Tuesday, June 23, 2020

The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973)

The Satanic Rites of Dracula isn't a favorite among Hammer fans.  And I will admit, it's not the best of the series.  But it has some solid moments, several well shot action sequences, and the best interaction between Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing of any of the Hammer Dracula films.  And, now that Warner Bros. has released a Blu-Ray version, it might be time to add it to your collection.

Just so you know, I bought this after listening to Derek M. Koch talk about on his podcast, Monster Kid Radio, back during The Satanic Rites of January themed month.  You can find all the January episodes at this link, including when Derek and I talk about The Devil's Rain.  Seriously, if you love classic genre films, check out MKR.  With his rotating roster of guests, Derek delivers great podcasts every damn week.  And if you enjoy what you're listening to, let Derek know you heard about it at The Shadow Over Portland.

Okay, on with the review.

The film opens in an occult ceremony in an English country home, where four prominent men are witnessing a woman fatally stabbed, yet returning to life.  Meanwhile, in an upstairs room, a MI6 agent, held captive, escapes and manages to reach his superiors before dying.  Upon developing photos taken by their agent, Inspector Murray of Scotland Yard (Michael Coles, playing the character he portrayed in Dracula AD 1972) to minimize any reprisals from the minister seen in the dead agent's photos.  Murray suggest contacting occult expert Professor Lorrimer Van Helsing (Peter Cushing, playing the same Van Helsing descendant from AD 1972).

Jane (Valerie Van Ost), a secretary present at the meeting, is kidnapped on her way home and is later bitten by Dracula (Christopher Lee).  Murray, Agent Torrence (William Franklyn) and Van Helsing's granddaughter Jessica (Joanna Lumley, replacing Stephanie Beacham from AD 1972) arrive at the house.  While Murray and Torrence enter the house to question cult leader Chin Yang (Barbara Yu Ling), Jessica disregards the men's instructions to stay at the car and enters the basement of the house.  And while she easily avoids the security measures in place, she finds herself overwhelmed by a room full of female vampires, including Jessica.  Upon hearing her screams, Murray and Torrence enter the basement, stake Jane and escape.

I liked you better before you met Dracula,
to tell you the TOOTH.
Yep, that one was bad.

Meanwhile, Van Helsing is visiting his friend Julian Keeley (Freddie Jones), a scientist and one of the four men in the photos taken by the dead agent.  Keeley is designing a virulent strain of the bubonic plague, but before Van Helsing can get more details, he is shot in the head by an intruder.

And you know no screenwriter would ever kill Peter Cushing this early in a Dracula film.  Awaking from the grazing shot, Van Helsing finds Keeley hung as if he'd committed suicide, and the plague samples missing.  Searching the scientist's notes, Van Helsing heads to the office of reclusive property developer D. D. Denham, who funded Keeley's work.

I'll give you one guess as to the real identity of D. D. Denham.  As for his plans, well, you just have to watch the movie.

What, my clever light placement and American accent isn't 
enough to hide my identity?

You can find an inferior version of this film in some Mill Creek collections.  The film is often given its American title, Count Dracula and his Vampire Bride, an edited version release by Dynamite Entertainment in 1979.  The film was green lit before AD 1972 was shot, as everyone expected Dracula's first excursion into the modern age to more successful than the box office results show.  So it took over four years, and an independent distributor, to bring the film to the US, resulting in the film's public domain status.  But I suggest you spring for the Warner Bros. Archive Collection Blu-Ray version released in late 2018.  While it lacks any extras, other than a trailer, it's a beautiful transfer and the best version of the film available.

So you might be wondering why you purchase a copy of a film that Lee, in his autobiography Christopher Lee: Tall, Dark and Gruesome, considers the moment he decided to never revisit the character unless the script was more inline with Stoker's novel.  Well, as I said, the transfer is terrific, presenting some terrific stunts in all their glory.  Also, the mix of police procedural, sci fi and horror is a lot of fun if you're willing to accept the classic Gothic films earlier in the series weren't working and Hammer was trying to forge a new direction for the series. 

Director Alan Gibson (AD 1972) does some solid work, while screenwriter Don Houghton (AD 1972) mixes all the elements well.  Having Murray return to the series avoids the need to have the often awkward scene where the main characters must convince the authorities that supernatural beings exist in modern times.  And the script avoids the major flaw of Dracula AD 1972, which was targeted a younger audience, but had someone's grandfather rush in to save the day.  Just not the way to go, even if that grandfather is played by Peter Cushing.

But this man could beat Chuck Norris.
And I mean it.

But the main reason to add this version to your library is to watch Lee and Cushing.  The two spend more time on screen time together than in their previous two Dracula films (Dracula/Horror of Dracula and Dracula AD 1972) combined.  Okay, I haven't check the timing, but it feels longer and damn it, the two get to verbally spar rather than shout and growl at each other.  The scene with Van Helsing questioning Denhem, even though we all know who is really on the other side of the desk, makes me wish someone had written a scene with Dracula posing as a nobleman earlier in the series, while Van Helsing suspects his true identity.  As we don't have that, this film will have to do, and it's worth the purchase price for that moment, as well as the moment when Van Helsing foils Dracula's plans and the townhouse is burning to the ground around them.

And, honestly, it was great to hear the three note "Drac-U-La" back in the opening credit score, after being ditched in Dracula AD 1972.  Composer John Cacavas merges that element of James Bernard's classic score seamlessly into a more modern opening track, and the results are amazing.

All that said, the final moment is a bit of a letdown.  Having Dracula stumble into a Hawthorn tree (which can kill a vampire in Serbian folklore, and is believed to be the source of the crown of thorns placed upon Jesus during his crucifixion, linking it to other religious icons reported to thwart vampires) and be so incapacitated that Van Helsing can easily stake him, is a bit of a let down.  I'd rather the film end in the fiery townhouse.  But though it doesn't stick the landing, the film is still a lot of fun.

