Thursday, April 9, 2020

Census Bloodbath: The Lunatic Is In The Hall

Year: 1982
Director: Jack Sholder
Cast: Jack Palance, Donald Pleasence, Martin Landau 
Run Time: 1 hour 32 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Up until now, I've been going through 1982 in pretty much chronological order, but I just had to skip ahead for two reasons: 1) I'm going to be speaking about this movie with the Keep Screaming podcast in about a month. 2) Alone in the Dark is the film on my remaining 1982 list that enjoys the loftiest reputation, so I seized onto it like a life raft, in a fit of desperation after a couple real stinkers.

Time to see if I made the right decision.

Alone in the Dark is perhaps the most diffuse slasher we've ever covered because it focuses on no less than four different killers, the psychopaths who populate the third floor of an asylum in sleepy Springwood. New psychologist Dan Potter (Dwight Schultz) has moved into town with his wife Nell (Deborah Hedwall) and daughter Lyla (Elizabeth Ward), and are soon visited by his nuclear activist sister Toni (Lee Taylor-Allan), who is recovering from her own mental breakdown.

At work, Dan meets the psychopaths: Frank Hawkes (the Jack Palance), a veteran who is the de facto leader of the group; Preacher (the Martin Landau), a man who constantly lets loose a stream of religious fundamentalist babble; Fatty (Erland van Lidth), a child molester; and The Bleeder, who doesn't like to show his face (leading him to wear a pre-Friday the 13th hockey mask) but gets a nosebleed whenever he strangles his victims.

They are kept in bounds by an electric security system manned by the hippy dippy Dr. Leo Bain (Donald Pleasence), who thinks the world is the place that's crazy and the people under his care are "voyagers" into new spaces of the mind. Of course, there's a blackout and the killers are released. After a murder spree, they focus their sights on Dr. Potter, who they think has killed their former doctor, who just left for another job.

Donald Pleasence really needs to stop being hired to be in charge of mental patients, he really can NOT keep track of them.

Alone in the Dark is a curious beast. You've already seen the ways the structure breaks from the established slasher norm (and after the landmark year of 1981, which saw the release of literally dozens of theatrical slasher movies), and it breaks down even further when it becomes a home invasion/siege movie in the third act. But it was also the first film produced by a little distribution company known as New Line Cinema, which would eventually strike gold two years later with the release of an indie cheapie called A Nightmare on Elm Street.

An indie cheapie that would spawn a litany of sequels, the first of which was directed by Jack Sholder of... Alone in the Dark. Dude kept himself a job. 

And while your mileage on Freddy's Revenge may vary, the opening scene of Alone in the Dark is more than enough to prove to me how he got the gig. It's a dream from Preacher's perspective that takes place in a generic small town diner which slowly devolves into surreality, from a frog hopping across the counter to rain suddenly pouring from the ceiling. It's an impeccably crafted scene that has nothing to do with the remainder of the movie, but that doesn't mean it's not effective as a little capsule of nightmare fuel.

And I can't say I'm not grateful for this image.

I mostly get what Alone in the Dark is going for. It's attempting to show that Dr. Bain is right: the world we live in is crazy, and maybe those who society sees fit to put away aren't the ones we should be afraid of. The second the blackout occurs, the looting and rioting begins (this is apparently based on real incidents at the time as well), and the movie spends a lot of town fleshing out Toni's nuclear protest and the live wire rock 'n roll music that fuels her. Violence and chaos are everywhere in 1982, not just in the psychos behind the mask. But this is a slasher movies and they do need to chop up people, so they're really trying to have their cake and eat it too.

The place they're most successful is actually with the character Fatty, whose crimes are most irredeemable. However, his arc implies that he might actually be attempting to improve himself as a human being, and his inevitable eventual death is given the most heartbreaking coda. 

So this is all interesting, if not particularly well-executed. Unfortunately the slasher movie elements are worth far less. The gore budget on this film is nil, so a lot of the bloodier kills are edited into ribbons, giving the vaguest impression of what is even happening. I know down below, my description for kill #3 sounds very confident, but I have about 10% clarity on what actually happened beyond a vague slashing motion and a gob of goo that represents a completely illegible mystery internal organ.

And Jason wore it better, too.

And this is all presented rather plainly. Beyond the first sequence, the only moment that shows any sense of flair is a shot of Toni slowly drifting across the room to close an open window while absolute hell breaks loose behind her in deep focus. Also, I'm not going to complain about a movie that gets such heavy-hitters to play its killers. Unfortuantely, they're poorly written personalities and aren't given enough screen time to really ham it up. Thus, the character that emerges as truly iconic is a horny teen neighbor mysteriously named Bunky (Carol Levy), who gives the bizarre snack-devouring girl in Death Valley a run for her money as my favorite Census Bloodbath babysitter.

The way it all shakes out, I think I liked this film. But I'm incredibly far from loving it. It's fun to see the trends in horror (and New Line specifically) it's predicting, but pretty much everything on display here would be perfected later in the cycle.

Killer: Frank Hawkes (Jack Palance), Preacher (Martin Landau), Fatty (Erland van Lidth), and The Bleeder
Final Girl: The whole Potter family
Sign of the Times: When Toni first shows up, she is dressed like Hello Kitty joined the Cobra Kai dojo.
Best Kill: I love when the lieutenant is attached to a tree via crossbow bolt to the gut, because it's one of the only truly good effects and also it's the moment that really launches the movie into high adrenaline mode until the credits roll.
Scariest Moment: Lyla is cornered by Fatty who starts trying to groom her while they're alone together in her house.
Weirdest Moment: The asylum's post-blackout roll call includes the names David and Lisa.
Champion Dialogue: "What are you, some kind of asshole?"
Body Count: 12; committed by a good half dozen characters.
  1. Curtis has his back broken over Fatty's knee.
  2. Larkin has his head punched through a car window.
  3. Looter has his larynx removed with a hand rake.
  4. Mailman is hit with a van.
  5. Billy is killed offscreen.
  6. Bunky is lifted into the air and strangled.
  7. Lt. Burnett is shot in the gut with a crossbow.
  8. Dr. Leo Bain is axed.
  9. Fatty is cleavered in the back and the cleaver is hit with a bat.
  10. Tom is stabbed in the gut.
  11. Preacher is stabbed in the back.
  12. Bouncer has his head smashed against a wall.
TL;DR: Alone in the Dark does enough off-template stuff to distinguish itself, but it's not a particularly energetic slasher.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1274

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Reviewing Jane: It's Such A Happiness When Good People Get Together

In which we review (almost) every film adapted from or inspired by the works of Jane Austen.

