31 Days to Scare ~ Venom (1981)

The Facts:

Synopsis: Terrorists in the process of kidnapping a child get trapped in a house with an extremely deadly snake.
Stars: Klaus Kinski, Oliver Reed, Nicol Williamson, Sarah Miles, Sterling Hayden, Lance Holcomb, Susan George, Cornelia Sharpe, Michael Gough
Director: Piers Haggard
Rated: R
Running Length: 92 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review:  I could imagine a viewer in 1981 standing in front of the poster for Venom seen above and scratching their head in confusion. Referring to The Birds, Psycho, The Omen, and Jaws call to mind four classic but drastically different horror experiences. Even if you lifted the elements from all four films the poster indicated, it couldn’t quite describe the odd appeal of Venom or its continued life on the periphery of the genre. I have had this one on my ‘to-do’ list for some time but kept delaying, thinking it was one of those half-hearted productions that lured stars in need of cash. Surprisingly, a good deal of money seems to have been invested in it, though it’s debatable how well it was all spent.

Not expressly a creature feature but not without its share of jump-out-of-your-seat moments thanks to a reptile on the loose, Venom had a troubled production that resulted in an uneven film. Original director Tobe Hooper (Poltergeist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) was replaced after the first week, and new director Piers Haggard arrived to find a cast and crew at odds with one another. Haggard went on record later saying the snake was the nicest member of the cast to work with if that indicates the atmosphere on the set. With strong personalities like the infamously eccentric Klaus Kinski and combative Oliver Reed, not to mention stalwart Sterling Hayden, you can understand how the film starts to cater more toward its human stars than its central antagonist. That’s especially disappointing because the first 40 minutes of the film are gripping.

A wealthy American family living in London is targeted by a kidnapping plot meticulously plotted from within their household. Mother Ruth Hopkins (Cornelia Sharpe) is hesitant to leave her asthmatic son Philip (Lance Holcomb) for a few days in the care of her father Howard (Hayden), who is recovering in their home after an illness. Still, the family’s British maid Louise (Susan George, Fright) and chauffeur Dave (Reed, The Brood) know Philip’s routine, and it’s a school holiday, so there’s little to be worried over. That is until Louise’s secret lover Jacques Müller (Kinski, Nosferatu) arrives to help the house staff carry out plans to kidnap Philip and hold him for ransom.

Never underestimate the plans of a naughty boy and his irascible grandpa, though. While Ruth thinks her son and father are going to lay low (the script is so freewheeling with exposition that Sharpe has the line, ‘You need to be careful of your asthma since we’re in London, but at least you’re with your grandfather while I’m away for the weekend. Well, at least there’s no school for a few days. Just don’t go out.”) they’ve planned for the boy to travel alone to an exotic animal store and pick up a new harmless house snake to add to his home zoo. A mix-up at the store has sent his purchase to Dr. Marion Stowe (Sarah Miles) at the Institute of Toxicology though; he unknowingly goes home with a deadly black mamba.

It doesn’t take long for the snake to pop out and cause massive problems for the kidnappers and potential victims, adding an extra layer of danger for all. To put even more pressure on the situation, the police are tipped off about the kidnapping and surround the tiny flat, forcing Jacques to take more desperate measures to escape capture. With a slithering predator moving silently around the house, a nest of criminal vipers crafting their next move, and London’s finest rallying outside, the race is on to see who will strike first.

If you have any fear of snakes, Venom will surely crank up that blood pressure at the outset. Waiting for the snake to appear makes for more than a few deliriously fun sequences, and even watching the camera (standing in for the snake) slowly gliding through the air ducts is enough to make your hairs stand on end. I don’t have the greatest affinity for these reptiles and admit that when the mamba makes its first appearance, it comes as a significant shock. If only the rest of the elements in the film lived up to that initial thrill.

The further the movie gets away from being about the snake and more about the trio of criminals (and the police outside), the less interesting it becomes. These are all fine actors, but we bought a ticket to Venom, not Kidnapper Talks to Police. When the film should be surging into its final act, it’s still fooling around with Kinski and Reed’s shameless mugging for the camera. Hayden sometimes gets a bit into the action but largely rises above those shenanigans. I liked Miles as the knowing doctor, and George was fun as a femme fatale that should be more careful about what dark places she peers into. George has one of the trickiest acting exercises in the film, one that Kinski must recreate later, but the younger actress comes off far better than Kinski’s comically overbaked take.

It can’t hold a candle to the movies it name drops on its poster, but, like its marketing, Venom manages to get the job done and serve its purpose at the time. I’m surprised no one has attempted to remake it over the years because the story, while containing far-fetched elements, is a more believable set-up than you’d think. Movies like Crawl can make us believe someone can be stuck in a house with a crocodile; why not re-do Venom with a more restrained cast and tighter directing?

