Don’t Click (2020)


The Internet is full of horror.

(2020) Horror (GravitasValter Skarsgård, Mark Koufos, Catherine Howard, Geoff Mays, May Grehan, Samantha Hart, Dayjan Lesmond, Derrick Rabethge, Erica Sherwood, Ry Barrett, Anthony Polito, Jessica Vano. Directed by G-Hey Kim

 

Those selling us the Internet have portrayed it as a repository for human knowledge and ingenuity, where our lives may be made easier and the ability to access the sum total of everything knowable could lead us to a new golden age…yeah, right.

Like everything else, we humans tend to muck it up with our baser instincts. In this horror opus from G-Hey Kim based on her own short film, college student Josh (Skarsgård) returns home after a night of drinking and partying to find his roommate Zane (Koufos) missing. His laptop, however, is still there and still connected to the site Josh had been watching – something called Beataslut.com. In it, voyeurs may watch the torture and degrading of a woman (Howard) who is gradually stripped, tortured and then eventually murdered by a smiling sadist (Mays).

Abruptly Josh is sucked into the laptop and finds himself in a dungeon with no windows or doors; only a mirror with the phrase “Take a good hard look at yourself” written in what may be lipstick, or might be blood. Therein is also Zane whose lips have been sewed shut and who has had tortures of his own visited upon him. Soon, it becomes obvious that the supernatural entities that are in control of the room can also control Josh, forcing him to do unspeakable things to his roommate. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why Zane has been brought there – but why is Josh suffering the same fate?

This is a horror movie with a message and it is attempting to deliver it to the subset of viewers who might need to receive it the most – male horror movie fans. It has never been a secret that horror movies have traditionally been guilty of sexualizing brutality towards women, helping to create a culture of misogyny and rape that society has embraced. And yeah, that might be a harsh and simplistic assessment – rape culture and institutionalized misogyny come from a variety of sources, not just horror films – but let’s face it, horror movies have desensitized young men to brutality towards women for decades now.

The movie harkens back to the torture porn of the late 90s and early 21st century, and skeptics might be forgiven for pointing out that the movie, even as it seems to point out the violence towards women also indulges in it. There is definitely a sense of “do as I say, not as I do” here. It’s also certainly understandable that certain segments of the audience might find the scenes of violence and brutality too much to handle, although most hardcore horror fans will find it no problem at all, although a scene involving a character’s private parts might make even the most rabid of gorehounds a bit squeamish.

Kim does make a few stylistic choices that are questionable; for example, the scenes set in the dungeon are shot at a lower frame rate, giving the action a jumpy and overexposed feel that is more endemic to internet video of 20 years ago, not so much now. Skarsgård does a credible job in the lead role, but his character is somewhat bland and spends a good deal of the movie whining about one thing and another.

As a society, we are all guilty of turning a blind eye to the violence that has been visited upon women, not only in the physical sense but also in the emotional and mental sense as well. The overall theme of the movie is written on the mirror, and it is rare that a horror movie invites us to do just that. While the movie might have benefited from stronger characters, the message is one that can’t be ignored.

REASONS TO SEE: A cautionary tale for incels.
REASONS TO AVOID: May be too brutal for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, disturbing images, nudity, abusive sexual behavior and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film debuted at the UK Frightfest this past August.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/22/2020: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hostel
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Max Cloud

To Your Lasts Death


Someone give this guy a hand.

(2020) Animated Feature (Quiver) Starring the voices of Morena Baccarin, Ray Wise, William Shatner, Bill Moseley, Dani Lennon, Damien C. Haas, Benjamin Siemon, Bill Millsap, Florence Hartigan, Tom Lommel, Steve Geiger, Tanya C. Klein, Jim Cirile, Ruairi Douglas, Charles Wyman, Jason Axinn, Paige Barnett. Directed by Jason Axinn

 

Animated features tend to be fantasy or science-fiction oriented. There are dramas and comedies, to be sure (particularly from Europe), but for the most part there are elements of either one of those genres involved. It makes sense that the horror genre would also be fertile ground for animation, but surprisingly, very few animated features have gone that route.

In this opus, Miriam DeKalb (Lennon) has survived an unthinkable ordeal that has seen all of her siblings killed. Suspected of involvement in the grisly demise of her family, Miriam has been held in the prison wing of the hospital as interrogations by the police have illustrated their disbelief in her story. Then, she is visited by the Gamemaster (Baccarin), an alien being who is able to control time and puts on entertainments in which high-end clients bet on the outcomes. Miriam is given the opportunity to go back 24 hours, armed with the foreknowledge of what is going to happen, and attempt to save her sister and brothers. Should she choose not to, it is likely she will never know freedom again.

