‘The Curse of Buckout Road’: Great Performances Make up for a Garbled Plot

Buckout Road, Westchester County, New York: “The most haunted road in America.” It’s a topic of study for Professor Hancock (Mayko Nguyen) and three of her students, Cleo (Dominique Provost-Chalkley), Erik (Kyle Mac), and Derek (Jim Watson), who are doing a presentation on creation and destruction of modern myth. Their quest to disprove the legends associated with the road instead cause them to be haunted by premonitions of their own deaths. Enter Aaron (Evan Ross), fresh out of Naval Postgraduate School and visiting his grandfather Lawrence (Danny Glover), who happens to be Cleo’s psychiatrist and a colleague of her father, Detective Harris (Henry Czerny). Aaron soon finds himself having crazy dreams, too. Can the young folks solve the mystery before they die?

This gang has no dog and two Shaggies

There really is a Buckout Road, and there really are legends associated with it, as depicted in the movie: a trio of witches burned at the stake, a guy named Buckhout shooting his wife, a woman named Mary hanging herself and reappearing as a specter dressed in white, and a family of albinos coming to attack if one honks one’s horn three times. (This article is very informative, if you’re interested in the real deal.) Cleo, Erik, and Derek disprove all of the legends in their video project, but they turn out to be true somehow anyway, and throw in some devil worship and lucid dreaming by way of A Nightmare on Elm Street, and you’ve got an interesting premise and some intriguing ideas about facts versus faith, but a storyline that turns to poo.

However, according to this article, earlier versions of the movie were even fucking wackier (and it was originally going to be directed by Jason Priestley). This is how John Pascucci, still credited for the film’s story but not script, described the movie: “Buckout chops off his wife’s head, and burns down a barn full of slaves after learning that his wife had an affair with one of the slaves. Voodoo witches place a curse on Buckout and his two sons, turning them into albinos who must eat human flesh to get back their pigmentation. It’s the ultimate price for being a racist.” That sounds…like a noble effort on the part of a clueless white guy…? Instead of what I can only imagine were well-meaning-but-racist depictions of voodoo, we have a script co-written by a man of color, Shahin Chandrasoma, and a fairly diverse cast.

The characters are likable, or if not likable then well-portrayed. Aaron is brave and strong without being all macho and braggy about it. Cleo is smart and kicks ass. Erik and Derek (they’re twins, by the way, that’s why their names rhyme) are not terribly annoying. Danny Glover, Colm Feore, and Henry Czerny are seasoned professionals, and not unfamiliar faces in the horror genre. I could have used more Glover, really. Okay, mainly who I had in mind when I said likable was Aaron and to a lesser extent Cleo. Aaron is just a good dude. He can carry the movie all by himself.

Look at him, all ‘I was in the military, so I’m tough and disciplined, but I like to read philosophy, too.’

Overall, I enjoyed it. I’m in the see-it rather than the not-see-it camp. The random attempts at humor and plot inconsistencies didn’t ruin the movie for me. Check it out if you’re in the mood for something fun with protagonists who think.

And supporting characters who think

Creepy Music Video Time! Greg Kihn Band: “Jeopardy”

I’ve recently read the book Horror Show by Greg Kihn. Published in 1996, it’s a tale about 1950s shlock filmmaker Landis Woodley (think Ed Wood with a little William Castle), and his entourage as they make the best movie a tiny budget has to offer–with real corpses. And, unbeknownst to them, a demon.

Kihn really gets the mindset of a horror fan: “All the crazy dreams that had been causing the kid sleepless nights since adolescence were suddenly real. It was just as he’d always suspected. There were monsters. Even at the movies, when he covered his eyes because he was too afraid to see something that he knew would haunt his dreams for years to come, he always peeked. He had to. Let me see. I want to see it.

The back cover of Horror Show

But before he was an author, Kihn was the frontman of the ’80s two-hit wonder (the other hit being “The Break-up Song”) Greg Kihn Band. The music video for “Jeopardy” reflects anxiety about the lifelong commitment of marriage by depicting couples as bickering Cronenbergian mutations. Check it out!

