Monday, August 14, 2017

Hello Kitty

When the Persian Ed Wood makes a genre film that includes a cat, you don't have to time me to see how quickly it gets added to my Netflix queue. "Long wait" or no, it is mine. 

Quick Plot: Bruce has been spending some time in a mental asylum following the death of his mother, whose home nurse Susan (Sybil Danning) went on to marry his wealthy father Rachid less than a year later. Declared sane (despite an incredibly inappropriate sense of humor that often sends him on fits of maniacal laughter), Bruce returns to his father's mansion to an unhappy Susan and helpful Ezil, the housekeeper whose favorite song is the first two lines of “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.”

And a cat. Oh yes. A cat.

Samson, you see, was Bruce's loyal little tuxedo. When he went away, Samson declared feline war on Susan, prompting her to exile him but like any darned cat, he returned...the very next day. When Bruce comes home, Samson is eager to impress his master by resuming his battle. 

...which is filmed as this adorable animal actor waves his little paw around while Danning screams bloody murder and someone loops a ferocious hissing. 

It. Is. Wonderful.

Samson is on to something, as Susan has been plotting with her lover/husband's chauffeur Ralph to kill the old man and take his fortune for themselves. Ralph does the deed by forcing Rachid off his yacht in the middle of the ocean, classily giving his boss a choice between death-by-bullet or the slight chance that he can survive in the water and potentially return for a sequel that includes an extended flashback sequence about how he battled sharks and sold his voice to a sea witch.

Okay, I'm getting a little carried away with my zany plotting, but it's not that far off from what actually follows in Cat In a Cage. Spoilers will commence, because honestly, you need to know what goes down.

After Rachid's death, a man wearing a werewolf mask murders Ralph, burying him on the mansion's grounds which Samson rather inconveniently digs up when the police stop by. Later that night, Susan is heavy breathed on to death by the same Bruce-like man who, in the clumsiest exposition ever ADR'd and played over two characters walking on a beach, turns out to be Bruce's violently insane brother Ali, who was hidden in the house for twenty years and taken care of by Ezil (who’s seen trouble). 

This plot point comes up one hour into the movie.

Terrified that the cops will rightfully arrest his murderous secret brother, Bruce grabs Ali, Ezil, and his girlfriend Gilda (played by Yvette herself, Colleen Camp, in a role so thankless that I'm guessing her only payment was the chance to sing the lounge-esque theme song) and embarks on a neverending police chase and shootout. 

If you're like me, you're sitting there on the edge of your seat begging to know the most important question of Cat In the Cage: WHAT HAPPENED TO SAMSON?

How I long to tell you. How I long to know.

See, after Samson uncovers the corpse of Ralph, he simply vanishes from the film, sort of like Mark Ruffalo in The Kids Are All Right. Considering he's easily the most interesting character in the film, it's unforgivable. 

I don't mean to suggest that Cat In the Cage would be any better with Samson saving the day or firing the last shot or being revealed to actually be Ali as a shapeshifter. I mean, those twists would make this movie amazing, but still...not good. 

This movie was probably never going to be good.

If the name Tony Zarindast rings a bell, then you just might pronounce the word "werewolf" with a mumbled mouth, for he is indeed the director of that 1995 film wonderfully riffed on in one of the SyFy Channel-era MST3K's best episodes. Zarindast displays the same level of skill here, coaxing wonderfully alien performances from his cast and rolling out his story with the grace of a drunk dad untangling last year's Christmas lights. 

Pretty much everything in this movie is done terribly. Take the score, which for no reason whatsoever, sounds like it should be used to set the scene in The Mummy Theme Park

Side note: Cat In the Cage is, admittedly, a better movie than The Mummy Theme Park. But so is the experimental short my cat shot on my iPhone when his paw landed just right, so it doesn't say much. 

High Points
Well, aside from the gentlest cat attack put onscreen? I love a date montage, and Cat In a Cage gives us not one, but TWO, and both go on just a hair short of Cool As Ice's 12-hour epic

Low Points
Of all the things I could complain about in this movie, what does it say about me that the one that bugs me the most is that the title is so darn misleading? Unless, of course, my theory that Samson is actually Ali holds true, at which point, it's a literal metaphor and it makes this the best movie about a mad man turned into a cat turned back into a mad man ever made

Lessons Learned
It's natural to be quite disturbed over your mother's death

Nothing turns a murderous ex-nurse on more than being slapped

Just because you've named your villain Susan doesn't mean supporting characters can't call her Suzanne


Cat In the Cage is a terrible movie. And if you're here, you probably love terrible movies and will probably have as good a time watching this as you would eating an ice cream sundae. Dig in. 

