Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Deep In The Fart Of Texas

Did you think I could just let Halloween go by without acknowledging a new entry in our very first October marathon? Last year saw the ever-so quiet drop of a Texas Chainsaw flick, and we'll be checking it out today as a special Halloween treat, now that the Children of the Corn are tucked safely in their beds.

Year: 2017
Director: Alexandre Bustillo & Julien Maury
Cast: Stephen Dorff, Lili Taylor, Sam Strike
Run Time: 1 hour 30 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Clearly the world wasn't clamoring for the further adventures of Leatherface after Texas Chainsaw 3D, because Leatherface - a prequel directed by the men behind French extreme classic Inside, no less - received as much fanfare as a wet fart, slinking shamefully into a direct-to-DirecTV release (seriously) before what Wikipedia claims was a limited theatrical run, but you coulda fooled me. Luckily, this inauspicious debut doesn't immediately bely that Leatherface might be the worst movie in the franchise, because come on. Have you seen the rest of the franchise?

Lili Taylor clearly hasn't, because she signed on to be in this one.

Leatherface is the second prequel in the franchise, but it seems to take place explicitly within the timeline established by 3D, which ignored the remake and its prequel, so technically this one takes place roughly a decade before the original Tobe Hooper masterpiece. Not a great place to start, but let's see how this goes.

The year is 1955. Verna Sawyer (Lili Taylor), the character that made the least sense in Texas Chainsaw 3D, a movie that made nonsense into an art form, is a hillbilly matriarch who encourages her many many sons, but most importantly her baby Jed (Boris Kabakchiev, whose name is the first tip-off that this movie was shot entirely in Bulgaria), to be ruthless family-defending killers. Jed doesn't seem to take to killing as well as his older brothers Drayton and Nubbins (Dejan Angelov and Dimo Alexiev), but he is forced to be involved in the killing of a local teen who just so happens to be the daughter of the sheriff, Hal Hartman (Stephen Dorff). Hal uses this to get revenge on Verna and locks Jed away in the Gorman House, a sanitarium for youngsters.

Cut to a decade later. New nurse Lizzy (Vanessa Grasse) has just taken on a position at Gorman, a typically wicked movie asylum where grotesque experiments are conducted by the evil head doctor (Christopher Adamson) and everyone is movie star gorgeous but very pale because they're crazy. She is kidnapped during a mass breakout and forced to make way to Mexico in a stolen van with violent couple Ike (James Bloor) and Clarice (Jessica Madsen), who have also kidnapped her favorite patient Jackson (Sam Strike) - who has taken it upon himself to ruthlessly protect her at all costs - and the bumbling giant lug Bud (Sam Coleman, who appropriately played young Hodor in Game of Thrones).

While Hartman pursues them with murderlust in his eyes, Verna attempts to find Jed, and we the audience are left to wonder which of these kids with Lizzy is Jed, because they've all been given new names, and one of them has to be Jed because this movie isn't called Lizzy's Road Trip.

Although considering how lithe and sexy the cast is, it does feel like a certain extension of the Eurotrip universe.

Well one thing I can say for certain about Leatehrface is that it's faithful to the Texas Chainsaw franchise. By that I mean it continues the series' tradition of having completely incomprehensible continuity. I don't want to spoil too much, but there's no way what is revealed here could possibly lead to the Leatherface we've come to know and love. What we're given here is more a Norman Bates story than anything, and if you tried to line up every character here with their counterparts in the original, or even Texas Chainsaw 3D, you'd have to rip those puzzle pieces apart with a chainsaw to get them to actually fit.

But we've come to expect this kind of thing from a Chainsaw movie, so it's not great but not altogether surprising. What is surprising is the structure of the narrative, which forgoes the traditional Chainsaw formula (a group of teens is mowed down until the single surviving girl is forced to sit down to dinner with the crazed clan) in favor of something completely unrecognizable. The fact that it's barely recognizable as a plot at all is beside the point. It's at least something different from the excruciatingly repetitive extended third acts of six previous movies.

Unfortunately, the mystery angle doesn't really fly. While it's fun to sit there and guess who might be revealed to be the grown-up Leatherface, the reveal is dully predictable, and the need to keep the identity of Jed in the dark for plot purposes prevents the screenplay from diving into the inner workings of its title character. There's no conceivable way to draw a line from Jed at the end of this movie to Leatherface in Texas Chain Saw, and you don't come out of this prequel with any deeper understanding of what might be going on in that flesh-shrouded head of his, which you'd think would be the entire point of a prequel that bears his name.

He doesn't even touch a chainsaw until like the final five minutes! Even Jason took Manhattan way sooner than that!

It's also incredibly difficult to figure out who to root for. Leatherface doesn't exactly position itself as a Hero Killer movie where you identify with the tragic descent into insanity, but Lizzy - who is positioned as the de facto protagonist - is an incredibly dim-witted character whose every terrible decision makes her more and more odious and ethically questionable. Her actions directly lead to the deaths of innocents because she refuses to act on information she knows to be true. I'm being vague on purpose, but she's a character who doesn't just make you want to smack yourself on the forehead, you'll want to bludgeon your skull so hard you forget you ever encountered her.