‘Little Monsters’: You Need it in Your Life

Australian film, not to be confused with the 1989 movie of the same title, which I reviewed quite a while ago, here. Dave (Alexander England) is a subpar musician who’s just broken up with his girlfriend because they disagree on whether to have kids–he doesn’t want to. He crashes on his sister Tess’s (Kat Stewart) couch and proceeds to corrupt his five-year-old nephew Felix (Diesel La Torraca) with shooty games and swearing. In order to get some time with Felix’s hot teacher Audrey (Lupita Nyong’o), he agrees to chaperone a class field trip to Pleasant Valley Farm, a petting zoo/mini golf course. Unfortunately, there’s a U.S. Army Testing Facility close by, and the latest project has created flesh-eating zombies, which escape and terrorize everyone in the vicinity. Dave, Audrey, and visiting kiddy show host Teddy McGiggle (Josh Gad) team up to stay alive.

The one in the foreground ate a hedgehog, if you’re wondering what’s all over his face

It was released October 2019, and I’d had it on my watchlist for months. Naturally, a movie about any kind of outbreak is rather timely while watching in spring 2020. What stands out to me most in this context (and in general, because she’s awesome) is Audrey. She’s absolutely determined that the kids aren’t traumatized by their experience, and she has them convinced that the whole thing is really a game. She even leads them in song with her ever-present ukelele. We all need some Audrey right now, telling us that we can make it and that we’ll be okay even though we’re in an insane situation. We all need to be Audrey right now. I couldn’t find any clips on YouTube, but here’s a gif capturing her commitment to getting through whatever shit comes her way: https://images.app.goo.gl/wfftHVjcJ4gCWhm46

Lupita Nyong’o: America’s sweetheart

Also delightful is Disney darling Josh Gad as foul-mouthed, selfish cynic Teddy. He’s the source of most of the comedy. (Though the American soldiers being stereotypical Americans is pretty great, too.) When Audrey tries to get Dave and the children into the shelter of the gift shop, Teddy wants to keep them locked out. Audrey: “We have kids out here!” Teddy: “Oh! Oh my God, I don’t give a shit!” There’s a poignant moment when, in desperation for something to get drunk on, he drinks hand sanitizer. Oh, when we had Purell to waste.

“I absolutely do not like warm hugs.”

Dave is likable despite being a typical movie slacker, lazy and unmotivated. He completes his character arc when he realizes that he’s refusing to start a family not on general principle but because he doesn’t want to be a bad father like his own dad. Thus, the answer to his problems is not to be single anymore. (It’s a movie, that’s the solution to everyone’s problems, in any situation.) He becomes a kid-loving, Taylor Swift-singing machine! Audrey in comparison has a lot less character development; I had expected her to be the main protagonist, given that the trailer is all about her, and she’s on the cover, but much of the movie is from Dave’s perspective. However, she starts out practically perfect and only becomes more badass as the movie goes on.

If you’re guessing that this guitar will be weaponized and destroyed in order to illustrate his growth, you would be correct

Overall, I loved it. Nyong’o’s singing alone is worth the price of admission. Give it a look if you want something gory but lighthearted.

And here’s one more pic for good measure:

‘The Tokoloshe’ is Absolutely Devastating

South African movie, in English and Zulu, by Black filmmaker Jerome Pikwane. Busi (it’s pronounced Boo-see–I’ve seen the movie, and I’m still reading it as Busy and I’m getting pissed at myself) (Petronella Tshuma) is living in abject poverty; her apartment building is condemned and she’s getting by on scraps. She vows to scrape up enough money to get her sister Lindi (Lebohang Mthunzi) out of their childhood home, where their father raped them under their mother’s eye. She gets a job as a cleaner at a hospital, where she befriends a neglected girl named Gracie (Kwande Nkosi). She’s being haunted by the Tokoloshe (pronounced toe-ko-loash), the Zulu version of the boogeyman, and Busi quickly finds out that it can–and will–follow Gracie anywhere.

