31 Days to Scare ~ Run Sweetheart Run

The Facts:

Synopsis: Initially apprehensive when her boss insists she meets with one of his most important clients, s single mother is relieved and excited when the influential businessman defies expectations and sweeps her off her feet. But at the end of the night, when the two are alone together, he reveals his true, violent nature. Battered and terrified, she flees for her life, beginning a relentless cat-and-mouse game with a bloodthirsty assailant hell-bent on her utter destruction.
Stars: Ella Balinska, Pilou Asbæk, Clark Gregg, Dayo Okeniyi, Betsy Brandt, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Ava Grey
Director: Shana Feste
Rated: R
Running Length: 103 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review:  Tracking the new film Run Sweetheart Run over the past two years reminded me of what it was like to follow a movie before the internet became this unruly beast. Back 20-25 years ago, there were a few sites online where you could find information about upcoming movies that updated more frequently than your weekly/monthly subscription magazines. Through these sites, often maintained by zealous fans and consisting of gossip tidbits, you could catch wind of a movie that sounded up your alley and then track it through production, marketing, and, finally, release. I can recall following along for the releases The Relic (charting the many delays to its 1997 arrival in theaters) and, the biggest one of all, the modern shark classic Deep Blue Sea in 1999.

Run Sweetheart Run had barely time to make it onto my radar after its debut at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival before its distribution into theaters was canceled when the lockdown closed movie houses and turned Hollywood into a ghost town. While many similar genre titles eventually found their way into viewers’ homes via streaming or minor theatrical releases once theaters began opening up, Run Sweetheart Run had seemingly vanished from existence. Though it had been sold off to Amazon quickly in May 2020, the streaming service and original producer Blumhouse sat on the film for over two years, a strange stretch to let such an innocuous title languish on a next-to-empty shelf. 

Movies that gather dust on a shelf start to gain a reputation, not a good one. I never quite understood why Blumhouse and Amazon would let the horror title, directed by Shana Feste (Country Strong) and written by Feste along with Keith Josef Adkins and Kellee Terrell, remain unreleased when they put out other titles that might have benefitted from later rollouts. I’d keep checking the IMDb page and news sources for information on the film (mind you, all I had to go on was the synopsis, the cast list, and a few random press photos, the original buzzed-about trailer was never even released online) but came up with nothing. Then…October 2022 rolled around, and it was time for Run Sweetheart Run to get its due.

I’ve followed many films that turned out to be duds, but I was so happy to find that Feste’s film was tremendous fun, the kind of bolt-for-your-life horror that moves so fast you don’t have time to clock how out of joint the logic is at times. The film feeds off the energy put forth by its appealing leads, Ella Balinska and Pilou Asbæk, and a pulsating-synth music score that turns Los Angeles into a neon-tinged town of menace for one woman desperate to survive a night of horrors and the man that is the cause of it all.

Single mother Cherie (Balinska, 2019’s Charlie’s Angels) is studying to get her law degree and working at a high-profile law firm with a boss (Clark Gregg, Moxie) that benefits from her hard work. She double-booked him tonight for an anniversary date with his wife and dinner with a client in town for the evening. Practically guilting her into going, a reluctant Cherie agrees to go out with the client, but when she meets Ethan (Asbæk, Overlord), she’s grateful for her supposed error. A handsome, successful man, Ethan seems interested in Cherie too and has said enough right things by the end of the night that he convinced her to cancel her ride home and come inside with him. As they enter the house, Ethan turns back and stares into the camera, stopping it from following the two of them indoors. What is about to happen is…private.

We don’t see what happens inside, but we hear it, one of several acts of violence toward women that Feste does not show. That may seem like it gives the audience a break from another movie depicting violence against women. Still, there’s something sinister in how characters break the fourth wall and physically move the camera so the audience can’t see what’s about to happen. Cherie is different, though, and is unwilling to go down gently. So begins a night where Cherie is pursued by an evil that won’t stop no matter who is standing in his way. Involving family and friends won’t help Cherie either because Ethan has more than worldly powers at his disposal.

