Saturday, December 16, 2017

This Is Not Going To Go The Way You Think

Year: 2017
Director: Rian Johnson
Cast: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Mark Hamill
Run Time: 1 hours 32 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

Here it is, the reason I've come out of retirement. I decided to stop reviewing current movies shortly after Rogue One, but I've always had a worry gnawing at the back of my mind that that meant I wouldn't be able to weigh in on the next chapter in the Star Wars canon. Well now the veil has been lifted, and he reviewer has been loosed upon the world once more. Let's dive into it, shall we?

Cue applause.

Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi picks up more or less immediately after the events of The Force Awakens. Rey (Daisy Ridley) is on the galaxy's most absurdly gorgeous island (and the characters keep using the term"galaxy" as if that term encompasses the whole of creation, and it bothered me slightly less than in Guardians of the Galaxy, but still a lot more than it should) to solicit the help of legendary Jedi hermit Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) int he fight against the First Order and maybe learn a thing or two about this Force business in the process. Meanwhile, in a very Empire Strikes Back fashion, while Rey has a space-Buddhist adventure into the inner workings of life itself, her friends are fighting for their lives out in space.

A battle between the dwindling Resistance forces - led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher, in her final appearance as the character not played by a horrifying CGI specter) and purple-haired Vice-Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) - and a First Order fleet - led by the rogue's gallery of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), his apprentice Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), and General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) - has reached a brief standstill, but things aren't looking hot for the good guys.

While Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) chafes against authority due to his insatiable and potentially dangerous drive to be a hero, Stormtrooper ex-pat Finn (John Boyega) teams up with maintenance worker Rose (Kelly Marie Tran, the newest star to be scooped from obscurity to light up screens worldwide) to find a master codebreaker to help them yadda yadda science fiction words. Look, there's a ticking clock and they're trying to save the Resistance and preserve hope for the galaxy.

A whole galaxy! It's, like, really important!

What's most striking about The Last Jedi is how small-scale everything really is. We do visit some spectacular new environments (and one that's mostly just Hoth 2.0), but the bulk of the story takes place within a couple square miles, or whatever the space term is for that. That's not in and of itself a bad thing (the original Star Wars only has a couple settings it switches between), but I think the reason I felt claustrophobic is that the main battle is stuck in a holding pattern that sucks out every bit of narrative tension like an industrial vacuum. It kind of prevents any sort of real action, and all the participants are content to just kind of sit and wait for the important characters to figure things out, while sitting around discussing their differing philosophies over tea.

OK, I may have exaggerated a bit, but really not by that much, and that's probably the biggest flaw in a movie riddled with flaws. To be fair, it's also riddled with triumphs, but The Last Jedi is audacious, conceptually and visually, and that bold ambition comes with a willingness to take risks and stumble that The Force Awakens was not willing to indulge. And that's probably why the latter was a whole lot better as a popcorn spectacle when all is said and done.

The Last Jedi is full of these contradictions, which is why it has been so hard for any reviewer to wrap their head around it. It very clearly has a better director, and Rian Johnson (of Brick and Looper) delivers images of such pure, magnetic beauty that it's impossible to dislike the movie as a whole. From the set design (a Resistance bomber ship in an early scene is an impeccably crafted space with lived-in functionality) to the costume design (a new set of storm troopers that are basically blood red samurai) to the space warfare (one key moment is literally breathtaking; every process in your body will briefly stop to appreciate the sheer beauty), The Last Jedi is a sublimely accomplished visual work. But as a story, it falls apart like a ham shank left in the crock pot for too long.

Maybe I shouldn't be writing this review right before lunch.

For a movie with such a generous run time, the story fails to find room to develop most of its dramatic beats, shoehorning in scenes of grand import that weren't properly established and thus have the impact of a handful of cotton balls being thrown at your face. It doesn't help that the dialogue in these scenes is brutally clunky, and relies on aspects of the Force and Jedi lore that have never made an appearance in the film canon and frankly made no sense to begin with. Fans of the extended Star Wars mythos may find a lot to dig into here, but as someone who has never found the struggles of the Jedi and their philosophies anything but hokey, it's hard to find any emotional stakes in the proceedings.

I suppose this is just a symptom of a problem Star Wars has always had. The divide between the Dark Side and the Light is written as the malleable, porous line that can be crossed all too easily if you're not careful. But basically every one of the franchise's villains is a scarred, sneering mustache-twirler in all black, obliterating whatever shades of grey the plot wants you to imagine there might be. So whenever a character struggles with being pulled toward the dark, it's hard to see what could possibly be so tempting about it.

Seriously, who's looking at this guy and thinking, "He looks like he'd be a good boss."

Honestly, there are moments here that are just lame. In addition to what it pretty objectively objectively the most idiotic scene to ever grace a Star Wars picture (you'll know it when you f**king see it), there are a handful of sequences that exist exclusively as fanservice, and they're exhausting to suffer through.

Looking at all these flaws, I should honestly be infuriated by this movie, but I'm not. There's the trouble with The Last Jedi. What's good is so damn good, and even if more than a good half of the movie was dull and overwrought (the actual number is probably closer to 35%), it would be enough to shift the scales toward a positive score.

For one thing, the wacky humor that has secretly always been present in the Star Wars franchise is back in full force, and although anything Poe does is ripped straight from the mouth of Star-Lord and frankly doesn't work all that well, there's a sense of kiddie matinee fun that runs through the whole thing. The biggest and maybe not best example of this is the Porgs, this episode's answer to the Ewoks. They're these cute little rodents that only exist for comic relief, and I'm deeply upset by how much I loved them.

I KNOW this only exists to sell plushies, but damn it it's working.

OK, the Porgs are bound to be divisive, but they really are a sterling example of the register The Last Jedi shoots for, and  more often than not hits on the mark. For instance, BB-8 continues to be the best new character in the franchise, and his every exploit continues to bring me unending joy (He's also allowed to get a little bloodthirsty when push comes to shove, and it's rad as hell).

Another good thing (there are more than I've been letting on, because the bad things can be so loud) is Rose, an entirely charming new character who might feel more at home in a spin-off like Rogue One but really holds her own against the more established ensemble. I don't know where they plucked her from, but they need to keep returning to that well.

Plus, when The Last Jedi goes big it goes big. The action sequences are pretty stellar, and occasionally even surprisingly gory (at a "family-friendly" Indiana Jones level, not a The Prowler level, just in case you were worried), and the universe-building is as weird and charming as the franchise fans should have come to expect. 

In short, it's a water cooler popcorn movie that's definitely worth your time, even though it has some massive holes to patch up come Episode IX. This is a step down, but it's not quite a stumble. Even though with a worse director it certainly would have been. 

TL;DR: Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi is a beautiful, stunning popcorn adventure with some really wonky storytelling over a terribly indulgent run time.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1504
Reviews In This Series
Star Wars (Lucas, 1977)
Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (Kershner, 1980)
Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (Marquand, 1983)
Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (Abrams, 2015)
Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (Johnson, 2017)
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Edwards, 2016)

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Popcorn Kernels: Q4 Review Purge

In which, while I'm still gearing up to begin reviewing current films in earnest, I release mini-reviews of some 2017 releases that aren't quite recent enough to meet my cutoff for getting the full review treatment, but still deserve a nod.

