, because such folks are never happy and certainly never consistent, so don't listen to them.

The movie also has a bit of a mean streak that I appreciated. Not like, Silent Night Deadly Night levels of gleeful hatred towards humanity, but certainly more than I was expecting for a PG-13 movie that attracted kids. There's an obvious hero type who gets wiped out at the halfway mark, and that scene in the trailer where a character seems to be sacrificing himself to save his friends doesn't quite work the way anyone would expect. It's also got a respectable amount of carnage (including a through the mouth impaling!) and even a few kinda scary bits (the spider scene, mostly). But it's also funnier than I would have assumed; Reilly is even more gutbusting than he appeared to be from the trailer (I'm still laughing at his final line to the native people), and Whigham gets a number of good, crowd-pleasing lines. There's also terrific use of a Nixon bobblehead (you just have to see it) and even Kong gets a couple of smiles, like when he slurps a giant squid leg like spaghetti (he also uses a big propeller like a kind of brass knuckles, which is awesome).

Less successful is the editing, which shows a number of seams. This movie is under two hours (and that's with very lengthy credits on account of the CGI), and I suspect that wasn't always the case, because what major blockbuster movies are under two hours anymore? At one point Larson begins talking about the Japanese pilot in the past tense, but since she obviously never met him nor had Reilly mentioned him, there was clearly a scene or at least a few lines to set up her reaction. It's not until about ten minutes later that it's even clear who she was referring to, which is just plain awkward storytelling no matter how you slice it. There is also a cutaway of a hex nut falling in between some gears on their boat, which you can assume is foreshadowing a malfunction down the road, but there's no payoff for it. And I'm pretty sure Sam Jackson's squad respawns at some point, because I kept mentally trying to keep track and there were always more alive than I could have sworn was possible given the casualties we just witnessed. As with the weird lack of a point to the Hiddleston character, it's not a crippling flaw, but it definitely raised an eyebrow more than once, and I can't help but wonder if some exec demanded some cuts at the 11th hour to shorten the runtime, resulting in some sloppier than usual editing for a movie this size.

So it's not a home run, but it's a lot closer to one than I would expect out of current day Warner Bros, which is always seemingly bungling its big movies by treating them as parts of a long-running franchise that's being forced on us from inception, as opposed to the good old days where they'd only make sequels to movies we liked. Indeed, the post-credits scene is just there to set up a vs. film with Godzilla (whether it will be the one from the 2014 movie, or a new incarnation a la Batman in BvS, I'm not sure), but at least they weren't dropping a bunch of teasers for it throughout the film like they did in BvS with its bullshit Flash cameos and such. But unlike BvS, this actually excites me about returning to this world; maybe not in a vs. movie, but I'd love to come back to Skull Island (perhaps in a prequel, with Reilly's character in an Enemy Mine kind of scenario with the Japanese pilot) and meet more of its inhabitants. Naturally, they've already dated the vs. film (and, sigh, hired writers to come up with the story for it AFTER they promised us when we'd see it), but as with its DC characters, the shared mega movies being planned doesn't mean we can't get stand-alone entries in the same world. Naturally, I'm more excited about giant monsters than superheroes (even with my beloved Affleck as Batman), so the fact that Skull Island is (so far) better received than any of their DC films is hopefully a good sign that more will be coming.

What say you?

PLEASE, GO ON...

The Girl With All The Gifts (2016)

FEBRUARY 25, 2017

GENRE: POST-APOCALYPTIC, ZOMBIE
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (REGULAR SCREENING)

With Walking Dead scoring massive ratings and World War Z more than doubling the gross of the previous highest grossing zombie film, I don't understand why we never got glutted with zombie flicks at the multiplex as we were with found footage movies in the earlier part of this decade or torture-y/hardcore horror in the '00s. And in turn I REALLY don't understand why The Girl With All The Gifts, based on a popular novel and led by three known actors (the horror genre doesn't need stars to be a hit, don't forget), got this nothing release - even here in LA it only played on one (not large) screen, with no marketing even for its accompanying VOD release. In a few years this is going to be one of those titles that gets cited as a winner the way we do for the likes of The Babadook or Hush, while folks have to be convinced the likes of Bye Bye Man actually got wide theatrical releases. It's a broken system, and has been for years, and I don't see it ever improving again; I'm happy I got to see it theatrically, but it's a shame I had to double check someone's geographical location before suggesting they do the same.

Because unlike many of the horror films you have no choice but to see on VOD, there's actually a scope to this film that would be served well on a big screen. It's not the kind of zombie movie where everyone holes up in a "safe zone" that gets overrun - it's about that safe zone being overrun and forcing our group of heroes (five of them) to make their way on foot through their eerily quiet, crumbling city to another safe area some miles away. The zombies are formed by a kind of fungal virus in this particular story, and it affects the world as well as its inhabitants, spawning these giant vines and pods throughout the city. So it's overgrown like many a post-apocalyptic film, but it's not just a cool-looking bit of production design - it's actually a source of the danger, as the pods threaten to burst and send the virus airborne. The zombies themselves are incapacitated by these vine structures, so our heroes stumble across a few that look like that they are victims of Eldon Stammets from Hannibal (and some are in groups, so it's like a cross between his victims and Lawrence Wells' totem), which is both the creepiest thing I've seen in a zombie movie in a while, and also one of the most unique.

