Monday, June 30, 2014

These Are The Gays Of Our Lives

Year: 2014
Director: Chris Nelson
Cast: Nicholas Braun, Hunter Cope, Dakota Johnson
Run Time: 1 hour 31 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

I could count the number of good gay comedies I've seen on one hand. But enough bragging. Chris Nelson's microbudget picture Date and Switch, in spite of its warts, is one of the better ones I've seen in several years.

Perhaps the best would be Were the World Mine, an impeccably stylish musical based on A Midsummer Night's Dream. Then you have your Patrik, Age 1.5's, your Hedwig's and your lengthily-titled drag queen road trip comedies (a bizarrely specific subgenre populated by the terrific Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and To Wong Fu Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar). But other than that and a smattering of other standouts, LGBT stories generally eschew comedy, preferring to be immersed in the midst of heady tearjerker drama.

Date and Switch is absolutely less of a personal affair than those classic comedies and has much less to say about the current state of society, but it fits in quite well with 2014's slate of surprisingly pleasant funny flicks.

It's like watching the Empire State Building hang out with a McDonald's.

Michael (Nicholas Braun of the short-lived TV series 10 Things I Hate About You) and Matty (Hunter Cope) are high school best friends despite both actors clearly being at least six years older than me, a third-year college student. I mean, they're old even by the standards of a slasher fan, committed to watching a genre where 20-year-olds routinely claim to be 14.

When they make a pact to lose their virginities before prom, Matty decides it's probably the right time to come out to his best friend, leading them both on a personal journey through what it means to be a gay man and how/if that changes the nature of their relationship.

Things get mixed-up when Michael falls in love with Matty's ex-girlfriend Em (Dakota Johnson) and Matty falls in love with Greg (Zach Cregger), a considerably older young man even by the already considerably old standards this film has set for itself. The fact that Greg had rear-ended Michael's car outside a gay club doesn't earn him a high place in his esteem.

Although his impressive beard probably should.

There are quite a few laugh out loud funny lines sprinkled throughout the film, keeping it popping along at a terrifically brisk pace. I won't list them here, although I did in my notes, rendering them almost entirely useless. And the two leads have an easy chemistry in spite of the wet-behind-the-ears Cope's tendency to slip into overemphasis and indication like a high school drama student. In this vein it is a lovely - and successful - hangout comedy.

What damages the film the most, however, is the total lack of weight and import given to the comic structure set up at the core of the film. What could be a blisteringly funny teen sex farce consistently makes the wrong choice at pivotal moments, turning it into a funny, but rather more low key and tepid affair.

The Midsummer-esque partner swapping is hardly given a second glance, ditto Michael's shrill attempts to assimilate himself into gay culture. And a drunk dinner table scene that could have been the comic centerpiece of the entire thing implodes with a soft whump.

Much like this bubble pile once 2 AM hits.

It's a Blue Ball comedy is what it is, with pristinely poised farcical elements refusing to materialize into something ridiculous and hilarious. And thus I lament the film Date and Switch could have been, despite the fact that the film it is isn't one to brush off right away. It's not often that a friendship between a gay teen and his straight best friend is explored so thoroughly and thoughtfully and with such a funny approach.

As both of them grow up and learn about themselves, Michael realizing that his best friend is the exact same person he always was and Matty realizing he doesn't have to change his life to fit the stereotypes he believes about the gay community, the film proves its worth as a documentation of the travails and realities of modern high school life.

It annoyingly spends way more screen time on the heterosexual half of the storyline, forcing most of the homosexual relationship to take place offscreen, but its heart is in the right place and the story is an important one that hopefully is going to get a lot more coverage in the succeeding years. 

I absolutely would not mind if Date and Switch began the trend of heartwarming comedies that explore teen metamorphosis in a more enlightened age. It's perhaps not a tremendously great film but it would certainly be worth remembering as a pristine example right at the beginning of the movement.

TL;DR: Date and Switch is flawed without a doubt, but carves its path with heart and humor.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 827

Sunday, June 29, 2014

When Harry Met Silly

Year: 2014
Director: David Wain
Cast: Paul Rudd, Amy Poehler, Cobie Smulders
Run Time: 1 hour 23 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

As I make my way through the cinematic landscape of 2014, I'm beginning to notice a pattern. For every tepid comedy film released in 2014, there seems to be a similar and better comedy waiting on the horizon. For every irritating and pointless Zac Efron's That Awkward Moment there's a sprightly and effervescent Zac Efron's Neighbors. For every funny but average Date and Switch (review pending) there's the delightfully twisted They Came Together, our topic for today. And what exactly is that special element that makes all the difference between these sets of paralells?

Randall Park.


OK, maybe the films don't live and die on his performances because he's only ever given bit roles. But I continue to maintain that this man is one of the most underutilized Hollywood performers working today. I'm excited for his appearances in the upcoming comedies The Interview and Sex Tape, despite the fact that every time I see his face I will be reminded of the time I walked into a screen door and sliced my nose open when helping him look for his shoes on the set of Awesome Asian Bad Guys (That's right, I just name dropped. Right in front of your face. What are you gonna do about it, punk?).

Anyway I love the guy and I think that any casting director who agrees with me is worth their salt, making any movie with his presence a more well-cast film across the board than its compatriots. See? I was going somewhere with that.

Because jumpin' bananafrass is They Came Together well-cast. This romantic comedy parody would perish without Amy Poehler's sharp-as-a-tack skewering of clumsy leading ladies and Paul Rudd's beatific smile. The overwhelming sincerity of their performances gives the film the straight face it needs in order to avoid drowning itself in winking, clumsy meta humor.

