Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Census Flashback: Ozploitation

On our Fright Flashback/Census Bloodbath crossover, every week this summer we'll be exploring an 80's slasher film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to the weekend's upcoming blockbuster.

In anticipation of Upgrade, which is directed by modern horror maestro Leigh Whannell, I'll be reviewing Next of Kin, an early slasher entry that also hails from the great land of Australia.

Year: 1982
Director: Tony Williams
Cast: Jacki Kerin, John Jarratt, Alex Scott
Run Time: 1 hour 29 minutes

Australian slashers certainly don't have the track record for quality of Canadian slashers. For every Road Games, which is just shy of a masterpiece, you get a Lady Stay Dead, which is just shy of bottom-feeding garbage, and a Nightmares, which is deeply mediocre and forgettable. But it's always interesting to step outside of the American horror milieu for a bit, and there was always a chance that Next of Kin was going to be more of the former than the latter, right?


Next of Kin follows Linda (Jacki Kerin) as she returns to her hometown for the first time in years after the death of her mother. While she tries to figure out what to do with her property and assets, she also must maintain operations at Montclaire, the retirement home her family ran. One day, when she's off canoodling with rekindled flame Barney (John Jarratt, who has apparently been working looooooong before Wolf Creek hit the scene), one of the residents is found drowned in the bathtub.

This horrifying discovery finds Linda uncovering a link between past evil deeds in Montclaire and the present day, in which that evil might be operating once more. While she attempts to care for her doddering father figure Lance (Charles McCallum), she discovers that she might just be needed to solve a decades-old mystery.

Something she is very capable of doing, I'm sure.

Honestly, there's a lot to like in Next of Kin, only none of it is actually related to being a good slasher movie. Like a lot of Australian genre flicks, there's an off-kilter weirdness that dominates a lot of the character moments (we're introduced to Linda having a conversation while building a tower of forks), and all of that culminates into a truly bonkers Final Girl sequence that mixes a screeching sound design with a deeply unpredictable chain of increasingly explosive events (similarly, Lady Stay Dead comes alive during the third act chase, becoming leagues more cinematic in the process).

And then, every 25 minutes or so, some imagery kicks in to totally knock you out of the film you thought you were seeing and into a surreal nightmare that lingers in the consciousness long into the succeeding scenes. These elaborate shots use slow motion with intention and purpose to create a phantasmagoric atmosphere, creating a sense of pain and violence more than actually showing it. These scenes take their time and fill you with a slow, creeping dread that's tremendously effective. Unfortunately, that's about five percent of the film.

At the very least, it would be a great six minute short film, I suppose.

The other ninety-five percent is composed of a variety of boring, milquetoast genre elements that don't really cohere into a satisfying whole. The mystery at the center of the story is malnourished at best because we barely spend any time with the side characters, and they're certainly not fleshed out beyond maybe a name if we're lucky. Linda herself is barely a character, stuck dwelling on a past we don't get much of a sense of and refusing to betray any sort of personality in the present. She has good romantic chemistry with Jarratt, but this is still a slasher movie willing to dispatch him at any second and deflate any emotional payoff we may have gotten.

Really, the fact that this movie came out in 1982, knee-deep in the slasher boom, is probably its biggest stumbling block. Everything it is and everything it could have been is hobbled by its need to stick to the slasher formula, even though it clearly wants to be an entirely different movie. The body count below seems high, but all but two of those deaths occur offscreen and all but one of them occur in the last fifteen minutes. There's no rhythm to these kills, and that prevents the mystery from having any ticking clock whatsoever. Until the very end of the third act, the stakes are extremely, painfully low. When you're more invested in whether or not Linda will attend the Bush Fire Brigade party than solve a mystery that threatens her life and the lives of a dozen elderly people, there's something wrong with the movie's priorities.

Next of Kin certainly has a sense of abandon when it lets loose that is formidable, and director Tony Williams gets to show off in some intensely spooky sequences, but the film's failures ring loud and clear at almost every point, drowning out everything good about it. It could have been a great haunted house story or a great mystery, but it chooses to be a mediocre slasher. That's the plan that must have made business sense at the time, and it's certainly the only reason I approached this film in the first place, but it really demolishes every ounce of potential, grinding it into a fine dust.

Killer: [Aunt Rita (Bernadette Gibson)]
Final Girl: Linda (Jacki Kerin)
Best Kill: There's not a ton to choose from here, but come on: any murder involving something shoved through a keyhole is gonna win.
Sign of the Times: Frankly, Australia always seems like it could be anywhere from five decades ago to two decades in the future, so I don't have one of these this time.
Scariest Moment: In a nightmare, Linda imagines a drowned old man outside, tapping on her window.
Weirdest Moment: When hiding from the killer in a local diner, Linda sits down and makes a tower out of sugar cubes. Which, frankly, I find extremely relatable.
Champion Dialogue: "There's something evil in this house. Something that lives; breathes the same air."
Body Count: 7; not including a body discovered in a flashback.
  1. Mr. Collins is drowned in his bath.
  2. Some Lady is found dead in a fountain.
  3. Barney is killed offscreen.
  4. Doctor Barton and
  5. Connie are found dead in a bathtub.
  6. Rita is stabbed in the eye through a keyhole.
  7. Mr. Ryan has his head blown off with a shotgun.
TL;DR: Next of Kin has its fun, weird moments, but it's mostly a milquetoast mystery attached to an even more milquetoast slasher.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1102

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Everything You've Heard About Me Is True

Year: 2018
Director: Ron Howard
Cast: Alden Ehrenreich, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke 
Run Time: 2 hours 15 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

Before we dive in, I want to say a few words. As we can obviously see from the example Marvel is setting, maybe franchise fatigue just doesn't exist anymore, but I think we should remove that argument from the table completely anyway. Disney might be cravenly pumping out sequels in the MCU and the Star Wars universe, but the fact that somehow Hollywood has decided to turn two redheaded stepchild genres (superheroes and science fiction) into massive blockbuster tentpoles every six months or so is not a bad thing. We're living in an unprecedented time for effects spectacle filmmaking and we are very lucky we get to have what we have. That said, Solo: A Star Wars Story kinda sucks, but that's definitely not because I'm fatigued with the genre. It just happens to suck.

