Monday, September 28, 2015

Make Him Feel At Home

I may have been a little hard on the hip boy team that is Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett. Though I mostly enjoyed their big debut, A Horrible Way to Die, I've fallen quite hard off their train following their lazy, nauseating, misogynist, and generally misanthropic contributions to the new "bad boy" boom of anthology horror that puked on my eyes with V/H/S and its sequel. I had put off seeing their much-loved You're Next for quite a while, but finally gave in and found it, well, pretty darn delightful.

Hence did I un-side my eye to give The Guest a shot, especially since it was conveniently streaming on Netflix Instant. Unpack your things and let's get to know one another, shall we?

Quick Plot: The Petersons are a family in mourning, having recently lost their eldest son Caleb overseas during a military mission. Their days get a little brighter with the arrival of the charming and handsome David, Caleb's army buddy who comes bearing kind words to alcoholic dad Spencer, sad mom Laura, moody 20 year old Anna, and the bullied teenage Luke.

It doesn't take long for the whole Peterson clan to start treating David like family. It certainly helps when David helps Luke brutally teach some teasing classmates a few lessons in etiquette and charms Anna's best friend by protecting her from an ex-boyfriend. Soon Spencer's receiving a promotion courtesy of the mysterious death of his supervisor and Laura seems ready to adopt David as her own.

Naturally, something is amiss. Played almost like a kinetic twist on The Monkey's Paw, The Guest continues to show some of director Adam Wingard's key strengths. Like You're Next, this film starts with such an interesting and completely believable family dynamic so that by the time chaos is reigning, we're fully invested with seeing how it will play out. It also helps that Wingard has assembled a strong genre-friendly cast (including It Follows Maika Monroe and Se7en's Leland Orser). In the center of it all is Dan Stevens, who finds the perfect balance of charm and menace to make the titular houseguest into someone worth following and fearing. 

This isn't a masterpiece or game-changing piece of genre cinema, but it's FUN. Wingard and screenwriter Barrett bring us in and rather quickly, put everything in fifth gear. Savvy viewers may find some American military politics to mine, but at its heart, this is a movie made to entertain, amuse, and scare. On all of those levels, it works. 

High Points
You have to admire the quick pace of this film. Wingard starts the mayhem under a sunny outdoors excursion, and it just keeps moving from there. There's ALMOST no wasted time whatsoever

Low Points
A lot has been written about the cuts and additions made to The Guest after some test screenings. Based on this first viewing of the theatrical cut, a lot make sense (eliminating scenes explaining David's backstory was a good move, as we can figure enough of it out without dragging the film down in exposition) but one that feels unfortunate, if the internet is to be believed, is that originally, Lance Reddick's character was a sudden introduction at the house siege as opposed to his added scenes in the military base. The idea of him just showing up with a SWAT team behind him just seems like it would have been a much more surprising and effective twist.

Lessons Learned
A spicy beverage makes for a handy weapon

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

When in doubt, cry hate crime

Like You're Next, The Guest is just a fun, fast-paced horror/thriller. It doesn't quite have the same humorous charm, but it's highly entertaining and is well worth your time on Instant Watch.

Monday, September 21, 2015


Gun to your head, which title sounds more enticing:

A Whisper To Kill

The correct answer, of course, is that they're both terribly awesome. Streaming on Amazon Prime as WhisperKill but dubbed via IMDB and its opening titles (in quotation marks, mind you) as "A Whisper To Kill," maybe it doesn't matter. I mean, who's grading the title of a 1988 made-for-TV thriller starring Loni Anderson's giant blond hair?

Quick Plot: Liz recently bought a small-town newspaper with the help of the scummy Jerry, a fellow reporter who makes her skin crawl. After turning him down at a bar, Jerry receives a threatening phone call from a whispering psycho, which naturally prompts him to exit the pub alone and get brutally (yet also bloodlessly) stabbed to death.

Liz is the natural first suspect, at least according to nomadic reporter and former Jerry pal Dan. Dan quickly takes a job at Liz's paper and in her bedroom as they begin a torrid love affair complete with an extended love scene set to Unchained Melody...


How director Christian I. Nyby II never sued is left to Unsolved Mysteries.

