Silent Hours


Chick magnet? Or serial killer?

(2021) Erotic Thriller (Gravitas) James Weber Brown, Susie Amy, Hugh Bonneville, Dervla Kirwan, Annie Cooper, Tom Beard, Vicki Michelle, Elizabeth Healey, Alistair Petrie, Indira Varma, Angela Thorne, Caio Sael. Directed by Mark Greenstreet

It’s no secret that the British do mysteries and thrillers better than anybody else. That is likely because they have a voracious appetite for them; their television programming is absolutely littered with the things. This particular film was actually aired on British television in 2017 as a three-part miniseries, albeit likely a premium service, considering the fairly mature and graphic subject matter.

John Duval (Brown) is an ex-Navy man living in the UK naval town of Portsmouth back in 2002. He makes a post-service living as a private investigator, mainly following wives of canning factory owners, naval officers and the like as their husbands suspect them of infidelity. Spoiler alert; they’re usually right. And what’s worse is Duval’s occasional ability to fall in bed with his client’s wives once the job is done.

In fact, a lot of women are falling into his bed, and they seem to all have a thing for what the Brits euphemistically call “naughty underwear,” while Duval has a thing for a certain canine sexual position with a tendency to spank his partner as he does the nasty. Sexual repression is virtually a cottage industry in the UK.

But as the women that Duval sleep with (including his girlfriend (Healey) and a few others) turn up brutally murdered and dismembered with their bodies displayed in lascivious positions, the police in the form of Detective Inspector Jane Ambrose (Kirwan) have painted a bullseye on Duval as their prime suspect. It’s enough to make someone seek therapy, but Duval was already doing that, sharing with his therapist (Varma) his blackouts and dropping baleful hints of a checkered past. The only way out of the situation for Duval is to find the culprit himself – no matter where the trail may lead.

The two and a half hour runtime for this is about an hour too long for this kind of movie, which isn’t helped by pacing more suitable to a…well, British television show than a feature film. It doesn’t help that the final twist is absolutely preposterous, but by the time you get there – if you haven’t switched the bloody thing off by then – you pretty much don’t care whodunit.

There are some fine actors here; Amie and Bonneville are both veterans who perform admirably and Brown, best known for his work on Coronation Street is adequate as the hard-bitten P.I. but the whole conceit of women throwing themselves at him makes no sense. Perhaps I’m not hanging out with the right kind of women, but the ones I know don’t seem to be sexually attracted to a washed-up ex-Navy guy with no prospects, almost no morals, who sleeps around with anyone who has the right plumbing and drinks too much. Rugged good looks can only take you so far and as you hit your fifties, they take you less far than they used to.

The score is bombastic and intrusive and often drowns out the dialogue which is annoying. But for those who like the old soft-core thrillers that used to air late night on the Cinemax cable network, this might be the movie you’ve been waiting for. There’s undeniably a hefty amount of sex and nudity, not to mention women in seductive lingerie, if that’s the kind of thing that floats your boat. Some judicious editing might have floated mine a bit more.

REASONS TO SEE: Definitely for those who remember “Skinemax” films with some fondness.
REASONS TO AVOID: Way, way, WAY too long for what it is and slow-paced at that.
FAMILY VALUES: There is lots of sex, nudity, sex, smoking, sex, profanity, sex, violence, sex and gruesome images. Did we mention sex?
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: “Silent hours” is Royal Naval slang for night hours aboard a ship.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/12/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Night Hunter
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
The Emperor’s Sword

13 Fanboy


Bubble baths can be a dangerous place in a slasher movie.

(2021) Horror (Deskpop) Dee Wallace, Hayley Reece Greenbauer, Corey Feldman, Kane Hodder, Lar Park-Lincoln, Judie Aronson, Tracie Savage, Jennifer Banko, C.J. Graham, Drew Leighty, Ron Sloan, Debra Sullivan, Poppy Gillett, Kaylee Hall, Hayley Duncan, Taylor Rodriguez, Nigel Lawes, Caslin Rose, Darren Barcomb, Tiffany Helm, James Cantu, Deborah Voorhees, Liana Cockfield. Directed by Deborah Voorhees

 

For folks my age and a bit younger, the Eighties were a magic time for both movies and music; it was morning in America, and the multiplexes – something fairly new at the time – were filled with low-budget slasher movies and cheapo horror. It isn’t hard to look back on those days with fondness. It seemed that every other week there was a new movie guaranteed to make your date cram her head into your shoulder – or put his protective arm around you. There were franchises a-plenty to keep us interested in our latest indestructible serial killer.