Movie Review ~ Dangerous Game: The Legacy Murders

The Facts:

Synopsis: A family reunion at a remote mansion takes a lethal turn when they are trapped inside and forced to play a deadly survival game where only one will make it out alive.
Stars: Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Will Sasso, Jon Voight, Laura Mennell, Megan Charpentier, Kaya Coleman, Skyler Shaye, Dylan Playfair, Bradley Stryker
Director: Sean McNamara
Rated: R
Running Length: 96 minutes
TMMM Score: (2/10)
Review:  Each critic has their standards for evaluating a movie. Some keep (like me) keep it broad, which makes it easier to treat each film with a certain amount of fairness. This is why I can post a review of a classic such as In the Heat of the Night and newer work like Heathers: The Musical and give them nearly the same score but not necessarily equate them as the same kind of “good” movie. The one criterion I have is universal, no matter what: the taste level. I think every movie, even the bad ones, can eek out a fraction of good taste, and those that can’t manage to instantly have to start at the bottom and work their way up on my scoresheet.

Barely twenty minutes have passed in Dangerous Game: The Legacy Murders before someone sent a small cat down a garbage disposal, an act that has zero bearing on anything else that happens in the film. The act may illustrate a character trait that comes into play later, but it’s so vile (with poorly executed VFX, I might add) that I briefly considered skipping the rest of the film altogether. That the film doubles down and shows us the aftermath is even more alarming. It’s not as if I believed the unmistakable stuffed animal with its limbs shredded and covered in red sauce was real. Still, that director Sean McNamara (The King’s Daughter) kept it in makes you wonder who drove the ship for this ill-advised mystery thriller.

The kitty disposal bit is sadly not the first of many questionable choices that happen within this film, a lame Knives Out knockoff that doesn’t have the star power or the creative writing to get in the hemisphere of the ingenuity that 2019 movie crafted. Instead, we have Jonathan Rhys Meyers (WifeLike) and Will Sasso (The Three Stooges) as brothers gathering to celebrate the 80th birthday of their much-hated patriarch, Oscar-winner Jon Voight (Anaconda). With their significant others and children in tow, the clan travels to Voight’s secluded island, where his stately mansion becomes a death trap, and a peculiar game arrives that, when played, reveals family secrets that should have stayed buried.

Often, you find yourself with a movie that starts with a strong set-up or working from a place of promise only to go downhill, dragged into the depths by its unrealized potential. That’s not the case with Dangerous Game: The Legacy Murders. It starts badly, with a prologue that drops you right into confusing action, and ends worse. Nearly every character is morally bankrupt and reprehensible, and the one that potentially has a kind bone in their body gets dealt the most unbelievably gruesome demise imaginable. We’re talking organ-removing while still alive territory, ala the board game Operation.

With Voight objectively terrible performing an oddly specific impression of a good friend of his who shall remain nameless (let’s call him Ronald Grump), Sasso grossly overeating the scenery, and Rhys Meyers outrageously miscast based on his age, I’m almost wondering if this was meant to be a comedy and I just missed the memo. Or maybe the actors missed it. Or perhaps everyone involved was just collectively making their own movie and didn’t discuss it with one another. That’s how it honestly feels as you’re watching it. Nothing makes a lick of sense in Dangerous Game: The Legacy Murders, and for a mystery dependent on the pieces fitting together, that’s a problem.

Movie Review ~ Smile (2022)

The Facts:

Synopsis: After witnessing a bizarre, traumatic incident involving a patient, Dr. Rose Cotter starts experiencing frightening occurrences that she can’t explain. As an overwhelming terror begins taking over her life, Rose must confront her troubling past to survive and escape her horrifying new reality.
Stars: Sosie Bacon, Jessie T. Usher, Kyle Gallner, Caitlin Stasey, Kal Penn, Rob Morgan, Robin Weigert, Judy Reyes
Director: Parker Finn
Rated: R
Running Length: 115 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review:  While I’m happy that movie theaters have gotten back into full swing and we’re able to experience films made for the big screen in the larger-than-life projection as they were initially intended, there’s a cold truth that must be said. It’s still annoying to deal with audiences that simply don’t care about preserving the art of movie-going with the same magic it used to have before technology, bad manners, and entitlement took over. The texting remains as bad as ever, loud talking with disregard for other patrons is still there, and general apathy toward the personal space of the people around you is firmly in place. Don’t believe me? Tell it to the gentleman and his date I had to sit a few rows behind the other day who used their shiny phones to brightly correspond with friends while putting their feet up on top of the (occupied!) seats in front of them.  

For all these bad apple audiences, when you find yourself in one that not only plays by the rules but adds their bit of fun, you remember again why a communal spirit is an integral part of the shared movie-going experience. Watching the nerve-rattling new horror film Smile, the audience (for once, a nice mix of ages and races that represents a broad spectrum of ticket-buyer) came to get their bones rattled. You could feel the energy building the scarier the film got and the more reactions from row to row. Even a rogue talker providing color commentary, usually a source of ire for me, successfully landed some well-timed zingers that didn’t impede the mood.

