31 Days to Scare ~ The Woods

woods-movie-poster

The Facts:

Synopsis: Set in 1965 New England, a troubled girl encounters mysterious happenings in the woods surrounding an isolated girls school that she was sent to by her estranged parents.

Stars: Agnes Bruckner, Patricia Clarkson, Rachel Nichols, Bruce Campbell, Marcia Bennett, Emma Campbell

Director: Lucky McKee

Rated: R

Running Length: 91 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: The Woods didn’t get much attention when it was released back in 2006, bypassing a wide release and arriving for home consumption with little fanfare. Pity. It’s quite a good little scare show with some nicely creepy moments. The performances are on target (notably Patricia Clarkson, an expert at mellow menace) and I loved how the forest elements made their way into the school corridors and even the wardrobe of the increasingly tightly wired staff. Though it gets a tad overstuffed toward the end and betrays a bit of its ‘girl power’ intentions, it’s an overall taut watch.

31 Days to Scare ~ Killer Party

killer-party-poster-resized-1
The Facts
:

Synopsis: A group of friends get trapped at a baby shower when a mysterious outbreak starts turning people into homicidal maniacs.

Stars: Drew Benda, Stephanie Beran, John Brody

Director: Alex Drummond

Rated: NR

Running Length: 80 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: I’m not too keen on films that deal with mass hysteria surrounding the population turning into raging monsters but there’s something fun just on the edges of Killer Party that keeps things interesting. This low-budget effort earns high marks for its appealing cast and its attempts to both poke fun at the genre while making a not totally unsuccessful attempt at breaking some new ground. There’s a bevy of uber fake blood and guts and at 80 minutes feels too long, but the unexpected moments of humor and the feeling that everyone in front of behind the scenes are pals makes me look forward to the next film from these guys.

31 Days to Scare ~ The Conspiracy

conspiracy_ver2

The Facts:

Synopsis: A documentary about conspiracy theories takes a horrific turn after the filmmakers uncover an ancient and dangerous secret society.

Stars: Aaron Poole, James Gilbert, Ian Anderson, Alan C. Peterson, Julian Richings

Director: Christopher MacBride

Rated: NR

Running Length: 84 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Please don’t run away when you hear the word found footage, ok? If you pass up The Conspiracy you’re missing a golden opportunity to take in a most surprising descent into the secret society the filmmakers discover. Most effective in its final act, the buildup may feel like it’s taking too long but the ultimate pay-off is worth the wait. This one gave me some good chills!

31 Days to Scare ~ Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil

tucker_and_dale_vs_evil_ver4

The Facts:

Synopsis: Tucker & Dale are on vacation at their dilapidated mountain cabin when they are attacked by a group of preppy college kids.

Stars: Tyler Labine, Alan Tudyk, Katrina Bowden, Jesse Moss, Philip Granger, Brandon Jay McLaren

Director: Eli Craig

Rated: R

Running Length: 89 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Check out the list of any of the “best of” horror films in the last five years and Tucker and Dale vs. Evil will likely be on all of them…with good reason. Effectively lampooning every aspect of the slasher film genre of the last 40 years, this is awesomely funny in addition to being rapturously gory. It’s perfectly cast and earns every laugh and groan along the way. So if you’re looking to go light on the scares but not venture into stupid or too family-friendly territory, fire up Tucker and Dale vs. Evil for an assured good time.

31 Days to Scare ~ Clown

clown

The Facts:

Synopsis: A loving father finds a clown suit for his son’s birthday party, only to realize the suit is part of an evil curse that turns its wearer into a killer.

Stars: Andy Powers, Laura Allen, Peter Stormare, Elizabeth Whitmere, Christian Distefano

Director: Jon Watts

Rated: R

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Those with even the slightest fear of clowns likely recoiled at the above poster so let me make this clear…if the sight of Bozo or Ronald McDonald gives you the slightest bit of the heebie jeebies, steer clear of Clown. Though it feels like it should have been shorter and part of an anthology package, Clown gets it right most of the time by not being afraid to go to some dark places. Well designed with solid gore and splatter effects, this one sat on the shelf for a bit before being released but it’s well worth a watch. Just make sure anyone with coulrophobia isn’t anywhere near the vicinity.