For the purposes of my own sanity, I'll pretend Verna is the protagonist, because Lili Taylor is putting her back into this role. She's obviously a talented actress, but her portrayal of Verna gives the woman so much more depth than she deserves. She would have been great as just a butch mama bear, but she layers thought upon emotion upon physicality to turn Verna into an optical illusion, where unless you look at her just the right way (AKA if you just read the script) she doesn't seem like a one-dimensional cypher. Taylor also delivers the single most epic slap in cinema history in an early scene, a moment that will stick in my brain like barbed wire for decades to come.

I'd hoped Bustillo and Maury would bring their no-holds-barred sensibilities across the pond, but it seems like their approach didn't quite translate for the American studios. There is a lot of nasty implied gore, and a couple pretty killer death sequences (to coin a nifty phrase), but something tells me the infinite list of executive producers that graces the first three minutes of this film has watered down their work a bit.

They do bring a lot of beauty to the film at least, especially in a scene with smoke emerging from a character's mouth that weirdly reminded me of the forgotten Italian slasher Trhauma, but their style is certainly not Texas enough for a Chain Saw picture. There's no scrubbing the Euro out of this film, especially considering that they literally shot it there. I wouldn't say it's a bad movie, not at all, but it's certainly not a Texas Chain Saw and it feels too filtered through a hundred different perspectives to be particularly coherent at the end of the day. I'm still down to see what these directors and some of these actors do next, but this particular entry doesn't really wet my whistle, so to speak.

TL;DR: Leatherface is at least different from the endless litany of disjointed sequels in the Chainsaw franchise, but it's so different that it feels entirely pointless most of the time.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1375
Reviews In This Series
Texas Chainsaw 3D (Luessenhop, 2013)
Leatherface (Bustillo & Maury, 2017)

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Corn To Run

Year: 2018
Director: John Gulager
Cast: Marci Miller, Jake Ryan Scott, Sara Moore
Run Time: 1 hour 22 minutes

Well, it happened. We're finally here. The end of the line. Last stop. The tenth and final film in the Children of the Corn franchise. Until seven years from now when Dimension needs to renew the rights and demands somebody cobble one together in three days. Curiously, this is the only time one of these marathons has had its final entry created in the year of writing, proving that the Corn really can't be kept down. It will keep springing up through the cracks like an insidious weed.

That was a bad choice of words. I've gone and reminded myself that I could be watching the Insidious movies instead. And there's only FOUR of those!

Children of the Corn: Runaway, intriguingly enough, follows the story of an actual canonical character from the short story. Ruth (Marci Miller) was a pregnant teen member of the cult of He Who Walks Behind the Rows and escaped by burning down the cornfield and most of her compatriots with it. She has spent the last thirteen years wandering the American South with her son Aaron (Jake Ryan Scott) like a regular Sarah Connor, avoiding an implacable presence she feels is following her (aw damn, I just reminded myself that I could have been watching It Follows instead, too).

When their truck is impounded by police in a remote Oklahoma town, Ruth decides that maybe it's time to try and put down roots. She gets a job as a mechanic, befriends local waitress Sarah (Mary Kathryn Bryant), and attempts to give her son a normal life while experiencing bizarre hallucinations of her murderous past. But when several adults in town turn up dead, she realizes that the evil she is facing might not be only in her head.

But it's the tenth Children of the Corn movie, so what were the odds that she was just imagining things?

John Gulager (who previously did the Feast movies and Piranha 3DD) is probably the most famous director to helm a Children of the Corn movie, which is saying something more about the franchise than anything. But it's still surprising that this movie got so little fanfare, even for a direct-to-video release. The only reason I even knew it existed was because I was bored and scrolled all the way down to the dark corners of my Redbox app one night.

And yet, exist it does. And not much more than that. Even though the concept itself is probably the best in the franchise, it immediately whittles away every last vestige of potential it has by the half hour mark. No, instead of being an interesting exploration on trauma and living with guilt smack dab in the middle of a zeitgeist that just so happens to be conveniently obsessed with cults, it's a shallow slog chock-full of characters it refuses to sketch out in anything but strokes so broad they're visible from space.

Including "Hooker," the most interesting character in the movie by a country mile.

Children of the Corn: Runaway is like looking at a good movie through a car's review mirror. There are tiny slivers of quality and structure that you can make out, but you feel like you're constantly moving away from them at high speed. The cinematography is actually decent, giving the town a sun-bleached feel that drains the energy right out of you (on purpose, I might add), but it also sucks every last bit of tension from potential scare scenes. And the acting is pretty good too, but the dialogue is so inane that every second the performers are forced to speak (and there are a lot of those seconds, because this "talkie" trend seems to be here to stay) you'll cringe so hard you'll end up a half an inch shorter by the time credits roll.

There are also some murders that are creatively staged (albeit with a heaping helping of weightless CGI blood), but they're either drawn-out far past the point of comfort or revealed to be one of Ruth's endless, irritating dream sequences.

In scenes so elliptically associated with the plot, you do begin to wonder if you just dreamed them yourself.