There’s more than a nugget of good ideas and a ton of metaphor, but, almost blessedly, Feste doesn’t lean into this too much. Instead, Feste lets you take the analogy to heart and come up with your interpretation of who Ethan is and what he ultimately has been tasked to do. Feste imbues the story early on with some cheeky fun, but that melts away the further into the night the story gets. That’s also when Balinksa entirely takes control of the movie, and while she may share the lead responsibilities with Asbæk, she’s unquestionably the show’s star.

You can poke holes all around the story and screenplay, but it defeats the bloody-ied fun of the experience. It’s a shame the film got lost in the shuffle because it’s well done and comes across as a confident change of gears for many involved. I could have done with a little more time in the second act with a new character introduced in the final 1/3, but that would add additional time that I don’t think the simple set-up could have supported. Available on streaming, you won’t have to sprint to Run Sweetheart Run, but do walk quickly to add it to your list for a perfect weekend option leading up to Halloween.

Movie Review ~ They/Them

The Facts:

Synopsis: When a group of queer campers is welcomed to a gay conversion camp, they are promised a week of programming meant to “help them find a new sense of freedom.” As Whistler Camp’s methods become increasingly more psychologically unsettling, the campers must work together to protect themselves.
Stars: Kevin Bacon, Anna Chlumsky, Carrie Preston, Theo Germaine, Quei Tann, Austin Crute, Monique Kim, Anna Lore, Cooper Koch,  Darwin Del Fabro
Director: John Logan
Rated: NR
Running Length: 104 minutes
TMMM Score: (5.5/10)
Review: I’m nothing if not a creature of habit, and if there’s one genre I just can’t quit, it’s Summer Camp Slash ’Em Up. Almost as shameless as my addiction to hopping in the water with any ‘ole shark movie that swims my way, I will gleefully ride the bus through the woods to a shabby group of cabins for s’mores and s’more scares. I may have seen them all at this point, including some of the deep cuts that rarely see the light of day. We’ve gone so far that I’m starting to circle back and watch them again. I’m always on the lookout for something new to add to the mix, and hearing Blumhouse was partnering up with Oscar-nominated screenwriter John Logan for They/Them, I grabbed my sleeping bag for a fun party in the woods.

Debuting in early August on streaming service Peacock, They/Them attracted attention when the project was announced in a teaser trailer when details emerged about its plot concerning the location of where Logan had set it. The campers for this modern horror film would be attending a week of gay conversion camp, so it was natural the knee-jerk reaction for many was one of recoil. In a genre known to target the marginalized (often first), was there an actual need to further the horror by having the potential victims already placed in a frightening and vulnerable situation? I must admit that I was intrigued not just by the premise but by the participation of LGBTQIA+ friendly actors such as executive producer and star Kevin Bacon, Anna Chlumsky, Carrie Preston, and Theo Germaine. (Confirming a senior consultant with GLAAD was involved from the start, giving input on the script and on set for the production was also comforting.)

In operation for years, Camp Whistler presents itself as a welcome and safe space for its attendees to “find themselves” away from the noise of daily life. Not rooted in Christianity as many traditional conversion camps are, owner Owen (Bacon, Tremors) and his wife Cora (Preston, Bag of Hammers) prefer to let the teens make their way alone through their time at Whistler. Instead, there would only be a few group sessions and individual meetings with Cora to discuss their emotions. New Nurse Molly (Chlumsky, The End of the Tour) is on hand for any medical needs, and a pair of former campers, now married, preside over the “Boys Cabin” and the “Girls Cabin.” 

Jordan (Germaine, Night’s End) hasn’t decided where they fit yet. A trans, non-binary person that has come to Whistler, like many of their fellow campers, to appease their parents, Jordan is initially suspicious of Owen’s laid-back approach but eventually lets their guard down based on the positive intent of their initial meeting. Alexandra (Quei Tann), Toby (Austin Crute), Gabriel (Darwin Del Fabro), and Stu (Cooper Kock) join Jordan in sharing their stories of coming to terms with their sexuality, with most at different stages of their journeys. 

They/Them is an admirable, if perhaps too tiny, exploration of the emotional toll attending a place like Whistler Camp would have on an individual being sent to “change.” The bad news is that writer/director Logan often forgets that a slasher movie is supposedly being made. You’d also be forgiven if you didn’t remember either, due to the long stretches between brief appearances of the masked, cloaked figure that likes to watch instead of participating. Despite a spooky opening that promises a fun night ahead, Logan and his crew never manage to get back to that same level of tension, even though the film is well made overall.