I’ve been in audiences like this when a movie is terrible (like the time a thirtysomething man was laughing so hard at the 2007 Lindsay Lohan debacle I Know Who Killed Me he literally fell out of his seat and rolled down the aisle) but with a movie like Smile, which is far better than average, you know early on how forgiving an audience will be. Because Smile is pretty silly if you dwindle on any significant part of the plot, not that writer/director Parker Finn stays in one place for too long in his film that’s, coincidentally, too long. From a prologue that sets a tone of uneasiness that continues throughout to a dedicated embrace of all the tricks in the genre playbook, Smile is aggressively coming for your screams and won’t stop until it gets it. It got me; it will get you.

Hospital emergency ward therapist Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon) is dedicated to her work and helping patients through traumatic events. In the few brief character-building moments we have with her as the film opens, we get the impression her passion for care often outweighs what she can reasonably offer from a medical or emotional standpoint. She’s supposed to be headed home for a well-earned rest when she takes one last admit, a tormented patient (Caitlin Stasey) that speaks of a presence stalking her that only she can see. Before Rose can learn more, the patient commits a crazed act of self-harm that serves as the starting point for Rose’s descent into her paranoia of supernatural menace.

Unable to do her job effectively, her boss (Kal Penn) puts her on leave, while her fiancé (Jesse T. Usher) doesn’t know what to do to stop a growing madness from taking over. A visit to Rose’s therapist (the excellent Robin Weigert, Bombshell) fills in some blanks into Rose’s childhood and the trauma endured that has followed her around ever since. Were these demons reawakened when she bore witness to the recent violence, or has a curse transferred to her, a curse now working as a doomsday clock counting down to a similar gory fate?

Drawing bits and pieces from films like The Ring, Drag Me to Hell, and a little bit of It Follows, Smile is set apart by a style and sophisticated production elements which give it a prominent studio sheen. Indeed, Paramount’s 17-million-dollar investment has been used wisely, with special effects from legendary masters of the craft Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff Jr.  Spending your money where it counts provides the film with calling card frights. These nightmare-inducing images leap out from the dark at you, accompanied by a sting of dissonant music from Cristobal Tapia de Veer. 

Finn uses the score and sound effects to keep you on your toes. Sure, much of the screeching jolts feel like cheap ways to goose you into a reaction, and yet they work like walking through a haunted house when there’s an endless parade of scares while you traverse down a hallway. With frights jumping out at you from every angle, it’s natural that you will jump right when you are directed to because that is the point. The same is true here. The cheap scares are one thing, but the earned ones (and there are quite a few) are dandy. Consider getting a lid for your popcorn and a seat belt for your chair, so you don’t levitate right out of your seat.

We’re on a great run of horror films lately (The Black Phone, Barbarian, House of Darkness), and Smile continues that streak. I loved watching this one and how unrelenting it was in its mission to mine us for all the shrieks it could.   Even the short title design cast its particular mood on this viewer. Those unwilling to have that joy buzzer scare will likely emerge from Smile feeling used. Understanding what it’s purposely doing and how it aims for the extreme versions of overused motifs will give you something to flash your pearly whites for.

Movie Review ~ Top Gun: Maverick

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When he finds himself training a detachment of Top Gun graduates for a specialized mission the likes of which no living pilot has ever seen, Pete “Maverick” Mitchell faces an uncertain future while confronting the ghosts of his past, culminating in a mission that demands the ultimate sacrifice from those who will be chosen to fly it.
Stars: Tom Cruise, Jennifer Connelly, Jon Hamm, Ed Harris, Glen Powell, Lewis Pullman, Danny Ramirez, Monica Barbaro, Manny Jacinto, Val Kilmer
Director: Joseph Kosinski
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 131 minutes
TMMM Score: (10/10)
Review:  I think it’s safe to say that we’ve had our share of star movies over the past several years. You know what I’m talking about, too. Films that are the real draw more than any living, breathing actor or actress appearing in the picture. It’s like a long-running Broadway show in that, at a certain point, it doesn’t matter who is playing the leading role; it all depends on if the audience is willing to pay out money to see the machine at work. A seemingly endless stream of Marvel, DC Comics, franchise, and known content have clogged up theaters even before the pandemic, and now that’s all audiences want to spend their money on. It takes a bold movie with hot word of mouth (like the ongoing box office smash Everything Everywhere All at Once) to break through the noise. And it takes a movie star.

If anyone could bust through that wall of sound, it’s going to be an actor that’s been literally trying to break the sound barrier for years. Superstar Tom Cruise has had his fair share of bad press during his career and especially over the past half-decade, but what he continues to deliver is a breathlessly impressive supply of limit-pushing adventures that put the capital “C” in Cinema and remind you why you pay that extra fee to watch movies on the most giant screen you can find. His Mission: Impossible films have morphed from the kitschy fun of the original to mind-boggling action epics. Last onscreen in 2018’s Mission: Impossible – Fallout, with a two-part capper to his Ethan Hunt character from that series starting in 2023, Cruise is sliding back into theaters with a film that has been finished for a few years but has been delayed due to the pandemic. 