Taken out by a shrubbery.  
The Knights Who Say Ni are laughing their asses off.

The Satanic Rites of Dracula can't be compared to Hammer's glorious earlier films, when the studio was breaking new grounds in horror cinema.  By the late 60s, the Gothic horror was subverted by more modern tales of terror, and Hammer was struggling to stay relevant.  But this film is a decent attempt to bring Dracula into the modern age, and deserves a second look.  And if you're like me, you can't get enough of Cushing and Lee onscreen playing a verbal cat-and-mouse game, rather than another staging of a great action moment.  Sure, the opening to Dracula AD 1972 is amazing, but it's too cool just watching them verbally spar.

Oh, you know you want to know what Dracula is shouting.
Yes, you do.

I'm serious, pick up the Blu-Ray version.  It looks AMAZING, and if you buy it from the link below, you'll send a few cents my way.  And I thank you for that.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Brightburn (2019)

Let's be honest, Ma and Pa Kent had a tough job when they decided to raise an alien baby that crashed on their farm.  They had to hide his origins and fake an adoption, no easy chore.  But once their son hits his teens, in reality, things had to be much harder than depicted in any Superman comic.

Now, I don't have children, but I remember being a teenager and, while I wasn't quite the hellion my middle brother was, I was still a handful.  The teen years are a time of rebellion, of believing you know everything and you don't want to listen to anyone, especially your parents.  You know what you want to do, and you don't feel the need for anyone's permission to do it.  But, compound such an attitude with a teen who has the power of a god, and you have to praise the Kents for how Clark turned out.  But you have to wonder what might have happened if their lessons hadn't taken root.

Which is why I was so interest in Brightburn when I saw the trailer a few years ago.  The film seemed to be an exploration of what might happen if the moral values Superman's parents tried to teach him were washed away in a flood of hormones and a growing realization that he could do anything he wanted, without fear of repercussions.  That film could have been an interesting story, with some real stakes and tension, but the resulting movie falls short.  It delivers the horror of what such a person is capable of doing, but cops out on dealing with any struggle between morals upbringing and being able to act in any way you want.

The basic plot concerns Tori and Kyle Breyer (David Denman, and Elizabeth Banks from Slither), a couple living on a farm in Brightburn, Kansas, who are unable to conceive a child.  Lucky for them, one falls into their laps, or rather their backyard, as a spaceship containing a male baby crashes next to their house.

He's just a baby from a strange spaceship.
What could possibly go wrong?

Twelve years later, their son Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn) is a quiet kid with overprotective parents.  But that changes when...

Okay, I try not to give away SPOILERS in my summation of the film, but the direction the script takes early on is important to my review.  While I'd be happy to skip it, it is the major problem I have with the film, one that made the story not work for me.  So I'm going to issue a SPOILER ALERT for the rest of the plot summation, and some of the review that follows.  If you don't want to know what's going to happen, go watch the film now (or purchase it at the Amazon links below, as I'll get a few pennies to help keep the lights on at The Shadow Over Portland office) and come back.  I'll post an END OF SPOILERS later in the review.

Brandon starts receiving telepathic messages from the ship that brought him to Earth, locked away in the Breyer's barn.  Tori knows Brandon has found the ship's location, but keeps it a secret from Kyle.  Brandon discovers he has supernatural strength, and when his extremely high intelligence is mocked by students at his school, fellow student Caitlyn (Emmie Hunter) tells him smart guys are cool, leading to his infatuation with her.

Meanwhile, before a camping trip, his parents find his porn stash, consisting of bikini clad women and FREAKING AUTOPSY PHOTOS!  Rather than being disturbed, they decide it's time for "the talk."  Okay, I know they're farmers, but Kyle and Tori are pretty intelligent, and should know it's past talk time with them, and more like time for several sessions with a psychologist.

God, where's Harry Morgan when you need him?

I'm sure a little time out in the woods will cure 
your desire to collect autopsy photos.  Trust me!

During the camping trip, Kyle tries to talk about masturbation with Brandon.  But, in typical parental fashion, Kyle is so vague that Brandon takes it to mean he should satisfy his urges when he wants, and he shows up in Caitlyn's bedroom.  Fortunately, nothing happens, as her mother comes into the room when she screams upon seeing Brandon, and he takes off.

Oh, yeah, he can fly.  Forgot to mention that, but the pitch for this film was basically advertised as Superboy gone bad, so you should figure he has all the Kryptonian's powers.

Convinced Brandon was in her room that night, Caitlyn fails to catch Brandon during a trust exercise at school.  When forced to help him up, Brandon mangles her hand with his super strength.

And, as expected, mayhem ensues.

Guess he was blinded by the light.
Oh, yes, I have more bad puns coming.

The main problem with the film is the script turning this into an alien invasion story, or something like that.  The script is never clear on why Brandon ended up on Earth, but when he hears the ship telling him to "take the planet," I'm going with an invasion.  Perhaps script writers Mark and Brian Gunn, who are relatives of producer James Gunn (Slither, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. One and Volume Two), didn't want to vilify Brandon and made his actions more the dictate of the ship and not his coming to grips with the fact that he is a god walking on a planet of ants.  Or that might have been dictated by the production companies, worried that casting a teenage boy as a ruthless murderer might turn away movie goers.

But whoever made the decision was wrong.  Brightburn was R-rated, so it was aimed at a more mature audience that one suspects could handle a teenage boy exerting his superhuman powers to get what he wants.  But had the story ditched the ship, and just let Brandon's actions be an extension of him, it would have made the conclusion more tense.  Instead of realizing they have to kill him, Kyle and Tori could have tried reasoning with him, trying to reach a part of him that remembered the morals they installed in him.  Sure, a parent might end up dead, and the world might have a superhero with a murderous past.  But that's part of why we have an R-rating, so we can explore interesting ideas and keep the violence disturbingly real.  Sure, it might mean a bit more work on the script, but it would have been a more interesting film than that hit theaters and home video.