It's OK, it happens to the best of us.

So, have you ever wondered why Han's last name is Solo? (The real question is have you ever wondered why any character has a last name?) Have you ever wondered how Chewie got his nickname? (Again, this shouldn't really be a concern; this is how nicknames work) Have you ever wondered why Billy Dee Williams can't pronounce "Han"? (Honestly, I think this one might be the actual reason the movie exists. Rogue One was made to clear that plot hole about the Death Star having such a lame weak point, so maybe each of these Star Wars Stories will just be taking a caulk gun to every plot hole in the franchise)

Well, you'll get the answer to all these questions and about twenty million more in Solo: A Star Wars Story. We follow young Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) as he escapes from the planet of Dickensian orphans he was born on, unfortunately having to leave his girlfriend Qi'ra (Emilia Clarke) behind. He joins the army with an aim toward eventually earning enough to buy a ship and come back to save her. While he's away and she's not onscreen, he has the opportunity to pretend they actually had chemistry.

Anyway, he falls in with rogue bandit Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and gets involved in a chain of double-crossing criminal syndicates to pull off a major heist with the help of Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), and the equal rights activist droid L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge).

This makes even less sense in practice than on paper, but she's still the best character in the movie.

To be completely honest, the one reason I was even remotely interested in watching this movie in the first place was Alden Ehrenreich. Although he certainly doesn't need help getting noticed considering that he made his feature film debut in a Francis Ford Coppola movie (granted, it was Tetro, but still), his true star-making role was in the Coen Brothers' Hail, Caesar!. That movie was barely a movie, rather a series of disjointed shards of humor, but he stole each and every one of those shards like he was in an Ocean's movie, owning the screen for every millisecond he was on it.

Unfortunately, such is the soul-sucking power of Solo that not even Ehrenreich could do anything with the Everest of a role he was handed. He's still charming and does more with it than probably any other actor his age could have (consider Valerian, in which Dane DeHaan was given a very similar role to much lesser effect), but this Solo as written barely resembles the person we met at the beginning of Star Wars, and forty years of nostalgia mixed with the general magnetism of young Harrison Ford just can't be captured by an impression, however solid it may be. And it's not like I'm even a huge fan of the character, so I'm not being precious about his arc or consistency or whatever. But forcing poor Ehrenreich to imitate a well-known badass outlaw while reading the lines of a Skywalkerian young dreamer just doesn't get results.

That hair is still working for me, though.

Unfortunately, nobody else seizes their opportunity to steal this movie. Everyone is completely functional in their roles, but there's not a standout among them, not even Donald Glover, who is perfectly fine in his interpretation of Lando's bluster and bravado, but not exactly blowing the roof off. And Emilia Clarke is just inches away from slipping completely into the background.

Everyone and everything is burdened with a script that is abjectly terrible, with scenes falling into place with sickeningly predictable thuds, obliterating subtlety along the way. In addition to committing the worst sin of soft sci-fi (the Aaron Sorkin-esque dialogue the Star Trek movies indulge in so much, in which an entire soliloquy of gleep-glop spacebabble gets split up between five people as if they're having a conversation instead of just reading a paragraph directly from Wookiepedia), this script pulls in an alarming number of hackneyed crime thriller tropes ("If you get into this life, you're in it for good.")

There's not an ounce of finesse to be found. The exposition sprays in every direction like shrapnel, the plot beats and double crossings are hampered by the film's limited scope, and for a movie that's primarily concerned with explaining every single element of Han Solo's character - from his name to his gun to the way he ties his shoes - it opens up an abundance of plot holes that make the whole affair intensely confusing in addition to being infuriatingly stupid.

Another of my favorite bad movie tropes is present in spades: Han does something kind of simple and unimpressive and other characters feel the need to comment, "Wow, what a great pilot this kid is!"

Now, there are some good things about this movie. The goofy character design of the Star Wars universe is continued with gusto here, including an awesome old lady space worm and some sort of robot creature that drips orange goo from his mouth pipes. I will always appreciate any movie that embraces the kiddie matinee quality of these films, and there is one terrific action setpiece involving a magnetic train that feels the appropriate amount of popcorn-munching fun. And maybe the most important thing: this is probably the closest we'll get to an acknowledgement that Chewbacca's son Lumpy from The Star Wars Holiday Special is canon.

Justice for Lumpy!

Really, the worst of Solo is just how mediocre it is (the only wholly terrible thing is the choir of children who burst in on the score from time to time). Even the much storied Kessel run is a jumbled, overstuffed waste of time when it so clearly should have been a sleek, bad-ass race through a meteor field. At every opportunity, Solo takes the safest, blandest route, never pushing itself to do anything but gently nod at Star Wars fans, saying "You know how there was dice before? Here's the dice. Do you see the dice? Make sure you notice the dice. Didn't we do a great job?" I'd warn you away from seeing it in theaters, but judging from that Memorial Day weekend box office pull, that's not something I should be worried about.