24 hours earlier, her father Cyrus (Wise) had gathered them together – sister Kelsey (Hartigan), and brothers Ethan (Haas) and Collin (Siemon) to inform them that he is dying. But rather than using the opportunity to draw the family closer together, their deranged old man – a wealthy arms manufacturer whose run for vice-president of the United States was torpedoed by his children when they informed the press of his many moral failings – chooses to take his revenge for that indiscretion and kill all his children. Sounds kind of medieval (or at least Biblical) to me.

He has locked up the office building and staffed it full of gunmen and set up lethal traps tailored to the weaknesses of each of his children. Miriam tries desperately to tell her siblings what is coming, but that only makes them suspicious that she’s in collusion with Cyrus. To make matters worse, the Gamemaster is changing the rules by changing events from how Miriam remembers them. There are no guarantees that she herself will survive, let alone save her brothers and sister from the maniacal machinations of their father.

Axinn spares no bloodshed and why should he? It’s not like he has to pay for additional fake blood. The problem here is that the various scenarios for each sibling comes off as kind of a lame retread of the Saw series, only much more heavy-handed. Considering that the sky is the limit when it comes to animation, it’s a bit of a drag that Axinn didn’t go more over-the-top here. It feels like a failure of the imagination.

Shatner guest stars as the narrator here and his dialogue is truly cringeworthy. You may be forgiven if you give in to the urge to fast-forward through his narration. It’s not Shatner’s fault; it’s just florid writing. Even Meryl Streep would have a tough time making the narration sound any better than Shatner does.

There’s still plenty of gore to delight the most exacting of horror lovers, and certainly if on the one hand one wishes for a little more originality, the execution of the various torture porn scenes are right on the money and at least as well done as any in that genre. I suspect that most hardcore horror fans and Adult Swim fans are going to find this delightful. It certainly is an idea whose time has come. I just wish the writers would have taken a little more care to utilize the medium to their advantage better.

REASONS TO SEE: Gloriously violent and gory.
REASONS TO AVOID: The story lacks ingenuity.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a ton of bloody violence and gore, rape, nudity and more profanity than you know what to do with.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The animation was hand-drawn and took five years to complete. The filmmakers used Archer and Metaloccalypse as inspirations for the animation style.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Hoopla, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/29/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Saw Franchise
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Estate

Pledge


The cast of a raunchy teenage sex comedy suddenly realizes they’re in a horror movie.

(2018) Horror/Thriller (IFC Midnight) Zachery Byrd, Phillip Andre Botello, Aaron Dalla Villa, Zack Weiner, Erica Boozer, Cameron Cowperthwaite, Jesse Pimentel, Jean-Louis Droulers, Joe Gallagher, Melanie Rothman, Jim Calello, Steve Lipman, Billy Thomas Myott, Sam Naismith, Jason Polinsky, Max Schuster, Emerald Toller, Keith Weiss, Natalie Walsh, Jackie Taylor. Directed by Daniel Robbins

 

Part of the college experience is rush week. Various fraternities and sororities try to lure potential members with parties, free booze and the promise of social acceptance and lifetime friendships. Of course, in some cases there is always the implied promise of a college career full of debauchery but that’s not always the case. However, those that do choose to pledge generally have to go through a series of tests that will test their limits, often to the breaking point.

Not everyone is accepted though. In the case of Ethan (Botello), Justin (Byrd) and David (Weiner), they have gone to party after party, often not even getting in the door. The three are freshmen who not only are socially awkward they wouldn’t seem out of place at either a sci-fi convention – or a raunchy sex comedy.

Disillusioned (although hope springs eternal for David), they are walking back to their dorm, with Ethan and Justin ready to spend the night there drinking when they meet Rachel (Boozer), a gorgeous and sexy coed who invites them to a party at a house somewhat more remote than the others they’ve seen. When they get there, they are treated to a party of well-dressed preppy sorts, and wonder of wonders the three (and two other seemingly less socially awkward guys) are accepted into the frat – excuse me, it’s a social club, not a frat – and the hazing begins.

Except the hazing starts with actual branding and goes downhill from there. The three pledges realize that they are in a world of hurt and in way above their heads. The three frat brothers – I mean, club members – diminutive Max (Dalla Villa), intimidating Bret (Pimentel) and enigmatic Ricky (Cowperthwaite) don’t seem disposed to letting anyone out the door but out the door the boys must go if they are to survive the night.

Frat hazing gone wrong movies are not in and of themselves anything particularly new. Sometimes these movies are fairly tame when considering the actual shenanigans that go on in college campuses nationwide. Weiner, who wrote the movie and conceived it along with Robbins and executive producer Matthew Barrett, seems to have based the lead characters on himself, Robbins and Barrett. However, their role model for the social club seems to be more Skull and Bones society rather than Greek.

