31 Days to Scare ~ Drag Me to Hell

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A loan officer who evicts an old woman from her home finds herself the recipient of a supernatural curse.

Stars: Alison Lohman, Justin Long, Lorna Raver, Dileep Rao, David Paymer, Adriana Barraza, Chelcie Ross, Reggie Lee, Molly Cheek, Bojana Novakovic

Director: Sam Raimi

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 99 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: So here we are, the final day of the annual 31 Days to Scare and we’ve covered everything from maniacs to vampires, monsters to animated mystery-solving dogs.  We’ve looked at series that took us inside Bly Manor and eight strange tales from Monsterland and caught up with a TV movie from the early ‘70s.  They haven’t all been winners, but some have been pleasant surprises.  In the end, I wanted to sidestep an older feature and go with a title that I think will stand the test of time and be one that viewers several generations from now will dust off and enjoy.  I also wanted to pick something that wasn’t so extreme and too off limits for everyone but would still give fans of the genre a good rattle to keep them happy.

Narrowing down the list for my final title, I kept finding my thoughts drifting to Drag Me to Hell.  The 2009 Sam Raimi-directed feature checked off all the requirements to keep it rising to the top of the pile and that’s how I knew it was sort of the perfect movie to wrap up my month-long film fright fest.  Seeing it for the first time in theaters was one of those deliriously fun experiences I’ll never forget.  I had somehow missed it’s opening weekend and several subsequent weeks after but heard so much good buzz about it from friends and even co-workers that I knew I had to get to the theater post-haste to see if all the good notices were true.  Not only did the film live up to its reputation, it became something of a litmus test I used for my own friends…showing it to others  over the years has been a real treat and almost as good as seeing it for the first time all over again.

Mild-mannered Christine (Alison Lohman) is tired of not getting ahead at her job as a loan officer at a no-name bank in Los Angeles.  Though she has an understanding boyfriend (Justin Long, Tusk) and a supportive boss (David Paymer, Where’d You Go, Bernadette) that tries to coach her, she just can’t be the cutthroat shark that he needs in an upper level employee.  That all changes when she musters up the courage to deny a loan to a kindly old lady (Lorna Raver) requesting an extension on her mortgage.  Though the older woman begs her to reconsider in an act of desperation, Christine remains firm, impressing her boss.  It does not, however, impress the woman who is shamed by this rebuke and returns later that evening to place a gypsy curse on poor Christine.  Now, Christine has a demon after her wanting to, you guessed it, drag her to hell within three days’ time, but if she can pass the curse on to someone else, she can be saved.  Consulting a mystic (Dileep Rao) who eventually brings her to a psychic (Adriana Barraza, The 33) that has dealt with this evil force before, Christine is put through a number of tests and trials on her way to uncover more information about the origin of the curse, the whereabouts of the old lady, and who might be a good candidate to pawn her fast approaching demon off to before it’s too late.

Director Raimi (Indian Summer) had been working on this film long before he ever got caught up in the web of his Spider-Man trilogy but put it aside to focus on those films.  First making a name for himself with his landmark film The Evil Dead (itself a perennial horror classic), Raimi put his name on a number of interesting projects of the same variety before really going the major studio route in the mid ‘90s (like Darkman…remember that?) and onward.  While Drag Me to Hell is a slickly produced film released from a big studio (Universal) it doesn’t have blockbuster expectations tacked onto it, it definitely feels more in line with Raimi’s earlier indie work and that’s a very good thing.

From the opening prologue that gives you information and characters from the past that won’t make sense until a good deal later, Raimi’s film (co-written with his brother, Ivan) is in constant motion with plot developments clipping along at a good pace.  Crafting each truly terrifying scene like an action set-piece from one of his superhero movies, he has a way of building upon each shriek so that at some point you have to give over to amazed laughter that it’s still going on.  Raimi just isn’t content with one scare…I mean, why get a single scream from the audience when you could potentially get half a dozen with six well-timed jolts?  It shouldn’t work as well as it does but expect your nerves to be fried when this one is over.

Originally set to star Ellen Page, I think it’s almost better that Lohman stepped in because she’s such a bland actress.  Now hold up for a second.  Before you get on my case about that statement, let me clarify.  Lohman has always held a certain blankness for me and it gets the desired effect for some films but doesn’t work for others.  Here, it’s great, because Christine is so awkward and unsure at the beginning that Lohman fits into her soft-spoken essence easily, building her confidence slowly as the movie progresses and Christine has a litany of horrors befall her.  There’s also a disgustingly hysterical running gag of her mouth getting filled, mid-scream, with whatever slop, goo, slime, or secretion is being vomited up by the demon or other nasty creature she encounters.

This is just pure fun from beginning to end.  It’s funny, it’s clever, it winks so hard at the audience you can almost hear it batting its eyelashes at you, and Raimi isn’t afraid to let viewers bask in some very strange moments along the way.  Like the goat.  That’s all I’ll say.  The goat.  Raimi clearly knows his audience and while it isn’t strictly for The Evil Dead gang, it could be something they could watch with their teenage children instead of showing them that more intense film.  Drag Me to Hell is strongly recommended not just as a superior horror film but as entertainment at a high level in general.  Fire it up on Halloween for your guests…you’ll have a blast.

 

31 Days to Scare ~ His House

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: As a young refugee couple tries to start over in England, they’re tormented by a sinister force tied to the horrors they escaped in war-torn South Sudan.

Stars: Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù, Wunmi Mosaku, Matt Smith, Malaika Wakoli-Abigaba, Javier Botet

Director: Remi Weeks

Rated: NR

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review: Like almost all of you reading this, I’d like to fast forward these next few weeks to get through all the garbage that’s making North America a real horror show right now.  You can’t turn the TV on without seeing some talking head pointing fingers about emails or shaking heads about the economy while families think about how to survive through a pandemic on smaller incomes due to loss of jobs.  Yet I wonder, when all of the election talk is done…are we ready to get back to looking at the true horrors that are happening in other parts of the world that go above and beyond the immediate problems surrounding the spread of COVID-19?

The bloody wars that have been ongoing in African countries have sent immigrants fleeing to neighboring countries and to places as far distant as parts of Europe and the UK.  Those that are intercepted in their journey are often kept in detention centers while their cases are evaluated and either sent back to face certain death or allowed to stay but under severe restrictions with limitations to their livelihood that could be considered oppressive.  Is this a fate worse than they would have experienced back home?  Have they traded one life sentence for another?

You wouldn’t think a film that falls easily into the horror genre could also ask such deep questions at the outset, but His House is a rare, beautiful bird.  Debuting on Netflix and containing the kind of turn your hair white with fright kind of scares one moment and deeply moving scenes dealing with grief and loss the next, it’s in line with The Haunting of Hill House in capturing what frightens us mentally and emotionally in its purest form.  Not all films are able to pull you in both directions so quickly and not dislocate something in the process but director Remi Weeks takes the multi-layered screenplay from Felicity Evans and Toby Venables and peels its reveals off at just the right time.