One of those franchises was the Friday the 13th franchise, with hockey masked killer Jason Voorhees at the center. If you’re wondering why no new movies have been made in that particular series since 2009 when the Marcus Nispel-directed reboot was made. Since then, the rights have been tied up in a lawsuit that was only recently decided over who earned the copyright, although as it turns out, things still remain complicated; original writer Victor Miller was awarded domestic rights in the lawsuit, but original director Sean S. Cunningham retains the international rights. It seems as though it will still be a very long time before Jason dons the hockey mask once again.

But until then, we have 13 Fanboy. Co-written and directed by Deborah Voorhees (no relation to Jason), who played Tina in Friday the 13th: A New Beginning, this is as much a love letter to fans as it is a visceral horror movie playing on the fears of actresses regarding the sometimes-toxic obsession of fans. The movie has a cast of actors from the franchise (and a few who weren’t) playing versions f themselves. Dee Wallace, the mom from E.T. and the heroine of The Howling, was good friends with Deborah Voorhees, but pooh-poohs her fears about an obsessed fan. The stalker then stabbed Voorhees to death on her ranch, witnessed by her granddaughter Kelsie (Gillett).

13 years after the murder (I’m sure the amount of time elapsed wasn’t chosen randomly), Dee still feels guilty about not believing her friend. She has kept close contact with Kelsie (Greenbauer), a budding actress who also teaches a self-defense class and has had a successful career as an MMA fighter as well. Kelsie also notices that actresses from the movie series are being picked off, one by one, and the police seem apathetic to it. Could this be the same killer who took her grandmother away all those years ago?

It shouldn’t be much of a spoiler to tell you that it is, and that Dee and Kelsie will have to be smarter and tougher than the killer if they are to survive. The movie gives us an intimate view of fan culture as well as the bond between the actresses whose moments of glory came in films like Friday the 13th and its successors. The filmmakers utilize practical effects throughout rather than digital – they couldn’t have had much of a budget – but they did spring for graphics identifying each actor and the role they played in the series. There are some exceptions; former teen heartthrob Corey Feldman (who did play Tommy in Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter in 1984, plays ultra-sleazy producer Mike Merryman here, overacting shamelessly, and why not? Voorhees seems to be making this for the fans as much as exorcising her own fears here. That does give the movie a kind of schizophrenia that makes you wonder if it had been originally intended to be a serious examination of fan obsession, but the ending – with too many twists to be satisfying – seems to indicate that it wasn’t ever intended to be that way. Still, it makes one wonder “what if” in a good way.

There is a scene which might remind viewers uncomfortably of the recent events on the set of the film Rust, although here it is a prop knife that is switched and a stunt double is accidentally killed. The fact that the film within a film was being shot in New Mexico is an eerie coincidence, but one that perhaps takes us a bit out of this film. That’s just one of those bizarre things that sometimes happens in life.

The thing to remember here is that this really is going to be delightful for those who love the original movies and take part in convention culture. In that sense, the movie is a rousing success; it does celebrate the love between the fans and the actors and gives some actors, many of whom are likely missing the loss of convention income during the pandemic, a chance to shine in the sun once again, and some do. Kane Hodder gets an uncharacteristic monologue that actually was quite effective, while Tracie Savage shows she can still be a scream queen with the best of them. There is also a fight late in the film between former Jason C.J. Graham and the masked killer in which C.J. bellows “You want a shot at the title?” which gets the blood pumping nicely. All in all, this is a nifty little film that is flawed perhaps but ultimately a satisfying work, particularly for fans.

REASONS TO SEE: Really fan-friendly.
REASONS TO AVOID: Too many plot twists mar the ending.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, profanity, brief nudity and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This is the first release by new distributor Deskpop Entertainment.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/5/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: New Nightmare
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Gig is Up

Halloween Kills


For Michael Myers, Hell is home.

(2021) Horror (Blumhouse) Jamie Lee Curtis, Judy Greer, Andi Matichak, James Jude Courtney, Nick Castle, Airon Armstrong, Will Patton, Thomas Mann, Jim Cummings, Dylan Arnold, Robert Longstreet, Anthony Michael Hall, Charles Cyphers, Scott MacArthur, Michael McDonald, Ross Bacon, Kyle Richards, Nancy Stephens, Diva Tyler. Directed by David Gordon Green

 

Of the iconic screen horror slashers, only Leatherface predates Michael Myers, who made his first appearance in the 1978 classic Halloween. Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, Chucky and Jigsaw all followed in his bootsteps. But forty years have elapsed since his first appearance and Michael is getting a bit long in the tooth, right?

