‘The Call’ (2020): Make The Call to Watch it

Not to be confused with the Korean movie from 2020 that’s also titled The Call. It’s 1987, and awkward kid Chris (Chester Rushing) is adjusting to life in his new high school. He’s befriended by Tonya (Erin Sanders), Zack (Mike Manning), and Brett (Sloane Morgan Siegel), who have a grudge against Edith Cranston (Lin Shaye) and drag Chris into it. Seems Tonya’s sister Laura (Brooklyn Anne Miller) has gone missing, and Edith’s daycare was her last known whereabouts. The teens have a tradition of pranking Edith, who this time around catches them and epically loses her shit, culminating in her committing suicide. They’re contacted by Edith’s husband Edward (Tobin Bell), who has a proposition (a game, if you will) for them: if they can stay on a call with Edith, who was buried with a phone, for a full minute, they win $100,000. Of course, Edith won’t make it easy on them.

“I’m not afraid of you. But you should be very, very afraid of me.”–actual quote

I tend to be skeptical of depictions of the 1980s by millennial filmmakers, who were but babes during the decade, but the ’80s accoutrements are skillfully displayed without overshadowing the aesthetic in general: crimped hair, a Walkman, arcade games, blue and pink eye shadow, middle-of-the-night static on TV, and of course the rotary phone on which one makes the titular calls. Visual references to horror movies are plentiful (but not obnoxiously so), from The Exorcist to Poltergeist, but two of the most striking are ones from movies that were released in 1987. There’s an early scene that takes place at a carnival that’s very reminiscent of The Lost Boys, and in one scene there’s a bedroom set overhung with chains, much like in Hellraiser–see the image two paragraphs below.

They’re drinking beer and getting high! They’re dooooomed! Dooooomed! To the max!

The characters are more complex than are often depicted in horror movies revolving around teens. Their personalities and motivations are explained in depth. (Except for Tonya, alas–her big reveal is a rare sour note.) The performances are exquisite across the board. Chris, Tonya, and Brett are likable. Manning is spot-on as the quintessential ’80s teenage asshole, evoking a young Val Kilmer. I was actually rooting for the kids to make it, even Zack. I’m a big fan of Lin Shaye (we need more scream queens over 70), but even so I griped a lot about her acting here in my review of The Midnight Man. However, in this one she totally nails being a woman who both demands empathy for her grief and terror of her vengeance. Similarly, Tobin Bell is adept at building tension as a widower barely concealing his rage while confronting the people he blames for his wife’s death, but he’s also a tender, affectionate husband to Edith. I love the scene when Edward tries to comfort her when she’s devastated: “My dream was to be with you forever. And I am. So I’m happy as a clam.”

How frickin cute are they?! Just look at that chemistry!

I was pleasantly surprised by the overall dark and serious tone. Most of it takes place at night, a good chunk in the dimly-lit Cranston house. There’s little in the way of comic relief or one-liners. Though I had a small chuckle when Chris says “As weird as Edith is, I have to admit I’ve seen stranger things.” ‘Cause Chester Rushing was on Stranger Things. And of course there’s a giddy thrill when Edward comes this close to saying “I want to play a game.” It’s not rated, but the multiple f-bombs take it far away from PG-13. Yet it’s not gory, relying mainly on psychological scares.

Even Hellraiser has more cheerful lighting
Edith has such sights to show him

There’s an interesting motif of the futility of trying to escape the past. Multiple characters mention wanting to bury unpleasant events in their history, but none of them is able to effectively do so. In fact, the past is more present than the present for every character. Edith and Edward are persecuted and made miserable for the incident with Laura. All of the teens are haunted by their illicit life experiences, which Edith brings to the fore and forces them to face: for example, Zack and Brett’s abusive father, who says, keeping right along with the theme, “I’m always gonna find you.” As Edith points out, hell isn’t fire and brimstone but instead reliving one’s worst memories.

Speaking of being stuck in the past…the only thing missing is a Trapper Keeper

Overall, I loved it. I was expecting a dumb teen romp, and I got a beautifully shot, smart, entertaining movie. Give it a look if you’re in the mood for something thought-provoking but fun and even a little creepy at times.

‘Visions’: Pretty to Look at, but Not Much Substance

Directed by Kevin Greutert, produced by Blumhouse. Evie (Isla Fisher) is a pregnant lady recovering from the trauma of inadvertently causing the death of an infant in a car crash the previous year. She and her husband David (Anson Mount) have just bought a sizable and lovely vineyard, but before they can begin to enjoy themselves, trouble is a’brewin’. Evie has terrifying visions, including a sinister hooded figure, a gun, and blood spattering the wall. She’s convinced the house is haunted, but David refuses to hear her out, putting them both in terrible danger.

Or, going by the look on her face, bordering-on-orgasmic danger

Shortly after I began early drafts of this review, I found out that I myself am pregnant (third time for me), so naturally I enjoy the plot point that Evie is more susceptible to psychic energies because she’s expecting. It adds an interesting new wrinkle to a prolific genre. I concur with the filmmakers that gestating a baby really is a superpower, even aside from the miraculous capability of growing an entire person from scratch. In normal circumstances I’m a clumsy oaf, but when I’m carrying a child, I gain the ability to fall not only far less often but also in slow motion. (After the baby is born my reflexes get exponentially faster, not unlike in the lunch tray scene from Sam Raimi’s Spiderman.)