Arriving in the UK where they have sought asylum, Bol (Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù) and Rial (Wunmi Mosaku, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) survived the terrifying voyage from Sudan but their daughter Nyagak (Malaika Wakoli-Abigaba) was lost at sea when the boat capsized.  Without their child, they cling to each other and are relieved when they are allowed to stay in the country and given their own flat, a dilapidated but large council house just outside of London.  Before handing over the keys to their home, the social services worker assigned to their case (Matt Smith, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) encourages them to “be one of the good ones.”  Left alone in a two story apartment with bugs crawling in empty pizza boxes and no electricity, the couple spends their first night remembering the first time they met.

In their first few days, Bol gets to know the neighborhood while Rial largely stays indoors.  He wants to adjust to their new life and acclimate to the British culture while she is haunted by the memories of their voyage and the people that were left behind.  The home in disrepair, Bol buys supplies to patch up a living room wall and it’s here he first catches sight of an impossible vision – Nyagak.  The same but…different.  Rial starts to see things too, but it’s of a different entity that tells her of terrible things to come.  A witch from an event in their past has latched on to them and followed the couple to this new house.  This is no ordinary witch, however.  This is a witch with a vengeance, a witch that demands payment, a witch that has methods of persuasion that blur the line of reality for both husband and wife searching for very different things in their new country.

There’s nary a joint out of place here, with Weeks creating a living and breathing blood knot of a film that starts off going one direction and continues to pivot just when you think you know what station you’re pulling into.  Often I would be prepared for the surprise that was just revealed to lead to a logical next step but was somehow never on the right track.  You can thank Evans and Venables for the framework that thinks outside the box and looks at a world and culture bigger than what we typically consider when we hear the phrase “horror film”.  It’s a horror film, no doubt, but to slice it that thin or walk away from it with only that takeaway would be a disservice to the filmmakers and especially the performances.

The two leads in the film are pretty incredible, if you ask me.  Essentially a two-hander, His House is a showcase for Dìrísù and Mosaku and it grows into what it is based on the work the two do as a combined unit.  You definitely get the feeling these two have a connection to each other, making the detachment that creeps in around the halfway point that much more pivotal to the next phase of the film and, ultimately, its resolution.  I’ve been a fan of Mosaku since her fantastic turn in the final season of the Idris Elba television show Luther and she’s already had a great year as a supporting character in HBO’s Lovecraft Country.  She’s got a whopper of a scene near the end that the film hinges on and it’s a master class in delivering essential plot driving narrative while also controlling our understanding of her character’s emotional awakening to a painful truth she doesn’t want to accept.  Almost entirely without words…beautifully done.

Along with the emotional weight carried by His House is the fear factor Weeks includes, but doesn’t force, on the proceedings.  Yes, the movie has a boatload of truly (truly) frightening moments and by the time the first one arrives you’ve forgotten you’re watching a horror movie so Weeks likely will have most audience members leaping out of their skin right away.  The rest of the chills are derived from simple reveals and clever uses of light and distraction to get us looking one way while something is arriving from another.  I don’t often hold my hands in front of my face but I found myself instinctively doing that here at several points that were just too scary to keep my eyes fixed on.  The make-up, mask, and costume-design all add to the atmosphere.  It’s impressive all around.

Listen, I like stupid slasher films as much as the next person and will line-up in the cold temps for the chance to see the latest bad CGI shark film but I’d give up ten of those movies if we can get one film like His House every six months.  This is a classy film that has a grace to its scares, a respect for its characters, and a desire to leave the audience with something to think about when the film is over.  All while being incredibly entertaining.  Highest recommendation.

31 Days to Scare ~ Cadaver

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: In the starving aftermath of a nuclear disaster, a family of three attends a charitable event at a hotel, which takes a dark turn when people start to disappear.

Stars: Gitte Witt, Thomas Gullestad, Thorbjørn Harr, Maria Grazia Di Meo, Kingsford Siayor

Director: Jarand Herdal

Rated: NR

Running Length: 86 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Something that’s been nice about having a huge Netflix library at your fingertips is that not only does it grant you access to a number of domestic titles, it provides an opportunity to see what’s going on in world cinema, almost without you knowing it.  So instead of watching those movies you’d forgotten you liked from your childhood you can take a chance on a cop show from Poland or a romantic comedy from China.  If you really cannot stand the subtitles, go ahead and turn on the dubbing because as anyone that has fallen asleep at the tail end of a movie and woken up during the credits can attest, most Netflix content is dubbed into a number of different languages.

For October, Netflix again has brought US audiences scary original content from other countries and my interest is always piqued to see what foreign cinema has to say about the genre.  Europeans have a much different sensibility toward some areas that Americans feel more reserved about so I always expect the unexpected when approaching something from overseas.  You think the family pet won’t die in a movie from Greece?  Think again.  They wouldn’t possibly let a child perish in the jaws of a beast in that Ukrainian monster mash…or would they?  All bets are off and so are the gloves so it’s best to roll up your sleeves, sit back, and leave predictability at the door.

Owning my Nordic roots, I couldn’t help but feel some pull towards watching Cadaver from Norway.  This film, written and directed by Jarand Herdal, looked interesting from the brief synopsis Netflix provided and the thumbnail image…and masks in general scare me so it seemed like a safe bet.  And it’s a good one too, one of the better offerings to come out of these original films.  While it may not pull the wool completely over the eyes of expert viewers trained in these types of puzzle box mysteries, it does an admirable job keeping up its air of trickery for the duration.

In an unnamed city in an undetermined future, a family of three lives off of what they can scrounge from the burnt out wreckage of their town after an apparent nuclear disaster that might have been a purposeful way to cleanse the population.  Food is dwindling and they can hear the angry shouts of rioting survivors drawing ever closer with sirens following close behind.  Leonora “Leo” (Gitte Witt) is a former stage actress who stares at her image on an advertisement for a production of Macbeth while helping her husband Jacob (Thomas Gullestad) find sustenance to feed their young daughter Alice (Tuva Olivia Remman).  Whatever hope they had for salvation dwindles by the day and the cinematography reflects the darkening of their confidence.

Then, a glimmer of some good luck with an invitation for those remaining in the town to come to the glittering hotel on the hill to see a show…with a dinner provided.  The majestic hotel is something all of them look at with envy and to be invited in and with free food seems to good to be true.  Wanting to give their daughter some kind of happiness, Leo and Jacob clean themselves up and make their way to meet their host, the almost Willy Wonka-like Mathias (Thorbjørn Harr, Bel Canto).  After they’ve filled their bellies, Mathias gives more info about what the people can expect…and why they have to wear the featureless golden masks as they roam the tricky halls of the hotel.

