Friday, October 31, 2014

Board To Death

Year: 2014
Director: Stiles White
Cast: Olivia Cooke, Ana Coto, Daren Kagasoff
Run Time: 1 hour 29 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

Happy Halloween, everybody! I can hardly think of a better way to celebrate with you all than by reviewing the latest dumbass teen horror flick laboriously shoved into theaters to fill the recently-vacated Paranormal Activity slot. Last year we got the remake of Carrie, which was better than it had any right to be. This year we get Ouija - a film adaptation of a board game adaptation of an ancient spiritual device because Hollywood has devoured every last morsel of the horror pie and is now licking the tin.

Truth be told, it's not as bad as it could have been. But seeing as how its Bad potential was a bottomless pit of existential despair and its Good potential was - at maximum - a noncommittal shrug, this doesn't say much about Ouija. And by scraping its way to being halfway watchable, it ruins any potential camp value with its aggressive mediocrity. Oh well. Let's not pretend that modern teen horror was going to get any better than this.

And nowadays we just communicate with the undead through Twitter, so this is sorely outdated.

Ouija's story is as old as the wise oak tree, but we'll run through it briefly anyway. Debbie (Shelly Hennig) and her friend Laine (The Quiet Ones' Olivia Cooke) used to play with the Ouija board when they were kids, but while their friendship has persevered, the tradition has not. But when Debbie is found hanging from her rafters on a string of Christmas lights like a macabre department store display, Laine suspects that a Ouija board in her room has something to do with it.

She gathers her smarmily hot friends to use the Ouija one last time in an attempt to contact her dead friend's spirit and find out what really happens. These friends include Pete (Douglas Smith of Stage Fright), Debbie's now ex-boyfriend; Trevor (Daren Kagasoff), Laine's unctuous beau who says totally rational things like "Don't worry about the noise. It's just an old house." and does totally normal human teen things like walk his bike through dark runoff tunnels after trying to contact the spirit of his dead friend; Isabelle (Bianca A. Santos), the requisite friend who doesn't want anything to do with this, you guys; and Sarah (Ana Coto), Laine's little punk rocker of a sister who she drags along in order to prevent her from hanging out with her much older (and presumably much hotter, though he unfortunately never appears onscreen) boyfriend. This character dynamic seems promising until it doesn't.

And let me tell you, spelling words one letter at a time just isn't as scary as they want it to be.

Obviously the spirit they end up contacting is something much less banal than Debbie's bland teenage ghost complaining about how bad the Wifi service is in the void. Rather, the entity they do come into contact with is the restless spirit of James Wan's The Conjuring, available now on DVD and Blu-Ray. With an evil old woman who opens her mouth wide and points at things and a supporting performance by Insidious' Lin Shaye, Ouija plumbs Wan and Whannell's playbook, mangling their favorite tropes for a healthy dose of paranormal insipidity.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Horror has always been recursive, bringing old elements into new stories to remix and refashion them. James Wan's films themselves are absolutely not free of borrowed elements. If cinematic influences were patches on a film's sleeve, The Conjuring would be that punk rock kid with the denim jacket that hated everyone in high school. But in Ouija its numerous borrowed tropes (including the morally dubious Magical Latina who teaches the teens about how not to screw around with spirits) are displayed with no aplomb, simply recycling what's easy and so shopworn it can't not be successful in some cases - at least in providing momentary, unexemplary thrills.

But the result of all this pilfering is that Ouija turns into a mixed bag of paranormal tropes and jump scares (a whole bunch of investigating strange noises and villains that you see too much of to be scary, with a little bit of found footage thrown in, cuz that's been popular lately), neither creating an effective atmosphere nor putting its own personal stamp on the genre. It's just the same old milquetoast genre fare that audiences are (hopefully) really starting to get tired of Hollywood spoon-feeding to them.

Wanna know another thing that's not scary? The word "planchette."

Everything in the film is half-hearted from the PG-13 gore on down. Once we reach the level of character, forget about it. Emotional beats are skated over at Olympic aptitude levels. Everyone is super sad Debbie died because that's in the exposition, but once Isabelle kicks it, her friends are all "Isabelle who?" And when Pete is inexplicably stricken with a case of floss-mouth - watch the trailer, it's nonsense - he's spirited away from the film with a single cryptic text message (the film makes an argument for the increased integration of modern technology in cinema but not enough to give it more than a passing nod, let alone a paragraph).

I can think of worse ways to spend 90 minutes than watching attractive characters make bad decisions for 90 minutes, but Ouija is so entirely toothless. It attempts to hide its deficiencies behind a couple decent shock scares, but there's no reason to seek out this film unless you are stricken - like Yours Truly - with Genre Completist Syndrome.

TL;DR: Ouija is nothing more nothing less than average teen popcorn horror.
Rating: 5/10
Should I Spend Money On This? No, especially not while the delightfully macabre The Book of Life is still in theaters. Or check out Daniel Radcliffe in Horns, out today!
Word Count: 977
Reviews In This Series
Ouija (White, 2014)
Ouija: Origin of Evil (Flanagan, 2016)

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Cardboard Science: Michael Rennie Was Ill

Part of Popcorn Culture's October festivities is a crossover feature with my friend Hunter over at Kinemalogue. He will be taking on three Census Bloodbath titles while I face three artifacts from one of his regular features - Cardboard Science, which explores science fiction B-movies from the 1950's. I've previously reviewed 1953's Invaders From Mars and his recent review of My Bloody Valentine is an excellent discussion of the socioeconomic themes of that film as well as its place in the slasher pantheon.