The film depicts conditions of inequality, varying from age, economic status, and sex. The Tokoloshe is established as a creature that preys on “the lost, the weak” and “children and those left alone.” These are the people whose plight is highlighted in the movie. The hospital Busi works at houses children who are orphans or deserted for having AIDS. One scene includes a TV news story in the background, describing the country’s shocking prevalence of sexual abuse. The Tokoloshe isn’t shown onscreen as a literal molester of children (Gracie says of it, “I don’t like the way he plays. He plays rough.”), but Busi’s character arc of coming to terms with her traumatic childhood and battling the Tokoloshe are intertwined in the storyline.

Gracie hiding from the Tokoloshe

Busi meanwhile, is objectified and even assaulted by men. In her first scene she’s whistled at; her coworker advises her, regarding their boss Ruatomin (Dawid Minnaar), “Keep your tits tucked in and legs crossed and everything will be just fine.” It’s not “just fine,” however; Ruatomin, knowing how much she needs the job, tries to force himself on her. Most of the men in the movie are awful, from a mean bus driver to Jakes (Coco Merckel), a guy who jovially tries to have his way with Busi in lieu of rent, but there is one positive male character, Abel (pronounced Ah-bell) (Yule Masiteng). He’s a healer who makes masks that ward off evil spirits. He tells her, “If you want to be strong, you have to wake up and do something.” Then he disappears from the movie, because this is not a film where heroes come charging to the rescue.

“It’s really not, but thanks for trying.”

It looks like a low-budget movie, with passable special effects and makeup. But the performances are amazing, particularly Tshuma and Nkosi. And when the Tokoloshe shows up onscreen (late in the movie, like smart filmmakers do), it’s surprisingly eerie. Often what is used–quite effectively, too–in terms of scares is sound. The music is, as described by closed captioning, “ominous,” “sinister,” “tense,” and “chilling.” Then there are ambient noises like “whooshing,” “child laughing creepily,” and “child laughing hauntingly.” In addition, there’s a disturbing feeling of isolation throughout. The film is full of huge (pronounced hugh-je), vacant buildings and vast, empty landscapes. This sense of abandonment is really hammered home in the scene when the Tokoloshe attacks Gracie, whose screams echo all the way into the courtyard, but no one helps her.

Yeah, shots like these

Overall, I was impressed with it. There are hardly any cheesy horror movie trappings (Busi does go nosing around the dark, asking “Hello? Is there somebody there?”), and it’s earnest and thought-provoking. Okay, I just gave 2019’s Black Christmas a keyboard-lashing for being unsubtle and preachy, and yes, this movie can be a bit heavyhanded too, but at least it starts with a workable supernatural premise instead of shoehorning in a ludicrious one that barely keeps the metaphor limping along. Give it a look if you’re in the mood for creepiness and social commentary done right.

‘The Grudge’ (2020) is Worth Your Time

Taking place in the mid-2000s, the same time as the first American remakes of the Japanese Ju On movies, the film chronicles the swath of destruction caused by an American nurse, Fiona (Tara Westwood) bringing home the Saeki curse to her own house and spreading it to anyone who steps inside.

“In my professional opinion: ewwwww.”

I wasn’t big on the idea of yet another American take on the classic series, but I gave in out of curiosity, and it won me over. While there are jump scares, they’re pretty effective rather than cheesy and predictable, and the movie doesn’t rely solely on them. The main attraction is atmosphere: the sense of building dread and anticipation of horrible things to come. The creepy AF score by the phenomenal genre pros The Newton Brothers doesn’t hurt, either.

“She’s right behind me, isn’t she?”

The cast is amazing, and the characters are darn likable. Often it’s easy to be detached from more minor characters when there are a lot of them, especially ones that are obviously not going to make it, but in this movie it’s genuinely difficult to see them suffer. I got attached. We have John Cho and Betty Gilpin as Peter and Nina, an adorable married real estate team in charge of the cursed house, who are expecting their first baby.

No, Peter, not the closet! Why?!

We have Frankie Faison and Lin Shaye as William and Faith, the next tenants of the house, a loving couple (of “fifty beautiful years”) who want to stay together as far as the limits of the afterlife will let them, with the help of Lorna (Jacki Weaver), who initiates assisted suicides. (Okay, some people will morally object to liking those characters, but we can all agree that Faison and Weaver are national treasures.) We have detectives Goodman (Demián Bichir) and Muldoon (Andrea Riseborough), good cops who are pulled into the curse by trying to solve the mystery. And the wholesome Landers family that starts the whole thing: mom Fiona, dad Sam (David Lawrence Brown), and young daughter Melinda (Zoe Fish).