TL;DR: Solo: A Star Wars Story is a bland film that is corrosively devoted to explaining every last detail of the previous Star Wars movies.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1238
Reviews In This Series
Star Wars (Lucas, 1977)
Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (Kershner, 1980)
Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (Marquand, 1983)
Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (Abrams, 2015)
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Edwards, 2016)
Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (Johnson, 2017)
Solo: A Star Wars Story (Howard, 2018)

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Deader, Pooler

Year: 2018
Director: David Leitch
Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Josh Brolin, Morena Baccarin
Run Time: 1 hour 59 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Hollywood is really hoping the world's refractory period for superhero movies is a short one, because Deadpool 2 arrives just three weeks after the massive, universe-shattering blockbuster Avengers: Infinity War, which came just two months after the box office juggernaut Black Panther. But even the shadow of Avengers can't quite obscure Deadpool 2, which is the followup to a film that was a massive hit exactly because it was a nasty-minded R-rated comedy sandwiched into the superheroic genre elements that have become so pervasive in movie theaters over the past decade.

Unfortunately, that means that Deadpool 2 isn't a superhero sequel but a comedy sequel, and those are quite a bit harder to pull off. All of Marvel's sequels have done better than their previous entries, because sequels don't have to worry about setting up their characters and conflicts, and just get to relax into a new adventure. Comedy sequels have to appease the audience by repeating their favorite jokes, only without the necessary element of surprise. Let's see how that went, shall we?

So far so consistent.

Warning: this plot synopsis and subsequent review contain SPOILERS for the first act of Deadpool 2; one major plot point that I couldn't care less about, and one minor reveal that I found way more interesting. But this really isn't a movie where the plot matters one whit, so I'm not bothered about it.

Deadpool 2 sees the return of its indestructible red-clad merc Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) just as his girlfriend Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) gets blown away by gangsters after a hit gone wrong. His mourning process (they were going to have a family, which is not a terrible idea for these people apparently) involves him couch-surfing at Professor Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters as a trainee member of the X-Men alongside returning D-list members Colossus (Stefan Kapicic) and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand), who now has a girlfriend (Shioli Kutsuna) in one of those Hollywood stabs at LGBT diversity where gay people don't kiss or touch or talk, but just kind of stand next to each other.

His first mission involves defusing a situation involving a young mutant with anger issues and the ability to shoot flames out of his hand, the self-proclaimed Firefist (Julian Dennison of the terrific Hunt for the Wilderpeople). Deadpool's irreverent humor drives the kid away, just in time for the time-traveling terminator Cable (Josh Brolin) to arrive from the future with an eye on destroying the kid to prevent crimes he commits as an adult. Does Deadpool learn to overcome his grief and become the father he was always meant to be? Well, you'll just have to see, won't you?

Father, X-Man, friend to all gays... What can't this man do?

We would do well to sit down with the question that is all-important to comedy sequels: Is this schtick still funny? Obviously comedy is in the funny bone of the beholder, but my answer is a qualified yes. I've always loved meta humor in general, and the way it combines with pretty incisive analysis of superhero clichés continues to be satisfying (some times more than others - the movie really drops the ball with its obligatory Thanos joke). And there's plenty of new bits on hand here, including a delightful gross-out recurring gag with a pen, that are just solid examples of comedy writing, comic book movie or not. Sure, some jokes thud to the floor (there's a recurring bit about dubstep that I'm not certain is or was ever funny in any universe), but this is one of those modern movies that throw so much at the wall that most of sticks and you can ignore the rest.

Unfortunately, "the rest" includes most of the jokes that are picked up from the previous film. The biggest one of these being T.J. Miller's comic relief presence. It doesn't help that in the time between the previous movie and now, it has been revealed that the man himself is pretty much an unmitigated asshole, but his jokes have always felt like the blooper reel of a Judd Apatow movie, and they suck out all the air from the film every time he makes an appearance. And although the opening credits sequence is still quite fun, they're almost too shy to repeat the joke from the original movie and cut them short just as they're getting started.

All in all, however, I'm gonna put the humor in the plus column. The scales are tipped especially when you add the weight of new recruits Zazie Beetz and Julian Dennison, who own every scene they are in. Wilderpeople proved that Dennison has the chops and I'm glad he's gotten a bigger platform for his unique brand of Kiwi bluster, but as someone who doesn't watch Atlanta, Beetz is a new encounter for me, and it has been excessively pleasant. Her colossal confidence and screen presence will superglue your eyes to the screen, and her action sequences, which involve the superpower of "luck" creating a series of Rube Goldberg Final Destination deaths around her as she struts by, are truly something to behold.

She's basically what would happen if we put 70's Pam Grier in a superhero movie, and that's the highest praise I can give to any human being.

And though Domino's action is clearly the best, Deadpool 2 doesn't disgrace director David Leitch's history with John Wick and Atomic Blonde at any point. Deadpool's indestructibility allows him to soar through the tropes of action cinema just as easily as superhero movies, circumventing traditional fight setpieces in his own idiosyncratic fashion. Probably the best example (and the one shown in the trailers) is the part where it seems like he's deflecting all the bullets Cable shoots at him by hitting them aside with his katanas, only to reveal that most of them have hit their mark because it's, like, super hard to hit a bullet with a sword. By lowering the personal stakes as to his health and well-being, Deadpool 2 has opened the floodgates to a cartoony sense of fun that keeps these scenes buoyant and propulsive throughout.

So, the comedy and action are present, which is really all you need. Unfortunately, Deadpool has two hours to fill and what it chooses to sandwich in between the fun parts is more than a bit irksome. There's repeated use of a ridiculous heaven-esque dreamscape that delivers foreshadowing and character insight on a silver platter without actually having to earn it, and this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the movie's more dramatic sequences. Ryan Reynolds sells Deadpool's emotional arc, because he really is a solid actor, but the drama here is much too maudlin and self-serious to pair well with the fratty comedy the rest of the movie delivers. There's no foundation for this type of scene in the Deadpool universe, and we get a lot of them here to crumble around us.