Lady Bird


Year: 2017
Director: Greta Gerwig
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Timothée Chalamet
Run Time: 1 hour 34 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

In her senior year of high school, Lady Bird navigates her prickly relationship with her mother and a series of friendships and relationships as she comes of age and gets ready for college.

Given the Oscar buzz surrounding Lady Bird and the fact that it was being described as the female iteration of Boyhood, I was worried that the film would leave me a bit cold. Well, I'm here to report that I needn't have worried. Lady Bird is a frickin' delightful warm breeze of a film. It's especially relatable to me, because there's a large portion of the film dedicated to putting on a musical theater performance, something I dedicated a good 85% of my high school life too, but this film is genetically engineered to be relatable to as many people as humanly possible.

The central relationship of the film is between Lady Bird and her mother (played by Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf respectively), an effortlessly sharp evocation of the sharp edges and mercurial bonds between mothers and daughters, but every aspect of a teenager's developing friendships and loves is explored with a fine-toothed comb. Obviously nothing can beat Metcalf and Ronan (Metcalf especially delivers up a healthy platter of emotionally-laced barbs that cut to the bone), but every relationship in the film is a well-observed, matter-of-fact marvel, preserving in amber the vast spectrum of feelings that make up one's youth.

Like Boyhood, Lady Bird presents its story as more of a series of vignettes than an actual structured plot, but unlike Boyhood, it's damn funny while it's at it. I bark-laughed more than once in the theater, and the warm joviality of the film's tone makes it so that the dark moments are even more powerful, cast in sharp relief against the genial humor.

I'd say Greta Gerwig the writer is much more on the ball here than Greta Gerwig the director, who is content to bathe her terrific ensemble in desaturated, flatly presented frames, but that writing is whip-smart, capturing the lived-in reality of its setting and characters as if they've always existed, just waiting to be brought to life by her hand. Presumably on a vintage typewriter, because this is still Greta Gerwig we're talking about.

Rating: 8/10

Ingrid Goes West


Year: 2017
Director: Matt Spicer
Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Elizabeth Olsen, O'Shea Jackson Jr.
Run Time: 1 hour 38 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Ingrid is an ex-mental patient who becomes obsessed with an Instagram lifestyle blogger, moving to Venice Beach to Single White Female her and ingratiate herself into her circle of friends.

If I didn't already have the CW show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend in my life, I'd think Ingrid Goes West was the work of a mad genius. And perhaps that's not fair to Ingrid, but that show handles how mental illness and obsession collide with the cold modern world in a way that wrings tears from me like a sopping wet rag. This movie doesn't quite reach that point, but what it does succeeds in its own, entirely unique way.

Taking the common inclination for Instagram stalking and ramping that up to its logical conclusion, Ingrid Goes West turns the psychologically dubious underbelly of social media into a twisted tale of terror. But as much as Ingrid's scheming is frightening and depressing, the fact that everything she does is instantly and completely relatable adds a startling layer of familiarity that is grotesquely juxtaposed with what could only be called a psychological thriller. It's a satirical indictment of the closed-off emotional world that social media creates, and it cuts deep.

Oh, and did I mention it's a comedy? It's not frequently laugh-out-loud hilarious, but Elizabeth Olsen is perfectly cast as the ne plus ultra of the perfectly primped Instagram hottie who lives her life out in a series of hashtags, misquoted authors, and superlatives. Then there's O'Shea Jackson Jr. (in only his second onscreen role), who breathes life into every scene he's in with an easygoing charm that allows you to forget that his character has literally one dimension and that dimension is that he loves Batman, which is maybe the most thoroughly boring character trait I could possibly imagine.

And Aubrey Plaza reaches emotional depths here that I never imagined her capable of, converting her usual deadpan personality from a sardonic sidekick role to a hollow shell for a totally empty personality. It's a shocking, sublime performance that interacts with the film's themes of identity formation and loneliness in a satisfying and visceral way. Sure, it's far from perfect, with a series of decisions in the third act that don't make a ton of sense or push the plot forward much - if at all - but as a showcase for these performers and the deeply felt central character arc, it's a tremendously satisfying bit of business.

Rating: 8/10

Coco


Year: 2017
Director: Lee Unkrich, Adrian Molina
Cast: Anthony Gonzalez, Gael García Bernal, Benjamin Bratt
Run Time: 1 hour 45 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG

On Día de Los Muertos, a young guitarist named Miguel rebels against his family, which has banned music for generations. He becomes trapped in the world of the dead, on a quest for a long-lost musician relative who can release him and approve of his love of music.

A lot of people have been saying Coco is a step down for Pixar, and they might not be totally wrong. The plot is entirely predictable from twenty minutes in, and it pulls much more from the Disney animated musical tradition than films like Up or Wall-E. But if you approach it as a Disney musical, then... Well, it's pretty superb.

Never forget for one minute that The Book of Life did more or less the same thing several years ago, a fact that I'm upset few people seem to have pointed out, but it's impossible to complain about getting multiple films based around the design and folklore of Día de los Muertos. And a mainstream American movie being so steeped in Mexican culture is almost unheard of. From the inclusion of a beautiful rendition of the folk song "La Llorona," to the appearances from many famous Mexican historical figures (including an extended cameo from Frida Kahlo, playing a hilariously exaggerated version of her personality that lovingly pokes fun at her favorite tropes and designs), Coco thoroughly pays homage to a non-American sphere, to the tune of becoming the highest grossing film in Mexican history.

But social issues aside, it's just a fun film to be around. It might not linger in the memory as long as Finding Nemo or even the short film Piper, but it's an emotional roller coaster with original songs that are much better than I would have expected from Pixar's decidedly un-musical crew (the most boring one, an inevitably Oscar-nominated musical theater standard called "Remember Me" that hits on the film's theme with the subtlety of  a jackhammer, was of course written by the Disney duo behind Frozen, and all the great ones that actually channel a distinct musical tradition were by co-director Adrian Molina and Germaine Franco - who also worked on The Book of Life, so she knows what she's doing).

Its depictions of the land of the dead are also pretty dang beautiful, an unnatural barrage of colors and lights and skeletal character designs that are enough to earn back the goodwill that the 22-minute short film Olaf's Frozen Adventure worked hard to obliterate. It's a tremendously satisfying film in its own right, even if its not totally unique or perfect. I'll be listening to the soundtrack for months to come, even if I don't feel the need to see the film again for a while.

Rating: 8/10

The Mountain Between Us


Year: 2017
Director: Hany Abu-Assad
Cast: Kate Winslet, Idris Elba, Beau Bridges
Run Time: 1 hour 52 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

When their charter plane crashes in the mountains, two strangers must fight for survival and just maaaaybe fall in love while they're doing it.

There's maybe nothing better than a soapy romance movie if you just want to have a good time in the theater, and The Mountain Between Us has all the ingredients of being a perfect good-bad romantic thriller. Who wouldn't want to watch a movie you could describe as "Alive meets An Affair to Remember"?