Year: 1951
Director: Robert Wise
Cast: Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal, Hugh Marlowe
Run Time: 1 hour 32 minutes
MPAA Rating: N/A

There is perhaps no better example of the thematic potential of the B-movie than The Day the Earth Stood Still. The beauty of these tricky little films was that, since they were low-budget romps tossed-off on the back of a studio film to rake in a tidy profit, producers kinda didn't care about them. This allowed the filmmakers to pour all sorts of ire about the state of society (and in the 1950's what a society it was - rigid suburban families ignoring the plight of the urban folk, the imminent threat of nuclear disaster - it was a hoot and a half) into the subtext of surface-level tales about robots and ray guns and flying saucers.

We'll discuss the specific details of The Day the Earth Stood Still and its deeper meanings a little later in this review, but the sheer scope of this film's marriage of political sociology and science fiction tropes is nearly unparalleled and worth mentioning at every salient point of an analytical discussion.

Especially because the surface level isn't exactly Kubrickian spectacle.

One of the best things about the plot of The Day the Earth Stood Still is that it starts right away, no frills. After the opening sequence, an Unidentified Flying Object lands on the National Mall in Washington, D. C. And by the ten-minute mark, a robot is already disintegrating tanks with his laser vision. Talk about hitting the ground running!

After a bit, the film settles down into a more domestic plot that, while significantly less exciting, never ceases to entertain. Klaatu (Michael Rennie) is an alien visitor seeking to spread a message from his peaceful culture to all nations of the Earth. When the American Secretary deems this impossible, Klaatu escapes the hospital where he's being held and takes up residence in a nearby boarding house while the authorities are on the hunt for him.

Luckily for Klaatu he speaks English and looks exactly like Michael Rennie so he can blend in no problem. Through two neighbors - obligatory golly gosh gee whiz young boy Bobby (Billy Gray) and his single mother Helen (Patricia Neal) - he learns about the good side of humanity while the government and the military hasten to provide a counterargument.

Behold! The most hideous, vile alien creature to visit Earth! Pictured here with his friend Klaatu.

All this is pretty bog-standard material for films of this pedigree. The special effects likewise don't quite lift The Day the Earth Stood Still above and beyond its peers: Klaatu's robot pal Gort (Lock Martin, who not only wasn't a robot, he wasn't even an actor - he was just a conspicuously tall doorman at Grauman's Chinese Theater and if that's not the most Hollywood thing you've ever heard, please stop watching TMZ) looks rather wrinkled at the kneecaps and the spaceship itself looks culled from the papier mâché department of the 99 Cent Store.

But trust me, we're not here to mock the film. Special effects were not what they are now and the budgets for these things could hardly buy you a pack of crackers after inflation, so the craftsmanship is actually quite admirable given the circumstances (especially notable is the seamless way the ship's ramp emerges from its smooth side). And they must have blown quite a bit of their cash on a series of shots that depict the UFO's impact around the world, which gives the film a vitally necessary sense of scope it couldn't possibly have achieved otherwise.

Très scope.

But all of these trappings and pomp and circumstance serve a marvelous purpose, underscoring the film's major thematic through line that manages to be powerfully bold without tipping into the "annoyingly preachy" zone. There is an obvious Christ metaphor that runs along the whole thing (Klaatu preaches a message of peace, is destroyed by the people he seeks to save, and is resurrected to spread his final words), but even that plays second fiddle to the throbbing heart of the film's politics.

The Day the Earth Stood Still denounces the violence and warmongering of human society - America included, in an audacious furor perhaps unmatched by any film released under the Hays Code (a startlingly strict censorship code that applied to all movies between the 30's and the 50's - read more here.). Klaatu denounces American culture's reliance on violence and their substitution of fear for reason. When he approaches them seeking peace, their only response is to strike him down merely because they don't understand him.

This film is driven a powerful, timeless message that applies even in today's world. Xenophobia in America reached a peak following the events of September 11th, 2001, and we as a culture continue to tamp down on any coalition that seeks to advance the welfare of those who are different than the "average." Fear continues to fuel the workings of society and, according to Klaatu and his BFF Gort (who actually is kind of terrifying, the void behind his visor when he prepares to shoot his laser blasts is chilling to the bone), this will lead to our downfall. If we're not destroyed by ourselves, we'll surely be eliminated by someone else in self-defense.

Although political themes weren't at all uncommon in B-movies like this, it's utterly rare to find a film so fundamentally impactful that it rings true throughout the ages and provides enough food for thought to feed a family of four. My numerical rating of The Day the Earth Stood Still is but a matter of personal and aesthetic taste as a filmgoer, but the message that lives on through it is undeniably important and skillfully honed.

