Movie Review ~ House of Darkness

The Facts:

Synopsis: Driving home to her secluded estate after meeting at a local bar, a player out to score thinks his beautiful, mysterious date will be another casual hook-up. While getting acquainted, their flirtation turns playful, sexy, and sinister. Hoping to get lucky, his luck may have just run out.
Stars: Justin Long, Kate Bosworth, Gia Crovatin, Lucy Walters
Director: Neil LaBute
Rated: R
Running Length: 88 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: Playwright Neil LaBute had a healthy go in Hollywood for a time. Bursting onto the scene with the wicked workplace black comedy In the Company of Men in 1997, the director went on an intriguing spree of work that included everything from the 2000 comedy Nurse Betty to a misguided remake of The Wicker Man in 2006. Adapting his celebrated play into The Shape of Things in 2003 is still one of my favorites, as is the time capsule that is 1998’s Your Friends and Neighbors. Aside from the decidedly commercial Lakeview Terrace in 2008 and 2010’s Death at a Funeral, LaBute has mucked around in TV/streaming the past few years, having been cold-shouldered from the theater world.

I had to read the credits for House of Darkness a few times because it had been so long since I’d seen LaBute’s name attached to a project I had completely forgotten that I was missing his acerbic style. One watch of the creepy preview, though, and you could almost instantly spot the LaBute dialogue. There’s a rhythm to his work; a snap and a crackle between characters that is undeniably entertaining to sit back and enjoy. That the writer/director was again exploring the horror genre made it more intriguing.

An unexplained but unnerving opening image over the credits sends a shiver sliver up your spine before a title card reading “Once Upon a Time…” appears on the screen. It’s an excellent set-up for LaBute to drop the viewer right into the action, following a car down a dark road at the end of an evening out. Hap (Justin Long, Tusk) met Mina (Kate Bosworth, The Devil Has a Name) at a bar and offered to give her a ride home. Driving so far out of his way, he’s hoping for more than a handshake, and once they arrive at her impressively imposing castle of a home, he readily accepts her offer to come in for a drink.

Once inside, the two get to know one another better, which is when LaBute’s talent for verbal sparring comes in handy. Like him or hate him, LaBute is excellent with dialogue and treating his characters with the intelligence they deserve. Reading between the lines of passive-aggressive retorts or half-answered responses to questions, these characters hold one another accountable even when it’s against their better judgment to do so. In this way, House of Darkness feels like it could have been adapted from, or started as, a stage play because there are so many long stretches that are just Hap and Mina talking to one another without much else happening.

Of course, there are other things afoot in the house. As much as Mina says they are alone in the large manor, Hap catches glimpses of shadowy figures lurking down dark halls and other nooks but keeps shaking them off as figments of his tired imagination. To his credit, LaBute never tips his hand too far into letting the audience in on what’s happening, even though it’s not a giant leap to grasp where things are heading before the night is over. Still, there’s a hot-wire tension between the two that builds throughout, and the deeper Hap gets into it with Mina, the more we question who we should side with if things go south. 

Casting is pivotal for a small chamber piece like this, and LaBute was on target with Long and Bosworth. Long has the right chops to play an appealing if smug, proto-nice guy that still wants some physical compensation for his good deed. There’s a nastier way to play the role (see Barbarian, for example), and Long resists the urge to reveal all of those rough edges too early, giving Hap a fighting chance to stay in our good graces as long as possible. I thoroughly enjoyed Bosworth’s slinky role as a possible femme-fatale; her every move suggests someone who wants the hunt and plays with their prey before moving in for the final attack. It’s a performance that needs to build steadily, and Bosworth meters the clues out nicely. 

LaBute isn’t out to jump scare you, but there are a decent number of chilling moments in House of Darkness, enough to make you consider keeping a light on while watching it. It’s a surprisingly brisk watch, perfectly rounded out at 88 satisfying minutes. There are enough subtle touches by the actors and director sprinkled around that it might even be one you consider watching again to catch what you missed on your first trip. Maybe House of Darkness signals LaBute’s next wave is approaching, but for now, I’m content that this tour was so rewarding.

