Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Census Bloodbath: You've Got A Friend In Me

Year: 1986
Director: Wes Craven
Cast: Matthew Labyorteaux, Kristy Swanson, Michael Sharrett 
Run Time: 1 hour 31 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

At first, I didn’t include Wes Craven’s Deadly Friend on my list of flicks to watch for Census Bloodbath. It certainly seemed to have elements of a slasher film, but from the descriptions I read, it seemed too on the fringe to really count. Well, now that I’ve seen it, I know that that’s just it’s nature. It’s on the fringe of almost every genre that’s ever existed, being as it is a 6-car pileup between Weird Science, Doogie Howser M.D., The Last House on the Left, Gremlins, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead. So I might as well throw it in. You know I love me some Wes Craven, and this is our last chance to include him in this project.

And at the very least it has a higher body count than Road Games.

In Deadly Friend, Paul Conway (Matthew Labyorteaux) is new in town, having moved to be a guest lecturer and student at the local college, even though he’s only supposed to be in 10th grade. You see, he’s one of them 80’s Teen Supergeniuses™, and he has created an artificially intelligent robot named BB who babbles incessantly like a Mogwai and is essentially a member of the family (funnily enough, an original title for this movie was going to be A.I.). For about half an hour, it’s basically a five pound Disney Channel Original Movie stuffed with ten pounds of 80’s teen movie tropes (the reclusive old lady next door, the herniated cuteness of BB, the preposterously evil bully roaming the streets… I could go on for hours).

Then the Craven kicks in (as does the studio interference, forcing the teen romp into a more hardcore horror framework that would allegedly appeal to Elm Street fans). Sam is killed by her abusive alcoholic father, so Paul implants her brain with BB’s chip to bring her back to life, whereupon she goes rogue and begins summarily murdering pretty much everyone in town who has crossed BB in some way.

Literally all of whom appear in the same, brutally efficient exposition scene.

Deadly Friend is certainly not Wes Craven’s worst film, but it’s probably his most inconsistent. Even more than Shocker, which must have taken a Herculean effort. It was one of his earliest attempts to break away from the horror genre, and clearly two hits a decade apart didn’t gather enough steam to allow him to break that barrier. Deadly Friend runs face-first into that barrier and crashes to the ground in a pile of broken springs and frayed wiring.

However, though the individual parts never ever ever congeal into something resembling a coherent whole, some of them are pretty damn solid. Two nightmare sequences that were shoehorned in during reshoots showcase Craven at the top of his game, creating genuinely disturbing, uncanny imagery by blending the underlying themes of the story with a bloody, phantasmagoric atmosphere. They have jack-all to do with the plot, but if I had to choose between a mediocre 80’s movie or a mediocre 80’s movie where an abusive father is stabbed with the stem of a vase and spurts blood all over his daughter’s face, I would choose the latter ten times out of ten.

Unfortunately, these are the only remotely scary or affecting scenes in the entire film. The resurrected Robo-Sam gets to perpetrate a fun kill (most of the deaths are dishwater dull, but one briefly transforms the movie into a cavorting Evil Dead nightmare – more on that later), but Kristy Swanson doing the robot doesn’t exactly make for an iconic movie villain.

She definitely doesn’t get to sit at Freddy and Jason’s table in the lunchroom.

There are also a couple sequence that take a stab at family comedy and actually draw blood. A well-timed exterior shot echoes a similar scene from Elm Street but with an added punchline, and a scene where Paul slips his mom a mickey is twisted and hilarious in the way that only 80’s teen movies could be.

And there really is a strong chemistry between Paul and his paperboy friend/accomplice Tom (Michael Sharrett, who looks like a young Zac Efron if he’d eaten a bagel at any point in his life). Their Ferris-Cameron relationship is well-realized and dynamic. It’s a little bit harder to buy their friendship with Sam, but there’s a warmth on the screen that carries the film a long way.

Unfortunately, none of this comes together into a plot that has any real meaning or even a particularly legible storyline. It’s a half-assed attempt to be a Frankenstein tale for the John Hughes set, and its dismemberment by the studio renders it totally out of control. I’m not saying it would have been a masterpiece if Craven had had final cut, but it certainly wouldn’t be so damn sloppy.

The tone whips from fluffy 80’s cheeseball to slimy domestic terror way too fast, characters vanish from the film for unforgivably huge chunks, and the resolution is both astoundingly dour and irritatingly idiotic. While there are some delicious courses in this cinematic meal, it’s hard to enjoy your filet mignon when someone is pelting you with black licorice and lima beans the entire time.

Killer: Robo-Sam (Kristy Swanson)
Final Girl: Paul Conway (Matthew Labyorteaux)
Best Kill: As immortalized by YouTube, Kristy Swanson uses a basketball to explode an old lady’s head.