And, to be honest, it's one of the lamest invasion plans on film since Signs.  Not in the botched execution, but that whatever sent down this humanoid baby waited twelve years before executing their plan.  One has to assume it would have been easier for them to accelerate Brandon's growth and send him down an adult with a program to kill.  I guess when you conquer faster than light travel, time loses all meaning.


Getting back to the disturbing violence, some of the killings are quite graphic.  A car wreck Brandon causes results in a gory jaw dislocation, which is just amazing.  But that, and a few other nasty moments, aren't enough to make this a must see film.  The film isn't like Logan or Amazon's The Boys, both of which contain some graphic moments while delivering a compelling story that keeps your interest.

I think he bit off more than he could chew.
Sorry.  That was pretty bad.  No more puns.

Despite the script, the actors do a great job.  You really believe all the characters, including the secondary ones, are real people, not just cliche characters destined to be ground to paste.  Even with the obvious warning sign mentioned above, Banks and Denman shine as parents slowly realizing their son is out of control.  And Dunn is quite good, though some might feel his performance is a bit emotionless.  But he is able to channel a character realizing he has the power to do whatever he wants, a frightening prospect as he's just a teenager and a reminder that he sees us as beings he can eliminate if we stand in the way of his desires.

I wish the plot had lived up to the promise of the trailer and the performance of the actors.  Instead, Brightburn delivers a subpar story, but one can see how much better the film could have been had the scriptwriters delivered on the promise of the trailer.

You won't like me when I'm angry.
Hey, why not bring in another popular superhero into the mix?

If you want to purchase Brightburn, I hope you'll click on the links below from Amazon.  As an affiliate, I get a few cents for each purchase, which helps keep The Shadow Over Portland office open.


Monday, May 25, 2020

Happy Death Day 2U (2019)

When we last saw Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe), life was good after breaking out of the time loop seeing her murdered every night.  She'd become a better person, thwarted her roommate Lori (Ruby Modine), who was out to kill her, and started dating Cater (Israel Broussard), the nice guy that helped her break the time loop.  But, rules are rules, and if you survive a horror film that's a box office success, the rules say you're going to end up in a sequel.  Which brings us to Happy Death Day 2U.

I really enjoyed Happy Death Day (see my review here), though it was little more than Groundhog Day with a slasher thrown into the mix.  But the script was lively and, not to dismiss the rest of the cast, Rothe walked away with the film.  She was fun to watch, and it was easy to get caught up in her story.

But at the end of the first film, I felt the story was over.  Sure, we never knew why she was in a time loop, doomed to relive the day of her death, but it didn't matter.  Tree was happy, a better person, and the final scene never gave us a hint that her story would continue.  Only a solid, original script could make another go-round work.  And despite a promising opening, Happy Death Day 2U failed to deliver an interesting story, and just fell back onto what worked in the original.  Sure, the script hints at a better movie lurking around, but doesn't deliver on that promise.

But the opening was great.  Carter's roommate Ryan (Phi Vu) awakes in his car, pushed out of the dorm room so Tree and Carter can have some alone time.  Heading to a lab on campus, he continues working on a quantum reactor, only to have the project shut down by the school's dean for causing several power outages.  Worse yet, he's murdered by someone dressed up as the baby faced school mascot, only to awake in his car on the morning of his death.

Wait, I'm not the one who's suppose to die.
Why don't you pick on that blonde girl?

Realizing he's in a time loop, he tells what's happening to Tree, who has some experience with such a situation.  Tree and Carter formulate a plan to keep Ryan alive by heading to the evening basketball game, assuming he'd be safe from the killer in a crowd.  So the three, along Samar (Suraj Sharma) and Dre (Sarah Yarkin), who are working with Ryan on his project, all head to the gym that evening.

But time loops aren't that easy to contain, and as the gym is evacuated due to a power failure, the killer attacks.  After being captured by the group, the masked figure is revealed to be another Ryan, one from an alternate timeline, who claims their Ryan must die to close the loop activated by his experiment.  But the "original" Ryan panics and turns on the reactor, knocking everyone unconscious.

Like I said, it's a great start.  It doesn't follow the original film and offers so many interesting possibilities for the story.  But, oh wait, this is Hollywood and any sequel must be more of the same, or else the audience might loose interest.  And so they drop everything suggested in the opening to make it as much like the first film as possible.

Oh damn it, here we go again.
Why couldn't the script be just a bit different?

Tree wakes up in the same time loop she experienced in the previous movie, but she's now in another reality.  Carter is dating bitchy sorority sister Danielle (Rachel Matthews), which sours her mood.  But on the plus side, Lori isn't trying to kill her and Tree's mother is alive.

She decides to stay in this reality, but when she tries to keep serial killer John Tombs escaping the hospital and wrecking havoc on the campus, Tree killed by a new killer dressed as the school mascot.  Awakening on the same day, she tells Ryan that he needs to help her stop the time loop, and keep her in this reality.

The problem is, the crew needs to test multiple algorithms, forcing Tree to record their efforts every day, than kill herself to steer them off the wrong path as their work continues.  Oh, remember that little plot point in the original film, where Tree's trauma from her previous deaths are carried over to the next day in the time loop?  Yeah, it was dropped in the original, but comes back to haunt her in the sequel.  Well, about as much as in the first film.

Surprise, I got on this skydiving flight wearing only a bikini.
And now I'm jumping out of the plane.  Hope that's okay with you.

So, will Tree stay in this reality, or return to the one she came from?  Who is this new killer, and why is Lori the target?  And does Tree's multiple deaths result in her inhabiting a body so battered she can't move?  Well, the answer to the third question is no, but you'll just have to watch the film to find out what happens.