Look, even getting into a car requires a very particular set of skills

My main gripe is how fast and loose anything medical is portrayed. Evie is bombarded with antidepressants, even when they’re inappropriate for her situation. She’s prescribed them after her car accident because she’s sad she killed a baby. As anyone with depression will tell you, there’s a big difference between being grief-stricken for obvious reasons and being clinically depressed. In the present the pills are foisted on her again because David thinks she’s having hallucinations. As IMDB points out, she’d be better off with an anti-psychotic for that. Dr. Mathison (Jim Parsons), the man Evie sees regarding the health of her fetus, is a whimsical combination of gynecologist, sonographer (to be fair it’s not unheard of for an ob\gyn to do sonograms, but it is something that requires additional schooling), and psychiatrist. Evie and David even turn to him when she falls through a plate glass window instead of going to the emergency room.

“Let me tell you about my other job as a theoretical physicist.”

Expanding on the depictions of control, the movie puzzles me; it has a strong Rosemary’s Baby vibe, what with everybody (especially men) telling Evie she’s crazy and trying to regulate what she does with her own body. It could have been a story about a strong woman refusing to ignore her powerful instincts. Instead it’s a story about a hysterical woman who lets everyone push her around. David isn’t a villain; he’s as sweet and supportive as he is domineering. He’s frequently condescending; it’s impossible to watch him and not be reminded of John in “The Yellow Wallpaper” (“She shall be as sick as she pleases”), but just as frequently he’s a kind and decent husband. Every time Evie is scared, which is constantly–Evie spends the majority of her time on screen whining, crying, or screaming–she collapses into his arms, and he lovingly soothes her. As if it weren’t enough that Evie is a total wimp, there are multiple noxious female stereotypes. Evie and her new friend Sadie (Gillian Jacobs) bond by griping about motherhood with every cliche in the book. Then there’s a prenatal yoga class full of woo-woo weirdos who try to force happy thoughts into Evie with their breath, a segment that’s played for laughs (despite the still below that makes it look like they’re a cult about to sacrifice her).

The face I made during this scene, too

I had a difficult time telling what the movie is about in terms of the underlying concept. There doesn’t seem to be a moral or a resounding message. There is a touch of the oddly common anti-materialism present in horror movies involving suspiciously luxurious-yet-affordable houses: one half of a married couple panics at the paranormal phenomena, and the other one cries, “But we’ve sunk everything we have into this!” Finally they reconcile the fact that they can’t live in a cheap murder house when they’re dead, and they tend to flee with little more than the clothes on their backs.

Who’s this guy, you ask? Fuhgeddaboutit.

Now don’t get me wrong–I’m not saying nothing happens. There’s a LOT going on. The movie is so full of red herrings to detract from the final twist that ancillary characters are coming out of the woodwork throughout. My least favorite of these are the horrifyingly stereotypical superstitious Latinx folks who work on the vineyard. They bombard David with “fertility cult shit” and warn Evie of “El Maligno. The evil one. It get much stronger since you come.” Eva Longoria is completely wasted as Evie’s best friend, and John de Lancie is similarly under-used as a vintner who pops up mainly to provide expositional information. And don’t get me started on Joanna Cassidy as Helena, a psychic/wine tastemaker who’s angry and rude to Evie until she abruptly does a 180 personality-wise, hugging her and cooing, “Come here. I’ll help you.” After that, she’s even more insufferable than when she was surly, spouting painful dialogue like: “Certain acts of psychic violence, the truly evil ones, echo throughout time, like ripples spreading across a pond.”

“I once stayed in a haunted house that played ’70s music.” “Really?” “At first I was afraid, I was petrified.” “Shut up!” “Have you heard about the haunted house shortage? Seems like a lot of people are running out of them.” “Oh, you’re not helping!”*

Overall, it’s fairly entertaining, but it’s decidedly un-scary. It’s rated R yet has a firmly PG-13 feel until the climax. I recommend watching with subtitles because there’s an inordinate amount of murmuring, even from the characters who are alive. Check it out if you’re in the mood for something light and simple.

*Cheesy jokes courtesy of https://laffgaff.com/haunted-house-jokes-puns/. Totes wish I could take credit for them.

Halloween Saw Challenge!

It’s Halloween 2020, and my first October 31st at home in 25 years. I’ve been wanting to do this for a while, and the time is right. I’m watching the entire Saw franchise in one day. The eight films total just about 13 hours, so I better get started. Let the game begin!

*No spoilers*

Saw (2004)

In the classic original, Adam and Dr. Gordon find themselves locked in a warehouse, chained to thick pipes. They don’t know why they’re there, but they have clues…and saws.

We’re introduced to the Jigsaw Killer, the cancer patient who kidnaps people that take their lives for granted (with the help of dedicated disciples) and puts them in traps to test their willingness to do horrible things to survive. It sets the precedent of absolutely gut-wrenching scenes and twist after twist. I’ve seen this one quite a few times, so it doesn’t shock me anymore (plus the deaths are fairly mild compared to the later films), but I still admire the writing and direction. I miss Team Wan-nell.

Most memorable trap: The reverse bear trap. Amanda wakes up with a contraption on her face that will explode if she doesn’t get the key, which is currently lodged in a dude’s stomach.

Favorite quote: Dr. Gordon–“He doesn’t want us to cut through our chains. He wants us to cut through our feet!”