Sign of the Times: Paul’s room is decorated with a portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven… and a Bruce Springsteen poster.
Scariest Moment: Take your pick of the two flatly horrifying dream sequences.
Weirdest Moment: When the credits roll, they’re accompanied by a song that may or may not have been performed by BB the robot.
Champion Dialogue: “Sometimes I wanna roll a truck over his face.”
Body Count: 4
  1. Sam’s Dad is burned against a boiler and has his neck snapped.
  2. Elvira Parker gets her head exploded with a basketball.
  3. Bully is thrown through a car windshield.
  4. Sam is shot.
TL;DR: It’s a shambles, though at the very least it’s a diverting one.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1035

Monday, April 24, 2017

From Whence We Came

Year: 2012
Director: Ridley Scott
Cast: Noomi Rapace, Logan Marshall-Green, Michael Fassbender 
Run Time: 2 hours 4 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

This damn Alien franchise just refuses to end! I know it’s still shorter than most of the marathons I do, but damn has it been an excruciating stretch between Aliens and now. This is a marathon where I really had to lean on my completist instincts as a crutch, otherwise I might have abandoned it long before a single Predator came into the picture.

It’s unbelievable that the five short years separating the Alien pseudo-prequel Prometheus from Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem were enough to revive any sort of public interest in the franchise, but the return of original director Ridley Scott seemed to have been the spoonful of sugar that lured butts to the seats. I have my doubts about the man’s consistency (never forget the dude directed Exodus: Gods and Kings no more than 3 years ago), but Prometheus is at the very least enough to get me tentatively excited about the upcoming Alien: Covenant, a feat I wouldn’t have thought humanly possible.

Even I, a staunch sequel advocate, find it hard to justify keeping this franchise on life support.

Anyway, Prometheus is set in the late 21st century, following a scientific expedition to a far-off moon that may be the location of a settlement created by the Engineers, a race of giant albino aliens that created humanity. Exactly how or why humanity has come to this conclusion is beyond me, but anthropologists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) are leading the expedition from the starship Prometheus, funded by a generous grant from the late business mogul Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce in utterly tacky old age make-up).

The crew includes the ship’s captain Janek (Idris Elba), the stern corporate representative Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), the bumbling scientific duo Fifield (Sean Harris) and Milburn (Rafe Spall), and the humanoid synthetic David (Michael Fassbender), who – like all androids in this franchise – may not be entirely trustworthy.

His trustworthiness is inversely proportional to his beauty.

Prometheus is not a masterpiece. Heck, it might not even be a great film. But it’s so much closer to the tone and spirit of the original Alien than the half-dozen films that came before it that it’s a real breath of fresh air. Here is the sense of sweeping sci-fi grandeur that doesn’t undercut the claustrophobia of the main narrative. There are the irresistible jabs toward visceral, exploitative horror nestled in the stately cinematic atmosphere. It’s a Ridley Scott Alien picture through and through, and that is a good thing.

Frankly, Prometheus is a beautiful piece of work. The production design is a spectacular expanse of organically inhuman architecture and sweeping spacecraft curves that imply a world that’s itching to become the one we see in Alien, set centuries of technological development later. It’s a beautiful dollop of sci-fi blockbuster filmmaking.

There’s just one thing it isn't very good at: being a prequel to Alien. And I’m no whiny fanboy complaining that nobody on this crew was named Ripley. Fundamentally, Prometheus is on a completely different thematic journey than any other Alien flick, as varied as they all have been. This film, as scripted by Jon Spaihts and Lost’s Damon Lindelof (ah, there’s the rub), takes a decidedly philosophical tack, exploring the meaning of the creation of life. It chews on this theme in scene after scene, eventually spitting it out when it becomes too tough to swallow and throwing in a big ol’ monster instead.

Which, honestly, I prefer.

Prometheus just doesn’t seem to have any clue what it’s about, other than the occasional spot of sci-fi mayhem. The inception of the Xenomorph is a mere afterthought, and the creation plot line fails to gel with anything in its own movie, let alone the whole franchise. Oh, but that sci-fi mayhem is pretty incredible.

Although the film’s zombie element is one of its farthest diversions from the franchise it’s attempting to resurrect, it’s still visually and viscerally stimulating, and a late scene in a surgical pod is beyond reproach as a sublime nugget of grotesquery.

It’s a beautiful movie that allows ugliness and horror to penetrate deep into its being, and that’s exactly what an Alien movie should be, space albinos or no space albinos. It thinks it’s far more intelligent than it really is, but at the very least it’s light years better than everything we’ve had to wallow through since Aliens, 26 long years before.