For a while, it felt like a sequel to the bombastic classic 1986 film Top Gun would never see a theatrical release. Already coming off to some like a stretch project thirty years too late, Cruise made it a point to let detractors know he’d been approached for a follow-up on multiple occasions, but it wasn’t until now that a script came together that felt right. With better technology and the opportunity to have actors trained to fly the jets (and film themselves as well!), Cruise could give fans a second chapter that would be worth waiting for. No one could have expected how long the wait would be, though. Intended for release in July 2019 (yes, 2019), it was bumped back for a myriad of reasons along the way. The important thing is that Cruise held out to keep Top Gun: Maverick from being a victim of the studio’s wave of pandemic straight-to-streaming offloads…and we should be forever grateful.

Thirty years into his career in the U.S. Navy, Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Cruise, Rock of Ages) has remained a test pilot, passing up promotions to stay airborne and avoid the dreaded desk job of senior officers. Currently working on a hypersonic test jet at the film’s start, when he breaks protocol and is targeted by a commanding officer for permanent grounding, he’s called back to familiar territory at San Diego’s Top Gun training program. His skills are needed to oversee a new mission carried out by an elite group of the best recent graduates, many of whom weren’t even born when he was in their shoes. One of the pilots, Rooster (Miles Teller, The Spectacular Now), isn’t thrilled to see Maverick onsite due to their complicated family history. Fans of the original will make the connection (and it’s no spoiler), but I’ll let screenwriters Ehren Kruger (Dumbo), Erin Warren Singer (Only the Brave), and frequent Cruise collaborator Christopher McQuarrie (Jack Reacher) connect the dots while you watch.

Rekindling a romance with old flame Penny (a barely-there character from the original and the substitute for Kelly McGillis, who, like Meg Ryan, sadly doesn’t return for the sequel, though other familiar faces do), Maverick balances questioning the need for stability at his age with, well, feeling the need for speed. You can guess what wins most of the time, but credit Cruise and Jennifer Connelly (Alita: Battle Angel) as Penny for creating a mature, age-appropriate relationship that is allowed to take center stage believably and often without a lot of dialogue. Connelly is so good (and eternally, impossibly beautiful) at conveying whole paragraphs with just an eye movement, that she makes one of the best Cruise love interests I’ve seen in quite some time. It’s the kind of non-mushy romantic involvement that even audiences coming for full-throttle action won’t mind pausing for.

Not that the film doesn’t have the pulse-pounding, nail-biting action to keep you alternately on the edge of your seat or pushed back gripping your armrests. Making good use of the IMAX cameras it was filmed on and incredible cinematography seamlessly blending the actual flying from any green screen, it’s as realistic an action-adventure as you’ll see this side of a documentary or Navy-approved training video. Credit to Cruise and the actors for going the distance and putting in the work to make it look accurate. Working with a mission more in-depth than the first film could have brought more complex challenges to keeping engagement, but it’s an easy-to-follow film with easy-to-root for high stakes.

Like an authentic ’80s summer sweltering blockbuster, it has a power anthem from Lady Gaga with a needle drop at a perfect position. It was a fantastic move to have its theme weaved into the score throughout. I still like the Oscar-winning Giorgio Moroder/Berlin song from the first film best, but I am glad Gaga and Hans Zimmer didn’t simply remake that classic. Gaga has a serious chance to win another songwriting Oscar for her fist-raising barn burner that rounds out one of the most enjoyable times I’ve had at the movies in my recent memory. If you’ve been waiting weeks, months, or years (?) to head back to the theater…Top Gun: Maverick is the film to break your fast. See it on an IMAX screen as big as you can find with a great sound system and you’ll get the full impact. Waiting until streaming will not do at all. Top Gun: Maverick is a must-see in general, but you can’t miss it in the movie theater.

Welcome to Summer 2022.

Movie Review ~ The Contractor

The Facts:

Synopsis: After being involuntarily discharged from the Army, James Harper joins a paramilitary organization to support his family in the only way he knows how.
Stars: Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gillian Jacobs, Eddie Marsan, Florian Munteanu, Kiefer Sutherland, Nina Hoss, Amira Casar, Fares Fares, J. D. Pardo
Director: Tarik Saleh
Rated: R
Running Length: 103 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
ReviewThe ContractorThe Contractor?  Really?  Will they ever learn?  Here we go again with a more than decent film saddled with the most cardboard brown-colored title you can imagine, though it was filmed under one that had a little more flair.  When actors Chris Pine, Ben Foster, and Gillian Jacobs signed on to Tarik Saleh’s muscle-y military film, it was for a script named Violence of Action.  Still, it was not entirely descriptive or exemplary enough to set it far apart from the direct to video junk starring a washed-up fourth-billed actor from a late ‘90s cop show, but…at least it had some movement to it.  The Contractor could be any movie.