The performances are the brightest spot in the film by far. Bacon is well cast as a benign (yeah, right) leader in charge of teens cast out by their parents and society and letting them call the shots for a change. True, the goal might be skewed in a specific direction (spoiler: it is), but there’s autonomy on the surface that catches all off guard. I loved Preston’s skill in demonstrating how a frozen smile can be scarier than any bloody butcher knife. All the campers have nice moments, and Germaine is a star on the rise, having a significant opportunity gifted to them. Here’s to many more to come.

It’s disappointing that the filmmakers couldn’t strike a balance in They/Them. The story being told here is valid and vital, but maybe in action, everyone started to realize that this was two disparate films unsuccessfully being mashed into one. At times, Logan (an Oscar nominee for writing the screenplays for Hugo, The Aviator, and Gladiator, not to mention penning Skyfall) gets things to fit together. Then an awkward misalignment becomes evident, and you’ve found yourself stuck in a weird place again. Any genre fan can spot the maniac instantly, so there’s not even a good mystery to solve while we wait. As a curious entry in the genre, They/Them is often more interested in spending time with the living than chasing down the doomed. The performances and above-average production make it worth the look but keep your expectations at a decent level.

Movie Review ~ The Black Phone

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The Facts:

Synopsis: After being abducted by a child killer and locked in a soundproof basement, a 13-year-old boy starts receiving calls on a disconnected phone from the killer’s previous victims.
Stars: Ethan Hawke, Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw, Jeremy Davies, James Ransone
Director: Scott Derrickson
Rated: R
Running Length: 102 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review:  In much the same way I implored you a few weeks back to see Top Gun: Maverick in theaters because I felt it was vital to watch it on the biggest screen possible to get the full effect, I’m going to strongly suggest another trip to your local venue for The Black Phone. Before my screening this past balmy summer night, I had forgotten how nice it was to be at a scare-packed movie with an attentive, engaged audience. Over 100 minutes, seats were jumped out of, popcorn tubs spilled in fright, & shrieks of all tones & timbre were heard. You can’t get that same experience at home, and some of the enjoyment derived from this adaptation of a short story comes directly from that audience energy.

Not that the film doesn’t stand up quite well on its own. It’s a sophisticated scare that director Scott Derrickson (Sinister) has in store for you, far removed from the cruddy slice and dice fare rushed to the screen or the lower-budget releases from the same producer, Blumhouse. No, The Black Phone has been treated with great care, and you can see how that level of attention yields a much better result in the end. Now, you have a movie that has you inching ever forward in your seat as you nibble at your nails, only to be jolted back with one good fright after another.

Set in 1978, it opens on a baseball game on a bright day in April. Young Finney (Mason Thames, quite impressive) desperately wants to strike out the player at bat, mostly to impress a classmate on the sidelines. The game’s fate is inconsequential because not everyone makes it home that day, the result of The Grabber, the name the children give to the individual abducting young boys in the area over the following months. Flashing forward to October, a handful of other adolescent boys have vanished into thin air. The police have little to go on, save for a new tip: Finney’s sister Gwen (Madeline McGraw, American Sniper) dreams about the crimes with details she can’t possibly know.  

Living with their alcoholic and abusive father (Jeremy Davies, Twister) after the death of their mother, the siblings hold onto each other for sanity. Still, when Finney is taken suddenly by a masked madman, Gwen is left on her own to probe her visions for clues that will lead her to her brother. Meanwhile, Finney is trapped inside the basement of a psychotic (Ethan Hawke, Boyhood) whose calm demeanor gives way to violent rages that echo his terrifying shrouded face. His hopes of escape seem futile…until an assumed broken black phone on the wall starts to ring with someone on the other line that has an important message for the trapped lad.

The previews and marketing for The Black Phone have given away some of what happens next, but not quite all, so let’s leave the rest of the movie for you to discover. Based on Joe Hill’s short story, it shouldn’t surprise you that Hill is the son of Stephen King because The Black Phone feels like it could have been featured in one of King’s short story collections through the years. Its period setting with a lack of technology recalls a slower time for information to travel but a more viscerally violent one in the way people deal with problem-solving. Numerous scenes of kids being beaten (by adults or each other) are disturbing to watch, as are the implications you derive from the dominating games Hawke’s twisted character wants to play with the young boy.

