Movie Review ~ Unhuman

The Facts:

Synopsis: Seven misfit students must unite against a growing gang of unhuman savages.
Stars: Brianne Tju, Benjamin Wadsworth, Uriah Shelton, Ali Gallo, Drew Scheid, Lo Graham, Peter Giles
Director: Marcus Dunstan
Rated: NR
Running Length: 90 minutes
TMMM Score: (5.5/10)
Review: Two short weeks ago, we talked about Torn Hearts, a Blumhouse Television and EPIX production that hit a dandy of a sweet spot melding horror and the country music scene.  A low-budget effort that still had the flair and, most importantly, the ambition of a project with double its budget, that movie was an easy to recommend a bit of entertainment from the streaming service as well as the television branch of Jason Blum’s film production company.  Never short on product, EPIX and Blumhouse Television are back with Unhuman, another offering drawing blood from the same ghoulish vein as Torn Hearts, albeit in an entirely different realm of the horror genre.

Cheekily positing itself as a twisted After-School Special, writers Patrick Melton (Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark) and Marcus Dunstan (Piranha 3DD, who also directs) get the film off to a rollicking start via an introduction of the stock characters.  Nice girl Ever (Brianne Tju, 47 Meters Down: Uncaged) and not quite as nice best friend Tamra (Ali Gallo) join their classmates for a 4H field trip into the backwoods.  You’ve got your jock (Uriah Shelton, Freaky) and his trophy girlfriend (Lo Graham, This Is the End) as well as the token minority friend (C.J. LeBlanc, Just Mercy), not to mention two teens ripe for bullying (Drew Scheid, Halloween and Lucy Burvant) and the brooding object of multiple affections (Benjamin Wadsworth).  Chaperoning them is a wise-cracking teacher (Owen Wilson impersonator Peter Giles) and a grumpy bus driver.

We’ve barely met this troupe before an accident sends their bus careening off the road and puts them face to face with an outside danger no amount of extracurricular credit could have prepared them.  Radio broadcasts drop few clues, but it’s clear they’re on their own for the immediate future, so staying on the bus to be picked off one by one isn’t an option.  Not that the vicious creature circling the bus is giving them much of choice in that matter, either.  As the class separates and begins to learn more about themselves and the events leading up to the day, they’ll see that while they have been fending off a multiplying horde of ghouls, the cause of it all might be one of their own.

For a good chunk of Unhuman, Dunstan has a good thing going, and it’s primarily attributed to a game cast who takes the material only as seriously as it will allow.  Possessing several nicely placed twists along the way, I found it easy to stay engaged with the group. While all are playing specific archetypes of the teen genre, none entirely settle into comfortable ways of approaching these familiar characters.  I especially liked Tju (so good in the upcoming Winona Ryder movie The Cow), who leads Unhuman with grit that carries it through the back half when its low-budget skeleton starts to show. 

It’s disappointing that the filmmakers couldn’t land the ending, and if I’m being honest, it gets messy as it moves toward the finale.  Almost feeling like there was a rush to complete the movie, there’s a mish-mash quality to those last moments, which are incongruent with the pleasant surprises presented up until that point.  Unhuman is strong enough for me to offer it as a worthy suggestion as a 90-minute diversion, but you’ll need to level-set your expectations near the finish line.

Movie Review ~ Dashcam

The Facts:

Synopsis:  Two friends live stream the most terrifying night of their lives on a horror-fueled road trip.
Stars: Annie Hardy, Angela Enahoro, Amar Chandha-Patel
Director: Rob Savage
Rated: R
Running Length: 77 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review:  When the pandemic was in full swing, independent filmmakers had to get creative if they wanted to continue to work without major studios’ backing and enhanced COVID measures. One of the best success stories to come out of this time was Host. This barely sixty-minute feature showed up on Shudder and quickly generated excellent word of mouth within its target genre audience and in the greater community. Savage made the story of a haunted Zoom séance look like it was all taking place on a computer screen (known as a ScreenLife film)…because that’s how actors shot it. With a small cast in charge of filming themselves and instructed on how to create many of their in-camera visual effects, director Rob Savage made one of the most genuinely scary films in quite a while. I watched the movie several times, and it retained its effective shrieks with each viewing. 

It was a bit surprising to me how quickly Savage has turned his next project in, and while Dashcam isn’t Savage’s second feature in a literal sense, it does have your typical sophomore stumbling blocks as a follow-up ScreenLife film. Released under the Blumhouse Productions banner, Savage has attracted interest from essential names in the business. However, his movie doesn’t have as commercial a feel as you might expect from this label. Right off the bat, there’s a challenge you’re going to face, and that’s with the leading lady. 

Going into the movie, I had no idea who Annie Hardy was. A California-born musician from the rock band Giant Drag, the 40-year-old was infamous for her quick (and profane) wit onstage and never pulling punches in interviews or online postings. While she’s playing a version of herself in Dashcam, viewers will have to decide whether they will be able to sit through sixty minutes with a character that can be severely grating most of the time. Little can be done to turn this version of Hardy off, not her friends and certainly not an unknown contagion turning ordinary people into raving monsters.

Let’s back up a moment.