That which is indistinguishable from magic:
  • The aliens not only have a device that stops all electricity on the planet, but also stops cars dead in their tracks so they don't crash into each other. Either that or the whole world was in gridlock traffic before it happened. That really would be the Day the Earth Stood Still, amirite?
  • Through insurmountable witchery, two movies tickets cost Klaatu and Bobby only two dollars total. 
The morality of the past, in the future!:
  • When a single mother goes on a date with a man, it takes only the space of a cut for the film to explain that her husband died in the war. You know, so we know there's no funny business going on.
  • Somehow Tom and Helen are both totally OK with leaving Bobby to putz around Washington D. C. with a total stranger in order for them to go out. Even in the 1950's, the thirst is real.
  • When visiting the Lincoln Memorial, even Klaatu agrees that he must have been a great man. USA! USA!
  • After being brought back to life, Klaatu insists that only the Almighty Spirit can resurrect a soul. You can taste the producers' notes from here.
  • The Day the Earth Stood Still is the first movie mentioned in the classic opening number from The Rocky Horror Picture Show - "Science Fiction, Double Feature" - so we know it's hella legit (I use casual language sometimes! Engage with my writing!). If a sci-fi movie is not in that song, it's not real. That's the rule.
  • The alien phrase that calms Gort down - "Klaatu barada nikto" - was later used by Sam Raimi in Army of Darkness, which makes this film über hella legit. Rad.
TL;DR: The Day the Earth Stood Still is powerful and impactful beneath its cheesy special effects.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1346
Cardboard Science on Popcorn Culture
2014: Invaders from Mars (1953) The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) Them! (1954)
2015: The Giant Claw (1957) It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955) The Brain from Planet Arous (1957)
2016: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) Godzilla (1954) The Beginning of the End (1957)
2017: It Conquered the World (1958) I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958) Forbidden Planet (1956)
2018: The Fly (1958) Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman (1958) Fiend Without a Face (1958)
2019: Mysterious Island (1961) Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964) Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)

Census Bloodbath on Kinemalogue
2014: My Bloody Valentine (1981) Pieces (1982) The Burning (1981)
2015: Terror Train (1980) The House on Sorority Row (1983) Killer Party (1986)
2016: The Initiation (1984) Chopping Mall (1986) I, Madman  (1989)
2017: Slumber Party Massacre (1982) Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II (1987) Happy Birthday to Me (1981)
2018: The Prowler (1981) Slumber Party Massacre II (1987) Death Spa (1989)
2019: Phantom of the Mall: Eric's Revenge (1989) Psycho III (1986) StageFright: Aquarius (1987)

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Mexico Star Theater

Year: 2014
Director: Jorge R. Gutierrez
Cast: Diego Luna, Zoe Saldana, Channing Tatum
Run Time: 1 hour 35 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG

Hollywood is making a change. Because it's Hollywood, it's not an enormous change and it's more than a little half-hearted. Because it's Hollywood, the change is driven by utterly mercenary motivations. But also because it's Hollywood, it has stumbled across a realization that, with a little polishing, could change the world of media as we know it.

That world-changing discovery seems like a simple one and it is: Latino people go to the movies. In fact, they go to the movies a lot. Not surprising, considering just how diverse the American population is, though Hollywood prefers to ignore this fact. But studios have finally begun to take notice of this heretofore unplumbed demographic, making movies that cater to - get this - audiences who aren't just white people.

One of the first truly high-profile movies with this demographic in mind was Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, the Latin-American spin-off of the decade's most popular horror franchise. But behind this film lie many others that have slowly been shifting the tides. Which now brings us to one of the first wide release Latino-themed kids' movies - The Book of Life.

Where was this guy when I was doing my Sexiest Animated Characters list?

Book of Life begins with a framework narrative that's essentially useless, but as it informs the aesthetic of the entire film - and oh, what an aesthetic it is - it's only fair to begin there. Mary Beth (Christina Applegate) is a puckish museum docent who takes a gaggle of detention kids on a field trip to a special secret room containing the Book of Life, which is full of stories and legends about Mexico. She uses a set of dolls to tell the kids one of the stories, so the bulk of the film is animated like wooden puppetry - more on that later.

SPOILERS FOR THE FIRST ACT - IF YOU SAW THE TRAILER YOU'RE FINE The chosen story centers around two mythical figures: La Muerte (Kate del Castillo) and Xibalba (Ron Perlman) - the rulers of the two underworlds, the Land of the Remembered and the Land of the Forgotten respectively. On el Día de los Muertos, they make a fateful wager. Xibalba is desperate to escape the realm of forgotten souls, so he proposes that each of them place a bet on Maria (Zoe Saldana), a young girl in the nearby town with two best friends/suitors. Xibalba bets on Joaquin (Channing Tatum), a cocky explorer who lives in the shadow of his valiant father, and La Muerte vouches for Manolo (Diego Luna), a sensitive musician whose father expects him to pick up his family's bullfighting legacy.

Although Maria is clearly smitten with Manolo's fumbling charm and put off by Joaquin's egocentric antics, she'd really rather hang out with her pet pig. But Manolo proves his worth, not quite soon enough after Joaquin proposes. After Xibalba pulls a devilish trick, Manolo is sent to the Land of the Remembered and must find his way back to the land of the living and reclaim his true love.

Although he did snag a great look just in time for Halloween so it's not all bad.

It's a children's film and a legend-based tale so once it settles in, it's quite simple to follow. Parents want their kids to be something other than their dreams, but individuality wins out and everyone learns the importance of being themselves. Boilerplate kid movie stuff, really. It's everywhere but the plot that Book of Life rises above the average family-friendly fare.

I've already mentioned the film's Latino themes, but the truly astonishing part is that it depicts a culture with customs, music, legends, values, and aesthetics much different from our own without being hideously offensive! There are some dubious elements that squeak by (including having only two actors of Mexican descent in the lead cast, a smattering white-culture signifiers for Mexico, and the fact that the entire story is framed by a puppet show put on for some dumb-ass white kids), but overall the film shines as a beacon of cinematic diversity with Mexican director Jorge Guiterrez and producer Guillermo del Toro preventing things from getting too out of hand. 