Unfortunately, once again the vengeful gods of boilerplate cinema have struck. Mountain is hovering somewhere exactly between good-bad and mediocre, which is the most boring place to be. It just doesn't commit to being much of anything. Whenever the movie threatens to briefly become The Revenant, every problem from a slip down a mountainside to nearly drowning in a frozen lake is solved in less screen time than it takes for Kate Winslet to take a pee.

So what we're stuck with is a low-stakes survival thriller welded to a hideously contrived erotic romance. The script makes such an effort to paint Idris and Kate's clashing as a Brain vs. Heart conflict, it forgets to give them any character traits whatsoever, other than Winslet's fake American accent, the strained vowel sounds of which are the scariest thing in the movie.

But then the movie has the gall to very clearly end, then prattle on for a good fifteen more minutes, scraping up a thin gruel of drama from a pot that has long since been drained. There's nothing worse than a boring movie that overstays its welcome, and therefore I refuse to celebrate The Mountain Between Us as the second coming of B-movies, no matter how many mind-boggling unmotivated close-ups I get of Kate Winslet's watery eyes.

Rating: 4/10
Word Count: 1189

Friday, December 8, 2017

A Room Of Our Own

Note: I wrote this review of The Disaster Artist over a year and a half ago, after I saw a preview screening of the film. I watched it on opening night to learn that not only was it not substantially changed, not a frame other than the opening and closing credits was touched. On a second viewing, I'm a lot colder on the film, but I stand by the feelings I express in this review. It just doesn't have a lot to offer other than a one-time gimmick. Once that's used up, there's no reason to return to that well whatsoever.

Year: 2016
Director: James Franco
Cast: James Franco, Dave Franco, Sharon Stone
Run Time: 1 hour 45 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

I’m a huge fan of oddball auteur Tommy Wiseau’s bad movie masterpiece The Room. So much so that it’s not even listed on my index in the section that’s sorted by rating, because that would have broken the system entirely, not to mention my credibility. I’m also a huge fan of Greg Sestero’s behind-the-scenes book The Disaster Artist, which is hands-down the most fascinating nonfiction book I’ve ever read. It’s not only an insight into the twisted mind that birthed The Room, but the story of a man rattling against the bars of the cage of normalcy who would eventually become that twisted mind's best friend.

So when I heard they were adapting that very book into a movie, I was mighty intrigued. When it was announced that stoner comedy icon by day/berserk artistic soldier by night James Franco would be directing, I was concerned, but realized there’s hardly anybody better to bring that madcap, deranged nightmare to life.

I was wrong.

You’re tearing me apart, James Franco!

In The Disaster Artist, Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) is a young aspiring actor in San Francisco who meets the mysterious, ineffably accented, appallingly dressed Tommy Wiseau (James Franco) in an acting class. The shy young man comes to respect Tommy’s bravado and total lack of elf-awareness. They become fast friends and move to L. A. to pursue their dreams. However, Greg’s success at finding an agent (Sharon Stone) and a girlfriend (Alison Brie) makes Tommy dangerously jealous.

When they decide that the industry isn’t ready for them, they agree that they should make their own movie. They assemble a crew (Seth Rogen, Paul Scheer, Charlyne Yi…) and a cast (Ari Graynor, Josh Hutcherson, Zac Efron, Jacki Weaver…) with Tommy’s bottomless pit of money and it’s off to the races!

Oh hi, cult classic.

At its heart, The Disaster Artist is about the relationship between Greg and Tommy more than it’s about The Room itself. This is as it should be. And as a movie adaptation of said story, some details are changed to smooth the narrative along. This is also as it should be. As much a fan as I am of the book, I understand and respect that certain choices had to be made when adapting the material. However, the end product is both completely unrecognizable as the original true story and kilotons less interesting. The quasi-horror story of a dark, twisted friendship between a bipolar lunatic and an insecure ingénue has been transformed into a wacky, whitewashed buddy picture about never giving up on your dreams.

It lurches so hard to fit a three-act structure that it’s gut-churning. And again, to make myself clear, I’m not upset that they streamlined the casting process or combined multiple characters into one or cut out the subplot about Retro Puppet Master (OK, maybe I’m a teensy bit upset about that one). I’m upset they capsized years of bizarre behavior, manipulation, homoeotic tension, and drama in favor of a bog standard “girlfriend jealousy,” man-child, Apatow-approved plot structure, which they go ahead and totally ignore in the third act, arriving at zero resolution for either character. And this is not a “true stories don’t have endings” situation. By this point, everything true about this story is rotting under a stack of old TV Guides at the landfill.

I guess they were too chicken to commit to their story. Cheeeep, cheepcheepcheep.

That’s not to say that The Disaster Artist isn’t funny. It completely misses the point of its own story but it still has the juice to be pleasantly amusing. It’s not an uproarious affair, but there is plenty of that awkward comedy that’s rampant in The Room itself, especially in any scene where Tommy has to interact with people out in the real world. It certainly helps that James Franco completely disappears into the role, delivering a pitch-perfect imitation of Wiseau’s haunting strangeness. His comic timing is on point, and frankly he saves the movie from itself, the cuckoo center of the maelstrom of muddled plot elements.

Franco has also assemble a veritable A-Team of essential comic actors for lightning quick cameos, though – mysteriously – some of them (including Dirty Grandpa-redeemer Jason Mantzoukas) aren’t even given any real gags to work with. My favorite would be John Early, who plays a major agent's assistant and needs to get noticed by more people immediately. But frankly, the non-Tommy/Greg cast of The Room are given short shrift in a series of rapidfire scenes that blast through the actual making of the film. Only Ari Graynor (as Juliette Danielle, who played the blonde temptress Lisa) and Zac Efron (as Dan Janjigian, who played the psychotic drug dealer Chris-R.) make any sort of impression as the film completely ignores them. Seth Rogen also livens up several scenes from the peanut gallery, eking comedy around the edges.

To be completely honest, the film’s only acting liability is Dave Franco, who puts almost no effort into crafting a distinct personality out of Greg Sestero. Where James is playing Tommy Wiseau, Dave is just playing Dave Franco, coasting on his looks, his stock mannerisms, and a truly pitiful fake beard that looks like he got tarred and feathered by Fozzie Bear.

You are NOT my favorite customer, Dave.

The film has its ups and its downs, but it’s only half bad. It feels more like a home movie of celebrities hanging out than an actual work of cinema, but there’s certainly a place for that. I do wish it spent more time on the process of creating The Room (in fact, the longest segment of the film is the totally pointless premiere scene, where we get to sit with the actors and watch their weird facsimiles of actual scenes from The Room for what feels like hours. I’ve already seen The Room. I don’t need to watch fans watching a fan recreation of it, celebrities or not), because that’s where the more interesting story lies (in this watered-down version, anyway). And as it stands, if you haven’t actually seen the film, you’ll be flummoxed by the whole process. But I don’t mind spending 90 minutes with these people in this setting. If you’re a Room acolyte, seek this movie out. If not, leave your stupid wallets in your pocket.

