Monday, October 20, 2014

Is That Store Brand Electric Kook-Aid?


Don't ask me why, but I love cults. I mean, I don't LOVE as in I want to hug them or have their children or, heaven forbid, BE IN ONE, but I just find the concept truly fascinating. The idea that someone can have such an explosive combination of charisma and ego that can drive dozens or hundreds of people to follow him or her blindly is horrifying. 

I recall quite the media stir when the Heaven's Gate cult made its move, the suicide of 39 people mysteriously clad in Nike sneakers. David Letterman couldn't get enough of its joke factor, but it was a documentary I watched as an impressionable teenager that truly haunted me. The key element was that this TV special--I've never been able to find it again--showed footage of some of the Heaven's Gate members before their full-on entrance into the community, then included interviews recorded with them after. All had shaved their heads and wore plain, genderless clothes. You could barely tell one apart from the other, much less match them to the 'normal' person they had been shown as earlier. Most striking was the look in their eyes as they talked about their community. It was perfectly blank. And again, identical on every subject.

I don't remember ever being quite so unnerved. Perhaps it was just really good editing, but the idea that your friend or sibling or spouse could transform into a minion with no discernible person of their own was terrifying. Granted, some of my favorite sitcom moments used the same idea to great comedic effect, but it doesn’t really minimize the horror.


With The House of the Devil, Ti West came upon the modern horror scene like its own version of a new messiah. I was let down by The Innkeepers, haven’t been able to get through V/H/S, and found his installment in The ABCs of Death rather eye-rolling. But I root for the guy. And he made a film about a cult. So let’s do this.


Quick Plot: A pair of Brooklyn documentary filmmakers named Jake and Sam (Joe Swanberg and A.J. Bowen, two talented men fast becoming the faces of 21st century horror) learn that their friend Patrick has received a mysterious message from his ex-addict sister (Amy Seimetz). She's living with a private community in an unnamed country and asks him to visit, although she can't/won't give any specific details about its location.


Intrigued. Sam and Jake decide to join Patrick on the trip, cameras and go get 'em attitude in place. As soon as they're greeted by local guards wielding machine guns, the mood starts to change.


Welcome to Jonestown. Because, let's face it, that's exactly what The Sacrament is. 

You know that standard credit that rolls at the end of every movie? The "characters in this film are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental." Well, The Sacrament has one. And that's kind of ridiculous.


Ti West knows how to make a good horror film. He can build suspense. He can use music effectively (even forgiving the fact that this is found footage, so the soundtrack would have mysteriously been added after the fact). He has a great hand with actors. All of that is clear with The Sacrament. 


It's an effective film. It's unsettling, as any tale about a cult led by a creepily charismatic leader willing to herd them into mass suicide (or “suicide,” as it were) would be. The problem, of course, is that it’s not an original tale. It's also not admitting to be, you know, what amounts to a dramatization of one of America's most unsettling real-life horror stories.


The story of Jonestown is readily documented in various books and films (several of which are also streaming on Netflix). The Sacrament, however, never claims to be about Jonestown. It also never deviates in any notable way from the events that went down in Guyana in 1978. 

So what's the point? Is West just trying to turn a historical event into a modern horror film? If he's trying to say something about the nature of cults, well, he's not doing so in any way that history hasn't already. It makes for an incredibly odd viewing experience. Especially when, even at the very end, we get a roll of text that sums up the fictional massacre as if it were real. And then credits roll. Because it wasn’t real.


I’ve been begging for more cult-based horror for as long as I’ve been writing about it. I find the concept fascinating and rife for exploration. But why explore territory if you’re not going to make a single original observation? Sam and Jake are almost set up to be the hipster New York journalists without any real understanding of the world that’s not theirs, but the film backs away from that, instead making them fairly genuine guys just trying to get out alive and help if they can. They don’t really even get much of an arc. 