In the film, Annie Hardy runs a popular online show from her car that viewers tune into to see her create a song from suggestions appearing in a chat box. While driving around the city, Hardy will draft foul-mouthed ditties that mostly have to do with body parts and fluids that amuse herself more than anyone. However, it’s rough right now as COVID rages through America. As an anti-vaxxer (supposedly like the real Hardy), she’s had enough of the government politics and decides a trip overseas to visit her old bandmate will clear her mind. Hardy isn’t in London long before Stretch (Amar Chandha-Patel) tires of her, and she takes off in his car for a UK version of her show. 

As she’s out, she makes a stop that proves to be unwise, picking up an elderly passenger (Angela Enahoro) to transport across town. Hardy’s wild shenanigans with her new friend take a turn, and before she knows it, she finds herself in the middle of an outbreak she desperately needs to avoid. Involving Stretch and a believable host of others along the way, Hardy crashes through the city and countryside (even an abandoned amusement park) to escape a deadly predator and a cadre of vigilantes who seek not only to eliminate a deadly threat but her as well for unleashing it. 

The entirety of Dashcam is filmed on multiple “screens,” which makes it quite the experience, and one must commend Savage and the cast for capturing it all so effectively. I mean, were I in that situation, holding a camera to film what was going on would be the least of my worries (I would have thrown my phone at the first thing that jumped out at me), but somehow it all gets documented in an easy to track way. The special effects used are sparse but spooky, and the make-up effects yield appropriately disgusting yucks from viewers. It’s not an easy film to watch for multiple reasons, but it’s energizing, nonetheless.

While Dashcam runs 77 minutes, the actual film is just a hair over an hour. The remaining time is taken up by Hardy doing her song-composing schtick…using the names of the cast and crew for inspiration. I’m not sure if some of these people would take being featured here as a tribute or takedown, but none of them should let their moms hear what Hardy has to say. It’s a strange ending to an oddly constructed film, but I did enjoy it all the same. I can see why Hardy would be a lot to take, and she is, but despite her views, I found her raw shock jock humor to be often quite funny. One thing I’m sure of is that had the lead character been a male, no one would come down as hard on the issue of likability.

Movie Review ~ The Passenger (La pasajera)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A group of strangers sharing a ride has their trip interrupted when the driver hits a woman hiking in the dark of night. They decide to help her but quickly learn that something is wrong and that they shouldn’t have let her in at all.
Stars: Ramiro Blas, Cecilia Suárez, Paula Gallego, Cristina Alcázar
Director: Raúl Cerezo & Fernando González Gómez
Rated: NR
Running Length: 90 minutes
TMMM Score: (5.5/10)
Review: When so many horror movies look like they aren’t even trying, it’s easy to feel like throwing a little affection toward a film (and filmmakers) with a point of view and affinity for the genre. That’s why an offering like The Passenger (La pasajera) is so welcome while presenting a bit of a problem when reviewing at the same time. Is The Passenger a cut above the rest, the lame straight-to-streaming trash fests with poor effects, terrible acting, and no creativity around the plot? Sure. There’s a slickness to Raúl Cerezo & Fernando González Gómez’s gooey creature feature that is fun to watch unfold…just not for a full 90 minutes.

As we come out the other side of pandemic filmmaking, with projects that were greenlit before/during the global lockdown, I find that there is a healthy supply of “good idea” genre movies that can’t totally justify their feature run time. What starts as a great concept, with tight pacing and overly decent thrills, begins to lose air around the 50–60-minute mark, and the directors can do little to gather that momentum back. The Passenger is an excellent example of a package with all the right elements (unique make-up, lively cast, creepy location, inspired direction), just overstuffed with plot to the point of exasperation.

Were it not for his ‘dead-eye’ and dated views on dynamics between the sexes, mature rideshare driver Blasco (Ramiro Blas) might be the ladies’ man he envisions. Sadly, the former frontman of a rock band is relegated to lame flirtations with any female he encounters during long treks between towns in his retro caravan. On this trip, he’s ferrying a woman purporting to be visiting a loved one (though her wig masking a bald head indicates otherwise) and a scarred daughter being hauled between towns by her mother to her father’s home after typical teen behavior has made her unmanageable. All four won’t have to worry much about the final destination because the opening moments have shown us a strange presence has landed in the remote woods they are traveling through, slimy sediments that love warm hosts to latch onto.

Encountering someone on the side of the road that has met up with some of this goopy gross-ness, the caravan unwisely takes them in, hoping to get them medical attention, but, as all of these stories go, they’ve only made things worse. As the creature overtakes the group and sends them all sprawling through the unfamiliar terrain, defeating the initial organism will soon be a secondary concern when there is doubt about who among them might be infected and waiting to strike. Much flesh flinging and bloody business abound while running for safety, forming surprising alliances, and avoiding a growing mass of nasty parasites.

I can’t stress enough the goodwill I feel overall toward The Passenger. Even with a scaled budget, the filmmakers have made it look far better than movies made and released here with triple the money. I wouldn’t doubt this directing team gets nabbed by Blumhouse or another group to helm a project soon. The cast, especially Blas, is terrific, and that first hour is a **pun incoming** joyride. Then we get to that final half-hour, and there are problems. Cerezo & González Gómez start to gild that lily when it was already just fine the way it was. Most viewers will welcome that extra dose of creature mayhem but never underestimate the power of holding back a bit more. That would have made The Passenger a proper thrill ride.