31 Days to Scare – Last Minute Ideas

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Boy, where did the time go?  October just flew by and, though I went a bit AWOL toward the end, I hope you’ve found your way to one or two new movies to add to your horror watchlist.  Until next year, I leave you with some last minute ideas if you’re looking for something different.

woods-movie-poster

The Woods

The Facts:

Synopsis: Set in 1965 New England, a troubled girl encounters mysterious happenings in the woods surrounding an isolated girls school that she was sent to by her estranged parents.

Stars: Agnes Bruckner, Patricia Clarkson, Rachel Nichols, Bruce Campbell, Marcia Bennett, Emma Campbell

Director: Lucky McKee

Rated: R

Running Length: 91 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: The Woods didn’t get much attention when it was released back in 2006, bypassing a wide release and arriving for home consumption with little fanfare. Pity. It’s quite a good little scare show with some nicely creepy moments. The performances are on target (notably Patricia Clarkson, an expert at mellow menace) and I loved how the forest elements made their way into the school corridors and even the wardrobe of the increasingly tightly wired staff. Though it gets a tad overstuffed toward the end and betrays a bit of its ‘girl power’ intentions, it’s an overall taut watch.

killer-party-poster-resized-1

Killer Party

The Facts:

Synopsis: A group of friends get trapped at a baby shower when a mysterious outbreak starts turning people into homicidal maniacs.

Stars: Drew Benda, Stephanie Beran, John Brody

Director: Alex Drummond

Rated: NR

Running Length: 80 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: I’m not too keen on films that deal with mass hysteria surrounding the population turning into raging monsters but there’s something fun just on the edges of Killer Party that keeps things interesting. This low-budget effort earns high marks for its appealing cast and its attempts to both poke fun at the genre while making a not totally unsuccessful attempt at breaking some new ground. There’s a bevy of uber fake blood and guts and at 80 minutes feels too long, but the unexpected moments of humor and the feeling that everyone in front of behind the scenes are pals makes me look forward to the next film from these guys.

conspiracy_ver2

 

 The Conspiracy

The Facts:

Synopsis: A documentary about conspiracy theories takes a horrific turn after the filmmakers uncover an ancient and dangerous secret society.

Stars: Aaron Poole, James Gilbert, Ian Anderson, Alan C. Peterson, Julian Richings

Director: Christopher MacBride

Rated: NR

Running Length: 84 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Please don’t run away when you hear the word found footage, ok? If you pass up The Conspiracy you’re missing a golden opportunity to take in a most surprising descent into the secret society the filmmakers discover. Most effective in its final act, the buildup may feel like it’s taking too long but the ultimate pay-off is worth the wait. This one gave me some good chills!

 

clown

Clown

The Facts:

Synopsis: A loving father finds a clown suit for his son’s birthday party, only to realize the suit is part of an evil curse that turns its wearer into a killer.

Stars: Andy Powers, Laura Allen, Peter Stormare, Elizabeth Whitmere, Christian Distefano

Director: Jon Watts

Rated: R

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Those with even the slightest fear of clowns likely recoiled at the above poster so let me make this clear…if the sight of Bozo or Ronald McDonald gives you the slightest bit of the heebie jeebies, steer clear of Clown. Though it feels like it should have been shorter and part of an anthology package, Clown gets it right most of the time by not being afraid to go to some dark places. Well designed with solid gore and splatter effects, this one sat on the shelf for a bit before being released but it’s well worth a watch. Just make sure anyone with coulrophobia isn’t anywhere near the vicinity.

tucker_and_dale_vs_evil_ver4

 

Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil

The Facts:

Synopsis: Tucker & Dale are on vacation at their dilapidated mountain cabin when they are attacked by a group of preppy college kids.

Stars: Tyler Labine, Alan Tudyk, Katrina Bowden, Jesse Moss, Philip Granger, Brandon Jay McLaren

Director: Eli Craig

Rated: R

Running Length: 89 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Check out the list of any of the “best of” horror films in the last five years and Tucker and Dale vs. Evil will likely be on all of them…with good reason. Effectively lampooning every aspect of the slasher film genre of the last 40 years, this is awesomely funny in addition to being rapturously gory. It’s perfectly cast and earns every laugh and groan along the way. So if you’re looking to go light on the scares but not venture into stupid or too family-friendly territory, fire up Tucker and Dale vs. Evil for an assured good time.

Movie Review ~ Jack Reacher: Never Go Back

1

jack_reacher_never_go_back_ver2
The Facts
:

Synopsis: Jack Reacher must uncover the truth behind a major government conspiracy in order to clear his name. On the run as a fugitive from the law, Reacher uncovers a potential secret from his past that could change his life forever.