Although goodness knows I love that too.

They Came Together tells the story of two lovers telling the story of how they met. Molly (Poehler) and Joel (Rudd) are two typical romantic comedy protagonists. He, the successful corporate drone with a cheating girlfriend (Cobie Smulders), she the quirky and klutzy owner of a small candy shop in NYC. When Joel's company, Candy Systems & Research, decides to open up a massive shop across the street from Molly's, this complicates their already reluctant love-hate relationship even more.

This plot provides the basic structure for a battalion of cameos from TV actors including New Girl's Max Greenfield, SNL's Bill Hader and Kenan Thompson, 30 Rock's Jack McBrayer, and The Office's Ellie Kemper and Ed Helms. Much in the vein of the slightly less successful but equally buoyant 2013 comedy The To Do List, the film acts as a sandbox for these actors to break out of their established characters and just have some fun playing around in a feature.

The film begins with its most meta moments, which are frequently its weakest. Although it's funny in small doses, nearly the entire setup for the parody is comprised of winking reminders that this is, in fact, a corny romantic comedy. Now, I love self-aware humor, especially in this vein, but even the most delicious chicken risotto would be ruined by the chef standing over your shoulder and whispering "It's chicken risotto. Go on, taste it. It has all the qualities of a chicken risotto. Look, there's the chicken. There's the risotto. Put those together and guess what you get? Chicken risotto!"

In this case Paul Rudd is the chicken and Amy Poehler is the risotto. If you can't see why, you clearly need to get on my level of sophistication in film analysis.

I'll repeat, this is funny, but just a little wearying, like some of the more blatant "IT'S THE SAME" moments in 22 Jump Street. Luckily, as the movie settles into its narrative, it relaxes and allows itself to explore the winding avenues of absurdist humor and sight gags that populate the genre.

But this is no flimsy Meet the Spartans production here. Somewhere significantly closer to Airplane! (my absolute favorite film comedy of all time) than Date Movie, They Came Together delights in lampooning tropes of the genre rather than merely name dropping specific films and hoping people go "Hey! That was a movie I saw! I guess that means I should laugh." It is at this level on which the film operates at its most inspired, including a scene hilariously mocking a cliché I saw naught but four days ago in The Fault in Our Stars.

For there is practically no other film genre more prone to excessive adherence to formula and rife with trite banality than the romantic comedy. This allows They Came Together to set up gags in the vein of some of the strongest humor from the Golden Age of The Simpsons (which will probably come up a lot on this blog, because I've been watching the entire show for my job), meaning that a familiar joke or story beat will be set up, but subverted at the last second with a bit of twisted humor or negated entirely by literalizing the setup in the most preposterous scenario imaginable, provoking incredulous (and inexorable) laughter at every turn.

One might say it metaphorically throws the leaves in our faces.

With an absurd streak visible from space, the film is certainly one to remember. After a decade and change of increasingly anemic pop culture spoofs, They Came Together might just be the film to set Hollywood pop comedy on the right track again.

It's not perfect. It falls prey to an ill-advised scatological gag and the first half is certainly less promising than the second, but if it doesn't blindside you with wickedly sharp satire and keep you cracking up faster than a glacier in an Emmerich film, I'll eat my keyboard.

TL;DR: They Came Together is a breath of fresh air and one of the best genre spoofs since the parody heyday in the 80's.
Rating: 8/10
Should I Spend Money On This? I think you should. only It's 7 bucks on Amazon VOD! Fun for the whole family! You don't even have to put pants on!
Word Count: 1042

Thursday, June 26, 2014


Year: 2014
Director: Josh Boone
Cast: Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Nat Wolff
Run Time: 2 hours 6 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

Let me attempt to deflect some of the immediate criticism by positing that no, I in fact have not read the massively successful John Green novel upon which The Fault in Our Stars is based. Many would say that this fact might invalidate any negative opinions I have about the film to which I respond: bully. It's a movie. It should tell a story in its own right without the crutch of a couple hundred pages of YA Lit propping it up. 

This is a film with a built-in audience. Those who were fans of the book are almost invariably going to love the movie because it brings to life the things that have been floating around in their heads for years. This kind of wish fulfillment allows them to draw all sorts of entertainment value out of merely watching the characters they have spent so much time with come to life. There is nothing wrong with this. There's nothing wrong with enjoying a movie. That's what it's there for. But if you're a fan you're good to go, so why not skip this review?

Because things are about to get real ugly.

OK, maybe I'm exaggerating a bit. At the very least, The Fault in Our Stars is an unerringly competent movie. It's never so bad as to stop being a decent diversion, but it hardly ever seeks to be more than that. The director exists only to bring the plot from point A to point B, not getting in the way of things with stuff like "style" or "flair." Perhaps the greatest indicator of this films lack of commitment to visual creativity is the default generic color scheme it adopts, all Teal and Orange and no Joy.

She provides the orange.

Although every beat of the plot feels well-worn and familiar, why don't we go through the motions anyway and synopsize a bit? Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) is a young woman suffering from cancer. She spends her days unfulfilled and waiting for death until she meets Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort) in a support group. Their full names are wildly important. I know this because they see fit to repeat them to each other at every opportunity like they get a nickel every time they sneak a surname into the dialogue.