That’s a good place to leave off because Cadaver has several tricks up its sleeve, which would be no fun to spoil for you, and Herdal pulls them off rather nicely in a production that looks expertly designed.  There’s more to the hotel than meets the eye and I enjoyed getting a glimpse of what Mathias had planned for the evening’s entertainment, even if it maybe came at the expense of a few lives.  It’s a mischievous film at times, deliberately leading you astray and then correcting itself by adjusting what we’ve previously seen…so it doesn’t totally play fair.  It also leaves several threads pretty scraggly and that nags at me, not that items aren’t resolved because hey, that’s life, but because I feel like they weren’t deliberately left that way, they were forgotten.

Carrying the film is Witt as the young determined mother already reaching the very edge of a breaking point before entering the hotel but challenged again once the night begins and a true nightmare ensues.  Her gradual shift from her own personal excitement at the opportunity to get out and, as an actress, see a show, to panic at knowing something is wrong, to frantic quick thinking when she figures out what’s happening is a solid study in a performance being metered out intelligently.  Gullestad and Harr are nicely cast as two sides of a gentlemen’s coin in Leo’s life, one is her protector and the other is a tormentor and there are times when we start to question which side is which.

A rather dull resolution is the only negative report I could give but even that didn’t turn my stomach from what was up until then an appetizing and entertaining meal.  It’s more suspenseful than scary but does have its ghoulish charms once you get into the meat of what Mathias is up to with his turncoat staff in the hotel.  At a brisk 86 minutes, Cadaver has a way with toying with your expectations that I think discerning audiences will appreciate.  It’s definitely worth a late-night watch with the lights-out.

31 Days to Scare ~ Come Play

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A monster targets a non-verbal autistic boy along with his family and friends by manifesting through their smart phones, computers, and other electronic devices.

Stars: John Gallagher Jr., Gillian Jacobs, Azhy Robertson, Rachel Wilson, Winslow Fegley, Jayden Marine, Gavin MacIver-Wright, Eboni Booth, Alana-Ashley Marques

Director: Jacob Chase

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 96 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  Too often, it feels like we think of horror on a grander scale than it has to be.  Why must everything be catered to the masses or to what a certain demographic wants to see on the big screen?  Sometimes it’s nice to push play on a scary movie that feels like it was targeted for a particular group of viewers, maybe not even your own, but at least you come away with the impression the filmmaker(s) knows their audience they’re seeking screams from.  The best place to find examples of this is in horror shorts that pop up on festival circuits, carefully curated bite-sized morsels that are compact in size but jam-packed with tension.

In recent years, a number of these shorts that were so well received at global festivals have caught the eye of studios looking for projects that aren’t going to cost them an arm and a leg to produce.  After all, horror is the genre that regularly pays for itself in the opening weekend box office receipts so why not pick a young talent out of the crowd, give them their big break, and maybe make a little money out of the deal in the end?  That’s how we came to get 2013’s Mama from director Andy Muschietti who would go on to direct the 2017 blockbuster remake of IT and it’s less-successful 2019 sequel.  It’s also how David F. Sandberg expanded his 2013 freaky short Lights Out into a full-length 2016 film and parlayed that into directing gigs on the well-received Annabelle: Creation and hit superhero movie Shazam!.

Before Come Play crossed my desk, I’d never heard of Larry, the 2017 five-minute short from writer/director Jacob Chase that he expanded into this new film released from Focus Features and Amblin Partners. (You can watch it below)  Knowing that a number of these short film inspirations would recreate or gently rework their original scenes in their longer film, I deliberately kept away from watching the short film until after and I’m glad I did.  The short film is all about scares (and good ones, too) while Chase has struggled with the expansion of his idea, showing that not all shorts can make the leap to long-form and consistently maintain what made them so special to begin with.  Admittedly, Come Play has its moments to admire and maintains a slick shine of a filmmaker with promise, but it’s lost a valuable simplicity of design in favor of efficiency of storytelling.

Young Oliver (Azhy Robertson, Marriage Story) is a non-verbal autistic who communicates chiefly through an app on his phone that speaks his words for him.  This has created an attachment to the electronic device that is both regrettable and necessary at the same time.  His deep dependency on his technology has even distracted him from the situation developing in his own home because his parents Sarah (Gillian Jacobs, Life of the Party) and Marty (John Gallagher Jr., Underwater) are in the middle of a separation.  She’s frustrated from always being the enforcer of rules and watching Marty sweep in to be the “good” parent; he doesn’t want to say it, but deep down hasn’t fully accepted his son’s diagnosis.

Late at night, Oliver’s phone suddenly displays a new program, a story he can swipe through about an unhappy monster named Larry who has no friends.  Curious to Larry’s tale of woe and feeling a sense of kinship to the friendless outsider, Oliver progresses through the e-book and the further he goes, the more strange things begin to happen around him.  Lights flicker, objects move, a Snapchat filter picks up more than just Oliver’s face as he stands next to a dark closet…all leading to a fateful sleepover between Oliver and several kids from his class that normally bully him.  The four boys also read the book to terrifying and lasting consequences.

Up until this point, Chase has built up a nice amount of suspense as Oliver is essentially stranded alone to face whatever evil entity Larry is.  His dad has moved out and his mom doesn’t understand his fears, pushing him to socialize more for her benefit than his.  Chase introduces some interesting dynamic between this mother-son relationship but never truly cracks the code, and sadly that’s mostly the fault of Jacobs who is completely miscast as Oliver’s overstressed mother.  Her line readings are so bad and insincere you almost wonder if she was trying to make her character sarcastic and Chase or his editor cut the film incorrectly to make her look bad.  It’s a performance that has a large impact in breaking the film in two, with Jacobs on one side and the rest of the cast on the other.

The more we learn about Larry the less the creature manifesting in front of us begins to make sense or follow whatever rules Chase has designed…if any are given at all.  One moment he has set his sights on Oliver and the next, he’s after Marty at his nighttime job as a parking lot attendant.  There are two scenes set here and they’re arguably the ones that will give you best case of the shivers…so it’s no coincidence the original short film was the inspiration for these passages.  Strange, then, that Chase didn’t include the best scare from that short in his feature…because it was a doozy.  You would think he’d at least include that.

There are some good things to report, though.  Child actors can be the absolute worst but Chase lucked out with not one but four good kids cast in roles.  I cannot imagine how impenetrable that sleepover scene would have been if those kids had been impossible to watch, but they play the dialogue and rising fear so well without becoming obnoxious that you have to applaud their performances.  The scares are decent too, with a number of shocks that don’t come with loud music stings or unknown haunters jumping out at you – it’s often what you aren’t seeing or just the suggestion of a presence that sends you sliding down in your seat.  As much as I disliked Jacobs, she’s part of a visual near the end that is truly nightmare-inducing.

The good news bad news here is that Come Play is overall a fine film and that’s why I’m rating it higher than you might think after reading the review.  It stumbles a bit during its last act and doesn’t have a finale that feels fully explored but Chase has crafted a well-made, technically sound film if you’re stepping back and looking at the big picture.  I missed a simpler brand of storytelling in favor of a deeper complexity with a “message” that made it more than it needed to be, but for the audience it is aiming to please I think it mostly makes it up the hill it chugs up for 90-some odd minutes.  There’s definitely a spark in Chase that studios should explore and for a Halloween option new release, Come Play might be worth inviting your friends over for.