As I said earlier, I loved the original.  Rothe was terrific, as she is in this film.  Like Samara Weaving (Ready of Not, Mayhem), I think Rothe will be in some major films soon.  At least I hope so, though I'll be sorry to see her leave the genre.  And the rest of the cast is pretty solid, though Matthews is once again reduced to playing a parody of a character.  Which is a shame, as she's so good that I'd like to see what she could do with a more fleshed out role.

The point is, the cast is not the problem with the film.  It's the script.  Had screenwriter/director Christopher Landon developed the story based on the film's opening moments, the results might have been different.  And, as he directed the original, he has a good sense of the characters, which would have worked in his favor.  But he didn't write the original and it shows, as he attempts to copy Scott Lobdell's ideas without realizing Tree's story was over.

Sure, having Tree's mother alive in the new reality could have set up an interesting conflict, but resolves just as you'd expect.  The script feels like Landon pinned his hope for a sequel on Rothe and, to her credit, she does her best with the material.  But the story doesn't have the impact of the original, as we've seen it before, only now she's committing suicide to keep the team's research moving forward, rather than being killed by an unknown assailant.

Electrocution in the bath tub never makes for 
a good hair day.

Happy Death Day 2U had the chance to be a rare sequel that was better than the original.  Had the film built upon the opening few minutes, this could  have been an interesting film.  But it just becomes more of the same, and much less interesting the second time around.  And the post credit scene is just not intreguing, as you know any sequel will end up with Tree going through the same situation once again.  Just like she's caught in a time loop.

Okay, if anyone thought more science would help this film,
they were just wrong.

If you'd like to purchase a copy of Happy Death Day 2U, or Happy Death Day, consider clicking on the links below.  As an Amazon Associate, I'll get a few cents from your purchase, and I promise it will go towards keeping the lights on at The Shadow Over Portland.


Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Satanic Panic (2019)

I remember the Satanic panic of the 1980s, when the news was full of reports of sexual abuse and sacrifice of children at the hands of cultists hidden throughout the United States.  It engulfed everything, from the role playing game Dungeons and Dragons to corporations like Procter and Gamble.  But it felt like old news to me, as people look for anything, from comics to movies to video games, that can be vilified to explain the evils within society, and others willing to take advantage of such fears to further their own ambitions.

In the end, the panic of the 80s were reveled to be the result of therapists leading "victims" to make such claims through shoddy and now discredited methods.  Still, the idea of Satanic cults and demonic influence continue to be used as a scapegoat for society's ills, so one it's no surprise such an idea is used as a plot device in genre works, such as the recent film from Fangoria, Satanic Panic.

The film opens as Samantha "Sam" Croft (Hayley Griffith) starts her first day as a pizza delivery person.  She's having a really bad day, as her co-workers make fun of a song she posted online and one of them makes some creepy advances towards her.  And, no one is willing to tip her.

She has no idea how bad this day is going to be.

After she's stiffed during a delivery in the affluent neighborhood of Mill Basin, and her scooter runs out of gas, she enters the house to remedy the situation.  Unfortunately, she interrupts a Satanic cult meeting ran by lifestyle coach sounding Danica Ross (Rebecca Romijn).    It appears this affluencial neighborhood is using the power of demons to become, and stay, wealthy.

Sam's obviously in trouble, having walking in on their secret meeting.  But once the cult realize Sam is a virgin, she's captured and awakens to find herself locked in a room with Danica's husband, Samuel (Jerry O'Connell).

Samuel explains his wife and neighbors plan to offer Sam to Baphomet, who will impregnate her and thus be born into this world.  He tells her it will be even worse than just being killed by the cultists, and decides to be a nice guy and deflower her before they return.  Sam doesn't believe any of this and is busy looking for a way to escape, and is shocked when Samuel strips down to his tighty whities and threatens her with a handgun if she won't let him "save her" from the upcoming sacrifice.

Yeah, it's as creepy as it sounds.

Look, I know this is a horror comedy, and Samuel feels he's saving Sam from a horrible fate.  But his sudden disrobing, and Sam's not understanding or believing any of it, gives the moment a real predatory vibe.  And Samuel pulling a gun on her doesn't help.

Yeah, nothing creepy about this,
especially how quickly he lost his clothes.

Anyway, the moment leads to what I call "Chekhov's misfiring gun," as any firearm that misfires when pointed at the protagonist will fire when the weapon's wielder looks into the barrel to try and discover the cause of the problem.  So Samuel shoots himself and Sam escapes from the house.  But for some reason, she doesn't take the freaking gun with her.  I mean, who would leave a weapon when they're escaping from a group of people who've abducted them and are going to kill them?  I guess anyone in a poorly written horror film.

Anyway, Sam finds shelter in a home by a girl babysitting two young boys.  But the noises coming from the second floor lead her to not drink the soda the babysitter offers her.  Instead, one of the boys drinks it and dies.  As Sam takes out the other boy and the babysitter, she heads upstairs to investigate the noises and is attacked by another girl wearing, and I can't believe I'm writing this, a strap on drill-do.

Think Tetsuo: The Iron Man, and you get the idea.

And no, I'm not posting a picture of it.
Just enjoy the still of Sam pre-drill-do moment.

Anyway, Sam defeats the babysitter and the drill-do wearer, and finds Judi Ross (Ruby Modine, Happy Death Day) tied up on a bed.  Intended to be the sacrifice to Baphomet, Judi lost her virginity in a pre-credit scene and was ordered to be killed by her mother, Danica.  Once she discovers Sam is the coven's intended sacrifice, Judi teams up to help Sam survive the night and thus escape her sacrifice to Baphomet.

And, as expected, mayhem ensues.

While the film does delivers on the mayhem, the screenplay by Grady Hendrix relies too heavily on sophomoric humor and extremely crude dialog.  One such example as when Judi describes the upcoming sacrifice, and why she can't take Sam's virginity.  Her lines are designed to make the audience laugh because of shocking, vulgar dialog.  But it doesn't work and gives one the feeling that delivering important information relevant to the plot comes was a secondary concern.