TL;DR: Prometheus is an excellently crafted sci-fi thriller.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 768
Reviews In This Series
Alien (Scott, 1979)
Aliens (Cameron, 1986)
Alien 3 (Fincher, 1992)
Alien: Resurrection (Jeunet, 1997)
AvP: Alien vs. Predator (Anderson, 2004)
Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem (Strause & Strause, 2007)
Prometheus (Scott, 2012)

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Popcorn Kernels: Double Crossover

In which we review the cumbersomely titled Alien/Predator mash-‘em-ups in back to back mini-reviews, because Lord knows I don’t want to spend a second longer with them than I absolutely need to.

AvP: Alien vs. Predator

Year: 2004
Director: Paul W. S. Anderson
Cast: Sanaa Lathan, Lance Henriksen, Raoul Bova 
Run Time: 1 hour 41 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

A group of explorers stumble into a buried pyramid in Antarctica that is also the site of an ancient battle between the predators and the Xenomorphs.

It’s such a miracle of licensing management that any crossover film ever gets made that I really want to like them. I really do. But Alien vs. Predator, no doubt sparked into life by the runaway success of Freddy vs. Jason, doesn’t even reach that film’s level of base mediocrity. To be fair, with mid-2000’s franchise horror it was either go torture or go home, so the sci-fi tinged property was already dead on the vine, but I’m not sure it’s physically possible to come up with a worse justification for the meeting of these two genre giants.

That being said, I also didn’t think this ludicrous mash-up could possibly be boring, but against all odds I continue to be wrong. Even when you add a shifting, labyrinth-esque puzzle box of a pyramid and some Thing throwback Antarctic mayhem, Alien vs. Predator can’t shake off the doldrums of tedium that wrack it to its very core.

This probably has a lot to do with what it has in common with Alien: Resurrection, namely a brobdingnagian slate of names cardboard soldiers that fail to be anchored by the presence of a stately character actor (in this case Lance Henriksen, who slums it for an appallingly large amount of time. But it also has to do with Paul W. S. Anderson’s royally clunky staging and liberal application of exhaustingly prolonged slomo. The Xenomorph effects were clearly limited, so it was difficult to frame an Alien and a Predator in the same shot without flop sweat, and the bleak grey color palette made it pretty much impossible to discern what was going on regardless.

AvP is a choppy, generic movie that just doesn’t seem to care one whit about either of its source materials. Plus, its convoluted mythology leans far too heavily on the side of the Predators that it’s impossible to view this as a clash between two equal, evil factions. Its wan action is buried under hideous clichés like the Academic Who Can read Dead Languages like the Back of a Cereal Box.

Fortunately, being a Paul W. S. Anderson movie does leave AvP with its fair share of ignoble popcorn flick charms. Every 15 minutes or so, it briefly perks up with a scene so mind-bogglingly stupid, you can’t help but admire and enjoy it. You won’t catch me complaining about the mid-glacier-climb phone call or the jump scare featuring a penguin, because they at least show a spark of life in the dead-eyed monstrosity. And [SPOILERS] I have little to no opinion on the Predator as a villain, so the controversial climax where our heroine befriends one of the hulking kill beasts brings me nothing but frothy delight. [END SPOILERS] 

AvP is nothing but a waste of time, but at least it has the decency to be a weird waste of time.

Rating: 4/10

Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem

Year: 2007 
Director: The Brothers Strause
Cast: Reiko Aylesworth, Steven Pasquale, Shareeka Epps 
Run Time: 1 hour 34 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

A Predator-Alien hybrid is let loose on a small Colorado town in British Columbia.

The films where acid-blooded moon beasts and technologically advanced dreadlock monsters duke it out just should not be boring! How does this keep happening? This movie whose name I refuse to type a second time and shall now refer to as AvPR isn’t spectacularly bad in any showy, immediately recognizable way. Instead it’s insidious, sinking into your bones like a rot.

It has a lot going for it. This is the first time the Xenomorphs have made contact with anything remotely resembling the real world (as Dawson’s Creek-y as the human cast gets, it’s set in a recognizable modern American town). The franchise has returned to its R-rating, doling out gross deaths by the bucketful. And there are even a couple tidbits about civilian life in post-9/11 Patriot Act America, if you look hard enough.

But between its hopelessly tangled laundry list of characters (this is basically a Garry Marshall movie with Chestbursters) and unrelenting nastiness, AvPR is just unpleasant to spend time with. People live and it’s hard to care about their unexplored personalities. People die and it’s pointlessly brutal. A Predator and a Xenomorph have a tussle in the street while the camera swoops gracefully past a huge Papa John’s sign a couple dozen times. It’s just crude.

And the worst crime of all is that it wastes cinematographer Daniel Pearl, by far the most experienced person on set including the two directors and every member of the overpopulated cast. While Pearl attempts to create the slick, mottled look he crafted in Texas Chainsaw and Friday the 13th that was inescapable in the 2000’s, it’s clear he was given no more than two lights to work with, leading the entirely film to be clouded by a murky gray fog.