 

The original short film, Larry, from director Jacob Chase.

31 Days to Scare ~ I, Madman

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A bookshop clerk and wannabe actress starts seeing the disfigured killer from her 1950s pulp novels come to life and start killing people around her.

Stars: Jenny Wright, Clayton Rohner, Randall William Cook, Stephanie Hodge, Michelle Jordan, Vance Valencia

Director: Tibor Takács

Rated: R

Running Length: 89 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Growing up frequenting several local video stores, I became familiar with their selection so I could spot a new release from twenty paces.  That’s how I easily eyeballed the box cover for I, Madman when it made its debut at Good Neighbor Video in the Nokomis neighborhood by my grandma’s house in 1990.  A rather innocuous bit of VHS box art in general, it had a small image of a redheaded woman being attacked by a masked killer and that’s about all you had to go on.  Nothing screamed creative or original so it would be easy to see why it would have been passed over on the shelves in much the same way it was passed over in theaters when it opened in April 1990.  Heck, I didn’t even find my way to the film until this year and that was only after obtaining a copy of an out of print BluRay I picked up on a whim thinking it would be a good investment.

Turns out that I, Madman is better than the VHS cover we all judged and more in line with the poster you can see above.  It’s a lower-budgeted affair from Trans World Entertainment group (also owners of Musicland, Sam Goody, and other music stores of that late ‘70s and ‘80s era) but what it may have gotten shorted in budget it more than makes up for in imagination, at least at first.  Created in the eye of the teen slasher hurricane, it didn’t have a Freddy, Jason, or Michael Myers-type built in fan base that would be guaranteed to come out in droves for the opening weekends.  Instead, it relied upon an entirely new and wholly original creation to instill some shocks and was mostly successful in its assignment.

Virginia (Jenny Wright, one of those ‘80s stars that could have had a big career but fell prey to the dark side of Hollywood) loves getting lost in a good book so it’s lucky the struggling actress supplants her stalled career working at a used bookstore in Los Angeles.  Sharing a shift with the sassy Mona (Stephanie Hodge) she recently picked out a bit of ‘40s-esque pulp from an estate sale donation to the store and as the film opens is nervously making her way through a tale of terror involving a mad doctor and his beastly creation.  Frightening herself, she invites her cop boyfriend Richard (Clayton Ronher, April Fool’s Day) over and he picks up right away that’s she repeating a pattern of scaring herself on another novel of suspense.

Director Tibor Takács takes a script by David Chaskin (the infamous writer of the sequel to the first A Nightmare on Elm Street and somewhat unwitting star of Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street) and gives it some LA noir grit to it, often making Virginia herself a character in her own story.  There’s a neat little shot where present day Virginia exits into the shadows only to emerge seconds later as a dolled-up would-be victim from a time gone by.  When Virginia comes into possession of the only other novel written by the author of the previous book that gave her the shivers, she can’t suspect that opening those pages would unleash a wave of terror that will endanger the lives of everyone she knows and loves.  By starting to read the book, I, Madman, she unlocks a killer from his literary confines and allows him access to her life and her friends.  Of course, this being the era where people still say “I’ll be right back!” and ask dark alleys “Who’s out there?” no one believes her until it’s too late and she’s forced to face the grotesque killer in an over-the-top finale.

For an 89 minute film, I’d say there’s a solid 55-60 minutes where I, Madman is humming along nicely, doling out spooky scares and Takács creating an unusual amount of atmosphere for a picture of this type.  There’s ghoulishness to the proceedings but it’s not excessive or offensive (well, there’s a strangely unerotic early sex scene between Wright and Rohner that’s more embarassing to watch than sexy).  It likely won’t fulfill the bloodlust of gore hounds but it won’t let the easily grossed out off the hook either. The killer is played by Randall William Cook, the three-time Oscar winner for Make-Up Design for the entire Lord of the Rings film series, wearing an ever-evolving doozy of a skin graft to his mottled face.  Also designing the frightening make-up for his slicing and dicing maniac, Cook pulls double duty (and even triple if you count his work on the special visual effects) and doesn’t seem to be fazed by any of it.  His acting is strong and doesn’t fall into the trap of trying to be comical or discovering a quip for every kill.  It’s a nice match between him and the semi-awake Wright.  Always sort of floating through whatever film she was in, she has a way with making these characters feel alive even though they appear to be checked out.  I also liked Hodge’s silly man-eater, it’s your traditional pre-cougar type supporting older female role but Hodge isn’t playing to the lowest common denominator, either.

It’s not the most exciting non-franchise slasher film you’re going to see this or any year but it’s definitely worth getting your hands on for a look at least once.  There’s some interesting filmmaking in addition to several inspired and spirited performances, not to mention special make-up effects that are incredibly impressive.  I wish it had followed through with its commitment to the pulp fiction and noir elements it carefully introduces in the first half but it sadly abandons them for something more familiar and palatable for less discerning audiences.  Had Chaskin and Takács stuck with their themes and mood, there was a fair to decent chance I, Madman could have become more than just a fondly remembered film by those that know of its existence and moved to a true cult status with a larger following.

31 Days to Scare ~ Drive-In Double Feature: The Car (1977) & The Hearse (1980)

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Each year when I set out to do this series I make an effort not to repeat myself within these 31 days.  It’s difficult when there are so many worthy titles to choose from and a number of quality studios that produced a wealth of films that are waiting to be watched.  Still, once I’ve done a vampire flick I attempt to keep it firmly crossed off my list, but if I find myself in the company of another movie with fangs that I just have to include, I’ll allow it only if it has an interesting angle I can work with.

What I like more than anything is to do a deep dive into the movies that are rarely resurrected year over year and dust them off for a new audience.  I know everyone has their Halloween favorites and you can still have your night-of watch list ready to go but there’s always room to expand your horror horizons beyond your comfort-zone neighborhood Michael Myers is stalking.  Now, often there’s a reason these films gather dust and are only available to watch via YouTube or pricey BluRays released via boutique labels.  Either they were never good to begin with or time hasn’t been kind to them, rendering whatever scares they held in their initial release null and void.  Still, it’s these titles that prove fascinating to watch and think about what viewers must have felt sitting in a theater (or a drive-in) watching these quirky wonders unspool in front of them.

Today I’m giving you what I’m calling a Drive-In Double Feature and the title serves two purposes.  The first is that I can imagine both of these schlocky titles on a neon-lit marquee at a rural drive-in during their first run and the second is that both are vehicle themed…so it’s a way I can get around the whole “not repeating myself” business and feeling not an ounce of shame.  So put your car in park and sit back for today’s 31 Days to Scare Double Feature: 1977’s The Car and 1980’s The Hearse.