Maybe he was just too excited to have June Lockhart playing Loni Anderson's mom as a prim advice columnist who makes Anne Landers look like Dan Savage. Sadly, that's not nearly as much fun as it sounds, but that doesn't necessarily make WhisperKill a waste of time. Any film made between 1985 and 1994 that includes a sexy saxophone serenading us over the steamy opening credits gets more than a few bonus points from me. 

Like many of these films, WhisperKill never quite has enough fun with itself. Part of it wants to be a genuine murder mystery, teasing us with the identity of the killer by throwing suspect after suspect under fire. Sadly screenwriter John Robert Bensink isn't quite your Lifetime employed Agatha Christie, meaning we waste a lot of time on a case that never feels worth solving. There are drops of fun with the "small town-ness" of Liz's home and the competition between local papers, but nothing feels weighty enough to really matter. I guess the selling point was the romance between Anderson and Joe Penny's Dan, but considering we never really understand whether Dan is madly in love with Liz or is convinced she's a mad psycho killer, that doesn't exactly leave us drooling.
Unlike this photo, which catches drool from various sources
In other words, Criminal Passion this ain't.

High Points
A bland film can easily be redeemed by a bonkers ending...

Low Points
...Even if said bonkery doesn't quite add up to reality

Lessons Learned
A real bastard is better than a phony one

The accepted scientific definition of clinical depression is "when you sit in your room all day being weird"

Police protection is better when you can share a cheap bottle of wine and some greasy takeout food with the chubby cop minding your safety

People without resumes don’t get jobs (unless they happen to be highly experienced journalists in small towns)

Like most of the late '80s/early '90s "sexy" thrillers I tend to find on Amazon Prime streaming, WhisperKill is not, how do you normies say it? "very good." That being said, it's somewhat ridiculous, includes at least one character sporting a rat tail and punk earring, and has very big hair. For those who like that sort of thing (i.e., me and clones of me), this ain't half bad. 

Monday, September 14, 2015

Quaint Misbehavin'

Surely I’m not the only person who, when on vacation at a lovely bed and breakfast run by an utterly charming couple in upstate New York, is entirely convinced that I’m going to be slaughtered and eaten (order not yet determined). 

While my darling husband might not have agreed with this prediction upon our recent trip to the Hall of Fame hamlet of Cooperstown, I felt quite satisfied to stumble upon a horror film on Instant Watch essentially sold as “that utterly charming couple running the lovely bed and breakfast in upstate New York is actually trying to kill you.”

The Happy House is actually a much more surprising film than such a tagline might suggest, so butter your muffin and let’s get on with it. 

Quick Plot: Joe and Wendy are your typical young attractive Brooklyn couple undergoing some relationship pains. To spruce up their romance, they drive through the countryside to a discount bed and breakfast run by the easily offended Hildie and her quietly imposing son Skip. The only other guest is a Swedish lepidopterist (that’s the fancy word for “butterfly catcher”) named Nils and Hildie’s modern academic sister Linda. 

Much like me, Wendy begins to see signs of murderous intent all about her quaint little quarters. Hildie issues a rule book with a “three strike” edict, which Skip seems eager to carry out any time of night. Joe brushes it all off, but a few odd happenings keep us all wondering.

The Happy House is a near impossible film to discuss well without spoiling because it contains a few key twists delivered with such surprise that to explain them would ruin their effect. My quick and sparse review is thus: as a light horror comedy, it’s not overly funny or scary, but in the realm of indie genre film, it’s unusual enough to still merit a breezy 85 minute Instant Watch.

While I won’t be spoiling the ending of The Happy House, I am about to go into a little more detail that one shouldn’t particularly know going in fresh. For those who have seen the film, continue onwards. All others, your trip stops here. 

The Happy House would’t be the first film to give a solid bait ‘n switch on the identity of its killer, but it does it in one of the more unique ways of recent years. By the time Nils is paying for his third strike, we as the audience have no choice but to fervently nod at Wendy’s insistence that Hildie and Skip are more than likely raging axe murderers using guests’ leftover parts to enhance the world’s best blueberry muffins. Years of watching these kinds of movies have surely taught us this as fact.