It’s a dreary, dilapidated mess that had no reason to exist in the first place, and it hardly justifies itself with its leaden action sequences, dull pacing, and complete lack of interest in anything slapped onscreen. If Alien vs. Predator was one to miss, AvPR is one to hit… with a flaming arrow that launches it into oblivion, so you never have to think about it again.

Rating: 2/10
Word Count: 960
Reviews In This Series
Alien (Scott, 1979)
Aliens (Cameron, 1986)
Alien 3 (Fincher, 1992)
Alien: Resurrection (Jeunet, 1997)
AvP: Alien vs. Predator (Anderson, 2004)
Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem (Strause & Strause, 2007)
Prometheus (Scott, 2012)

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Spaced Out

Year: 1997
Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Cast: Sigourney Weaver, Winona Ryder, Dominique Pinon 
Run Time: 1 hour 49 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

An Alien sequel penned by sardonic geek icon Joss Whedon and helmed by the director of Amélie! What could possibly go wrong? Answer: not as much as Alien 3, but Alien: Resurrection (the fourth entry in a franchise that had already long overstayed its welcome and has continued to do so for two more decades) trades idiosyncratic misery for completely generic fluff. But at least it’s remotely tolerable.

I’m not sure I have a thick enough carapace to survive this marathon.

In Alien: Resurrection, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is, well, resurrected. You can’t very well have an Alien movie without her so Hollywood an experimental medical facility paid her an assload of money cloned the DNA of her centuries-old corpse, and here she is. Once again, the movie fails to give half a crap about what the culture shock of waking up 200 years in the future must be like, only this time it also fails to give half a crap about Ripley’s DNA being merged with the Xenomorph’s, converting her from an avenging angel to a maternal figure with acid blood.

You couldn’t pay me to sit down and parse out the depths to how wrong this science is.

Anyway, Ripley is back and so is the Xenomorph, because this movie ain’t gonna be about her buying a timeshare on Pluto. The greedy General Perez (Dan Hedaya) has bred a baker’s dozen of the monsters for reasons nobody really cares to explain, and when things go predictably awry, the specimens escape from the custody of one Dr. Gediman (Brad Dourif, slumming it, and yes this counts as slumming it from the star of Child’s Play 3). Thus a ragtag band of space mercenaries (?) (pirates? I don’t know, they have guns) – including the morally superior (read: irritating) Call Winona Ryder) and the macho alpha dog Johner (Ron Perlman) – must reluctantly team up with Ripley to escape the ship and destroy the Xenomorphs before they reach Earth.

What a s*h*thole.

There are a dozen and a half sins that Alien: Resurrection is guilty of committing, but the largest are the atrocities performed on Ripley’s character. Their forced explanation of her return from the dead (spoilers I guess, but who really cares at this point?) robs her of any sort of personality, making her a clone with stunted feelings. If you’re paying Sigourney Weaver a truly grotesque amount of money, why script her into an emotional iron maiden? Just have her be struck by space lightning and get on with it. This is the third sequel, nobody cares.

Of course, this is a movie that displays Ripley’s newfound alien powers by having her make sweet dunks on a basketball court, so maybe character depth is a little too much to ask.

Unfortunately, there’s nobody to step up up and fill Ripley’s shoes, as hard as they’re trying to make Winona Ryder a thing. She fails as a Ripley surrogate and as a hard-edged warrior, and the only thing her character contributes is a delightfully inexplicable scene where she attempts to drink from a mug while wearing boxing gloves. The sad thing is, every other member of this overstuffed ensemble contributes even less.

This is no fault of the casting director. Ron Perlman and Brad Dourif are fabulous character actors filling the exact spaces they need to, but the script scrounges around to find anything for them to do, let alone the 35 faceless goons that are flanking them.

And love Joss Whedon though I do, this script just isn’t working. The way he tells it, his humorous dialogue was steamrolled by an overserious tone, but 1) did anybody really want Ripley trading Avengers-style quips with Hellboy? And 2) that still doesn’t excuse the ten-car pileup of syntax that attempts to pass itself off as wit.

It’s just not fun. The plot is a shambles and the action is poundingly repetitive (if I never see a squad of gun-toting astronauts tip-toeing down a metal passageway again I’ll be a happy man). It’s straight boring is what it is.

Something a film about a man-eating alien with acid blood should never be.

However, as much of a slog as it was to sit through, it has two strengths that buoy it at least above the dismal Alien 3. First, it’s surprisingly gory, resurrecting the grindhouse flair that made the original film so viscerally compelling. Second, the world-building of the franchise hits its peak here. The Alien movies have never particularly cared about exploring the technological developments that litter the world of the future, but Resurrection is full of fun little flourishes (like freeze-dried whiskey or a security door that identities people by their breath) that indicate subtle ways life has changed over the centuries.