Monday, August 7, 2017

I'll Buy That For a Doll-ar

I've often written about The Asylum and its occasional knack for churning out surprisingly high quality ripoffs of bigger budgeted horror. For every dozen quickies like Sunday School Musical and A Haunting In Salem, there's that one Paranormal Entity that manages to still be a made-in-one-week-after-the-trailer-for-a-sure-to-be-hit-movie rolled out that somehow makes you say, "Hey, that wasn't so bad."

Like 2011's The Ouija Experiment, today's Heidi is not actually an Asylum property, but from the cover and synopsis, you'd be forgiven for making that mistake. Just look at the artwork here:

And the actual doll featured in the film:

Clearly, Heidi's producers are hoping you'd see the title go by and say, "Oh, that's the spin-off to The Conjuring, right?" Based on its 2014 date, it's hard to know whether Heidi was made before, after, or alongside Annabelle. Much like that film, it centers on a haunted baby doll that doesn't follow the standard conventions of wide-talking Good Guys or stabby tiny porcelain-hand cinema. And despite my instincts and opinion of the first hour of this low budget indie, much like Annabelle, it shockingly works.

Quick Plot: Teens Ryan and Jack do that thing that teens in the 21st century apparently do all the time: record every moment of their lives on videocameras and GoPros. When Ryan gets a gig housesitting for an eccentric neighbor, they see big potential in incorporating a mysteriously unbranded doll found in the attic into their antics. As you might surmise, the doll is named Heidi, and she does not like to be hugged.

Before long, a wave of bizarre violence is spreading through Ryan's life. Aforementioned neighbor (and her poor pet birds) turn up dead, while Jack's massive house party ends in carnage when he and his younger brother are found gutted. We don't have to pull up our bookmark for to know the fate of Ryan's sweet cocker spaniel.

Written and directed on what I assume to be a minuscule budget by newcomer Daniel Ray, Heidi is a weirdly fascinating little found footage tale that either found its footing as it went or is secretly one of the smartest horror films I've seen in quite a while. Like almost every handheld teen-centric indie of recent years, it starts with insufferable leads with racist undertones and yet somehow, 90 minutes later, I found myself thinking, "this was kind of fantastic"

I am as shocked as you are. 

Ryan (Samuel Brian) is nothing special. Like almost every found footage film made in recent years, he's a middle class white kid without a clever bone in his body who tends to say, "what the f*ck?" over and over again when investigating strange occurrences without turning on the light switch. 

And yet...

Look, I'm not really ready to say that Heidi is a great horror film. The acting never really clicks in place, the dialogue is often squirm-worthy, and the characters make some incredibly dumb decisions along the way. But at a very particular point about one hour in, I found myself realizing that I was fully invested in the action. Like Annabelle, this is a film that successfully creates a villain without ever really showing it act. We KNOW Heidi is evil because, you know, we're watching a horror movie called Heidi, but you do have to extend some respect to a no-budget movie that manages to get you to that place of discomfort without giving you the goods. 

When I watched the truly devastating Megan Is Missing a few years ago, I found myself admiring how skillfully the filmmaker had reverse Trojan horse'd me, introducing fairly awful teenage characters that I gritted my teeth at, only to slowly reel me in to the deeper, sadder lives these girls were actually living. Heidi doesn't do this with its characters (who ultimately go from insufferable to tolerable), but it kind of does with its actual storytelling. Did Ray and his team just get more comfortable in front of and behind the camera the longer they filmed, or was this the film's actual intent: trick its audience into expecting another found footage yawn, and slowly turn it into an actual compelling story?

I don’t want to oversell Heidi, but darnit: I enjoyed this film. Once I got past its initial sloppiness, I was genuinely involved in the story, and actually nervous about how it would play out. It’s certainly not for everyone, but as evil doll films go (something I might have a smidgen of experience with), it’s new, fresh, and shockingly, kind of scary.