She’s nowhere near as scary as Takako Fuji, but she’ll do, I guess

Naturally my biggest gripe is that while avoiding the xenophobia that permeated the first Grudge remake (it’s rife with westerners cringing at Japanese culture and driven by the idea that foreign is automatically scarier), instead everything is whitewashed. The ghosts are no longer Asian but white white whities. There is some diversity in the casting, with Bichir, Cho, and Faison, but mostly we’re seeing from the perspective of Muldoon the white lady (I guess yay for gender equality?). Also I’m thinking those parts were written with white dudes in mind, judging by their character surnames: Goodman, Spencer, and Matheson, respectively.

“What, I can’t be William Matheson? I’m an older Black man, so I gotta be Willie Johnson? Now who’s being racist?” Whoa, I just meant that Matheson is a Scottish name. And yes, you are an older Black man in a Hollywood movie, so I’m surprised your character doesn’t go by Willie.

I happened to awaken at three in the morning the night after I watched this (my reviews average a three-day turnaround), and I found myself dwelling on how creepy it was. I even turned on the light when I got out of bed. I can’t remember the last time that happened, that a movie stuck with me like that. It’s my understanding that a lot of people hated it, and I’m genuinely puzzled as to why. (Besides that it blatantly copies some of the coolest stuff from the original movies, like the fingers appearing in the shower, or maybe that the death rattle noise makes no sense coming from a character who drowned, because it originated with Kayako’s broken neck.) Give it a look if you’re in the mood for something eerie and gory and pulls no punches. (Okay, it pulls one punch, but I won’t tell you what it is.)

You can’t go wrong with Lin Shaye, right?

‘Black Christmas’ (2019): They Meant Well…

Christmas break is approaching, and the students at Hawthorne College are getting ready to party. And by party I mean the men are picking off the women because they’re possessed by the evil magic practiced by the founder of the college, Calvin Hawthorne. It’s up to a feisty band of fighters (with traditionally masculine names, ’cause it’s a slasher) to save the day: Riley (Imogen Poots), Kris (Aleyse Shannon), and Marty (Lily Donoghue).

Left to right: Kris, Riley, Marty, and Jesse (Brittany O’Grady)–Jesse actually doesn’t do anything cool, don’t know why she’s holding a bat

The film has garnered multiple complaints that the filmmakers chose “agenda over plot“, the “agenda” being a woman-centered, girl power, call-out regarding the #metoo movement. A major plot point is that Riley has been raped by big man on campus Brian (Ryan McIntyre), and no one but her friends believe her. It is a female-fronted film, including writer/director Sophia Takal, writer April Wolfe, and most of the cast (even the sorority’s cat, Claudette, was changed from a male to a female–not just the character, but the actual cat). I consider myself a feminist, but I have to agree with the critics, to an extent. In some places the message is so dumbed-down that it’s insulting.

Here’s Cary Elwes as classics professor Gelson–look at that smug bastard!

It opens thoughtfully enough, with the bust of the founder, Calvin Hawthorne. The name Hawthorne evokes Nathaniel Hawthorne, one of the many dead white males still worshiped in universities today. Then all subtlety is thrown out the window. Men say things like, “You bitches are all the same,” and “It seems Miss Waterson’s passion for equality cannot be bridled” and “We need more than feelings in this business” and “Boys’ll be…well, you know.” Even a bit of symbolism is driven into the ground; Marty mentions that she likes ants because they’re strong and cannot be separated. Then later she really emphasizes the point: “We’re ants, Kris.” I heard you the first time!