Saw II (2005)

Seven seemingly unrelated people (including Amanda from the previous movie) wake up in a decrepit house. They’re being slowly poisoned by nerve gas and need to find the antidote. Meanwhile a team of law enforcement officials have cornered John the Jigsaw Killer, who taunts them while they try to free his captives.

James Wan steps down from directorial duties (Darren Lynn Bousman takes over), but Leigh Whannell still retains writing credits (along with Bousman). As can be expected for a sequel, the gore ante is upped, and we open right with a trap. We also get more backstory on Jigsaw. It may not have the element of surprise the first one possessed, but it’s a solid sequel.

Most memorable trap: The hand trap. Addison puts her hands through two holes to reach for an antidote, and her wrists are held in place by blades.

Favorite quote: John–“Oh yes, there will be blood.”

Saw III (2006)

Jeff, a man embittered by the hit and run death of his son is faced with the people responsible for letting it happen. Meanwhile, Lynn, a doctor, is tasked against her will with keeping an increasingly sickly John alive. Further meanwhile, the surviving members of the previous films’ law enforcement team are still at work hunting for Jigsaw. In addition, we meet John’s wife Jill.

Bousman returns to direct, with Whannell writing and Wan contributing to the story and producing. It’s actually a pretty clever premise. The franchise is striking in its promotion of embracing life, forgiveness, and working together. Brute force and selfishness are never the answer. Not bad, as far as third movies go. The timeline and logic of the series is consistent.

Most memorable trap: The rack. The hit and run driver is crucified on a contraption that slowly turns and crushes his limbs.

Favorite quote: Lynn–“There’s no preventative treatment for what you have.” John–“I remember you saying that to me once before in almost the exact same tone. Leave it to a doctor to find such a cold, clinical way of saying I’m a dead man walking. Looking at me, how long would you say I have left?” Lynn–“I’d have to examine you. Even then, a frontal lobe tumor is unpredictable. The growth depends on the rate of mitosis versus apoptosis and–” John–“I’m sorry, but is all this crude medical equipment around me causing you to believe that you’re still inside a hospital?” Lynn–“No.” John –“Then why are you speaking to me in that graduate school medical jargon? LOOK AT ME! Now you’re looking.”

Saw IV (2007)

SWAT Commander Rigg, first introduced in Saw II, is the main focus. Jigsaw is punishing him for being obsessive about the case (a cardinal sin in the Saw franchise is being a workaholic, worse than being a murderer, really), and has set before him a series of tests. Meanwhile, the FBI is getting involved, and Jill is a person of interest.

Bousman directs for the last time. Team Wan-nell are executive producers, but writing credit goes to Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan. It opens with an extremely gory autopsy then moves to a trap. I’m feeling a bit desensitized. The traps are always varied and fiendishly inventive, but the storyline is starting to feel repetitive. However, this one is interesting in that it moves away from the small space setting and involves more of an element of choice.

Most memorable trap: The scalping seat. A woman is strapped to a chair with her hair ensnared in rotating gears.

Favorite quote: [Rigg tells his wife Tracy that he can’t go with her to help her mother] Tracy–“You won’t. What you can’t do is save everyone.”

Saw V (2008)

Going back to the group-of-people-trapped format, five folks who according to Jigsaw have abused privileges they were born with, are forced to play a game. As per usual, the investigators on the case are drawn in as well.

David Hackl takes over directing from Darren Lynn Bousman, while Melton and Dunstan return to write. Team Wan-nell still retain executive producer credits. The quality of the writing, which up until this point was pretty smart or at least coherent, is starting to drop. For example the newspaper headline “Boyfriend Kills Detective’s Sister” is an awfully lazy way to provide exposition, especially since in the next scene said detective tells his coworker the story after they come across said boyfriend’s corpse. “Looks like justice was served,” observes the coworker pleasantly with no suspicion whatsoever. However, I’m still impressed at how seamlessly Jigsaw’s proteges are retconned into the storyline, going back even to the first movie. And despite how unvarying the plot is, the twists are still pretty unpredictable.

Most memorable trap: The necktie trap. The five strangers are locked in place with a noose that strangles them if any of them steps forward–but the keys to the trap are in a glass box on the other side of the room, so they have to take turns running to get their individual keys. (And no, it doesn’t occur to any of them to try sharing one key.)

Favorite quote: Jigsaw–“If you’re good at anticipating the human mind, it leaves nothing to chance.” (Yet another, more depressing, theme of the franchise–people are predictable in their self-serving attitudes.)

Saw VI (2009)

Returning to the character-being-tested formula, this time we have William, the CEO of an insurance company being forced to make decisions and learning lessons regarding his notions of the worth of human lives, namely that of his staff. Meanwhile, law enforcement officials are still gamely trying to solve the mystery of the Jigsaw killer.

Kevin Greutert takes the reins as director, and Team Meltstan returns to write. Wan and Whannell are still credited as executive producers. This one comes across as a bit preachier and heavy-handed than the previous films (I kid you not, William keeps a tank of pirahna fish in his office), but its message that people are humans and not numbers is worthwhile. It’s pretty decent for a fifth sequel.

Most memorable trap: The carousel. William is faced with six employees, and he can save two, but only by incurring injuries to himself.

Favorite quote: Dave and Shelby are trying to convince William to spare them on the carousel: Shelby–“Mr. Easton, Mr. Easton, my parents are sick, okay, they need me, I’m all they have.” Dave–“You’re fucking lying! Your parents hate you! They cut you off!” Shelby–“What? Shut up! That’s not true!” Dave–“Fuck you! It is true, I sit next to you!”