The movie picks up immediately where 2018’s acclaimed reboot left off. Michael (Courtney) has been left to die in the basement of a burning house. Laurie Strode (Curtis), his sister and the babysitter he went after back in 1978, is being rushed to the hospital with abdominal stab wounds. Officer Hawkins (Patton) is on his way there, bleeding from a stab wound in the neck.

But as firefighters battle the blaze, they discover the one cardinal rule of any horror franchise; the killer isn’t quite dead yet. Michael emerges from the flames and immediately takes out a fire brigade, then exits stage left to commit more mayhem, ostensibly to people both random and convenient. He does have a bit of a plan – to go to his old house, currently occupied by gay couple Big John (MacArthur) and Little John (McDonald) who have tastefully decorated the old homestead which means they are due to be shish kabobbed.

At a Haddonfield bar, Tommy Doyle (Hall) shares his recollections of that fateful night. He was the boy Laurie was babysitting, and the night has left him scarred for life. So he doesn’t react well when the news arrives that Michael is still on the loose. Tommy organizes a lynch mob and leads them into the streets to find Michael, chanting ‘Evil dies tonight,” which makes a mighty fine tagline for a movie poster. It turns out to be the most incompetent mob in history, although I do wonder if there’s any such thing as a “competent mob.”

While Laurie’s daughter Karen (Greer) and granddaughter Allyson (Matichak) fret over telling Laurie that the boogeyman still lives, they both grieve for the departed in their own way (Greer has a particularly poignant scene early on in which she washes blood from her hands, scrubbing around her wedding ring). In the meantime, the body count grows and the mob howls for blood (although they occasionally seem to be pointed at the wrong Michael Myers), will a united mob be able to finally put Michael down…or will this Halloween continue unabated?

Well, considering there’s another sequel in the works for next October, I think you can do the math. This is clearly the middle chapter in a trilogy and it has a feel of non-resolution to it. The ending is supposed to be a bit of a shocker (and it is), but what precedes it is a series of kill scenes that really don’t show a ton of originality or flair, with few exceptions (one of the firemen gets eviscerated by his own saw). While Green’s 2018 reboot showed how the 1978 murders affected Strode and her family, the sequel expands to show how it affected all of Haddonfield. That’s admirable, and I think it provides a little social commentary at how deeply stressed out the country has become, but I don’t think that the mob is supposed to be a stand-in for the Capitol insurrection mob. That seems to be a bit of a stretch to me.

The problem with Halloween Kills is a lack of imagination. Forty-odd years on after John Carpenter yelled “action,” slasher movies have run their course and there isn’t a lot of ways to slice and dice a human body. It becomes predictable – and that’s the last thing you want a horror movie to be. Sure, there are plenty of kids who may be new to the genre who might be impressed, but I would be surprised if they hadn’t already seen the classic slasher films by this point and to be fair, this doesn’t compete well with them. It does have its moments, and Jamie Lee Curtis is always a welcome name on a marquee, but she really doesn’t get to do very much, leaving Greer, Patton, Matichak and Hall to do most of the heavy lifting and they do it with varying degrees of success.

So the long and the short of it is that Halloween Kills doesn’t measure up even to the 2018 predecessor. That’s a shame because I can see what the filmmakers were going for; they just didn’t quite get there.

REASONS TO SEE: A respectable attempt to provide some social commentary on the state of things, 2021.
REASONS TO AVOID: A real letdown after the 2018 reboot.
FAMILY VALUES: As you would expect, there’s a ton of violence (much of it gory), some grisly images, a fair amount of profanity and a bit of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: With her appearance here as Laurie Strode (her sixth), Jamie Lee Curtis passes Donald Pleasance for the most appearances in the franchise as the same character – he appeared five times as Dr. Loomis. The Dr. Loomis who appears in the flashback sequences here is played by Tom Jones Jr., with the voice supplied by Colin Mahan. Pleasance passed away in 1995.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Peacock
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/26/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 39% positive reviews; Metacritic: 42/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Halloween H20: 20 Years Later
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness, the Sequel!

Meander (Meandre)


Not for the claustrophobic.

(2021) Sci-Fi Horror (Gravitas) Gaia Weiss, Peter Franzen, Romane Libert, Frédéric Franchitti, Corneliu Draomirescu, Eva Niewdanski, Cari Laforét, Henri Benard, Fabien Houssaye, Olympe Turi. Directed by Matthieu Turi

 

Great loss can leave us in such pain that life itself becomes wearisome. Our reason for living seems as tenuous and inconsequential as the mist; we stare off into the deep blue something and wait to die.