The black stuff leaking out represents toxic masculinity–not a joke

Of course, rape is not a subject to be taken lightly or glossed over. I used to be a writing tutor, and once I was helping a student write an essay about rape on college campuses. She was focusing on ways to prevent it, but when we were researching online, all we could find were tips on dealing with it once it happened. I am one hundred percent serious and speak with no hyperbole. There was nothing about preventing it–it was all about coping. The very college we were at has a history of women getting groped in stairwells and assaulted in the parking lots. Active students get notices about it by text. Non-feminists, this is why some people say we live in a rape culture. But the frat dudes in the movie are cartoonish supervillains–they literally go through a “supernatural hazing ritual”, which really undermines the seriousness of the message the filmmakers are trying to convey, that rape is bad. Instead we get something more like “the emphasis on the superiority of males in colleges makes all men evil rapists, and if they’re not rapists then they’ll stick together anyway, because brotherhood.”

These dudes sexually assault even as they’re getting ready to murder

Men are absolutely vilified. There are only two guys in the movie who aren’t total scumbags: Marty’s boyfriend Nate (Simon Mead) and Riley’s potential love interest Landon (Caleb Eberhardt). Even Nate has his issues. He’ s initially supportive of Marty and her friends, until he gets drunk and explodes that not all men are bad. The scene ends with Marty forcibly kicking him out, Nate all the while complaining about double standards. Landon is a skinny, gangly nerd prone to ugly sweaters. He’s clearly infatuated with Riley, but he’s shy and indirect and nonthreatening. You know, a good guy.

There aren’t many stills of Landon, but that’s him on the far right

There’s an attempt to be racially diverse, though of course Riley, the main final girl, the one around whom the movie really revolves, is white. She screams at Kris for being too woke (yes, that is actually a thing here–we hate men, not racism): “You’re so pushy, Kris!” Kris is the sassy best friend, the wacky gal who is pissed that Hawthorne was a slaveholder, who questions standard college reading material: “Whose classics are they?”

Nope, not even this movie will allow such an uppity main protagonist–who wants to see the action from her point of view?

Despite all my gripes, there are a lot of things I appreciate, especially compared to mainstream slasher movies. The female characters are strong and not given to the helpless hysteria you usually see in the genre. They’re not fashion plates, or scantily dressed–they’re not objectified. They solve their problems without running to men for help. (Except for Landon, who’s practically an honorary lady.) There is a really poignant scene close to the beginning, when sorority gal Lindsay (Lucy Currey) is walking to her grandmother’s house. She’s being harassed by phone, and getting nervous about her surroundings, especially since there’s a dude walking right behind her with his phone out, so she slips her keys between her fingers. This is a scene bound to resonate with women; we’ve all been alone on a dark street that may or may not be dangerous, but sure feels threatening, and many of us have felt safer by trying to weaponize our keys. To male viewers who are paying attention, it conveys the vulnerability that women can experience. No other scenes evoke empathy as skillfully.

P.S., if you’re gonna use keys as a weapon, do it right

To be fair, I did read that Takal edited the movie heavily in order to market to impressionable teenage girls. In that sense, the movie is a success.

“You messed with the wrong sisters.”–actual quote

*All trailers for this movie contain spoilers, but this is the shortest:

The Ramones: “Pet Sematary”

What with all my newfound time quarantined at home, I’m devouring audiobooks like there’s no tomorrow. I’ve read Pet Sematary a couple of times, but the audio is narrated by Michael C. Hall, which intrigues me, so I’m giving it a go. What better way to take one’s mind off a pandemic than with a novel about the cruel inescapability of death?

Also inescapable is the Ramones song from the original adaptation of the book, which is constantly in my head now. If you’ve never seen the video, have a look:

'You Might Be the Killer' is Definitely a Great Time

Sam (Fran Kranz, who’s getting typecast as the guy in a cabin in the woods) is a camp counselor with a staff of twelve. When a masked murderer menaces his campgrounds, he calls his buddy, horror expert Chuck (Alyson Hannigan), for advice on how to survive. Unfortunately, all signs point to Sam being the killer. 

“It was the unicorn, I tell ya! Or possibly the Merman.”

This film, like Tusk, started out as banter between two filmmakers (this one on Twitter), and gradually became a reality. It went to film festivals and then straight to video. Despite not having had a theatrical run, it’s a gem. It’s part ‘70s throwback and part millennial smartassery, like title cards giving a death tally: “Dead counselors (so far): a lot”. I’m not a fan of slashers, but I know the conventions quite well, and the parody aspects hit all the marks.