High Points
Judge me if ye will, but that last got me

Low Points
There are plenty of things to pull apart in Heidi, and your ultimate decision to watch it in full will rest on your patience at getting through some 40 minutes or so of bland characters being kind of awful (and occasionally racist)

Lessons Learned
When organizing a home rave, don't skimp on the bouncer. A quality door man will really take your party to the next level

If you think that a doll is evil and responsible for the death of several people close to you, maybe you should do something more permanent than simply sitting it down in your closet and closing the door

As of 2014, teenagers still use the term “boo yah”

The Winning Line
"His friend, a fellow prankster, was unavailable for comment," is not a comment usually made by a newscaster when reporting on the mysterious death of a teenager. But it sure helps move some exposition along!


It's hard to come out and fully say with confidence that I recommend Heidi (currently streaming on Amazon Prime). Those who have issues with found footage or amateur horror may not make it very far, even with a slim 90 minute run time. But as someone who OFTEN has problems with these kinds of films, allow me to say: give Heidi a chance. Credit to writer/director Daniel Ray and his team. I don’t know how much was intended and how much just sorta happened, but the end result satisfied me.

Monday, July 31, 2017

It's the Evil Windmill Movie

You've got to have respect for any film studio that looks at their catalog, looks at the world, and says to itself, "You know the one thing I don't think we have a horror movie for? Windmills. Yeah, windmills. Let's do it."

And they did. 

Quick Plot: A group of strangers ends up on a small Dutch tourbus to explore a few windmills off the beaten path. Before you can summon a single Don Quixote reference, a gruesome sickle-wielding monster is on the hunt, punishing the tourists for their past homicidal crimes. 

That might seem like a rather basic description of a movie about an evil windmill, but truthfully, that's about it. 

I'm not complaining.

Directed by Nick Jongerius, The Windmill is a handsomely made little horror film that knows how to have fun with itself. The diverse cast spans several generations and countries, something that always makes a movie just a little more interesting. Yes, we get our token alpha male blowhard, but he's also a dad trying to protect his hemophiliac son from either a delusional Australian runaway or murderous Dutch demon. You know, you kind of understand that.

I could go into more detail on The Windmill—its moral questions, decapitations, wind-powered energy—but this is the rare case where I truly feel as though I’m somewhat at a loss of words for a film. It’s a gory under-90 minute monster movie where the gate to hell is located in a Dutch windmill. 

That’s a beautiful thing.

High Points
The Windmill boasts some gloriously ridiculous (in the best possible way) gore, with an opening death scene that's well-staged in its suddenness but also over the top in an almost The Mountain vs. The Red Viper style

Low Points
I have dangerous levels of affection for Red White & Blue’s Noah Taylor, so my excitement at seeing him in this movie was only dashed by the lack of screen time he ultimately gets

Lessons Learned
When in doubt about your drawing, focus on the vanishing point

You’ll need a professional portfolio if you want to be a professional photographer

Bumming around Europe is what Aussies do best


Look, The Windmill isn’t breaking any barriers, but it pretty much gives any horror fan exactly what they’re looking for in 90 minutes with an added bonus of above average acting and slightly more interesting characters than you usually find. And hey, if nothing else, it’s easily the best evil windmill movie ever made. 

Monday, July 24, 2017

Cover Girl

Quick Plot: A cameo'ing Katharine Isabelle heads home after seeing a horror movie, only to be promptly murdered by a pair of masked men with a camera. 

Soon after, we settle in on Claudia, a supermarket cashier toiling away in a small South Dakota town. The only thing interesting in her life is also rather horrifying: every few weeks, someone leaves a grisly photograph of a slain young woman on the community board in her store, where she's always the first to see it during opening hours. The local cops (including Mitch Pileggi) make Last House On the Left's officers look like Stabler and Benson, leaving the young woman frustrated and incredibly at risk.

Enter the world's douchiest fashion photographer--

No, seriously. I know heterosexual male fashion photographers are universally agreed upon to be the first group of human beings we sacrifice to our Martian overlords when the time comes, but my GOSH

This one is the worst, and I mean that in the best possible way.

For better or (usually) worse, horror films are often filled with unlikable characters. Perhaps we need to hate some of these men and women in order to make their painful deaths entertaining, but there's an art to creating these villainous victims, both on the acting and directing side. So many films misunderstand this, throwing obnoxious frat boys or cruel mean girls at their audiences in order to elicit a cheer when said coeds take an axe to the face. Speaking for myself, I don't enjoy watching an awful character die because I don't enjoy watching an awful character AT ALL. 