Lisa (Weiss), a French ex-pat working as a waitress somewhere in the West, knows that pain all too well. Her daughter (Libert) passed away and today would have been her ninth birthday. Lisa is alone lying on a lonely road, hoping for someone to come along and put her out of her misery. And someone does; Adam (Franzen), a night watchman who works nights because “I hate people,” He doesn’t run Lisa over but he offers her a ride in his truck which, after some hesitation, she accepts. They chat and he does get Lisa to open up somewhat. “I don’t want to die,” she informs Adam, “I just want to see my daughter again.”

Just about then a news report comes on the truck radio warning about a serial killer who can be recognized by a cross tattoo on the killer’s wrist. And damn if Adam doesn’t have such a tattoo on his wrist…for Lisa, it’s fade to black.

When she wakes up, she’s in a bizarre high tech tunnel. She’s wearing a neoprene jumpsuit and a wrist bracelet with a bright glowing light and a timer counting down from eleven minutes. She soon figures out that she has to navigate each section of the tunnels – which turn out to be a maze – in those eleven minutes or face a particularly nasty death, whether being fricasseed by flamethrowers, drowned in a murky pool, dissolved in an acid bath, or mauled by an alien creature that stalks the maze. There’s also a skull-like creature with a mechanical eye that seems sympathetic, repairing her injuries. There are also a few grisly corpses to remind her about the penalty of failure.

At first, the movie seems to be unrelenting, pointless torture of an attractive female character and I have to admit, I was thinking “Here we go again.” But strangely, and happily, Turi soon begins feeding us clues as to what’s really going on, and it isn’t what you think.

The production design here is impressive and the film suitably claustrophobic. Lisa is forced to crawl through most of the maze, often barely able to fit through the tight spaces. Turi gives us a sense of that closed in space without being defined by it; you feel Lisa’s pain and fear and frustration largely because Weiss gives us a strong performance as the heroine. She is deeply wounded, missing her little girl and wanting nothing more than to be reunited with her again. And that possibility does come up, in maybe one of the more emotional moments you’ll ever see in a horror film.

The movie doesn’t always sustain the level of tension that it needs to, and there is a bit of sameness to some of the traps, but overall this is an impressive and imaginative film that genre fans might find intriguing.

REASONS TO SEE: Nifty production design. A claustrophobic thriller.
REASONS TO AVOID: At times seems to be pointlessly cruel.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, violence, gore, some disturbing images and scenes of terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The walls all display the dots and dashes of Morse code and each wall says something in French; for example, the first room code spells Vite, which means “quickly.”
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/31/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 70% positive reviews; Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Cube
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Enemies of the State (2021)

Sweet River


There are few things more beautiful than a mother smiling at her child.

(2020) Horror (Gravitas) Lisa Kay, Martin Sacks, Genevieve Lemon, Rob Carlton, Eddie Baroo, Chris Haywood, Charlotte Stent, Jordan Shields, Cymone Rose (voice), Bryan Probets, Jack Ellis, Jeremy Waters, Sam Parsonson, James McGregor (voice), Jayden McGinlay, Ario De Beer, Kate Dodd, Kelly Joyce, Hamish Cleary, Kerry Blakeman, Ashley McLeod. Directed by Justin McMillan

 

In the face of unthinkable tragedy, we have a tendency to pull ourselves into a protective shell, admitting only those we trust absolutely. When that tragedy is accompanied by unimaginable horror, that shell often leaves us unable to escape.

The town of Billins in the sugar cane country of Tweed Valley has had more than their share of tragedy. A school bus crash into the Tweed River resulted in the drowning of a good portion of the town’s children. Some of those that remained as well as a few visitors fell victim to a serial killer (Ellis) who eventually, wracked by guilt, hung himself.

Hanna (Kay) comes to Billins after all these events have occurred, renting a worker’s cottage on the edge of the cane fields. Unbeknownst to her, James Lipton – the man (Waters) who rented her the cottage – has met with an untimely end but his neighbor John Drake (Sacks) honors their rental agreement, although his wife Eleanor (Lemon) is less neighborly. It’s hard to blame her – the couple are mourning the death of their daughter Violet (Stent) – more on that later.

Hanna can relate, because she is in mourning as well – her son Joey disappeared, a presumed victim of the serial killer although his body was never recovered. In fact, Hanna believes Joey’s body is somewhere in the cane fields and while the local constable (Carlton) tries to persuade her to leave, she is adamant; she’s not going anywhere until Joey’s remains are found and properly laid to rest.

But something else is going on in the town. The children may be dead but they are surely not gone; many of the townspeople can see them and there is some comfort in that. The fact that Lipton had boasted that he was going to harvest the cane field the night he died is not insignificant. The dearly departed may not always be completely gone.