TL;DR: The Disaster Artist is an oddball biopic that misses the story mark but lands the humor.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1189

Monday, December 4, 2017

Census Bloodbath: Weight Reduction Through Terror

Year: 1989
Director: Michael Fischa
Cast: William Bumiller, Brenda Bakke, Merritt Butrick
Run Time: 1 hour 28 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

I have so many thoughts swirling around in my brain about Death Spa that I’m gonna cut to the chase in this introduction so I can get to unpacking what the hell it is I just watched. In short, I resuscitated Census Bloodbath with the adrenaline shot to the heart that was Killer Workout, and I thought it was only fitting that I follow it up with that other late 80’s slasher about murders at a health spa. Other than that link, Death Spa couldn’t possibly have been a more different experience, and I daresay it’s about time to dive into that twitchy mass I’m – for lack of a better word – going to have to call a plot.

There’s less aerobics stock footage at least, though I’m not really sure that’s a positive.

So, the Death Spa in question is Starbody Health Spa, owned by one Michael Evans (William Bumiller), a widower who has struck up an affair with his customer Laura Danvers (Brenda Bakke of Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight). After Laura sustains a chemical burn from a malfunctioning sauna, mysterious accidents and deaths plague the spa, and as the crew prepares for its annual Mardi Gras party (unintentionally minting this a proper holiday slasher), bodies – and suspects – begin piling up. Investigators Sgt. Stone (Rosalind Cash of Tales from the Hood) and Lt. Fletcher (Francis X. McCarthy of Interstellar and a bunch of Steve Martin comedies) might suspect Michael at first, but almost everyone in this overpacked cast starts to smell a little fishy.

High on the list is David Avery (Merritt Butrick of Fright Night Part 2 and Star Trek II and III), the twin brother of Michael’s ex-wife Catherine (Shari Shattuck) and the computer programmer in charge of the spa’s preposterously high-tech control room. Not since Chopping Mall has an 80’s movie so vastly overestimated the amount of flashing buttons and dials that are required by the average local business. David also hates Michael’s guts, blaming him for his sister’s miscarriage and suicide.

Anyway, we’ve also got Michael’s lawyer Tom (Robert Lipton) who wants to keep the club open at all costs; the manager Priscilla Wayne (Alexa Hamilton), who was the first to find Laura despite supposedly having left the spa earlier that night; Marvin (Ken Foree of Dawn of the Dead, From Beyond, Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, and just so many cult movies), the… I don’t know, janitor? Security guard?; and Dr. Lido Moray (Joseph Whipp, who played a sergeant in A Nightmare on Elm Street, a detective in Chiller, and the Sheriff in Scream, so apparently Wes Craven was pleased with his work), a parapsychologist investigating the scene.

And why exactly is a parapsychologist here? Well you see, Michael keeps having dreams of his dead wife demanding that he kill himself, and he’ been receiving creepy computer messages from her before that was a thing people could just do. Is there something paranormal going on, or is this just a plain and simple hack and slash routine with some gaslighting thrown in for flavor?

Spoiler alert: it’s very confusing, but it’s not neither and maybe both.

Death Spa is one of those bad movies where everyone introduces themselves with their full name, and I’m so glad the filmmakers assumed we were all idiots, because if this script wasn’t dumbed down a smidge, it would be absolutely impenetrable to anyone but the people who wrote it. The characters aren’t quite distinct enough in looks or personality to be able to tell who is doing what (except for the one recognizable face, Ken Foree, but his character is useless and onscreen for maybe five minutes), the unclear reveals are a series of bizarrely elliptical paranormal happenings, and the deaths are shot so poorly it’s almost impossible to tell who is being killed by what implement except for the fact that it’s happening and it’s gross.

But there’s the thing. As difficult as it was for me to put together a coherent body count list for this review, the murder sequences have an untamed power that is absent from most toothless 1989 slashers. The viscera is present and unrelenting, whether it’s an eyeball exploding out of a burning corpse, a man’s brains splashing onto a sauna bench, or a blender converting an arm into a bloody smoothie. The effects aren’t exactly stellar, but for a film of this vintage they’re both surprising and relatively innovative. One death in particular, in which a girl is sprayed with either boiling water or acid (if I haven’t made this point already, Death Spa has a clarity problem) is so nauseatingly rendered that it sent a chill up my spine and had me asking some hard questions about why I continue watching these movies. That might not sound like a compliment, but it is. 

A slasher being physically affecting in any way is rarer than finding a four leaf clover made of leprechaun gold.

The confusion isn’t really helped by the sheer amount of noise this movie produces. Not enough people die to justify the alarming abundance of characters in this movie, including  comic relief schlub with an inexplicable British accent who gets two laugh lines, then promptly exits the movie. But all of this contributes to a sense of never really knowing what’s going to happen next, and this movie is packed to the gills with delightfully bizarre little moments and details around every corner that are satisfying for the lover of strange cinema. There’s even a scene of inappropriate football tossing (across a desk in an office, in the middle of a conversation), a hallmark of bad filmmaking as written in stone by The Room.

And boy does this movie make a habit of chucking in the most insipid good-bad false scares ever conceived (in a  scene where we’re emend to believe Laura is dead, it’s revealed that she’s merely taking a nap face down on the couch. You know, as humans do.) All of this is a little disappointing considering that when Death Spa is on it’s on, providing some truly macabre imagery that’s more than a little shocking from a horror flick of this vintage. Fortunately, the bad scenes are pretty amusing, but the good scenes almost get in the way of them and vice versa.

I’m almost at a loss for words to describe how I feel about this film. It’s utterly perplexing and frustrating, but that might just be the most delightful thing about it. I commend the filmmakers for going to the extra mile and not just turning this into some aerobics slashing boilerplate, but I just have no idea what it actually is. Death Spa is beyond description, and thus inherently worth giving it a look.

Killer: [Caroline Avery (Shari Shattuck), as channeled by her brother David (Merritt Butrick)]
Final Girl: Michael Evans (William Bumiller) feat. Laura Danvers (Brenda Bakke)
Best Kill: Priscilla is frightened by a violently wobbling mirror in the bathroom, which then explodes outward, sending shards of glass – along with her face – smashing to the floor.
Sign of the Times: When the douchey beefcake Robert rebuffs a girl who’s flirting with him, he smirks and says, “I’m Beta. You’re VHS.”
Scariest Moment: Possessed fish begin screaming at Lt. Fletcher in the gym’s walk-in freezer.
Weirdest Moment: suspicious of Tom, Michael barges into his apartment to confront him – but first he compliments his short shorts.
Champion Dialogue: “You’d resort to the only weapon in your system file: jock violence.”
Body Count: 9; not counting many trampled/burned alive partygoers, or whatever the hell happens to whoever the hell the villain was
  1. Robert is bent in half backwards by a weight machine.
  2. Marcie is impaled through the back of the neck.
  3. Linda is sprayed with acid from a fire sprinkler.
  4. Dr. Moray’s hand explodes and he’s thrown down a stairwell.
  5. Jeffrey has his face crushed by a phantom hand.
  6. Sauna Dude is impaled through the back of the skull.
  7. Bartender’s arm is devoured by a rogue blender.
  8. Lt. Fletcher is impaled in the neck with a swordfish.
  9. Priscilla is diced by an exploding mirror.
TL;DR: Death Spa is confusing, gruesome nonsense, which means it's a pretty great late 80's slasher.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1399

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Census Bloodbath: Dismembers Only

Year: 1987
Director: David A. Prior
Cast: Marcia Karr, David Campbell, Fritz Matthews
Run Time: 1 hour 25 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Whenever I need motivation to get back in the swing of things with Census Bloodbath, I always pull out one of the big guns: a title that I have yet to see that has stuck in my craw since I started doing research for this project many bloody moons ago. And frankly, I just couldn’t force myself to wait until this project reached the faraway year of 1987, because I had to see Killer Workout. AKA Aerobicide. AKA two of the laziest, most confusing puns ever written. How could one not be intrigued?