Ultimately, the only interesting character is Seimetz’s Caroline, mostly because her story is one we haven’t heard before. We’ve seen the footage of Jim Jones preaching and heard the documentation of what the aftermath of his massacre looked like. Had the film maybe dug deeper or explored a viewpoint we don’t already know, at least it would have felt new. Instead, it feels unnecessary and even, extremely tasteless. 


High Points
When your cast includes a batch of young actors who have spent the last few years in improvised low budget filmmaking, it’s no surprise that the performances are far more natural than your average found footage horror movie


Low Points
Aside from the already explained bafflement I had at the motivation behind the film, there are a few major issues with transplanting a story from the '70s into the 2010s (whatever this decade is called). The People's Temple drew in crowds in a big part because of where America was at the time. I'm not saying this country is now an eden of its own to black citizens or the elderly or anyone not falling in line with the U.S. government, but The Sacrament never makes any kind of effort to justify why so many different types of people are willing to give everything to a false messiah.


Lessons Learned
People in fashion should own boots

Cell phones won’t get reception in the middle of a creepy religious commune, but thankfully, there are plenty of spots to plug in and keep your battery well charged


Helicopter pilots have a pretty high tolerance to pain

Rent/Bury/Buy
I don't really know how to recommend The Sacrament. It's a finely made film, extremely unsettling where it needs to be and strongly acted by a cast that's comfortable playing the found footage naturalism (the fact that Joe Swanberg directed the improvised Drinking Buddies certainly helps). Personally, I just don't understand why Ti West would simply retell the story of Jonestown without, as far as I felt form this viewing, bringing anything other than a good filmmaker's eye to it. Am I missing something? The film is streaming on Instant Watch, so I'd be happy for readers to check it out and share their thoughts. I haven't felt this conflicted about how to feel about a film in quite a long time.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Would You Like To Hear More?

OF COURSE YOU WOULD!


There's really never not a good time to talk about Starship Troopers, Paul Verhoeven's masterpiece of satire, action, and vaginal faced brain bugs sucking Patrick Muldoon's innards out of his soap star dreamface.


I bring up the fourth best film of all time (although all-time best use of ex-90210 cast members) not just because it's Friday, but more because you can hear me discuss it with From the Depth's of DVD Hell's great Elwood Jones over at the debut episode of his podcast Mad, Bad, and Downright Strange.  

And that's not all!


My husband and I took a break from watching Jeopardy! and Murder, She Wrote to record a special guest episode of Married With Clickers, one of my favorite film podcasts out on the interwaves. The topic? 

Only one of the most underrated horror comedies of all time. You can head here to hear the episode. While you're there, be sure to check out the other great offerings of horror reviews for the month. 

Hold on tight! One more...


If you haven't been listening to my regular podcast, The Feminine Critique, then our last episode might bring you back in the fold. My partner in crime Christine and I tackled Mike Flanagan's recent WWE produced (???, seriously) hit Oculus. It's a much stronger and deeper film than its marketing may have suggested. We have lots to say on the matter. 

And now, because I love you, I shall exit with a Clancy Brown slideshow:






Yup. That settles everything.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Order On the Set




I recall hearing quite the glut of negativity aimed at Wes Craven's 2010 3D slasher My Soul To Take. The film seemed to rile up such bitter venom in all who viewed that I naturally have spent the last four years anxiously awaiting its arrival on Netflix Instant.

Try as I may, I just couldn't bring myself to wasting my valuable 1-disc-at-a-time plan on a movie that by all accounts was going to be unworthy. Most mediocre slashers are guaranteed a ticket on the Instant Watch circuit, but this one just refused to take the ride. 

Full disclosure: I finally watched My Soul To Take when it aired on the SyFy Channel (in MY day, by the way, we called it The Sci-Fi Channel; in my younger days, it was better known as The Home of Every Quantum Leap Rerun). What this means is that for all I know, scenes were edited or removed to fit into the 2-hour-with-commercials-not-for-Quantum-Leap running time. I'll never know what My Soul To Take looked like to the non-cable eyes, but I will assume it had less awkward mutings on curses and more importantly, 100% less blurred out newborn nudity.