Movie Review ~ Barbarian

The Facts:

Synopsis: A woman staying at an Airbnb discovers that the house she has rented is not what it seems.
Stars: Georgina Campbell, Bill Skarsgård, Justin Long, Matthew Patrick Davis, Richard Brake, Jaymes Butler, Kurt Braunohler
Director: Zach Cregger
Rated: R
Running Length: 102 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: There’s a clever bit of marketing surrounding the release of the new horror film Barbarian. Along with the traditional trailer that blessedly gives away precious little, 20th Century Studios is also running a robust digital campaign. Ads showing preview audiences watching the film and reacting are nothing new regarding reeling in interested viewers, but this pushes hard on the shock and awe that await. It’s a bold strategy because if the movie doesn’t deliver, then there’s lost trust between the studio and ticket-holders that Hollywood can’t buy back in the future. Lucky for Barbarian’s filmmakers and even more fortunate for us, writer/director Zach Cregger has gifted brave viewers an Energizer Bunny of nail-gnashing scares. Just when you think its best hand has been played, the real terror begins.

Creeger’s film could easily start with a title card reading, “It was a dark and stormy night,” because that’s the first thing we see as a car pulls up in the rain in front of an innocuous house. Tess (Georgina Campbell, All My Friends Hate Me) ignores calls from someone named Marcus as she goes over the details of accessing her Airbnb. There’s trouble, though. When she tries to get her key from the lockbox, it’s missing. Noticing a light inside, she knocks until Keith (Bill Skarsgård, Eternals) opens the door. It appears they’ve both booked the rental home through different services, and after awkward interplay that graduates into friendly introductions, it’s decided Tess will sleep in the bedroom while Keith will take the couch. They’ll figure things out the next day.

Oh, but I wish I could tell you more than that! I would like to expand on why Tess is in town and analyze why she doesn’t heed many warning signs to find new lodging the next day. I want to get into what the neighborhood looks like in the bright sunlight after the rain stops and what Tess finds when she hunts for more toilet paper in the basement. I’d really like to get into Justin Long’s character and how he fits into the story, not to mention discuss why he’s visiting the city and the same pristine house Tess and Keith got double booked into. Mostly, I’m intrigued to find out your thoughts about a flashback that explains a lot while saying little. I won’t say anything, though, because to spoil absolutely any of Creeger’s ingenious surprises and stunners would shortchange you of an extremely scary (and satisfying) freak out.

Do me a favor, and trust me when I say that knowing too much about Barbarian going in will dim its bright light just a little bit. Having seen it, I confidently feel it has substantial replay value and look forward to watching it again. There’s no getting back that first watch, and you’ll be grateful to let things play out on their own without waiting for the expected to happen. The marketing team involved with Barbarian has kindly kept a solid lid on the proceedings, and while the trailer may have hinted at what’s going on, it’s withheld more than it’s shown. 

Still an actor as he begins to dip his toe into directing, Creeger has enlisted a strong cast as well as friends and family (like wife Sara Paxton) to fill out voice-over roles. Campbell, Skarsgård, and especially Long (Lady of the Manor) are all incredibly game to play along with Creeger’s twisted turns, and the film works as well as it does because this trio takes it so seriously. The cast could have played elements of the third act toward one extreme, but thankfully the actors handle it with the right amount of intensity, so it doesn’t go over the top. Between this and the upcoming House of Darkness, Long is on a roll, playing a particular kind of doggedly caddish character you start to root for even when you know you shouldn’t. As in 2021’s Wildcat, Campbell knows how to work with unflappable female characters, breaking through any coldness around their edges and finding their warmth. 

It’s not a spoiler to say that Barbarian is front-loaded with enough material where you could see options open for further films should the movie become a hit. Beginning, ending, tangential side-to-side, Creeger has wisely written his movie to be a bit amorphous so that it can stand on its own but could easily be pulled into another direction should the studio want more. If they’re as briskly paced and razor-sharp as this film, I’ll gladly book another stay at this horror home.

Movie Review ~ Lady of the Manor

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The Facts:

Synopsis: An aimless ne’er-do-well becomes a tour guide in a historic estate and winds up befriending the manor’s resident ghost.

Stars: Melanie Lynskey, Judy Greer, Justin Long, Luis Guzmán, Ryan Phillippe, Patrick Duffy

Director: Justin Long and Christian Long

Rated: R

Running Length: 96 minutes

TMMM Score: (2.5/10)

Review:  This last month has been awfully good for ghosts…and it’s not even October yet.  You may recall that just a few short posts ago I gave a marginal thumbs up to the rather decent Afterlife of the Party, a Netflix film starring Victoria Justice that was pleasant in a goopy, Clorox-wiped clean sort of way.  I also broke the news that I’m a closet fan of these types of films where a ghost haunts a living human and either works with them or against them to right a wrong so they can rest in peace.  I’m sticking by that statement, even after being truly haunted by the presence of Lady of the Manor, another movie with some similar themes.  If you asked me two weeks ago which of these ghost movies I’d be less impressed with, I’d surely have said Afterlife of the Party based on who was involved with Lady of the Manor…sadly, this one is a D.O.A. P.O.S.