I can’t say I was disappointed with my decision. Killer Workout is terrible, of course, but it’s terrible in almost exactly the way it promises to be. “Almost” being the operative word here, but more on that after we roll out the plot. 

Insofar as you need a plot beyond the title “Killer Workout”

The Hollywood health spa Rhonda’s Workout is a big success. Dozens of legwarmered hardbodies flock there every day to participate in preposterous aerobics exercises so elaborate that the film required two choreographers. These folks are dying to get fit… and one of them is killing for it. A murderer brandishing an oversized safety pin begins to bump off the patrons one by one for reasons unknown. And yes, the killer’s main weapon is a safety pin, an implement so moronic that the slasher parody Student Bodies (which featured a murder via eggplant) couldn’t even have come up with it.

I love the 80’s.

Obviously, this sends co-owner Rhonda Johnson (Marcia Karr of Maniac Cop) into a tizzy, especially when aggressively useless Detective Lieutenant Morgan (David Campbell of Scarecrows and Deadly Prey) starts investigating her customers and staff. There’s hardly been a better time to Meet the Meat, so let’s go for it:

The fitness nuts on the suspect list (or maybe the chopping block) include Jaimy (Teresa Van der Woude of Night Visitor, and damn if this cast wasn’t dedicated to the slasher genre), an aerobics instructor who shows up late to work in red stilettos with a purse full of condoms and is my new idol; Chuck Dawson (Ted Prior – Playgirl centerfold and brother of director David A. Prior - of Sledgehammer, Deadly Prey, and the delightfully titled crime thriller Hardcase and Fist), the senior owner’s mulleted new hire who is suspiciously good at beating the crap out of people; Jimmy (Fritz Matthews, also of Deadly Prey, and wouldn’t you know it but that film was directed by one David A. Prior), a horny meathead who comes onto all the girls and gets in approximately three to thirteen karate fights with Chuck as they work out their testosterone –fueled differences; and…

Wait, the rest of these one-dimensional fools don’t matter. There’s KARATE FIGHTS in this movie?!

Yeah, you read that right. At a frequency almost quicker than there are murders, Chuck has knock-down drag-out fights with as many men as possible, but mostly Jimmy. And these aren’t simple little scuffles, either. With almost as much choreography as the Kenny Ortega-esque aerobics sequences, these scenes all last two to five minutes, shading between wrestling match grandstanding (a trash can and a rake come into play later on), superfluous Karate Kid flourishes (so many spin kicks!), and boxing plucked straight out of a cartoon (one guy’s head is used as a speed bag). It is ridiculously macho, completely out of left field, and always bafflingly hilarious. This is the fuel on the bad-good fire that most campy slasher movies would provide with cheesy, creative deaths.

And it’s fortunate Killer Workout has that going for it, because those murder sequences really aren’t doing it for me. Yes, that giant safety pin is a ludicrous weapon that I will be discussing at parties for years to come (at the parties that I get invited to, that is a tame topic of conversation), but the scenes all play out at the most tame Psycho rip-off level of bloodless tedium. The weapon is raised into the air, we see a bunch of stabbing motions offscreen or in silhouette, and the victim falls to the ground. And maybe there’s boobs.

There’s usually boobs.

Though I guess Killer Workout must be commended for exactly toeing the line between horror and softcore porn without quite stepping over it. There is certainly a truckload of nipples on hand here, but the audience’s unsavory desires are mostly fulfilled by the endless shots of gyrating, spandex-clad bodies than actual sex or active nudity. And those exploitative scenes have the added benefit of being a showcase of the most maniacally patterned, poorly color-blocked fitnesswear the decade had to offer. So gay or straight, 80’s lover or hater, there’s something there for you to sit and stare at with goggle-eyed awe.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, as far as retro absurdity is concerned. A 1987 slasher movie about one of the decade’s biggest fads is the exact place to find some perfectly aged, fermented-just-to-the-point-of-rotting synthcrap songs for the record books. The soundtrack is a Frankensteinian grotesque, created by distilling Olivia Newton John and Cyndi Lauper, pouring it onto a John Carpenter riff, and overboiling it until is surpasses maybe even the Crystal Light “Champions” track as the best eldritch synthesizer nightmare with which to fuel your hardbody herky jerky.

I’m still not sure I’d actually recommend Killer Workout, because they play a dangerous game with the sheer amount of filler stuffed into its altogether brief run time (aside from the endless workout footage that may actually feature some Crystal Light athletes come to think of it, we get a clearly reshot sequence of graffiti-ers getting slashed up with a knife that in no way ties in with the plot or even the killer’s M.O., and a drearily extended sequence where the terrible Lt. Morgan tells us his father’s life story) and other than three or four cardboard characters, everyone else might as well be played by a Lycra unitard full of potatoes for all the dimensionality they’re given. And let’s not even pretend there was any chance it was going to be scary. No, Killer Workout is a goreless, milquetoast video relic that was mothballed for a reason, though it does feature its fair share of irresistible campy nonsense and frothy 80’s signifiers. It has far more rewatch value than a Majorettes or a Cutting Class, but it’s still just at the top of the middle. Slasher hounds should definitely make a pit stop here, but the casual horror fan can cruise on by without regrets.

Killer: [Rhonda Johnson (Marcia Karr)]
Final Girl: Rhonda Johnson (Marcia Karr)
Best Kill: When the token black girl is killed in the token shower sequence, it’s the one and only time a neck wound actually looks realistic, with blood flowing out between her fingers in chilling bursts.
Sign of the Times: Feast your eyes and ears:


Scariest Moment: A girl in a car tries to avoid a long knife that’s rapidly piercing through the roof of her convertible.
Weirdest Moment: Rhonda walks in on Jaimy just kinda staring at a jock strap and testing its elasticity.
Champion Dialogue: “Just relax, it’s not like I’m some kind of crazy killer!”
Body Count: 13; not counting a slit throat in an unnecessarily padded dream sequence.
  1. Rachael is safety pinned to death.
  2. Diane is safety pinned to death.
  3. Curtis is safety pinned in the neck.
  4. Tagger Girl #1 has her throat slit.
  5. Tagger Girl #2 is stabbed in the heeded.
  6. Weight Lifter has his face smashed with a barbell.
  7. Brad is safety pinned in the forehead.
  8. Tommy is safety pinned to death.
  9. Jaimy is hanged.
  10. Kathy is killed offscreen.
  11. Chuck is stabbed with a screwdriver.
  12. Jimmy is shot to death.
  13. Lt. Morgan is hit in the heed with a shovel.
TL;DR: Killer Workout is halfway an 80's bad-good gem, but the milquetoast kills don't drag it across the finish line.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1345

Monday, November 27, 2017

Long Live Popcorn Culture!