Even if the characters are made of tissue paper, at least that paper is filled with blood and exists in a world I can find a foothold in. There’s still no justifiable reason for this film to exist, but I daresay I’ve seen far worse.

TL;DR: Alien: Resurrection is a mildly diverting but still dull and muddled sequel.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 874
Reviews In This Series
Alien (Scott, 1979)
Aliens (Cameron, 1986)
Alien 3 (Fincher, 1992)
Alien: Resurrection (Jeunet, 1997)
AvP: Alien vs. Predator (Anderson, 2004)
Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem (Strause & Strause, 2007)
Prometheus (Scott, 2012)

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Blumhouse: All Work And No Play

Here's what I've been up to over at over the past week or so, including my very first interview!

Five Non-Horror Directors Who DID Make a Horror Movie

This article is a follow-up to my piece about which directors should give in and direct horror, which I assume no reader actually remembers I wrote, but I was still interested in exploring the topic anyway.

I actually learned something in film history! Here I expand on a story only ever mentioned in a paragraph or two of film textbooks, but is secretly the most interesting thing in any of them.

Yes, this is a real thing. I discovered these books at a used bookstore a while back, and they've inspired at least two articles at this point.

I'll let you in on a little backstage secret. I actually didn't talk to these two at the same time, but I worked very hard to make it look like a conversation. I think I did a good job!

I really do love to explore how horror creeps into other genres. Plus, the stuff we made kids watch back in the day is mega messed up.
Word Count: 235

Monday, April 3, 2017

Rewind: March 2017

I intend to run a post every month or so highlighting the films you should really be checking out in theaters, but considering this is March, the pickings have been a tad slim. let's just say I've seen seven movies theatrically since we last touched base, and though I didn't vehemently hate any of them, I only have one to recommend. Womp womp.


There may only be one, but it's a hell of a recommendation. Drawing strength from the success of the R-rated Deadpool, Logan leans in on its adult themes, creating a grim and dangerous world with immensely satisfying emotional payoffs for fans of the X-Men. Don't bother seeing the previous Wolverine solo adventures before this one, you won't need them. Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart revel in exploring new sides of their iconic characters and Dafne Keen gives a debut performance for the ages. A must-see.
Word Count: 149

Monday, March 27, 2017

Census Bloodbath: Billy The Kid

Year: 1982
Director: Dick Richards
Cast: Paul Le Mat, Catherine Hicks, Stephen McHattie 
Run Time: 1 hour 27 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Hey, whaddya know, I’m actually doing a bit of chronological work in Census Bloodbath. I’ve been skipping around a bit, but our humble project is currently still plowing its way through the early 80’s. When last we left our genre, it was in its glorious Golden Age, producing some of its most iconic works. That period continued, to some extent, into 1982. Certainly the sheer volume of films was continuing, although the market had been flooded and was already starting to drown out public interest.

However, the death rattle of the slasher was too faint to be noticed, which is how we got a film as relatively stately as Death Valley, a family drama road Western with a psycho killer attached. It’s a far cry from the crass dregs of the genre that would be cropping up soon, to the point that we can’t even Meet the Meat. We have actual characters to talk about!

I know it’s weird, but bear with me.

In Death Valley, 10-year-old Billy (Peter Billingsley a year before A Christmas Story) is dragged on an Old West road trip with his freshly divorced mother Sally (Catherine Hicks of Child’s Play) and her new boyfriend Mike (Paul Le Mat of Puppetmaster). On a pit stop at an old gold mine, Billy discovers an abandoned RV and steals a medallion he finds on the floor, not realizing it’s evidence of a triple murder that took place there just minutes before. Now the killer (Stephen McHattie) is after Billy, wanting to silence him after he tells the Sheriff (Wilford Brimley) about the medallion.

Put that down, you’ll shoot your eye out!

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from this project, it’s that I’m a real sucker for roadside thrillers. To be fair, the likes of The Hitcher or Road Games are just damn good films, but you could stage Girls School Screamers on a cross-country outing and I would lap it up. Maybe it’s because I grew up in Southern California so highways are all I know, but there’s something quintessentially, darkly American about a thriller set on a dusty, lonely road. It’s the only identity we have.

But I digress. Death Valley blends two classic Americana genres (the road trip movie and the Western) with another, not so timeless one (the slasher). And it is a very very bad slasher, with a low body count and poorly rendered, monotonous kills. Most of the onscreen slayings are staged the exact same way, with a prop knife leaving a pale smear of ketchup on a victim’s neck. I know ten-year-olds with YouTube accounts who could come up with better special effects.

But here’s the kicker. In Death Valley, unusually, nearly everything else around the slasher elements does manage to work. From its intelligent but effective cinematography that captures the desert landscape and plants you firmly in the protagonist’s perspective to the production design that produced an eerie, ominous car that rivals the unbridled villainy of the truck in Duel, Death Valley’s non-genre aspects are pretty much working on all cylinders.