Remember when Justin Long dated Drew Barrymore and it was weird?  And weird only in the sense that Barrymore has always seemed like such an adult and Long has felt like a forever teenager so the pairing felt like a May-December romance that even though it was more like a May 12 and June 18 one?  Long clearly remembers it too because he’s cast the talented Melanie Lynskey in a role I have a hunch Barrymore would have played if they were still together (and possibly written with her in mind) and then asked her to emulate the kewpie doll mannerisms of the star so easy to imitate to seal the deal.  Even at a subconscious level, it’s impossible not to watch the movie without having Barrymore firmly in your mind and, not to take anything away from Lynskey, wonder if she’d have brought a tad more sparkle to the role.

Lynskey (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) plays Hannah, described in the press notes as a “ne’er-do-well” which is fancy talk for the lay about freeloader she is, occasionally delivering drugs via bike but too dim to even do that right.  When she’s mistaken for a sexual predator (cue an uncomfortable sequence involving pedophile jokes) she’s hauled off to prison where she’s dumped by her boyfriend and kicked to the curb.  As she drowns her sorrow at the local watering hole, she attracts the attention of spoiled lothario Tanner Wadsworth (an extremely puffy in the face Ryan Phillippe, Wish Upon) heir to the Wadsworth estate and recently tasked with its operations.  He’s in need of a new tour guide to dress like the former, you got it, lady of the manor and decides Hannah is the best one for the job.  Mostly, he just wants to sleep with her.

Before she knows it, Hannah has a new job that comes with a free place to live.  The only trouble is that the estate already has a permanent live-in guest (Judy Greer, Halloween) and she isn’t happy with the new arrival that’s loud, obnoxious, and brings with her a large supply of rubber bedroom toys named after famous movie stars.  Dead for a number of years, Lady Wadsworth still holds some values close to her heart and is horrified to see Hannah exhibit the type of extreme unladylike behavior that can only be found in a movie written and directed by men.  Where else can you see a childless female ghost murder victim from colonial times and a rudderless loser men use as little more than a sexual object discuss breaking wind and the best way to excuse yourself from the room when you have to let one rip?

When the validity of Lady Wadsworth’s will is questioned, Hannah will have to step up and help out her phantom friend (spoiler alert?  I mean, c’mon…you have to know they start to get along eventually) prove what her original intentions for her estate were before it falls into the wrong hands for good.  At the same time, Hannah balances a physical relationship with Tanner and something a bit sweeter with a local historian (Long, Tusk) who initially went on one of her disastrous tours.  I feel like I should at least mention Luis Guzmán (Guilty as Sin) seeing that he appears so high up in the credits but has little to do as a nameless bartender other than dry a few glasses and wipe down a counter or two while the main actors get sloppy drunk in front of him.  Surely there was more to this role…or was Guzmán visiting his friends on the set and they needed a last minute replacement?

There’s been a lot of fingers pointing lately toward movies that are deemed “more like TV movies” and the plot for Lady of the Manor is torn directly from the listings on Hallmark or Lifetime.  At its heart, it’s your typical ghost meets girl story and uncovering a not that interesting mystery is a way to spend the time while you reorganize your sock drawer.  Long not only stars in this but wrote and directed it with his brother Christian and it’s as if they took that vanilla plot and wiped their noses with it.  It’s such a snotty booger of a movie and takes every chance to go low with the cheapest possible jokes always seemingly the first choice.  Even blessed with someone comedically talented like Greer, the script favors gross-out humor and dialogue laced with trash talk – there’s little trust shown in the actors or the audience to find the comedy.

What’s most disappointing is that Long has been at this for so long now that you’d think for this first time up to bat he’d have something a bit more to offer, something better to represent him (and his family) on his debut.  Even if Barrymore had taken the lead from Lynskey (and, don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with what Lynskey is doing, she deserves some sort of medal for surviving this train wreck) it wouldn’t have saved things because Lady of the Manor is just rotten, a few laughs along the way notwithstanding.

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.

 

Movie Review ~ Tusk

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When podcaster Wallace Bryton goes missing in the backwoods of Manitoba while interviewing a mysterious seafarer named Howard Howe, his best friend Teddy and girlfriend Allison team with an ex-cop to look for him.