The acting is solid if unspectacular and the violence here is occasionally unnerving. Robbins proves to be an adept director who does a lot with very little budget; every penny looks to be onscreen, and Robbins doesn’t waste a moment with unnecessary dialogue or exposition. He introduces the characters by showing how they are perceived by the frat brothers of the various fraternities they visit and eventually we get the sense that while their main character traits are pretty standard (overweight guy, minority and eager but clueless ringleader) Ethan and Justin show some pain at the way they are treated. They just don’t laugh it off. In fact while there are some decent comedic moments, the movie is pretty much played with a straight face.

Unfortunately, that’s where the real innovation ends. For the most part it’s a standard slasher film with a side of torture porn. It’s not going to rewrite the horror book – but it is pretty entertainment and most horror buffs should end up appreciating it. Those who are a bit more discerning may find it overly familiar.

REASONS TO GO: Robbins packs a lot of tension into the short run time; not a moment is wasted.
REASONS TO STAY: This film really doesn’t add anything to the subgenre.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of violence, much profanity, some sexuality and plenty of teen drinking..
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The producers found the house they used as a filming location through AirBnB.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/12/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews: Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hell Night
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Rockaway

Jigsaw


Hannah Emily Anderson observes her motivation.

(2017) Horror (Lionsgate) Matt Passmore, Tobin Bell, Callum Keith Rennie, Hannah Emily Anderson, Clé Bennett, Laura Vandervoort, Paul Braunstein, Mandela Van Peebles, Brittany Allen, Josiah Black, Edward Ruttle, Michael Boisvert, Sam Koules, Troy Feldman, Shaquan Lewis, Esther Thibault, Lauren Beatty, Nadine Roden, Adam Waxman, Arabella Oz. Directed by Michael Spierig and Peter Spierig

 

It doesn’t seem all that long ago (but in reality has been a decade) when every Halloween like clockwork a new Saw film would come out. The original film was gruesome and cruel but had a clever side to it and appealed not only to gorehounds but also to mainstream horror fans as well. Not everyone was fond of the series; after all, it did kick off the “torture porn” genre that made a lot of critics as well as sensitive sorts uncomfortable. After a seven year run, the franchise was shut down by Lionsgate who quite frankly became a fairly major player thanks to Jigsaw and his fiendish traps.

Now seven years since the final entry in the series Lionsgate has seen fit to resurrect the franchise. Will it begin a new  and profitable run, or will it be destined to be a one and done?

Five people have been unwillingly gathered in a barn-like structure which is quite the house of horrors. In each room, the five are given a choice mainly to confess their crimes or make a blood sacrifice. In each room, the number of the survivors is reduced by one as those who are unable to confess or sacrifice something are offed in gruesome and inventive (sort of) ways.

In the meantime a pair of cops (Rennie, Bennett) is chasing down a number of bodies that have begun turning up that would seem to be the work of John Kramer (Bell) – who died more than a decade earlier. Aided by two coroners – one an Iraqi war veteran who was at one time captured and tortured (Passmore), the other a comely Goth punk-esque vixen (Anderson) who has a somewhat suspicious obsession with the killer known as Jigsaw – the cops chase down what could only be a copycat killer…or a ghost.

Jigsaw doesn’t show a whole lot of originality or imagination either for that matter. Some of the traps are taken from previous films in the franchise which doesn’t feel so much as an homage as it does a rip-off. Even the plot feels like it has been recycled from previous films, although I have to admit the end twist was pretty gnarly.

It’s not exactly a spoiler that Bell appears in the film as Jigsaw who died of cancer following Saw III. However, that hasn’t stopped him from appearing in all the succeeding films in the franchise including this one which is a good thing because he has been the best part of the series all along. He is one of the great horror villains of all time and yet he rarely does the “dirty work” himself; he simply captures people he feels need to prove themselves worthy of continued life and puts them in situations where their survival depends on their own strength of will and willingness to take responsibility for their actions and yes, the actions that the five in the barn have committed are pretty heinous indeed.

The gore is pretty intense here but veteran horror fans should have no problem with it. Those who are more dilettantes might be a little more squeamish in that regard. The traps are fairly Rube Goldberg-like although a couple were kind of lame. Those who have at least a passing familiarity with the basics of the film series should have no difficulties following the action but those coming in fresh without ever having seen any of the first seven films are going to be scratching their heads an awful lot.

The big problem here is that the movie feels rushed; the only time that the directors seem to take their time on anything is when the barn denizens are on the edge of getting mangled. Otherwise it feels like they’re impatient to get to the next gruesome murder. Maybe their core audience is too. The rest of us though may wish for a bit more exposition. Even given that, the movie doesn’t have a lot of energy; I did see it at a matinee screening that was mostly empty and maybe I would have felt differently in a crowd of horror fans enjoying the hell out of themselves. That’s probably the best way to see this.