And even those rough patches are smoothed over with an ample supporting cast including Cheech Marin, Danny Trejo, and Plácido Domingo, along with strong cultural musicality combining banda and mariachi styles with modern pop-musical lyrics and themes. I can't tell you how refreshing it is to see a film presented by somebody other than fussy old white dudes. Their contributions are numerous, it's true, but it's time to let somebody, anybody else take the stand.

And now for something completely different: Protagonists who don't have the delicate complexion of a glass of skim milk.

OK, now that we have the boring but vastly important stuff out of the way, let's focus on how utterly fun this movie is. Regular kiddy movie tropes (an animal sidekick; a Greek chorus) are turned on their heads (an adorable pig is the sidekick; the chorus is a group of hilarious nuns), boisterous characters burst with vividly colorful life, and the music doesn't suck! The great thing about the soundtrack is that it so easily could have drained the vigor from the film but instead injects it with energy. 

The Book of Life tends to parlay in anachronisms, a risky venture that works more often than it should. A mariachi Mumford & Sons cover? Strange but it works perfectly. Acoustic Elvis on a Mexican guitar? Lovely. A Radiohead song? Not so much, but it made sense at the time. The three original songs likewise manage to match this tone of marrying children's musical standards with Mexican instrumentation to blissful perfection. On top of it all, Diego Luna's voice - while a tad rough around the edges - provides the perfect DIY kick to these lovably offbeat arrangements.

All of this rolls into a film that's tirelessly heartfelt and kooky while at the same time buoyantly reveling in Mexican culture to its fullest extent. This is portrayed nowhere better than the animation itself, which depicts rickety wooden figures with grace and artistry, pumping them full of vibrant, colorful, joyous life. The film's portrayal of the endless fiestas of the Land of the Remembered is an explosion of brassy, rich, eye-popping technicolor dreamscapes as far as the eye can see.

And the attention to detail in unmatched in modern computer-animated film. Once you notice how Xibalba's pupils are little skulls or the way La Muerte's candles delicately float around the train of her dress, the film will have you in its thrall completely - assuming you have the capacity for childish wonder necessary to take it all in.

And compared to Reel FX Animation's last feature film - 2013's Free Birds, the step up here is about the height of the Tower of Babel.

And the acting is top notch, especially Diego Luna with a brave, limit-stretching vocal performance and Tatum in yet another pristine comic role and WHY AREN'T WE LETTING HIM DO MORE COMEDIES! Personally, I could do without Ice Cube in a comic relief part, but it's not as intrusive as you'd think.

All said, The Book of Life would be an utter masterpiece if it weren't for just a few minute stumbles. As I stated before, the story is a bit too wooden, overusing hoary thematic tropes. And the post-Frozen quasi-feminism doesn't ring as true as it could considering that Maria still tends to be a damsel in distress. But all in all, in the field of children's animation as well as that of 2014 cinema itself, you can hardly do better than this vivid multi-cultural extravaganza.

TL;DR: The Book of Life is an eye-popping experience of grandiose proportions that doesn't mistreat its cultural heritage.
Rating: 8/10
Should I Spend Money On This? Absolutely yes. Don't give Ouija the satisfaction.
Word Count: 1328

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Delta Theta Die

Year: 1992
Director: Jim Wynorski
Cast: Robyn Harris, Melissa Moore, Stacia Zhivago
Run Time: 1 hour 17 minutes
MPAA Rating: N/A

90's horror often gets a bad rap, despite enduring successes like Scream, The Blair Witch Project, Silence of the Lambs, and The Sixth Sense. But if there's any year that most fully exemplifies the post-apocalyptic bleakness that many associate with that period, it's 1990 (the year this film was produced, though it wouldn't receive its ignominious direct-to-video release until two years later). '89 was the year that the subgenre died its most unambiguous death (like supernatural killers and comic book characters alike, slashers would soon return from the grave afresh, but at the time it seemed like an outright impossibility), but slashers kept plugging along, unaware, dying off one by one in the following years much like their typical slate of victims. Even the strongest franchise icons petered out well before Scream's 1996 debut.

But where there's a will there's a way. And where there's a hormonal teenage audience there's Jim Wynorski. Perhaps best known for his terrifically campy Chopping Mall in 1986, Wynorski quickly found refuge in exploitation cinema in the waning light of the 80's. The discovery that altered his career rivals even Einstein's in cultural significance: Teenage boys will pay money to see boobs no matter how crappy your movie is.

So this is where we find him at the turn of the decade. At the helm of a sequel to a film that had no earthly reason to be revived, 1986's Sorority House Massacre, which, if you remember, was already an alarmingly shoddy piece of work buoyed only on the strength of one gut-splittingly hilarious dress-up montage.

The 80's are very important to me.

Sorority House Massacre II is a cash-in plain and simple, such a desperate little dirt grub that it was willing to rake in even the infinitesimal amount that could be garnered from following a film that was hardly a smash at the box office. Written in a week and filmed in probably less, SHM II is a triumph of slasher depravity. With a bucket of karo syrup, enough softcore actresses to fill out five lace nighties, and an empty house ready to go, Wynorski set out to make hisself a movie.