I'm really not kidding: SyFy blurs out baby nudity. Somehow I find this incredibly disturbing. It makes something so natural and non-sexual (because: baby) into something that's apparently sexual or at the very least, harder core than Rated M. 

Anyway, I guess I find the politics of editing infant nudity way more intriguing than Wes Craven's bizarrely lazy tale of teenage stereotypes trapped in a convoluted yet unexplained curse of sorts. Still, I have a non-paying job to do, so let's get on with it!

Quick Plot: 16 years ago, the town of Riverton housed a vicious serial killer played by Raul Esparza--


This is going to be a REALLY hard review to get through, isn't it...

Sidebar, your honor: Raul Esparza is probably best known to the general American audience as the current ADA on Law & Order: SVU  (though Broadway audiences are more familiar with his musical work in everything from Cabaret to Company and so on). The man is, let me say this, 5'3.


THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH BEING SHORT.



I'm just, you know, pointing out that the sadistic and active murderer of this film is not too much taller than me.

Moving on, Esparza is a family man who opens the film building a white dollhouse in his basement--


SIDEBAR

Yes, the dollhouse bears a more than coincidental resemblance to something you might pass on Elm Street. And yes, this will not be the only sidebar to point out a similarity between My Soul To Take and that OTHER franchise.


So. Esparza's a family man with a wife about to deliver a baby whose nudity will be blurred out. He's also the host to multiple personalities--or souls, as the film occasionally discusses--that kill. According to the film's science, this makes him a violent schizophrenic--

SIDEBAR

Are we still, a full decade into the 21st century, calling multiple personality disorder the same as schizophrenia? Have we NOT gotten past this misconception? Isn't this to psychiatry what a misuse of its/it's is to grammar nerds? Isn't Wes Craven a pretty well-educated man who at least could have double checked this on Wikipedia?


Anyway, the Riverton Ripper or Reaper or whatever you want to call him is caught by, as usual in a Wes Craven film, completely unqualified police officers who somehow let him shoot/stab several last minute victims AFTER being captured. It's sort of resolved by an ambulance accident that, 16 years later, one can still see because in 16 years, why would a town ever do something as minor as remove the burnt vehicle of a fatal car accident from the street?


Did I mention it's now 16 years later? You're forgiven if you didn't catch that detail since all of the characters shown 16 years earlier haven't aged a day. This includes supporting unqualified policewoman Danai Gurira (Michonne from The Walking Dead) who hasn't even changed her hair style in 16 years. 

Gurira's character in 1994
...and 2010

You know what HAS changed in 16 years? The baby, he of the blurred out baby nudity, is now a creepy high school student named Bug played by The House At the End of the Street's Max Thieriot. What's more interesting is that on that fateful night, there were six other babies born who might have required blurred out nudity in a deleted scene. Today, these teenagers are known as the Riverton Seven and take part in an annual performance before their peers and that burned out but still unmoved ambulance, wherein they ceremoniously slay the puppet embodiment of Raul Esparza to ward off his spirit--I mean schizophrenia--I mean, souls.  


Among the Riverton Seven are:

The token jock jerk
The token Asian artist kid
The token blond brat
The token religious girl
The token weird kid (nickname: Bug; hobby: birdwatching)
The token weird kid's friend with an abusive father 
The token blind black kid, who in the most disappointing SPOILER twist of all, is not the killer

When the awkward Bug fails to complete the Riverton party charade, the kids quickly begin to die in horrifically boring ways. Meanwhile, Bug begins to display some of his friends' personality quirks, such as being able to construct an elaborate condor costume for show and tell (because that's what high school biology apparently is in 2010) or capturing his pal Adam's movements in one of those mirror games you play in Acting 101 class. Mind you, it's not exactly clear or interesting in any way, and all of it makes me long for a much-needed rewatch of Nightmare On Elm Street 4.