Adding to the script's issues are some glaring plot holes right at the start.  The cult is suppose to sacrifice a virgin to Baphomet, but with Judi no longer in contention, no one appears to have a backup plan until Sam shows up.  I find it hard to believe their second option is just hoping a virgin would just appear. 

Look, you seem pretty smart and all.  I just can't believe 
you didn't have a backup virgin plan.

The script adds some complications to the cult's efforts to recapture Sam with Gypsy (Arden Myrin), a member trying to undermine Danica and take control.  But the power struggle just doesn't work.  While the film might have intended to contrast the two women, Gypsy comes off as little more than a cartoon villain and one Danica would have slapped down like a gnat.  Whether dictated by director Chelsea Stardust, or Myrin's concept of the character, it's hard to take Gypsy's attempt to usurp Danica as a credible threat.  

 That smirk pretty much sums up Gypsy's character.

The film has some bloody moments, but never breaks into full-on splatstick mode, to the film's detriment.  I'm guessing the gore was restrained by the shooting locations, which includes a beautiful mansion that I'm certain the owners didn't want sprayed with Kayo syrup and food coloring.  Still, the film would have been funnier had the cast been wallowing in fake blood and gore, rather than relying on constant outbursts of vulgar dialog.

Despite my problems with the script, Hendrix does deliver some good moments.  The scene where Sam helps Judi overcome the cult's supernatural attack while explaining why she's a virgin feels real and is surprisingly touching.  For the most part, the cast is terrific.  And the finale is contains some nice, very unexpected surprises.

Satanic Panic had the potential to be a pretty good horror comedy.  Most of the cast is good, with Romijn delivering a standout performance, the film moves at a quick pace, and when the script does deliver some very good moments.  But a over-reliance on over-the-top vulgar dialog makes it more ponderous than fun.  Chekov's misfiring gun sums up the film perfectly, as it fatally wounds the filmmakers when they look into the barrel wondering what went wrong.

It's hard to dislike a film that includes a Satanic rite complete with a bright
pentagram in the background.  I just wish the rest of the film was this cheesy.

If you want to watch Satanic Panic, or purchase a copy of the film, please click on the links below. As an Amazon Affiliate, I'll gain some money with each purchase, which will help keep the lights on in The Shadow Over Portland office.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Crawl (2019)

I have to admit, I've been a fan of Alexandre Aja's films since I first watched High Tension.  Yes, I know a lot of people have some issues with that one, but I still love it and perhaps will revisit it soon and explain why I'm right about it.  Insert smiley emoji here.

But for now, let's talk about Crawl, his latest film full of man eating alligators.  It sounds like the perfect setup for another boobs and blood remake, like Piranha  But Aja douses such expectations early on, setting up a different tone and mood.  Does it work?  Well, let's find out.

The film opens with University of Florida swimmer Haley Keller (Kaya Scodelario) missing the mark during an exhibition event.  While in the locker room, she receives a Facetime call from her sister, Beth, letting her know her father Dave (Barry Pepper) hasn't picked up his phone when she called.   Given a Category 5 Hurricane, Beth is a bit concerned and Haley heads out to her father's apartment, ignoring a roadblock along her way.

Arriving at Dave's apartment, she finds it empty except for his dog Sugar.  Worried he'd returned to the family home in Coral Lake, on sale after he and Haley's mother divorce, she heads out and finds him injured in the basement.  That wouldn't be a problem, except for the pissed off alligators swimming about the slowly flooding structure, eager to chomp on anyone in range.

As expected, mayhem ensues as the pair try to escape, while other characters show up to be gator chow.  After all, you can't have a killer animal movie with only two potential victims.

Look, we'll be okay.
We're the protagonists.

Aja deflates any expectations this would be another Piranha early on.  Beth's call interrupts Haley as she is changing after her swim meet, and the scene contains no nudity.  Now, I'm not saying a horror film needs nudity to work.  I love too many horror films without anyone walking around in the buff to even consider it a necessity.  And other Aja films shows he doesn't feel the need to include such scenes.

But, I think Aja's best films delve into grindhouse territory.  And, though Crawl lacks such elements early on, one could expect things to get more insane as the weather worsens.  But the script presents some problems, focusing on Haley and her father deal with issues concerning his coaching her as a kid, no matter the danger from the storm or the alligators.  To be honest, the plot seems better suited as a Lifetime feature, had it ditched the killer alligators.

And let's talk about the alligators.  I'm no expert on reptilian behavior, but I suspect a massive hurricane would cause such creatures to find a place to hide and ride out the storm, not become roving packs of human-hungry killing machines.  I will say, I appreciated the script explaining the motivation of the two gators in the basement (though I question how the hell it happened, as storm drains are not that large).  But the other predators outside the house are swimming about, willing to snack on looters, rescue workers, and anyone else the script can deliver to up the body count.

On a recent trip to Florida, I learned alligators can jump out of the water
one and a half times their length.  She is NOT safe here.

And that brings up my expectations on the realistic behavior of the alligators verses a film version of them.  If you know me, or have read a few of my reviews, you know I LOVE pitting humans against critters gone wild.  And I'm willing to overlook my limited knowledge of animal behavior if the action is non-stop and the film isn't trying to be serious. 

For example, in Deep Blue Sea, the clueless scientists increase the brain size of several experimental sharks to develop a cure for Alzheimer's disease.  Now, I know just having the capacity to be smarter doesn't give any organism the intelligence to figure out how to sink a floating research lab.  It takes longer than the running time of your average film to figure that out.

But I can go with those sharks not behaving naturally, as that film tries to explain what's happening with science straight out of a classic 50s monster movie, and doesn't try to take itself seriously.  That's the problem with Crawl.  The main plot isn't about the creatures and the mayhem they create  It's about the fractured relationship between Haley and Dave, with some alligators to ratchet up the tension and give Dave a reason to explain why he pushed Haley so hard while coaching her. 