So it's kind of funny that this is not a traditional zombie movie. It has a number of the beats of such films, but the zombies kind of stand in spot, swaying back and forth (like grass, keeping with the plant theme), unless they smell a human target. Humans are issued a scent blocker spray that they apply to themselves like bugspray, and that keeps them safe unless they make eye contact - allowing for a nailbiter scene where they make their way past dozens of zombies who are standing in place like mannequins. Sure, it's not much different than Shaun of the Dead's "let's pretend to be zombies and walk right past" bit (other than the lack of humor, obviously), but the zombies just standing there adds a level of uneasiness that sets it apart. Also, even when one zombie is alerted, it's usually isolated, so when one of our heroes accidentally spooks one, it's not like they're done for - they have to silently (and quickly) dispatch the activated one before any others catch on (kind of like in a Metal Gear game when you trigger an alarm but if you kill the closest guard things are fine). It's genius; it allows the sequence to break tension and then get it right back, which, if I've ever seen that before in a zombie movie, I can't recall it at this time.

Speaking of Shaun, it's kind of funny that one of the aforementioned recognizable faces is Paddy Considine, who appears in the other two installments of the so-called Cornetto Trilogy but gets a rare lead role here as one of the three adults who are in charge of the titular "Girl", whose name is Melanie and may be the key to saving the human race. She is one of several children who were infected in the womb but did not become full fledged zombies like the others, but live as a kind of hybrid. Like the regular infected, they have a thirst for flesh and blood (animal will suffice, though human is preferred) and get a bit worked up at the scent of one, but unlike the others they are capable of speech, free thinking, etc. Considine's character is kind of a Capt. Rhodes type who just wants to kill her, but he works with (for? I missed some of the specifics) Caldwell (Glenn Close), who wants to dissect Melanie and the other children in order to find a cure, believing their hybrid state is the key to a vaccine. And then there's Ms. Justineau (Gemma Arterton), who is the childrens' teacher and has taken a particular liking to Melanie. Naturally, she wants to protect her, so you have this odd dynamic where Melanie is being kept alive by the three adults but for different reasons. And naturally, the thing about her that makes them afraid of her eventually proves to be essential to their survival, as she can make her way quickly through the zombies to find supplies or a scout the best route, or sniff her way to find a missing member of their group.

And the cool thing is, I agree with all of them. Considine's character is introduced as an antagonist, but he comes around and bonds with her in his own way, and never really enters full "evil human" mode. Close's character actually inches, er, closer to that territory, as she will seemingly stop at nothing to achieve the "greater good", but since we never see any of the people she's allegedly trying to save (there are only like ten named people in the entire movie; we never see any traditional civilization, even in a flashback), her goal, while noble, is hard to really consider when it means the possible death of the little girl who we've spent the past 90 minutes with - a flesh and blood reality vs. a vague notion. Naturally, not everyone survives this journey, but the script by Mike Carey (adapting his novel) smartly balances out the primary characters so that one is never more or less likely to survive than the others, and gives them enough time for us to really care if and when they are dispatched. Not since Dawn of the Dead have I seen a zombie movie (or show) where I literally did not want ANYONE to die, a relieving feeling that I probably won't experience again for a while.

My only real nag about the entire movie was the ending, which generally works fine but I have a major question about how one character is still alive (to be as vague as possible - the final scene is obviously some time later, so what is ______ drinking/eating?), and Melanie's final action against the zombie fungus seemed a bit abrupt. I later learned that the book had a scene that set up her decision (I can't recall if they said it was filmed and then cut from the film, or just excised to begin with), so I get it now and it smooths over some of that concern, but neither I or they can/should expect everyone to follow up with the novel (or movie news sites) to get that context. Not that the ending was confusing or anything, but it seemed like they rushed through the final moments after pacing the previous 100 so perfectly, so it was a bit of a bummer that they couldn't retain that near-perfect quality. Perhaps book readers can mentally fill in those blanks and not even notice (with Carey writing both, I doubt there are any major changes - just things that the movie didn't have time for), but that's the double edged sword of seeing a movie based on a book - you're always going to partially dampen the surprise of one by experiencing the other first. I tend to watch the movie first before diving into the book, because the book will be fleshed out (it's like a director's cut!), whereas watching the movie after reading will almost always feel like you're getting cliff's notes, but rarely do I feel I SHOULD have read the book first so I'd have a little more understanding of the final moments of the story.

But a few quibbles about the ending is nowhere near enough to take away the fact that this is a great addition to the zombie sub-genre, and is very much undeserving of its unheralded release into the world after some well received festival appearances - including Fantastic Fest, and I'm almost afraid to look up what I saw at the same time I could have been seeing this, as I wasn't exactly in love with many of the movies I saw there this year (update: turns out it was Call of Heroes and The Void; I liked this more than either of them, but I doubt I'd have the chance to see them theatrically, so I guess it evens out). Then again, this way I got to buy a ticket at a regular screening, and do my part to try to convince the money men that movies like this should be championed and given a chance to thrive on the big screen.

What say you?

P.S. I didn't even realize it at the time, but the director was Colm McCarthy, who directed Outcast - a HMAD book selection! Definitely a name to watch and one I won't forget next time.

PLEASE, GO ON...