Also, sweet baby Jesus, there are so many random soundtrack needle drops in this movie. In the climactic third act sequence it feels like we get a dozen ironic pop songs jammed into our ears, to the point that I'm legitimately surprised we didn't get a joke comparing that scene to Suicide Squad. Some of these juxtapositions of bubblegum pop and action work quite well, but the movie is too flooded with them for the few great moments to actually have any potency.

Neither of these flaws are film-ruining, but they certainly drag this sequel to a lower level than its predecessor, in spite of quite a few things that are working even better than before. I can't wait to see the story continue with the exciting new characters it has added, it's satisfying to see what a Deadpool movie can do with an actual budget, and I had fun. That's really all I need, but there's just those niggling problems that refuse to go away.

TL;DR: Deadpool 2 is a satisfying, fun hunk of diminishing returns.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1359
Reviews In This Series
Deadpool (Miller, 2016)
Deadpool 2 (Leitch, 2018)

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Census Flashback: Skewing Younger

On our Fright Flashback/Census Bloodbath crossover, every week this summer we'll be exploring an 80's slasher film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to the weekend's upcoming blockbuster.

In anticipation of Solo: A Star Wars Story, which explores younger versions of characters you know and love, I'll be reviewing a movie that transposes last week's pick of The Phantom of the Opera into a teenage milieu. It's Phantom of the Mall: Eric's Revenge!

Year: 1989
Director: Richard Friedman
Cast: Derek Rydall, Jonathan Goldsmith, Kari Whitman
Run Time: 1 hour 31 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

The Phantom of the Opera musical was already about three years into its medium-defining run in 1989, so it makes sense that Hollywood would want to cash in on that ASAP. But that still doesn't excuse the fact that, even though the slasher subgenre was wheezing its death rattle, it used that precious last breath to cough out two rip-offs of that very same story. Last week we took a look at the chintzy and misguided Robert England period piece, but this week is an entirely different animal. Now Phantom of the Mall: Eric's Revenge is certainly chintzy and misguided, but there's still some spark that the po-faced straight adaptation lacks.

An actually handsome romantic lead doesn't hurt, either.

Phantom of the Mall positions itself as a mystery, but let's not pretend the plot is anything but straightforward and get the exposition out of the way that the movie wastes 40 minutes not telling you. The Midwood Mall - the brainchild of venal businessman Harv Posner (Jonathan Goldsmith, of two episodes of every 80's show you've ever heard of) and local mayor Karen Wilton (Morgan Fairchild, making her second Census Bloodbath appearance after the dreadful The Seduction) - has just opened up, bringing this small town into a world of economic opportunity. Well, for everyone except Eric Matthews (Derek Rydall), a presumed-dead teen whose family perished in a fire that just so happened to clear the plot of land the mall was built on. With a load of scars on his face, hate in his heart, and a Bowflex in his lair to give him that obligatory slasher villain murderstrength, Eric lurks in the underbelly of the mall vowing revenge on those who built it and taking down anyone who threatens his bereaved girlfriend Melody Austin (Kari Whitman of Masterblaster, a credit I'm sure she'd sooner have us forget).

Conveniently, Melody and her friends - the fashionplate Suzie (Kimber Sissons) and the goofball slacker Buzz (Pauly Shore) - have gotten jobs at the aforementioned mall where Eric is doing his phantoming. Oddly for a teen mall slasher, most of the victims are anonymous adult maintenance workers, but also on the potential platter of Meat are Harv's deadbeat greaser son Justin (Tom Fridley, who unforgettably played Cort in Jason Lives: Friday the 13th Part VI), security guard Acardi (horror icon Ken Foree), and intrepid teen newspaper photographer Peter Baldwin (Rob Estes, a series regular on three seasons of Melrose Place, so my crush on him arrives 20 years later than the rest of the world), who has developed a bit of interest in Melody's horrible backstory, and a lot of interest in Melody's beautiful face.

Their love doesn't please Eric much, but really what does?

1989 slasher films don't tend to have a lot to offer in the field of gore, scares, creativity, acting, filmmaking, or reasons to exist, but there's one thing that they all have in common: an abundant supply of 80's cheese. The ridiculous fads and fashions that cropped up around the beginning of the decade had had many years to ferment, becoming as pungent and flavorful as possible in the process, and Phantom of the Mall has a delightful surplus of that excess. It also doesn't hurt that it's set in a mall, the ur-location of 80's cinema.

Everything in sight is a beautiful time capsule, from the music to the technology to the cast (see: Morgan Fairchild) to the outfits (see: Morgan Fairchild's oversized peach blazer that threatens to drown her in fabric). Although the slasher movie had long since run out of steam and couldn't deliver something you hadn't seen before, this was the perfect background onto which a film could regurgitate a decade of well-worn tropes and character archetypes.

Plus, even hough they lack creativity and even at times a coherent pool of victims, the kills - the counterpoint upon which any slasher must balance - are achieved with a crazed live-wire energy that more than makes up for the less than pristine gore. Most of these murders have a hilariously complex Rube Goldberg quality that calls to mind the best of the Final Destination franchise (one singular kill sequence involves a skateboard, a lasso, and an escalator), and their bizarre, unpredictable nature is captivating. Plus, lots of these moments are satisfyingly on-theme with their use of common mall objects and locations, and the ones that aren't are at least f**king bananas, like Eric planting a venomous cobra inside a toilet.

You know, like are found at your average mall pet store.

Basically, the entire theme of this movie is succeeding in spite of the limitations of being exactly what a late 80's slasher always was going to be. Those kills really are something, and they do tend to draw from a well of contemporary urban legend fears (the toilet snake, people! Not to mention the fact that Stranger Danger lurks around every corner here, with predatory men stalking the mall parking lot like it's a prison yard) that elevates them just slightly from typical slasher fare.