Honestly, I think the biggest problem here is the baggage they brought with them from the franchise's first returning screenwriter Joel Soisson. He wrote (and directed) 2011's Children of the Corn: Genesis and does not seemed to have learned a lot of lessons in the meantime about sticking the landing on an interesting premise. Or even sticking the takeoff to begin with. It perhaps makes more sense than Genesis, but it's much more rote and boring in the process, anchoring itself to characters that don't have the weight to keep the movie on course. It just wanders off in any old direction until a rapid-fire succession of reveals at the end that are just more and more confounding.

On top of everything else, Runaway commits that worst of horror movie sins: it's boring. Almost nothing happens in this movie, and while it skates in at just over 80 minutes, it feels easily thirty or forty longer than that. It just thoroughly fails to find a personality, placing too much stake in a wholly charisma-free child villain, using voiceover at intervals too random to feel consistent, and throwing in a boost of stylish craziness at the exact moment you most want to actually just sit down and follow a straightforward plot.

It's just too complacent in its laziness for a film that sets up so much stuff that could actually be compelling. It's all the more frustrating for giving you the ability to snatch brief glimpses of the - if not awesome - at least decently middling movie it could have been. All I can say is, at least we're not ending with the worst Children of the Corn movie, but it's not that steep an uphill hike to get to Runaway from the likes of Revelation or Isaac's Return.

TL;DR: Children of the Corn: Runaway is reasonably well-made, but that only serves to highlight how empty it is.
Rating: 3/10
Word Count: 1032
Reviews In This Series
Children of the Corn (Kiersch, 1984)
Children of the Corn II: The Final Sacrifice (Price, 1992)
Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest (Hickox, 1995)
Children of the Corn IV: The Gathering (Spence, 1996)
Children of the Corn V: Fields of Terror (Wiley, 1998)
Children of the Corn 666: Isaac's Return (Skogland, 1999)
Children of the Corn: Revelation (Magar, 2001)
Children of the Corn (Borchers, 2009)
Children of the Corn: Genesis (Soisson, 2011)
Children of the Corn: Runaway (Gulager, 2018)

Monday, October 29, 2018

Cardboard Science: Get Outta Your Mind

Year: 1958
Director: Arthur Crabtree
Cast: Marshall Thompson, Terry Kilburn, Kynaston Reeves
Run Time: 1 hour 14 minutes

Halloween is swiftly approaching, and thus ends this year's annual crossover with Cardboard Science at Kinemalogue. The third and final 50's sci-fi movie assigned by Hunter Allen is the one that on paper aligns most with my tastes, the more explicitly horror-fueled Fiend without a Face. For reasons entirely unknown to me, this is one of the only two Cardboard Science features to be included in the Criterion Collection. It's Godzilla and this, as if Invasion of the Body Snatchers wasn't just sitting right there.

See, even they're confused!

Fiend without a Face is the second entry this month to be explicitly set in Canada instead of the sandy bits right outside Santa Clarita, where every other one of these movies takes place. An American air base has been constructed just outside a Manitoba backwater, and the atomic power plant they use during their radar experiments (they're trying to see Russia from their house) is disturbing the nearby residents greatly. When people begin dying at the hands of invisible creatures literally sucking their brains out through their spines, American Major Cummings (Marshall Thompson) finds himself in the middle of an investigation with Barbara Griselle (Kim Parker) the uncooperative sister of the first victim, just as tensions reach their peak between the locals and the military.

Other tensions are also rising, but less bothersome ones as far as Maj. Cummings is concerned.

OK, here's where I'm going to spoil the crap out of this movie, because the mystery of what's happening isn't very well explored anyway, and the only thing really worth talking about here is the final fifteen minutes. So if you're that concerned, check out the movie and come back. I wouldn't be too concerned though. Word to the wise.

The titular fiends, as explained to us when we're literally sat down and treated to a monologue explaining everything at about the 50 minute mark, are the thoughts of local retiree Prof. R.E. Walgate (Kynaston Reeves) who has been experimenting with telekinesis. The thoughts have been given material form and when they gain enough radiation strength from the nuclear power plant, they become visible and reveal themselves to be creepy crawling brains with spinal cords attached.

It's like a diagram from a biology book based on From Beyond.

So, these brains. They're presented via some shaky stop motion animation, but they're a heck of a lot of fun, and the way they bleed and dissolve when they're shot is some unprecedentedly gory material for the time. The instant they arrive onscreen, Fiend lights up and becomes a gleeful, uproarious jaunt through siege movie mayhem. It's gruesome and campy in equal measures, exactly what one might be looking for from one of these flicks.

Unfortunately, getting there is a slog to say the absolute least. They've saved their entire effects budget for the truncated third act, so we're treated to a heavy artillery of dialogue sequences, and not a one of these characters is worth spending a scrap of your time with. Major Cummings and Barbara fall in love only because they're the leads of a film, and not because there's any sort of chemistry between them (in fact, she seems to hate him until she just sort of doesn't), and the much more interesting material of the town turning against the military is kept to the background and vanishes completely after the film's most effective scare gag (a victim of the fiends has been converted into  dribbling madman).