Stars: Justin Long, Michael Parks, Haley Joel Osment, Genesis Rodriguez

Director: Kevin Smith

Rated: R

Running Length: 102 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  A certain chill washed over me when I saw Tusk on my upcoming screening agenda.  Having just seen the trailer and posted a review (see above for the link) I wasn’t sure I was quite ready to see what I knew was in store for me.  Also playing a factor is that I’m no fan of writer/director Kevin Smith’s previous work, something many film aficionados feels akin to sacrilege but which I simply chalk up to as not being as interested in what he has to say as others seem to be.

I’m not kidding when I say that walking down the hall into the theater gave me the same sort of chilly willies I get when I’m about to reach the top of a rollercoaster or turn the corner at a haunted house.  So I was surprised that 100 minutes later I walked out into the light not only being impressed with the quality of Smith’s work but that I enjoyed it more than I ever thought I could.

As far as movie pitches go, Tusk may herald a new way to throw ideas out seeing that its plot began as a joke on a podcast Smith was involved with.  When enough fans voiced their enthusiasm to see a movie made out of a twisted idea, Smith gathered his troops and produced not only Tusk but a companion film, Yoga Hosers, set for release in 2015.

Taking aim at everything from Canadians to naturalists, Tusk concerns a smarmy shock-podcaster (Justin Long) making the most out of his visit to Manitoba by answering an ad placed above a urinal at a kanuk bar by a handicapped man looking for companionship.  Traveling to a secluded home in hopes of finding his next great podcast subject, he soon gets tangled up with the mysterious man (Michael Parks, Argo, Django Unchained) who may not be as wheelchair-bound as he presents himself to be.  What’s in store for the podcaster is both horrific and horrifically bold in its dedication.

Had Smith turned the dial even a hair more into camp territory, Tusk would have been DOA but as it is the film finds a remarkable sound balance between horror and comedy thanks in no small part to the commitment of Long and Parks to the whacked out premise.  Long has never held much appeal as a leading man or even a worthy supporting character, but with Tusk he finally finds a way to make an argument for his legitimacy as an actor.  Parks has a long career as a character actor and he easily walks away with the film after delivering the first of several impassioned speeches regarding his history.

It’s when the film strays from Parks and Long that it tends to feel flimsier and less interesting to audiences.  Focusing on Long’s girlfriend (Genesis Rodriguez, Man on a Ledge) and his partner in crime (Haley Joel Osment) as they search for their lover/colleague with the help of a Jacques Clouseau-like detective (Guy Lapointe…who looks suspiciously like an A-list Oscar nominated actor under that fake nose and comic French accent), this secondary storyline feels like the padding it is–though it does give Smith the opportunity to show off some of the restraint he’s learned as a maturing director.

All in all, Tusk reminded me of a B-movie you’d catch on late-night TV.  It’s not quite as disturbing as it may look but it’s not as gross-out icky as The Human Centipede.  Providing the right amount of laughs as well as horrific images you’ll most likely view from in between the fingers that cover your eyes, it’s a well-made midnight feature (probably Smith’s best filmed to date) that works more often than it should.

The Silver Bullet ~ Tusk

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Synopsis: When his best friend and podcast co-host goes missing in the backwoods of Canada, a young guy joins forces with his friend’s girlfriend to search for him.

Release Date: September 19, 2014

Thoughts: Though director Kevin Smith was once a successful poster boy for the independent film movement, lately his cinematic efforts make blink and you missed them appearances on limited releases/festival circuits before heading to streaming devices.  I can’t say I’ve ever been a huge fan of Smith, likening his movies to his wardrobe of board shorts and hockey jerseys…comfortable looking but totally unnecessary.  I’m especially unsure of his latest product, Tusk, following a young podcaster that meets a man with grisly intentions.  If Smith’s horror-comedy turns out to go where I think it does, I’ll pass; having seen enough of these gross-out excursions into repulsive territory, I’m just not interested in watching it done via Smith’s jokey approach.

The Silver Bullet ~ Movie 43

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Synopsis: An ensemble comedy intertwining different tales.

Release Date:  January 25, 2013

Thoughts: Here’s a film I’ve been hearing about for a while now thanks to a word of mouth publicity campaign.  Though it reminds me a lot of the uneven semi-classic Kentucky Fried Movie, this particular entry sold me on the cast list alone.  You have Oscar nominated/winning females (Naomi Watts, Uma Thurman, Kate Winslet, Halle Berry) side by side with men that run the gamut from A-List (Hugh Jackman, Richard Gere) to has beens (sorry fellow MN Seann William Scott).  Many famous faces/names also wrote and directed the shorts so here’s hoping that the good stuff is great and the bad stuff is short.  I’ve laughed at this trailer (and its Not Safe For Work red band trailer here) and do anticipate liking this when it’s released later in January.