And when the movie really digs in, it goes nuts, splashing every dollar of its presumably modest budget right into your face. The third act pulls out all the stops in an orgy of 80's genre tropes, pulling from the best of the worst of horror, action, and soap operas of the time. There's a splashy car chase, a fight between the Phantom and one of the mall's many sex predators that involves at least a dozen spin-kicks, and a Dynasty-esque reveal involving Morgan Fairchild diva-ing it up in a sparkly dress. And there's literally a scene of someone jumping away from an explosion!

He's flying directly into the 80's slasher Hall of Fame.

As a campy, trashy experience, Phantom of the Mall is an especially epic good time. The ensemble of familiar character actor faces provides a reasonably reliable performance quality (Kari Whitman is probably the least recognizable of them, and for good reason, considering that she's by far the blandest presence in the film), the stupidity of translating Phantom into this milieu is wholeheartedly embraced, and the tropes it leans heavily on are some of my favorites. It's certainly no masterpiece, but for once a slasher movie has lived up to its epically ludicrous title, and that's not something to scoff at.

Killer: Eric Matthews (Derek Rydall)
Final Girl: Melody Austin (Kari Whitman)
Best Kill: There are a lot of fun elaborate kills here, but what could possibly beat a cobra rising from a toilet to bite a dude on the dick?
Sign of the Times: The arsonist the teens are hunting down looks exactly like George Michael, stubble, earring, and all.
Scariest Moment: Melody's sex dream about Eric turns into a hideous nightmare of fire and blood.
Weirdest Moment: Suzie finds an eyeball in her frozen yogurt.
Champion Dialogue: "He can ask me probing questions anytime."
Body Count: 9
  1. Stanley is stabbed in the gut.
  2. AC Repairman has his face shoved in a fan.
  3. Devlin is crushed by a cart into a fuse box, electrocuting him until his eyeball pops out.
  4. Piano Player is bit in the dick by a toilet cobra.
  5. Justin has his neck snapped in an escalator.
  6. Christopher is decapitated by a trash compactor.
  7. Mayor Wilton is thrown out a window and impaled on a shard of glass.
  8. Harv Posner is burned by a flamethrower and thrown onto propane tanks, which explode.
  9. Eric perishes at the hands of his own bomb.
TL;DR: Phantom of the Mall: Eric's Revenge is a surprisingly delightful late entry in the slasher genre.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1362

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Census Flashback: Double Dipping Devilry

On our Fright Flashback/Census Bloodbath crossover, every week this summer we'll be exploring an 80's slasher film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to the weekend's upcoming blockbuster.

In anticipation of Deadpool 2, which sees Josh Brolin returning to the world of Marvel as the villain Cable mere weeks after his universe-threatening appearance as Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War, I'll be exploring an 80's slasher where the lead villain also played double duty. In 1989 Robert England continued his landmark role as Freddy Krueger in A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child, but he also played another infamous villain in that same year's The Phantom of the Opera, which we'll be discussing today.

Year: 1989
Director: Dwight H. Little
Cast: Robert Englund, Jill Schoelen, Alex Hyde-White
Run Time: 1 hour 33 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

I don't know what it is about classic French literature and pop culture, but two of the most adapted novels in the world are Victor Hugo's Les Misérables and Gaston Leroux's The Phantom of the Opera. Both books have received the movie treatment more than a dozen times apiece, not to mention TV specials, comics (seriously), and modernizations, as well as one extravagantly popular Broadway musical apiece. 

Phantom is pretty explicitly a horror novel (though certain people choose to highlight the romance over the monstrous element), so it's not shocking that the genre got its grubby little hands on it, as early as 1925. But what's even less shocking is that 80's horror got a swipe in at the property, because if there was one thing genre filmmakers of the time loved more than a new concept for a slasher movie, it was a well-known property already in the public domain. And why not get Robert Englund, for whom playing a man with a hecked-up face was his bread and butter, and who could at least get some literary cred from playing the role? Toss in the director of the exceedingly solid Halloween 4, the special effects guru behind Chucky, the Crypt Keeper, and Freddy himself, plus 80's shlock mega-producer Menahem Golan, and it's a match made in heaven.

Or hell, if you will.

So, the plot should seem pretty familiar, give or take a couple little embellishments. We start off in the 80's for no clear reason other than to gently ease its viewers into a period piece slasher film, following Christine Day (Jill Schoelen, the queen of late 80's/early 90's B-horror, who at this time was fresh off The Stepfather and Cutting Class) as she scours a rare bookstore for material to use during her opera audition. She stumbles across a battered copy of Don Juan Triumphant, and during her audition is hit on the head with a sandbag (?), which sends her back in time (?) to nineteenth century London, when the piece was first written by Erik Destler (Robert Englund, who was by that point a worldwide cultural phenomenon - that very year he was appearing in Freddy drag on MTV left and right).

Christine doesn't seem to realize that she has been transported back into the past, so this whole thing is pretty pointless. I guess they're going for a Mummy-esque reincarnated love thing, but let's call a spade a spade and not pretend it makes a lick of sense. She is a young soprano understudy for the diva La Carlotta (Stephanie Lawrence), but she receives voice lessons from a mysterious angelic figure known as the Phantom, who murders the piss out of anybody who gets in her way. Anyway, it turns out the Phantom is Erik (duh), who has sold his soul to the devil (?), as portrayed by a little person (?), which has made his face all burned and scarred (??). Cue a lot of bad opera and mediocre slashing.

And makeup that's even frightening when it's supposed to seem normal.