 

The Car

The Facts:
Synopsis: A powerful, seemingly possessed car terrorizes a small desert town, and the local sheriff may be the only one who can stop it.
Stars: James Brolin, Kathleen Lloyd, John Marley, R.G. Armstrong, John Rubinstein, Elizabeth Thompson
Director: Elliot Silverstein
Rated: PG
Running Length: 96 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: Two years after their release of JAWS changed the landscape for movies forever, Universal Studios was, like every other studio in Hollywood, doing their best to find a similar property to scare the bejeebus out of audiences.  With production on JAWS 2 not quite ready and soon to be headed for major waves and a number of other projects failing to achieve true liftoff, there was little reason for Universal not to gamble on giving the greenlight to a film that must have sounded totally bonkers on paper.  A mysterious black car arrives out of nowhere in a nothing Utah town and starts terrorizing the townspeople with no apparent rhyme or reason.  The only people that can stop it include a sheriff, a gruff drunk everyone in town avoids, and an idealistic deputy struggling with addiction that believes in a higher power.  Does this set-up sound at all familiar?  Is it any wonder Universal was tempted to bite?

Yes, of course The Car is a blatant rip off of JAWS like a number of lesser-than imitators were at that time and, like those swiftly made efforts, it follows it’s muse so closely that it fails to come up with many unique ideas of its own.  However, unlike its copycat brethren, The Car manages to be incredibly silly yet take itself seriously and not come off like it isn’t in on some kind of joke.  It’s entertaining as all get-out and while it’s too long by a solid 15 minutes I’d be lying if I said it didn’t have several impressively staged action sequences and one truly fall out of your chair shock with mouth agape.  I had set myself up to be slightly amused by people running away in fear of a mean ‘ole car but found myself feeling rather invested in it all, even when it teeters into mysticism and religious tropes that feel out of its grasp.

Fans of The Shining will note from the start the use of Dies Irae throughout the film, especially in its ominous opening credits.  That music is so tied to that 1980 Stanley Kubrick film you’ll need to remind yourself The Car came out three years before.  It does set a mood from the beginning, though, as director Elliot Silverstein stages the first attack on two young bikers on a picturesque canyon route.  Filming from the car’s POV and accompanied by Leonard Rosenman’s stinging score, this opening is incredibly effective and led me to believe The Car would be more than it’s silly premise would have had me believe.  Unfortunately, these opening moments are about as intentionally serious as the film is going to get.

From there, we meet Sheriff Wade Parent (James Brolin, The 33) a second-generation lawman and single dad trying to keep his relationship with school teacher Lauren (a plucky Kathleen Lloyd) a secret from his two young daughters (played by real life sisters Kim and Kyle Richards, the latter of which would appear in Halloween the next year).  The relationship drama takes a backseat when the car takes out a drifter and then targets a crowded event which is the source of an extended bit of mayhem which tips us off there’s more to this car than meets the eye.  The more the town tries to predict the next move the car will make, the less predictable it becomes and the greater its attacks feel personal against the people out to stop it.

I genuinely liked the majority of the characters that drift through the film and even the car itself finds a way to display some kind of personality.  There’s a certified menace to the black beast that shows up when people least expect it when everyone isn’t busy trying to make it so much like the shark in JAWS.  Watch for a shot where the car is running parallel to a dune and you can just barely see it’s top fender…looks an awful lot like a fin skimming the surface of the water.  Brolin has just the right attitude for the role and doesn’t seem to be irked that he’s often upstaged by the car, though his scenes with Lloyd are a bit on the goofy end of things.  Their opening intro felt like the first scene of a discarded Neil Simon play.

How much terror one can derive from a big black car that you can see often see coming from a great distance thanks to the dust-up on the Utah plains is a question you’ll have to answer for yourself.  Still, a small part of you will have to admit that when all the elements combine to firer on all cylinders it works better than you’d expect.  My hopes were raised by those opening moments so be forewarned that while it’s not totally downhill from there, it decreases in excitement (save for that one big unexpected turn of events ¾ of the way through) after the car claims its first victims.


The Hearse


The Facts
:
Synopsis: A schoolteacher moves into her deceased aunt’s home in a small town, only to find herself plagued by supernatural occurrences and unexplained hostility from the local townspeople connected to her aunt’s past.
Stars: Trish Van Devere, Joseph Cotten, David Gautreaux, Perry Lang, Donald Hotton, Med Flory, Donald Petrie, Christopher McDonald
Director: George Bowers
Rated: PG
Running Length: 99 minutes
TMMM Score: (3/10)
Review:  Horror movies can truly be feast or famine not just for viewers but for actors as well.  Take the star of The Hearse, Trish Van Devere.  In 1980, Van Devere appeared in two theatrically released films, both in the horror genre.  The first, The Changeling, was released in March and has gone on to haunt many a Top 10 list of creepiest and scariest films of all time.  I certainly have a high regard for that film and recommend it strongly to you this Halloween season.  Not three months later, Van Devere would have a leading role in The Hearse, but the lasting impact of this one would not be as comparable.  To go from classic to crap in short order is unfortunate but it’s not all Van Devere’s fault.

Divorced San Francisco teacher Jane Hardy (Van Devere) has chosen to spend the summer out of town (where is never truly specified), fixing up her aunt’s old house that was left to her by her mother.  Arriving in the town of Blackford late at night with apparently no solid notice of her pending arrival, the growly probate lawyer (Joseph Cotton) isn’t happy to see her…foreshadowing the attitude of everyone she’ll meet in town.  There’s also the case of the mysterious hearse and its disfigured driver that nearly t-boned her as she entered the town and seems to be following her as the days go on.

As she settles into her aunt’s house, she ignores some pretty major signs that all is not well in the dwelling and not just the, let’s just say what it is, ugly décor.  Blackford also appears to be a hub for creeps, the sheriff is a leering goon and the otherwise benign pastor has a ghastly laugh that will either send chills up your spine or have you bursting out laughing right back.  Befriended by a love-struck teen (Perry Lang) who mostly likes her but also wants to impress his horndog friends (including a young Christopher McDonald from Grease 2), Jane instead falls for the biggest weirdo of them all, Tom (David Gautreaux). Appearing out of nowhere and playing a character with an air of mystery that’s so obvious you want to reach in and shake Jane to open her eyes and see what’s going on in front of her, their courtship is scarier than a number of the jump frights staged by Bowers.

One of the pieces of the puzzle here I never could quite get over was Jane’s ties to the house.  She never lived there and it doesn’t sound like she visited it.  It’s not one of those classic movie houses that someone inherits where you feel like they were given a real gift…this place looks like something you’d bulldoze and start over again.  Overall, Jane is just one of those characters that’s self-reliant just long enough for her to go out on her own and then she suddenly becomes too timid to do anything more than run out of her house anytime she sees something that frightens her.  In addition, after she finds a diary she starts to read it aloud to herself.  I never understand that in movies – why they do that.  Who are they reading to?