SIDEBAR

I love that one. I know most horror fans see Renny Harlin's goofy take as the series' beginning of the end, but I find the visual creativity and super elaborate death sequences to be the best in the bunch. It references Kafka! Plus, it's the installment that resurrects Freddy Krueger via dog pee. 


What was I talking about again?

Right. So. Stereotypes die. Wes Craven displays a strange understanding of high school politics, envisioning a society where a bitchy super senior who goes by the name of Fang serves as a sort of fascist dictator who can enact edicts about levels of bullying and matchmaking. Maybe I just didn't "wake up and smell the Starbucks" (actual line of dialog) but I think modern teenagers aren't quite as Napoleonic as Wes Craven seems to believe.


There is so very much wrong with My Soul To Take. Aforementioned 'what the hell kind of teenagers ARE these people?' being just a teeny tiny part of it all. It's clear that this film was repackaged five times or so for test audiences, as minor plot threads seem to be introduced only to dangle lazily until you accept that you shouldn't care about them. The nature of why a schizoph--er, multiple personality carrying musical theater star could have such magical Shocker-ish abilities to inhabit and pass on multiple souls is never justified with any kind of mythology. One cop (who uses great anti-aging cream) suggests something about soul jumping. The kids sort of discuss it. Apparently, it happened in the movie and the script forgot to mention it.


SIDEBAR

I’ve now written over one thousand words about My Soul To Take. I think nine out of ten soul holders would agree that that’s at least 900 too many. And yet, I’m not done. So let me leave you with a few more bullet points worth noting. We’ll call them evidence:

Exhibit A: The Riverton Ripper uses a knife that has the word “vengeance” carved in the blade. This is an exhibit because never in the film does any real sense that the Riverton Ripper sought vengeance come into play. Other than, perhaps, the fact that the motive for Freddy Krueger hunting the children of his killers was vengeance. 


Exhibit B: I started keeping track of how many times a character turns around as the music CRESCENDOS and he/she is about to scream before realizing “oh hey! It’s just a friend.” I gave up after three.


Exhibit C: The very first shot of the killer--not musical theater multi-soul holder killer, mythical soul sharing 2010 killer--sprinting at his first victim was almost cool. 

Exhibit D: Maybe I’m reaching, but once the Nightmare On Elm Street winks started coming, I couldn’t stop seeing them. Everywhere. Bug’s best friend visits him by climbing in through his window. Maybe it’s nothing. Or maybe it’s a rather meh director trademark.

Exhibit E: It’s been at least a few hundred words since I mentioned it, and this has less to do with My Soul To Take than it does with The SyFy Channel or FCC, but seriously: the innocent biological genitalia of a BABY was blurred out, yet underage children being gutted, decapitated, and gutted again (the kills were incredibly not creative) was considered perfectly fine to show in full glory on television. Just something to consider, America.

Exhibit F: The end credits roll over an animated sequence of sorts involving condors. It’s sort of adorable. Until you remember that this is the credits sequence for a horror film that has, up to now, taken itself rather seriously

The prosecution rests.



High Points
Well, it's hard to hate a movie that includes a dramatic scene wherein the lead character gives an interactive book report on a condor while his friend is dressed as said condor and said friend dressed as condor vomits and poops on the film's minor villain


Low Points
Aside from this not being a very good movie, the mere premise of a whole bunch of kids being born on the same night can't NOT make me think of Bloody Birthday, and how much greater a viewing experience that film is (not just compared to My Soul To Take, but really, compared to 99% of cinema in existence. Have you SEEN Bloody Birthday???)


Lessons Learned
A good show 'n tell needs shock and awe (artificial bird poop and vomit helps as well)


It's not okay for everybody to be killing each other all the time

Epinephrin kicks ass

Computer imagery enhancement was at its peak in 1994

Hey. Relax. If things get too tough, just turn on the prayer condition


Rent/Bury/Buy
Yup. My Soul To Take is bad. It also earned over 1700 words from me, so it might be bad--


SIDEBAR

It is bad. No might about it.