The Girl In the Photographs has some problems (I'll get to those) but its biggest strength is in how it understands that an unlikable character should still be fun to watch. Think of Michael Gambon in The Cook the Thief His Wife & Her Lover: he's one of the most disgusting human beings you have ever watched onscreen, but you can't help but be entertained by just how awful he really is. It's the wrestling heel you love to hate, but most importantly, love to watch. Bless Kal Penn for taking Peter Hemmings (aforementioned douchey fashion photographer) to such extremely unpleasant, amazingly amusing levels of hipster terrible.

Peter grew up in Claudia's sleepy town, and after learning about the photographs via a Reddit-like forum (because again: inept police department) he assembles his team of airhead models and nice assistant to return home for a murder-inspired perfume shoot. Claudia is recruited as the local it girl, while unbeknownst to her, her best friend and ex-boyfriend are abducted by the camera-happy killers.

Directed by Nick Simon, The Girl In the Photographs is a wildly inconsistent, but somewhat consistently entertaining little genre film. The acting (BLESS YOU KAL PENN) is a head above most of this kind of movie's ilk, and the violence is handled with a chilling hand that offers some surprises and important gravity.

So what's the problem? Well, maybe those aspects are a little TOO good, making the fairly basic story with its familiar beats feel like such a letdown. There's no real mystery to our killers, and no interesting complexity to their motives. While Claudia is plucky enough to root for, the film doesn't really give her much to hold onto.

By most straight-to-Instant-Watch standards, The Girl In the Photographs is certainly better than average. The disappointment comes from the simple fact that it seems to have the potential to be something special, rather than just decent.

High Points
Seriously, give Kal Penn some White Castle and a gold-plated toilet (because you know, White Castle) as a reward for just how glorious his jerk of a character is

Low Points
I've said this several times in a post-2016 world, but damnit, life is hard enough right now without seeing a likable protagonist receive a sad fate

Lessons Learned
Serial killers use PCs (and the really twisted ones, Dells)

The only thing worse than phone service in South Dakota is the quality of its police force

Models don't eat...ever

The Girl In the Photographs is far from a great horror film, but it's funny and involving, and has a strong sense of sympathy for its characters. For a Netflix streamer, it's better than most, though perhaps its potential may leave you a little frustrated. You could do a whole lot worse. I just wish the film aimed to do better. 

Monday, July 17, 2017

Get Out (please)

Some movies are made to scare you. Some are made to make you look at the world differently. Some want to make you laugh.
And some seem put together solely to piss you off.

Quick Plot: A pre-credits teaser introduces us to an attractive young woman home alone at night. Before we get to know much about her, a mysterious figure throws a plastic bag over her face and kills her in a quicker way than I though possible based on what I know about air supply.

Moving on. 

Elizabeth, a cellist for the Portland Philharmonic, is mulling the decision to accept an elite position with a London orchestra. Holding her back her university tenured boyfriend Justin, who respects Elizabeth's talent and ambition but can't make the overseas switch for his own occupational reasons. 

As Elizabeth sits back for a leisurely weekend of laundry, wine, cat sitting, decision-making, and a LOT of showering, a hooded figure slips into her apartment to commit such atrocities as peeing in her kitchen sink, taking a bite out of an apple in a fruit bowl and putting it back, and worst of all, dipping his dirty finger into her cottage cheese.
Over the next day or so, Elizabeth showers and runs some errands, unaware that a potential killer is following her every move. She showers. She does some laundry and meets an odd but seemingly nice enough neighbor named John. She feeds her friend's cat and showers. She stops at her rehearsal studio to practice some Dvorak under the strict eye (and terrible line delivering) of her conductor Vincent, played (badly) by Moby for reasons unexplained. Then she showers. Because the movie needs a few more suspects, Elizabeth also continues to bump into a mysterious man who's either homeless or, you know, another mysterious neighbor.  Justin stops by for some makeup/breakup sex. Elizabeth showers. She pours more wine, Skypes with her mother, practices her cello...