Stars: Tom Cruise, Cobie Smulders, Aldis Hodge, Danika Yarosh, Patrick Heusinger, Holt McCallany, Robert Knepper

Director: Edward Zwick

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 118 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: At one point in the outright terrible Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, Tom Cruise says to a character, “That was really stupid.  Please don’t ever do that again.”  I think I speak for the entire movie-going public by saying, ‘Physician, heal thyself.”  While 2012’s Jack Reacher wasn’t the kind of sizable hit that had tongues wagging, I felt it was a quite entertaining action flick and a nice opportunity for Cruise to push beyond his clean-cut hero image and latch onto a character with some demons to deal with.  Though Cruise didn’t fit the description of the former US Military Police officer author Lee Child has featured in twenty novels over the last two decades, he won over most of his naysayers and with Cruise’s A-List status reestablished by a string of hits (Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Edge of Tomorrow, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation) a sequel was easily greenlit with Cruise serving as main producer.

Of all the novels that could have served as the inspiration for the sequel, it’s surprising that Cruise and company gravitated toward Never Go Back which is one of the newer novels in the Jack Reacher series.  Though well-reviewed, it finds Reacher far along in the arc Child has developed and its transition to the screen is seriously flawed under the pen of Richard Wenk, Marshall Herskovitz, and director Edward Zwick.  The dialogue is dreadful and the plot about black market weaponry and drug trafficking is so non-existent that when it finally does circle back to Reacher and fugitive Major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders, Captain America: The Winter Soldier) out to clear both their names it’s treated more as a pee break opportunity than a climax.

Even worse, Reacher is identified as the possible father of a teenager (Danika Yarosh) and wouldn’t ya know it, when he gets involved the bad guys target his supposed offspring so she has to go on the run with her maybe-Daddy.  All the while, the trio are pursued by a horde of easily bested bad guys led by a man (Patrick Heusinger, Frances Ha) identified in the credits only as The Hunter.  There are a heap ton of ensemble players and all look more excited to be in a scene with Cruise than they do about playing poorly written throwaway roles.

In his last few movies, critics have singled out Cruise’s supporting players and leading ladies as highlights and I think he must have started taking that personally.  In Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, everyone other than Cruise seems to have been selected because they are so out of their league with their megawatt star.  I’m stunned Cruise deigned to share screen time with Smulders who was barely a serviceable actress on television.  Getting every single one of her line readings wrong, her character whines about Reacher not respecting her as a woman who can hold her own…while wearing a short robe casually opened almost to the navel.  If there’s supposed to be chemistry between the two, the formula didn’t pan out because they look like people that grabbed for the same magazine in the dentist office and just continued to talk.

As Cruise’s daughter, Yarosh is giving me Anna Paquin meets Patricia Arquette, minus any of the talent or charm that brought both actresses Oscars.  Uncomfortably awkward and sullen for 90% of the film, you’re praying Reacher doesn’t end up being her dad lest she be guaranteed a spot in a future sequel.  I’m not quite sure what happened with Heusinger’s hitman, he’s supposed to be a highly trained special ops killer but is outwitted and outplayed by almost everyone he comes in contact with.  If he kills someone, it almost feels accidental because he’s so grossly unbelievable in the role.

Though Zwick had early success in his career with Glory and Legends of the Fall, this represents a career low for him (and Cruise, and everyone else).  Had Cruise not been in this and the Jack Reacher moniker been stripped, I could see the entire production being moved to a comeback vehicle for Jean Claude Van Damme and it making some decent money.  It’s so bad, I half expected Cruise to turn to look at the audience and yell “Suckers!” before starting over again with a different cast and script.

Edited poorly with no continuity of time and place to speak of, the movie feels like it was put in a blender and assembled in the dark as part of a community service project.  The only act of kindness that can happen for Jack Reacher: Never Go Back is to have it wiped from our memory and Cruise be allowed a re-do.

Movie Review ~ Keeping Up with the Joneses

keeping_up_with_the_joneses
The Facts
:

Synopsis: A suburban couple becomes embroiled in an international espionage plot when they discover that their seemingly perfect new neighbors are government spies.