Yet it somehow led me to write quite a bit. So whatever that says about the movie, that’s that.

Monday, October 6, 2014

People Who Hate Facebook REALLY Hate Facebook


You know those people who are soooooooo over Facebook? "I just don't get the appeal," they'll say, often in the same conversation wherein they lament not knowing that a friend moved to Greenland, the his ex-girlfriend is pregnant, or that her first grade teacher died.

Look, I understand social networking not working for everybody. Twitter and I are basically living separate lives, with me checking in once every few days to see if I left my jacket there. There's nothing necessarily life-changing about seeing pictures of your friend's new kitten in real time or ignoring the upteenth invitation to crush candy. And sure, privacy and information hacks and yadda yadda. These are valid reasons not to book the face. For me though, I just can't stand the "I'm above all of this" attitude that some sworn Luddites wield. The "I'm not SAYING I'm cool, but I know that you know that I'm clearly superior for not 'liking' something with my finger" people.


Then I see Antisocial and think, "oh yeah, maybe the fact that social networking might turn us all into zombies with exploding heads is a good reason to stick to sending letters."

Quick Plot: A neat little opening introduces a pair of typical teenagers video blogging about their recent mall conquest. Before you can ask if Megan Is Missing, one of the girls begins to bleed, quickly turning violent on the other.


It's a nice way to start a film.

Moving back to normal university life, Sam is a pretty college student who learns the hard way (social media) that her boyfriend has been cheating on her. She moodily attends her platonic BFF Mark's low-key New Year's Eve party along with your typical horror movie party guests: the hot couple Steve and Kaitlin and somewhat nerdy Jed. 


Selfies and beer toasts commence, intermixed with the group checking in on The Social Redroom, aka Facebook Without the Legal Risks of Being Sued. The party is soon pooped by a few quick invasions as 28 Days Later-ish strangers attempt to crash. News reports reveal this is a worldwide epidemic, with such cases being reported without explanation across all seven continents (six if you're European). 


We as the audience piece things together before our not quite as bright characters. Turns out, The Social Redroom is sending out some sort of Pulse-like signal to anyone who accesses it on a phone or computer. The infected begins to hallucinate, then bleeds from his or her ears and nose, and finally, turns violent. It's like getting your email hacked, only kind of way worse.
Sam & Co. struggle with your typical problems that arise with outbreak: whether to let an infected friend in, what to do when one of them shows symptoms, and how much of what they see online can be believed. 

Antisocial has, like so many modern genre films on Instant Watch, kind of crappy cover art. 


Get past that, get past the 'yes, this is another super attractive young people in peril premise,' and you're left with a surprisingly well-made little horror film. First time director Cody Calahan displays some strong instincts in his choices. The film looks and sounds quite good, with the gore carefully shot in not-annoying darkness and never, despite a head drilling, feeling overly gratuitous. The script (co-written by Calahan and Chad Archibald) manages to avoid the danger of so many 'young people and their cell phones' movies because it actually understand millennials and how they talk. It may be dated in five or ten years, but for a film about the current age made in 2013, it’s sharp.


High Points
Found footage and cell phone video can be an easy (and often, annoying) trick abused in modern (and budget) horror. Antisocial finds the right way to weave these in quite effectively

Low Points
Still, pretty people in peril...why are they always so dull and pretty?


Lessons Learned
DIY brain surgery is not nearly as difficult as it sounds


It is equally important to board up the top floor window as it is the ground level, because social network zombified maniacs can apparently jump really high

Christmas lights are not very effective in restraining social network zombified maniacs

Rent/Bury/Buy
I wasn't expecting much from a first-time director making a horror movie about Facebook (basically), but I was quite impressed with Antisocial. It's paced well, strongly shot, and fairly original. Sure, we've seen our share of sieges, alternative zombies, and evil technology, but Antisocial finds a strong, current angle and plays it out well. Queue it up on Instant Watch for a pretty decent time.