Our saintly final girl

Chuck’s calm acceptance of the situation adds a lot of humor. This is one clever exchange: 

Chuck: “You said this crazed killer is a guy, right? Okay, so maybe we should talk about the guys out there, you know? See if we can figure out who this asshole is.” Sam: “How does knowing who it is help me not die?” Chuck: “Well, I think figuring out what they want could help you not die.” Sam: “Smart.” Chuck: “Like, is it an old camper who got teased as a kid and is back for blood?” Sam: “No.” Chuck: “Or is it a parent who’s looking for revenge after a counselor let their kid drown?” Sam: “Jesus, I hope not, no.” Chuck: “Or does one of the counselors have a formerly conjoined twin?” Sam: “What movie is that from?” Chuck: “That could be a huge problem.”

“Aw, you chopped his head in half?”–actual quote

The film is populated by strong female characters. Chuck is the film’s voice of reason. (As she says to Sam after he calls her, “Your phone seems to be working fine. Wouldn’t you rather call the cops?”) There’s also champion hole-digger/weapon-maker Jamie (named after Jamie Lee Curtis), played by Jenna Harvey, and badass Imani (Brittany S. Hall), pictured below in the yellow.

She could fight off a killer with her abs alone

The cast is pretty diverse (though our leads and final girl are white, natch). There’s even a gay chick and a fat guy (though he dies seconds after expressing his enthusiasm for s’mores paraphernalia). A Black man, Brad (Patrick R. Walker), is the guy in charge of keeping everyone alive, showing an ability to think on his feet better than Sam. For a little bit the counselors pull together in a really smart way (which also would have made a cool movie). They build traps, gather weapons, and patrol the area. 

Get ’em, Brad!

Overall, it’s as witty and entertaining as it is gory. Check it out if you’re in the mood for a fun slasher spoof. Stay tuned for a neat cameo from Keith David as the sheriff.

'Snatchers': Imagine 'Juno', but with Hostile Aliens

Sara (Mary Nepi) is a teenage girl who’s determined to win back her ex-boyfriend Skyler (Austin Fryberger) by giving him her virginity. Unfortunately for her, he’s been infested with extraterrestrial matter, and impregnates her with alien spawn. She runs to her smart friend Hayley (Gabrielle Elyse), who stands by her when the quickly gestating creature pops out and immediately starts killing people.

Okay, let’s start with the fact that the extraterrestrial infestation originates in Mexico. It’s an “illegal alien.” In one scene, Sara and Hayley connect Skyler’s recent trip to the creatures: “Mexico,” they say, in an ah-ha moment. This bit of racism is poked fun at meta-ly by Sara as “a brief lapse of xenophobia,” but it’s still pretty offensive. But I also must point out the movie takes place in 2012, and the aliens are documented by the Mayans as what is going to destroy the world. So the Mexico thing is logical in that sense? The filmmakers do give us a kickass Latino cop, Officer Ruiz (Nick Gomez). Okay no, he’s pretty awesome.

*Spoiler alert* He makes it

The movie soundly indulges in stereotypes in general. Sara starts out as a snob who threw Hayley over to hang out with her catty, more popular friend Kiana (Ashley Argota) and dumb girls Blair (Amy Arburn) and Tegan (Gabriella Gourdin). She goes for help from Dave the gentle stoner (Rich Fulcher). Skyler is a typical brainless jock. Hayley is a nerd; she’s unpopular, asexual, and smart. And her brother Jerome (Alex Skinner) is the same way. Here’s a gif. It’s as cute as it is cringeworthy: https://images.app.goo.gl/eqEUKJAv7bxsjtNb6

But I really want to like this movie. It’s funny, the two female leads are strong and brave, and it’s a fresh take on the alien subgenre. Once you get past the cliches, Sara and Hayley are super likable. In fact, they’re goddamned adorable.

You just wanna squish their wittle faces!

Even the snappy, slangy patter they spout is endearing. Did I mention they kick ass?

In the end, it won me over. I recommend it.