This Aussie film doesn’t lack for ambition, although it doesn’t seem as if director Justin McMillan absolutely knows what he wants his film to be. At times it is a supernatural horror film that is rife with haunted house tropes (things that go bang in the night, half-seen figures of giggling children and so on), while at other times it is a sober look at the effects of grief on a small town a la The Sweet Hereafter, which it appears heavily influenced this film (then again, so did Children of the Corn).

The movie is constructed a bit awkwardly, with a ton of sub-threads and flashbacks that make it a confusing watch at times. That’s a shame, because a lot of the elements here work from Kay’s heartfelt performance to the slow build-up of tension to some of the more horrific elements. At the end of the day, McMillan tries to make this more intricate than it needed to be and his ambitions outstripped the film’s ability to deliver. It’s a bit on the unsatisfying side particularly because there are so many elements that work well, but still worth a look.

REASONS TO SEE: A slow burner of a thriller.
REASONS TO AVOID: Lots of good elements but an unsatisfying whole.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, violence and some terrifying images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Tweed Valley, where this was filmed, is located in New South Wales, Australia.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/11/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: In the Tall Grass
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Mandibles

The Little Things


The darkness and the dimly lit.

(2021) Crime (Warner Brothers) Denzel Washington, Rami Malek, Jared Leto, Chris Bauer, Michael Hyatt, Terry Kinney, Natalie Morales, Isabel Arraiza, Joris Jarsky, Glenn Morshower, Sofia Vassilieva, Jason James Richter, John Harlan Kim, Frederick Koehler, Judith Scott, Maya Kazan, Tiffany Gonzalez, Anna McKitrick, Sheila Houlahan, Ebony M. Mayo. Directed by John Lee Hancock

 

Any good homicide detective will tell you that the secret to catching a killer isn’t rocket science. It’s good hard work and paying particular attention to the little things. The devil is, after all, in the details.

This crime thriller, set in the 1990s (director John Lee Hancock wrote it back in 1993 but was unable to get it made until recently) and features no less than three Oscar-winning actors. You’d think that would bring the quality level up a notch, but keep in mind that Warners chose to release this in January – never a good sign.

A serial killer is targeting women in the Los Angeles area (what else is new?) and detective Jim Baxter (Malek) is stumped. One of Los Angeles’ most successful police detectives, he utters platitudes at press conferences but is no closer to solving the crimes than when he came on the case. Meanwhile, over in Kern County to the northeast of the City of Angels, former L.A. police detective (and current Kern County deputy sheriff) Joe “Deke” Deacon (Washington) has been assigned by his boss to collect some evidence held in Los Angeles critical to a case in Bakersfield. Deacon, who left  L.A. under less-than-ideal circumstances, eventually gets sucked into Baxter’s case (to be honest, Deacon doesn’t resist very hard) which may have a link to a case that Deacon worked on years before that was never solved.

With Deacon on board as an unofficial advisor, the two at-first reluctant partners zero in on a suspect – Albert Sparma (Leto) – a serial killer’s name if I ever heard one – who seems to be a slam dunk at first. He taunts the detectives and is creepy enough to set off any cop’s radar. But is he the killer? And can the two mismatched detectives stop him before he kills again?

Considering the calibre of talent both behind and in front of the camera, it’s a bit surprising that the end result of this movie is less than stirring. Certainly it’s no fault of Washington or Leto, both of whom deliver scintillating performances. For Washington, this kind of role is old hat yet still he manages to bring a certain amount of freshness to the part. Leto may be one of the best actors at playing creepy, brings a braggadocio to his role that is refreshing.

Of the three main cast members, only Malek feels out of place. His sunken-eyed thousand-yard stare bespeaks someone with PTSD, not the well-adjusted family man his character is made out to be. The murky cinematography doesn’t do him any favors other than to highlight his ghoulish pallor. We know he’s capable of great performances, but his character is so underwritten that it’s almost criminal. If you’re going to cast someone like Malek in your film, you should better utilize him.

The plot feels like a pastiche of a fair number of era-specific crime thrillers; back in the Nineties, these sorts of movies were commonplace and often boasted A-list actors. As those types of films have largely fallen out of favor, we don’t see this kind of turbocharged cast in a thriller these days. I just wish they had a better film to work with.

REASONS TO SEE: Denzel is riveting (as usual) and Leto turns in a marvelous performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little on the sitcom-y side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, violence, disturbing images and graphic nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Leto was nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance here.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Max (through 2/2821)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/5/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Seven
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Go-Gos
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Chop Chop (2020)


Live can’t come to the door, she’s all tied up.