Christine be damned, this car really does cut quite a figure.

That’s not to say this is an unparalleled piece of cinema. Some truly clumsy foley work and abrupt, ugly insert shots see to that. And then the third act completely forgets about its characters in favor of genre clichés, as most family drama hroror movies tend to do, it reveals how poorly staged the thriller elements have been the whole time.

But! It’s not really a pain to spend time with these characters. Death Valley’s willingness to really grind your face into the awkwardness of being a kid facing a mom who’s newly on the market and a brand new boyfriend who must ingratiate himself with said kid is truly refreshing. Both sides of the coin are genuinely engaging (except for the mother herself, who’s a bit of a limp dishrag. Thanks, 80’s horror), especially coming from Peter Billingsley, who gives a shockingly nuanced and realistic performance in his onscreen debut.

It’s a mixed bag, to be sure, but it makes for a reasonably entertaining film. It’s too toothless to be a truly memorable horror movie, but as a drama featuring a serial killer, it’s completely passable. I enjoyed it, given my particular proclivities, but I can’t say I’d be too fast to recommend it to someone I cared about very much.

Killer: Hal and Stu (Stephen McHattie)
Final Girl: More like a final family – Mike (Paul Le Mat), Sally (Catherine hicks), and Billy (Peter Biloingsley)
Best Kill: Wilford Brimley gets a pickaxe to the chest in the only death that’s even mildly visually interesting.
Sign of the Times: Billy is obsessed with his new “electronic game,” which turns out to be a Simon Says toy.
Scariest Moment: Billy hides in a car which turns out to belong to the killer, who drives away with him in the back seat,
Weirdest Moment: Billy’s babysitter is an overweight girl who devours everything in the hotel room, loudly crinkling packaging and smacking her lips for like five minutes before getting killed on an ice cream run.
Champion Dialogue: “Let’s see if your gun’s as loud as your mouth.”
Body Count: 7
  1. Donny has his throat slit offscreen.
  2. RV Boy has his throat slit.
  3. RV Girl is killed offscreen.
  4. Sheriff Perry is pickaxed in the chest.
  5. Babysitter has her throat slit.
  6. Hal is shot to death.
  7. Stu is impaled on spikes.
TL;DR: Death Valley is a decent roadside Western, even if its qualities as a slasher are lacking.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 952

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Blumhouse: Spring Cleaning

Please enjoy another roundup of my newest articles at!

Why SEED OF CHUCKY is the Radically Queer Film We All Need Right Now

I was very proud of this article, in defense of a frequently misunderstood sequel that I find to be pretty brilliant, but it arrived to a resounding chorus of absolutely nobody caring. Oh well.

Five Hilarious Horror Movie Blooper Reels

This is a topic I've secretly loved for a long, long time but I've never thought to write about. I wonder what else this job will wring out of the deep, dark parts of my brain cavity.

5 Movies So Extreme They Sent Viewers to the Emergency Room 

Sure, people can be wimps, but some of these films are gross as hell. The thing I find most interesting about horror is that it's one of the few genres that can actually affect an audience physically, something that defines powerful art.

Art is Not Dead: 10 Great Horror Posters from the 2010's

I really dug into the It Follows poster in this article and I hit a rich vein of analysis I didn't know I had in me. Also, here's a runner up poster for good measure.

Like GOOSEBUMPS? Try 10 Lesser-Known Adolescent Horror Books

During the writing of this article, I discovered a wellspring of horror knowledge that revealed I've been into the genre for a whole lot longer than I originally thought.
Word Count: 237

Monday, March 20, 2017

I Find You Unpleasant To Be Around

Year: 1992
Director: David Fincher
Cast: Sigourney Weaver, Charles S. Dutton, Charles Dance
Run Time: 1 hour 54 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Alien 3 is a disastrously compromised motion picture that its director disowned and is largely reviled by all but a select few outliers who hail it as a nihilistic masterpiece. As usual, the controversy around the movie forces people to take strong stances for or against it, ignoring the fact that it’s a completely middling film when all is said and done.

People never learn. They really ought to read my blog more.

In Alien 3, Lt. Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) crash-lands on a prison planet, not realizing that an alien Facehugger is along for the ride. Her fellow survivors from Aliens – Michael Biehn and the little girl formerly known as Newt – have perished during the crash. She conscripts the prison’s medical officer Clemens (Charles Dance) to help her perform an autopsy on newt while she chokes down sobs and the camera repeatedly zooms past the girl’s dead eyes like a hungry fly. Then they toss her friends’ bodies into a flaming pit, superimposed over Ripley’s devastated eyes, while in the other room a Xenomorph bursts out of a puppy dog, painfully killing it.