And I've already mentioned how frustrating and perfunctory the mystery is here. Cummings & Co. mill about not really gathering intel, and the the professor decides to fess up basically on a whim. There's no building to anything, it's just a wet dribble of plot until the brains show up and provide an electric shock to the film's system. And any action that takes place before the explosive final moments is just bizarre, like a fistfight in Barbara's home that could have been better performed by a pair of Rock'em Sock'em Robots.

Or perhaps even A BUNCH OF COOL BRAINS. Don't hold out on me, movie!

The only thing that's remotely effective in the first fifty minutes of Fiend is the sound design, which is actually quite masterful. I don't often talk about cinematography or sound or what have you in these features, because they're mostly crafted by workmen who just want to make sure you can see it. But there's a subtlety to the sound hear that deserves a second look. Or listen, I suppose. 

For one thing, when the fiends are still invisible, the sound effects of their passage across the ground is a truly disgusting squishy noise that will make your spine curl. But the audio doesn't just shine in the horror sequences. The rift between the community and the army base is underscored constantly by the sound of planes flying overhead, overshadowing any conversation with their constant droning presence. It's intrusive and really contributes to the sense of place, highlighting how fundamentally the presence of the base invades every aspect of life in town. 

The most harrowing scene in the entire movie doesn't even involve the fiends at all. It's Barbara at the funeral, attempting to lay her brother to rest as the priest's words are drowned out by an enormous jet overhead. That simmering resentment is so well curated through every frame of this movie that it's an even more gargantuan shame that the script doesn't do butt-all with it.

At the end of the day, I don't feel that the good in the movie outweighs the stilted tedium of the rest of it. What's good is very very, emphatically good. But it doesn't make up for being even less than run-of-the-mill for the better part of its run time.

That which is indistingushable from magic:
  • The aforementioned fiends feed on the nuclear power at the plant, so when Maj. Cummings blows it up, they immediately die. You know, like how when your pantry runs out of food your heart explodes within seconds.
  • Also, blowing up a nuclear power plant next to a small town doesn't sound like a great idea, come to think of it.
The morality of the past, in the future!:
  • When an officer runs through the details of Barbara's brother's death and brings up the fact that he was living with his sister, he specifically mention that she's 24, because that information is oh so important.
  • "My mind is buzzing with these strange words," says Barbara, whose tiny woman brain apparently can barely handle transcribing a man's thoughts. The 50's, man.
  • The final sequence of this movie is just a bunch of men filing out so they can let Cummings and Barbara pork their brains out. Figuratively speaking.
  • "We're all human here, not monsters from outer space," is probably not a line spoken in your average romantic comedy.
  • The words "fantastic" and "extraordinary" definitely meant something different and more potent than the way we use them these days.
TL;DR: Fiend without a Face is a pretty boring sci-fi B movie until it isn't. But that proportion is strongly in the wrong direction.
Rating: 4/10
Word Count: 1213
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)

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Corn Hash

Year: 2011
Director: Joel Soisson
Cast: J.J. Banicki, Diane Peterson, Kai Caster
Run Time: 1 hour 20 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

So here we are, at the penultimate chapter in the Children of the Corn saga. This is the first entry of two to actually be made in the decade that I'm writing this, which is certainly bizarre. When I think of the Children of the Corn franchise, I don't exactly think "contemporary filmmaking." Not to imply that I think of Children of the Corn at all beyond the last word of any of these reviews.

I don't and you can't make me.

So, in Children of the Corn: Genesis, nothing in particular is genesis-ed and there's barely any children. And like one scene involving corn. Yet somehow, this is more related to the franchise than Part IV, so we soldier on. The film kicks off after an unrelated prologue about kids running around with sharp objects in Gatlin, Nebraska. Tim (Tim Rock) and Allie (Kelen Coleman), a young married couple expecting a baby, break down in the middle of the California desert. They're forced to stay overnight in the nearby shack of a hermit known as Preacher (Billy Drago, the only recognizable name in the cast, which is saying something) and his Ukrainian wife Helen (Barbara Nedeljakova).

Things didn't seem particularly kosher in the first place, but things prove to not be what they seem when Allie discovers a child locked in the garden shed. When a supernatural force uses telekinesis(?) to trap them in the house until dawn, they are slowly driven apart by their own suspicions and secrets. Sort of. Mostly. And I guess this force wants her child to help create a new cult to worship He Who Walks Behind the Rows? In cornless California? Or maybe it wants a new mom for the kid it already has? Maybe that's it.

Look, past the first thirty minutes the plot is so far beyond the pale of legibility that you're lucky you're getting a second paragraph at all.

Children of the Corn: Genesis makes no goddamn sense, OK? The plot is piled thick with reveals and twists and what have you, but the more they come the more they contradict one another, until you get to the point that twists are being revealed about characters or situations you didn't realize were in the movie in the first place and for which this change of context means absolutely nothing.

And yet, this is the best one since Part V, which probably says more about the franchise than it does about Genesis. But at any rate, even though you've got to control-alt-delete your brain and force quit it midway through, this movie is surprisingly charming and likable. The plot twists don't really work, per se, but they do keep you engrossed all the way up until they dump you on the cold hard ground with absolutely no payoff.