It starts to get a little disjointed and messy as it approaches the finale, and once it gets where it’s going, it doesn’t feel like the payoff was worth it, but that realization only comes far later when you’re home, and the adrenaline rush has worn off. Before then, The Black Phone was an easy film to fall into and get scared over. It’s genuinely creepy, primarily due to Derrickson’s classy direction of the material and Hawke’s unnerving and against-type performance. Get to this one in the theaters and check beforehand to see that it’s nearly full – I think you’ll enjoy it more the greater the number of bodies in seats. All the better to scream along with.

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 ~ Torn Hearts

The Facts:

Synopsis: A country music duo seeks out their idol and ends up in a twisted series of horrors that force them to confront the limits they’d go for their dreams.
Stars: Katey Sagal, Abby Quinn, Alexxis Lemire, Joshua Leonard, Shiloh Fernandez
Director: Brea Grant
Rated: NR
Running Length: 97 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review:  Horror is a genre that can be mighty deceiving to unsuspecting audiences, creating many unhappy campers that have selected their watch based on shaky marketing. Sure, the poster looks spooky and slick, but the film is a bottom-of-the-barrel cheap-o endeavor that barely rises above home movie footage. So, you must be smart and look at the studio releasing it. You can tell a lot from the production company that either puts their money into the movie as a financer or picks up the film after completion for distribution. Either way, they’re putting a stamp of approval on it that speaks to their brand.

Admittedly, Blumhouse Productions have a line of stinkers in their roster, and this is going to be a positive review of Torn Hearts, so I’m going to leave them out. Instead, let’s focus on the good ones that far outweigh the bad apples. Titles like Paranormal Activity, Get Out, Happy Death Day, The Purge, and the 2018 Halloween are their bread and butter, not to mention all their numerous sequels. While the pandemic slowed the pace of their production slightly, they had no trouble ramping back up quickly once cameras were rolling again. However, not all are meant for big-screen releases, and that’s where an intriguing effort like director Brea Grant’s Torn Hearts comes in. Debuting through Blumhouse Television and EPIX (as well as other pay-to-play sites like Amazon Prime), it mixes a dangerous cocktail of bold ambition, country music, and bloody brutality.

Nashville country duo Torn Hearts checks most of the boxes that signal they are ready to begin a long career in the business. Jordan (Abby Quinn, Little Women) is the songwriter and guitarist singing harmony along with Leigh (Alexxis Lemire, The Half of It), who tackles the melody while playing tambourine. Leigh is the more marketable of the two, and both know it, though they also recognize they are stronger working as a team than as solo artists. While Leigh is dating their manager (Joshua Leonard, Four Good Days), Jordan can’t stand to see her friend fall into that cliché trap. 

A chance introduction to country superstar Caleb (Shiloh Fernandez, The Evil Dead) hints at the possibility of opening for him on tour, but the women wind up with what they imagine to be a real jackpot. Caleb came close to recording a comeback single with the antisocial Harper Dutch (Katey Sagal, Pitch Perfect 2), half of a sister act that retreated from the public eye after Harper’s sister killed herself while she watched. Caleb gives Jordan Harper’s address, and before you know it, the women have skipped their early morning recording session for a quick jaunt to meet their idol. 

They find a nervy, finger-tapping recluse who resists meeting them at first but, after sizing them up, decides to hear them play. Seeing something in both women reminding her of what she once had with her sister, Harper invites the duo to stay and collaborate on a song…or so they think. Preying on both of their insecurities in increasingly manipulative and violently bizarre methods, Harper tests their strength as individuals to see if they have what it takes to remain unified or if their idea of fame is more focused on a solo spotlight.   

I feel that Torn Hearts might have still worked if it hadn’t had celebrated television star and former Bette Midler backup singer Sagal in a central role, but it absolutely would have lacked the bite Sagal brings. There’s a certain authenticity, especially in the limited singing Sagal is allowed to do, that makes you believe her unhinged character has the potential for enacting any mayhem she chooses. Sagal is working in The Zone, and it elevates the film from a random horror/thriller to a level of more sophistication. She’s supported nicely by Quinn’s acerbic Sara Gilbert in Roseanne-esque take on an alternative modern woman in country music. If Lemire winds up feeling a bit soft, it’s only due to writer Rachel Koller Croft designing her to be a bit of a limp noodle throughout. Besides, once Sagal enters the film around twenty minutes in, all you’ll be wanting is more more more of her.