Title qualms aside, and I had to put them aside, this is a surprisingly brisk and engaging action thriller that deservedly was bumped from a wide theatrical release in favor of a streaming debut.  It doesn’t have the full-bodiness to warrant that trip to the cinema but fits nicely with the new niche carved out for starry vehicles that need a home.  Orphaned by its original studio, Paramount snapped this one up, and they’ve made a wise purchase.  While it won’t ever be high on the resume for anyone involved, it acquits itself nicely as an otherwise engaging action thriller that keeps moving and doesn’t sag under easy-to-spot oncoming twists.

Sidelined from service due to a bum knee, Special Forces Sergeant James Harper (Pine, A Wrinkle in Time) struggles to provide for his family and is watching the bills pile up.  When he meets up with old army bud Mike (Foster, The Finest Hours), who appears to be living beyond his means, he finds out about Mike’s side work running covert jobs for Rusty Jennings (Kiefer Sutherland, Flatliners).  Bringing his friend into the fold, Mike leaves out a few key details. James figures these out quickly as he’s thrown into a dangerous mission exposing shady alliances that put his life and the well-being of his wife (Jacobs, Life of the Party) and child in jeopardy.

Six years after their runaway hit Hell or High Water, Pine and Foster have skilled onscreen chemistry, making them an ideal pair.  Director Saleh doesn’t have to spend much time establishing their history because both actors play their roles so convincingly that we don’t need a lot of backstories to understand their relationship.  That takes The Contractor only so far, though, and eventually, audiences will have only the standard plot mechanics of J.P. Davis’ script to carry them forward.  It’s not that Davis hasn’t crafted a strong three-act action-thriller; it’s just that nothing you can’t see coming a mile down the road happens. 

Compelling enough to not feel like a waste of time but routine in overall execution, The Contractor is best when it’s letting Pine and Foster continue to develop their non-action dramatics.  Once the mission takes over, interest starts to wane, and you’re in overly familiar territory.  The upside? You’re likely watching it for free (or far less than usual prices) at home, so you haven’t sunk movie theater prices on the watch.

Movie Review ~ Jackass Forever

The Facts:

Synopsis: Celebrate the joy of being back together with your best friends and a perfectly executed shot to the dingdong, the original jackass crew return for another round of hilarious, wildly absurd, and often dangerous displays of comedy with a little help from some exciting new cast.

Stars: Johnny Knoxville, Steve-O, Chris Pontius, Dave England, Jason Acuña, Ehren McGhehey, Preston Lacy, Zach Holmes, Sean McInerney, Jasper Dolphin, Rachel Wolfson

Director: Jeff Tremaine

Rated: R

Running Length: 96 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  It may surprise people just how short of a run the original Jackass television series had when it aired on MTV. Over fourteen months between October 2000 and February 2002, star Johnny Knoxville and an assorted crew of friends and guests would perform outlandish pranks and often dangerous stunts, all captured by camera crews and whittled down to three seasons worth of episodes. Rough going from the start, both with censors and MTV executives, Knoxville wound up packing it in earlier than expected, but fans wanted more. With added creative control (=more money) and a larger platform to deliver their brand of bizarrely juvenile yet impulsively watchable content, a total of three feature films were released between 2002 and 2010 to massive box office success. A somewhat related film, Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa, doesn’t quite fit, so I’m leaving that out…but don’t forget that one snagged an Oscar nomination for Best Make-up Effects.

In the ten years since the final official Jackass film came out (in 3D, if that tells you where moviemaking was at the time), much has happened with the cast and crew. One seminal member of the gang, Ryan Dunn, sadly passed away in a car accident while another was fired during the filming of the newly released Jackass Forever, for a variety of reasons you can read about here. Also, the young men already showing signs of wear and tear back in 2010 have lived another decade, now bearing the battle scars of that time. You can’t keep a good Jackass down, though. Filmed primarily during the COVID-19 pandemic and shuffled around the release schedule for nearly half a year, Jackass Forever is being unleashed into theaters hoping to cash in with the same nostalgic viewers that recently turned out for the Scream reboot.

As critic-proof a movie as they come, there’s only one scene I honestly couldn’t look at the screen for fear of gagging but other than that, Jackass Forever has the same wince-inducing stunts & more naked shenanigans than ever before. Indeed, the movie hasn’t made it through 10% of the credits before the viewer comes face to, uh, face with one of the pranksters’ oft-seen dong. It’s a funny visual, and projected on the big screen you see each nook, fold, and cranny. In fact, by the time the film has concluded, there are few Jackass-sians of which you haven’t seen every inch. I could have blocked it out, but this chapter seems particularly schlong heavy, with groins a specific focus point of stunts and pranks. These range from testicles standing in for a punching bag used by a tiny set of boxing gloves to Danger Ehren testing out a nut cup by having various sports figures do their worst to punch, pitch, and shoot into the resilient protective wear. Watch out for that pogo stick, though. 