In any case, this isn’t the worst film in the series nor is it the best. It falls pretty much solidly in the middle. I doubt that the hardcore fans of the series will be satisfied with this effort; and I don’t think that there’s a reason to continue the series from this point forward. Judging from the less than thrilling domestic box office, it appears that most American filmgoers agree. However, the global box office was enough that we might continue to see these showing up at Halloween (although at present there are no concrete plans to do so). If so, I hope they make some changes; I can’t see the next one being any better than this.

REASONS TO GO: The usage of Bell as John Kramer is a nice touch. There is some spectacular gore for those who like that kind of thing.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie felt oddly lifeless and rushed. Watching this movie really requires at least a basic knowledge of the Saw mythology in order to understand it.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence that is both bloody and gruesome, scenes of torture and plenty of profanity which you’d expect if you were being tortured.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tobin Bell as John Kramer is the only actor and character to appear in all eight Saw films.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Frontier, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/13/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 34% positive reviews. Metacritic: 39/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hostel
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The 101-Year-Old Man Who Skipped Out on His Bill and Disappeared

Kfc


Kentucky Fried Children.

(2016) Horror (Self-Distributed) Tony Nguyen, Ta Quang Chien, Hoang Ba Son, Tram Primose, Vo Quang Chi, Thien Phoc, Dao Anh Tuan, Thuy Hoang, Nguyet  Anh. Directed by Le Binh Giang

Some movies defy simple description. Perhaps it’s because their director is a visionary who is filming outside the box; it might also be that the movie is just an unholy mess. Somewhere between Luis Brunel and Ed Wood is where this particular film lies.

The streets of Hanoi are unforgiving. Violent street gangs play out their songs of vengeance and violence in rain-drenched alleyways as the children of dead prostitutes try to eke out an existence by stealing wallets and selling Zippo lighters. The streets are prowled by a sinister ambulance whose doctor deliberately runs down people, occasionally rapes their corpses particularly when they are attractive women and consumes their flesh otherwise, sharing the tidbits with his corpulent son.

Women are tortured, their teeth pulled out and their flesh burned with cigarettes. What little romance lives in this world is snuffed instantly by the marauding ambulance. Among it all, implacable, are American corporate icons – Coca-Cola and Pepsi which one character waxes rhapsodic about the virtues of mixing the two soft drinks together into one mighty cola – as well as Kentucky Fried Chicken which is apparently the second choice of Vietnamese cannibals. I guess we really do taste like chicken.

This turbo-charged fusion of Grand Guignol, social treatise on globalization and slice of life for the marginalized is the brainchild of Le Binh Giang who took three years to get this hour long film made despite the powers that be claiming it was too violent and expelling him from University because of it. I can see where conservative professors might be confounded by this shocking hour of nearly every taboo being almost gleefully played out on the page or the screen. If you had any preconceptions of  Vietnam before watching this you’ll have them completely blown out of the water after this.

There is a story here but it’s told with flashbacks and flash-forwards and even those who are veteran cinema buffs might have some difficulty in following it. Things do get explained (more or less) by the end of the film but think of the story as something of a circle being closed and then dismembered with a machete. You may not understand what’s going on but I don’t think that it’s vital that you do.

There are some really wonderful images mixed in among the carnage and even the gore looks pretty much up to Hollywood standards. There is certainly an artistic aesthetic here but think of Herschell Gordon Lewis and Frida Kahlo having a love child and then handing it a camera. It’s lowbrow and highbrow all at the same time.

I’m not exactly what to think of this one. On the one hand, I admire the skill and imagination. On the other hand, this seems to be a pointless exercise in gratuitous gore and human depravity as well. I’m not sure what Giang had in mind when he wrote this and I suspect you won’t either. I gave it the middling rating because on the one hand there is much that is commendable about this film; on the other hand too many won’t be able to get past the excessive gore and taboo subjects. This is torture porn taken to its logical extreme.

=Fans of Orlando’s legendary Uncomfortable Brunch will likely find something enticing here and the cannibalism scenes will certainly go down more smoothly with pancakes and eggs. Whether or not this makes its way to Will’s Pub remains to be seen; it has no US distribution and not even an entry on iMDB. It is playing the New York Asian Film Festival and previously played Rotterdam so there is hope that eventually it will work its way to a more adventurous streaming service or a niche distributor. Either way, this is strictly for those who aren’t offended by much of anything. This is cinema for the discerning vulgarian.