Hey all!

I'm sure you've noticed that I haven't posted a single thing since Halloween, but I assure you this blog is still going strong. That Amityville marathon really tuckered me out, for one thing. However, I've also been so busy with work that the only movies I've been able to watch are current releases, which earlier this year I decided to no longer review.

About that...

I think I may have to roll back that pronouncement. For one thing, it's really kneecapped my ability to produce content. For another thing, it's something that I really enjoy. And for a third thing, I've decided to refocus my career efforts into an area of the industry that doesn't require me to be quite so diplomatic about the movies that I like or dislike.

Three cheers for this blog deciding to become relevant again!

That said, I probably won't post much new content until early December, when I will be reinstating my current movie reviews with the holiday tentpole franchises like Pitch Perfect 3, Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, and hopefully not Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, which I pray nobody is cruel enough to drag me to.

Anyway, if you've missed me, here are some things that I've been working on outside this blog that you should check out!

For one thing, I started a weekly column at the pro-positivity horror web site Ghastly Grinning called the Horror Sommelier, where I pair new theatrical releases with a thematically linked horror film to make the perfect double feature! You can read that right here!

Also, the Pod People network has gained a new show! Keep Screaming is hosted by my good friend Ryan Larson and his friend Bee, they do a deep dive into my most favorite of genres: the slasher movie. You can find their web page here and subscribe to them on the Podcasts app!
Word Count: 317

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

We Could Leave This Town And Run Forever

Year: 2005
Director: Andrew Douglas
Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Melissa George, Jimmy Bennett
Run Time: 1 hour 22 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Here we are, folks. The end of the line. Well, actually that’s not accurate. This is my stop. The line continues to stretch on into oblivion, because huckster filmmakers will keep on exploiting the Amityville name until either the art of cinema comes to an end or the heat death of the universe plunges us into eternal darkness, whichever comes first. What we can – for lack of a better word – call the “pure” Amityville franchise ends here, with the high-gloss studio remake of 2005, smack dab in the middle of the tremendous new millennium run of godawful remakes of classic horror titles. Most of these were shepherded into existence by Michael Bay’s production company Platinum Dunes, and oh – would you look at that title card.

Generally speaking, remakes tend to put to rest even the most robust of franchises. We haven’t revisited Crystal Lake or Elm Street since they were interred by their respective Platinum Dunes reboots, and a franchise as rickety as Amityville couldn’t stack up to those giants. So it went the way of Freddy and Jason. Mostly.

You see, unfortunately for the general populace, six years later turbo-indie filmmakers cottoned on to the fact that a town’s name ain’t copyrightable, so slapping the word into the title of their chintzy microbudget ghost project was a ticket to earning a couple extra bucks. Since 2011, one or two faux-Amityville projects have seeped into the market from its darkest, dankest corners every year, with a whopping four dropped onto the world like an anvil in 2016 alone (The Amityville Terror, Amityville: No Escape, Amityville: Vanishing Point, and The Amityville Legacy. I’m exhausted just listing them).

As much of a completist as I am, I don’t consider these universally ignored, artistically anemic works as movies, let alone viable entries into a dotty but venerable franchise. I feel no shame about ignoring them and sparing my already ailing patience. You wouldn’t want to read that much useless bile anyway, and I’ve already wasted my breath on the little-seen back half of this marathon, which nobody needed to be warned away from anyway. So! The buck stops here.

The house screamed “Get Out!” and for once, I’m going to heed that warning.

I daresay we’re pretty familiar with the plot of The Amityville Horror at this point. In the mid-70’s,, newlywed couple Kathy (Melissa George) and George Lutz (Ryan Reynolds) find a home with a price they can’t refuse in Amityville, Long Island. They move in with Kathy’s three children (the most important being played by Chloë Grace Moretz in her film debut) and naught but 28 days later are driven out by the same demonic forces that caused a boy to murder his family with a  shotgun just a year earlier, who this time have their sights set on corrupting George.

The same general plot beats and scare gags play out, with a few notable exceptions:
  1. The addition of a rooftop setpiece they loved so damn much they used it twice
  2. Liberal application of a shirtless, wet-whenever-possible Ryan Reynolds
  3. Not only is the ghost Jodie not a sinister invisible presence, she might as well get third billing
  4. It’s hella dumb.
Platinum Dunes strikes again.

To be honest, I was convinced that a remake with a shirtless Ryan Reynolds could only have been an improvement on the original Amityville Horror. I found that film incredibly tedious and lackluster, and the run time of the new version was already a massive improvement. The propaganda artists who wrote the back of the box would have you believe that the film is 90 minutes long, but it clocks out at a fleet hour and twenty, lopping a good 40 minutes off the 1979 entry.

While that was always and continues to be the right decision, every other choice the filmmakers made seems to have been the wrong one. I’m completely used to and even enjoy some sequels and remakes where the ethos is “the same thing, only worse,” but when the original thing was already pretty bad, this all just becomes incredibly punishing.

Amityville ’05 is mirthlessly stupid, top to bottom. It has one of my favorite hallmarks of dumb movies (Melissa George reads aloud the headlines on the microfiche she’s investigating, in case you weren’t paying attention) but that’s just the tip of the iceberg, baby! This is a film where shining a flashlight into someone’s face knocks them over like a bowling pin, and where their solution to the haunted house problem is to take a boat and sail to the middle of a lake (in full view of the house, mind you), as if they saw the end of Friday the 13th and were impressed by Alice’s genius decision-making.

Literally, they just sit on a boat and wait to see if Ryan Reynolds decides to kill them or not. This is beyond stupid Horror Movie Decision-Making, it borders on literal child abuse.

It’s hard to pinpoint the primary problem with the movie, because there’s just so damn many of them. The one that bothered me the most though was how brutally unsubtle the whole thing is. I already touched on how Jodie has been converted from an offscreen menacing presence to a bloated CGI-laden spook who pops in every ten minutes or so for some of the goofiest fright gags you ever did see, but another scene that really ruffles my feathers is the following:

Ryan Reynolds is outside, chopping wood and being sexy. Melissa George runs out, frantically asking where their daughter is! It has been in no way established that he was supposed to be watching her. For all we knew, she’s been chilling in the house this whole time. But now, we’re suddenly supposed to care about this dunderheaded scene that leads to a frightfully silly non-scare that assumes that because Chloë Grace is standing on a boat, she must be in danger(?). None of it makes any sense, but it’s so brutally injected into the screenplay that it isn’t even supported by any sort of context. It just is, and what it is is moronic.

I will admit that there’s one incredibly effective jump scare buried in the mire here, so the movie has that going for it. But the rest of the scares are so effortful that they misjudge their impact and clang uselessly against the screen. The camera goes wild, swopping and whirling in an unnecessarily complicated display that hopes to distract us from the fact that refrigerator magnets moving around isn’t a super scary thing.