It’s a pretty nifty twist to see that The Happy House has a very different plan on its mind. Instead of revealing our oddly strict bed and breakfast team as viscous killers, it instead introduces the token (but not quite typical) escaped mental patient axe murderer as the big bad in its third act.

By this time, we’ve come to know and like this odd little gaggle of Happy House occupants, especially the steely Marceline Hugot as Hildie and Mike Houston as Skip (he of brilliantly understated comic timing). We almost don’t want a hunt ‘em down horror flick to happen to these characters, all of whom seem to come from a far more innocent universe undeserving of a slasher victim fate. 

Filmed on a teeny budget and in an actual bed and breakfast, The Happy House is something of an embodiment of the word “quirky.” Writer/director D.W. Young has assembled a strong and understated cast that seems to be having fun with the offbeat material, and the very concept of its villain tease makes for some genuine fun surprise. The drawback is that the final stalking sequence just can’t seem to find its footing. It’s hard to know what to take seriously when the film itself hasn’t quite decided. That being said, I certainly admired its spirit in telling an old tale (or really, two) with a brand new spin.

High Points
High praise must go to David Ullmann’s uniquely intense musical score, which sets such an oddly unnerving tone right from the start and is used with great fanfare when the horror kicks in

Low Points
Aforementioned lack of commitment to finale tone

Lessons Learned
Always use whole milk when making blueberry muffins

Axes work in both forward and backward directions

Butterfly catchers have their own version of the Oscars, and it most likely requires a carefully tied neckscarf


The Happy House might very well be one of the oddest films I’ve seen in quite some time. Its tonal split personality doesn’t quite make it funny or scary enough to fully succeed at its aim, but it’s such a strange and fresh approach to rote material that it certainly deserves a watch. Check in on Netflix Instant and sign the guestbook below with your thoughts. 

Monday, September 7, 2015

Maximum Ghosterdrive

I like to think of myself as a smart woman. We’re not talking Stephen Hawking levels or Ken Jennings knowledge, but I can finish the occasional crossword puzzle and feel as though once I study my world geography, I may one day stand a chance at getting to the second round of a Jeopardy! tryout. 

That being said, when you tell me there’s a movie out there about a possessed race car that brutally slaughters anybody near it using car parts, I’m opening my DVD player before you can say Nascar.

Quick Plot: JJ Sawyer and [First Name Not Written Down Or On IMDB] Cutter were good pals driven apart by the competitive nature of drag racing and the wandering eye of Tammy. Nervous about losing endorsements, Cutter has his mechanic brother Cliff mess with JJ’s car, not realizing the whole “we’re racing in really tight quarters and your car flipping over might make MY car flip over and blow me up.”

So Cutter gets blown up.

Seventeen years later, JJ has long left the race car business and his small town for the lonely life of a truck driver. When he has some mechanical trouble on the road, JJ ends up right back home and in Cliff’s garage. Cliff has since married Tammy (his long-late brother’s girlfriend) and become a stepfather to her SEVENTEEN YEAR OLD daughter. I SAY THAT IN CAPS because, well, let’s just say it takes a certain truck driver a whole lot of exclamation points before he does some math.

Before we can get to paternity confusion, Cliff has to show off how he’s restored the very car his brother died in. Because, you know, some people like to that kind of stuff.

Cliff and JJ get into a little scuffle, leading to some of JJ’s blood dripping onto the death car’s windshield. When something like that happens, the only possible outcome is that the car awakens with the vengeful spirit of the guy that died in it and is now going to gorily slaughter anybody that comes near it.

This is the kind of movie that seems to be custom-made for me.

Why, you ask? Oh come now, if I said, “first death involves an unruly teen being seatbelted to death,” you’d get it. When I add, “and then the deputy gets his ear windshield wiped off, and then most of his face gets windshield wiped off, and then JJ makes a joke about not shooting the sheriff or the deputy,” you’d say, “Wait...Emily...did you dream this movie?”

Though it’s a Long Wait on Netflix, I assure you that Phantom Racer does indeed exist in all its ridiculous glory. Directed by TV movie maven Terry Ingram, this is a film that never really tries to be anything but itself. Yes, it’s a killer car movie starring actors best known for ‘80s sitcoms. Yes, it’s about a sentient race car. Yes, it’s really, really really, very really stupid. But in its pre-Sharknado style, it falls in the same campy but not full-out self-parody SyFy style of something like Snake Island. You will not be scared by this one, and you may roll your eyes after one decapitation too many, but if you want something stupidly gruesome, this is your ride.