Guys, seriously: the cello is the most interesting part.
I have no way of discussing why I hated this movie so much without spoiling it, but before I do that, allow me to provide the stupidest warning I have ever had to give: if for some masochistic urge you decide to watch this movie (maybe because you really like showers), make sure you stick around past the first minute or so of the credits. This is only if you want to actually see the ending of Intruder, which for some reason, is "hidden" after the first round of titles. So if, like me, the movie ends you say, "Are  you kidding me?", take some comfort in knowing another 3 minutes are coming soon. 

Note that when those 3 minutes end, your reaction, if you are me, will be something more akin to, "Oh, are you F*CKING kidding me?"

So. After 80 minutes of watching a hooded figure skulk around the likable but possibly deaf Elizabeth, the movie decides to just SHOW his face. And yes, it's John, the creepy neighbor who says more words than the other creepy neighbor who proves to be one of a few red herrings in a mystery that the film doesn't have the skill to actively craft. 

So. 80 minutes of buildup and teasing, a lot of showers and closeups of a cat's bland facial expressions, a one second reveal, punctuated by Elizabeth going to sleep, sneezing, and awakening the reveal that JOHN HAS BEEN IN THE HOUSE THIS WHOLE TIME BUT AT LEAST HE SAYS BLESS YOU SO BRIDGET FONDA IN SINGLES WOULD LIKE HIM.

I'm angry now, but about to be angrier at writer/director Travis Zairwny (sometimes credited as "Travis Z." which does not help matters in the least). After we learn the names of a few key players behind Intruder, we get our coda (which is actually an ending, and not a coda, but whatever). Elizabeth wakes up trapped in John's basement. She bangs at a window for help.
And John wraps a plastic bag around her pretty face and kills her.

A few more credits roll.

Then he goes to his favorite coffee shop and starts on his new female fixation.
Eff. This. Movie.
Eff it for burying its ending after the credits as if its viewers were that invested that they wouldn't immediately change the channel after it ended. Eff it for tossing in suspect after suspect without giving us any reason to evaluate their motives. Eff it for being so cruel in how it disposes of a character we've just spent 80 minutes watching with such mean abandon. Eff it for making said character the least observant person to ever be presumably gifted with the five senses (I mean, she cooked breakfast and somehow didn't smell the urine in her kitchen sink?). Eff it for the amount of times it almost has her realize THERE'S A PERSON IN HER APARTMENT ALL WEEKEND only to have a last minute distraction save said PERSON IN HER APARTMENT from being discovered. Eff it for how it offers absolutely no finesse in revealing WHO THE PERSON IN HER APARTMENT IS other than just randomly showing his face. Eff it for its showers. Eff it for wasting so much time showing how the cat is the only one in the movie with any awareness that there's someone inside, except that the cat doesn't act like any cat ever in that he never actually acts as if there IS someone inside. Eff it for pretending to be this deep character study in such a terribly paced slice of life way while offering no sense that anything matters. And of course, eff the many, many showers.

It is mean, it is pointless, it is boring, and it is easily one of the most unsatisfying films I have ever watched. 

High Points
The real shame of Intruder is that it contains the kernel of a great idea. We've seen the home invasion tale told time and time again, but the way the film begins to (very loosely) craft its suspects suggests a much more interesting look at how, for a very attractive young woman, every interaction with a man might pose some kind of danger. We meet Moby's Vincent as he berates Elizabeth while giving her an unwanted massage (thus opening up a whole slew of uncomfortable questions about a woman trying to fend off sexual harassment without confronting it). John is introduced as the kind of nice neighbor you meet and should be friends with, but then goes on to ask just enough questions to make you immediately mention your boyfriend to shut down any chance of the conversation going in the wrong direction. Then there's the creepy guy who just seems to live outside this nice neighborhood. Maybe he's just an eccentric who likes the rain, but as any woman who has had to decide whether to respond when a stranger on the street says hello will tell you, there's a complicated threat there. 

If only the movie were smarter to actually explore this

Low Points!!!!

Lessons Learned
Extremely skilled musicians typically have terrible hearing 

Anyone who claims to make a living by blogging is definitely a lying homicidal maniac

When done effectively, fatal stab wounds yield no blood

You want an effective thriller about a hard-working young woman being stalked by an obsessive psychopath? Watch Sleep Tight. Want a poorly constructed, misanthropic slug of 90 minutes that will waste your time? This one's on Instant Watch.