Yup, this is one of those cases where the slasher stars seem to have aligned, but alack, those stars got crossed somewhere along the line and it was not meant to be. Phantom of the Opera wants to be a legitimate adaptation of its literary source material and the trashy B-slasher it was always meant to be, but it can't have its cake and stab it too. The slasher elements undercut any ability to take it seriously, and the serious elements make the slasher a bit of a tedious slog.

At every opportunity, Phantom cuts itself short. You can tell it wants to have the quippy punnery of a Freddy Krueger adventure, but then it would tip its hand too far in the "stupid slasher" direction, so it contents itself with some light, playful japing that glances right off the scene and immediately out of one's memory. And it very clearly desires to be an icky, gross-out horror flick, at which it only intermittently succeeds.

Thanks to Kevin Yagher, the moments where the gore comes to the forefront are spectacular. Especially any time we see the Phantom either assembling or dismantling the false skin he wears to get around in the world, it's stomach-churningly gooey grue that lights up the screen. This sensibility is also applied to a certain number of the deaths, especially in the early going, but for some unfathomable reason the bulk of the murders are rendered as run-of-the-mill gut stabbings that completely lack flair and barely shed a drop of blood.

It's telling that this is about the most dynamic screenshot I can find.

That lack of flair isn't isolated to the murder scenes, unfortunately. Although Halloween 4 did sometimes have the tendency to look a bit like a TV movie, at least it had atmosphere. Here, the lighting scheme wouldn't be out of place at a community center bar mitzvah. See, a huge production is made out of candlelit rooms, and the fact that the Phantom lurks in the shadows to hide his twisted visage. But whenever he blows out a candle to hide his face, the room is still so blasted with light that it looks like he's on the set of King of Queens. If anything, the room seemed darker before the candle blew out. The lighting is so conspicuously inappropriate that it drags you cornea-first out of the movie, undermining the character to a ruthlessly extreme degree.

This is a real shame, because Robert Englund clearly cared about this character. The apathy that defines his Dream Child performance is completely absent here, and he's trying his darnedest to assemble something resembling pathos from the role. It all falls apart like a sand castle too close to the tide, but it's not his fault. There is hardly an inch of plot to hang this performance on within the repetitive (yet somehow infrequent) slashings and endless scenes of Jill Schoelen lip syncing to a deeply milquetoast opera track with English lyrics that feel like they were ripped from a seventh grader's songwriting journal.

I dearly wish The Phantom of the Opera had been much better than it was. Period piece horror films aren't exactly a dime a dozen, and when one gets a chunk of change significant enough to make that a reality, I always hope for the best. Unfortunately for the slasher genre in 1989, "the best" was never really an option. It's Robert Englund's best film of the year by a country mile, but that's praise so faint it can't even muster up the energy to damn anything.

Killer: Erik Destler (Robert Englund)
Final Girl: Christine Day (Jill Schoelen)
Best Kill: Most of the kills are pretty bog-standard, but during the Phantom's first kill, blood covers his face as it contorts with orgasmic delight, which is pretty intense. Also eventually the body is hung up in a closet, sans skin, which is likewise rather intense.
Sign of the Times: When she returns to present day, Christine discovers the completed version of Don Juan Triumphant on a floppy disk.
Scariest Moment: When Christine first discovers the pages of the opera and sings them aloud, the notes on the page turn into drops of blood.
Weirdest Moment: Christine's best friend in the framing sequence is played by Molly Shannon in her first film role.
Champion Dialogue: "Better submerged in bathwater than mediocrity."
Body Count: 10
  1. Joseph is gutted with a knife while being winched up into the air.
  2. Ruffian #1 is stabbed in the gut.
  3. Ruffian #2 is decapitated with a knife.
  4. Lead Ruffian is stabbed in the gut.
  5. Harrison has his head crushed with a towel.
  6. La Carlotta is beheaded offscreen, and her head is boiled into a soup.
  7. Rat Catcher is impaled on a spike.
  8. Morris has his throat slit offscreen.
  9. Davis has his heart pulled out of his chest.
  10. Richard is stabbed with a candle holder and burned alive.
TL;DR: The Phantom of the Opera is an admirable effort, but grafting a slasher onto classic literature rendered both of those things not particularly interesting.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1493

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Reviewing Jane: If I Loved You Less, I Might Be Able To Talk About It More

In which we review (almost) every film adapted from or inspired by the works of Jane Austen, as I read through her extended bibliography for the first time. This review is a massive expansion of a frankly terrible mini-review I wrote back in November 2013.

Year: 1995
Director: Amy Heckerling
Cast: Alicia Silverstone, Stacey Dash, Brittany Murphy
Run Time: 1 hour 37 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

Jane Austen's work as a whole is almost perfectly designed to be translated into a high school setting. The rigid class strata, overwhelming obsession with pairing off into romantic couples, and razor-sharp sarcasm of her novels is if anything more suited to the modern teen movie than the period piece. It's such an obvious thing to do that it took a genius to recognize it, and that genius was none other than Amy Heckerling, one of the only commercially successful female filmmakers to come out of the 80's (her debut Fast Times at Ridgemont High was a massively profitable, zeitgeist-defining hit).

When approached to write a high school movie, Heckerling reflected back on the novel Emma, which she remembered enjoying at that age. And thus, by combining a centuries-old plot structure with modern teen fashion and lingo, Clueless was born, jamming yet another massively profitable, zeitgeist-defining hit into that C.V. just for good measure.

It was a movie so iconic, it convinced Stacey Dash she could go ahead and keep on pretending that the world loves her and her every thought.