Director Grant balances time between acting (so great in The Stylist and Lucky) and directing (12 Hour Shift) and clearly has a talent for this genre, especially for creating strong female protagonists (even if they are off their rockers) with a clear point of view. I appreciate that Blumhouse Television and EPIX is making room for filmmakers like Grant and Croft and giving roles to actresses like Sagal while expanding the careers of Quinn and Lemire. All have experience in the industry, but the extra exposure of a well-made release like Torn Hearts increases their value.

Movie Review ~ The Forever Purge

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The Facts:

Synopsis: All the rules are broken as a sect of lawless marauders decides that the annual Purge does not stop at daybreak and instead should never end.

Stars: Josh Lucas, Ana de la Reguera, Tenoch Huerta, Will Patton, Leven Rambin, Cassidy Freeman, Susie Abromeit, Will Brittain

Director: Everado Gout

Rated: R

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  At first, I was going to take a pass on The Forever Purge, having skipped The First Purge back in 2018.  Back then, I felt like the franchise had run its course and going back to the beginning (origin-exploring being popular at the time) felt like an easy trip to the bank for the filmmakers and the studio.  Released to a surprising amount of success in 2013, The Purge made back its budget and a heck of a lot more, quickly spawning The Purge: Anarchy a year later.  2016’s The Purge: Election Year wasn’t the worst election related bit of theatrics we saw that year but despite the presence of stars Frank Grillo and Elizabeth Mitchell it signaled creative energy waning.  All easy reasons why the fourth film was such an easy skip. 

So, why pick up with #5, another half-hearted titled affair originally intended for release in the summer of 2020 and arriving a year later?  I think it was honest curiosity after seeing the spooky poster and some suggestion it would be abandoning its long-standing urban setting for a playing field that’s more of a western vibe.  Could a change of scenery be the thing The Purge saga needed to stay relevant or re-energized?  Or would it just be another retelling of the same story, just with characters sporting cowboy boots and ten-gallon hats?

Well, it’s a little bit of both.  While The Forever Purge isn’t any big revelation as far as horror action films go, it makes a decent attempt to get something extra from its near the border location and (gruesomely) hammer home not just a message about how the U.S. treats immigrants and minorities but what it would be like if the tables were turned.  It can’t quite meet its goal on an issues-based level thanks to its primary mission of for-the-masses entertainment and it grandstands heartily, but in the end, it swings back to familiar territory so no Purge fan will leave a viewing wholly unfulfilled.

Illegally crossing the border to escape their troubled past, Mexican couple Adela (Ana de la Reguera, Army of the Dead) and Juan (Tenoch Huerta, Tigers Are Not Afraid) soon find work in a small Texas town.  She works in a local processing plant and he’s a ranch hand on the Tucker farm where they both live.  While Juan is friendly with most of the Tucker family, head of the clan Dylan (Josh Lucas, The Secret: Dare to Dream) doesn’t warm to him and it isn’t hard to guess why thanks to screenwriter and Purge-creator James DeMonaco’s blunt dialogue.  There isn’t much time to decode the differences between the two men because the annual Purge has been reinstated after being dormant for a number of years and tonight everyone is going their own separate ways to stay safe.  The Tucker family, including Dylan’s pregnant wife, his father, and sister are staying in their ranch fortress while Adela and Juan travel with their fellow immigrants to a safe space where they can avoid any trouble from marauders seeking to “cleanse” the town of their “illegals”.

After the night of government-sanctioned bloodshed, everyone emerges and begins to pick up the pieces from the grisly night…only to find that a rogue group of underground Purge-ers have decided one night isn’t enough.  Now, the Ever After Purge is on and no one is safe in the day or night.  As you can guess in the boiled down simplicity of this fifth entry, the two families will have to put aside their differences if they are to survive as Adela and Juan lead the Tuckers back over the border into Mexico where they would be safe.