Anyway, Augustus Waters changes Hazel Grace Lancaster's life and perspective with his gung ho worldview and optimistic confidence. She resists at first, but is inevitably drawn into his charm, thus beginning an epic and brief love affair in which they get as much as they can from the world before it takes them away for good. Although the details are different, this is a dyed-in-the-wool teen romance with only a singular plot point that can't be detected from miles away.

And there's a certain comfort in this. There's a reason people keep coming back to these types of movies. But the filmmakers use it as an excuse to truncate certain emotional developments with the assumption that genre fans will already be able to intuit what's going on. This is a big flaw. Sure I can understand  at an intellectual level why Hazel Grace Lancaster is yelling in one scene, but I'd rather have it build naturally from the storyline and characters instead of ramping from Zero to Bad Girls Club in the blink of an eye.

Don't be misled by the smiles. They'll be screaming at each other in a few seconds.

One of the most intriguing (and the most damaging) elements of the film is that Augustus Waters must be one of the first ever examples of a Manic Pixie Dream Guy. For those of you unfamiliar with the Manic Pixie Dream Girl cliché, check out this TV Tropes article. Augustus Waters only exists to provide an emotional turning point for Hazel. He is cheery, relentless, and... kind of a dick.

Perhaps I'm the only person in the world to see things this way but I'm OK with that. And let's be clear I am speaking from an utterly personal level, but at every turn in the first half of the film, Augustus Waters seems to be nothing other than condescending ("It's a metaphor"), pushy, and overwritten. The movie in general can't escape the overwhelmingly booky feeling that suffocates the dialogue, but he shoulders the worst of the burden. The only thing I have to ask is: Is this what people want?

His overly wordy diatribes and his dogged persistence in pursuing Hazel Grace Lancaster (whom he insists on calling Hazel Grace instead of Hazel in a move which I assume is supposed to seem puckish but comes out rather douchey) does nothing for me and in fact actively hurts the later moments in which he has softened and I am supposed to care about his feelings.

At least as written in this film, he is a colossally empty character filled with just enough generic "guy" traits to seem like an active personality. 

Also, who even wears leather anymore? #grumpybrennan

Elgort does what he can with the character and manages to slightly bring him around by the finale, but Woodley delivers by far the superior performance here. She's perhaps a little too sweet to deliver all the hard edges concealed within her dialogue, and both of them are far too hale and hearty to realistically portray disease-stricken teens, but she handles the copious lifted-directly-from-the-book narration with a grace and ease that it certainly doesn't deserve.

Now, let me make this clear. I am not saying the book is poorly written. In fact most of the symbolism and structure contained in these passages is quite lovely. But falling back on direct book quotation is the absolute laziest form of literary adaptation. I'm sure many of you have heard of the filmmaking aphorism "Show, don't tell." The Fault in Our Stars is all about telling us what it means rather than depicting it onscreen in any meaningful way. Frankly, it's too much fault and not enough stars.

And I'm used to my screencaps having way more blood and knives than these. All I'm finding is just PEOPLE. How boring.

One last thing before we go. Movies have been struggling to find a way of assimilating modern technology into their structure. This film uses the method also at use in Neighbors of superimposing emails and texts directly onto the screen. While it's absolutely important to incorporate the prevalence of screens into any depiction of modern society, we're not quite there yet. These texts are intrusive artifice that serve only to bring one out of the movie.

Also, it's really just not as emotional to watch someone text their boyfriend good news rather than say it in person. Or even over the phone. But hey, at least they're trying something new. We'll get there eventually.

All in all, The Fault in Our Stars is an adequate teen movie. It doesn't quite earn the tears it wrings simply by being about what it's about, but it is a fleet-footed and mildly entertaining film despite its lack of aspiration to transcend its genre limitations. Hazel Grace Lancaster and Augustus Waters aren't the most interesting teens and their love story isn't the most resplendent in all the vale, but at the very least it does good on its promise to deliver soapy tragic romance.

TL;DR: The Fault in Our Stars is a middling romance but it's hard to hate.
Rating: 6/10
Should I Spend Money On This? I'd say pass on this one. If you really do desperately want to make yourself cry, steal a friend's HBO Go password and watch A Normal Heart instead.
Word Count: 1295

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Fright Flashback: Parodies

Welcome to Popcorn Culture's newest feature, Fright Flashback! I'm trying to really get going on this whole "blogging" thing by watching at least one new 2014 movie per week for the rest of summer. Alongside this, every week I will be reviewing an old horror movie that shares a theme or genre with the week's big release, a sort of spiritual predecessor. Yes, I'm reworking an idea from Tim Brayton over at Antagony and Ecstasy, so don't say I don't cite my sources.

This week's new release is the Amy Poehler/Paul Rudd romantic comedy parody They Came Together. It's certainly not a huge wide release, but there's no way in hell I'm going to see Transformers: Age of Extinction of my own volition. As the first entry in this new feature, I will be reviewing a horror parody - Shriek If You Know What I Did Last Friday the 13th, because there's even less way in hell I'm subjecting myself to Scary Movie again.

Year: 2000
Director: John Blanchard
Cast: Harley Cross, Simon Rex, Tiffani-Amber Thiessen
Run Time: 1 hour 26 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

I've made a huge mistake. Anybody who willingly picks up a copy (or, in my case, loads on YouTube) of a movie with a title like this knows what they're in for. After being inundated with film after film of joyless "parody" the likes of Scary Movies 1-5, Epic Movie, Meet the Spartans, Date Movie, Vampires SuckDisaster Movie, Ad Nauseum Movie, as well as A Haunted House and its sequel, it's not difficult to ascertain the quality of this film and its humor.