So, here we go. A decade before Mean Girls, Cher Horowitz (Alicia Silverstone) rules the campus with her matching plaid ensembles and boxy cell phone. Along with her friend Dionne (Stacey Dash), she matchmakes her way into better grades by keeping her depressed debate teacher happy, and she's more than willing to use her talents to mold crude new girl Tai (Brittany Murphy) into the perfect popular princess.

Together they navigate a tangled web of love involving the popular boy Elton (Jeremy Sisto), the loser stoner Travis (Breckin Meyer), the ostentatiously retro Christian (Justin Walker), Dionne's lusty boyfriend Murray (Donald Faison), and Cher's preachy, college-aged stepbrother Josh (Paul Rudd). If Cher hadn't meddled, it would probably be a lot less complicated, but also a lot less fun!

And thanks to her, the rest of the world who HADN'T seen Halloween 6 got to meet Paul Rudd.

The ways that Emma's plot corresponds to the beats of Clueless are frankly remarkable. Sure, it's all slathered with a heaping helping of dated hairstyles, slang, pop tunes, and brown lipstick that only increase the film's hilarity as time goes by, but there are certain scenes that are practically verbatim (especially the scene where Cher is insulted she wasn't invited to a party she didn't particularly want to go to, or where Tai decides to burn her last remembrances of Elton).

This is why it absolutely works as a comedy, because that's the exact element it isolates from Jane Austen's romance of manners and manors. I have constantly been frustrated by the way that the straight Austen adaptations rub out her idiosyncratic sarcasm as if it were a dirty thing to be ignored in the face of literary merit. But Clueless is the exact opposite, removing everything but the humorous character dynamics much to its benefit.

Of course, it does also naturally inherit one of Emma's flaws: Tai (just like her character analogue Harriet Smith) holds a major role, but shrinks into the background come the third act and is given a tossed-off conclusion without really completing an arc of any kind. But that's a small price to pay for one of the purest adaptations of Austen's tone we've ever gotten.

Somehow, I think she would approve.

Clueless is hilarious at all times, but it's perhaps most hilarious if you've ever lived in Los Angeles. Regional humor always gets me, but Amy Heckerling manages to toe a very delicate line between referencing very specific places and feelings, yet still making it universal. The iconic learner's permit freeway scene and the followup line "Getting off the freeway makes you realize how important life is," are freaking hysterical if you grew up terrified of navigating the labyrinthine L.A. freeway system, but yet they also strike at a truth that will resonate with anyone who's lived through high school. The way teenage emotions are so vivid and bold that they can make mountains out of the tiniest, most mundane molehills is effortlessly encapsulated in this funny, relatable, endearingly earnest line.

Heckerling may have been the one to strike gold here, but Alicia Silverstone is an all-important piece of this puzzle. One of the toughest things about reading Emma is watching the main character make so many mistakes. She's a supremely flawed heroine: venal, self-impressed, and wearingly meddlesome. That is what makes her interesting as a protagonist, but you don't always want to spend time with her. Silverstone finds the perfect balance here, knowing full well that Cher is an airheaded twit but humanizing her just enough that you can see her potential to be an actual good person and are always willing to follow her into the depths of her comically terrible decisions.

The rest of the ensemble is generally strong too, of course (only Stacey Dash is a major miss; her one approach to line reading is "shrill and catty"), but Silverstone is obviously the Queen Bee. Clueless just wouldn't work without her, and Clueless works tremendously well. In the terrifyingly vast landscape of 90's teen movies, this is one that truly deserves its status on the A-list, and that's not nostalgia speaking. I was one year old when this movie came out, so the fact that it still strikes a chord speaks to its generous and loving approach to the teen human condition.

TL;DR: Clueless is a delectable teen comedy only made better by its literary source material.
Rating: 8/10
Word Count: 984
Other Films Based on Emma
Clueless (Heckerling, 1995)
Emma (McGrath, 1996)
Emma (Lawrence, 1996)
Aisha (Ojha, 2010)
Emma. (de Wilde, 2020)

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Census Flashback: Party Till You Drop

On our Fright Flashback/Census Bloodbath crossover, every week this summer we'll be exploring an 80's slasher film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to the weekend's upcoming blockbuster.

In anticipation of Life of the Party, which is about Melissa McCarthy returning to college and wreaking havoc on the frat scene, this week I'll be visiting the hallowed halls of the psychosexual campus slasher Rush Week.

Year: 1988
Director: Bob Bralver
Cast: Pamela Ludwig, Dean Hamilton, Roy Thinnes
Run Time: 1 hour 36 minutes
MPAA Rating: Unrated

Just when you think you've seen every college-set slasher that the subgenre has to offer, the indefatigable 80's horror morass regurgitates yet another one. 1988's Rush Week has all the hallmarks of a slasher I shouldn't care about very much. Too non-paranormal to keep up with the post-Elm Street trend that made the late 80's so weird, too generic to justify the lack of gore that resulted from the MPAA's severe crackdown on the genre after it dominated theaters for the better part of a decade. Fortunately, Rush Week actually wasn't a slog, which is oh so unusual at this point in the project. Let's dive in, right after some good, wholesome plot synopsis!

Part of a balanced breakfast.

So, it's Rush Week at Tambers College, and as is oh so likely to happen when a bunch of nubile fraternity and sorority students cavort together, a cloaked, axe-wielding murderer is cutting a trail of carnage across the proceedings. The only person who seems to notice that people are mysteriously disappearing is Toni Daniels (Pamela Ludwig), a new journalism student who has been working with the college paper. 