They’re really making a meal out of this.

So yeah, Ripley must team up with the 25 interchangeably British prisoners to fight off the alien once more. They fight a lot about how exactly to accomplish this while the alien mows down the expendable meat who inexplicably decide to wander off alone.

It’s basically a slasher movie, with slightly less phallic symbolism.

Alien 3 has a truly spectacular opening logo. The 20th Century Fox fanfare trumpets from the screen, shifting almost imperceptibly into a blaring minor key musical sting that hits you like a ton of bricks. And that’s pretty much the last nice thing I have to say about the movie.

Alien 3 really revels in being a miserable slog, which is totally fine for a movie to do, even if I’m not a huge fan of that style. But a movie this nibbled-at by production quibbles in no way has the strength of character and tone to sustain such a dismal atmosphere. It’s too unsure of itself, rapidly flitting from idea to idea, to the point that its bleakness is inconsistent. So whenever something truly dire happens, it feels wholly unjustified, and whenever something remotely happy occurs (as rare as that is), it feels manic and forced.

And then there’s the fact that it’s all just wicked emotional manipulation, grabbing you by the hair and rubbing your face in its every bleating misery.


As if that wasn’t enough, it’s a technical misfire on every level. I’m not going to point fingers at any particular person behind this very tampered-with production, but Alien 3 is just a mess. Scenes bubble up from the plot’s molten primordial ooze with no context whatsoever, the geography of the prison appears to be some sort of M. C Escher thought experiment, and the editing is – in a word – perplexing.

There are some excellent deep focus shots of lurking aliens, but this cosmic ineptitude (and the fact that every single character – including Ripley – looks exactly alike), Aliens is muddled and incomprehensible. Even worse, it’s boring. The action of the third act is defused by the editing making it entirely unclear what is happening and where or why, so all we have to cling to is an endless carousel of scenes of Ripley being angsty at Charles S. Dutton.

Oh, and there’s some abysmal CGI at certain points, but this was 1992. Hollywood was going through some forgivable growing pains.

In motion, it looks more like that dancing cartoon frog than an alien beast.

OK, it’s time to resheath the claws. As insufferable as Alien 3 tends to be, it’s far from the worst thing to happen to the franchise. While there are only one or two things that qualify as categorically “good,” it’s at least operating at a basic level of cinematic decency. It galloped by at a steady enough clip, and Sigourney Weaver is always a delight, even when her character’s actions are entirely inscrutable. If you love to watch Xenomorphs repeatedly drop down onto people from the ceiling, then boy do I have the film for you.

TL;DR: Alien 3 is a miserable, overwrought slog.
Rating: 3/10
Word Count: 748
Reviews In This Series
Alien (Scott, 1979)
Aliens (Cameron, 1986)
Alien 3 (Fincher, 1992)
Alien: Resurrection (Jeunet, 1997)
AvP: Alien vs. Predator (Anderson, 2004)
Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem (Strause & Strause, 2007)
Prometheus (Scott, 2012)

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Census Bloodbath: Weekend At Bernie's

Year: 1989
Director: Michael O'Rourke
Cast: Blake Gibbons, Ingrid Vold, John Marzilli
Run Time: 1 hour 32 minutes
MPAA Rating: N/A

As I kick the sputtering engine known as Census Bloodbath back into gear, I’m easing back into it as I always do: with movies I’m specifically interested in or which have incredible titles. I’ll be tackling the regular chronological features of 1982 soon enough, but I need to grab onto the things I’m excited about to propel me through the rest. So when I saw that Amazon Prime just added the 1989 slasher Moonstalker, I didn’t hesitate. How could you possibly resist that title? The only slashers with names more flavorful and enticing are probably Amsterdamned and Phantom of the Mall: Eric’s Revenge.

If there’s one lesson to take away from Census Bloodbath, it’s that one should never judge a film by its cool poster. It’s time to add to that rule, because judging a flick by its title also turned out to be a bust. But we’ll get to that. First let’s Meet the Meat.

They really cleared out the butcher shop on this one.

Moonstalker, if nothing else, boasts a bizarrely bifurcated plot. The first half hour or so follows the exploits of a family on vacation at a snowy campground: parents Harry (Ernie Abernathy) and Vera (Joleen Troup of Slash Dance, another irresistible title) and teens Tracy (Kelly Mullis) and Mikey (Ron K. Collie). When a dirty old man named Pop (Tom Hamil) pulls up in a camper, they’re friendly until he starts acting a little strange. That night, he sics his mentally handicapped son Bernie (Blake Gibbons) on them and they are summarily Janet Leighed with an axe.

Bernie, doffing his face hood after he acquires a cowboy hat and some cool aviators, double checks his cheat sheet of the plot of Friday the 13th Part 2 and heads over to a nearby Wilderness Counselors training ground to continue defending his territory from the evils of premarital sex. 