The plot goes like this. Five members of an unnamed sorority set out to spruce up a house in which a man murdered his family several years ago. These nubile young ladies are Jessica (Melissa Moore), a leggy blonde who is dating a guy named Eddie (Mike Elliott), who only appears in one scene when he drives the girls up to the house and yet receives an inordinate amount of fanfare in the credits; Janey (Dana Bentley), a mischievous type with a bob so large and thick it could only have been harvested from the Sheddings Bin at a Cher concert; Linda (Robyn Harris), an Australian girl who is marginally smarter than the rest; and Suzanne (Barbii) and Kimberly (Stacia Zhivago), two sets of breasts with women reluctantly attached.

After attempting to contact the man's spirit with a Ouija board (they do exactly zero work on the house during the course of the film - but with so many showers to take, tequila shots to drink, and shoulders to massage lovingly, can you blame them?), they begin to die one by one. Is it the ghost of Old Man Hockstedter? Or is it the creepy neighbor Orville Ketchum (Peter Spellos), who eats raw meat out of a bucket and likes to breathe loudly onto things?

Alright, I'm warning you now. I ask you humbly to please not take out your rage and anger on my blog or upon my person, but... I am going to spoil Sorority House Massacre II. The ghost did it.

Parker Bros. strikes again.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Sorority House Massacre II is that there is a distinct lack of sex. I know that's not usually a concern during in-depth analysis of cinema, but here it is certainly a curiosity. This is a film that performs the dazzling feat of displaying all five main characters' breasts in a span of less than three minutes, yet doesn't include a single male character that sticks around long enough for them to bang. In fact, it's almost distinctly asexual, its preferred mode of exploitation being watching a group of "pretty" girls going through the motions of a routine horror picture, but without the added protection of clothes.

For the entire second half of the film, the entire cast prances around the house in bras and underwear - or, in Janey's case, a gossamer jumpsuit so tight you can see her endocrine system.

Her body is so constricted, all the extra mass had to go to her hair.

In this regard, if you can overlook the sleaziness of objectification, the film is actually quite charming in its sheer desperation to titillate. The only survivor of the previous massacre is now a stripper and we are forced to sit through her entire dance before she gets a chance to speak. Girls flash one another as punchlines to jokes. A staircase is placed exactly right so we can see each girl's butt as she flounces into the attic. And - my personal favorite - when the girls realize they're in danger, dialogue along these lines occurs.
Vixen #1: "Oh no! We left our clothes upstairs!"
Vixen #2: "There's no time! We'll have to go without them!" 
They then proceed to do absolutely no escaping because it's raining outside and Wynorski certainly isn't paying them enough for that.

An actual photo of the SHM II casting call.

Overwhelming tawdriness aside, the film has absolutely nothing else to recommend it, at least from a technical standpoint. From a good-bad movie standpoint, however, it's almost inimitable. Each element of the film's mise-en-scène is crappy to a hilarious degree, though perhaps not an eminently watchable one. Let me explain the full spectrum of crapiness that penetrates Sorority House Massacre II to its very core with a quick breakdown.
  • Sound Design: Honestly, I wouldn't be surprised if the dialogue track for the film was recorded over the phone on a stormy night. Every character sounds tinny and about a mile away from the screen. And the foley work ranges from eminently unimpressive to cartoonishly absurd. My favorite moments are when the rambunctious sound effects collide with the gaudy exploitation to create such sterling moments as a girl soaping up her butt in the shower with the sound of someone wiping a squeaky window with a rag, or a stripper (yes, there are two distinct striptease moments that take place away from the main action) rubbing her breasts on a pole with the sound of two balloons squeaking together.
  • Gore: I think it's perhaps too much to ask of the film that it have its gore game together, but typically a slasher film is a showcase for the best FX artists and breasts in the business. The breasts here are so rampant that they form a massive conglomerate that dominates the film, eliminating the need for great gore to tantalize the already sated ideal audience. So what we're stuck with is an endless series of girls getting stabbed with a hook in silhouette. At least there's enough ineptitude to keep the less boob-concerned audience members going - notably the obvious shadow of a ketchup bottle squirting the blood onto the wall.
  • Acting: I won't spend too much time taking potshots. It's not like the performers were hired for their talent or asked to perform at any level beyond arching their backs and saying the words on the page. But as Robyn Harris gets going, she illuminates the screen like a firework with a spastic, volcanic display of over-the-top camp. She's like a marionette of Eva Longoria with the strings cut, flopping wildly around the screen with manic intensity and perfect hair.

Pictured here, left, in a more sedate moment.

At least Sorority House Massacre II makes spasmodic attempts at humor, like in the house's address (6934 Langdon) or a series of funny newspaper headlines. It tries just hard enough to be funny that the more embarrassing elements (Orville uses a cop's gun to shoot a villain while he's still holding it; a fight scene plays more like an improv troupe pretending to sword fight) could conceivably be explained away by "oh, it's a parody." I don't buy this for one Karo syrup-soaked second, but it's a genius insurance policy.

Because the movie is far too cheap to even attempt to reach an average level of cinematic quality. This fact is belied both by the run time (of the 77 advertised minutes, 6 of them are credits) and, well, the rest of the film. A flashback of Old Man Hockstedter killing his family is just recycled footage from The Slumber Party Massacre with the names and situations changed. The facts that it's not even the same house, any person with enough love for slashers to watch this piece of crap has already seen SPM, and that they pretend two clearly different actresses are one girl are brutally ignored in favor of getting in more kills as swiftly and cheaply as possible. Nevermind that there's already a Sorority House Massacre to pull footage from. No, that's just what they'd be expecting us to do.