Get Out (2017)

FEBRUARY 23, 2017

GENRE: THRILLER
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (REGULAR SCREENING)

There are a lot of awful things that will come from the Trump administration (for examples, refresh your Twitter feed, and then again when you finish reading this review as there will likely be a new one), but there is one good one: it's likely to yield a number of politically charged or at least downright ANGRY horror movies. Ideally, it would be not unlike the '60s and '70s output, not coincidentally when our country as last in such dire straits (when things are good, horror tends to be at its blandest - i.e. the '90s). Of course, he'll likely/hopefully be impeached before any of them see the light of day given the slow nature of productions, but that's part of what makes Get Out such a minor miracle - it feels like a partial response to a world run by a racist old white guy who swears he's not racist, even though it was written and shot during the relative calm of the Obama administration. Writer/director Jordan Peele is either a clairvoyant who really should have warned us, or has been blessed with the best timing possible for his debut film.

When Peele announced he would be making a horror film, most (including myself) thought it would be a comedic one; maybe not exactly Boo! A Madea Halloween, but something along the lines of The 'Burbs or maybe Cabin in the Woods - smart stories that utilized comedy and horror in equal measures. So it's kind of funny how apt my examples turned out to be even though the film is a straight up horror (it's got some laughs, but not enough to dub it a "horror comedy"), because like Cabin it's got actor Bradley Whitford and like Burbs it focuses heavily on one man's paranoia about some folks in his proximity, in this case his girlfriend's WASP-y family. However, the main difference is that neither of those films tackled anything as heavy as race relations, which gives Get Out both its aforementioned timeliness as well as primary strength - Tales from the Hood might be the last mainstream horror film to take on these issues as directly and seriously as Peele does here, and that was over twenty years ago (if I've forgotten one, forgive me - and no, I wouldn't say Land of the Dead quite qualifies as that was more of a basic "rich vs poor" thing, and The Purge series has some bite but it's largely drowned out by its Cannon-esque gunplay and chase scenes).

The thing I loved most about the movie is how it was at its most nerve-wracking when none of the horror stuff was happening. Our black hero Chris is meeting the family of his white girlfriend (Rose, played by Allison Williams), and she assures him that his race won't be a "thing", stressing that her dad voted for Obama twice (and would have done so a third time if he could!), but it's clear right off the bat that it's making them uncomfortable. But not in the way you'd expect - they keep bending over backwards to show how much they "don't care". Dad (Whitford) keeps calling him "my man" and, as Rose predicted, tells him how much he loved Obama. He even proudly tells Chris that his father was beaten by Jesse Owens in a race once, fawning over the physical prowess being black afforded Mr. Owens. For a while, Chris takes this stuff in stride and even finds some of it amusing, but by the time the family invites a bunch of their like-minded friends over for an annual cookout (where one introduces himself to Chris by asking him if he golfs, just so he can explain how much he loves Tiger Woods), he's gotten pretty tired of it, and has started noticing too many odd things that aren't helping his discomfort.

Now, I dunno if it's my inherent white guilt, or Peele's skill as a filmmaker, or both, but either way I found myself more tensed up during these earlier scenes than I was when shit hits the fan and Chris discovers what's really going on (something I won't spoil here, though I will hint that the movie could technically be marked with another genre tagging). It was almost like the same kind of squirming feeling you get when Michael Scott on The Office is getting particularly awful (think "Scott's Tots"), but when in the context of a movie you know is a horror movie, it becomes almost unbearable - I was almost hoping someone would just lash out and stab the other just to RELIEVE the tension. Sort of like how the congressmen who are loudest about how gays shouldn't be able to marry and transgender people shouldn't be able to use the bathroom of their choice are always the ones caught blowing dudes in public bathrooms, they're too loud about how much they are NOT this thing that it becomes obvious that they ARE. Chris can see right through it; despite no indication whatsoever from him that he feels this way, they act like their guest assumes they are racist and have to prove that they're not... a mentality that is kind of racist!

Anyway, that attitude extends to the horror-part of the plot, which again I won't spoil (and will laud the trailers for following suit), only to say that it's brilliant. It's also up for interpretation: is Peele suggesting the film's villains are colossally stupid, or secretly ashamed of their perceived limitations? The film works beautifully either way, so it doesn't really matter, but when thinking about it I had to pause and reflect on the fact that this was the first major horror film in a long time that got me thinking this heavily afterward. Nothing against the Underworld and Resident Evil sequels that are possibly playing in the same multiplexes, or even fellow Blumhouse production Split, but these aren't movies that give you a lot to work with. Their face value attributes are pretty much all there is to them, so seeing something with layers is not only refreshing, it's INTIMIDATING as a writer (especially one who has gotten rusty since I stopped writing a review every day). I'm used to just judging a horror flick's merit on whether they used CGI monsters or not, or if the kill count was sufficient for that sub-genre - who the hell is Jordan Peele to challenge me and make me reflect on how I was unfortunately led to believe certain things about minorities thanks to a few friends (and sigh, family members) when I was a kid, before my all-white school/neighborhood afforded me the chance of actually knowing any? Thankfully I knew better by the time I got to high school, but not everyone from my grade school was as lucky; thanks to Facebook it's easy to see a few old pals haven't quite passed that stage and are now likely passing those attitudes on to their kids. It's gross, and something I don't want to think about all that often period, let alone when I'm watching my horror movies. Can't I just talk about zombie makeup or something?