REASONS TO GO: This is not what you’d expect from a Vietnamese film. There are some really impressive images here.
REASONS TO STAY: The graphic violence and gore may be off-putting to some. The story is told in a somewhat disjointed fashion.
FAMILY VALUES: Not for the young or the sensitive in any sense; it’s got violence, sex, cannibalism, graphic gore and bloodshed, profanity, sexuality, necrophilia and animal cruelty.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Giang submitted this film as a graduate project at the University of Ho Chi Minh but was denied graduation because the script was deemed too violent.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/6/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Slave of the Cannibal God
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: BnB Hell

Rebound


Gag me with a gag.

Gag me with a gag.

(2014) Horror (Look At Me) Ashley James, Mark Scheibmeir, Julia Beth Stern, Kevin Bulla, Wes O’Lee, Brett Johnston, Bruce Cole-Edwards, Dan Sutter, Liz Bauer, Ali Williams. Directed by Megan Freels

One of the worst things that can happen to you in a relationship is being cheated upon. The feeling of betrayal is overwhelming; it attacks your sense of self-worth and makes you question yourself – what did I do wrong? – as opposed to blaming the person who made the decision to cheat in the first place. It hurts everyone it happens to, but some people take it harder than others.

Claire (James) has felt the sting. An aspiring actress struggling to find roles in Los Angeles, she comes home one afternoon to find her boyfriend of three years (Johnston) in the throes of passion with a co-worker (Williams) who will go down in film history as having the bitchiest smile ever recorded.

Claire is quite naturally devastated. After some soul searching (and tearful showers), she decides that it is time to cut her losses and go back home to Chicago. She talks things over with her best friend Shannon (Stern) who wonders if she’s not just running away from her problems and advises her to think of it more as a vacation and less as a permanent move, but Claire is adamant. A road trip back to Chicago it is and the opportunity to take stock of her life and begin anew.

Even with the best of intentions things can go devastatingly wrong and in Claire’s case, they turn from bad to worse. An encounter with a homeless woman (Bauer) leaves Claire shaken; she also manages to lose her cell phone. And of course when she’s in the middle of nowhere later that evening, her car breaks down. A sympathetic driver (O’Lee) picks her up and takes her to the local mechanic, Eddie (Scheibmeir) who diagnoses the problem as a timing belt. The bill is more than Claire can afford, so she manages to talk the handsome but shy mechanic down to a little less by using her natural charm. The part won’t be available until the next day, so Claire will need to spend the night in the flea speck of a town.

Eddie drops her off at the local bar where she gets something to eat and drink, courtesy of a none-too-friendly bartender (Bulla) and samples the less than savory citizenry. That’s when her eyesight begins to blur and before long Claire is in a nightmarish situation that makes being cheated on look like good news.

Freels who also wrote the movie takes a very simple concept and makes it compelling. There aren’t a lot of bells and whistles here – this is what is called in the industry a micro-budgeted film – and they really aren’t needed. Everything revolves around Claire’s emotional breakdown and Murphy’s Law made horror film high concept.

On the negative side, the dialogue can be a bit clunky; particularly the conversation between Claire and Shannon which at times didn’t sound like the way two people naturally talk. There is also a bit of overacting in a melodramatic sense, and the music kind of underscores it; Freels’ approach of “less is more” would have done the movie good in the music department. The good news is that the film gets a lot better once Claire hits the road which is pretty early on.

This might be classified by some as torture porn but there is kind of a film noir vibe which is unexpected and welcome. Not a noir of the Bogart kind mind you, but more of a Robert Mitchum sort. This isn’t Cape Fear but it’s a distant cousin.

And now, a few words about the film’s ending. One of my big problems with indie films in general is that often the ending is a disappointment. Not so here. The ending is strong and unexpected, but logical. It’s what makes me think that Freels has a great deal of promise as a filmmaker and writer.

This isn’t for the faint of heart and there are some fairly gruesome scenes here, but all in all this is a solid debut feature for Freels, who has been a producer of films for a few years now. Her first stint in the director’s chair is flawed as you might expect, but promising. I have a feeling a lot of people are going to be checking out this movie after she makes one that hits it big.

WHY RENT THIS: Uncomfortable but delicious ending.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Melodramatic acting. Clunky dialogue.
FAMILY VALUES: Violence (some gruesome), sexuality and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Freels is the granddaughter of the legendary writer Elmore Leonard.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.
SITES TO SEE: Amazon, VimeoGoogle Play
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hostel
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT: Straight Outta Compton

The Strangers


The Strangers

Liv Tyler is upset because housekeeping hasn’t finished her room yet.

(2008) Thriller (Rogue) Liv Tyler, Scott Speedman, Gemma Ward, Kip Weeks, Laura Margolis, Glenn Howerton, Alex Fisher, Peter Clayton-Luce, Jordan Del Spina. Directed by Bryan Bertino

 

Simple is better. When in doubt, stick to the basics – these things are true for just about everything, including filmmaking. Some of the most effective movies are the least complex.