These kinds of dirt cheap pop culture-laden "comedies" pop up on Netflix and RedBox a couple times a year to cash in on whatever the latest craze at the time happens to be. Unfortunately, as long as we keep giving them money, they will continue to thrive, multiplying and choking out other, better comedies like a kudzu vine.

There are only two of this entire mass of films worth noting at all in any capacity, however negligible. Sure, a film like Scary Movie has the historical value of being more or less the first of its kind (crappy pop knockoffs, not parodies) and the beginning of a long and unhappy franchise, but that doesn't mean it's valuable or deserving of note. In fact, it's quite emphatically not, an almost shockingly useless movie that would be reprehensibly offensive if it had any real personal influence over viewers aside from sucking in their money like a collapsing star.

The best of these, in my humble opinion, is 2001's Not Another Teen Movie, which had moments of genuine satire spliced in among the (sometimes literally) explosive amounts of scatological humor. The second best is the one we are here for today. Shriek If You Know What I Did Last Friday the 13th was produced around the same time as Scary Movie and as such is free of its mostly toxic influence. This doesn't mean the two films aren't similar in several very important ways, but the comedy here is much less mean-spirited and tends to fall on the "Oh, Grandpa" side of bad joking rather than the "I'm seriously considering scratching out my eardrums" bad humor of the Scary Movie franchise.

(I understand that there were and continue to be many fans of the Scary Movie franchise, to whom I impart no judgement. There is a way to enjoy just about anything, I just do not possess that capability with this particular set of films.)

There is, however, an easy way to enjoy this film.

SIYKWIDLF13 (holy crap, this is gonna be a rough ride) tells the story of Dawson (Harley Cross), a new student at Bulimia Falls High School. He quickly makes friends with a ragtag band comprised of Slab (Simon Rex, who got his start - and middle and end - in the gay porn industry), a dumb jock; Barbara (Julie Benz, who also played Darla in Buffy and Angel), the Sarah Michelle Gellar type popular girl; Boner (Danny Strong, also of Buffy and - holy crap this is the guy who wrote The Butler and is working on the screenplay for Mockingjay how did he get here), the sexless nerd; and Martina (Majandra Delfino, who continues her career in terrible comedy to this day, having appeared in the quickly aborted Van Der Beek sitcom Friends With Better Lives), who is about as clear an analogue to Clea DuVall's The Faculty character Stokes as a person can be without actively being in that movie.

A mask-wearing killer begins to strike down local teens (well, he tries, but dagnabbit if they always seem to die accidentally before he can get to them) and a hawkish reporter (Tiffani-Amber Thiessen) descends on the scene looking for the inside scoop. Obviously, much like Scary Movie, this film makes the incredibly strange decision to parodize Scream, which was already the sharpest horror satire of the 90's. Luckily the plot is hung on a Scream-like structure, but the jokes are all aimed at the more general 90's horror scene and especially the oeuvre of one Kevin Williamson.

They were more thorough in satirizing his entire career than he was in creating it.

Let's stay on that for a second, because that's where this film rises above all its brethren. While there are plenty of pop culture references in this film, they are much less odious than the "cram whatever movie is out right now haphazardly into a gag" mentality of those other films thanks to being unified under the umbrella of the remarkably prodigious Williamson. The best jokes arise naturally from this well of content (including, by the year 2000, Halloween H20, Scream, Scream 2, The Faculty, and I Know What You Did Last Summer) as well as the general slate of Scream knockoffs that dominated  the horror of the decade like a militaristic tyrant bent on demanding the sacrifice of scantily-clad starlets.

Aside from this, SIYKWIDLF13 has nothing exciting to offer. The performances are exactly what you'd expect from the direct-to-video crowd, although the level to which the actors aren't taking their roles seriously adds a little bit of texture and a sense of what I hesitantly call "fun." It rather feels like a movie I could have made with my friends in high school, had I gotten into the horror genre much earlier than I did. Which, incidentally, was only about three years ago. I work fast. Go hard or go home, as my grandmother always says.

So, yes. This film is not without its merits, although for obvious reasons these don't serve in any way to make it operate on a level that could quite be considered Good or Funny in any traditional sense. All I can say is that despite clumsily handled jokes about domestic abuse, homosexuality, and molestation, this film is much less tawdry and offensive than it could have been and for that it's worth the relatively high stature of second best.

When you check out the score, you'll see that's not exactly worth much, but hey. It's better than a swift kick in the groin.

TL;DR: Shriek If You Know What I Did Last Friday the 13th isn't good at all, but at least it's not Scary Movie.
Rating: 3/10
Word Count: 1218

Monday, June 23, 2014

Census Bloodbath: Black(Jack) Magic

Year: 1986
Director: W. G. MacMillan
Run Time: approx. 1 hour 30 minutes

Yesterday, Sergio and I were lucky enough to attend the world theatrical premiere for the 1986 crime horror Cards of Death, a film otherwise thought to be lost in time. Written in 24 hours and shot on video by a disgruntled actor abandoning the studio system, the film was only ever distributed on Japanese VHS by a company known as Exciting Video, Cards of Death hasn't been seen in America for over 25 years. In fact, the film is so forgotten that it doesn't even have a page on IMDb. My student film has a page on IMDb! But no. Even according to the most thorough film compendium known to man and woman, this movie does not and should not exist.

Oh, but it does. One of the lost tapes has recently resurfaced and is being put into distribution by a new VHS-only label run by the guys from Bleeding Skull. So, thanks to the efforts of these brave men, I can actually write this entry in my Census Bloodbath feature, something I had serious doubts was ever going to happen. It's been a truly special experience and I'm eternally grateful to The Cinefamily for making sure that films like these don't go unnoticed.