There’s a formula to these films, and director Jeff Tremaine doesn’t try to fix which so far is the only thing involved with the franchise that hasn’t been broken. For all its episodic, easily distractible editing style, I honestly appreciated that Jackass Forever remained a cohesive look at a group dynamic working overtime to entertain while still striving to stay young and wanting an audience to feel the same. Yes, you can see the film as a bunch of overgrown kids doing stupid stunts and often paying the price with bruised skin, bloody wounds, and various broken/dislocated bones. Still, at this point, it feels like that’s missing the bigger picture of what they get out of this bonding experience. We’ve all grown up, so have they…but in their minds and eyes (concussed or crossed they may be), there’s a lot of livin’ left. Why not just enjoy being a Jackass Forever with Knoxville for an easy watch that flies by with new cast members meshing well with the old.

Movie Review ~ Scream (2022)

Just when you thought it was safe to stop #Scream -ing…

The Facts:

Synopsis: Twenty-five years after a streak of brutal murders shocked the quiet town of Woodsboro, a new killer has donned the Ghostface mask and begins targeting a group of teenagers to resurrect secrets from the town’s deadly past.

Stars: Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox, David Arquette, Melissa Barrera, Jenna Ortega, Jack Quaid, Mikey Madison, Dylan Minnette, Jasmin Savoy Brown, Mason Gooding, Sonia Ammar, Marley Shelton, Kyle Gallner, Reggie Conquest, Chester Tam, Roger L. Jackson

Directors: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin & Tyler Gillett

Rated: R

Running Length: 114 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: “What’s your favorite scary movie?” may now be a cultural touchstone phrase forever related to the classic film Scream, but it’s always been a litmus test to see where the person being asked falls on the scale of horror fandom.  If the answer is a deep cut, something from the Italian Giallo master Dario Argento or French cult vampire director Jean Rollin, you know you’re dealing with someone that has ventured further than the confines of their neighborhood video store.  Answering with a more commercially minded offering like a Friday the 13th or a Halloween tells you you’re in the presence of a person that doesn’t mind some blood, gore, and jump scares.  Get a response from a Frankenstein fraidy-cat and you may want to reconsider suggesting anything stronger than a black and white Universal classic.

For many, the answer to the question posed by the killer to Drew Barrymore’s doomed character in 1996 is, in fact, the very movie that asked it to begin with.  Scream opened to soft business in Christmas only to grow into a word-of-mouth hit, so much so that by the time the enjoyable sequel was released in 1997 both films had the distinction of being 1997’s top earners.  Fans of the franchise are legion, and after two more sequels (one in 2000 and the last one in 2011) it has amassed a devoted base that can and have spent much time arguing over the official order of quality, though you’d be hard pressed to find a list that doesn’t put the one that started it all in the prime spot. For the record, I’m a 1, 2, 4, 3.

Though the title lived on in television under the guise of an MTV scripted series with no ties to the original cast or setting, the first two seasons attempted to tell a continuing tale before killing off much of its YA cast.  I didn’t even bother with the third, standalone season, and from what I’ve heard that was for the best.  After the success of the continuation of Halloween in 2018, it still was a surprise when it was announced in March 2020 that Radio Silence, a filmmaking collective which found success in indie horror before making a snazzy showing in 2019]’s impressive Ready or Not, would direct and executive produce a fifth Scream movie incorporating original cast members with a new group of teens stalked by a vengeance-seeking killer.  As a dedicated fan of the films and the franchise in general (not to mention a number of the previous films Radio Silence has produced), I was thrilled for another gathering of my favorite cast members and a return to the whodunit slasher film that I have a true fondness for. 

Needless to say, as we move forward into the meat of the movie, this is a spoiler-free zone.  Aside from watching the first trailer for the movie the day it was released, I haven’t watched any other marketing for the film so can’t say what may be in the previews that could be a potential spoiler…but I won’t be giving away anything that could ruin your experience.

Well…maybe one thing.  And that’s my feeling toward the finished movie.  Surprising myself, I left the theater after my screening of Scream (which, it should be strongly stated, is Scream 5, no matter how the filmmakers and studio try to spin it) sort of aghast at how much against it I felt.  The more I heard how many people did like it, the more I was wondering if I just saw something different or my tastes had changed…but this was almost directly after gleefully binge-watching the previous four films.  Delivering on the “goods” if you will (read: killings, blood, and guts) but shortchanging fans that know their Woodsboro ins and outs with a number of discrepancies and head scratching choices, the screenplay from James Vanderbilt (White House Down) and Guy Busick attempts to make connections to the past at the outset but abandons its own efforts by the messy end.  Worse, the film suffers from a strong case of the unlikeables, characters and cast members that either don’t appear long enough to create much of an impression before they’re sliced or grate on the nerves to the point where you feel like paging Ghostface stat to get on with the show.

It’s been twenty-five years since the original murder spree changed the sleepy town of Woodsboro forever.  The survivors of the attack a generation ago have encountered several copycat slayings over the subsequent years but for the last decade there has been a peaceful silence which has allowed lives to be led without much fear.  Then Tara (Jenna Ortega, Insidious: Chapter 2) gets a phone call while alone in her house and hears a voice familiar to us but unfamiliar to her.  Remember, Stab (the movie within Scream 2 based off of the events in Scream 1) came out over two decades before and its sequels have long since fizzled out.  Poor Tara should have stayed up to date on her old-school horror trivia because things don’t go well for her when quizzed on her knowledge of Stab and Woodsboro’s sordid history.