Saw: The Final Chapter AKA Saw3D (2010)

The survivors of Jigsaw’s traps come together to form the world’s most hardcore support group. They’re led by the charismatic Bobby, who has completely fabricated a tale of escaping Jigsaw in order to sell books. Which naturally gets him in a heap of trouble with John. Meanwhile, the investigation of the murders continues to limp along.

Greutert and Team Meltstan return to direct/write, ditto for Team Wan-nell as executive producers. This one is leaning toward cheesy, and not just because it’s 3D. Some of the survivors in the support group are from the actual movies, but some are just made up for this one, which is a cheat since over the last six movies we’ve exhaustively seen Jigsaw’s every move. (Not to mention that a “growing number” of escapees, as reported by the news, ruins the concept of how difficult it is to actually win any of Jigsaw’s games.) The rationale behind the selection of victims playing the game is starting to unravel, too, with a bunch of randos unrelated to the main story thrown in. In addition, one character goes on a killing spree, and the body count climbs gratuitously high. The people who are relevant to the plot didn’t really do anything that bad. A phony self-help guru and his squad aren’t technically hurting anybody. It’s not like they’re workaholics. Aaaaand while I’m griping, the new lead cop on the case, Gibson, is the most bland, vanilla, forgettable character in the franchise. Do I care if he ends up in a trap? I do not. I won’t even notice he’s gone. I had to grudgingly admire the ending though.

Most memorable trap: The public execution trap. This one takes place in a store window, in a highly visible area with dozens of witnesses; two men and a woman, all part of a love triangle, are each chained to a buzzsaw and forced to choose who gets sawn in half.

Favorite quote: Dr. Gordon, patronizingly, to Bobby–“Bravo! To be able to sustain such a traumatic experience and uh…and yet find a positive in that grisly act. It’s a remarkable feat [heh heh feet], indeed…if not a little perverse.”

Jigsaw (2017)

We start completely fresh with a brand new cast (aside from Tobin Bell returning as Jigsaw–what a trooper): a group of five game-players and new law enforcement officials.

Team Wan-nell still have credit as producers, but direction has been taken over by Michael and Peter Spierig, with writing by Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger. I tried, but I couldn’t really care much about all these unfamiliar faces, even if some of them are loosely tied to Jigsaw’s family and shoehorned into the storyline. The traps are disappointing and derivative, for the most part. The series really should have ended with 3D. Welp, at least they didn’t put him in space.

Most memorable trap: The grain silo trap. Mitch and Anna are buried shoulder deep in grain, then assailed by falling sharp objects.

Favorite quote: [Eleanor is about to perform an autopsy on a Jigsaw victim with a bucket on his head]–“He looks a little ‘pail.’ “

Well, I made it. So much for the Saw movies, at least until next year when it gets a shiny new take on the franchise starring Chris Rock. Darren Lynn Bousman directs, with writing by Team Stol-finger and production by Team Wan-nell (and Chris Rock too). I am grudgingly curious. See ya then, and happy Halloween!

Deon Taylor’s ‘Dead Tone’: I Have Multiple Complaints, But I Can’t Hate It

AKA 75, AKA 7eventy 5ive. Like Deon Taylor‘s horror anthology TV show Nite Tales, the movie features Flava Flav as MC, who appears to spout nonsense and disappear in a flash of subpar special effects. The action begins at a kids’ slumber party/house party for adults. After the children play the game 75, which involves prank calling a person and keeping him or her on the phone for 75 seconds, the hosts’s parents and friends are slaughtered. Flash forward ten years, and survivors Marcus (co-writer Brian Hooks) and Scott (Will Horneff) are now in college. For no logical reason, Marcus is still really into making prank calls, in fact regularly making money from people betting on whether he can effectively fool people. Also in the mix we have his friend Kareem (Antwon Tanner), Kareem’s gf Roxy (Cherie Johnson), Roxy’s friend Jody (Aimee Garcia), Jody’s crush Crazy Cal (Austin Basis), stereotypical gay guy Shawn (Germ├ín Legarreta), and token white girl Karina (Jud Taylor). Karina’s ex-boyfriend Brandon (Jonathan Chase), who is rich and spoiled, invites Karina to his notorious end-of-finals house party, and she insists that her crew be invited. Naturally, Marcus starts a game of 75, which once again lures a killer, who in the meantime has been dispatching the other attendants of the slumber party who lived. Luckily, detectives Criton (Rutger Hauer) and Hastings (Gwendoline Yeo) are on the case.

Marcus (on the right), apparently not being traumatized

Even for a slasher, (most of) the characters are horrible. I think Karina is supposed to be likable, but in her first scene she snipes at Brandon for cheating on her with an “ugly fat chick,” which just pissed me off. (She later reiterates, in case I forgot and started to like her, “You better stay away from those fat girls.”) Brandon is meant to be an entitled asshole, and he acts like one, going so far as to call Karina’s pals “ghetto, food stamp friends.” I can’t emphasize enough that Marcus continues to prank call people, even after seeing a grisly murder committed directly after playing 75; he’s otherwise decent though. Shawn is extremely offensive, for example squealing “Girls’ huddle!” with Jody, Roxy, and Karina. (Though I do have to say I’m impressed how the others treat him like an equal, including the guys. When the killer shows up, they refuse to just run off without finding him.) Unsurprisingly, while his het friends are hooking up he finds a guy, but they aren’t shown kissing or anything else more intimate than sort of touching each other, unlike the opposite-sex couples. Scott is more likable than Brandon, but I still had genuine difficulty telling them apart. Even the ancillary partygoers are just garbage people; whilst prank calling, they come across what sounds like a woman getting murdered, and no one bothers to call the police. Shortly after, someone shouts, “Why aren’t we partying?”