Year: 2020
Director: Autumn de Wilde
Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Bill Nighy
Run Time: 2 hours 5 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG

"Do we need another adaptation of Jane Austen's Emma?" cried the dozens of people who even heard this movie was coming out. Even though it's a title that hasn't really been dusted off this decade (even by the Austen-hungry Hallmark crew), I understand the perceived fatigue. The triple punch of adaptations that started with Amy Heckerling's Clueless, followed by Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Beckinsale's turns at bat, sprinted across screens in a span of just 16 months between 1995 and 1996. That's a whole lot of Emma.

But Autumn de Wilde's Emma. has come along anyway, to prove that the answer to that question is a vigorous yes.

I didn't even need the movie to prove this to me, because the Gwyneth and Kate adaptations SUCKED, so we've never had a straight period adaptation of the story that's remotely worthwhile. But I respect Autumn De Wilde's flex regardless.

If you missed the 90's, here's the gist of the plot. Handsome, rich, and spoiled Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy) lives in luxurious solitude with her hypochondriac father (Bill Nighy). She strokes her ego by matchmaking her friends about town, and when a young rube of unknown birth named Harriet Smith (Mia Goth) she seizes upon the opportunity to make her into a fine young gentlewoman and foist her on any man that's around, blithely unaware that the men would generally rather eat dirt than marry her.

All throughout a variety of romantic misadventures that involve a revolving door of alabaster British character actors I can't be bothered to tell apart (sorry Callum Turner and Josh O'Connor), Emma is admonished by old family friend Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn), the only person who ever seems to find fault with her. Naturally they fall in love.

Trust me when I say that her marrying someone who literally held her as a baby is one of the least creepy romantic matches in the Jane Austen universe.

I have a lot of very nice things to say about Emma. but I should probably start with what you can tell from the screenshots I've already used. This movie is gorgeous, darling. Every second of this film looks like a watercolor that could be hung in a museum, with luscious pastels smeared across every flat surface, outfits, and even the sky. It's like an Easter candle melted all over Regency England's tablecloth. It takes the fussy diorama sets of your run-of-the-mill Masterpiece adaptations and pushes them to the extreme, filling every corner of the frame with delicately piled pastries, colorful gewgaws, and the like.

Bear witness.

But all of this doesn't mean that Emma. is stiff and emotionally unavailable; far from it. The rigid grandeur of the sets serves as a vicious juxtaposition to the ridiculous antics of the rich fools contained within them. De Wilde and screenwriter Eleanor Catton have strung up a marvelous high wire act of tone here, delivering a sketch of messy humanity despite its extreme, almost cartoonish stylization. And in the process, they've captured Austen's tone better than any other period adaptation.  Her stories are emotionally resonant, sure, but the characters that populate them are daffy satirical caricatures of the upper classes.

These filmmakers get it, and I'm so thankful somebody finally has. They have stacked layers and layers upon the script here, bringing the novel to life perhaps even more than the novel itself was capable of. The first layer they start with is one I don't think I've ever seen in a period-set Austen adaptation: rich people fucking suck. They enforce a class system that limits the prospects of other people, just because they get to be at the top. They employ and ignore a veritable army of servants (this film, more than any other, depicts the sheer, overwhelming mass of staff required to make these people's lives possible). And they're used to getting everything they want, which is why it's so hard for Emma when the matches she tries to force keep falling through.

Starting in a place that acknowledges the fact that the characters (including the protagonist and her father) are grotesque and despicable allows for the film to mine the material for every ounce of acid-tongued, sour sarcasm it can produce. They aren't here to make Emma likable. That was the whole point of the novel: Austen set out to "take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like," because it's way more interesting to watch a heroine overcome a massive flaw and earn her true love rather than some pure, milquetoast waif suffering until she's rewarded with a handsome prince.

Embracing the black comedy is a hugely important decision in making this Emma work, and it pays off in the form of the funniest straight Austen adaptation by a long shot. The actors are all game, especially Nighy, Taylor-Joy (whose clipped haughtiness is best displayed in a scene you can see in the trailer, where she opens the window of her carriage to a tiresome neighbor with a languorous flick of a finger), and Miranda Hart as the aforementioned tiresome neighbor. Hart could easily have been a one-note cartoon character, and she still would have been terrifically entertaining. But later she gets to deliver a scene of so much heartbreaking pathos that it provides the fuel for the emotional climax of the entire two hour film.

And now I finally have her name reinforced in my memory enough to stop calling her Friend from Spy!

Allowing the film to be funny and the characters to have foibles also does wonders in translating the humanity of these characters to modern day cinemagoers. These are not fossils locked in amber whose motivations and reactions can only be understood from a remove. They are messy, engaging, people who live and breathe and feel, whether they're frolicking around having fun with a pack of schoolgirls or wracked with weeping sobs over a year of terrible decisions. Even if you know nothing about the period, you know exactly what these people are feeling because they're allowed to be real.

This is well served by the film's choices about nudity and violence. Obviously it's very mild; they're not doing a gritty reboot here. But there are two scenes early on that display casual non-eroticized nudity and one scene involving a nosebleed in the climax that make the characters literally vulnerable. They're showing that underneath their endless layers of petticoats and gentility there still lies flesh, blood, and a beating heart.