Hearing the news about her sister from a town far outside of Woodsboro, Sam (Melissa Barrera, In the Heights) returns with her boyfriend Richie (Jack Quaid, Rampage) just as secrets from her family’s past and a clever killer targeting those with ties to the 1996 murder spree emerge from the shadows.  Teaming up with Tara’s friends, among them Amber (Mikey Madison, It Takes Three), twins Mindy (Jasmin Savoy Brown, Sound of Violence) and Chad (Mason Gooding, Booksmart) and Wes (Dylan Minnette, Prisoners), Sam and Richie eventually realize they’ll need the help of the remaining few who’ve experienced this before if they have any hope of surviving the game plan of a killer (or killers?) always several steps ahead of them.  Enter Dewey, Gale, and Sidney.

To say the film feels lighter the moment even one of the legacy cast members is on screen is an understatement.  Originally meant to be killed off in the first film and then set to die in the sequel, original director of the first four films Wes Craven and his producing partners had such a strong reaction to David Arquette’s (You Cannot Kill David Arquette) portrayal of Deputy Dewey Riley (not to mention his popularity with fans) that they made sure to shoot endings where he lived.  And you’ll be especially glad he did because his presence in this entry is so useful, bringing not only that trademark goofiness to the role but an emotional sweetness that has always defined the role and made it unmistakably his.  Noticeably absent for much of the film are Courtney Cox (Masters of the Universe) and Neve Campbell (Skyscraper), but they’re like that time Madonna made all of us at her concert wait two hours after the opening act before she went on.  By the time she showed up, we were more than antsy but when she did…it was completely worth it.  Same goes here and not only do Cox and Campbell fit right back into their characters like no time has passed, they highlight the biggest problem with the movie for me.  The acting.

I’m not sure what’s up with this cast but I think each and every one of them I’ve seen and liked far better in other projects.  Here, it’s like no one was acting in the same movie or playing off of one another to any winning effect.  It’s never more evident than with Barrera who has some of the strangest line readings, coming off as emotionless when the scene calls for drama and often absent as strong support for those she is acting opposite. I felt for Ortega who is acting her face off, performing the role like it’s the last thing she’ll ever do.  I wish the performance (which, to be clear, is solid) was in a different movie she was headlining.  Brown is another standout, finding herself a nice match for the dialogue which has some hints at original scribe Kevin Williamson’s quick meta banter but never reaches that same smirking bar which made Williamson’s screenplays, for lack of a better word, iconic.

Which brings me to another low-ish point.  Vanderbilt and Busick don’t have Williamson’s knack for snappy phrasing, relying much more on accessing the characters F-Bomb portal than having them volley back-and-forth.  While Brown gets those nice moments to explain the rules surrounding a ‘requel’, too many references are made to fifth entries not living up to their potential, being ill-advised, not being titled correctly, etc…. basically heading off all the naysayers at the pass and beating the critics to their punches.  In that way, the script starts to feel like it’s apologizing for itself instead of creating its own playing field. A few missed opportunities along the way exist, making you wonder if there wasn’t more to the story that was left on the cutting room floor or if the screenwriters are saving something for potential sequel routes. 

Perhaps you can tie some of it back to that Wes Craven touch which guided those first four films.  Dying of brain cancer in 2015, Craven was never going to be a part of this new film and while no one is claiming the previous sequels to be flawless (let’s face it, as fun as Scream 3 was, it was also silly and falling apart at the seams) or that Craven was a can’t miss director, he set the look and feel of the franchise from the start…down to Marco Beltrami’s score which I was also sad to see wasn’t back. Yet…you just can’t divest yourself from feeling that if directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin & Tyler Gillett were attempting to honor Craven they would have displayed some of his knack for spotting acting talent on the cusp of greatness. Going into more details is definitely tipping the scale toward spoilers…but we can chat after you’ve seen it and I can explain more.

I’m disappointed for myself that I didn’t like the movie a little more than I did.  This isn’t about living in any kind of past because onward we must travel, especially if we want the things we hold dear to continue to thrive.  Personally, I hope this Scream makes huge bucks (all signs point to a big YES in that department) and more films in a similar vein are made.  I would ask, please, that the same kind of focus is put on the key pieces that elevate a movie to classic status though.  The original cast and script of 1996’s Scream simply can’t be beat, even all these years later.  I can’t say the same for this continuation…but trust me, I wanted to. 

Now…I’m a 1, 2, 4, 5, 3 person.

31 Days to Scare ~ Paranormal Activity: Next of Kin

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A young woman’s search for her biological family leads her to an Amish community that is hiding some very dark secrets.