Plus, the filmmaking is certainly competent. It has that very sheeny-shiny slickness that marked low budget studio filmmaking in the early 2010's, and while I wouldn't say it has a style, it certainly has an oppressively dark atmosphere and claustrophobic set design that aid it in many ways. And while there are almost no gore effects to be found outside of the opening prologue (which has some decent corn-based mayhem), the telekinesis effects are organically integrated and feel entirely plausible within this world, save for the biggest setpiece which looks awesome but hedges its budget in a way that's entirely noticeable. But this isn't so for the best setpiece, which I hesitate to spoil except to say that somebody goes flying like they stumbled upon a glitch in Skyrim.

Full disclosure: I've never played Skyrim, but I want to sound cool. Is it working?

But let's get down to brass tacks. This is a horror movie, ostensibly. Is it scary? Mostly the answer is no. There's literally a scene in an outhouse where Allie has to keep stopping her pee stream to listen for a spooky noise she thinks she heard. And one of the biggest sources of tension as we get into the second act is whether or not Tim can screw a camera onto a tripod in time. It's not exactly The Exorcist.

But those are the times when Billy Drago isn't onscreen, because for every second that he is, the film is plunged into a dark unknowable space by his incredible villainous performance. He's giving a vocal and physical performance that drips with unknowable menace (helped along by the fact that his character is literally unknowable, as the script never really figures out who or what he is). Just the way that he stands in relation to Allie makes your skin crawl; he's like an alligator, seemingly lazy and aloof but coiled to strike at any time. In fact, he's giving what I'd probably call the single best performance in the entire series, giving us the only truly great villain since John Franklin in the very first Children of the Corn.

Although it feels disingenuous that an old man is the only source of fear in a franchise literally and explicitly about children being creepy.

It's hard to tell if I recommend this film or not. I wasn't bored for a second, but it's kind of not a movie. It can't fall apart, because nothing was solid to begin with, but it flows ceaselessly with no particular destination in mind and just seems to end as soon as it runs out of money. It doesn't overstay its welcome, and I bear absolutely no ill will toward it, but I don't think I'd send anybody out to see it specifically. It's a movie you need to stumble upon, say, as an oasis in the middle of a particularly challenging movie marathon.

Maybe I'm just addled after the hat trick of Isaac resurrecting himself to shout nonsense at Nancy Allen, some random grandma in an apartment complex, and a remake that is 85% screeching. But hey! I'll take what I can get!

TL;DR: Children of the Corn: Genesis is stupid and it makes no sense, but it's at least competent and watchable compared to some of the other ones I've had to sit through.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1048
Reviews In This Series
Children of the Corn (Kiersch, 1984)
Children of the Corn II: The Final Sacrifice (Price, 1992)
Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest (Hickox, 1995)
Children of the Corn IV: The Gathering (Spence, 1996)
Children of the Corn V: Fields of Terror (Wiley, 1998)
Children of the Corn 666: Isaac's Return (Skogland, 1999)
Children of the Corn: Revelation (Magar, 2001)
Children of the Corn (Borchers, 2009)
Children of the Corn: Genesis (Soisson, 2011)
Children of the Corn: Runaway (Gulager, 2018)

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Fly Me To The Moon

Year: 1989
Director: Chris Walas
Cast: Eric Stoltz, Daphne Zuniga, Lee Richardson
Run Time: 1 hour 45 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

The original The Fly may have already gotten two sequels, but Cronenberg's remake was produced in the 80's, so the fact that it also got a follow-up is about as unsurprising at the time as a movie being shot in color. It's just what you did. So here we have The Fly II, released three short years later under the guiding directorial hand of the '86 film's special effects supervisor. So at the very least it was helmed by someone who was literally involved in the  DNA of the franchise.

A very important element when it comes to The Fly.

Weirdly, The Fly II is almost more of a remake of Return of the Fly than The Fly '86 was of the original film. On top of the general concept, it borrows the lead character and the entire plot structure (including the fabulously messy third act and the perfunctory ending). Beyond that, a lot has changed, but I'm happy to see they at least did their homework.

We pick up with Veronica (now played by Saffron Henderson of the same year's Friday the 13th Part VIII) giving birth to the son of Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum, who only appears in the form of deleted scenes from the original as viewed on videotape). Martin looks like a perfectly normal kid, except for the fact that he's a super-genius and ages at a rapid rate, to the point that he looks like an 18-year-old Eric Stoltz by his fifth birthday. He is tapped to continue his father's project of developing a teleportation machine by Dr. Bartok (Lee Richardson), the owner of the scientific facility where he was born and raised.

During his tenure at Bartok Labs, he befriends and falls in love with night shift worker Beth Logan (Daphne Zuniga), but unfortunately reaching the age of maturity has also triggered his dormant fly DNA and his slow transformation into an inhuman beast is already well on its way. Will their love withstand his total degradation while he attempts to find a cure, with the help of a cameo-ing John Getz, the only returning cast member?

And will I ever get to the bottom of why I'm weirdly attracted to John Getz? Some questions are better left unanswered.