One thing I especially love about the emotional capacity of this film is what it does with the character of Harriet. She's portrayed rightly as a suffering fool, but this is the first adaptation I've seen that fully allows her to be angry with Emma and the way she has toyed with her life like a bored cat. Even in the novel, Harriet's reaction to the final straw that severs their friendship is muted and elliptically delivered. But here, we get to sit in it and really dig into the chaos that Emma has sown among the people in her life. 

OK before I yammer on even more: Yes, everything in this movie is good and you should go see it as soon as you get the chance. Literally the only thing preventing me from embracing this as the best Austen I've ever seen is my overfamiliarity with the material. So allow me a couple years to sit on this and revisit, and we can reconvene during our Best of the 2020's conversation.

TL;DR: Emma. is a delightfully acerbic and beautiful adaptation that would do Jane Austen proud.
Rating: 9/10
Word Count: 1309
Other Films Based on Emma
Clueless (Heckerling, 1995)
Emma (McGrath, 1996)
Emma (Lawrence, 1996)
Emma. (de Wilde, 2020)

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Reviewing Jane: I Will Be Mistress Of Myself

In which we review (almost) every film adapted from or inspired by the works of Jane Austen.
Year: 1995
Director: Ang Lee
Cast: Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, Hugh Grant
Run Time: 2 hours 16 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG

Emma Thompson is a force of nature, y'all. After over a decade of acting (and the occasional dabbling in TV writing) she undertook her first feature film screenplay, an adaptation of a literary giant. Although the Oscar-winning Sense and Sensibility was part of the banner year that brought Jane Austen into the rabid mainstream popularity that she still enjoys today (also in 1995, the culture was buffeted by BBC's Pride and Prejudice miniseries and Amy Heckerling's Clueless), this was still a daunting undertaking.

She didn't even break a sweat, assembling a cast of future A-list superstars to breathe life into what still stands strong as one of the best Austen adaptations to date. But let's not get ahead of ourselves.

Let's jump back to the early 1800's for a moment, shall we?

In Sense and Sensibility, rich sisters Elinor (Emma Thompson) and Marianne Dashwood (Kate Winslet, two years before Titanic would change her life forever) live with their parents and kid sister. Unfortunately, their father passes away before either of them marry, leaving them penniless (his entire estate went to their half-brother, whose avaricious wife talks him out of supporting them). They move to a small cottage out in the country (with three bedrooms and two servants, the sheer poverty is overwhelming), where they have a variety of romantic adventures in which Elinor leads with her logic and Marianne dashes forward full force with her heart.

The men in their lives are awkward but charming brother-in-law (this is not the creepiest intra-family romance in the Austen universe, believe me) Edward Ferrars (Hugh Grant), the dashing but licentious John Willoughby (Greg Wise), and the older but devoted Colonel Brandon (Alan Rickman), who Marianne turns her nose up at without a second thought.

I mean, wouldn't you ignore Alan Rickman for the raw sensual power of that hat?

As we learned from this year's Oscars, where Parasite won Best Picture, sometimes the Academy gets it right. And they certainly did when they awarded Emma Thompson for Best Adapted Screenplay. The whole point of this project is weighing the way different people adapt Austen's work, and as Thompson's mighty act of rendering the original 1811 novel as a feature film is beyond compare. 

To start off, she does what I have been begging these screen adaptations to do from the very beginning, retaining the acidic sarcasm of Austen's original texts. The Austen novels have always been funny in a hyper-modern snarky way; you just have to crack open the period dialogue to get to that candy center. And this is an extraordinarily funny film, especially given the standards of your average Hollywood period piece costume drama. MVP goes to Imelda Staunton as a chatty, ditzy woman with a husband who visibly despises spending time with her, but the entire cast is expert at delivering Thompson's wickedly sharp dialogue, which sometimes directly draws out the best passages from the novel, and largely synthesizes the source text's themes and moods into new delicious combinations.

The reason the humor works especially well is because Thompson has done the legwork of making the period and the characters within it come to life, humanizing conflicts and interactions that might normally seem distant and outdated to a modern audience member. One trick I especially appreciate her using is the way she overlaps dialogue. Even in scenes when our main characters aren't speaking, there is boisterous conversation floating in through windows or from other rooms, bringing the world to messy, vibrant life instead of embalming it in stuffy, fussy costumes and sets that seem hermetically sealed from the real world.

Also it helps that they cast at least one movie star-handsome romantic lead, something the previous BBC adaptations perpetually failed to do.

All you need to stand out among the crowd of these Austen adaptations is a sharp script and actors who know how to deliver the material, which Sense and Sensibility confidently provides (Thompson, especially when she gets her big Oscar-worthy monologue, is reliably terrific on top of everything else). Unfortunately, there is something that doesn't quite connect emotionally, at least for this reviewer.

It doesn't help that Sense and Sensibility is mostly about the relationship between two sisters, and their interactions as they long for men from afar. Hugh Grant and Alan Rickman are necessarily forced offscreen for longer than one might like if we're meant to feel heaving romantic paroxysms. And while both Thompson and Winslet are delivering the material well, it's challenging to buy their sisterly relationship when the former is visibly 16 years older than the latter. While this casting choice at least visually highlights the way that Elinor is more capable and mature than her younger sister, it leaves a gaping crack in the foundation of the relationship that is meant to propel the emotional core of the movie. 

And frankly, of Ang Lee's mainstream, well-regarded works, this is the entry in which I find the least to be impressed with. While Thompson does all the legwork in bringing the characters to life, I find that Lee and his creative vision gets lost in the period detail rather than bringing the camera to life for more than a couple sweeping vistas.

But all that said, Sense and Sensibility is a terrific accomplishment that stands head and shoulders above most of the material I've covered in this marathon, especially among the adaptations that are actually set in the period. It was rightfully nominated for Best Picture, and while it should have lost to Babe, it shouldn't have lost to Braveheart, and we would all do well to remember that.