(2020) Thriller (GravitasAtala Arce, Jake Taylor, David Harper, Mikael Mattsson, Jeremy Jordan, James McCabe, Mike Thompson, Nicholas Correnti, Natasha Missick, Lizzie Chaplin (voice), Jazmine Jordan, Theresa Byron, Emily Katter, Paul Syre, Mandy Martino. Directed by Rony Patel

 

Most couples appreciate the quiet evening home alone. Someone cooks dinner, maybe a movie (and microwave popcorn) out on the couch, and then to the bedroom for *ahem* the main course. Sounds like a pretty good night to me.

And that’s what Chuck (Taylor) and Liv (Arce) have in mind. Then, there’s a knock on the door. There’s a guy there named Teddy (Harper), delivering the pizza they ordered. Except, they didn’t order any pizza – Chuck made dinner, so Liv tells Teddy thanks but no thanks, and shuts the door, and goes back into the living room.

And that’s where she finds Teddy waiting for her. “I have abilities,” he says, almost modestly. He also has a bag of bloody severed heads. Now, that’s as promising a beginning for a movie as it gets, thinks I. Sadly, Chop Chop doesn’t quite live up to that early promise.

When Teddy attacks Liv, Chuck comes to the rescue and ends up killing Teddy. However, instead of calling the cops – technically, they were defending themselves which isn’t illegal, even in California – they decide to dispose of the body themselves, calling in some favors from some shady underworld types. When a cop (Jeremy Jordan) stumbles on what’s going on, the couple have to shove him in the trunk as well. And all these underworld sorts are, inexplicably, trying to kill Liv and Chuck. I mean, WTF, right?

Along the way, they meet all manner of killers and fend them off as best they can before they end up being captured and set up for torture…but by that point, you’ll be wondering why you’ve stayed with the movie even this long. The story is told in such an incomprehensible manner that you can be forgiven if you think that the chapter heading for the first scene, Teddy, actually refers to Chuck – it isn’t until a little later that you find out that Teddy was the dead serial killer. The one with abilities…that are never explained, or referred to. And let’s face it, Liv took them pretty much in stride. Do lots of people that she knows have abilities?

Another flaw of the film is that nearly all the action takes place off-camera, or is so brief as to be blink-and-you-missed-it. I’ll give Patel the benefit of the doubt and assume that was for budgetary reasons, but it may well be inexperience, or an attempt to set his thriller apart from the glut of them on the market. I will give him that the concept is solid.

However, he changes tone regularly to an almost maddening degree. The movie starts out as kind of a noir thriller, moves into a romantic comedy at one point, and then shimmies into torture porn at the end before finishing up as…well, that I’ll keep to myself. The really maddening thing is that there is a ton of potential here, but the decisions made by the person sitting in the director’s chair as well as the person at the laptop banging away the script (the same person, by the way) just about guaranteed the movie wouldn’t succeed. I think the movie could have worked as a kind of extreme action version of a noir Nick and Nora Charles-type of thing. That’s a movie I’d love to see – John Wick meets The Thin Man. Hollywood, get on that one, wouldja?

REASONS TO SEE: The concept is an intriguing one.
REASONS TO AVOID: Clumsy storytelling vies with questionable directorial decisions for the most damaging aspect to the film’s success.
FAMILY VALUES: This is plenty of violence and profanity, bloody images, some sexual content, and brief drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the feature film debut for Patel, who was born in India but currently resides in Los Angeles.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/27/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 20% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Funny Games
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Day 3 of Six Days of Darkness!

The Prodigy (2019)


A little kid can be the death of you.

(2019) Horror (Orion) Taylor Schilling, Jackson Robert Scott, Peter Mooney Colm Feore, Paul Fauteux, Brittany Allen, Paula Boudreau, Elisa Moolecherry, Olunike Adeliyi, Janet Land, Martin Roach, Byron Abalos, Ashley Black, Tristan Vasquez, Nicholas McCarthy, Jim Annan, Milton Barnes, Grace Armas, Brock Johnson, Michael Dyson, Mark Sparks, Martha Girvin. Directed by Nicholas McCarthy

 

The creepy kid is a horror trope that goes back half a century. Kids are innocent, angelic; they are the future and we can’t see anything bad in them – after all, they’re just kids – but who says a kid can’t be a psychopathic monster? There is evidence that some kids have exactly that trait within them from birth.

But the film is quick to point out, in this case, that it isn’t really the poor little dear’s fault. Young Miles Blume (Scott) is born to his protective mom (Schilling) and disbelieving dad (Mooney) just as serial killer Edward Scarka (Fauteux) is killed during a police raid, the cops having been led to his in-the-middle-of-nowhere farmhouse by the sole survivor of his escapades (Allen), who had her hands chopped off for her trouble.