The movie is just very dumb and despite a few interesting jumps, is a yawner of the first-degree.  Its slow-pace and lack of a strong leading lady also adds to the drag.  You can tell Van Devere is trying but lack of budget or a decent script holds her back from making anything happen with the piece.  Why the script has her experiencing these horrific visions and being terrorized nightly only to return to the very scene of the crime as if nothing happened is the film’s biggest mystery.  I have a hunch that had this gotten a rewrite from a writer more in tune with crime fiction or with lengthy experience in constructing suspense, this may have been passable.

Produced and released by Crown International Pictures, which was known for their inexpensive films that catered to crowds of the teenage boy variety, The Hearse is a bit of a more adult departure for them, which is likely a problem at the outset.  A PG rated horror film with little in the way of blood and no gore or nudity was a gamble considering the market was being flooded with Halloween knock-offs and the original Friday the 13th had debuted a month before The Hearse drove into theaters.  Even if the script from William Bleich had a bit much punch and less paunch, director George Bowers would have faced an uphill climb to sell his feature on mood alone.  You’re never truly happy to see a hearse drive by but you’ll especially want to avoid The Hearse if it appears as an option in your queue.

31 Days to Scare ~ Friday the 13th Part 3: 3D

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Jason Voorhees takes refuge at a cabin near Crystal Lake and continues his killing spree as a group of co-eds arrive for their vacation.

Stars: Dana Kimmell, Richard Brooker, Paul Kratka, Tracie Savage, Catherine Parks, Jeffrey Rogers, Larry Zerner, Rachel Howard, David Katims

Director: Steve Miner

Rated: R

Running Length: 96 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  If there’s an era of film-going I wish I could go back to, it would definitely be the early ’80s when the seats weren’t stadium, malls had just a few screens, and you often had to wait in line through the screening before yours to secure your seat for the next show.  Stuck at home without all the bells and whistles of going to a theater, it’s nice to take some sort of solace in any kind of feature in your home cinema that enhances your experience which is why I’m glad I have a 3D television that not only plays movies released in 3D but converts regular programming into that format.  I grew up after the small resurgence of the 3D gimmick happened so never had the chance to see films like Parasite 3D (the early Demi Moore film, not the recent Oscar winner), Jaws 3D, or Friday the 13th Part 3: 3D.  Growing up, I’d watch these films and wonder why they looked so terrible and how come there’d be random items that would be shoved in front of the camera lens and then held there for extended periods of time. Though I’ve sadly never gotten the opportunity to see them in theaters projected as they were back in the day, Parasite 3D and Jaws 3D were eventually released on BluRay in a 3D format that allowed you to ditch the awful Red/Blue cardboard glasses that caused your eyes to cross and just use the regular sleek shades provided to those that had 3D televisions.  That just left Friday the 13th Part 3: 3D as the one I’d been wishing for.

Thankfully, my movie-loving prayers were answered this year with the arrival of Scream Factory’s gigantic collector’s edition of the Friday the 13th series which included a spiffy new 3D version of Part 3.  Now, I’d finally get to clearly see all of the effects and sit through the entire film without popping a few Tylenol halfway through.  Part 3 had never been a favorite of mine to begin with but it’s notable for a few reasons, the first is obviously the 3D and the second is that this is the one where killer Jason Voorhees gets his infamous hockey mask.  So after catching up with the original Friday the 13th and its fun but quickly made sequel, it was time to throw on my glasses and see Jason leap off the screen.  Released just 28 months after the original film (Part II came out 11 months after the first!) and swapping filming locations from the East Coast to California this would be the biggest box office take of the series to date and picks up the day after it’s predecessor ends.

After a traumatic encounter in the woods two years earlier seemingly unconnected to the massacre at Camp Crystal Lake, Chris (Dana Kimmell) has returned to her family cabin on the lake with her college friends for a relaxing weekend.  Too bad for them Jason has just hacked his way through a group of counselors in training (from Part II) nearby, fled the scene, and is now lurking around the property.  As Chris reconnects with her onetime boyfriend Rick (Paul Kratka, one of the hunkier leading men in the series and also one of the worst actors) on an evening drive, the rest of her friends stay behind to play practical jokes, smoke weed, fornicate, and meet gruesome ends by the hulking killer.  When prankster Shelley (Larry Zerner) scares Vera (the lovely Catherine Parks, a personal fave) wearing a hockey mask, you can’t help but get a little zing of excitement at the realization that soon the unmasked murderer, whose face returning director Steve Miner has gone to great lengths to hide, will soon be wearing it.  As the numbers dwindle and a final showdown begins, Miner repeats much of what he did in the last film but having Jason go up against a resourceful foe that won’t go down without a substantial fight.

There are some films that just are what they are and no matter how much you fancy them up or try to rewrite their history, they just aren’t going to improve.  As I said before, Part 3 has consistently been on the lower end of my appreciation list and it’s not because this is the first one that starts to feel like a machine more than a movie but because there’s a lack of authenticity to the whole film that gives off a phony quality.  Perhaps the change of scenery to California is the cause of that; most everyone feels like they came out of the same acting class.  Their look, their style, their choices…all of it has a slickness to it that was missing from the first two and that’s not a good thing.  Also, the weathered ranch with a dingy beach the movie was filmed on looks nothing like a lush lakefront so believing you’re back on Crystal Lake is a stretch. One could also argue that the script from Martin Kitrosser and Carol Watson with additional material from an uncredited Petru Popescu was lacking in sufficient development of characters and the Voorhees myth. Two stoner characters might have been fun in 1982 but watching them now I have no idea how they related to the other people and why they were present.  Also, the silly background story given to Chris seems to imply that Chris may have met one of the characters from Part II before and been, well…I mean…I just can’t say it.  Watch it and you’ll know what I’m referring to and you can draw your own conclusions.  All I’m saying is that you could outright skip this one and move on to the excellent Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter and not miss anything crucial to the overall timeline.

What the film does have are some gags that are pretty fun in 3D.  A number of these are of the eye-rolling variety (and two of the eyeball variety) but the effect is put to good use not just in the obvious ways but by adding depth to locations and sharp weapons that come flying out at you.  The barn on the property gets heavily used and its well appointed set has a number of nooks and crannies that play well with a 3D view.  While the murders may not fully benefit from the filming technique, there were a few cool shots I hadn’t noticed before which were enhanced by a body or body part popping out a bit more.  All in all, it was well worth the wait to finally see this as audiences did back in 1982.  You can see why it took a hefty sum at the box office and how the producers original plan to end the series as a trilogy tempted them to call it a day with “The Final Chapter” a year later.  I’d still have to resist the urge to skip this one if I was attempting a marathon but knowing I could watch the disco-scored credits in the pleasant 3D might sway my thoughts moving forward.