Stars: Zach Galifianakis, Jon Hamm, Isla Fisher, Gal Gadot, Patton Oswalt

Director: Greg Mottola

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: When asked by a friend about my thoughts after screening Keeping Up with the Joneses, all I could offer up was, “It’s stupid.  Not bad, not unwatchable…just stupid.” If you’re ok with ‘stupid’ then by all means get thee to your local theater and plunk down those bucks to see a movie that gets it wrong from the get-go.

The problem is, I feel, with the cast.  Not that Zach Galifianakis (Muppets Most Wanted), Jon Hamm (Million Dollar Arm), Isla Fisher (Now You See Me), & Gal Gadot (Triple 9) are wrong for the movie…they’re just in the wrong roles.  Stick with me here, ok?  How many times have we seen movies where statuesque women and movie-star handsome men play secret agents in disguise? And in how many features do they have sidekicks that aren’t quite runway ready but are more than capable of carrying lighter material?  That’s the problem…all four actors above the title in Keeping Up with the Joneses are simply playing into expectations dictated by their Q-scores.

I think I would have enjoyed the movie more had Galifianakis and Fisher swapped roles with Hamm and Gadot because it would have afforded them (and audiences) a chance for something different.  Hamm could certainly have handled the comic bits and I think Galifianakis would have been able to smooth out some of the roughly scripted staid edges screenwriter Michael LeSieur couldn’t do himself.  And why couldn’t Fisher have been the confident super-spy that shows repressed suburban mom Gadot how to wear French cut lingerie and trade bullets with bad guys?

Sadly, no one asked my opinion so Keeping Up with the Joneses is just your standard spy comedy where everyone is simply coasting along to pick up their paycheck at the end of the week.  There’s little joy in the telling of the tale where government operatives Gadot and Hamm pose as new neighbors in a cul-de-sac populated by the employees of a local software business.  Galifianakis is the HR rep for the company and Fisher is his homemaker wife that’s the first to notice the new couple on the block is too good to be true.  When a mole offers to sell a valuable computer chip to the top bidder, the two couples become involved with a little espionage and a lot of poorly constructed action sequences.

If there is a VIP of the movie, Fisher is certainly it.  Possessing good comic instincts and a true talent for physical comedy, Fisher easily outperforms Hamm and Galifianakis, both of whom barely lift a finger to bring anything new to the party.  I wish Gadot’s role wasn’t quite so one-dimensional, though her role-reversal of power with her seemingly more macho counterpart is a nice wrinkle.  The supporting players are a collection of desperate scene stealers clearly compensated with free meals from their scenery chewing.

For all its brightly lit suburban bliss and basic cable action scenes, director Greg Mottola’s (Superbad) film looks pretty cheap.  I expected some of the sets to tip over if people leaned against them and the few special effects would have been impressive had this come out the summer after Tron did.  Keep your eyes open for a scene between Galifianakis and Hamm that was clearly a reshoot – both men are wearing wigs so fake looking you’d swear they raided the discount Halloween bin at CVS.

Possibly enjoyed as a rental down the line, Keeping Up with the Joneses isn’t worth much of an effort this fall.

31 Days to Scare ~ The Stepfather (1987)

stepfather

The Facts:

Synopsis: After murdering his entire family, a man remarries a widow with a teenage daughter in another town and prepares to do it all over again.

Stars: Terry O’Quinn, Jill Schoelen, Shelley Hack

Director: Joseph Ruben

Rated: 89 minutes

Running Length: R

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: Long before he reached a career zenith with his role on television’s Lost, Terry O’Quinn was mostly known as “that one guy in that one film”. A dependable character actor, he popped up in big movies and small but was rarely required to truly carry the heft of a film and if you look over his resume you’ll see he’s worked with just about everyone.  However, back in 1985 when The Stepfather went into production (it wasn’t released until 1987), O’Quinn wasn’t a familiar face and that worked to his advantage in showing that his harmless appearance masked a nutball determined to find the perfect family.

Opening with the grisly tableau of murder and the blood soaked man that did the deed, The Stepfather jumps ahead in time to find Jerry Blake (O’Quinn) settling in with a new family in a new town. His new wife Susan (Shelley Hack) thinks he can do no wrong and is grateful to have a man around the house but his stepdaughter Stephanie (Jill Schoelen, a popular fave in horror films of the ‘80s) isn’t too keen on the guy.  Stephanie isn’t just bugged by Jerry’s cornball old school values, she’s wary of his outbursts that don’t align with his calm demeanor.