Roxy is pretty great

There’s a high body count and it’s occasionally extremely gory, but the movie is not scary at all. The killer takes forever to show up, and when he does he’s toting an axe. It’s one guy with an axe against a house full of people. And he’s forever getting the axe stuck in things. He throws someone off a second story balcony and then turns his back while she hobbles away. (‘He’s really not very good at this,’ my notes read.) There are a lot of cheap jump scares, even the old standby, “Karina, is that you?” (Surprisingly, she doesn’t follow that up with “This isn’t funny!”) And of course the characters decide to check things out after discovering a corpse instead of leaving, and then of course they split up.

Isn’t he hot in that getup? It’s summer!

Aside from Marcus and his ill-advised antics with the prank calls, some stuff just sticks out as wonky. I remember 2007 was a different time, but people still had caller ID–why are so many people answering calls from a blocked number? My favorite though is that shortly after sleepover survivor Chuck (Josh Hammond) is killed (not a spoiler, they introduce him with clear signals that he’s only there to get murdered), his picture is featured on the news. The photo is a screen grab from the scene when he dies–how could the newscasters possibly have that?

Forgive the poor quality of the image–I took a picture of my TV

It’s riddled with cliches in general (the cops are the overused combo of fresh young partner and grizzled jaded detective whose boss is always screaming at him for being too obsessed with the case and breaking the rules), but the ending is definitely unpredictable. The performances are decent. It’s refreshingly diverse and entertaining as well. Despite my constant gripes, I didn’t hate it. Give it a look if you’re in the mood for something baffling but fun.

“Girls’ huddle!”

‘The Midnight Man’ (2018) is Impossible to Take Seriously–But it’s Fun

While acting as caretaker for her crotchety grandma Anna (Lin Shaye), Alex (Gabrielle Haugh) stumbles onto a game from Anna’s childhood. It involves the Midnight Man (Kyle Strauts), a creature who appears when summoned with a precise sequence of events, including but not limited to turning off all the lights, writing down one’s fears, drawing blood from a finger, and lighting a candle. The main objective of the game is to avoid being killed by him until 3:30 in the morning. Faced with this irresistible concept, Alex wastes no time playing. Naturally, the demon has tricks up his sleeve for Alex and her buddies Miles (Grayson Gabriel) and Kelly (Emily Haine).

This is a face only a mother could love–on payday

I first watched this movie as part of a birthday celebration with my husband, sister, and brother-in-law. (I watched it a second time to review it–you’re welcome.) We’re Lin Shaye fans, and Robert Englund as Anna’s doctor is a happy bonus. It has a fun premise; I’m always down for a good boogeyman story. Unfortunately, it was so ridiculous that we laughed our way through it.

“I’ve got my eye on me!”

One of my biggest gripes is the lack of logical continuity. Things are one way, and then suddenly they’re the opposite. The rules of the game change to suit what’s easiest to move the plot forward. When Anna is a kid, the players all provide a picture of themselves, while Alex and her crew don’t have to bother. Alex doesn’t actually turn off every single light in the house, and while it’s supposedly crucial to relight each player’s candle within ten seconds of going out, they sometimes count so slowly that in real time they’ve had much longer than that. The plot is inspired by a Creepypasta story, which is acknowledged by Kelly in the movie; she comes in preening about being an expert because she read about it online. However, Alex and Miles act like destroying their copy of the game is going to accomplish something as far as stopping the Midnight Man. The characters are similarly erratic. Alex has no consistent pet name for Anna; she alternates between Nana, Grams, and Gran–which bloody is it? Who calls their grandma more than one thing? Anna sinisterly asks Alex to look in the attic for her hand mirror, making it clear that she’s enticing Alex to find the game, but after coming across Alex looking at it, she hollers “YOU OPENED THE GAME!!!” and faints. After she regains consciousness her emotional state is just as unclear (see below). Though to be fair, she does seem to be suffering from dementia.

“Nana-Granny-Grandma-Grammy-Grams is growling with happiness!”

In addition to being capricious, everybody does just plain stupid shit. In the opening, a flashback to Anna’s youth shows one of her friends freaking out and leaving the kids’ circle of salt–which offers protection from the Midnight Man–for no particular reason. Alex and Max sort of have feelings for each other, and while Kelly cowers in a salt circle that she can’t leave after her candle goes out, they decide to take off (for…reasons?) and end up making out, ’cause screw you, Kelly, no movie is complete without a heteronormative romantic subplot. And again, what exactly is Alex’s motivation for playing the game at all?

“Welp, I’m bored, let’s play the game that made Nana-Grams faint.”