The concept of Americans being desperate to cross over borders into Canada and Mexico and become basically illegal immigrants is novel, I’ll give DeMonaco that, but it feels like a “what if” scenario that’s years too late to be revelatory.  Yes, we can look at the irony of it and chuckle at how strange it would be for all these Republican longhorns that were formerly desperate to keep illegal Mexican people out of their town now pleading with their cooks and maids to help them cross over, but is it honestly all that funny?  The night before these same people were likely out hunting these people down.  That’s the problem with these films in the first place:  The Purge was designed to address lawlessness by allowing an anything goes one night a year free for all but all it does is make all that rage grow stronger during the year, so it doesn’t address the inherent rot in society that’s the real crime.

Director Everardo Gout seems to have been handed a guidebook to creating a Purge film and occasionally drops in something familiar to fans of the franchise.  Thankfully, there seems to be more of an emphasis on finding and developing some interesting characters in this one and that what sets it in some small way apart from the others.  I sparked to de la Reguera much like I did in Army of the Dead earlier this year.  She brings a strength to the role that is unexpected but believable when she is called on to take action.  Partnered well with the equally valued Huerta, they outshine Lucas who is completely on autopilot as the twang-y ranch owner thrust into the thick of it and learning about his own personal failings along the way.  The other thing I don’t care for in these movies is that there is never one sole villain, just a series of human roadblocks that have to be dealt with.  There’s no one that is memorable here serving in this space, so I won’t even bother mentioning them.

It’s rumored this was to be the final Purge film, but I wouldn’t count out that DeMonaco has one or two more of these left in him and I’d be interested to see how he could work himself out of the corner the finale painted him into.   The Forever Purge has good moments and probably would play nicely if doing a binge-watch of the entire series…but I’d want one more film to truly cap things off.

Movie Review ~ You Should Have Left


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Strange events plague a couple and their young daughter when they rent a secluded countryside house that has a dark past.

Stars: Kevin Bacon, Amanda Seyfried, Avery Tiiu Essex

Director: David Koepp

Rated: R

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  Ever since movie theaters shut down in early April, there has been much discussion over the big summer blockbusters that have seen their release dates shuffled around or delayed indefinitely.  Buzzed about franchise pictures set to make studios millions (billions, potentially) are now waiting in the wings, dependent on a vaccine for the virus that kept audiences in lockdown to emerge.  Because, let’s be honest, no one really feels completely confident about heading into a enclosed space with a bunch of unknown factors still in play.  I sure don’t, that’s for sure.

So instead of heading to the theaters this summer film fans have been doing their movie-going with their remotes and that’s been a boon to smaller films that might not have received the recognition had they had to compete with movies that had a bigger advertising budget.  That’s why for a few weekends a month ago the smaller horror film The Wretched was the number one movie according to the limited figures available…it also helped that the indie fright flick was fairly decent.  The other difference between a movie like The Wretched and the new thriller You Should Have Left is that The Wretched was likely always going to be a direct to streaming film while You Should Have Left had loftier plans from the start.  The Blumhouse production shifted its release from theaters to On Demand and that plan will most certainly help overall, not just because far more people will see it due to a lack of other similar available content but I think it won’t be judged as harshly as it would have been as a theatrical offering.

Adapted by director David Koepp (Premium Rush) from a 2017 novella by German writer Daniel Kehlmann, You Should Have Left follows Theo Conroy (Kevin Bacon, Patriots Day), his actress wife Susanna (Amanda Seyfried, Scoob!) and their daughter Ella (Avery Essex) as they take a few weeks away from her busy filming schedule for a family retreat in Wales.  Theo’s visit to Susanna’s set early on gives us an indication not only of his jealous side but also hints that he’s famous in his own right…and not for anything particularly pleasant.  The house the family rents is nicely secluded and a wonder of modern design, with clean lines and confusing hallways that are easy to get turned around in.  Right away, Theo can sense there’s something off but can’t quite figure out what’s amiss…and a strange visit into town with its peculiar townspeople doesn’t settle his paranoid nerves any.

As is often the case lately, the first hour of the movie contains some genuine interest and sincere head-scratching moments as Theo starts to unravel the longer he spends within the house.  Is it related to his troubled past and has the dwelling awakened a sinister spirit out to reclaim something from him?  Or is his long gestating lack of confidence in the sincerity of his much-younger wife bubbling to the surface at a most inopportune time?  Basically…is he imagining the house is designed to confuse or has he managed to find a rental property built on top of the devil’s doorway?