TL;DR: Sense and Sensibility is an adaptation that does great wonders in bringing Austen's humor and characters to life, even if it doesn't do the same with her passion.
Rating: 8/10
Word Count: 1005
Other Films Based on Sense and Sensibility
Sense and Sensibility (Lee, 1995)
From Prada to Nada (Gracia, 2011)

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Census Bloodbath: Etruscan Raiders

Year: 1982
Director: Sergio Martino
Cast: Elvire Audray, Paolo Malco, Claudio Cassinelli
Run Time: 1 hour 34 minutes

The Italian giallo genre was in pretty dire straits by the time the Americans picked up the reins of hacking and slashing in the early 80's. While the countrymen still had some juice left in them (we were still five years off from Michele Soavi's delightful StageFright: Aquarius), post-Friday the 13th Italy had mostly produced forgotten dreck from clean-up hitters like Gianni Martucci's Trhauma and Riccardo Freda's Murder Syndrome, or unrepentantly nasty permutations from more well known shlock directors like Ovidio G. Assonitis' Madhouse and Lucio Fulci's The New York Ripper.

When Sergio Martino (the director of Your Vice is a Locked Room, and Only I Have the Key, which is actually almost as good as its title) jumped into the fray in 1982 with The Scorpion with the Two Tails, I hoped he would bring some of his 70's bravado to deliver something the was at least stylish and watchable.

And as usual, my hopes were gutted with a butcher knife.

The Scorpion with Two Tails begins, as so many Italian genre riffs do, in New York City, where Joan Barnard (Elvire Audray) learns of the death of her archaeologist husband Arthur (the John Saxon), who recently discovered the ruins of an Etruscan tomb in Italy. She flies to Italy to attempt to solve his murder, bringing her friend Mike (Paolo Malco of The New York Ripper) along with her.

There she gets mixed up with a variety of colorful persons, including a mysterious Contessa (Marilù Tolo) who was housing Arthur, a rival archaeologist named Paolo (Claudio Cassinelli), and a troop of mafiosos/grave robbers/nude photographers who it turns out were engaged in illegal drug trade with Joan's father. She has lots of dreams about Etruscan rituals involving the tomb, and her increasing hysteria would led us to conclude that she is most likely a reincarnation of an immortal ancient priestess.

This has almost nothing to do with the plot, but it's what we spend at least 60% of the movie focusing on, so it's probably worth mentioning.

The supernatural genre elements here are pretty, well, generic. Usually with a plot like this, the Italians have to rely on their lurid stylistic sensibility and sensational murders to goose things up a bit. Unfortunately, the one factor that makes The Scorpion with Two Tails unusual also ruins any chance it had to be interesting: it was originally produced for television (conflicting reports say either a TV movie or a miniseries that was chopped into feature length). I can't say I'm intimately familiar with the broadcast standards of Italian television in the 80's, but it seems to have been pretty comparable to the U.S., considering every ounce of the requisite blood or lurid sexuality of the giallo has been removed from this movie.

As you'll see at the bottom of this review, Scorpion has an unusually huge body count, but more than fifty percent of the kills use the exact same M.O. (twisting someone's head around backward, sometimes in a cool special effect but mostly offscreen), and the ones that don't all take place in the flurry of a two minute shootout. It's boring is what it is, and robbing a giallo of its slasher elements removes any reason to be interested in talking about it. The plot certainly doesn't step up to the plate, because it really deeply concerns itself with having the characters search for a crate of drugs they already found earlier in the movie.

All that we're left with is a heaping helping of overbaked giallo dialogue, a bunch of dreams where random things are covered in maggots, and Mike being a lecherous drag chasing after a woman so recently widowed there's still a chalk outline on the floor.

Maybe it would have been more interesting if John Saxon hadn't departed the movie after five minutes.

Warning: SPOILERS abound for the remainder of the review, not that you should watch this movie anyway. 

Our lead isn't particularly fun to spend time with either. Even though she is revealed to be an immortal Etruscan priestess, she still spends all of her time shrieking and fainting and being incapable of doing anything but wait for her narrative to be pushed forward by a man. A character this doe-eyed and helpless would be irritating under any circumstances, but especially when she's explicitly magical. Call up a swarm of rats to devour your enemies or something. Anything!

There are only two things I liked about this 94 minute gauntlet called a motion picture. First, the production design of the ancient tombs was actually pretty good, avoiding any fakey, obviously foam rocks or anything. Every chamber felt appropriately dusty, weighty, and old.

The second is that the final five minutes go absolutely batshit, with the out of the blue proposal that the true treasure of the tomb is an antimatter diamond surrounded by an antigravity force field that controls the balance of the universe, a fact which introduces no conflict whatsoever because the killer's neck is summarily snapped anyway. Oh, and also Mike was undercover for the DEA and faked his own death, but now they're in love. It's a whole thing.

If the movie had been operating at this wild telenovela register the whole time, it might have been a 10/10, but as it stands I had to sift through cubic kilometers of packing peanuts to find anything worth caring about in this empty shipping crate of a movie.