I kid, of course. These are conversations that need to happen, and if this is how they come about then so be it. Thankfully, Peele wasn't out to punish anyone in the audience, and knew enough to ease some of that tension with genuine humor. Most of it comes courtesy of Chris' best friend Rod, who is a TSA agent that is also watching Chris' dog while he's gone, giving him a real reason to keep in touch as often as he does (I'm precious enough with my cats when I go out of town, checking in with the "cat-sitter" twice a day, so I can't imagine how I'd be with a dog who'd actually give a shit that I'm gone, unlike cats). As I said, the movie has humor without ever being a full blown comedy, and 90% of them come from this character, who is in the movie JUST enough to feel like a full character (and not just some funny friend of Peele's that he wanted to include, i.e. The Paul Feig Problem) but not so much that he wears out his welcome. And yes his TSA job actually has a point (besides Peele getting us to like a TSA agent, another stroke of brilliance), resulting in what was probably the biggest audience-friendly moment in the film. Goddammit I wish I could spoil these things!

I have almost no complaints about it; there's a bit of a logic stretch to one reveal (to be as vague as possible, it involves old photos) and Rose's brother, played by Caleb Landry Jones, feels like he had a big scene or two cut somewhere along the line, but neither of them are exactly what I'd call fatal flaws, just occasional distractions. And that's really all that "bothered" me, everything else worked like gangbusters, to the extent where I already plan to see it again, to see how the 3rd act reveals change my perspective on earlier scenes. I'd also like to once again revel in the fact that there are almost zero typical cliches in the movie: no mirror scares (there is a "someone moves past frame unnoticed" one, but it's actually well done), no "no cell service" nonsense, etc. Peele is actually a major horror fan (he says he's actually been wanting to make horror movies all along, it just turns out he's damn hilarious and was doing just fine in the comedy world), so it makes sense he'd know what sort of things were played out and would annoy his fellow horror fans if he included them. Hell, he even actually ties the obligatory prologue into the narrative, instead of it just being a standalone attack scene of no real consequence (i.e. Scream 2 - a terrific setpiece focused on characters who aren't connected to any of our heroes and are barely mentioned again). This is a guy we want making horror movies, and I hope it's not a "one and done" kind of deal for him.

Finally, speaking of who makes our horror movies, I hope to hell the movie makes Split money (update: so far it has! I wrote this review on Friday but forgot to finish editing and post it), because maybe that will convince Blumhouse to branch out even more often. Nothing against the Insidious series (which is continuing), but I think they've run paranormal horror tales into the ground, and really should be utilizing their low-budget (and thus low-risk) model to more challenging fare like this, instead of haunted house and possession flicks. They can always fall back on safer stuff should these more risky ones not pay off, but so far they pretty much always have: The Gift, Split, and this all made just as much money as their more traditional scarefests (moreso in Split's case; it's their highest grossing film ever). Even The Purge has found greater success with their more politically charged sequels than their average home-invasion original. Horror fans may be drooling over their Halloween revival, but that's not all we want - give us something we can really sink our teeth into both as horror fans and (for most of us) angry human beings who have to worry about actual Nazis again. And as the low grosses for this year's genre sequels (and Bye Bye Man) have proven, we want something new, and not necessarily escapist fare, either. The major studios will always churn out the normal stuff, but we don't really have any outfits like Blumhouse who have been able to create a dependable brand while keeping the budgets low (and get those films released by major studios, usually Universal), so as Trump administration continues to wreak havoc on the world, now more than ever we need them to commit to more fare like this.

What say you?

P.S. Now that Jordan Peele has proven a comedian can make a horror movie, can we please get Bill Hader's When A Stranger Calls A Dude made? If you haven't heard of it, google it, and then tell me that doesn't sound like the best thing ever.

PLEASE, GO ON...

Havenhurst (2016)

FEBRUARY 21, 2017

GENRE: SLASHER, THRILLER
SOURCE: STREAMING (ONLINE SCREENER)

If nothing else, I've made one thing perfectly clear over the years: I enjoy seeing Danielle Harris in my horror movies. So when I saw her name in the cast list for Havenhurst I asked for a review screener, something I almost never do anymore because I lack the time to keep up with such obligations (indeed, this review is like two weeks late). But honestly, I couldn't remember the last time I saw her in a new horror movie*, so my interest was piqued enough to make the exception. Alas, I don't like to spoil anything in the first paragraph, but if you were planning to see the movie just for her, I would advise you to skip this one, as she dies in the first three minutes - before her credit even appears! Not that I thought she was the Final Girl or anything (Julie Benz is billed first), but three goddamn minutes? Even Drew Barrymore lasted a good ten minutes in Scream!

Luckily for the part of my brain that is able to enjoy horror movies even if Ms. Harris isn't around, the movie isn't all that bad. Kind of a blend between Saw and Crawlspace, it takes place almost entirely in the titular building, which is home to several people who are trying (some harder than others) to improve their lives after hitting rock bottom with drugs, booze, sex, etc. But the place is run by the always delightful/creepy Fionnula Flanagan, who insists on obeying the rules (NO drugs, booze, sex... you get the idea) or else they will be evicted immediately. Since this is a horror movie, you can guess what actually happens when someone is "evicted", and while I can't vouch for the logic of a place that is clearly at the center of what must be several disappearances without ever being investigated (until now!), it works for what it is, and at 84 minutes with credits certainly doesn't wear out its welcome, unlike certain other creepy building movies of late.