For obvious reasons, this review is going to be slightly different than most of my Census Bloodbath posts. Thanks to the utter lack of an IMDb page and the fact that my hand isn't fast enough to scribble down every name in the credits, I have no idea who acted in this movie, so I can't include any details about the cast, save for what I can recall. Also, there are only about six pictures of this film circulating the Internet, all of them small enough to fit inside Leatherface's brain cavity.

You have been warned.

Trying to describe Cards of Death in terms of any established film genre is like trying to nail a slippery spaghetti noodle to the wall - a futile and unrewarding task. It is typically described as a slasher film, which is not entirely untrue thanks to the gory killings and the metronomic frequency with which they occur, but most of the typical tropes of the genre as established by 1986 (large man with a variety of edged weapons, ample teen victims, and a virtuous Final Girl) aren't even in the conversation at all. In fact, they're all the way across the room making out in the corner and wondering just who this Jay Gatsby is, after all.

The story goes a little something like this. Every Wednesday night, an illicit card game occurs in an abandoned warehouse, hosted by the evil mastermind Hog and his sexy leather/swastika-clad sidekick Harley Quinn Tracy. The game itself is different every night, but it is always played with a deck of tarot cards and the winner has 24 hours to kill the loser, or else forfeit their massive reward - and their life.

On the other side of things, the police are working tirelessly to discover the reason all these mutilated bodies keep appearing every Thursday morning. Basically it's a 70's grindhouse murder thriller dolled up in New Wave fashions and sensibilities.

And a thick layer of grime.

Let's stop right there for a second, because the New Wave visual schema is the single most important element of the entire film. Without it, Cards of Death would be decent enough for a crappy shot-on-video crime potboiler, but in its presence, it transcends its limitations and becomes a manic phantasmagoria of sin.

Hog's den of gambling, debauchery, murder, and rhinestone bracelets is one of the most enthusiastically lit and designed locations I've ever seen in a low budget production. It's hardly even a space (this sense is further compounded by the extreme focus on close-ups typical of the shot-on-video style), but rather a pure sensation formed with impressive swaths of color and jagged neon. Searing greens, blues, and reds dominate the color scheme in a way that no film after Suspiria has managed to capture better.

The card room exists in some alternate universe where time stands still and impressions rule over concrete fact. The players all wear unnatural masks that obscure their humanity, the editing runs full tilt into the experimental (especially when depicting the bald man that constantly watches over the games but never seems to take physical presence within the room, but is always lurking and quietly judging), and the enthusiastic if unskilled Herschell Gordon Lewis-style gore pushes it all over the edge. Pretty impressive for a room with walls covered in garbage bags.

This atmosphere is incontestably what makes the film unique and utterly engrossing and luckily it is present more or less from start to finish, wreaking havoc on the senses in a way that the supremely annoying theme music (an endlessly repeating "refrain" that sounds like a slowly deflating balloon being beaten to death by a party horn - one supposes that John Williams was out of the office that week) simply can not despite its gargantuan effort to do so.

This is the only good picture I can find for the film on the entire Internet, but man is it a great example of what I'm talking about.

It's a good thing, too because the rest of the movie is seedy as all get out, but in a rather deliriously charming and cheesy vein. The acting is of a piece dreadful, save for those playing the villains, although their performances are solely effective because their characters are intentionally unfeeling and inexpressive.

And the production design of any building that isn't the den of Hog and his Cabal is, shall we say, haphazard. A "police station" is clearly just somebody's house halfheartedly disguised by throwing a constantly ringing phone into the soundscape. Somebody should really answer that, it could be an emergency.

The gore is fascinatingly squelchy (A police captain gets his nose chopped off in the first five minutes) and the topless scenes ludicrously sleazy (Tracy and Hog smear blood on each other, Tracy tries to get a bound prisoner to suck on her nipple -also we get a pretty hunky shirtless man), which is all I've ever asked for out of these things, but the last 25 minutes or so becomes a slog as the story resolutely refuses to end, instead opting out by adding more and more "erotic" scenes that so inundate the viewer that it hardly even registers when a woman begins yowling like a cat.

There's something to be said about sensory overload, but I prefer the more restrained mania of the first half to the ineffectual piffle of the second, although it never loses its humor entirely. It certainly would have been a better film given a higher budget and more than 24 hours to work out the kinks at the story level (I'd certainly love to see this film remade with more considerable means), but for the most part it is engrossing even when it's merely a routine police procedural and especially in the villain's orgiastic den of evil.

Killer: Hog and his Cabal
Final Girl: Ha! This movie defies your genre tropes and all they stand for.
Best Kill: Father Morse is impaled on a fencepost and, when he is pulled down, his organs snap like turkey giblets.
Sign of the Times: Holy crap, I wish I could show you all the make-up that was happening on this screen. Unforgettable.
Scariest Moment: Take your pick of the psychedelic card game scenes.
Weirdest Moment: The clue that Captain Twain left was a doodle of a pig. The cops realize that it's actually a hog and dismay at his drawing skills as if there was some major visual difference between the two that could have been solved by improved art skills. It then takes about a full minute of repeating hog to themselves to realize that the culprit was probably the one guy in the movie who's named Hog.
Champion Dialogue: "I'm starting to hate Wednesday nights. Especially when you find dead bodies Thursday mornings."
Body Count: 8
  1. Ed is axed in the chest and has his face cut with barbed wire.
  2. Father Michael Morse is impaled on a wrought iron fence. 
  3. Tanda is shot to death.
  4. Map is crushed to death in a shrinking room.
  5. Card Player #1 is crushed to death offscreen.
  6. Card Player #2 is crushed to death offscreen.
  7. Tracy is strangled.
  8. Hog is impaled on a gardening tool. 
TL;DR: Cards of Death is an uneven shot-on-video film that lives and dies on its thrilling aesthetic.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1441