Killer: Paolo (Claudio Cassinelli)
Final Girl: Joan Barnard (Elvire Audray)
Best Kill: All the kills are exactly the same, so I'm just gonna have to go with the John Saxon one for the novelty of him being Janet Leigh-ed early on in the movie.
Sign of the Times: The ancient Etruscans apparently shopped for makeup at Bonnie Tyler's local drug store.
Scariest Moment: Mike's corpse starts walking, with its head still turned around backward.
Weirdest Moment: Anti-matter diamond, motherfuckers!
Champion Dialogue: "I certainly wouldn't talk in Etruscan to you at night."
Body Count: 17; but it certainly doesn't feel like it - I included deaths that occur in dreams that are most likely flashbacks to another life.
  1. Husband has his neck snapped in a dream.
  2. Wife has her neck snapped in a dream.
  3. Woman #1 has her neck snapped in a dream.
  4. Woman #2 has her neck snapped in a dream.
  5. Arthur has his head turned around backward.
  6. Mr. Forte has his head turned around backward offscreen.
  7. Old Man has his head turned around backward offscreen.
  8. Eva has her neck snapped.
  9. Joan's Dad is shot.
  10. Contessa is shot.
  11. Security Goon #1 is shot.
  12. Security Goon #2 is shot.
  13. Mafioso #1 is shot.
  14. Mafioso #2 is hit with a falling rock.
  15. Mafioso #3 is hit with a falling rock.
  16. Anducci hangs himself.
  17. Paolo has his neck snapped.
TL;DR: The Scorpion with Two Tails is an exceptionally dull giallo that doesn't even muster the energy to compete with its American slasher counterparts.
Rating: 3/10
Word Count: 1177

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Census Bloodbath: Sex And The Single Monster

Year: 1982
Director: John Hough
Cast: John Cassavetes, John Ireland, Kerrie Keane 
Run Time: 1 hour 33 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

I've been so deep into this slasher movie marathon for so long that I've started to recognize names that wouldn't be uttered in anybody's household from here to Timbuktu. Regardless, John Hough is the reason I was excited to pop in The Incubus, because he directed the low budget 1988 gem American Gothic, a film I've been happy to wave the banner for on many an occasion. Pair that with some cool, eerie poster artwork and you've got me on the hook.

Unfortunately, the lesson I consistently fail to learn during this project is that a poster is not a movie. Even though every single poster, alternates and all, for The Incubus is a drop dead gorgeous specimen (to the point that I could populate this entire review just with different posters - and I will), none of that visual firepower is enough to make a movie worth sitting through for 93 minutes. But more on that in a sec.

First, we must witness this poster that makes the movie look like some sort of heavy metal album cover was adapted into a paperback novel.

Observe the small town of Galen, which is being beset by a terrible tragedy. Local women are being raped so violently that their uteruses are exploding (oh, the 80's, a time when somebody thought this would be a super cool plot hook). Town doctor/autopsist/creepy old man Sam Cordell (John Cassavetes) has been working with the cops to solve the murders, but waiting for the only survivor Mandy (Mitch Martin) to regain the ability to speak is taking too long. Also he needs time to himself to reminisce about his 18-year-old second wife who died under mysterious circumstances.

Sam's daughter Jenny (Erin Flannery) keeps ignoring his orders to stay inside to visit her loser boyfriend Tim (Duncan McIntosh of the same year's Murder by Phone - stay tuned) who keeps having terrible dreams about a woman tied up in a dungeon every time there's a new attack. also on the case is intrepid reporter Laura Kincaid (Kerrie Keane), who strikes up a gross flirtation with Sam despite their age difference appearing to be a flat fifty years. Anyway, it's pretty clear these attacks are supernatural. 

Even though the word "incubus" isn't spoken for about 75 minutes, we the audience know the title of the fucking movie we came to see, so it's not entirely shocking that there's a penis demon wandering around town. But who is the one channeling his presence? Tim? His creepy grandmother Agatha (Helen Hughes of Visiting Hours)? Or someone else from this small town with a population huge enough to host midday concerts in packed movie houses?

Or perhaps it's this sexy demon haunting some heroine from an 18th century gothic novel...

Full disclosure: the effects which bring the titular Incubus to life are really really good. Fuller disclosure: You get to see them for a full ten seconds in this 93 minute movie. Hope you brought your camera! I'd say a picture would last longer, but then again almost anything would. 

So what are we left with for those remaining 5,570 seconds? A pretty miserable slog, to be honest. The Incubus has all the gritty, grotesque flavor of a mid-70's grindhouse exploitation epic, but it's too demure to fully commit to its hog wild concept. Not that I want the endless rapes to be onscreen. In fact, I am tremendously glad all I had to suffer through was a little slow motion screaming, and not a relentless slew of sex crimes like Don't Answer the Phone. But the fact remains that this movie is by design a story about sex, violence, and a monster, and it features almost none of those things.

To be fair, the rest of the things it's about aren't achieved particularly well either. As a mystery with a mounting body count, The Incubus is extraordinarily messy, forgetting to show us scenes about suspects, non-Cassavetes characters, and especially victims until they suddenly are jolted awake and thrown into play way too late in the game. One victim, a docent at the town museum, we meet in the very scene where she dies with about two lines of dialogue. About twenty minutes later Cassavetes randomly drops a line about this woman being his wife's cousin. About fifteen minutes after that, we learn her name. Tell me, how am I supposed to care about following a mystery that can't even follow itself? All this builds up into a tedious double parlor room sequence that spends fifteen minutes in two locations to establish that yes, there's an incubus, and then cuts to credits before anything actually happens.

And don't even get me started on the bizarre subplot about Laura Kincaid being a doppelgänger for Sam's dead second wife, which immediately leaps out the window and is never heard from again.

This beautiful poster is just mocking me at this point.

At the very least, The Incubus makes some swings toward atmosphere that occasionally connect. The score is a creepy atmospheric blanket over the whole thing, and the decision to run the opening credits over a shot that slowly zooms out to reveal a human eye is pretty stylish. And the decision to mount a camera under a character's wheelchair as she zooms around is... odd, but at least creative. Unfortunately, the editing takes a bit of a beating, presenting events in a bizarre kaleidoscope of smash cuts. 

But with a script that's this much of a shambles, even if it was perfectly cut together it would still seem completely random and aggrieved, as if individual parts of each scene want nothing to do with one another. So the redeeming qualities available to us here are limited. I didn't hate the experience of sitting through this movie, but I could have been staring at a blank screen for an hour and a half and edified myself to the exact same degree.