 

31 Days to Scare ~ Jacob’s Ladder (1990)

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: The life of a traumatized Vietnam veteran begins to unravel as the line between reality and nightmarish visions becomes blurred

Stars: Tim Robbins, Elizabeth Peña, Danny Aiello, Matt Craven, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Jason Alexander, Patricia Kalember, Eriq La Salle, Ving Rhames

Director: Adrian Lyne

Rated: R

Running Length: 113 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: There are a few reasons why I do this special series 31 Days to Scare every year.  First and foremost is that it commits me to writing something every day and doesn’t give me an excuse to forget or procrastinate.  Another reason is that I’m primarily watching horror/suspense films throughout October so why not make it easier on myself and write about what’s totally fresh in my mind?  The third reason is that is gives me an opportunity to go back and revisit older films that I’d been wanting to review but hadn’t or saw long ago and didn’t remember.  I’ve found there’s a nice balance to doing that and during the year I’ll bookmark titles that I want to save for this month.

One of those selections that’s been in the hopper for a few cycles now is Jacob’s Ladder, a 1990 horror film from director Adrian Lyne.  I’d seen it only once, when it was first released on VHS and never again since but bits and pieces of it had stuck with me over the years.  I didn’t really recall the finer details of the plot so I figured I had enough distance to come at it with a decently unvarnished perspective.  Often listed on lists of the best scary movies from that era, viewing Jacob’s Ladder as an adult I can see why it’s more mature take on death, hell, and demons wouldn’t have spoken to me as an adolescent.  Now, the watch was harrowing.

Opening in 1971 Vietnam, we find Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins, Thanks for Sharing) and his platoon unaware of the danger waiting close by.  An enemy attack leads to a frenzy of action and carnage, leveling the unit in what we think is one thing but turns out to be another bleak nightmare from a future Jacob who has already returned safely from the war.  Obviously damaged by what he saw and experienced, he continues to have dreams of dying and these visions begin to manifest themselves in his daily life.  He sees tentacles and tails on friends and loved ones, a charge nurse has something growing out of the back of her head, he’s pursued by a faceless gang of terrors, but none of this is witnessed by anyone else.

His girlfriend Jezzie (Elizabeth Peña, Grandma) is concerned at first but eventually turns fearful for Jacob as his body begins to show the effects of his paranoia.  Still grieving the loss of his son from his first marriage, she tries to help him stave off those memories in the worst way possible and her tough love approach appears to the audience to be doing more harm than good.  When Jacob meets up with his army buddies and discovers they too have been having similar visions, they start to uncover a conspiracy tied to their time in the war that may explain what’s happening to them now.

There’s more to Jacob’s Ladder than meets the eye at first glance.  I don’t want to say it has a twist because then you’ll be spending the movie looking out for the tables to turn.  Think of it more as a different way of viewing what you’ve just seen because it’s a really a key bit of information given to the audience at the very end.  You may have already arrived at that information on your own but even knowing the ending myself and watching for any clues, Lyne and screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin (who would win an Oscar the same year for Ghost) do a remarkable job keeping their cards close while not cheating.

Known for directing his more adult films like Fatal Attraction, 9 ½ Weeks, and Flashdance, Lyne brings his same attention to detail and eye for making New York look ominous yet strangely attractive all at once.  The movie would be spooky under any director considering Rubin’s trippy script but Lyne does actually fill it with arresting imagery that creates some honest to goodness frights.  Not just your run of the mill jump scares but visuals of eyeless surgeons and bloody ghouls that will haunt you long after the movie has concluded.  On the flip side, when Lyne wants to change the mood he’s able to take us to a lighter place to comfort us by having cinematographer Jeffrey L. Kimball (Top Gun) soften some of the harsh gradients.

I’ve never made a firm decision on my feelings toward Robbins but this turns out to be a great role for him.  His lanky frame, glassy eyes, and sallow face speak to a man troubled by lingering memories from his past that have now come back to steal something more in the future.  It’s a rough road Lyne asks him to travel but Robbins is up for the race.  He’s well matched with the late Peña as his girlfriend that we aren’t sure if we fully trust or not.  Required to be more naked than I think is necessary (until I remember this is an Adrian Lyne film), the actress handles these and other spoiler-y scenes near the end with a cool professionalism.  Pour one out for Danny Aiello (Radio Days) as a kindly chiropractor and the rest of the platoon and large supporting cast filled with familiar faces.

Not a huge box office hit when first released, Jacob’s Ladder was given some semblance of a new life on VHS where it was able to find a more relaxed audience.  I’m glad it did, too, because it’s a strong effort from all involved and one that has good replay value.  The popularity was so big, in fact, that it was said to have influenced the creators of the video game Silent Hill and even got itself a lackluster remake in 2019.  My advice is to stick with the original and give it a shot.  Not only does it represent a fine slice of early ‘90s entertainment from a top director of the time but you might find yourself keeping a light or two on after.

31 Days to Scare ~ Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A British archaeologist and his team bring an embalmed Egyptian royal back from their latest expedition, and trouble ensues when the archaeologist’s daughter is possessed.

Stars: Andrew Keir, Valerie Leon, James Villiers, Hugh Burden, George Coulouris, Mark Edwards, Rosalie Crutchley, Aubrey Morris, David Markham

Director: Seth Holt

Rated: PG

Running Length: 94 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: I’m still more than a little disappointed that 2017’s The Mummy was such a lackluster bust.  Not only did it stop Universal’s planned onslaught of re-envisioning their classic monster catalog, but it wasted a prime opportunity to use their gender-swapped title character in any meaningful way.  It was more about star Tom Cruise than any gauze-wrapped undead wreaking havoc in modern times.  While Universal making their mummy female was applauded, it was far from the first time that change was made (that would be 1944’s The Mummy’s Curse) and other studios had attempted their own twist on mummy norms over the years.

One studio that gave it a shot was Hammer, this British company that churned out oodles of genre pictures covering every kind of beastie and baddie.  Already three deep in their mummy series and wanting to change things up, they looked to none other than Bram Stoker for inspiration on their next picture, Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb.  Stoker’s The Jewel of Seven Stars was published in 1903 and concerns an ancient evil Egyptian queen, a group of unwise archaeologists, and a young girl that becomes a vessel for the rebirth of the queen’s violent spirit.  This would be a different kind of mummy movie, with the same storyline fueled by revenge but carried out in far more supernaturally obtuse methods and showcasing less rotting flesh in favor of the ample cleavage of its well-endowed star.

Margaret (Valerie Leon, The Spy Who Loved Me) has been having increasingly vivid nightmares about the mummification of a beautiful queen.  Adored in finery and surrounded by key artifacts, not to mention a whopper of a ring, the body is well-preserved save for her hand which is violently cut off but remains fairly…active.  In present day, her father (Andrew Keir) a retired archaeologist gives her the same ring from her dreams as an early birthday present, a coincidence that’s just the beginning of Margaret completing a long-gestating connection to Queen Tera, the woman of her dreams. As Margaret becomes more entwined with the spirit of Queen Tera, her father’s old expedition companions begin to sense what can only be described as a disturbance in the force.  Flashbacks reveal their presence as Margaret’s father discovered Queen Tera’s tomb (of course dust/cobweb free and with her body in immaculate condition) and they all took something from their find.  Now, with Tera controlling Margaret, she needs these pieces back by any means necessary so she may live again and continue her reign of terror.  The bodies start to pile up at the same time Tera’s treasures begin to find their way home, leading to a showdown for Margaret’s spirit.