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Census Bloodbath: Santa Claus Is Going To Town

Year: 1980
Director: Lewis Jackson
Cast: Brandon Maggart, Jeffrey DeMunn, Dianne Hull
Run Time: 1 hour 33 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

As I've stated several times before, I'm having trouble getting through the back end of 1980 in my Census Bloodbath project, and Christmas Evil, more than anything else, was the reason why. You see, I screened this film several years ago at one of my Christmas Slasher parties and it killed the mood entirely, proving itself to be a dreadful, uninteresting slog.

As such, I had some severe post-traumatic stress dealing with the fact that, according to the very strict rules I have set for myself to provide you with an accurate and entertaining Census Bloodbath, I had to rewatch it. It's hard enough putting on a film like Terror on Tour and pretending that the obviously murky production values could be hiding a good movie inside, but its downright torture staring at a film on the list that I absolutely know is going to be a train wreck.

Luckily Motel Hell provided me a boost of energy that allowed me to choke Christmas Evil down so I can get on with my life. And now that it's over, I never have to think about the film ever again. You know, once I get out this 1,000 word review about it.

That's about 167 words per Santa.

Holiday-themed slashers would soon become a mainstay in the decadent 80's subgenre (and were, in fact, quite firmly established before this film ever came out with Black Christmas, Halloween, To All A Goodnight, and Terror Train) with Christmas slashers especially emerging as a fan favorite, but unfortunately both of the Yuletide Fear movies from the first year of the genre's existence were an utter wash.

Our story begins on Christmas Eve, 1947 (and the further we get away from the 80's, the more ancient these flashbacks seem) when young Harry Stadling (played by Gus Salud as a child and Brandon Maggart as an adult) sneaks out of his bedroom to see Santa Claus, but instead sees his father dressed in a Santa outfit... trimming his mother's tree, shall we say.

The sex is tame enough for a film of this pedigree, but young Harry is mortified, especially considering that he doesn't realize that (SPOILERS) Santa doesn't exist and the man behind his beard is actually his father. Instead of posting a "That Awkward Moment" status on Facebook like a well-adjusted human being, Harry runs up to the attic and cuts himself on a shard of snowglobe glass.

I must confess I had a similar reaction.

Cut to present day and it would seem that our Harry hasn't adjusted as well as one might have hoped. His apartment is decorated with Santa memorabilia, he keeps "Naughty" and "Nice" lists of the neighborhood children (Moss Garcia is the naughtiest of them all and - because there's nothing else going on - the primary antagonist of this supremely unfocused film) and, randomly, he channels Mr. Bean when shaving in the mirror. He works at the Jolly Dream toy factory and loves every minute of it until he realizes that two of his coworkers, the money-grubbing George (Peter Friedman) and the douchey ditcher Frank (Joe Jamrog), aren't partaking of the proper Christmas spirit.

All of this boils down to 45 minutes of Harry interacting with rude people, then returning to his apartment to overact while doing generically chilling things like play with dolls or use a crucible in a room filled with headless figurines. Reading that sentence is scarier than the actual scenes when you remember that Maggart is taking a page out of Rowan Atkinson's book rather than, say, Gunnar Hansen.

The second half of the film, which should for all intents and purposes be the more interesting of the two, is just as aimless as the first. On Christmas Eve, Harry dresses up as Santa and alternates between seeking goreless revenge on his coworkers and spreading Christmas cheer among the local children. Except Moss Garcia. Screw that guy.

The most evil thing about him is that bowl cut.

There's some deeply embedded twaddle about "he's insane because parents don't believe in Santa/the spirit of the holiday" and "I'm gonna make them dance to my tune," but mostly the film dawdles on one lengthy pointless scene after another.

It's a little bit like taking the SAT, really. It's divided neatly into segments (Harry donates toys to a hospital; Harry kills three people at a church; Harry dances at a holiday party; Harry smothers Frank in his bed), all of them taking much longer than you feel is really necessary. Except, unlike the SAT where there's always a chance of a good score, there's no reward for watching Christmas Evil. Just endless pain and tedium.

The death scenes are confoundingly edited, presumably to hide the low budget prosthetics, but to the detriment of narrative efficacy, ruining the one thing that could have boosted the film up a grade or two. Alas, as it stands, the killings are few and far between (of the parsimonious four in the film, three occur within several seconds of one another and the editing is such that all but the most sharp-eyed of unfortunate audience members won't even realize it happened to multiple people until we see the aftermath) and the gore is underwhelming.

At least the murders are all holiday themed (we see a sack, a toy soldier, and a star put to good, bloody use), so that gives us a leg up on To All A Goodnight. Then again, merely having a lighting designer would give a film a leg up over To All A Goodnight so perhaps it's not something to brag about.

This frame cost more than that entire movie.

There are exactly three things that make the film worth thinking about, although I would argue that nothing makes the film worth watching. The first, and most important, is the music and sound design by Don Christensen, Joel Harris, and Julia Heyward. None of them have done anything of note (pun intended) since 1980, but their manic hellish soundscape is by far the most interesting thing the movie has going on.