But such a plot grounded in reality makes one wonder why the attacking critters aren't behaving in a realistic manner.  Attacking humans during a Category Five hurricane makes no damn sense in a movie anchored on a realistic plot.  Also, the gators are literal bottomless pits, able to chomp down countless victims and keep coming back for more.  It would work without a serious plot, but as Crawl is a drama and not a critters-gone-wild film, it makes you appreciate the fact that Bruce spread his attacks out over several days in Jaws.

Seriously, guys, I'm full.
Can you come back so I can chomp on you later?

And that brings us to the gator attacks against Haley and Dave.  Sure, Dad seems to take the worst of the injuries, requiring Haley to save him.  But she's chomped a few times, with little more than minor bleeding, which I have to say, is a big load of BS.  I looked it up, as I was a bit suspicious and decided to save you the trouble, and gators bites exert a force of 2125 pounds per square inch.  That means when Haley's leg is bitten early on, chances are her femur would have been fractured, making her unable to swim after the initial attack.  And Dave is introduced with lacerations on his shoulder from the gators, which would have resulted in several ribs crushed, puncturing his lungs in the process, he would have been dead long before Haley showed up.

 Oh, I can out swim you, creature of the water.
I'm on the U of F swim team!

But such catastrophic injuries would have made for a very short film, so both characters pull off a Rambo-like ability to survive.  Which would be fine, if this was a simple Nature-is-a-monster feature.  But the family drama grounds it in reality, making the protagonist's ability to physically avoid the creatures feel so wrong.   Haley shows off a super human ability to out-swimming alligators and...

Oh, I can't even describe the shower stall scene later in the final act, as it's just SO STUPID.

Oh my, I can't figure out the next step to escape.
Can I get a clue?

The acting is fine for the drama this film tries to be, but it doesn't mesh with the mayhem presented on the screen.  Had the film gone more to one side or the other, it would have been a solid movie.  But trying to combine both elements just doesn't gel, and Crawl suffers for the lack of focus.

If you'd like to buy Crawl on DVD or the 4K HUD, I'd appreciate you clicking on the link below.  As an Amazon Affiliate, I get a few cents from the sales if you buy through my site.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Zombieland: Double Tap (2019)

It took ten years for the action-comedy-with-zombies film Zombieland to get a sequel, which is a bit of a surprise with studios looking for the next big franchise.  Sure, fans got an Amazon series that doubled for an Onstar commercial, with other a actors filling in for the main characters, but it never got past the pilot episode.  Eventually, the schedules of the main actors and we got Zombieland: Double Tap, a film that followed the inherent trait of most action franchises, where the mayhem has to be escalated by a factor of ten.  But the problem is, as with most actions films, this comes at a cost to the script, sacrificing any attempt at character development to rush to the next big battle.  That could have worked, had the film not started up a decade after the original.  Having the characters frozen in time, even as they come across (what one assumes) the first survivors since their original film, feels hollow and forced.

And, as I mentioned above, the reliance on CGI effects to amp up the action doesn't help.  By allowing people and vehicles to defy the basic laws of physics, the film feels more like a cartoon designed by an eight-year-old, existing only to look as awesome as possible.  While that might work in a superhero movie, it looks terrible in a zombie film.

As I said earlier, the sequel takes place ten years after the original.  The main cast is still battling their way through the zombie apocalypse on the way to their new home, the White House.  But once they settle in, the group experiences some friction.  Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) proposes the Wichita (Emma Stone), while Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) continues to treat Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) as a child.  Feeling pressured by the men, the two women leave the next day in Tallahassee's supped up vehicle to seek out a new life.

And yes, I stand by that statement.  The men prompt the women to leave, as Columbus treats Wichita as a prize he's finally won, and Tallahassee tries to keep Little Rock as the young girl he met ten years earlier, and not acknowledge that she's grown up.

Come at me, commentators.  I'm ready to ignore you.  Hey, it's my opinion, yours might be different, and I'm happy to accept that.

Anyway, about a month later, Tallahassee and Columbus bump into Madison (Zoey Deutch), a stereotypical ditzy valley girl living in a mall since the zombie apocalypse happened.  Though they haven't seen another survivor in years, Tallahassee seems content to leave her at the mall, which I just couldn't believe.  Sure, it's obvious she grates on him, but after ten years with the same three people, I would assume a bit of variety would be a nice change.

Just a quick aside.  I found Madison to be very out of place.  While Deutch does a great job, her character feels out of place, and would have worked better if this film was released in the 80s.  I guess the filmmakers figured since she'd been living in a mall for a decade, she'd evolve into a valley girl for some reason.  And, as the main characters are cliches, adding another into the mix shouldn't be a surprise.  But it was just jarring to me.

Come on, this character would have been totally cool in the 80s.
Where's your nostalgia spirit?

Madison ends up back at the White House, thanks to Columbus.  And that evening, she"pressures" him into having sex, as she's been alone for years and is horny as hell.  Though Columbus resists, her final argument that she'll go with the "old guy" if he doesn't agree tips the scales in her favor.

And you'll never guess what happens next.

Read all the sarcasm you can into that sentence.  Unless you haven't seen a movie ever, you know Wichita will show up that very night.  She announces she's only re-arming herself, as Little Rock ditched her after meeting Burkley (Avan Jogia), a pacifist taking credit for other musician's songs.

Anyway, once Wichita finds out about Madison, the film takes a major turn into rom-com mode that injects itself throughout the film.  Fortunately, everyone, including Madison, agrees to hit the road and search for Little Rock.  Wichita suggests heading to Graceland, as Tallahassee's love of Elvis Presley compelled him to talk about it endlessly to Little Rock, and thinks she might be heading there.

Yeah, right.  Whatever.

During their journey, the group encounters what Columbus calls a T-800 zombie, which doesn't die without a hailstorm of bullets.  Again, another upping the ante moment that makes no freaking sense, as zombies are still human and bullets in the right place should incapacitate them.  After the encounter, Madison shows signs of being bitten, so Columbus takes it upon himself to shoot her off screen.