The camp contributes to the body count in the form of Regis (John Marzilli), the hothead camp owner; Marcie (Ingrid Vold), Regis’ horndog girlfriend; Ron (Joe Balogh of Hollywood’s New Blood), the capable head counselor; Debbie (Jill Foors), the latecomer with the broken down car – seriously, were they hoping that eight years later people would just have entirely forgotten Friday the 13th Part 2?; Bobby (Alex Wexler), a woman-hungry dork who at last has the decency to switch things up and steal his character from Friday the 13th Part 3; Sophie (Pamela Ross of the classic Sorority House Massacre), whose only character trait is that she’s turned on by showers; Chet (Joseph Christopher), a vaguely ethnic counselor who I swear just teleports into the movie about 65 minutes in; some dude who is either from Seattle or named Seattle or both (Greg Marden); and a variety assortment of interchangeable counselors apparently named Vicky (Ann McFadden), Jane (the incredibly named Sioux-Z Jessup), and Taylor (Neil Kinsella). All I know is that one of them wears a headband.

So… The plot is they die.


There’s really not a lot to Moonstalker. Other than that fiddly structure of the first act, this is a very straightforward slice-‘n-dice picture. Cardboard characters have sex in the woods and get murdered in the woods. It’s exactly the type of film the genre didn’t need in 1989, when the played-out format was rattling its last desperate breath. I’m not saying that the slasher genre died because Moonstalker is generic, but maybe it could have held on a few more years if it actually took place on the freaking Moon. Titles, man. They’ll getcha.

Anyway, I spent about 45 minutes of Moonstalker being devastated that the movie had zippo to do with the moon (especially since the ill-lit snowscape of the dreadful opening scene looks alarmingly like the moon’s surface). Nothing else in the first act was soothing my wounds as I was forced to spend time with a sublimely irritating family gnawing on a script that spun around in circles in a tedious holding pattern while the killer pawns were set on the playing field.

That’s right, you just witnessed an unprecedented quadruple mixed metaphor. This is why they pay me the no bucks.

However, once the counselor camp is introduced, Moonstalker transcends from a total waste of time to only mostly a waste of time. Nothing in the movie is arguably good, except maybe Douglas Pipes’ score (which is a shameless rip-off of Halloween sautered onto the meter of The Exorcist, but harnesses both those scores’ propulsive, eerily anthemic qualities), but it all settles into a cheerier tone where just about anything can happen. And it does.

Moonstalker’s approach to sexual seduction is frequently baffling (which is great) and occasionally kinda romantic (which is even better) but never boring. And though the low budget leads the film to a lot of dry, mostly offscreen kills, toward the manic third act they pull out all the stops when it comes to playful, creepy setups. If the entire film could have devoted itself to producing scenes like the severed arm bundled up in the bedroll, or the campfire sing-along of the corpses, this movie would easily crack my Top 5 of the year.

Unfortunately, it can’t sustain entertainment for more than two minutes at a time, so it’s too much of a slog to recommend. Moonstalker is only for hardcore slasher devotees, but speaking as a member of that elite group, it was just strong enough to keep stoking the flame of my renewed energy for this particular project.

Killer: Bernie (Blake Gibbons)
Final Girl: Debbie Harris (Jill Foors)
Best Kill: Detective Taylor is impaled while he’s holding a rope around a counselor’s neck, and his death causes her to be hanged in a wicked chain reaction.
Sign of the Times: There’s a character whose only goal in life is to listen to her Walkman.
Scariest Moment: When two counselors are having sex, the tent fabric rips, sending a splash of light over the girl’s face.
Weirdest Moment: Marcie preps for sex by dressing in a camouflage bikini and an ammo belt, then doing karate moves while “Ride of the Valkyries” plays.

Champion Dialogue: “I’m gonna kick your ass from here to the next hospital!”
Body Count: 18; not including four deaths implied in the opening sequence.
  1. Boy gets axed offscreen.
  2. Girl gets axed offscreen.
  3. Harry is decapitated.
  4. Vera is axed offscreen.
  5. Mikey is axed in the chest.
  6. PJ is strangled with a chain.
  7. Tracy is hit with a car.
  8. Mullet Counselor and…
  9. Jane are knifed mid-coitus.
  10. Marcie is axed in the stomach.
  11. Regis is shot in the mouth.
  12. Sophia is burned by a shower.
  13. Chet is axed in the chest.
  14. Pop dies of a heart attack offscreen.
  15. Bobby has a knife thrown through his forehead.
  16. Detective Taylor is impaled with a spear.
  17. Headband Counselor is hung.
  18. Ron is axed in the back.
TL;DR: Moonstalker is a deeply generic slasher film, but it's fun enough to overcome its boring first act.
Rating: 4/10
Word Count: 1180