And while I missed Harris, it's not like Benz is chopped liver, and it was nice to see her playing a more relatable character since her other genre turns tend to be a little more fantastical (Buffy) or unlikable (Saw V). She's a recovering alcoholic who was friends with Harris' character and has moved into her now vacant room at the Havenhurst, and seemingly isn't there for more than 12 seconds before she starts getting suspicious of the sounds she hears in the middle of the night, Harris' sudden disappearance, etc. There's a fun little but of detective business where Benz and a cop/possible love interest discover that the blueprints for the building (found in Harris' things; we are led to believe she was killed for snooping) depict rooms that are bigger than they appear to be in reality, the rare horror film to include hidden passageways that are actually logically implemented, instead of just being there for the hell of it (Black Xmas is a particularly eye-rolling offender). Plus for whatever reason I always just enjoy watching people study diagrams and solve minor mysteries like this in movies; if In The Mouth of Madness spent a full half hour on Sam Neill cutting up the book covers and making the Hobbs End map it'd probably be my favorite Carpenter movie.

Another thing I liked was that it randomly invoked H.H. Holmes, who in real life had a "murder house" much like Havenhurst that was modified to make victims easier to access and kill. It's an interesting way to use a real life serial killer without going to the trouble of making it a period piece (or a silly supernatural thing like 8213: Gacy's House), and also to allow the audience to enjoy its cheap thrills without it feeling exploitative, as it might if it were recounting the actual murders Holmes committed (which numbered anywhere from nine to two hundred victims, depending on his mood during confessions). There was a wave of indie biopics about serial killers during the '00s (many of which I reviewed here, almost none of which were particularly good) that I don't think ever actually covered Holmes, oddly enough. I assume the 19th century setting would have been too difficult to pull off for those low budget affairs (which, for all their faults, did usually try to stick more or less to the facts, unlike Naked Massacre or Henry, which were much looser versions of high profile murderers), but suffice to say an accurate film about him would be, if nothing else, one of the most colorful, given his cross-country trail and aforementioned architectural shenanigans. Scorsese and DiCaprio are supposedly making one, so hopefully that comes to fruition, especially if Marty's in schlock mode.

My only major issue was that it could have been paced better; we know something's up right off the bat and Benz is front and center for the most part, so it starts to feel a bit repetitive. There's no real mystery to what's going on (we see who the killer is in the first scene with Danielle), so it's mostly just a "how will it ultimately conclude?" waiting game. The murders are gorier than expected (especially the nurse lady) and it's fun to see how many things Flanagan and her sons have rigged up (the bed that tilts and sends its victim down a floor is particularly admirable), but as much as I like Benz I did start to tire of her looking intently at the walls looking for hidden doors and the like after a while. Perhaps letting Flanagan take a more central role and go batshit (think original Mother's Day) would have helped matters, or teasing out the mystery a touch just to give it a little more oomph might have helped.

It also seemed a bit too dark, though that might have been the screener so I can't really hold it against the film. Had I gotten my act together I would have known for sure, as the film was playing for a week at one of the Laemmle theaters (where I've seen a number of similarly independent horror films that play for a week before hitting VOD), but I suck. It's funny, I used to get annoyed when publicists would offer screeners instead of actual screenings, and would even turn down the (free, convenient) option if I knew the film would be playing theatrically. But now that such endeavors would come at the expense of spending time with my kid (or, if he was asleep, my very-close-to-beating copy of Final Fantasy XV), I pass them up in favor of the screener, which I can pause when necessary and tackle on my own schedule. It's not ideal, and I still champion theatrical viewings for those who can find the time for it, but at least I'm coming around a bit on the alternative. But man, even if it only would have been for three minutes, it woulda been nice to see my lady on the big screen again! My bad.

What say you?

*Turns out it was See No Evil 2, which helps explain why I couldn't remember it.

PLEASE, GO ON...

A Cure For Wellness (2016)

FEBRUARY 18, 2017

GENRE: MAD SCIENTIST, THRILLER
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (REGULAR SCREENING)

One of my favorite movies is Meet Joe Black, which a lot of people hated on account of it being so glacially paced, but for me I think that was part of the point of it - the film is, after all, about someone trying to make the most out of his last few days before Death (Brad Pitt!) takes him away. Director Martin Brest and his editor(s?) let everything breathe just a touch longer than necessary, making the film run three hours long (to the second!), a mostly successful way of getting Anthony Hopkins' mental state across to the audience - you too would want to hold on to everything when you knew for sure when your time was up. Long story short, I understand why that movie is as overlong as it is, but I can't for the life of me figure out why Gore Verbinski and HIS editors let A Cure For Wellness run two and a half hours long to tell its own, less moving of a story about a guy getting stuck in an asylum.

Let that runtime sink in a bit: two and a half hours long. 150 minutes. That's longer than all of this year's Best Picture nominees by a comfortable margin, even though overlong films are usually synonymous with Oscar recognition. And if I was the type of reviewer who summed up the plot, I could do so without skipping any important details and you'd be left wondering how the movie could possibly run that long. Now, I'm not saying long movies are bad (this actually runs just a bit SHORTER than two of my all time favorite films, in fact), but there has to be a justification for asking you to sit there that long, and Wellness ultimately does not provide one. It's not a terrible movie or anything, but as it dragged on and kept failing to switch into a new gear that would pay off the long wait to get there, I found myself getting more and more frustrated, and less and less concerned for the well-being of its heroes.