If only Koepp could have kept up with the suspense, You Should Have Left might have been a nifty little film that truly delivered.  As it stands, it winds up falling apart in short order and disappointingly so.  Koepp has explored similar themes of isolation/seclusion like this in his previous films Secret Window from 2004 and 1996’s The Trigger Effect so this should be familiar territory to navigate for him.  Maybe the problem is Koepp’s adaptation, which as far as I can tell added in cumbersome elements that seems to have taken Kehlmann’s original simplicity in storytelling and weighed it down with more emotional baggage.  Adding that in complicates things and makes the movie accountable for explaining too much…about Theo, about Susanna, about the house and its origins.  Though it’s handsomely made, it’s in that final half hour where precious little makes sense and Koepp loses control of what up until then had been a precise thriller.

It’s good, then, that we have Bacon on hand to sell what at times is a little hard to swallow.  Bacon is such a dependable presence in even the smallest of roles, it’s nice to see him back in a leading role and re-teamed with Koepp after their superior effort, Stir of Echoes, in 1999.  Even if the film starts to go off the rails, Bacon stays on track and resists the urge to overdo things.  (It’s interesting to note, if the IMDb trivia page is to be believed, Nicolas Cage was originally attached to star – I can only imagine how he would have handled some of the twists of the final act.)  I’m glad the script makes a pointed issue of the age discrepancy between Bacon and Seyfried, their 27-year age gap is very much a piece of the puzzle…though it is still awkward to imagine them as a couple.

For a weekend option, I can imagine that You Should Have Left would be a decent choice for those that have exhausted their Netflix and Amazon Prime queues and need a jolt of newer release.  It’s better than a number of Blumhouse productions that have found their way to theaters and while it doesn’t stand up in competition to their slick update on The Invisible Man earlier this year, it’s watchable more often than not.

The Silver Bullet ~ Black Christmas (2019)



Synopsis
: A group of students are stalked by a stranger during their Christmas break. A remake of the 1974 horror film Black Christmas.

Release Date:  December 13, 2019

Thoughts:  Though Halloween has often worn the crown as the original stalk and slash holiday film, 1974’s Black Christmas beat it to theaters by a solid four years.  Though it failed to make serious waves in its first release, the effective chiller (made by the same guy who gave us A Christmas Story!) has become a classic with countless imitators over the years.  It’s been remade once before in 2006 when rebooting old chestnuts was all the rage and didn’t do much but make audiences long for the simplicity of the original.  Now comes a 2019 version that seems to chuck everything but the title and the thin premise out the door.  While I’m most certainly down for any wintery horror arriving smack dab in the middle of Oscar season, I’m disappointed to once again see a trailer that gives away so dang much of the movie – where’s the restraint?  Starring Imogen Poots (Green Room) and Cary Elwes (The Princess Bride), my interest dropped a few notches after seeing the preview and only because I feel like I’ve caught the gist of the entire film.

31 Days to Scare ~ Halloween (2018)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Laurie Strode comes to her final confrontation with Michael Myers, the masked figure who has haunted her since she narrowly escaped his killing spree on Halloween night four decades ago.

Stars: Jamie Lee Curtis, Judy Greer, Andi Matichak, Haluk Bilginer, Nick Castle, James Jude Courtney, Virginia Gardner, Miles Robbins, Toby Huss, Rhian Rees, Jefferson Hall, Dylan Arnold, Drew Scheid

Director: David Gordon Green

Rated: R

Running Length: 106 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Not only has masked killer Michael Myers lasted longer than a curious cat living next to a busy train track but he’s been revived just as often. Over the past 40 years the Halloween hellraiser from Haddonfield has been a brother to our heroine (Halloween II), an unwelcome uncle (Halloween 4 and Halloween 5), been used as a deadly tool by a cult (Halloween 6), and even missed out completely on one movie (Halloween III). He’s been resurrected (Halloween 8) and rebooted (Rob Zombie’s bizarre remakes) but the one thing that hasn’t truly happened to the Halloween franchise is the chance to revisit with any kind of integrity the characters that made such an impact on audiences four decades ago.