When it's not resounding with atonal mockeries of traditional Christmas carols, the soundtrack is working overtime, filling the scenes with rattling sleighbells, jangling chords, and random bits and bobs that effectively propel the theme of one man's descent into madness even when the dialogue and performance do not.

The second is the presence of Jeffrey DeMunn (The Walking Dead's Dale) as Harry's brother Phillip. He's not particularly good and his hair makes me want to stab my eyes out with scissors (come to think of it, maybe that's what his stylist did before cutting it), but it's always interesting to see a well-known actor flounder through the B-movie slums.

The third and final element is the ending, and if you care at all - which hopefully this review has prevented, please feel free to skip to the next section. You see, the film ends with Harry driving off a cliff and flying his van into the night sky as he recites the final lines of "The Night Before Christmas." It's heartwarming and fantastical in a way that every single frame of the film that came before it patently isn't and it's delightfully, criminally insane.

So, in conclusion, never ever watch Christmas Evil. I've done so twice now and look where I am. Don't be me. Stay in school. Eat your vegetables. Never ever put Christmas Evil in your Netflix Queue.

Killer: Harry Stadling (Brandon Maggart)
Final Girl: This is the first and only slasher film I've seen in which there's not even a hint of a protagonist survivor, male or female. This break from formula does not improve it in any way.
Best Kill: A man is stabbed in the eye with the bayonet of a toy soldier.
Sign of the Times: There are actual human people working on a toy assembly line.
Scariest Moment: Harry smiles warmly at the children right after slitting their father's throat.
Weirdest Moment: The protracted scene in which Harry dances to accordion music with a little girl right after his church massacre.
Champion Dialogue: "I wished I was super magic."
Body Count: 4
  1. George gets a toy soldier in the eye.
  2. Charles gets axed in the head.
  3. Mean Church lady gets axed in the head.
  4. Frank gets smothered with a sack and his throat is slit with a tree star. 
TL;DR: Christmas Evil is uneven and dreadfully dull.
Rating: 3/10
Word Count: 1431

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Census Bloodbath: Motel Sux

Year: 1980
Director: Kevin Connor
Cast: Rory Calhoun, Paul Linke, Nancy Parsons
Run Time: 1 hour 41 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

As it turns out, Motel Hell is barely even a slasher at all, but I sure am glad I watched it. This strange little film has a checkered past, beginning as a script passed around by Tobe Hooper in the late 70's fresh off of the queasy success of his masterpiece The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. It was deemed too dark and disturbing even for Hooper himself to direct so it was shopped around for years, changed into a black comedy, and given to up-and-comer Kevin Connor.

I can't speak for audiences in 1980, but after thirty something years, the comedy has all but aged out of Motel Hell (save one laugh out loud funny line toward the end). When held up against the mess of unintentionally hilarious films that came out between 1981 and 1989, the premise doesn't seem so absurd, not that the comedy was necessarily even a hit the first time around. Basically, it just seems like a particularly dumb horror flick played straight.

But the fact remains that, comedy or no comedy, this weird little grindhouse holdover is idiosyncratic to the extreme. It's almost completely goreless, but it wins you over with tremendously strange performances and, occasionally, surprisingly well-executed scare sequences.

This is not one of them.

It goes like this. Farmer Vincent (Rory Calhoun, who was once a handsome young swain who shared the screen with no less than Marilyn Monroe several times over his career) and his sister Ida (Nancy Parsons, who holds the high distinction of being in all three Porky's movies) own a backwoods lodging, Motel Hello. One of the letters on the sign is burned out. Can you guess which one?

To pass the time, they ambush passing cars, bury their victims in the garden, cutting their vocal cords, feeding them through funnels to fatten them up, and serving them to community as Farmer Vincent's Smoked Meats. Hey, this was before the Internet. I mean, what else are you gonna do?

One day, when Farmer Vincent takes out a couple on a motorcycle in the middle of the night, he falls for the beauty of the girl, Terry (Nina Axelrod) and takes her in to recover against Ida's wishes (at this point I still thought she was his wife because their sibling relationship is not made clear until the least comfortable moment). When she wakes up, she is distraught to learn that her boyfriend Bo (Everett Creach) perished in the crash.

Little does she know that her boyfriend is closer than he seems. He's buried in the garden gurgling for help (seriously, that vocal cord thing is chilling) alongside Bob the Pig Inspector (E. Hampton Beagle) and a local rock band known as Ivan and the Terribles, one of whom is played by Pixar favorite John Ratzenberger.

The more you know.

For the bulk of the film, Motel Hell ineptly juggles two tones - the horrific scenes that take place within the garden of heads while Vince and Ida trade idle chitchat and the "funny"/ idyllic country moments like when Ida and Terry go inner tubing or Sheriff Bruce (Paul Linke), Vince's little brother, chases lovers away from make-out point so he and Terry can watch a drive-in movie through binoculars.

Without a doubt the horrific scenes (like the one where the victims rise from the dirt like zombies) are much more effective overall, which is startlingly unique for the horror-comedy genre, which typically favors the funnier scenes. It's a good thing too, because without the interesting frights that Motel Hell provides, it would be a rudderless and bland flick with only a few strange elements thrown in for flavor.

Because, let me tell you, this movie is strange. At one point Terry tries to sleep with Farmer Vincent, easily thirty years her senior, and immediately accepts his proposal of marriage, presumably so she can take this withered old man to pound town.