Okay, we're heading into SPOILER TERRITORY here, so consider yourself warned.  Though, to be honest, you won't be surprised if you've seen enough episodes of The Walking Dead.  But, if you're not in the mood for obvious SPOILERS, skip down five paragraphs.

The three make it to Graceland, only to find it in ruins.  Taking refuge an Elvis-themed motel, they meet Nevada (Rosario Dawson), who hooks up with Tallahassee.  The next morning, the other guy in Nevada's life, Albuquerque (Luke Wilson), shows up with Flagstaff (Thomas Middleditch).  As the pair are basically clones of Tallahassee and Columbus, a pissing match ensues leading to more zombie mayhem, and our heroes drive off to Babylon, a hippie commune riding out the zombie apocalypse on peace, love and a really fortified compound.  And they smelt down all firearms to make some cool necklaces.

So, Tallahassee's reason to be interested in other survivors
depends upon his chances of getting laid.  Got it.

Oh, and Nevada stays behind, for some stupid reason.  I've got to be honest, the characters in this film aren't the brightest and I wonder how they've lasted so long.

Alright, writing about the plot is hurting my head as much as it did watching it.  So let's end it now.  Madison is alive, the group find Little Rock, a massive horde of T-800s are heading to Babylon and our heroes must ensure the commune survives.

And, as expected, zombie mayhem ensues.

Don't worry, I know we're just carrying torches.
But the CGI artists have some over the top stuff coming your way.

And this is the moment what I call The Rule of Escalating Action Set Pieces comes into play.  In most action franchises, the sequels are compelled to up the ante and make the ensuing mayhem more spectacular than the previous film.  And Zombieland: Double Tap falls into the trap.  The CGI mayhem involving our heroes defending Babylon is so cartoonish at times, it made me wonder if the three screenwriter (Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick, Dave Callaham) just watched a young kid playing with some action figures and said, "Yep, there's our climax."

Look, I love movies with awesome effects, whether they be CGI or practical.  But I need to accept the effects in the world a movie has build.  If the film has superheroes flying about, I'm fine with it.  But when it involves a monster truck soaring through the air as if it was wearing a cape, I have to call BS.

I believe I can fly,
crushing the zombies I happen to spy.

Okay, this is the end of SPOILERS and it my ranting about the CGI effects.  But my issues with Zombieland: Double Tap go deeper.  The script is a mess.  To start, it expects viewers to accept the characters as who they were ten years ago, which is a big problem.  And if we're going to talk about the script's treatment of the characters, we have to start with Little Rock.  And I know this might sound creepy, but please hear me out before rushing to the comment section.

Breslin was barely in her teens when Zombieland came out and now she's in her early twenties.  The film treats the passage of time as natural, but keeps the characters frozen in place.  One could argue it makes sense for the older characters, but not Little Rock.  She's matured into an adult, yet the script has no idea how to deal with that fact.  Her abandonment of Wichita is considered little more than a rebellious act against the parent figures in her life.  And once the others find her in Babylon, they assume she just wants to be with people her own age.  The script never even tries to suggest that Little Rock might just want to get laid.  Instead, her rebellion is treated as little more than a simple teen crush on some guy before she returns to her stable, yet dysfunctional, family unit.

Look, you could say it's implied that she had sex with Berkley.  But I find it a disservice to the character not to address it directly.  And no, I'm not suggesting anything explicit.  But it seems like the script writers and director Ruben Fleischer were unwilling to have Little Rock be anything more than a little girl experiencing her first crush, and taking a rather conservative tone by having her rejoin the parent figures in her life.

And worse yet (oops, one more SPOILER ahead), she ends up the fifth wheel again, as Tallahassee has a partner at the end of the film (guess who).  Seriously, the filmmakers needed to grow a pair and tackle this issue.  Done right, it would have been a interesting story point in an otherwise bland script.  Instead, they played it safe and kept the family dynamic intact (probably for another sequel), while neutering any opportunity to say something interesting.

Well, instead of being a fleshed out character, I got to shot a big gun.
That's cool, right?

As for the acting, it's fine.  The main four fall back into their roles with ease, and Nevada is a nice addition to the cast.  Owens and Middleditch are fine, but their characters feel forced into the script.  Burkley and his cohorts are fine, but their addition creates problems.  As I said earlier, the reaction of the four main characters don't seem realistic when they meet other survivors, and that issue is amplified when every meets up in Babylon.  The script ignores an interesting idea and simply plays it for laughs.  I wanted to know more about Babylon, how they were able to ride out the zombie apocalypse without a horde of zombies at the fences, and how Berkeley survived so long without becoming zombie chow.  But the script Babylon as a goofy place that needs saving from the main heroes, setting up a quick Army of Darkness training montage for zombie fans.

The more I think about it, the script feels quite conservative.  People with big guns and monster trucks will save everyone, young women aren't interested in sex, and hippies are funny.  It's a far cry from the zombie movies I grew up with, where humans are the bigger threat, people still have normal urges and authority figures are not to be trusted.  Sure, such ideas might be hard to build into what's simply an action flick with zombies.  But I found myself wishing the filmmakers weren't so interested playing it safe and building a franchise, rather than exploring the interesting environment they'd created.

Zombieland: Double Tap might be a fine time waster for fans of the original.   However, the over-the-top CGI action and lack of any character development makes it more like a cartoon than a movie.  Had the filmmakers dug slightly deeper, and tried to make a comment on humanity in crisis and isolation, this could have been an interesting film.  And after such a long break, you'd hope the filmmakers would have come up with an engaging idea to elevate the franchise beyond the simple point and click feel of a zombie video game. 

SPOILER:  Bill Murray does show up.
And it's pretty pointless.