James Hoyt (Speedman) and Kristen McKay (Tyler) are driving on a dark road late one night. They are returning from a wedding reception and the drive is made in silence. James had proposed to Kristen and she’d said no, she wasn’t ready for marriage. They are staying at his father’s farmhouse, and an awkward evening it’s going to be. He’s very hurt and she feels…well, it’s hard to describe.

Once at the house things are decidedly strange between them but it’s going to get stranger. He goes out for a pack of smokes. There is a knock at the door; a young woman looking for someone named Tamara. There’s no Tamara there, but the young woman insists.

Soon there are mysterious figures in masks lurking in the shadows. Strange noises in the night. James comes back and at first thinks his girlfriend is being paranoid. Then he begins to hear the noises, see the figures. Soon the stakes go up and the couple realize that this isn’t a prank – they are indeed fighting for their lives.

And that’s it. That’s all the plot there is, and really all the plot you need. This gives the movie everything it needs to become a horror classic which it had every opportunity to be. It claims to be based on actual events, although which events seem to be subject to debate; the writer/director says that he experienced the late-night knock on the door but the events that followed thereafter are pure invention.

However, the writer, Bryan Bertino, had no experience as a director (he had been a grip on a different movie). He may have been ambitious enough to submit this for a project to Rogue, but he commits the cardinal sin as a director – he gives the ending away; we know who is going to survive and who isn’t. In order to make the movie worthwhile, we need to get to know the characters, feel their pain and terror. Sadly, this doesn’t happen and it’s just a matter of an hour and change of waiting for the movie to end.

Tyler and Speedman are both fine actors, Tyler in particular. She’s certainly easy on the eyes but she’s not what you’d call a typical scream queen. Still, she doesn’t  do badly here; however she isn’t given a whole lot to work with. I wish she’d have had more; an actress with her skills could have really made this movie soar. As it is, she gives it a shot in the arm that it needs. Speedman has a more sympathetic character in many ways but at the end of the day we don’t know enough about him to really invest ourselves in him.

What I do like is that the main characters panic. They don’t act with cool, calm reserve and show hidden martial arts skills – neither of them are former Army Rangers or MMA fighters. They are two ordinary people in the wrong place at the wrong time. The people who are stalking them are doing what they do without rhyme or reason. We never learn why they decided to inflict the terror and pain on this couple; the only explanation we receive, late in the film, is that “you were home.”

There is no point here. There’s no grand moral lesson to be learned other than that bad things happen. Most of us are well-acquainted with that lesson in any case. I do like that Bertino and cinematographer Peter Sova make the proceedings sufficiently tense and scary enough to keep our interest for the 86 minutes (88 minutes on the unrated version) that the movie runs. Sadly, the ending is so disappointed (and the rumor is that the studio had a hand in messing with the ending) that we feel that we went through that length of time terrified for no good reason. And terror for it’s own sake really doesn’t do it for me.

WHY RENT THIS: The tension is well-established. Tyler does as good a job as any.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: We fail to care enough about these characters to connect. Ending is given away at the beginning, turning this into torture porn. The ending is disappointing.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s plenty of bad language and some violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the film, “Mama Tried” by Merle Haggard is played several times. Haggard’s backing band for the song was called The Strangers.  

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $82.4M on a $9M production budget; the movie is considered a blockbuster based on its box office to production cost ratio.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Vacancy

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: Paper Man

Saw 3D


Saw 3D
Betsy Russell goes on the Saw workout with remarkable results.

(2010) Horror (Lionsgate) Tobin Bell, Cary Elwes, Costas Mandylor, Betsy Russell, Sean Patrick Flanery, Chad Donella, Gina Holden, Laurence Anthony, Dean Armstrong, Naomi Snieckus, Rebecca Marshall, James van Patten, Anne Greene. Directed by Kevin Greutert

This is a film that visibly demonstrates the virtues of leaving while you’re on top. But the question is, is this franchise doing that or going out with a whimper?

Again, because of the possibility of spoilers for previous films in the series that you may not have seen and might want to (trust me, the series goes down a bit better if you know the mythology front to back). The apprentice of Jigsaw (Bell) has escaped the trap of Jigsaw’s wife (Russell) who now goes to the police in the person of Detective Matt Gibson (Donella).

In the meantime the apprentice is setting his sights on Bobby Dagen (Flanery), a survivor from a previous Jigsaw trap who has written a self-help book on the subject and has become the flavor of the week more or less. In the meantime, the police once again think they’re closing in – but when the fur flies, the body count will rise and the end comes thanks to a surprise character from the first movie who turns out to be the most surprising twist of all.