Maybe she saw him in How to Marry a Millionaire and is willing to pretend.

Then there's the climactic final battle in which Vincent puts a pig head over his own and has a chainsaw fight with his little brother. This image is the most iconic from the film, but it's utter nonsense in context. There's no reason for him to cover his face because everybody involved knows who he is. Presumably, he can't see at all because a pig head is, you know, solid. And the chainsaw fight isn't even played for laughs. It's merely a happenstance with no musical accompaniment and very very poor fight choreography.

At least it looks rad.

Because of the chainsaws and the grindhouse premise, as well as the previous attachment of Tobe Hooper, Motel Hell has been commonly compared to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. This isn't entirely inaccurate, but people are missing the point. Because there's an even better reason to compare it.

Both films are what I like to call Vegetarian Conversion Dramas, depicting humans being treated like animals in a slaughterhouse and used for food. Although it is obviously unfair to compare any horror film to Texas Chain Saw, especially something as inconsequential as Motel Hell, this is an important thematic through line in both films and should absolutely be addressed.

Obviously Hooper's grimy classic does it better, but Motel Hell isn't one to scoff at. One of the scenes where the horror and the comedy blend most perfectly is when Vincent and Ida hypnotize three of the Terribles, then snap their necks painlessly in a manner quite similar to how cows are typically offed. It's horrifying and it really makes you think about how you would feel if you were one of the animals trapped on a ranch and fattened up only to be killed, never given freedom or love.

Mind you, I'm not gonna stop eating steak, but the mere fact that the film implores you to take this position shows that it has more of a head on its shoulders than it seems.

A pig head, to be precise.

So without a doubt it's an intriguing gem to mine despite its enthusiastically poor quality. The gore is not all there and the performances range from shriekingly unbearable (Elaine Joyce as a swinger who likes to use a whip) to hit-in-the-head-before-every-scene woozy (Nina Axelrod. Oh, Nina.). Luckily, the film can rely on Calhoun and Parsons to provide its hectic energy, but the production values aren't exactly impressive.

And let's talk about that Final Girl, shall we? Terry is a woman who, for absolutely no reason, decides to stay with the Smiths after her accident. Where was she even going before her motorcycle crashed? She has no internal drive whatsoever and is perfectly content to marry an elderly man she just met because, well, hell if I know.

She's a guileless airhead who manages to get herself knocked out at least four times over the course of the movie and ends up tied to a meat processing machine like a silent film actress on the railroad tracks. When your film has the exact same gender representation of a movie from the 20's, we're going to have an issue, you and me. I'm not even going to mention how she awards herself to Vincent and then Bruce as a prize to be won after saving her life.

Whoops, I mentioned it. I shouldn't let myself boil over about gender politics in a 1980's movie because goodness knows there's worse coming, but seriously? This is the best we can do for our female lead? Anyway, Motel Hell was OK. There's issues with gore, acting, visuals, you name it, but there's enough charm in the villains and enough fear in the whole exercise to keep it going down smoothly as one of the weirder late-period grindhouse works.

Killer: Farmer Vincent (Rory Calhoun) and Ida Smith (Nancy Parsons)
Final Girl: Terry (Nina Axelrod)
Best Kill: Ida gets what she deserves - namely, being buried headfirst in the soil.
Sign of the Times: Debbie's friend likes to dress casual when she drives. Nothing fancy, just her shiny silver jacket over hot pink pants. Throw in those white boots and you're traveling in comfort and style.
Scariest Moment: Bob the Inspector approaches a bag-covered object on the ground as it emits a guttural watery noise.
Weirdest Moment: Two swingers stop by and are too busy cracking whips at lamps, shaving themselves, and smearing nut lotion on each other to notice that Vincent and Ida aren't merely seeking some relaxing bondage play.
Champion Dialogue: "We'd like to continue to enjoy your meat, Mr. Smith."
Body Count: 7
  1. Debbie is drowned in her car.
  2. Sideshow Bob Terrible has his neck snapped by a noose. 
  3. Dreadlock Beard Terrible has his neck snapped by a noose.  
  4. Terrible Goatee Terrible has his neck snapped by a noose. 
  5. Ida is buried headfirst in the ground.
  6. Bo is strangled to death.
  7. Farmer Vincent is chainsawed in the torso.
TL;DR: Motel Hell is a strange little creature that's worth a look for enthusiasts of toothless grindhouse.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1528

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Let The Bodies Hit The Floor

Hello everybody! Now that I'm comfortably a tenth of the way into my Census Bloodbath project (ONLY a tenth. I know! There's so many!), I've actually decided to adjust the formatting a little bit. In case you hadn't already noticed, after the body count number in each review, I am now putting a more detailed list of exactly who dies and how they die.

I abstained from doing this at first because I didn't want to "spoil" anything but I decided that that's nonsense, and considering that a good number of these films are barely covered at all, my blog will be one of the only sources of information on the topic, so I wanted to have as much accurate information as possible to help people who - for whatever strange reason - need that information quickly and don't have time to watch the movies.

So my new reviews have been incorporating that feature and I have worked to retrofit all my past reviews to fit the new structure. A couple of them are a little less precise than I want them to be at the moment because some of these movies are so rancid I don't want to peruse them to harvest character names, but they are accurate as much as I can get them.

Just for organization's sake, and because it's a nice way to look back at all the work that I've already done, here's a link list for the slasher reviews that I've already published (all of them are retrofitted to the best of my ability). Look at me go. Only 250 or so left on the docket.

Wes Craven's New Nightmare
Word Count: 464