Like most movies that ultimately feel too long (and I should stress I knew how long it was before I bought my ticket), things start of well enough, though in retrospect perhaps our hero Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) arrives at the asylum a bit too early considering how long he'll be there before the movie ends - perhaps more time spent in New York would have sufficed, letting the buildup to his arrival breathe a bit? I swear he gets there at around the 15 minute mark, on a mission from his bosses to find Pembroke, a company partner who needs to sign off on some documents in order for a merger to go through (yep, like Meet Joe Black, it involves a merger! That's actually why it came to mind; I don't automatically associate every movie with Martin Brest's underrated classic). Pembroke went to this place in Sweden (sort of a cross between a spa and a detox center?) to get better and suddenly/mysteriously decided not to return, so Lockhart is sent to get him back and sign the papers before someone goes to jail (there's some vague corporate misconduct stuff that Verbinski seems to know no one will care about, so he pretty much skips over it). At first, the unhelpful staff gives the impression that the movie will be about his quest to find this guy, but he does like 10-15 minutes later with little fanfare, so there goes that theory. And it's not like there's any indication that this place might actually be on the up and up, so we are quickly placed into "What are they really up to?" mode and hoping the answers will be worth the wait.

Well, at 90 or even near 120 minutes, they probably would be. The reveal is actually kind of gonzo and feels like something that you might find in a Hammer movie, and few actors are better equipped to play sinister mad scientist types than Jason Isaacs, so for all its faults the movie at least ends on a high note. But since we know where Pembroke is and also that the place is not just a typical spa so quickly, there's precious little intrigue to sustain us through the film's endless series of scenes where Lockhart sneaks around, sees something creepy, and is sent back to his room. There's a mysterious female patient (Mia Goth) who is treated like a daughter by Isaacs and is also the only other patient besides Lockhart (who is confined there when he breaks his leg in a car accident as he attempts to return to his hotel on the first day) who is under sixty, it seems, so in between the more thriller-y stuff we get scenes of the two of them bonding, though thankfully the film avoids giving them an actual romance (his character is late twenties, but she's a teen). Since we know Isaacs is a villain the only real question (in general, I mean) is whether she is too, but the character isn't interesting enough to give the movie the amount of ammo it needs.

Also, not a lot really happens, making it a peculiar version of a "horror film" as it lacks any real thrills or scares despite the finale that's ripped out of any traditional B-movie. The car crash is one for the ages (and involves a deer, which I want to believe is Verbinski's way of throwing shade at The Ring Two), and folks who have an issue with dental trauma better keep their hands ready to block their ears and eyes, but with the central mystery being kind of a bust (even the specifics are kind of obvious - we know something's up with the water almost instantly, yet it takes DeHaan like two hours to come to this conclusion) the movie could have used a lot more "stuff" to jolt it back to life every now and then. Almost the entire film is from Lockhart's perspective, and I can't help that might have been a fatal decision - perhaps letting some of the side characters (such as a middle aged woman who fills Lockhart in on the asylum's past, and seems to be the only other patient besides him to mistrust the place) have their own solo adventures would have been beneficial.

One thing it never fails to deliver is a nice LOOKING film, however. Verbinski's always been dependable for creating striking images, though he seems to be losing his touch when it comes to marrying them to a compelling storyline. This is his fourth disappointing effort in a row (after Lone Ranger, Rango, and the third Pirates film), a troubling streak for a career that began so promisingly; I can't help but wonder if he needs to be reigned in a bit by his producers, not unlike Zack Snyder (who also seemed to satisfy audiences more in the earlier part of his career than as of late), as I'm sure his mammoth successes have given him final cut and less interference than he might otherwise receive on these studio efforts. The trailer spoils a number of these meticulously planned shots (the mirrored train going around the bend, the old folks doing water aerobics with the red/green balls, etc), but there are plenty of others to enjoy, and honestly it's probably the only thing that kept me going once it neared the two hour mark and I realized that there wasn't any time left for the movie to ever be more than another "A guy finds out a creepy doctor is up to no good" movie, the type of which I've seen several times before and often got me home about an hour earlier.

Oddly, one exception is Shutter Island, which ran about ten minutes shorter but had a far more engaging story (and better flashbacks - here we occasionally see Lockhart's parents, but there's precious little payoff to their implementation, which is often quite awkward). It's a movie I couldn't help thinking of anyway since DeHaan bares a slight resemblance to young Leonardo DiCaprio, but I had to laugh when I went out later and saw that Syfy was running the film as their Saturday night movie (apparently they don't have any sci-fi options?). The TV was muted (this was at a bar for a friend's birthday) and it was about halfway through the film, but I found myself more interested in what was happening than I ever managed after about 45 minutes or so of Wellness, which pretty much sums up the overall problem with it. When it comes out on Blu-ray, rent it from Redbox and watch it at 1.5x speed so you can still hear the dialogue - I suspect that it will be more satisfying as a whole. And if not, at least you'll find out in 50 minutes' less time.

What say you?

P.S. There's a flashback to 1987, focused on the stock market crash that happened that year - and a little boy is seen playing with a Robocop figure to establish the timeframe. I almost wish I could forgive the movie's faults on the strength of that alone.

PLEASE, GO ON...

Happy Birthday, HMAD!

"Well my son turned ten just the other day, he said thanks for the ball dad, come on let's play!"

Well, like Harry Chapin's poor kid, I will refuse to teach HMAD to throw a baseball, mainly because it's an internet site with no reason to know how to do that (also, I don't know how, either). But what I WILL do to celebrate the 10th birthday of this little silly site, which kicked off with Return to Horror High on February 7th, 2007, is offer one (1) lucky reader a signed copy of Horror Movie A Day: The Book!