At first, the kid just seems precocious to the delight of mommy. But that soon gives way to genuine creepiness – the dead-eyed stares, the animal abuse, the accident befalling a babysitter (Black). The kid is speaking a rare dialect of Hungarian in his sleep, one spoken by Scarka. It appears the serial killer is not quite dead yet and he has an axe to grind with the woman who got away – and he doesn’t have a problem using young Miles to do it.

Although there are some nice twists and plot points here, this is pretty standard for the subgenre. The big reveal about what is wrong with Miles is answered way too early in the film and rather than giving us a parental “is my kid really a monster” conundrum to deal with, we just get one parent (the mom) denying reality, the other perhaps embracing reality too easily.

Schilling (Orange is the New Black) and Scott (the doomed younger brother in the IT movies) are actually pretty good, particularly Scott who is truly convincing; the movie doesn’t work with a lesser performance in place. But the movie relies too much on jump scares (the refuge of unimaginative directors) and hackneyed dark house stalker clichés to really be of more than passing interest.

REASONS TO SEE: Schilling and Scott give pretty decent performances.
REASONS TO AVOID: Very predictable, utilizing too many jump scares.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images, violence, terror, profanity, a sexual reference and brief graphic nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Scott sandwiched the filming of The Prodigy in between shoots for IT and IT Chapter 2, thus meaning he filmed three straight horror movies.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Epix, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hulu, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/6/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 42% positive reviews: Metacritic: 45/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Bad Seed
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Outpost

Hell Fest


Seeing a guy in a hoodie and a mask carrying a knife is never a good thing.

(2018) Horror (CBS) Reign Edwards, Bex Taylor-Klaus, Tony Todd, Amy Forsyth, Michael Tourek, Courtney Dietz, Christian James, Matt Mercurio, Elle Graham, Benjamin Weaver, Mason Pike, Roby Attal, Brooke Jaye Taylor, Stephen Conroy, Markus Silbiger, Ashley Ueker, Quandae Stewart, Alicia Rosato, Kimberly Battista. Directed by Gregory Plotkin

Let’s face it; getting scared is fun. It makes our hearts beat faster, our adrenalin spike and our breath quicken. For young men, it gives us a chance to be protective of our dates who might even be suitably grateful afterwards. It’s why we go to horror movies and why we go to haunted attractions.

Natalie (Forsyth) has returned home from school. Her best friend Brooke (Edwards) is happy to see her – Brooke’s roommate Taylor (Taylor-Klaus) not so much. But young Gavin (Attal) really wants to see Natalie after a summer flirtation. So much so that he’s gotten VIP passes to Hell Fest for the three girls as well as the boyfriends of Brooke and Taylor. Hell Fest is one of the biggest haunted attractions here is, a traveling amusement park with horror-themed rides and mazes. It’s a big deal every time it shows up. Brooke and Taylor are very psyched for it; Natalie is less enthusiastic, not being terribly fond of being scared.

The real difference at this particular edition of Hell Fest is that there is an actual psycho among the costumed actors who can dispatch young girls in full view of the patrons – it’s all part of the show, right? – with nobody being the wiser. He’s done it before, as we see in a prologue.

So when a terrified girl who knows that fantasy has crossed the line into reality begs Natalie to save her from The Other (Conroy), as the killer is known as here. Laconically, Natalie tells the masked figure “Do it. That’s why we’re here – to be scared.” And so the killer obliges. And now he has a new target to chase around the park.

I suppose the concept of having an actual killer hiding in plain sight in a haunted amusement park has some merit, although something similar was attempted earlier this year in the independent Blood Fest – which was actually much better than this although as my British friends might say, that film was also daftier. The other main difference is that while that film was obviously made by people who not only believed in what they were doing, they were having a great time doing it. This movie appears to have been approached with all the joy and enthusiasm of a high school student approaching a term paper on Pilgrim’s Progress.

It’s not that Hell Fest is a bad movie; it’s not. It’s just not a good one. It shows little imagination or passion in any aspect, from the writing to the acting to the directing. Only the production design seems to have been approached with any sort of zeal. There are no real sore spots anywhere; neither are there any real bright spots (again, other than the production design).