Greutert, who had hoped to direct Paranormal Activity 2 but was forced to direct this due to a contractual obligation, continues the formula that has sustained this series through seven films and the wear and tear is beginning to show. There is nothing here that really differentiates it from the other films in the series.

Part of my issue with the film is that there was never much doubt about what the outcome was going to be with each individual trap. Greutert would ratchet up the suspense but then well, you get the picture. This happens with each and every trap without fail. It would have been nice if there had been at least a smidgeon of a possibility that someone would get away but by the last few traps it was just a matter of waiting for the damn thing to go off.

The cast here is solid as always, although as with all the Saw films after the third one, it sorely misses Jigsaw as a contemporary force. Like the last three movies, the seventh movie only shows Jigsaw in flashback and thus the movie is robbed of its most interesting character. Elwes, the best-known of the cast, reprises his role from the first film in what is essentially an extended cameo. He looks a little embarrassed to be there, to be honest. Hope the paycheck was good.

Props must be given to the producers for not going the cheap route and doing this in 3D conversion; it’s actually filmed in 3D and the effects for such are pretty amazing. However be aware that those 3D home video sets that use the darker glasses, the movie is pretty dimly lit to begin with and you might have trouble seeing some of the things going on.

I admit there is a vicarious thrill in watching people get offed in such fiendishly clever ways, and usually the victims deserve their fates although the two-timing wench from the movie’s prologue might have received a somewhat extreme punishment for her crime. Still, the franchise has undoubtedly run out of steam and while seeing the surviving victims from past movies come together in a support group session was one of the movie’s highlights, this is definitely a series that is ready to at the very least take a long break and regroup, if not sail off into the sunset altogether.

WHY RENT THIS: Lots of blasts from the past. This is supposed to conclude the franchise so if you followed it this far…

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Not a very satisfying conclusion and a bit of a letdown. The traps lack any kind of suspense.

FAMILY VALUES: There is violence and blood and torture and bad language but no sexuality to speak of.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Was the second straight film in the series to feature a winner of the “Scream Queens” reality television series in a featured role; Gabby West here, Tanedra Howard (who also appears here) in Saw VI.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray edition has a featurette on every trap from every film in the series – all 52 of them.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $136.2M on a $20M production budget; the movie was a blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Six Days of Darkness concludes!

Saw VI


Saw VI

Tanedra Howard tries a new cure for migraines.

(2009) Horror (Lionsgate) Tobin Bell, Costas Mandylor, Betsy Russell, Mark Rolston, Peter Outerbridge, Shawnee Smith, Samantha Lemole, Caroline Cave, George Newbern, Devon Bostick, Darius McCrary, Shauna McDonald, Tanedra Howard. Directed by Kevin Greutert

It is nearly impossible to give you a plot summary of Saw VI without giving you spoilers on the previous films, so therefore my description of the action is going to be necessarily vague in the odd chance that you might be thinking of seeing any of the previous films in the series first.

Saw VI picks up directly after the events of Saw V. The police continue to search for Jigsaw’s (Bell) remaining apprentice who is disturbingly close to home. A health insurance executive (Outerbridge) who has denied treatment to individuals who died for its lack (including Jigsaw himself) is forced to play out four twisted traps. We see in flashbacks more detail on the relationship between Jigsaw and Amanda (Smith) and how Jigsaw’s wife Jill (Russell) is dealing with the contents of the mysterious box left to her in Jigsaw’s will. As the traps begin to unfold, the noose begins to tighten around the apprentice, including from an unexpected direction. Is the game over finally?

Well, no not yet. There is one film yet to go in the series and after the disappointment that was the fifth film in the series, the franchise seems to have regained a bit of momentum heading for its conclusion. Greutert, an editor in the series, makes his feature film directing debut and does a nice job, keeping the tension and action running at high levels.

The secondary story line with the insurance executive keeps the interest up. One of the big complaints about the series and the last couple of movies in particular is that the portion of the movie that deals with Jigsaw and his apprentices seems to have shrunk, leaving the backstory (and side story if you will) to take up less than half of the movie – and the portion with the traps to be the far more interesting portion of the movie than that which explains how the principles got there. That’s not really a good sign, but the traps are so fiendishly clever here that it does make up for that lack somewhat.

I’ve said it before, but relegating Jigsaw to flashbacks was a tactical error. Mandylor is a decent actor but his character has none of the charisma of Jigsaw; consequently his sequences seem to be the ones most likely that you’ll want to fast forward through, although there’s a terrific scene at a crime lab that involves him that is actually worth waiting for.

Perhaps the most important accomplishment the movie is going to have is to make viewers want to watch the final installment; certainly this is a flawed movie and by no means the best in the series but at least it doesn’t make you turn off the DVD player in disgust with a cry of “Never again!” Two trilogies down the road and the series has at least kept our interest and displayed a certain amount of cleverness and invention throughout. That’s something worth respecting.