To win, I've made it fairly easy - just comment below (no anonymous, obviously) and let me know how you first came to find the site. Was it Rob Zombie's Halloween? Open Water 2? Just this week, with Rings? Don't lie, there's no wrong answer or "I'll give it to the oldest review" kind of thinking. I have a couple of things I'll be looking for and none of them have anything to do with how long I think you've been coming here or if I think you're a die-hard reader. I'll be picking the winner on Wednesday sometime, so get those memories posted quick! Just two rules: 1. USA readers only, however if you're outside the US and want to pay the difference for the additional shipping cost, I guess I can't argue with that, and 2. If you comment and I can't find any reasonably easy way of contacting you directly, I'll have to disqualify you, so make sure your email or Twitter handle is attached to your commenting profile, whichever one you happen to use!

And to readers old and new - thank you for continuing to come here. I know I don't update as often as you OR I would like, but I do my best, and hope to continue at this or a better rate for years to come. I don't really get to review much for my other site these days so this is kind of my main outlet, and I'd like to do right by it and by the people who are still checking it out. Here's to another ten years!

PLEASE, GO ON...

Rings (2017)

FEBRUARY 3, 2017

GENRE: GHOST, SUPERNATURAL
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (REGULAR SCREENING)

With the arrival of each new late-coming sequel (Blair Witch, Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, etc.), I become more and more worried about the new Saw and Friday the 13th films that are coming in October. It seems our Hollywood overlords are having trouble reviving old franchises as of late (and audiences aren't fooled, either), and Rings doesn't do anything to change that course. Originally slated for late 2015, the film has been clearly reworked some over the past year and change, and now finally hits theaters as counter programming for the Super Bowl instead of making the easy money it could have made in October (Of 2015 or 2016; it was once dated for both), and even the biggest sports hater in the world will probably wish they were watching the game after about 20 minutes of this lifeless attempt at reviving a series that never should have gotten a sequel in the first place.

To its credit, it doesn't ignore the events of Ring Two - the Sissy Spacek character is a major part (though not played by Spacek, as we just see quick shots of her as a younger woman) and, as the title suggests, the "Rings" club from the same-named short film (which was a prequel to Ring Two, if you recall) makes an appearance. Considering the entirely new cast and creative team, it wouldn't be crazy to assume that this would be a kind of stand-alone entry (or pseudo-remake, even), so as a fan of continuity and the like I'll at least give them props for not doing a reset. Oddly, it might be better to go in blind, because if you know the reveals from the first two films, you'll be far ahead of our heroes for most of the runtime, so if it's been a while I'd suggest skipping the Wiki recap if I were you. It won't save the movie by any means, but at least it'll give you one less thing to roll your eyes at while silently (or not, if the theater is empty) pleading with the film to stop being so goddamn boring.

A big part of the problem is our two leads are total blank slates. They're very nice to look at, sure, but I couldn't tell you a goddamn thing about either one of them, and I just spent 100 minutes watching them make their way through a not particularly complicated movie. It's also not particularly SHORT, clocking in at around 105 minutes, so there's no reason the film couldn't have included a few basic identifying traits for the main characters. The male, Holt, might like Afghan Wigs because there's a poster of them in his room, but that could be his roommate's for all we know. And we know even less about... *consults IMDb because I literally forgot already* Julia, who is an 18 year old who isn't going to college (like Holt is) because she has to take care of her mom, a character we never see and possibly doesn't exist. Julia seemingly sleeps at Holt's, which his dad doesn't seem to mind, and when Holt goes missing she up and takes off to find him hundreds of miles away, seemingly without informing the mom she supposedly has to take care of "after what happened" (your guess is as good as mine as to what that was), nor ever calling her during the week ("SEVEN DAYS!", you know) that she's in/around Holt's college.

But this plays into a larger issue, which is that absolutely nothing in the film feels genuine in any way. It's like every character in the movie came into existence the second the cameras were turned on, giving everything a vague, cold veneer that the film is powerless to overcome. It's also just plain phony and half-assed, and I'll give some examples that may sound like nitpicking, but hear me out, there's a point. In the first 15 minutes:
- Holt and Julia agree to a 9:30 Skype (specifically Skype), and then they cut to a generic chat app and the time is 9:07 (call already seemingly far in progress).
- A character says he had to find a VCR in order to watch the cursed tape when someone gave it to him. Later, he has other VHS tapes, like Aliens and Jurassic Park, in his belongings.
- Julia enters a classroom she doesn't belong in. For no reason, she cuts across a row of seats and... stands in the opposite back corner, a move that exists only to draw attention to her.
- Holt stops answering his phone. After six days, she drives to the school - instead of asking his dad if he's heard from him, or calling the school, or anything a normal person might do.
- Someone uses a screwdriver to hook up a VCR.


Now, yes, any one of these things on their own are fine - movies are movies, this isn't the point, etc. But when you add them all together (and again, all in the first reel), it just tells the audience that this is a sloppy, very phony movie - which makes it harder to buy anything the movie wants to sell us when it really gets going. If I can't believe any of the normal, non-scary stuff, how the hell am I supposed to accept the supernatural goings-on that will occur later? Again, these aren't interesting characters - the least the movie can do is make us believe they're just regular, average kids - and you can only do that by placing them into a normal, believable world. Not one where parents don't care about their minor children sleeping together and a girl takes notice of a VCR at the flea market by studying the BACK of the damn thing (seriously, she spies it from like 10 feet away and just stares at the console's rear panel. Big fan of AV jacks, I guess).