I haven't even mentioned the nonsensical cop subplot, which brings us to the aforementioned strip club in search of answers about the potential killer. What tipped these cops off about the new danger five years later and why they aren't actually going to the house to help the girls remains a mystery. Perhaps the filmmakers wanted to preserve ambiguity and ignite the imaginations of young home audiences, preparing them for the unknowns they will soon face in their own post-high school careers. 

Or perhaps the movie is just a piece of crap.

Sorority House Massacre II is a piece of crap.

Seacrest out.

Killer: Hokstedter's Ghost in Jessica's (Melissa Moore) body
Final Girl: Linda (Robyn Harris)
Best Kill: Jessica's death - getting stabbed in the neck - is the best both because it is an actual gore sequence and the fact that she sprays enough blood to fill a tub.
Scariest Moment: There are actresses for whom this film was their only option to have a career.
Weirdest Moment: Orville pulls the key to the basement out of his underwear.
Champion Dialogue: "No one puts a finger on my diviner."
Body Count: 8; including three kills repurposed from Slumber Party Massacre and not including Orville Ketchum, who is stabbed repeatedly, strangled with a chain, has his neck snapped, is shoved into a toilet, and shot multiple times before being possessed by a ghost.
  1. Coach Jana is gutted with a drill (SPM).
  2. Kim AKA "Cecily" is stabbed in the gut with a drill (SPM).
  3. Diane is impaled with a drill (SPM).
  4. Janey is hooked in silhouette.
  5. Suzanne is hooked in silhouette.
  6. Kimberly is killed offscreen.
  7. Jessica is knifed in the neck.
  8. Linda is shot to death. 
TL;DR: Sorority House Massacre II is not good at all, but genuinely hilarious in its straightforward chintzy depravity.
Rating: 3/10
Word Count: 1867
Reviews In This Series
Sorority House Massacre (Frank, 1986)
Sorority House Massacre II (Wynorski, 1992)

Thursday, October 23, 2014


Year: 2014
Director: Jason Bateman
Cast: Jason Bateman, Kathryn Hahn, Rohan Chand
Run Time: 1 hour 29 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

M A V E R I C K. Maverick. (noun) Definition: an unorthodox or independent-minded person. Used in a Paragraph: I doubt Jason Bateman ever intended to be a maverick when he directed and starred in a movie simultaneously. He's not a Tommy Wiseau, a disillusioned and quietly insane auteur who was forced to fund The Room himself because nobody else would. And he's no Lake Bell, who gave herself a starring turn in In A World... because Hollywood was incapable of appreciating her ample talents. No, his is the classic story. An actor who longed to direct but couldn't find someone to do it on, so he filled the role himself.

P R O W E S S. Prowess. (noun) Definition: skill or expertise in a particular activity or field. Used in a Paragraph: It's difficult to say whether this was the best choice for Bad Words or not. We all know that Jason Bateman is a capable comic actor (If you disagree, please watch Arrested Development and don't come back until you've finished. I'll keep an eye on the clock.), but his directing prowess remains unproven. Though there are people in this world who have accomplished great feats directing themselves, Bad Words has the inescapable aura of one man spread too thin, halfheartedly tacked onto a relatively solid screenplay.

G, J-son. R U O K?

H E D O N I S T I C. Hedonistic. (adjective) Definition: engaged in the pursuit of pleasure; sensually self-indulgent. Used in a Paragraph: The film revolves around one Guy Trilby (Jason Bateman), a hedonistic 40-year-old loser who enters a spelling bee through a legal loophole in order to pursue a personal vendetta. Accompanying him is Jenny (Kathryn Hahn), an intrepid reporter who is supporting his scheme in order to eke a viable story out of him. But Guy delights in alternately tormenting and banging her rather than giving her answers.

L O G O R R H E A. Logorrhea. (noun) Definition: The tendency of talking a great deal. Used in a Paragraph: When Guy meets an extroverted young man named Chaitanya (Rohan Chand) with a severe case of logorrhea, an unlikely friendship begins as the kid slowly begins to crack his tough shell. It's all pretty standard indie film blather, really. Guy slowly begins to change except that he really doesn't. Secrets are revealed but they're not that exciting. And an annoyingly vague and unnecessary narration slobbers over the entire thing.

It's telling when somebody this chipper ISN'T the most annoying part of a movie.

A R C H E T Y P E. Archetype. (noun) Definition: a very typical example of a certain person or thing; a recurrent symbol or motif in literature, art, or mythology. Used in a Paragraph: Perhaps the biggest problem for Bad Words is its utter reliance on Bateman as a bitter "antihero." We're supposed to root for him even though he's doing awful things, which is an interesting enough idea to base a film on, but is sorely fumbled here. The antihero archetype lifted into the stratosphere by TV shows like Dexter or Breaking Bad has been highly popular in this decade, but films like this and its closest filmic analogue - 2011's Young Adult - are the first omens of its inevitable decline.

I N S O U C I A N T. Insouciant. (adjective) Definition: showing a casual lack of concern; indifferent. Used in a Paragraph: The bulk of the comedy is derived from this insouciant antihero being homophobic, racist, rapey, criminal, and just about every kind of terrible thing that could conceivably have a Tumblr blog written about it. This formula has worked before, but when you center it around Jason Bateman's competent but uninspiring performance and throw in a crop of spelling bee contestants as just about the only side characters (Allison Janney has a forgettable turn as an administrator and several parents are involved, but other than that there's not many additional bodies), Bad Words turns into naught but a one man show about terrorizing children for an hour and a half. As an audience member this is positively battering.