WHY RENT THIS: Clever traps and a decent secondary story line.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Mandylor’s Hoffman is still not nearly as interesting as Bell’s Jigsaw..

FAMILY VALUES: Violence and torture and gore, oh my!

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tanedra Howard was the winner of the SyFy reality show “Scream Queens” and won a role in Saw VI.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is an unrated DVD edition which contains both the theatrical release and an unrated version of the film. This edition also includes four music videos and a featurette on the building of a Saw-themed haunted house attraction at the Universal Studios theme park. The Blu-Ray edition has these features and the first Saw film as an extra added attraction.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $68.2M on an $11M production budget; the movie was a modest blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Whistleblower

Saw IV


Saw IV

Betsy Russell finds out she's been cast in a Saw film.

(2007) Horror/Torture Porn (Lionsgate) Tobin Bell, Costas Mandylor, Scott Patterson, Betsy Russell, Lyriq Bent, Athena Karkanis, Justin Louis, Simon Reynolds, Donnie Wahlberg, Angus Macfadyen, Shawnee Smith, Dina Meyer, Bahar Soomekh. Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman

There are storms in life that are particularly vicious, doing damage to property, life and limb. We can only hope to ride out those storms and hope to escape if not unscathed, at least mostly unscathed. There are storms however that when we think they’re over, we come to the sick realization that they may only be beginning.

John Kramer a.k.a. Jigsaw (Bell), the notorious serial killer, is dead. His reign of terror is at an end. At least, that’s what everybody thinks. During his autopsy, a micro-cassette player is found in his stomach, the contents of which are heard by Det. Mark Hoffman (Mandylor). You just know what’s on the tape isn’t going to be Perry Como. It’s just not going to be a very good thing at all.

When a missing detective (Meyer) is located, Hoffman cautions Lt. Rigg (Bent) from entering an unsecured door but he does anyway and the girl is killed. Rigg is hoping that he’d find information about his missing partner, Matthews (Wahlberg) whom Rigg is convinced is still alive. The murder brings FBI agents Strahm (Patterson) and Perez (Karkanis) into the picture. They quickly discover that the late Jigsaw and his apprentice (Smith) couldn’t have been responsible for the death of the detective since neither one of them was strong enough to load her into the machine she’d been left in. It becomes increasingly likely that Jigsaw has another apprentice.

It isn’t until Rigg is attacked at home that he discovers that Matthews is still alive, but held by the new apprentice of Jigsaw. Rigg has 90 minutes to find Matthews or he will die horribly. Rigg must make terrible decisions that will cost people their lives in order to save the innocent Matthews…but can he negotiate the tricky moral currents of a Jigsaw puzzle?

Bousman, who helmed the second and third installment of the series, was reportedly ready to turn down directing this film but the end twist really grabbed his attention. He brings to the table a solid understanding of who Jigsaw is and what the man is all about.

Which makes this movie all the more mystifying. Throughout the series to date, Jigsaw was about having people confront their own sins but there is much less of that here. We do get much more of Jigsaw’s backstory – what drove him to psychosis (the death of his unborn son at the hands of a junkie, leading to his wife divorcing him) and what kept him there.

Still, the series is written into a corner. With its most iconic and compelling character dead and available only in flashbacks, what we are left with are the lethal traps and while they are fun and interesting, they aren’t enough to carry a movie. For the most part, you know that nobody is going to escape – why would any competent Hollywood horror director give you that kind of building only to have nothing happen – and after awhile it becomes just torture porn. I don’t have a problem with that per se, but I’m finding myself getting more and more jaded when it comes to the genre.

That isn’t to say the movie is without its merits. The traps are clever and Jigsaw’s backstory does help fill in the blanks. The next movie in the cycle is set up nicely and while we know the series ended with a total of seven films in it (although I wouldn’t be surprised if the series got resurrected in a few years), the fourth one gave the series enough impetus to continue on course for awhile, both creatively and at the box office. This isn’t the best film in the series, but it isn’t the worst either – it’s just a solid horror movie to liven up your next Halloween.

WHY RENT THIS: If you like the first three films, you’re gonna adore this – much the same as the other three with a nice twist here and there.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: There really isn’t much here you won’t find in the first three movies. There’s only so many ways to be shocking. The plot is a bit convoluted and you’re going to have a hard time if you haven’t seen the first three films, particularly Saw III.

FAMILY VALUES: Ummm, its Saw IV…just what kind of family values are you expecting exactly?

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first film in the series not to be written or co-written by franchise creator Leigh Whannell.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a music video and a video diary from director Bousman that’s pretty amusing.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $139.4M on a $10M production budget (unconfirmed); the movie was a blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Letters to Juliet