High Points
I mean, guys, come on: windshield wiper death. What more do you want?

Low Points
For as much as the goofy tone is justified, the fact that no one in the film seems the slightest upset by the fact that husbands and fathers are being brutally murdered is a tad hard to swallow

Lessons Learned
Makeup artists can make really good money

When you singlehandedly stop a bank robbery, they will call you sheriff

Drag racing announcers are especially good at establishing character relationships and background exposition for the audience

When your film stars Greg Evigan, it doesn’t matter how insensitive it is: you simply cannot NOT let your teenage character make a My Two Dads joke

A haunted car is still just a car

Look, as I often say, Phantom Racer really isn’t a good movie, but that didn’t stop me from having a blast with it. The film is in no way worth a buy, but if it ever pops on your streaming system or cable box, it pretty much demands you stop everything, make some gourmet popcorn, pop open your finest bottle of Andre and get the night rolling.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Deadly Ambitious Tracks

Amazon Prime, you do not disappoint. While your free streaming selection doesn't rock most people's worlds, you provide the likes of me with a seemingly endless barrage of straight-to-video '90s thrillers with titles so generic that they all have alternate titles that are .1% less generic. Today's pick of choice can be found under the "this says nothing" name Tracks of a Killer or, more exciting (though no more unique) DEADLY AMBITION. 

Quick Plot: Meet David Hawkner, the successful and benevolent CEO of a major corporation. Upon announcing his contract has been extended for another few years, his chief underling, Patrick, smiles until his teeth essentially tear through his upper lip, running off to his girlfriend Bella to whine about how his ambition--his DEADLY AMBITION--isn't being satisfied.

We soon learn that while he doesn't believe in laying off his staff, David sure is a big fan of mind games. While his contract was renewed to Patrick's ire, David isn't actually planning on staying on. He's nearing a retirement plan but wants one more chance to make sure Patrick is ready to take on the responsibilities David is hoping to vacate. Naturally, the best way to assess the skills of your predecessor is to drag him and his gal pal along to a secluded ski cabin and celebrate your own wedding anniversary.

Think about that for a moment: you're an incredibly wealthy man married to the incredibly beautiful Kelly LeBrock. Does your dream anniversary getaway include the addition of being cooped up playing Monopoly with a  power-hungry couple?

You think I'm kidding, but no: David makes his guests play Monopoly. Maybe he DOES deserve a serving of DEADLY AMBITION.

It doesn't take long for Patrick to rather understandably snap at his boss's insistence on proving how much better he is. After one ski race loss too many, Patrick decides to rig the next contest, a move that leads to the accidental death of his lady love. David heads out to get help, while an injured Claire slowly pieces together the truth.

What follows is a cabin fever thriller that involves a limping Claire trying to outwit the increasingly DEADLY AMBITIOUS Patrick, be that via insulin switcheroos or the tried-and-true "I was right there and then you turned around and now I am mysteriously gone" trick that seems to work way better on film than it could possibly in the real world. Still, how can I complain when we get an intense snowmobile explosion worthy of Trucks that proves itself to actually be worthy of mere third degree burns?

This is no classic, but for what it tries to do, Tracks of Killer succeeds. 

High Points
Considering how easy it is for these kinds of movies to fall into the "characters making stupid decisions" track(s of a killer), it's refreshing to see LeBrock's Claire prove herself to be rather resourceful in trying to fend off Patrick's bloodlust 

Low Points
Who knew 90 minutes could feel so long?

Lessons Learned
Always know just how much insulin will kill a man (or woman)

Floppy blond hair & a turtleneck do indeed a villain make

If your last name is Frost, it is only natural that you shall go on to direct a movie set on a snowy mountain

Look, Deadly Ambition isn't going to rock your world or teach you how to diversify your holdings, but it delivers on its pitch of being a cat-and-mouse hunt with mid-'90s style. For that, it's the kind of Amazon Prime streamer that a gal like me celebrates.