Killer: The Incubus [as embodied by Laura Kincaid (Kerrie Keane)]
Final Girl: Sam Cordell (John Cassavetes)
Sign of the Times: Every time a character turns on a radio, out screeches hair metal so terrible that I don't even want to put it on my slasher movie music playlist, which includes some real dreadful shit.
Best Kill: In one of the only sequences that betrays its slasher roots, the shotgun-toting patriarch of a farming family follows the demon into a barn, where he is stabbed in the neck with a shovel, then blows his own foot off in shock.
Scariest Moment: John Cassavetes tells his 18-year-old daughter Jenny, "you are my queen, my morning..."
Weirdest Moment: A scene opens with a cat chilling on a porch, then the paper boy hits it square in the face with the daily news.
Champion Dialogue: "Will you get out of here? I don't have time for idiots."
Body Count: 8
  1. Roy is hit in the face with a board with a nail in it.
  2. Caroline is Incubus'd.
  3. Chip the Dog is impaled with a pitchfork.
  4. Ernie is stabbed in the neck with a shovel.
  5. Jane is Incubus'd.
  6. Jane's Sister in a Wheelchair is killed offscreen.
  7. Concert Girl is Incubus'd.
  8. [Jenny is Incubus'd.]
TL;DR: The Incubus is at least uncompromising, but is both icky and a little bit dull.
Rating: 3/10
Word Count: 1236

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

2019 Flashback: Movies

Happy New Year's Eve to one and all! It's time for my annual, incredibly exhaustive list of the best and worst in film, television, and music for the whole of 2019! 

A quick note about the Worst Of elements of my list. There has been a lot of Twitter conversation about negativity on end-of-year lists, and I just want to make my mission statement clear. I can not make definitive qualitative decisions about film art, nor can anyone. The films on the Worst portion of the list (which is smaller and does not include dismissals of the work of any singular person) are films that I personally dislike. If you agree with my film taste, then you should probably avoid them. If you don't, then have at it. Same goes for my 10 Best. It's all about building a relationship with a critic, learning their rhythms, and using their opinions as a springboard to find the things that you yourself will like. With this list, I'm not saying people who like these movies are wrong, nor am I dismissing them outright as viable pieces of cinema (with perhaps one notable exception). OK, have fun everyone! Keep it clean!

2019 Movies I Missed That I Wish I Had Seen Before Compiling This List: Charlie's Angels, Doctor Sleep, The Farewell, Good Boys, Pet Sematary, Satanic Panic, The Nightingale, Little Monsters, Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase
2019 Movies That I Missed, Don't Regret Missing, and Will Go Out of My Way to Continue Missing Until the End of Linear Time: Joker, The LighthouseFord vs. Ferrari, The Irishman, The Lion King, The Secret Life of Pets 2, Abominable, Five Feet Apart, Wonder Park


The Ten Best Films of 2019

#10 Knives Out

Knives Out didn't quite meet the hype for me, but it's still a very exciting fizzy thriller. I wouldn't say it keeps you guessing, because a curious reveal early on in the film leaves you not really sure what to make of it and not entirely sure there's anything to guess about, but it's a fun ride nonetheless. 

#9 Happy Death Day 2U

Happy Death Day 2U could have taken the easy way out and just redone everything the first one did successfully, but Chris Landon & Co. took some wild swings and knocked it all out of the park. There's still the same sense of unhinged dark comedy, but it's in service to a narrative that's uniquely weird and surprisingly heartfelt.

#8 Long Shot

There's nothing better than a good, solid romantic comedy. We haven't gotten enough of these recently, especially ones that remember to be both romantic and a comedy. Rogen and Theron prove their mettle by providing chemistry in spades, but making sure to never skimp on delivering the laughs.

#7 Ready or Not

From Samara Weaving's hoarse roar of a scream to the epic, hilarious finale, Ready or Not provides a nonstop tale of one thrilling night that keeps you hooked from the word go.

#6 Alita: Battle Angel

This isn't even a joke. Alita: Battle Angel is admittedly a dumb sci-fi bit of fluff, but it's also some of the best world-building we've gotten in ages, and sees director Robert Rodriguez in a mood far more playful than he's been since the late 2000's. It's pure, unadulterated fun and there's nothing wrong with being a little silly on top of that.

#5 Jojo Rabbit

While I was somewhat disappointed that the level of the humor wasn't quite at the peak of some of Taika Waititi's earlier works, Jojo Rabbit is still a charming effort anchored by a slew of terrific performances. It alternates between cutting satire and maudlin heartstring-pulling to provide one of the most deeply weird but energizing filmgoing experiences of the year.

#4 Pain and Glory

While this isn't going to bump its way into my top 5 Almodóvar movies (it's an "old man's movie," and that's not really my thing - yet), Pain and Glory is a beautifully subdued autobiographical journey. Almodóvar is a filmmaker who's unusually shy about directly depicting elements of his own life, so this nearly unadulterated glimpse into his world is a real treat, and the way it chews on and reinterprets themes from his previous work is extremely satisfying to anyone familiar with his filmography.

#3 The Perfection

Look, I love me a horror movie with a queer element, and that's all The Perfection had to be for me to have fun with it. But this movie has the audacity to be incredibly chilling in the first act to the point that I almost had to turn it off, then effortlessly pull off a series of wild, film-changing reveals that end with you battered and bruised on the floor, not entirely certain what you just watched but very glad it happened to you.

#2 Parasite

I was so close to being overhyped for Parasite. For the first hour or so, I could feel myself resisting how beloved it had been by everyone who reviewed it, but it put me under its spell anyway. That came at the moment that introduces the extended third act, where the film (which never has a firm grip on genre anyway) briefly tilts into horror in one of the most chilling shots I've seen in a modern film. Parasite comes completely unshackled from anything you might expect from a narrative motion picture, depicting the horror and humor of class warfare with every ounce of its being. Be it plot, acting, production design, cinematography, every element of this film is operating on full blast.