The one thing that could have salvaged any sort of atmosphere was the lead performances. Ryan Reynolds is a performer I generally like, and Melissa George is… Melissa George. But they both fumble the ball here. Reynolds especially lets his beard do most of the acting for him. He’s charming in the first act as a handsome, hopeful newlywed, but his descent into madness is accompanied by some of the worst horror movie screaming I’ve ever seen. He yips like a dog, adding extra aftershock screams after long pauses, each yelp a painful stab into your brain.

Amityville ’05 is just exhausting. It doesn’t overstay its welcome, and it has the wisdom to use Reynolds’ shirtless body as a crutch during some of the shakier scenes, but other than maybe The Amityville Curse, this is the biggest waste of time in the entire franchise, and that is not something I expected to be saying when the marathon finally swung back around to a movie with an actual budget.

TL;DR: The Amityville Horror is a horror film by blunt force trauma, a brutally unsubtle exercise in pointless remaking.
Rating: 3/10
Word Count: 1303
Reviews In This Series
The Amityville Horror (Rosenberg, 1979)
Amityville II: The Possession (Damiani, 1982)
Amityville 3-D (Fleischer, 1983)
Amityville 4: The Evil Escapes (Stern, 1989)
The Amityville Curse (Berry, 1990)
Amityville 1992: It's About Time (Randel, 1992)
Amityville: A New Generation (Murlowski, 1993)
Amityville Dollhouse (White, 1996)
The Amityville Horror (Douglas, 2005)

Monday, October 30, 2017

Cardboard Science: O Brave New World, That Has Such Aliens In 't

Year: 1956
Director: Fred M. Wilcox
Cast: Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis, Leslie Nielsen
Run Time: 1 hour 38 minutes
MPAA Rating: Approved

There’s a lot of good that comes out of this Cardboard Science crossover with Kinemalogue (where I exchange three of my 80’s slashers for three of Hunter Allen’s 50’s sci-fi flicks), but perhaps the most rewarding thing for a Rocky Horror nerd like myself is slowly coming to understand the references in the opening song “Science Fiction, Double Feature.” The tune name drops a dozen classic B-movies and today we get to visit a landmark entry that appears in the chorus itself in this immortal – if not particularly creative – line: “Anne Francis stars in Forbidden Planet.”

And now I can confirm that the line is, indeed, accurate.

Forbidden Planet takes place in the distant future, sometime after the invention of hyperspace travel in the 23rd century (strangely, this is the first Cardboard Science flick I’ve encountered that takes place in the future rather than having something futuristic or alien arrive in contemporary America). A space vessel led by Commander Adams (Leslie Nielsen long before he became synonymous with deadpan genre parody – in fact this was his feature film debut) lands on the planet Altair-4 to look for survivors of the starship Bellerophon, which crashed there 19 years ago.

They discover the planet abandoned, save for the crew’s only survivor, the sketchy Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon). As if that name weren’t enough reason to cast doubt on his good intentions, he constantly warns away the crew, saying that an invisible monster killed his coworkers all those years ago, though he got out mysteriously unscathed. To his dismay, the crew discovers that he has a daughter – the lovely and mini-skirted Altaira (Anne Francis) – and boy is it convenient we waited 19 years to meet her, innit? Anyway, they are introduced to the technological wonders of the long extinct Krell race that once resided on Altair-4, meet the instantly iconic metallic megastar Robby the Robot (body and voice by Frankie Darro and Marvin Miller respectively), and eventually must face the return of the giant invisible monster.

Also, the characters and themes are loosely based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, something I only noticed because I re-read it literally last weekend, but now I get to feel smart.

Forbidden Planet is incredibly unique among its B-movie brethren by virtue of not really being a B-movie at all. The subject of a budgetary experiment by Hollywood, the movie was bestowed with a whopping two million dollars. That’s enough money to have made Godzilla, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Beginning of the End, It Came from Beneath the Sea, The Brain from Planet Arous, Invaders from Mars, and I Married a Monster from Outer Space and still have enough money left over to buy two houses and a fleet of cars. And Forbidden Planet puts its money where its mouth is. It’s a full-color Cinemascope spectacle with state-of-the-art special effects so good that a handful of them even hold up in 2017. I’ve seen worse VFX shots from movies released sixteen years ago, let alone sixty.

In 1956, Forbidden Planet must have been truly mind-blowing. The elaborate sets, the pleasingly busy clockwork design of Robby, and the laser/monster effects provided by none other than the Walt Disney Company (the monster’s outline – when eventually revealed – is reminiscent of the Chernabog by way of a gnashing bulldog and is genuinely threatening, as silly as it is) exemplify an attention to detail and care of craft that few science fiction projects ever received. It doesn’t hurt that the sci-fi world presented here is both functional and fun, showcasing the odds and ends of future living like reverse fire poles and disintegrator garbage disposals without batting an eye, knowing the audiences will gape in wonderment even more because the characters are totally unfazed by it all.

But that budget extends to every single aspect of the production, including the generally solid actors (who – hilariously – had to be persuaded to take it all seriously), the lush color cinematography, and the groundbreaking all-electronic score by Bebe and Louis Barron (credited – quite rightly – for “electronic tonalities”). The incredible opening theme has been in no way diminished by the ravages of time or legions of imitators. And although the music occasionally dovetails from the intended tone of a scene in an unpleasantly jarring way, it’s an incredibly idiosyncratic and successfully eerie, evocative piece of music that makes its mark on the film more than any other single element.

OK, other than Robby, who is by far the best character of the movie, maybe of the decade.

So, Forbidden Planet is a cutting-edge piece that pushed the envelope of what sci-fi could be. That point has been made, so now I can start complaining about it. You know that part in 1984 where George Orwell stops the story dead to paste in three chapters of a textbook about oligarchal collectivism? Forbidden Planet drifts hard into that territory with a half hour of Dr. Morbius explaining the made-up bullshit science of the Krell for no real reason I can discern other than to shoehorn in yet another metaphor about how mankind can’t be trusted with ultimate power. It teeters over the cliff of terminally boring, and is only pulled back when the invisible monster pokes its head back in to cause some more mayhem.

This is the one case here where a scene that may have been fascinating back in the day has no use for a modern audience. There’s something about fictional hard science from six decades ago that just doesn’t click anymore, and I really don’t feel the need to be lectured on it by a verbose space magician. These scenes (yes, there are multiple) drag down the movie heavily in my estimation, but luckily everything else about it is so top notch that it passes with flying colors anyway. I feel like Hunter has really been treating me right over these past two years, and I can’t thank him enough for that.