R A N C O R O U S. Rancorous. (adjective) Definition: characterized by bitterness or resentment. Used in a Paragraph: All in all, thanks to Bateman's being distracted by his directing duties, his failure to bring a spark of humanity to his rancorous character mires the entire film in unpleasantness. Luckily Kathryn Hahn picks up some of the slack, showing off her chops as what is by far the film's brightest comic light. She really seizes her role, giving her character edges but sanding them off in all the right places - reaching the exact tone the rest of the movie fails to access. I've never noticed her in anything before, but she's one to watch if this performance is any indication. But one great female role doesn't make up for the 90 minutes of baseline competence surrounding her.

Get ready for the best segue you've ever seen.

I M B R O G L I O. Imbroglio. (noun) Definition: an extremely confused, complicated, or embarrassing situation. Used in a Paragraph: I want you to look up at that screenshot of Kathryn Hahn again. Please notice the beam of wood obscuring the far right portion of the frame. This is but a minor example of a major imbroglio within the film. Bateman has a tendency to frame his characters behind other objects, sometimes creating an entirely distinct frame within the film's natural frame. I'm going to stop saying frame now. The point is, this technique can be used to great effect in pursuit of a thematic goal, but here it merely distracts, drawing attention to how threadbare the plot is. One gets the sense that Bateman knew this was a thing that happened in movies, but hadn't quite pieced together why. Kind of like the truly mortifying amount of slow motion I lathered into my homemade films in high school.

S O P H O M O R I C. Sophomoric. (adjective) Definition: of, relating to, or characteristic of a sophomore; juvenile. Used in a Paragraph: The film isn't all flaws though. I've already mentioned Hahn's terrific supporting performance. And a brief scene with Marzipan the Prostitute (Kimleigh Smith) is hysterical - yet another woman killing it in a small role; if we gather enough of them, maybe we can join forces and beat Hollywood into submission to finally give them leads. And the third act finally reaches a blissful balance between saccharine charm and acrid humor in the movie's best sequence. It's quickly derailed by a moment of sophomoric humor, but hey. At least anything worked out in this lumpier-than-my-grandpa's-disgusting-quinoa-barley-wheat-blend-oatmeal movie.

P L A T I T U D I N O U S. Platitudinous. (adjective) Definition: used too often to be interesting or thoughtful; hackneyed. Used in a Paragraph: Also, the music and cinematography come alive for exactly one pristine moment. So it's not a total bust. But with such a great crop of talent behind it, Bad Words has no excuse to be as platitudinous, bland, and sour as it is.

TL;DR: Bad Words is a disappointment, but it has some lighter moments and a couple great female performances.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1235

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Texas Toast

Year: 2006
Director: Jonathan Liebesman
Cast: Jordana Brewster, Matt Bomer, Diora Baird
Run Time: 1 hour 31 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Here we are folks. At the time of this writing, this is my final review in the extant Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise! As we all know, horror franchises never truly die. I'm sure we can expect Texas Chainsaw 4D: The Leatherface Tapes by the end of the decade, but for now we can lay this series to rest with a surprisingly pretty good prequel to a surprisingly pretty great remake - The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning.

It's nearly unprecedented in this day and age for a remake to have a legitimate followup. The only even tangentially related films of the past ten years that come to mind are I Spit On Your Grave 2, Quarantine 2: Terminal, and Fright Night 2, all largely tangential direct-to-DVD sequels, as well as the planned 2015 Friday the 13th re-reboot, which I guess wouldn't even count. Only those sequels stand among the dozens of horror remakes that have been inflicted upon the world since the genre's Renaissance, kickstarted by 2003's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

It is a testament to how groundbreaking that film was that it received any sort of franchise connection at all, let alone a prequel with most of the same cast signed on to reprise their villainous roles. And thanks to the short hiatus between the two movies, the presence of Platinum Dunes at the helm, and the wild success of the remake, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning is actually the one film in the entire franchise to have more or less airtight continuity.

It's far from a masterpiece, but the fact that it doesn't require any mental acrobatics to clumsily shove Leatherface's daughter or Matthew McConaughey's Illuminati cyborg leg into the potential trajectory of a previous entry allows The Beginning to go down smooth as silk.

Or rough as steel wool, but we're talking about continuity, not content.

Set several years before the events of the remake (which was inexplicably set in the same year as the original), The Beginning takes place in 1969 during the height of the Vietnam war. Two sexy brothers, Dean (Taylor Handley of the under-appreciated gender-bending sci-fi-rom-com Zerophilia) and Eric (Matt Bomer, this film's requisite future celebrity), are taking a final road trip from LA to Florida before they ship out. Only thing is, Dean has no intention of following through, instead opting to dodge his way down to Mexico with his beautiful sexy girlfriend Bailey (Diora Baird).

After a car crash and a run-in with a man (R. Lee Ermey) impersonating the recently deceased Sheriff Hoyt (he passed away quietly in the road after a brief gunshot wound to the head), the kiddos are dragged away to a secluded home by the closed-down slaughterhouse. Left behind is Eric's girlfriend Chrissie (Jordana Brewster), who was thrown from the vehicle and hid in the bushes during the ordeal. Now she must find a way to save her friends from Hoyt, his cannibalistic family, and their enormous be-masked son who will soon find himself a relaxing hobby that leads to his new name - Leatherface (Andrew Bryniarski).