The characters are literally just cookie cutters without depth and all ready to be ground into crumbs. The inevitable string of murders is neither imaginative nor particularly frightening. They’re just…there, like a misunderstanding in a rom-com. The last thing you want from a horror movie is a feeling of meh. Even a bad horror movie has its merits; there is nobody who itches to see a mediocre scary movie. That’s really what you have here; the horror equivalent of Wonder bread slathered with mayonnaise and American cheese. Horror fans deserve better. Heck, all of us deserve better. Natalie herself said “We’re here to get scared.” It’s a shame the folks who made her film didn’t listen to her.

REASONS TO GO: It’s not really bad in any category.
REASONS TO STAY: It’s not really good in any category either.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of violence, some gore, a bit of profanity and some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Many of the scare characters walking around the park during the beginning of the film are actually employed by the Netherworld haunted attraction in Atlanta, one of the top ten in the country.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/30/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 40% positive reviews. Metacritic: 25/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blood Fest
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness concludes

The Looming Storm ( Bao xue jiang zhi)


Rainy days and murders always get me down

(2017) Thriller (Century Fortune) Yihong Duan, Yiyan Jiang, Yuan  Du, Chuyi Zheng, Wei Zheng, Lin Zhang, Xianliong Li, Yan Qu, Yujie Su, Chao Sun, Chaofun Fu, Shuo Du, Gi Song, Shaodong Jiang, Qiao Cho. Directed by Yue Dong

1997 was a red letter year for China, no pun intended. It was the year Den Xiaoping, then the president, passed away and a more reform-oriented government went into effect. It was of course also the year Hong Kong was returned to Chinese control after having been in the purview of the United Kingdom for a century.

In that year Yu Guowei (Duan) was the security chief in Smelting Plant #4 in an industrial town in rural China. He has just been given the model employee award for going a year without allowing any petty theft in the plant. Respected by management, liked by his fellow employees, Yu fancies himself something of a detective and when a trio of women turn up murdered in town, he is eager to help the weary Captain Zhang (Du) who doesn’t want Yu’s help at all.

But Yu sees himself as a superior police officer to Zhang and the contemptuous Officer Li (C. Zheng) and believes that solving this case will win him a spot on an actual police force. With his fawning assistant Xiao Lu (W. Zheng) – who insists on referring to his box as “Maestro” – at his side, Yu makes like Sam Spade and looks for the usual suspects or at least the unusual ones. Based on his own instincts – which aren’t that bad – he starts looking for someone taking an unusual interest in female factory workers.

He finds one in a hooded man who has is apparently keeping an eye on the various factories in town. After a foot chase with the hooded man ends badly, Yu resolves to take down his prey and uses former prostitute Yanzi (Jiang) as bait. He sets up the girl, whose aim in life is to open up a salon in Hong Kong, with a salon in the center of town. This despite the fact that Yu, along with almost all of the smelting factory’s workforce has been laid off; the State is getting ready to close the factory as part of China’s modernization and move towards globalization. Yanzi is genuinely very grateful but doesn’t understand why Yu refuses physical affection. There is a palpable air of something tragic building and when the climax finally unfolds, it’s not what we would expect – but tragic nonetheless.

Dong sets the film in an unnamed town in the middle of muddy moors in a place where the sun never ever shines and it rains almost non-stop. This gives the film a noir-ish feel and while there are other elements of noir as well, this isn’t strictly that kind of film. There is a good deal of social commentary going on in the subtle way that Chinese filmmakers insert commentary into their movies.

Duan has the perfect hangdog look that belies his eager beaver attitude although once it becomes evident that he isn’t as good a detective as he thinks he is and his world begins to fall apart the expression becomes a source of pathos. Likewise, Jiang is bright and lively, an absolute refreshing respite from the overwhelming oppressive atmosphere of the film – although that atmosphere is part of what sets this movie apart. This is truly a place where nothing good ever happens and it is evident in the way the residents trudge through the muddy streets, not even bothering to protect themselves from the rain any longer. China is changing and these are the people getting left behind. Like Yu, they all have the certainty in mind that life is nothing but a perpetual disappointment and is something that is to be endured rather than enjoyed. That’s not as rare a mindset as I think we’d all like.

The movie is a little long (nearly two hours) and the ending very drawn out but for all that the pacing, while slow, isn’t necessarily a drawback; I remained enthralled by the story all the way through. This was another of the standout films at this year’s New York Asian Film Festival; it might be a bit dreary in tone but it won’t leave you feeling waterlogged.

REASONS TO GO: While the pace is slow the story is so fascinating you never lose interest. Yihong Duan has the perfect hangdog look. The dreary setting fits the mood perfectly.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending drags on a little bit.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images, violence, profanity and sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Yue Dong has been a cinematographer for most of his career; this is his first foray into directing a full-length feature.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/13/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Se7en
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Microhabitat