Stars: Emily Bader, Roland Buck III, Dan Lippert, Henry Ayres-Brown, Tom Nowicki

Director: William Eubank

Rated: R

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: Creatively, the Paranormal Activity franchise was at a dead end by the time the previous entry, The Ghost Dimension, was released all the way back in 2014.  With diminishing box office returns and scares that seemed standard, there was little the series hadn’t explored in its own mythology and audiences could almost set their watches by when things would finally start to get rolling.  The beauty of the first movie was the way it slowly reached its boiling point, leading to a finale that paid off.  However, after the same rug pull and trickery were repeated time and time again it wasn’t fulfilling anything but a 90-minute gap of your evening.

The series took a small step away from its origins in 2015 by releasing Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, taking the horror out of the suburbs and into the urban life of a Hispanic neighborhood but its cool reception brought producers quickly back to the familiar.  Now, they’ve gone even further by creating a standalone sequel, Paranormal Activity: Next of Kin and bypassing a theatrical release entirely, opting to send the screams to stream on Paramount+ in time for Halloween.  (Naturally, it was intended for the big screen but, y’know, COVID.)  The result is still a timewaster but a re-energized one that feels like a move in a good direction if this is the way the franchise wants to frighten us going forward.

Left at the doors of a hospital by her mother when she was just a baby, Margot (Emily Bader) has grown up longing to know her birth parents and find out why she was abandoned but has hit nothing but dead ends.  Now working as a documentary filmmaker with her boyfriend Chris (Roland Buck III) she’s met Samuel (Henry Ayres-Brown, Monsterland) after matching with him on 23 and Me.  A member of a small Amish community in upstate New York on his Rumspringa year, Samuel offers to take Margot, Chris, and local sound designer Dale (Dan Lippert) back home when he returns.  Knowing this is her opportunity to learn more about her roots and an opportunity to get footage for a potential documentary, they arrive in the dead of night to a snowy farm that practically screams “Welcome Death!”.

Over the next several days, Margot and her friends will experience the traditions of the community and eventually see some things they weren’t meant to.  Doors with huge locks on them will suddenly be opened and what’s behind them will be explored, hidden rooms will be entered and their contents become clues for Margot to the identity of her mother, suggesting that perhaps she might still be somewhere among the people gathered…or elsewhere on the grounds.  The creepy commune has practices that may remind audiences of Midsommar or other folk horror flicks that thrive under their isolated setting and the claustrophobia of both the insular location and found footage setting helps the film to keep the tension high even if the story feels a bit predictable.

The last film director William Eubank was responsible for was 2020’s Underwater, a highly underrated creature feature starring Kristen Stewart that I’m convinced will someday get the recognition it’s due.  On that film, Eubank showed attention to the small details in character traits which gives us more of a read on who those people were in a short amount of time.  The script from Christopher Landon (Happy Death Day) doesn’t flesh these Next of Kin folk out too much so Eubank has his work cut out for him but he’s cast the movie well with fresh faces and respectable stable of character actors playing elders in the group.  Journeyman actor Tom Nowicki (The Dark and the Wicked) is an especially good get as the leader of the society.

Coming it at a rather long 98 minutes, Paranormal Activity: Next of Kin follows tradition by lighting a flame early on with scare licks here and there and gradually increasing the frequency until boiling over for a prolonged finale that is a bit too chaotic.  It doesn’t skimp on the jerky camera movements (note: it’s not all found footage, some of it is filmed like an actual movie) or a nice dose of mayhem but there is such a thing as too much of a scary thing. Reaching a level that gets disorienting, I realized what a far cry it was from a rather humble beginning…and not just of this movie but of the first one that came out 2007. We’ve left that California thread behind (hopefully) and who knows what will be next, but there’s effort being made to resuscitate it by a team that obviously cares.

31 Days to Scare ~ Scream (2022) – First Look Trailer

Synopsis: Twenty-five years after a streak of brutal murders shocked the quiet town of Woodsboro, a new killer has donned the Ghostface mask and begins targeting a group of teenagers to resurrect secrets from the town’s deadly past.

Release Date:  January 14, 2022

Thoughts: It’s been 10 years since we’ve heard that familiar voice on the phone calling the latest batch of doomed flavors of the month (quick…how many of the teenage cast members of Scream 4 are still a ‘thing’?) and so the return of Ghostface is being met with an expected marked frenzy.  Going the 2018 Halloween and 2020’s The Grudge route and leaving off any numerical suffix, 2022’s Scream is the first not to be directed by Wes Craven who passed away in 2015.  In the hands of Matt Bettinelli-Olpin & Tyler Gillett (also known as Radio Silence, the team behind 2019’s Ready or Not), we’re back in Woodsboro for a new series of murders that tie into the events from a generation earlier. 

As excited as I am for this new installment, I almost wish I hadn’t watched the lengthy preview because…boy does it show a lot more than I wanted to see.  I know this cast is huge and the body count has the potential to be plentiful but seeing the fates of several characters (and perhaps a healthy bit of the opening) feels like we’re being served far too much before we’ve even sat down to eat.  Fingers crossed the twists make up for the trailer spoilers, but this is the last time I’ll watch any promo materials for the film before it is released.