#1 Tigers Are Not Afraid

Come to support Mexican female filmmakers, stay because it's a damn brilliant movie. Issa López takes the language of Mexican artists through the ages, from magical realist authors like Juan Rulfo to film fantasists like Guillermo del Toro, and created a heady concoction that is simultaneously beautiful and absolutely brutal. The story of children who have been displaced when their parents were murdered by cartels, Tigers Are Not Afraid is a film that shows the harsh reality and violence of the drug war but retains a sense of childhood innocence that alternately delights the senses and makes the sickening horror that much more potent.

The Five Worst Films of 2019

#5 Unplanned

Sure, I may not agree politically with this incendiary "true" story of a Planned Parenthood director who became a pro-life advocate, but every technical aspect of its construction is also a hilarious disaster. The flop sweat of this message movie creates a salty stench that can be smelled from rooms over.

#4 Serenity

The bad movie cognoscenti has already dug its claws into this one, so suffice it to say that I have done the research and they are not wrong.

#3 Wine Country

Netflix has made a habit of tossing out plotless motion pictures that just feature endless montages of people getting drunk and partying. But none of these movies are as much of a waste of time as Wine Country, because a cast of comedians like this doesn't just come along every day. It's exquisitely painful to watch talented women like Amy Poehler (also making her directorial debut), Tina Fey, Paula Pell, Maya Rudolph, Rachel Dratch, and Ana Gasteyer putter around the screen refusing to say anything remotely funny.

#2 Cats

I don't want to lay blame entirely at the feet of this movie. The musical Cats is already a complete, plotless, asinine disaster about a cult of cats that I'm pretty sure murders Jennifer Hudson, so what could they have possibly done when adapting it to make it not that? Unfortunately, every decision they made just leaned into the worst thing that Cats can be, and while I admire their commitment, yikes.

#1 After

If you thought the Fifty Shades trilogy was going to be the worst property adapted from a fanfiction with the names changed, get ready for After! Based on an AU (alternate universe) fanfiction about Harry Styles from One Direction, it's about the blandest college freshman falling in love with the blandest, most toothless bad boy. Stripping away anything Harry Styles-y about it proves that it had not a single other leg to stand on. It's empty of absolutely anything interesting, save for a hilariously incorrect interpretation of The Great Gatsby that stands next to The Boy Next Door's scene featuring a first edition of The Iliad for sheer literary imbecility.

Best Worst Movie: The Prodigy

I practically had to be dragged to see The Prodigy, but I'm so glad it happened. For the first half hour it seems like you're getting some run of the mill, just-this-side-of-shoddy winter horror, but then it veers wildly off course with one of the most shocking scenes I've seen in a theater, pushing the envelope to a degree I never could have expected from such a cliché-ridden story. It never reaches the heights of that one scene again, but it continues with a slew of daffy reveals that are preposterous but nevertheless delightful. One of the most satisfying viewing experiences of the year.

Best Dramatic Actor: Bill Hader, It: Chapter 2

What makes this performance so dramatically interesting is how funny it is. Hader does pirouettes on the line between comic relief and emotional lynchpin with the confidence and grace only the man behind Barry could achieve.

Best Comedic Actor: Zachary Levi, Shazam!

OK, yes, there's the problem that the character he's playing absolutely does not match the performance of the teen actor. But his portrayal of a buoyant teenybopper stumbling around in a grown man's body is so chock full of goofball charm that I can't fault him for it.

Best Dramatic Actress: Lupita N'yongo, Us

There's a lot going on in this dual performance, but Lupita would earn the top slot just for that voice alone. The way she evokes someone who hasn't had to speak for decades upon decades sounds like her vocal cords are being dragged across concrete. Her Oscar should come with a side of honey and lemon.

Best Comedic Actress: Kaitlyn Dever, Booksmart

I was already sold on Kaitlyn Dever's performance from the trailer, where she says (while being shoved into a cop car) "Shotgun! Just kidding! I don't have one..." I was so impressed by her comic timing, and seeing her full feature length performance laid out before me proved that that line wasn't a fluke. She's a charming young presence and I hope she continues to get roles in things that I will actually watch (sorry Netflix's Unbelievable, you're too grimdark for this one!).

Best Child Actor: Roman Griffin Davis & Archie Yates, Jojo Rabbit

Taika Waititi has a real talent for casting child actors. I feel like most lists will just highlight Archie Yates, because his cheerful best friend character steals every scene he's in with those bright, perfectly clueless line readings. But I want to throw as much praise as possible on the lead Roman Griffin Davis as well, because while Jojo gets less out-and-out laugh lines, it's a perfectly tuned performance for a movie that requires immense delicacy not to veer off across the line into utter tastelessness.

Best Child Actress: Paola Lara, Tigers Are Not Afraid

Y'all know by now I love me some Tigers Are Not Afraid, and that shouldn't be possible with a cast of almost exclusively child actors. Children shouldn't have the ability to draw the kind of pathos and complexity that a script like this deserves, but they do, and Paola Lara is a marvelous anchor for the entire thing.

Best Cameo: Keanu Reeves, Always Be My Maybe

I kind of can't resist an actor playing themselves as a hideous caricature, but the gusto with which Keanu plays himself as a hyperbolically earnest douchebag is truly delightful and rises about everyone but Neil Patrick Harris in the Harold and Kumar movies (the ur-text for subversive celebrity cameos).

Best CGI Creation: The Cat, Toy Story 4

Pixar has gotten to the point that they're not even making cartoons. The CG-animated cat in the antique shop moves with the fluidity and weight of a real cat to the point that I thought they just spliced in some live action footage. It's legitimately frightening how real it looks.

Worst CGI Creation: Swiper, Dora and the Lost City of Gold 

It was already pushing the realism of the film's universe that there was a talking fox in it at all, but a StarFox game for the Nintendo 64 would look better than the design they showed up with.