Director Joseph Ruben moves the pieces around nicely for the first half of the film, creating tension as Stephanie does some detective work while Jerry knocks off anyone that gets in the way of his happiness.  He eventually realizes that Stephanie has to go but doesn’t bet on the fact that as much as he’s willing to kill for the perfect family, Stephanie’s just as game to keep him out of hers.  It gets a bit heavy-handed as it unspools with the final showdown gratuitous on many fronts…such as a strange shower scene for Schoelen that feels icky and exploitative.

O’Quinn is scary good here, treading the line between tightly wound and out of control with a nice balance.  He makes the character more than just a killer in a tweed jacket and argyle socks and brings a real sense of psychosis to Jerry.  Hack is sorta bland but that’s also how her character’s written.  Even so, you’ll be driven mad by how long it takes her to catch on that her new husband is cuckoo.  As is usually the case, Schoelen is an engaging heroine that you’re willing to root for.  With a voice that always sounds like she was screaming for hours the night before, she’s a nice fit with the role and a good match for O’Quinn.

While The Stepfather ends with a pretty final dénouement, if you do your homework you’ll see that it spawned two sequels, the first of which featured O’Quinn reprising his role in what’s basically just a remake of the first film.  It’s a decent sequel but steer clear of the third entry that recasts its lead and doesn’t drum up much excitement.  A modern remake was released in 2009 but it failed to make anyone forget how solid the original film was.

31 Days to Scare ~ Happy Birthday to Me (1981)

happy_birthday_to_me_poster_01

The Facts:

Synopsis: At the snobby Crawford Academy, popular high school senior Virginia Wainwright survives a freak accident, but suffers from memory loss and traumatic blackouts. As she attempts to resume a normal life, something terrible is happening – her friends are ruthlessly murdered one-by-one.

Stars: Melissa Sue Anderson, Glenn Ford, Lawrence Dane, Jack Blum, Matt Craven, Lisa Langlois, Tracy Bregman, Lenore Zahn, Lesleh Donaldson

Director: J. Lee Thompson

Rated: R

Running Length: 110 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: By the time Happy Birthday to Me rolled into theaters in May of 1981, movie houses were becoming saturated with holiday themed slasher pics after the booming success of Halloween in 1978 and Friday the 13th in 1980.  No government holiday stone was left unturned and no religious day of remembrance was safe from having a killer (or killers) hunting down people that just want to have a good Easter egg roll or plant in tree in honor of Arbor Day.  See Prom Night, My Bloody Valentine, and Terror Train if you need a refresher.

What sets Happy Birthday to Me apart from the others is that it actually feels like it’s trying for the majority of its running length, aiming to provide audiences with some unique kills and a fair number of red herrings to keep you guessing until the totally ludicrous finale.  Underneath the gore and out of left field plot twists lies a fairly interesting film that isn’t totally lost along the way to its genre’s normal trappings.

A puzzling late career entry for director J. Lee Thompson (the original Cape Fear, The Guns of the Navarone) and one of actor Glenn Ford’s last roles, this nicely budgeted Canadian produced flick has Mary Ingalls herself (Melissa Sue Anderson) as a popular girl who just can’t keep her friends alive.  Still feeling the lingering effects of a traumatic brain injury due to a car crash that claimed the life of her mother, she starts to suffer blackouts and when she wakes up finds that another coed has been murdered.  With her birthday approaching the guest list gets liberally trimmed by a killer that likes to off their victims in a most cinematic fashion (I mean, just look at the poster!).

It’s clear that along the way the original script was jiggered with and lost some of its intended focus.  Though it feels like it’s headed one way for its big reveal, the ending provided is one no one would ever be able to predict in a million years.  I’m guessing there was a last minute reshoot to make the conclusion less obvious but in doing so it renders a heap of earlier clues and plot points useless.  It’s a cheat and a big cheat at that, but it’s just looney tunes enough to make it memorable.

Anderson never was that strong of an actress and it shows here as well.  Whether crying, screaming, or saying her lines in a flat monotone, a Scream Queen she was not destined to be.  Ford collects his paycheck without much shame while a bunch of Canadian teens never make that much of an impression, save for Matt Craven (Indian Summer) and Tracy Bregman as Anderson’s doomed chums.

It’s a film that goes from spooky to silly to scary to stupid but it’s not a bad party to think about attending – trust me, you’ve been to way worse real birthdays.  And don’t forget the creepy theme song that plays over the end credits…