"Dusty Chainsaw Man" just doesn't quite have the same ring to it.

The best I can say about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning is that is is remarkably distinct from its predecessor - in equally good and bad measures. That which it improves upon is very much to my tastes, but its failures as a piece of cinema are certainly more numerous. But to start off, let's kick it into context with perhaps the single most important horror film of the 2000's - Saw

The effect of that grubby 2004 shocker and its cadre of sequels on the landscape of horror in the 21st century was immeasurable. Elaborate traps and unflinching gore sequences became all the rage in the likes of 2005's Hostel and Wolf Creek, among a spattering of others. This cinematic phenomenon was practically tailor-made for Platinum Dunes, who found that they could easily fit their newly viable Texas Chainsaw franchise into this generic model - which would become colloquially known as "torture porn."

The gore of the remake certainly made a strong statement, but in the post-Saw world the new slogan was "more is more." So The Beginning trotted out the big guns - a sexier cast (a feat I would have deemed impossible before seeing this film, but lo and behold - Platinum Dunes must have some kind of Stepford Wives jig going on), more grimy gore effects (including a disgusting birth sequence on the floor of a meat packing plant), more chainsaws, and - a first for the franchise as long as we're pretending TCM III doesn't exist - a heaping helping of traps and twisted games.

Trappier. Sexier. Matt Bomier.

Overall, it's much more grim and bleak, perhaps the most depressing entry in the franchise since the original, though it by no means has that film's raw power. But it comes into its own with some utterly strange moments of humor that I would be loathe to spoil here, should anyone actually be interested in watching it (and, no matter how inept some of them might be, a Texas Chainsaw movie is generally always worth a watch for the morbidly curious bad cinema connoisseur.)

Along with it's newfound post-Saw energy, The Beginning separates itself from the remake with a grubbier aesthetic, more closely matching the original's grainy, yellowed, and decrepit visual style, removing the slickness that covered that film in a too-glossy sheen. And the film is far more political, covering topics as far and wide as draft dodging in the Vietnam era, the dangers of blind patriotism, the economic decline of the early 70's, and the burgeoning biker and hippie movements as well as their tensions with the older generations.

It misses more than it hits, but The Beginning has its heart in the right place, spilling over the brim with thematic fervor. And the exploitation meter finally hits both genders equally as we get firsthand knowledge of just how hot Matt Bomer can be in any given situation.

Covered in blood.

Taking a swim.

Driving a car.

This is literally his first shot in the movie.

The perfect image to represent this film's incessant amorality and gleeful exploitation. But tell me - wouldn't you put on Matt Bomer's face if you got the chance?

So this is all fine and good, but the unfortunate fact remains that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning is a just plain average mid-2000's horror picture. Call the Texas Chainsaw movies anything you want (and I absolutely have), but they have never been average.

This film is saddled with a truly unfortunate plague of shaky cam that makes the whole thing feel like it was filmed in an earthquake, and just about every major character decision is the single dumbest possible outcome. I mean, for crying out loud, Dean burns his draft card in the car while he sits two feet behind his soldier brother and doesn't think that he'll notice. Next time you want to be discrete, maybe don't light a flame behind somebody's head in a moving vehicle.

And the cannibal family is utterly lackluster in this go-around. I've never been a big fan of Bryniarski's Leatherface, but he at least gets the job done. And R. Lee Ermey still pulls out all the stops as Sheriff Hoyt, but the weight of the entire film rests on his shoulders as the man who tries to convince his family to turn to cannibalism. He himself seems to have little to no motivation other than that he's just a big old psychopath. Yay prequels!

The fact that he is doing this against their will completely undermines the terror of the piece. Sure, a man trying to get his family to eat people would make a good feature on its own with more time to explore the psychology, but here it's hardly a subplot. If the family is resisting their urge to be evil, it's just not scary. I mean, I know it's supposed to be a prequel and all, but all this moral waffling gets in the way and even actively impedes what is a decidedly grotesque film.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning is noncommittal, and that's the worst sin a movie this grubby and exploitative could have committed. But it's still a competent film with some major improvements on the remake. Though its overall net worth ends up somewhat lower than its forefather, The Beginning is yet another in a surprising run of decent Platinum Dunes remakes and you won't catch me complaining about that.

TL;DR: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning improves on the remake in some aspects, but doesn't quite have the quality to back them up.
Rating: 6/10
Body Count: 11; Not including a cow that literally explodes when hit by a car.
  1. Sloane dies in childbirth.
  2. Meat Plant Owner is bludgeoned with a sledgehammer.
  3. Sheriff Hoyt is shot in the head with a shotgun.
  4. Alex is shot in the chest with a shotgun.
  5. Holden is sliced in half with a chainsaw.
  6. Eric is chainsawed in the stomach.
  7. Bailey has her throat sliced with scissors.
  8. Dean is chainsawed in the back.
  9. Chrissie is chainsawed in the back.
  10. Motorist is hit by Chrissie's car.
  11. Police Officer is hit by Chrissie's car. 
Word Count: 1564
Reviews In This Series
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning (Liebesman, 2006)
Texas Chainsaw 3D (Luessenhop, 2013)
Leatherface (Bustillo & Maury, 2017)