To be completely honest, The Fly II actually solves some of the problems of Return of the Fly right off the bat. Instead of forcing the lead to go through the exact same failed experiment as his father, it becomes a potent metaphor for a latent disease passed down from a parent. And the love interest this time around isn't some random scullery maid with no lines. She's a scientist too, and while she's still mostly just a damsel in distress, she actually has a part to play in the story here instead of sitting around waiting for flies to creep her out. 

Unfortunately, the plot here is probably the silliest of the entire franchise (and that includes a movie where a man marries a hitchhiker in her underwear). It indulges too much in splashy retro camp, including some hilarious scenes that completely misunderstand how computers work yet again and some truly bizarre dialogue where a casual conversation can somehow lead to a man throwing a champagne bottle at a floor length mirror and everybody just being cool with it. While that's hardly a detraction where I'm sitting (I always like to have me some fun with weird movies), it definitely undercuts the rawness of the horror, which is something this franchise has been reasonably good at retaining even throughout its later entries.

Martin Brundle is relatable enough (except for the scenes that take place when he's a supergenius young boy, which are a grotesque parody of Spielbergian "gee whiz" filmmaking that will rot your teeth out with their saccharine guilelessness), but the trials he goes through are buried under Walas' ravenous need to show you cool, gruesome effects. They're mostly great effects too (minus the Brundlefly's final form, which looks a little too much like a Gremlin for my tastes), with some moments that will make you want to pass the heck out, like a shot of the boy pulling mucus from his mutated elbow. But Cronenberg proved there was a way to combine grossout gags with an actual narrative arc and subtextual thematics. Here, everything in the movie is shunted aside for a third act that is loud, full of admittedly cool deaths, and droningly repetitive in every other aspect.

But the deaths really are coooooooool.

There are two things that are unequivocally great about this film though, which is still pretty solid if a bit shallow. The first is Christopher Young's epic score, which brings back the grandiose orchestral feel of Howard Shore with sweeping bombast. The second is a scene involving a failed experiment on a Golden Retriever and Martin's discovery of its terrible fate. This scene even brought tears to my eyes, and I'm a black-hearted glacier of a man when it comes to animals in movies. So yes, this film does have some compassion and depth of feeling, even though those obviously aren't its primary concerns.

The Fly II gets points for going in unexpected directions at least, which is if anything more in keeping with the franchise as a whole than I'd have thought possible. Each of these films has its own distinct personality: The Fly is daffy but grim, Return of the Fly is a campfest with kernels of existential dread, Curse of the Fly is an atmospheric gothic, The Fly '86 is a deeply felt body horror, and now The Fly II is a morality play about life and death within the capitalism of science. No two films are alike, even though they share the same general idea. This one is certainly on the lower end of the scale, but they all have something to offer that makes marathoning them in quick succession less of a thunderous slog than your average horror movie franchise.

As a member of the extended Delambre/Brundle family, The Fly II is welcome to Christmas dinner. I probably won't seek to rewatch anything but that rad face-melting scene, but it was a delightful treat even for all its empty calories.

TL;DR: The Fly II is the perfectly adequate capper to a franchise that never stumbles too far from decency.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1083
Reviews In This Series
The Fly (Neumann, 1958)
Return of the Fly (Bernds, 1959)
Curse of the Fly (Sharp, 1965)
The Fly (Cronenberg, 1986)
The Fly II (Walas, 1989)

Friday, October 26, 2018

Take Me Home, Corntry Roads

Year: 2009
Director: Donald P. Borchers
Cast: David Anders, Kandyse McClure, Daniel Newman
Run Time: 1 hour 32 minutes
MPAA Rating: TV-14

As seems to happen every time we reach this far into a horror marathon, we've reached a natural stopping point. Children of the Corn: Revelation was so achingly crappy that it put a stake in the franchise's heart, seemingly forever. What's a studio to do with a franchise that has fallen flat on its face after seven increasingly cheap films, the most recent three of which were abominable failures? If your answer was "just find another movie to make," you are not a studio executive. A mere eight years later, they vigorously slammed that reset button like a child's NES on a snow day. Thus was begat Children of the Corn '09, a remake directed by the original film's producer and released on the SyFy channel, a mere 25 years after the original film kicked off this long and winding series.

This picture features one child for every film in the franchise.

In many ways, remaking Children of the Corn was the best idea possible at the time. The only things that anybody remembered about the original film were Isaac and Malachai. A middle-aged Courtney Gains just wasn't gonna do the trick, and you saw what happened last time John Franklin got involved in one of these projects. So why not just recast and see what happens by transplanting the story into a modern context? Oh wait, you mean to tell me that this film is set in 1975, a full decade earlier than even the original film? Well, dammit.

Anyway, this film resurrects Burt (David Anders) and Vicky (Kandyse McClure), the bickering married couple on a road trip across the cornfields of middle America. And when I say "bickering" I mean "hollering at each other at the top of their lungs for the better part of an hour." Not only has this movie brought back the characters we knew and loved, it has added a dash of spice in the form of the original short story's severe misanthropy. Hooray. Anyway, they hit a kid with their car, which brings them to the town of Gatlin, which seems to be empty except for a bunch of bloodthirsty kids dressed like they're running rehearsals for the town's Thanksgiving pageant.