Even though everyone in her life suspiciously warns her away from investigating these murders, including her carefree hippie professor Cosmo Kincald (Gregg Allman, of the Allman Brothers Band. Yeah, I don't know why either), the weirdly-obsessed-with-moral-purification-and-the-sanctity-of-death Dean Grail (Roy Thinnes), and her dreamy new love interest Jeff Jacobs (Dean Hamilton), a frat president who's clearly hiding a dark secret about his past. And that's just the tip of the suspect iceberg. I won't go too far into that, but I do want to mention some slasher royalty we have among us. As Julie Ann McGuffin, the killer's first victim, we have Halloween 4's Kathleen Kinmont, and as a totally useless pervy frat guy literally credited as "Peeper" we have Friday the 13th: A New Beginning's unforgettable Dominick Brascia.

Anyway, the killer is clearly trying to wipe out the moral corruption of the Greek system, as exemplified by Jeff's fraternity's increasingly wicked prank war with a rival frat. Naturally, this is accomplished by killing the women involved with said fraternity, because it ain't a slasher movie without a healthy dose of misogyny.

And Dean Hamilton isn't objectified nearly as much as I want him to be.

I've already mentioned what I could tell before even viewing one second of Rush Week. This isn't a gooey, gory romp through the best kills the slasher has to offer. No, it's almost pathetic in how boring and rote its murder sequences are: Killer raises the axe. Girl cowers in just such a way that you think her top might slip off. Killer swings the axe. Cut to next scene. This is repeated no fewer than three times with nary a drop of blood to be found, and by the time the final two kills show up with their run-of-the-mill but at least drippy special effects, the momentum has long been lost.

Usually, gore is the only reason to watch these movies, because it's not like the filmmaking or plots tend to be anything to write home about. But Rush Week does succeed in a lot of little ways that don't quite make it great, but at least worth watching in spite of that very major drawback. For one thing, it's actually a pretty solid whodunit. The red herrings are probably a bit obvious in how hyperbolically creepy they are (and one late-in-the-game plot twist makes so little sense, it might actually count as surrealism), but focusing the plot on a plucky young reporter rather than a generic campus cop or something really does help keep you invested.

It's just plain fun to follow Toni Daniels through the various obstacles and clues she faces along the way to discovering who the killer is, and the fact that the people who are backing up her research are all women (including several sources, a biology student who can test blood, and a computer whiz) makes up for at least an ounce of how skeevy the rest of the movie tends to be. Plus, Pamela Ludwig is actually kind of good. Legitimately great even, in at least one scene. In the moment before her first kiss with Jeff, you can see her face awash in a whirl of different emotions; distrust, desire, nervousness, calculation, and eventually surrender. It's one of the only slasher romantic scenes that's actually hot, and it's all because of the microscopic, expertly handled facial cues we get to watch as she sorts out her feelings.

OK, maybe it doesn't work in a freeze frame, but she's terrific, I promise.

So we have a semi-talented lead, and she's given semi-amusing dialogue. A personal favorite of mine is "Is it alright if I call you Toni?" "You can call me anything you like." "Can I call you tomorrow?" It's not Billy Wilder, set-the-Earth-on-fire work, but it's just something a little more than you can usually expect to get from one of these films. There are people who were actually trying when they were making this movie, and that does count for a lot.

There's also no denying that the killer here is actually pretty scary. To start, his weapon is consistent from start to finish (this almost never happens), which is great because it's a massively imposing medieval axe that cuts a striking silhouette. But the costume itself is actually kind of alarming. At first all you see is a cloaked figure, getting only the barest glimpses of a face in the shadows. But the more you see of the killer, the more you realize that his face won't tell you anything, because it's a mask that's just lifelike enough to be convincing in shadow, but nevertheless completely uncanny and menacing when it's revealed. Check it:

Again, maybe screenshots don't do this movie justice. Or maybe I'm just in this project waaaaay too deep.

Well, whatever. It's an entertaining thrill ride for the most part, and I'm not gonna spit on that. There are still those little reminders that this is a crummy slasher movie, both on the filmmaking level (take the foley work, which goes completely out of control anytime it has to render footsteps - they never match the characters' walks, to the point that you think somebody might actually be following them), and the way it treats the female characters who aren't Toni.

I can have fun with gratuitous nudity as much as the next guy (a girl meditating topless in a college classroom is certainly a first), but some of the material here is just gross, especially with the character of Alma. She's literally just a prostitute who the frat hires to satisfy their pledges (a truly unusual slasher character, from the beginning), who they play their cruelest, most vicious prank on for absolutely no reason, and who does not deserve the bloody comeuppance she is handed. I'm actually glad the kills aren't prolonged, gory, or numerous, because the way they play out time and time again is by far the least appealing aspect of a movie that's actually quite charming quite a bit of the time.

Rush Week is good for what it is, even though what it is isn't a very good thing at all. But in the terms of what I've had to sit through for Census Bloodbath, it's a slam dunk. That's probably a sad thing, but I've made this bed and I've got to lie in it.

Killer: [Dean Grail (Roy Thinnes)]
Final Girl: Toni Daniels (Pamela Ludwig)
Sign of the Times: A major plot point revolves around the fact that Toni got a message on her computer, and only very few people have the technical skill to figure out how to do that.
Best Kill: Dean Grail is decapitated by axe in what is more or less the only gore moment in the movie, so it's not much of a contest.
Scariest Moment: Arnold the Creeper is pursuing Toni through the halls of the science building and immediately runs afoul of the real killer, who bursts through a doorway and murders the hell out of him.
Weirdest Moment: An accordion player prances around the preppy frat's party.
Champion Dialogue: "You can't row a boat with a limp rope."
Body Count: 5
  1. Julie is axed to death.
  2. Alma is axed to death.
  3. Rebecca is axed to death.
  4. Arnold is axed in the gut.
  5. Dean Grail is decapitated with an axe.
TL;DR: Rush Week lacks the gore it needs to be an exemplary late-80's slasher, but the plot and characters are strong enough that it's nevertheless enjoyable.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1529