Miles is pretty likable, but otherwise most of the characters leave something to be desired. Kelly delivers the entirety of her lines in a lazy whine. Anna is extremely over-the-top, and Shaye reaaaally overdoes it with the crazy faces and screaming. Englund does well playing against type as kindly Dr. Harding, but his dialogue often gets corny: “Your mother would be proud. The world lost a fine soul the day she passed and for that, I am truly sorry.” Alex is a totally unremarkable lead, and Gabrielle Haugh has moments where she spits out her lines as quickly and flatly as possible, like she’s in a hurry to get the movie over with (can’t blame her there), though her gestures and expressions are always on point (see below).

‘Getting my foot in the door, on to bigger and better things…’

It’s not scary whatsoever. The Midnight Man is a mass of makeup and special effects, even having a computer-distorted voice. (Yet I do like his motto: “Your tears mean nothing to me.”) The movie mainly relies on cheap jump scares and altogether too many shots of MM’s hand reaching out of a door.

Somebody’s been watching Donnie Darko

Buuuuut I didn’t hate it. The practical effects, like the sea of blood that accompanies a death in the opening, are notable. The music is creepy. Anna’s massive, in-some-areas-gradually-decaying-as-a-metaphor-but-otherwise-quite-lovely-house, is a great set; my favorite parts are the room full of clocks and the leaky greenhouse room. (You guessed it, they go in there with their candles and are surprised that leaky roofs leak.) Give it a look if you’re in the mood for something you can enjoy poking fun at that’s not so bad you’ll be miserable.

‘Seconds Apart’ is Worth Watching at Least Once (or Twice)

Twin brothers Jonah (Edmund Entin) and Seth (Gary Entin) are teenage psychopaths with telepathic powers and the ability to make folks hallucinate. As part of a mysterious project, they manipulate people into killing themselves. On their trail is the troubled but dedicated Detective Lampkin (Orlando Jones).

It’s like looking at two evil Rushmore-era Jason Schwartzmans

About ten years ago, I asked my sister for suggestions of movies I should review, and she mentioned this one. I haven’t gotten around to it until now, but it turned out to be well worth the wait.

The boys’ infinite synchronicity and their undeservedly smug parents add much to the creepiness factor

But first the gripes. I loved Lampkin; his angst coupled with his unflagging determination adds everything to the emotional journey of watching. Orlando Jones gives a heartbreaking performance. Unfortunately, he adds nothing at all to the plot. The movie would have rolled right along with or without him. Even the expositional info about the boys’ backgrounds he digs up could have been revealed without involving a whole other character–or left out entirely–why explain the source of their powers? Jonah’s love interest Eve (Samantha Droke) is not at all appealing. Most of her screen time is dedicated to talking about herself incessantly.

This is the face I make while listening to Eve, too

It also comes across as derivative at times. The scene below is strongly reminiscent of Carrie.

“Aw, we’re wearing the same outfit! They’re all gonna laugh at us!”

And the plot of twins divided by one of them falling in love is straight out of Dead Ringers.

However, there are some genuine and original shocks. The opening sequence, involving four sexist and arrogant but otherwise probably okay guys (except the one who might have killed a dog) being forced into a game of Russian roulette by the twins is highly disturbing, as are most of the scenes involving Seth and Jonah exploiting people (ew, the Guinea worm scene!). The visuals are gorgeous but haunting.

If this shot doesn’t make you want to watch, I give up

On the whole, I was impressed. Check it out if you’re in the mood for something with snappy banter, religious overtones, and stylish gore.

“When I’m with you, I’m so happy I’m beside myself.”

‘Death Bed: The Bed That Eats’ is as Bonkers as it Sounds

A demon-possessed sleeping receptacle nom-noms on people, apples, and chicken legs alike, while its companion, a haunted painting (Dave Marsh), watches and provides commentary and exposition.

Ooh, artsy!

I first became aware of this movie after hearing comic Patton Oswalt describe it in a stand-up routine. My husband and I sought it out, and it was just as ridiculous as Oswalt made it out to be.

It appears the bed is health-conscious enough to avoid eating plastic

The special effects are laughable. The audio frequently mismatches the visuals. The movie was made in the ’70s and not released until the 2000s, and it’s clear from the visible scratches that in the meantime the film reels were not taken care of (or possibly not taken care of in the first place). Most of the action seems like filler, for example the painting guy bringing the plot (such as it is) to a screeching halt to share flashbacks of random people being eaten by the bed. The performances are atrocious. Demene Hall (below) as Diane is the best of the bunch.

She got top billing, good for her!

Nothing makes a damn lick of sense. A lady dies and then turns into flowers. Characters do things that directly contradict themselves, like when Sharon’s Brother (William Russ, credited here as Rusty Russ) is told by their mother to go find Sharon (Rosa Luxemburg), he says he knows where she is, and then in his next scene he’s on the phone asking someone her whereabouts. Or when First Female Victim (Dessa Stone)–I’m not making these names up, by the way–asks for food and then says she’s not hungry. When the denizens of the film aren’t being ingested by what looks suspiciously like dish soap, they’re making baffling non-sequiturs like “That place looks clean for having been abandoned for so long. I hope there’s not a maniac around.” Yup, gotta watch out for them cleaning maniacs, they’re a real hazard.

Not to be confused with a cleaning monster

But my favorite thing is the characters’ tone-deaf reactions to what should be horrifying happenings. One guy tries calmly shooting the bed while being devoured. Sharon’s Brother stabs it–his hands are dissolved to the bone and replaced by plastic skeleton hands, which he just stares at bemusedly. Or when Sharon’s Brother serenely watches a severed eye jump around on the bed under its own power but whirls around, startled, when a door slams shut.