If you'd like to watch or purchase Zombieland: Double Tap, please consider using the Amazon links below.  If you do, I'll earn a few cents, which will help keep The Shadow Over Portland office open. The first two are to purchase the DVD or Blu-Ray, the last is to stream the film.

Monday, April 13, 2020

The Banana Splits Movie (2019)

Despite an initial run of 31 episodes from 1968 to 1970, and a syndication run lasting until 1982, Hanna-Barbera's The Banana Splits hasn't generated the nostalgic interest of fans that would lead one to expect any type of reboot.  Okay, the Splits did get a televised feature film in 1972, a relaunch on Cartoon Network in 2008, and a DC comic crossover with the Suicide Squad about three years ago (yes, that did happen and I have the comic to prove it), no one expected a modern cinematic outing for Fleegle, Bingo, Drooper and Snorky. 

But last year saw the release of The Banana Splits Movie.  And guess what, it's a R-rated horror comedy, a far cry from it's kid-friendly roots.

Before we go much father, let's talk about the suspicion that the film is little more than a repurposed script from the failed Five Nights at Freddy's adaptation.  While I haven't found any solid evidence to support the theory, I'm found enough to say the theory makes sense.  Warner Bros. Pictures acquired the film rights to Freddy's in 2015, and it languished in development hell until 2017, when game designer Scott Cawthon took the property to Blumhouse Productions. 

If Warner Bros. had a basic treatment, it's possible they decided to move it to another property.  As Blue Ribbon Content (the company behind the film) and Hanna-Barbera (the studio that produced the original show) are both subsidiaries of Warner Bros., it wouldn't be a surprise if the studio decided to use the treatment for a property they owned.  No one is confirming it, but it's not like scripts haven't been retooled to fit a different IP before. 

Yep, I'm talking about the Hellraiser series.

But the big question, regardless of the movie's origins, is if The Banana Splits Movie is any good.  And I have to admit, it's not bad, which was a pleasant surprised.  Don't get me wrong, it's not great, but it is pretty fun.  The main characters are interesting and while it might not be the animatronic cartoon character/homicidal killer movie you want, it's good enough to be an enjoyable way to spend an evening.

So let's talk about the plot for a moment.  I'm going to avoid spoilers, at least any major ones, so don't worry about having the film ruined for you.  And, to be honest, if you've seen any low budget slasher film from the past forty years, you'll know what's coming.

It's Harley Williams' (Finlay Wojtak-Hissong, Dreamkatcher) birthday, and his mother Beth (Dani Kind, Wynonna Earp) has tickets to a taping of The Banana Splits, a popular television series featuring animatronic characters doing goofy things.  His older brother Austin (Romeo Carere) and Harley's father Mitch (Steve Lund, Bitten, Haven, Hemlock Grove) are along for the ride, as well as classmate Zoe (Maria Nash, The Handmaid's Tale), forced to go by her mother.

The five arrive at the studio, with Austin making a very lame pass at the show's hostess, Paige (Naledi Majola).  Also in the crowd are fans Thadd (Kiroshan Naidoo, Tremors: A Cold Day in Hell), a YouTube blogger, and his girlfriend Poppy (Celina Martin, iZombie).  As Thadd is disappointed that his phone is confiscated before he enters the studio, as he wanted to film some backstage footage, Poppy keeps her phone hidden.  Added into the mix is Jonathan (Keeno Lee Hector), a stage father hoping to promote his daughter Parker (Lia Sachs).

Oh, come on folks.
We aren't that scary....

The taping of the show goes fine.  But backstage, Andy (Daniel Fox), the new vice president of programming, tells the show's producer Rebecca (Sara Canning, War of the Planet for the Apes, The Vampire Diaries) that he is cancelling the show to free up the sound stages and budget for cheaper programing.  Of course, one of the Splits overhears this and is not happy with Andy's decision.

Meanwhile, Austin finds Paige and tells her about Harley's birthday, and how much his brother loves the Banana Splits.  Paige secures them backstage passes to meet the Splits, while Mitch runs off to retrieve his phone and text his mistress.

Around this time, we soon find out that Beth's first husband died earlier, and she married Mitch because she felt he would keep Austin safe.  Austin mentions that Mitch is an ass, which Beth finds out is true when she confronts him outside the studio, grabs his phone, and finds out about his mistress.

Inside, the Splits have decided the show must go on.  Disregarding their programming, the four have a plan and, of course, mayhem ensues.

Let me show you why we call it a 
Banana Split! 

Time to guess
Who's gonna die.

And while I'm not telling, you'll know the obvious victims.  But I will say a few of the character arcs end in surprising ways, which speaks to the strength of the script from Jed Elinoff and Scott Thomas (both having worked on R. L. Stine's The Haunting Hour and Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated).  Director Danishka Esterhazy delivers on the script's character growth, which might not be much, but is enough to keep you engaged, especially with Beth and her sons.  And the gory action moments are staged to remind you of the toll it takes those witnessing it, something often missing in horror films involving kids.  And speaking of gore, the kills are worthy of the R-rating, and the set up for a sequel feels earned.  And yes, I'd check it out.

Now I have a flamethrower.

To be honest, the past decade has delivered some classic horror films, and The Banana Splits Movie isn't one of those.  But, while it's a paint-by-numbers horror film, it's fun and engaging, which says a lot.  It's the type of movie I could see Roger Corman releasing back in the 60s.  And now that I wrote that, my mind wonders what William Castle might have done with it.  And that thought of the gimmick he might have pulled off has me grin like an eight year old.  And given the glut of disappointing reboots and re-imaginings of old IPs, that says a lot.  You might forget it soon after it's over, but The Banana Splits Movie is a fun little horror film that might exceed your expectations and make for a fun little Saturday night watch.

Oh please!  Don't call the gimmick

If you'd like to watch this film, please check the links below.  The first is to purchase the DVD, the second is to purchase a steaming version.  As an Amazon Associate, if you buy or rent the film, I'll get a few cents to help keep the lights on at The Shadow Over Portland offices.