The leader of this cult is Isaac (Preston Bailey), a two-gallon boy in a ten-gallon hat, who communes directly with He Who Walks Behind the Rows. His right-hand man is Malachai (Daniel Newman, and I mean man because he was fully twenty-seven years of age at the time of filming). Bad bing bada boom they try to kill the adults. I won't say whether or not they succeed, but remember that this one is more faithful to the original Stephen King material, so you tell me what you think happens.

John Franklin might not be present, but the orange filters from Isaac's Return couldn't help but stick around.

The thing about remakes is that, while I have my defenses for a handful of them, they usually suck because they are a pale imitation of a movie that was already great. Children of the Corn '84 is far from great, so a remake wasn't actually a terrible idea. And there are definitely things that this incarnation gets right.

For one thing, Donald P. Borchers is a damn sight better as a director than anonymous craftsman Fritz Kiersch. That's a bar so low even Isaac could clear it, and he doesn't do so with what I would call "aplomb," but you can tell he's at least awake behind the camera. I was especially taken with the opening credits sequence (am I reaching for compliments? Maaaaybe), which introduces its characters in voiceover as the camera serenely delivers close-ups of the interior of the car and the items Burt and Vicky have brought with them on their journey. It's a fun, elliptical way to get to know the characters and situation that actually allows for the audience to pay attention and put together the pieces for themselves.

And though nothing else in the film is as gentle or elegant as this (read: "hollering for fifty straight minutes"), there are still moments that sing. Even the completely pointless PTSD war flashback that lets us into Burt's character not even one inch is a visual marvel, swerving between the wicked reality of cornfields filled with kids bearing sharp implements and rice paddies filled with soldiers and gunfire. That he remembers from serving in Nam, because this movie is a period piece for no reason, might I remind you.

The visual effects are also miles better here. Nothing matches the nutsoid splendor of Screaming Mad George's effects from Urban Harvest, but these are definitely some of the more sophisticated gore gags of the franchise, with realistic blood spurting and dribbling to the point of being almost nauseating. At least in the infrequent moments when there is carnage and mayhem rather than road squabbling. But I digress. Again. Visually, this Children of the Corn isn't a pile of shit, which really makes it a franchise high in that regard.

Also I'm pretty sure they're adding an inch to the brim of that hat every time I look away, like a Naked Gun gag.

Two more good things before we dive into the moldy bottom of this corn silo. And in fact, these are two things that I unequivocally love about this movie. First, the children's choir theme that plays over the end credits is a hilarious dubstep remix that's on par with the disco theme from Friday the 13th Part 3D for most misguidedly trendy horror music cue. Second, this movie is not afraid to murder the hell out of a bunch of kids. Hear me out. That shows that the filmmakers were willing to push the envelope in any sort of way, rather than just content themselves with making a middle-of-the-road milquetoast nothing. Mind you that's still what they ended up with, but they tried! It's the thought that counts.

So far the movie I'm describing sounds kind of great. But you didn't have to sit through the entire thing. The acting is uniformly atrocious, featuring the most "3rd grade drama class" performances in a franchise marked by mediocre child performers. The adults hardly fare better, pounding the script's one note so deep into the ground they strike oil. 

Visually, this movie might have the chops to earn its keep as a solid entry in the franchise, but the script is thin as tissue paper, relying entirely on your familiarity with the material to keep it afloat. There's nothing about any dynamic here that is more than the most surface-level retread of the short story. The plot limply bats around these hollow Dixie cups called characters with no rhyme or reason. Plus, we get an awful obligatory sex scene that couldn't possibly be more ill-advised. 

It's certainly a step up from the last couple legs of this marathon, but it exemplifies a lot of the worst impulses of horror remakes: everything is the same, only bigger and shriller and more unbearable.

TL;DR: Children of the Corn is a remake that doesn't violate the sanctity of the original, but it also doesn't really offer anything worth seeing.
Rating: 4/10
Word Count: 1223
Reviews In This Series
Children of the Corn (Kiersch, 1984)
Children of the Corn II: The Final Sacrifice (Price, 1992)
Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest (Hickox, 1995)
Children of the Corn IV: The Gathering (Spence, 1996)
Children of the Corn V: Fields of Terror (Wiley, 1998)
Children of the Corn 666: Isaac's Return (Skogland, 1999)
Children of the Corn: Revelation (Magar, 2001)
Children of the Corn (Borchers, 2009)
Children of the Corn: Genesis (Soisson, 2011)
Children of the Corn: Runaway (Gulager, 2018)

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Fly Away Home

Year: 1986
Director: David Cronenberg
Cast: Jeff Goldblum, Geena Davis, John Getz 
Run Time: 1 hour 36 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Well, four films deep into a marathon we weren't even supposed to do, we've arrived at the reason I started this whole mess in the first place: David Cronenberg's classic remake The Fly, which until now was one of my biggest horror blind spots (now the movie at the number one spot is probably The Haunting, in case anyone is keeping track). Not only is it my first real excursion into the Cronenberg oeuvre (I saw The Dead Zone as a kid and I've seen the mediocre non-horror M. Butterfly, but that's it), it's the movie that I decided would be the final brick in my opinion of Jeff Goldblum.