“It’s curtains for you, bed!”

I honestly can’t tell if the movie was meant to be funny. One might assume so given that the acts are broken up into segments called “Breakfast,” “Lunch,” “Dinner,” and “The Just Dessert.” I’m hoping that the bed’s sound effects like groaning, yawning, burping, chuckling, and crunching are meant to be humorous. I don’t want to think it’s possible that the filmmakers created something so stunningly bad with intentions of it being completely scary and earnest.

This is either a joke or product placement

According to IMDB, writer/director George Barry was inspired by a dream, which is why the movie is so batshit crazy, ahem surreal. There is one creepy scene. Diane is having a nightmare in which her friend Suzan (Julie Ritter) is telling her about a book of dead people: “I’m in it, and you are, too.” It’s the only part of the movie when the bizarreness is disconcerting rather than so over-the-top that it’s comical.

And then it catches fire, as books of dead people are wont to do

Interestingly, the movie is driven by women. The demon is motivated to create the bed due to its infatuation with a woman, and she’s its sole weakness. All of the main characters are female, besides Sharon’s Brother, who even in name is defined only by his relationship with her. It’s actually Sharon who takes over to fight the bed while her bro gives up.

“How many bones are in your hand?” “Sharon, no.” “About a handful.” “If I had the capacity to get upset, I totally would be right now.”

Sooooo, I didn’t hate it. It’s no masterpiece, but it’s endearingly wacky, original, and unpredictable. There are few movies I actively warn people away from, and this isn’t one of them. Actually, I recommend it. It has to be seen to be believed.

*Cleaning monster image courtesy of maidincalifornia.com.

‘The Hunt’: It’s Not Strictly Horror, But Give it a Shot

Twelve individuals from across America are drugged, kidnapped, and dumped in the woods. Shortly after, although they’re provided with weapons, they find themselves being hunted for sport. These “deplorables” include Staten Island (Ike Barinholtz), Yoga Pants (Emma Roberts), Gary (Ethan Suplee), Vanilla Nice (Sturgill Simpson), and Crystal (Betty Gilpin), who lead the wealthy “elites” pursuing them, headed by Athena (Hilary Swank), on a merry chase.

Staten Island loves him some guns

The Hunt was finished in 2019 and set for release in September of that year, but the combination of two shootings and political backlash caused it to get not just postponed but canceled entirely. Turns out that use of the word “deplorables” did not sit well with conservatives, especially when taken out of context. (Funny how the phrase “our ratfucker-in-chief”, used in the same scene, didn’t draw any ire.) In case you don’t remember that basket of controversy surrounding the d-word, during the 2016 election Hilary Clinton put her foot in her mouth calling Trump supporters deplorables and making sweeping generalizations that roughly half of them are just garbage people. Thankfully, the movie was later released in June of 2020, mostly thanks to Jason Blum of production company Blumhouse. You can read the whole story in detail here if you like.

Politics are a driving force behind the themes, but it’s not all that cut and dry. When the movie opens, we don’t know what’s happening other than people have been rounded up in order to be executed. It’s easy to assume that they’re Democrats, because stereotypically Republicans are the violent gun fans, and almost all of the deplorables are prominently wearing blue, while juxtaposed scenes of Athena show her wearing red. It’s ironic that conservatives got bent out of shape about the movie, since liberals are the villains. They’re simpering snowflakes who trip over themselves trying to be as politically correct as possible. Except for Athena, who’s pissed at the world and extremely stabby. The film plays with your expectations throughout, highlighting how unethical and frankly dangerous it is to blindly categorize people based on assumptions.

The blue-garbed deplorables figuring out the situation

The film centers around two strong female leads. Athena is cruel and deadly, yet suave and sophisticated. Crystal is a badass who handles all situations with grace, good humor, and lightning-quick reflexes. She’s out to protect herself first, but in one scene she shields a woman with a baby during an explosion.

Suspense is sustained throughout the movie, along with fast-paced action. It’s also surprisingly funny. I don’t want to spoil all the good stuff, but here’s one of my favorite quotes: [After a character is shot with arrows] “What is this Avatar shit?” Overall, I enjoyed it thoroughly. Give it a look if you’re in the mood for something thrilling but intelligent.

[Athena to Crystal, who’s about to throw her through a door]: “No more glass!”

‘The Evil in Us’: Celebrate the Fourth of July with a Movie About Narcotic-Fueled Monsters!

Independence Day weekend! Time to get drunk, do some coke, and eat your friends! At least that’s what’s going on for our little group of six: leading man Steve (Danny Zaporozan), sassy best friend of color Bash (Behtash Fazlali), token Black guy Wheeler (Ian Collins), Steve’s girlfriend Brie (Debs Howard), Wheeler’s girlfriend Trish (Kylee Bush) and the other one, Rox (Marina Pascua). Their plans involve going to a secluded cabin and partying their faces off. Literally, it turns out, as the cocaine they’re doing contains a human-made neurotropic virus that turns them into rage zombies straight out of 28 Days Later.

It’s not a movie widely loved by critics, so I went in thinking it might be cheap or technically amateurish. I was taken by the opening, which shows people literally bathing in blood to a metal tune. It’s oddly beautiful, and it looks entirely professional. The next few scenes were competently acted with what looks like quality cameras, and I concluded in my notes that “This isn’t horrible.” I continued to think so until about two-thirds of the way through when the movie, never full-on scary to begin with, becomes unintentionally funny. The characters with the virus (the guys anyway–for some reason women just hunker down and bawl) start acting like territorial velociraptors, pouncing on each other and snarling. It should not be funny when someone we’re supposed to care about rolls off of a roof or falls into a fire, but damn if I didn’t laugh when it happens.