Best Score: Knife + Heart

While the movie itself didn't necessarily deliver for me (my interest in slashers does not necessarily extend far enough into the French arthouse sphere as it could), the score by M83 is a sleepy, melancholic tapestry that perfectly captures the tranquil misery of the lead character.

Best Soundtrack: Hustlers

The soundtrack was so superbly married to the mood and time period of every scene that it convinced me I actually liked Lorde's "Royals" and Rihanna's "Birthday Cake." On Flo Rida's "Club Can't Handle Me," I needed no convincing.

Best Original Song: "Hide and Seek" Ready or Not

Horror movies of late have made a habit of using cheerful oldies to underscore the creepiness of scenes, but Ready or Not couldn't find they perfect one so they sat the hell down and made one. It's a perfect evocation of the unintentionally creepy needle drops used to great effect in stuff like Insidious or Sinister.

Worst Original Song: "Speechless" Aladdin

Look, nobody's work is going to look great when placed next to a pile of Ashman/Menken music. But Pasek and Paul indulging in their worst pop musical instincts certainly doesn't cut the mustard. Within about twenty seconds this song rhymes "silenced" with "quiet" with "try it," and then introduces the phrase "I won't go speechless," which is not a thing that any human being has ever said.

Best Musical Sequence: "Lost in the Woods" Frozen II

Did there need to be an 80's power ballad in the middle of the latest Disney princess musical? Absolutely not. It's an indulgence in the pop culture reference-heavy instincts of post-Shrek animated comedies. But Frozen II had already completely failed to find a consistent tone that it wasn't like it was violating the sanctity of anything. In the middle of this sequence I decided to just give in and lose myself in Jonathan Groff's beautiful musical theater voice and that irresistible chorus.

Best Monster: Hug Monster, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

The squelchy grey monster designs were by far the best part of this kindertrauma adaptation, and the hug monster that walks endlessly toward you down the hallway is so perfectly disturbing.

Worst Monster: Werewolf, Annabelle Comes Home

(No picture legally available)

In a movie whose sole purpose is to test out new monsters for potential spinoffs, you'd think they could have put a little more effort into making their werewolf not look like a Tex Avery cartoon.

Biggest Laugh: The Impressions, Jumanji: The Next Level

These movies have basically become big actors doing impressions of other big actors (The Rock et al. play video game characters who embody the characteristics of the players controlling them), and I want them to make a million more. Special standouts include Awkwafina, perfectly cast as Danny DeVito. And I feel icky complimenting Kevin Hart under any circumstances, but his impression of Danny Glover is the best thing he's ever done. 

Biggest Cry: The Rally, Blinded by the Light

Blinded by the Light is a fun, poppy movie about a boy discovering his love for Bruce Springsteen, but around the edges it depicts the harsh racism of Thatcher-era Britain, which comes to a head in a shockingly violent moment that our lead character's decisions have rendered him helpless to do anything but watch.

Biggest Scream: The Cliff, Midsommar

If you've seen the movie, you know what I'm talking about. It's the point of no return for our characters. If you stay in the creepy Swedish summer cult after this moment, you deserve everything that's coming to you.

Biggest Squirm: The Car Crash, Brightburn

Brightburn was unremarkable at best and repetitive at worst, but it did feature some pretty neat gore! I don't even want to share an image of the gruesome results of the car crash scene, because it might put you off your New Year's.

Biggest Thirst: America's Ass, Avengers: Endgame

Chris Evans acknowledging to himself and the world that his Captain America is now the world's premiere sex object is the best part of a movie whose sole focus is digging through the toybox of the MCU and reflecting on all the joy it has brought. 

Best Title: Under the Silver Lake

I do really like how the first impression you get from the title is this kind of poetic, almost fantastical noir-ish vibe, and then you realize it's just about f**king Silver Lake, a borough of L.A. that anybody who's had foam art created on top of their latte will know well. It's kind of goofy, undercutting any sense of earnestness in the way that the movie itself is exactly shooting for.

Worst Title: Stuber

I mean, really. This title isn't even shitty and artlessly descriptive in the way most comedy titles are these days (just this year we've had Good Boys, Long Shot, Late Night, Murder Mystery, and Drunk Parents). You could have just called it Bad Passenger and Hollywood would greenlight it. But no, this title is shitty in a way that also completely obfuscates any meaning, on top of being an ingloriously ugly collection of consonants that makes you want to wash your mouth out with soap after saying it.

Best Line: "Of course I've slept on a rat, I live in New York." Brittany Runs a Marathon

This response to a former drug addict's harrowing story about being so high she used a rat as a pillow is an excellent glimpse into the fearlessly nasty sense of humor in Brittany Runs a Marathon, a movie that didn't quite make its way into the Top 10, but is a fun indie comedy certainly worth checking out.

Worst Line: "More like TALLER Swift!" Tall Girl

Tall Girl as a whole wasn't as splendiferously over the top as I was hoping, but any scene that directly interacts with people's reactions to Tall Girl's accursed affliction of tallness is chock full of deliciously cheesy material like this.

Best Poster: Fast Color

I never got the chance to see Fast Color unfortunately, but no movie could possibly compare to the austere beauty of this poster anyway.

Worst Poster: Men in Black: International

This poster takes studio's instinct to just shove the stars' faces haphazardly into the box waaaaay too far, feeling cramped and uncomfortable rather than selling a wacky globetrotting adventure movie.

Best Poster For a Bad Movie: The Curse of La Llorona

I disliked the movie quite a bit, but this image is hanging up in my apartment because it's just so creepy and gorgeous. And I like to imagine it's an homage to my Llorona marathon this winter rather than that one single movie.

Worst Poster For a Good Movie: Long Shot

None of the artwork for Long Shot is particularly memorable, but this one where it seems like Seth Rogen is posing next to a cardboard cutout of Charlize Theron (also judging by the angle of his phone, there's no way she's actually going to be in the frame of the selfie) is by far the most irritating.

Word Count: 3262