The production of Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb is legendary.   Original star Peter Cushing left the production after a day to tend to his terminally ill wife, a production assistant was killed, and director Seth Holt died before filming was completed.  Seemed there was a curse of some sort over the film and perhaps that’s why it had a rather lackluster reception at the time of its release, despite it being a fairly enjoyable, if overly tame, ride when compared to its elegantly wrapped series siblings.  There’s just something odd about calling the film a mummy movie when it’s more about possession and reincarnation than anything.  The final image is a great visual and teed up a sequel that, due to poor box office returns, sadly never materialized.

Hammer produced so many films that it can be easy to start writing off the lesser known ones like this…just as it’s easy to call titles that aren’t that great underrated.  I think this falls somewhere in the middle of it all…and at least from what I hear it’s better than The Awakening, the 1980 Charlton Heston version of Stoker’s story.   There are definitely things to improve in Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb but I can’t help but wonder if that change of directors didn’t figure into some of the confusing plot shifts in the final act (a main character leaves a room and dies in such a strange way it feels like a dream) so it’s possible to give the film a pass on that.  Though she’s inexplicably dubbed, Leon is a lovely lead and there’s a slow-motion shot of her walking toward her evil double in the middle of the night that’s truly haunting but also beautiful at the same time.  If you can find this one, I say give it a go because you might be surprised at how much you like it.

31 Days to Scare ~ Bad Hair

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: An ambitious young woman gets a weave in order to succeed in the image-obsessed world of music television circa 1989. However, her flourishing career comes at a great cost when she realizes that her new hair may have a mind of its own.

Stars: Elle Lorraine, Jay Pharoah, Lena Waithe, Kelly Rowland, Laverne Cox, Chanté Adams, Judith Scott, James Van Der Beek, Usher Raymond IV, Blair Underwood,  Vanessa Williams

Director: Justin Simien

Rated: NR

Running Length: 115 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review:  Not that I have much of it to speak of now, but there was a time when getting a haircut was a big deal.  When I started making my own hair decisions (meaning, my dad stopped taking me to his barber and telling him to “give me the usual”) it took a while to find the right person to give me the cut I wanted.  Looking through the men on both sides of my family I knew I was fighting a losing battle so was always prepared for the end.  Until that time, though, I was going to treat my hair with flair.  So I get the way that hair plays a huge part into the way we feel about ourselves and why a haircut during a difficult time in our lives is often the way we first signal a change is necessary.

In 1989, I think I had those horrible parallel gradient lines buzzed into my hair (all photo evidence has been destroyed or is in a safe location so don’t go looking for it) but for Bad Hair’s Anna Bludso (Elle Lorraine), her situation is far worse.  As a child she had a bad run in with a poorly applied relaxer and her scalp has never been the same, forcing her to keep her style largely natural to avoid any further irritation.  Normally, this would be something most of us could live with but Anna’s working in Los Angeles at one of the hottest music networks (think MTV but run by a James Van Der Beek type, played by James Van Der Beek) and dreams of becoming a host on their popular video program.

When her team undergoes a restructuring, she impresses her new boss Zora (Vanessa Williams, Miss Virginia) with her ideas but not her looks.  The ex-model suggests Anna start with her hair and offers the name of a stylist that had recently worked wonders on singer sensation Sandra (Kelly Rowland).  Determined, Anna heads to Virgie’s (Laverne Cox, Charlie’s Angels) where the cryptic woman helps her find the perfect weave.  Armed with a glam new look and a fresh aura of confidence, Anna is set on a path to success only to be derailed when her locks begin to display strange, life-like behavior and a fondness for blood.  Possessed by her hair, no one is safe from Anna’s tresses of terror.

Writer/director Justin Simien’s film has so many things going for it that it depresses me to no end to report that Bad Hair (streaming on Hulu starting 10/23) isn’t the fun bit of campy horror it sounds like it’s going to be.  True, there are moments of wit and some humor to be had from the observances from the time and the cultural norms of the day, most of it provided by Lena Waithe (Queen & Slim) as Anna’s co-worker who already hosts her own show.  The biggest problem going on here is the severely poor special effects that sink an already shaky ship.  Plenty of films can skate by with a small budget and decent special effects because they know how to work around them.  However, in Bad Hair, Simien relies so much on terribly rendered effects that its robs the actors and action of any credibility or suspense because the viewer is totally taken out of the moment thinking about the poor quality of what’s onscreen.

You can also add an unnecessarily long run-time to the list of thumbs-down factors because at 115 minutes, Bad Hair needs a good trim.  It’s simply too long and unruly to justify that length and the time it does use up it doesn’t dole out wisely.  Not enough effort is spent to set-up the acknowledgement that something awful is happening in the offices of the music network – people are vanishing left and right courtesy of the hungry hair yet there are hardly any establishing scenes showing anyone is discussing this.  Basically, it’s just a series of scenes of Anna’s weave acting wonky and then the next event happens.  There’s a mass slaughter of key players and all is well the previous day.  Did they not have the police working back then?  The first twenty minutes are so cleverly constructed that you wind up wondering where all that creative energy went in the final 90 minutes that seem to stretch on forever.

The best thing to come out of this experience is getting to know Elle Lorraine as the dynamite lead of the film.  Whatever I thought about the movie, its effects, or its pacing, there’s little denying that Lorraine is a bona fide star and will go on to better things after this.  She’s practically the only person other than Waithe and a great Judith Scott as Anna’s ousted boss, who feels like they realize they’re in a feature film.  Everyone else is strictly playing for a television audience, none more so than Vanessa Williams.  Oh dear.  Vanessa. Williams.  Playing her umpteenth ex-model witchy backstabbing narcissist, I simply don’t see the rationale for Simien using her for this role.  Bringing nothing new or interesting to the role and developing into exactly what we think she will, Simien lost a chance to go after someone unexpected not known for playing this type of maneater and non girls-girl to play a type of role Williams has got the market cornered on. What a flat, boring,  uninspired casting choice on a grand scale.

I almost feel like a broken record saying this but I get to thinking that Simien’s story started out as an episode for some anthology series or film that he then expanded to full-feature length.  It doesn’t have the substance to qualify for that expansion, even though a head-spinning ending created a twist so devious (and, yes, interesting) I wish the actor involved had been in two or three more scenes so their reappearance made more sense.  If you’re going to attempt a final zinger like Simien does, you have to set it up better and, like many things in Bad Hair, it isn’t fully realized.  I expected much more from this and had hoped it would have found the same Little (Hair)Shop of Horrors vibe it felt like it wanted to go after.  Instead, the effects weren’t even comically bad in an Ed Wood sort of way.  Very disappointing.