It’s not often a character gets to come back in two different timelines but Jamie Lee Curtis (Prom Night) has the unique distinction of rewriting her own character’s history for a second time. Though Curtis famously returned to the franchise in Halloween: Twenty Years Later (H20 for short…and giggles) the overall impact wasn’t what she hoped and the cleverness fully depleted in the follow-up to that movie. Now, at the urging of none other than Jake Gyllenhaal, Curtis has teamed up with director David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express) and comedian Danny McBride (This Is the End) for a new film which ignores every sequel to John Carpenter’s landmark 1978 film and serves as a fine horror film as well as a glimpse into the lasting effects of trauma.  With Carpenter’s blessing and also his updated score, the three unlikely collaborators set out to continue Laurie’s story with a few unexpected turns along the way.

As the 40th anniversary of The Babysitter Murders in Haddonfield draws near, there is renewed interest in the silent killer Michael Myers and Laurie Strode, the girl that got away. A pair of podcasters (Jefferson Hall and Rhian Rees) have come to Smith’s Grove Hospital to try to get Michael Myers to speak to them. His watchful doctor (Haluk Bilginer, Rosewater) has taken over for the late Dr. Loomis as Michael’s caretaker and doesn’t bat an eye when one of the interviewers hauls out that famous white mask and tries to use it to elict a reaction out of the aged murderer.  How the UK podcaster managed to get the mask out of the courthouse (sure, he says it was given to him but still) and not even in a plastic bag to preserve it is a detail no one seems to bat an eye at. Failing to get anything out of him, the two track down Strode (Curtis) in her protected compound on the outskirts of town.

Living in the woods like a survivalist with no apparent war to fight, Strode is damaged goods after two failed marriages and having her daughter taken away at a young age. Living with the trauma of what she endured has left her broken and bruised, unable to move on from a singular event in her life that still feels unresolved. Estranged from her daughter (Judy Greer, Jurassic World) but attempting to form a bond with her granddaughter (Andi Matichak), Strode is doing the best she can while self-medicating with booze and staying alert in case Myers breaks out and returns to finish the job. Of course, that’s what happens when the bus transporting Myers to a maximum security prison crashes and he escapes. Making a beeline to his hometown and leaving numerous bodies in his wake, Myers slices and dices his way through the town on October 31 while tracking down his main target. Unlucky for him, then, that Laurie has been preparing for this moment for 40 years and is not only ready for his return but willing to stick her neck out to be the one to take him down.

It isn’t a perfect film, there’s far too many extraneous characters that are introduced only to die without much care and there are narrative gaps and implausible leaps that feel outside of the grounded reality the filmmakers are going for. There’s one rather huge twist about ¾ of the way through that is so misguided I thought it was going to derail the entire film – thankfully (mercifully) the film gets back on track fairly quickly. It’s never explained how Myers was captured after the first film or why Strode didn’t just move overseas if she was that traumatized. Also…I still can’t get fathom why this was called simply Halloween and not given its own distinctive title. While it is a direct continuation to the original, it’s not a remake and should have had something to set it apart.  Also, I hate to be the one to break it to you but if you’ve seen the trailers for the film much of the surprises and scares have been spoiled for you.  It’s disappointing to see just how much of the movie has been shown already, way too many of the moments that could have held high suspense have been cheapened or outright ruined by advertisements that held nothing back.

Quibbles aside, Green and McBride (with fellow screenwriter Jeff Fradley) have crafted a supremely satisfying film, pleasing the fans of the original while injecting enough humor, scares, and gore for audiences of today who aren’t content with the slow burn terror Carpenter created in his original masterpiece. Nothing could ever match that and their Halloween doesn’t truly try to outdo its big brother, it just wants to get on the same playing field and it gets the job done. Curtis is wonderful in the role, unlike the character she returned to in H20, I very much believed this Laurie Strode is the same one we first met 40 years ago and she seems to be having a ball giving her most famous role a proper ending. I liked that the majority of the movie focused on the relationship between three generations of Strode women — Greer fits in nicely as Strode’s daughter harboring resentment at the seeming loss of her childhood and I quite liked Matichak who felt like a Laurie for a new generation. There’s already sequel talk and as much as I’d love to see what Green and McBride would cook up next (they originally wanted to film this movie and its sequel back to back) I almost hope they leave well enough alone and let these characters rest in peace.