Bash agrees with me

Half of the main characters are likable. Brie is pretty cool. She has medical knowledge, and she can work a CB radio. She’s the only one sharp enough to ask questions like, “Are there any other doors?” when the first of them goes berserk and is lurking outside. She doesn’t do drugs with her friends, not because she’s a prudish final girl but because she had a past problem. Bash is cute and funny (though his habit of delivering almost all of his dialogue in exaggerated goofy voices gets old after a while). Steve is vanilla on all levels but overall pleasant. Meanwhile, Rox’s entire personality is that she’s longing to get into Bash’s shorts, and Trish is insufferably snobby. Wheeler comes across as an okay guy, but severely troubled. He stands out as the only Black person–not just among the leads but in the entire movie–and he’s a criminal. A segment with detectives investigating a separate drug-related murder reveals Wheeler’s extensive record for violent assault.

The white characters are only assault-y after being given mind-altering substances

A resounding theme in the movie is that drugs are bad (mmmkay?). In one exceedingly heavy-handed scene a character looks square at Wheeler, who brought the cocaine and also expositionally dealt some to b-plot Zoe (Tatyana Forrest), and whines “You did this.” Immediately, the camera cuts to all the dead bodies lying around from the span of the movie. It might be okay for the filmmakers to make Wheeler Black (especially if he wasn’t the only Black person around) if they were emphasizing the issue of drug use in inner city neighborhoods (or, alternately, instead of a felon, making him as rich and spoiled as Trish, turning the angry Black guy stereotype that they went with on its head), considering the plotline that the government is behind the infections, mirroring the real-life theory that the CIA purposely distributed crack among the poor, but the main focus of the movie is how Wheeler singlehandedly ruins the lives of upper class white folks.

Tell me, Karen, is this ruining your day? Need to see a manager?

Overall, I found it entertaining but majorly flawed. I honestly don’t know if the bits I was impressed by (like the authentic feel of the friends having fun or the scene with the main antagonist’s wife–not spoiling that for you further) can counter the white privilege so heaped up that it’s almost physically palpable. Maybe do it for Bash?

Maybe you like un-self-conscious heterosexual dudes pretending to be into each other?

Leigh Whannell’s ‘The Invisible Man’ is Superbly Disturbing

Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) is a woman trapped in a marriage to Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), who is physically and mentally abusive. She escapes with the help of her sister Emily (Harriet Dyer), taking shelter with new friend James (Aldis Hodge) and his teen daughter Sydney (Storm Reid). However, Adrian is a scientist who’s as technically competent as he is sociopathic and manipulative, and with a fancy invisibility suit he fakes his own death and comes after Cecilia.

This movie originally started out as part of a plan to reboot many of the Universal Studios monster movies from the 1930s-1950s. Remember, we were gonna have Javier Bardem and Angelina Jolie in Bill Condon’s Bride of Frankenstein? (If you don’t remember, you can read more about that here.) Thanks to the across-the-board loathing of and low ticket sales for The Mummy, Johnny Depp as the Invisible Man was scrapped, the director was scrapped, and the producers were scrapped. So what we ended up with was a Blumhouse-produced, Leigh Whannell-written-and-directed, Elisabeth Moss-led film. Which is most likely better.

Undoubtedly better

The movie builds tension expertly from the very beginning (then kinda slows down in the middle–but without being boring–and picks up again towards the end). It opens with Cecilia fleeing from Adrian in the middle of the night. If you know a single thing about the plot then you know of course she gets away, but it’s still damn suspenseful. Adrian’s presence is established gradually but creepily. He starts with stunts to undermine Cecilia’s confidence like sabotaging a job interview, eventually tricking her support system into backing off and isolating her. There’s a marvelous scene when Cecilia is cooking bacon and leaves the kitchen for a moment. The shot is wide enough to show the whole room and doesn’t cut away; we’re meant to be anxiously watching for Adrian to do something, somewhere, and it’s really effective. The filmmakers never stoop to cheap jump scares. There is one scene when Cecilia slowly wanders around investigating a strange noise like a slasher movie final girl, but it makes sense for her to be compelled to establish that her surroundings are safe.

The performances are amazing. In a scene taking place shortly after Cecilia moves in to James’s house, he has to coach her to go outside just long enough to get the mail. She leaves, shoulders hunched, taking small brave steps to the mailbox. Then a dude jogs by and throws her off, and she runs back in. It’s absolutely heartbreaking. But when Cecilia’s had enough of Adrian’s shenanigans, watch out!

The face of a woman you don’t want to fuck with

Oliver Jackson-Cohen as Adrian is also not to be missed. Adrian has no dialogue until over an hour into the movie, and you barely see him (’cause Whannell is smart about not overplaying his monster), but he’s really scary. In one of the few scenes when he we see his face, he has this terrifying blank stare.

Like this, but scarier

Aldis Hodge has less to do than his co-stars, but he shines as the kind and valiant James.

Go James!

Overall, I enjoyed it, as much as one can enjoy a movie with such an explosive subject matter. Give it a look if you’re in the mood for something dark, well-crafted, and compelling.