I've never been taken with the actor's endless array of tics and "ums" and "uhs," but I'll be the first to admit I came at his career from the wrong direction. You're probably not supposed to familiarize yourself with his work starting at The Switch, Morning Glory, and his cameo on Friends. Thor: Ragnarok was a step in the right direction, less so Jurassic Park (which is a masterpiece, but no thanks to him). Anyway, there was a lot riding on this movie, and I'm happy to say it withstood my probably too-intense demands upon it.

At least now I know he was weirdly ripped once and had a baboon friend.

So I still don't like Jeff Goldblum, but I can finally at least accept that he is well cast when he is asked to play wildly intelligent men who are also pompous asses. Said pompous ass is Seth Brundle, a man who is in the final stages of developing a teleportation machine, spurred on by his own intense motion sickness. Enter Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis), a reporter who falls in love with him, but also wants to document the final stages of his experiments in a bestselling book that honestly sounds like it would have been pretty boring if all went according to plan.

Alas, all does not go according to plan. When Veronica leaves in the middle of the night to clear things up with her troublemaking ex/editor/Game of Thrones name-haver Stathis Borans (John Getz), Seth tests his teleporter on himself in a fit of drunken egomania. Unbeknownst to him because he isn't caught up on his 50's sci-fi classics, a common housefly joins him in the teleportation booth and they are bonded together on the molecular level. At first, this manifests itself as a surge of superhuman energy that causes a rift between Seth and Veronica, but then Brundle's body slowly degenerates into a half-human, half-fly monstrosity.

It's, shall we say, hella gross.

The Fly really only takes the skeleton of the original's plot, and applies a great deal of gooey flesh to it, but the overall feeling remains substantially the same, in a really interesting way. The context of both stories is so very different, but they're both at their core about the trials of a loving couple who are suddenly and inexplicably faced with the fact that one partner is doomed to die much sooner than anticipated, thanks to their own hubris. Cronenberg's film definitely foregrounds the metaphor of a fatal illness, because of course it does, but it shares the emotional core of a woman staring directly into the face of her love interest's mortality. And that face is pretty ugly, if you hadn't noticed.

And while I have my qualms about Goldblum's general Goldbluminess (it was certainly fresher back in 1986 at least, before he had the chance to Christopher Walken himself and eventually become a caricature of his own mannerisms), Geena Davis knocks it out of the park here. Especially in the third act when she is doled out her own little slice of body horror, the existential dread that crashes upon her is truly harrowing and spellbinding.

Maybe she fueled her performance by drawing from the pure horror that is both of their haircuts in this movie.

Honestly, The Fly is probably one of the most essential remakes ever made, respecting the intent and form of the original while applying a new director's very strong personality to the material, improving it without denying its inherent special qualities. And boy does Cronenberg have a personality. I have it on good authority that this is his warmest, most emotional movie, but he sure does find a way to work in a lot of talk about transcending the flesh and whatnot. 

And transcend the flesh he does. The final act of this movie is replete with some of the most disgusting ooey gooey special effects you ever did see. I'm a bit of a horehound myself, but the things that really get my skin crawling are intimate bits of gore like, oh, the fact that there are scenes involving the removal of both teeth AND fingernails because why the f**k not? It's certainly not for everyone, to the point that it's hardly for anyone, but the fly transformation is certainly a makeup masterwork, showcasing just how far movie magic had come in the almost three decades since the original movie hit theaters. 

It's only aided by the incredible production design, which updates the pedestrian glass cases of the "matter transmitter" into a vaguely alien pod that spews billowing white smoke like the mouth of a cauldron.

Ridley Scott is shook.

The thing they don't tell you is just how much of a slow burn it is to get to any of that. There is a lot of movie before we go full-tilt body horror, and while the structure isn't as wonky and riddled with filler as its source material, there are a couple of moments where it flags before it reaches that home stretch. Maybe I'm just being a petulant gay who's sick of watching straight people fall in love, but something about their romantic chemistry wasn't exactly pulling me in at first, and I had a tough time reconciling how quickly they seemed to form a bond we were supposed to view as unbreakable. Well, not unbreakable, but strong enough to be rough to watch when it's tested.

Look, they get there in the end, but it was just a bit of a struggle for me personally. Anyhow, who could possibly care about some niggling first act qualms when the movie delivers such a marrow-churning display of geek show grotesquerie with a dash of existential subtext for flavor? The Fly is certainly the best of the franchise without a doubt (although I've liked all of them so far to one degree or another), but you didn't really need me to tell you that, did you?

TL;DR: The Fly is the ultimate example of a director decanting their brain directly onto a property and fundamentally changing it for the better.
Rating: 8/10
Word Count: 1153
Reviews In This Series
The Fly (Neumann, 1958)
Return of the Fly (Bernds, 1959)
Curse of the Fly (Sharp, 1965)
The Fly (Cronenberg, 1986)
The Fly II (Walas, 1989)