It's possible some of this stuff made more sense or had a different context in an earlier cut, but as with Bye Bye Man, I am not going to give the movie a benefit of the doubt when they're not charging audiences any less to make up for it. However, I WILL note that lots of things in the trailer do not appear; most curious is a line from Vincent D'Onofrio explaining a mark that appears on Julia's hand - in the finished film, the translation of the mark is saved as a reveal for the film's final scene (and does not involve D'Onofrio at all). We also see Julia watching the tape under different circumstances, so I'm curious just how much of the movie was overhauled and if it was actually good at one point. Considering how slow-paced it is (not usually something you say about a re-cut movie - they tend to speed things up, trading away coherence in the process) I am going to guess this one was never in any good shape, but if I were presented with an original cut I wouldn't be opposed to seeing for myself. Funnily enough, I COULD have seen an earlier cut, on several occasions - the theater I saw the film at, which is the one closest to my house (though I usually go to one a bit further away as this one doesn't have coffee or a rewards program), is where they hold a lot of the test screenings in the area. In fact it was a bit of a running joke of how many times the film tested (sometimes paying people to do it, which isn't always the case); I dug through my emails and found at least three invites for the film dating back to its original release date of October 2015. And that's just how many times I happened to get the invite (to my old AOL account, where I signed up for one of these lists ages ago), which means there were almost certainly more.

If I had to guess, the testing audiences didn't warm to the film's back half, because that's where it starts to feel less like a new concept (which is how it starts) and more like a remake of the original. And it's a shame, too, because there are some interesting ideas floating around in that first act, such as the Rings group. Basically, Holt's professor (Johnny Galecki) is trying to prove the existence of a soul, and to do so he has his students work extra credit by first watching the tape and then assigning them "tails" (someone that they can pass the curse on to). But obviously he can't do that if no one is dying, so (we have to infer this much, the movie doesn't bother clarifying and he's written out of the narrative by the halfway point) he lets some of the kids die by purposely botching their "tail" assignments, or at least, that's how it read to me. He also has this like, club (?) for all of them? It's on the 7th floor of the college (dorm? study hall? who knows) and you need a special key to access it, and all these kids are just chilling, like it was a bar or something. I couldn't tell if they were waiting to be tails, or under observation (for the whole week?) or what, but it seemed like it'd be a bigger element going forward. Alas, details are not this movie's strong suit, so whatever its actual function was didn't matter, because the movie shoots itself in the foot, dropping all of the "Rings" stuff shortly afterward to focus on, sigh, another goddamn proper burial plot.

Yep, I don't mean to spoil anything, but I shit you not - the movie eventually becomes another attempt to stop Samara's curse by giving her a proper burial, because her body was moved (and put in a wall) for reasons the movie clunkily clarifies in its third act. I don't know how many supernatural horror movies I've seen where the climax comes down to someone prying apart a wall or floorboard and finding a skeleton or mummified corpse, but I hope that whatever that number is (let's say 30) that it never gets much higher. All it does is remind me of superior films (like the first Ring) and practically guarantee that it won't work, because the damn ghost always comes back after being "properly" disposed of anyway. Speaking of the first Ring, new director F. Javier GutiƩrrez tries to ape Gore Verbinski by drowning the film in blue, but he also lights like Peter Hyams, so get used to squinting your way through scare scenes. There's a shot late in the film where a decrepit room de-ages around Julia (broken objects repair, peeled wallpaper plasters itself back to the wall, etc.) and you can barely see the effect, which seems like a silly waste of money for a complicated CGI shot.

Regular readers of the site might be thinking that I levied a lot of these complaints at The Bye Bye Man (bland characters, phoniness, etc.), but ultimately even that one rises above this, because as bad as it was, it was at least goofy enough to give it a pulse. There aren't a lot of big horror scenes in the film (the trailer spoils the two best ones - the airplane and the hair), so you'd assume that when they DID come they'd be worth the wait, but no - they're just as indifferent as everything else, and GutiƩrrez and his writers (including Akiva goddamn Goldsman, so you know you're in trouble) can't be bothered to deliver anything even remotely as insane/memorable as the first film's horse freakout on the boat, or even the first sequel's much lambasted deer attack. Even D'Onofrio can't save it; he's by far the best thing about the movie, but he's only in two or three scenes and spends most of them just spouting exposition while sitting in a chair. Even the obligatory "Samara climbs out of the TV" bit is botched, and no one thought to have any fun with the idea of the analog-driven Samara adapting to an all-digital world. Sure, the tape spreads through Quicktimes instead of VHS tapes (there's an honest to god plot point about the file size of a copy being larger than the original), and when she climbs from the TV it's a nice big HDTV set, but it's only in the film's obligatory sequel set up (good luck with that) that they think to do anything like spread it through social media and the like.

While I was fighting to stay awake (I saw the movie at 11 AM, I should mention), I tried to think of the last movie I saw that was this uninvolving, and oddly enough I think it was Shut In, starring ex-Ring lead Naomi Watts. If The Cure for Wellness (from Gore Verbinski) is a snoozer as well, I'm going to start seriously plotting out a meta-Ring sequel where the real curse is that no one can seemingly ever live up to it when they try to go back to the horror/thriller genre (and yes, there's a "back to the well" joke to be made, but I just refuse to). I didn't love Ring Two by any means (I never felt compelled to watch it again after opening night), but at least it was just your typically underwhelming sequel, whereas this is a straight up bad movie, and a bizarre approach to trying to revive a long-dormant "franchise" to boot.

What say you?

PLEASE, GO ON...

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