That which is indistinguishable from magic:
  • In the opening monologue, the narrator explains that mankind first visited the moon in the late 21s century, massively underestimating the 13 years it would take for NASA to send its folks up there.
  • I’m pretty sure this movie invented the wireless microphone. NSYNC owes Forbidden Planet a lot.
The morality of the past, in the future!:
  • “The Lord sure makes some beautiful worlds…” Don’t worry, folks at home! Space and God can coexist, don’t boycott this movie!
  • The minute Adams and Altaira kiss, the movie assumes that we know they’re soulmates and unceremoniously shoves her out of the movie.
  • The nude bathing scene is extravagantly racy for the time, but when Altaira gets out of the water, she is covered from the chin down by a comically large shrub.
Sensawunda:
  • This movie is really excited about Freud in that gee whiz way that only a 50’s sci-fi flick can manage.
  • The part where Robby the Robot analyzes the chemical content of bourbon by taking a swig and burping might be the single best sci-fi scene ever filmed.
  • Also, I can’t get over how Morbius named his daughter after the planet she was born on. Really, you couldn’t get more creative? Your name is literally Morbius!
TL;DR: Forbidden Planet is almost undone by an excruciatingly boring middle, but its high-budget spectacle is still a stunner.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1254
Reviews In This Series
It Conquered the World (Popcorn Culture - Corman, 1956)
I Married a Monster from Outer Space (Popcorn Culture - Fowler Jr., 1958)
Forbidden Planet (Popcorn Culture - Wilcox, 1956)
The Slumber Party Massacre (Kinemalogue - Jones, 1982)
Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II (Kinemalogue - Pittman, 1987)

Friday, October 27, 2017

We'll be Together For One More Night

Year: 1996
Director: Steve White
Cast: Robin Thomas, Starr Andreeff, Allen Cutler 
Run Time: 1 hour 33 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

We’re almost there! The end is in sight! Before the remake swept the franchise back into theaters for a brief cultural resurgence, the Amityville franchise was quietly drowning in the muck of the direct-to-video swamp of the 90’s. The last bubble of air the series let out before sinking to a watery grave was the 1996 project Amityville Dollhouse. That’s right, the last feeble attempt to remind the world that this once respected haunted house staple used to thrum with life and vitality was called Amityville Freaking Dollhouse.

I’d lament how the mighty had fallen, but I didn’t even like the original all that much.

So… Guess what this movie’s about. Actually, you know what? That joke isn’t fair. It might seem obvious, but not one foot trod fiery ground in Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (not to mention that it certainly was not the last one) and there was no cackling broomstick jockey in Halloween III: Season of the Witch, so it’s not wise to make assumptions. But yes, the eighth film in the Amityville franchise is about a haunted dollhouse, shaped exactly like the abode that haunted a million late-70’s nightmares.

Frankly, if this was the only way we could return the excellent spooky design of the original house to the fold, so be it. I’ll sacrifice logic for one last prolonged look at the best piece of imagery any of these infinite, mostly dreadful films had to offer. Logic be damned!

So this dollhouse is located in a locked shed on the grounds of a home that was burned down, leaving only the chimney standing. A new house has finally been built on the property (the film seems to strongly imply that this is the very same Long Island lot that has visited so much grief on so many terrible families, even though it was so clearly shot in Southern California that you can practically smell the In N Out) by one Bill Martin (Robin Thomas, who most recently played a main character’s father on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend). He’s attempting to Brady Bunch his family with his new wife Claire (the brilliantly named Starr Andreef, who had a brief horror career starting with 1983’s D&D slasher Skullduggery), but her obnoxiously nerdy son Jimmy (Jarrett Lennon) is having a tough time fitting in.

Bill’s young daughter and Carol Ann stand-in Jessica (Rachel Duncan) gets along with him fine, but his teen jock son Todd (Allen Cutler) doesn’t know a life outside of pummeling dweebs. Actually, come to think of it, nobody knows a life outside of this house. Neither Claire nor Bill seem to have jobs to go to, and the kids clearly don’t have school because they’re home at all hours of the day. Maybe they’ve slipped into some sort of pocket dimension created by the evil dollhouse.

Anyway, Jessica receives the titular dollhouse as a last-minute birthday present, and it quickly becomes clear that it exerts a wicked influence and whatever happens to the miniature happens to the real house, centralized around that original fireplace. So, spooky-ish things happen for an hour and change, almost nothing that gets set up is ever paid off, Claire develops a hankering for Todd’s young flesh because at least one out of every three of these films has to have a creepy Lannister vibe, and the dollhouse eventually manifests as the slowly moldering corpse of Jimmy’s dad (Clayton Murray) á là An American Werewolf in London.

Like, I’m pretty sure Griffin Dunne could sue.

Even for a film called Amityville Dollhouse, this one is kind of a mess. The plot, as basic as it is (it’s about creating family relationships – mostly between Jimmy and Todd and Jimmy and Bill) spins in circles for so long it vomits all over itself, then barely recovers in time to slap in a resolution via voiceover seconds before the credits roll. In its dizzying rampage, half a dozen subplots fall to the ground, shattering horribly (most notably an absentee mother who is mentioned twice and never brought up again). And while the dollhouse is never adequately explained and no would one wish it to be (how could that explanation not have been incalculably stupid?), it doesn’t even follow the rules it sets up for itself, and even more egregiously fails to explore its own potential.

In a key scene, a pet mouse crawling into the dollhouse manifests as a giant rodent rattling Jessica’s bed with its sheer bulk. It’s cheesy and cribs more than a little bit from The Exorcist, but that genuinely interesting concept is tossed aside in favor of scenes like the random family members who are also convenient witches performing the most clichéd séance in the history of cinema.

Although I shouldn’t have expected more of a film so unsubtle that the way it develops Jimmy the Science Whiz’s character is to have him drop some unspecified chemicals on ghost goop, watch it fizzle, and mutter “fascinating.” This never comes up again.

Science, y’all!

Amityville Dollhouse is about as nuanced as a kick to the crotch, but it has one or two good things going for it:

Thing #1: Todd is actually pretty hot, and he gets way more sex scenes than a domestic family drama really ought to have. Also there’s some naked breasts lying around, if you’re into that.

 Lord knows, we all need something to get us by in these trying times. 

Thing #2: The inconsistency of the plot provides a sense that just about anything can happen, and it very frequently does. Unshackled from any sense of logic or narrative decorum, the dollhouse’s manifestations are birthed from a feverish pit of haunted house tropes and creative decay. Rubbery Troll 2 monsters rub elbows with giant dead wasps in voodoo dolls and piñata tarantulas in this movie’s desperate quest to reach the finish line. 

It’s nothing we haven’t seen before, but at least it’s presented in a pattern so inscrutable that it almost feels fresh.

Amityville Dollhouse numbers among the worst entries in the franchise, but at the very least it’s squarely the best of the worst. And frankly I’m shocked we’ve gotten this far without some truly egregious acting (Dollhouse fares the worst, with a  moment where Jessica utters a disappointed “oh…” in what is supposed to be sheer terror - but even this entry had inoffensive performances all around), so that’s at least something to be thankful for. But seriously, who needed the Amityville franchise to get this far? The movie was bearable, but there’s no reason for anyone to watch it ever again, even for ironic camp value.

TL;DR: Amityville Dollhouse is a dumb, derivative movie, but at least it's just weird enough to carry itself across the finish line.
Rating: 4/10
Word Count: 1150
Reviews In This Series
The Amityville Horror (Rosenberg, 1979)
Amityville II: The Possession (Damiani, 1982)
Amityville 3-D (Fleischer, 1983)
Amityville 4: The Evil Escapes (Stern, 1989)
The Amityville Curse (Berry, 1990)
Amityville 1992: It's About Time (Randel, 1992)
Amityville: A New Generation (Murlowski, 1993)
Amityville Dollhouse (White, 1996)
The Amityville Horror (Douglas, 2005)