Movie Review ~ Great White (2021)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A blissful tourist trip turns into a nightmare when five seaplane passengers are stranded miles from shore. In a desperate bid for survival, the group try to make it to land before they either run out of supplies or are taken by a menacing terror lurking just beneath the surface.

Stars: Katrina Bowden, Aaron Jakubenko, Kimie Tsukakoshi, Tim Kano, Te Kohe Tuhaka

Director: Martin Wilson

Rated: NR

Running Length: 91 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  It’s honestly a miracle, when you think about it.  Considering how far technical achievements in film have come since the release of JAWS over 45 years ago, you would think that by now someone would have figured out how to create a decent shark to terrorize nubile women and beefed-up men that dare enter the ocean.  Sadly, instead of putting the elbow grease in and attempting to get back to the type of haunting magic that was created from the depths in Steven Spielberg’s summer blockbuster masterpiece, studios and filmmakers seem determined to go cheap and low-tech and the results are resoundingly heinous.  If you’re dealing with another cheesy direct to streaming piece that is meant to be silly (House SharkGhost Shark? Ouija Shark?) then some allowance must be made for quality, but when you’re settling in with a release clearly aspiring to be taken as serious as the 1975 granddaddy of them all, you expect far more.

Every so often, we’re graced with a well-calibrated entry that understands the game and arrives ready to play.  The Shallows, The Reef, and Bait 3D were all superior examples of directors getting it right.  I also found The Meg to be a fun, if PG-13 sanitized, take on a scary novel that should have been adapted two decades earlier when studios would have let it be released with all the violence intact.  While Deep Blue Sea from 1999 is maybe the shiny diamond of shark movies in recent memory in my book, it’s straight to video sequel in 2018 sits near the bottom of the overall list.  Shockingly, Deep Blue Sea 3 from 2020 bounced back nicely and earned a reprieve for the franchise.  With a sequel to The Meg about to shoot and the constant threat of a JAWS remake hanging over out heads (I put this into the universe: please do NOT do this, just do a 2018 Halloween-style sequel that picks up 50 years later), audiences that don’t mind sticking to swimming pools are left with the occasional scraps of underwater thrillers.

Scraps is a good way to classify Great White because it’s compiled of a lot of different pieces, never fully finding its own identity.  With slack pacing, poor CGI, and a main attraction that remains frustratingly below the surface for much of the trim run time, it definitely doesn’t have the goods to be considered among the better entries in the genre, though it is considerably better made than most.  Mostly known as a producer, screenwriter Michael Broughen’s lack of experience shows with a threadbare plot that finds a tour guide/pilot, his medic/girlfriend, a cook, and the couple that hired them all for the day to take them to a secluded island fending off a marauding shark when their sea plane sinks in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Director Martin Wilson makes his feature film debut with Great White, and he certainly captures the beauty of the Brisbane coast beautifully, albeit it with characters touting how infested the waters are with man-eating sharks.  Yay, tourism!  Things actually start off sort of well for Great White, with a young couple finding themselves a bit too far from their boat when confronted with a deadly foe, but then Broughton’s issue-filled script kicks in and we have to wade through a lot of personal business before we can get back to shark business.  Most of this involves pilot Charlie (Aaron Jakubenko) and Kaz (Katrina Bowden, Piranha 3DD) who are working through a bump in taking the next step of their relationship.  When they are joined by Michelle (Kimie Tsukakoshi) and Joji (Tim Kano) for a brief moment you get the feeling Broughton is going to spice things up by creating a few characters with a darker depth but, small spoiler, it’s shallow wading for all.

Looking at the cast, anyone that’s ever watched one of these movies could likely go through and number off the order in which they’ll become fish food and if the film has anything going for it, it’s that there comes a time when you aren’t quite sure the usual suspects will make it to the end.  Wilson manages to get quite a lot of mileage out of the viewer watching Bowden’s legs kicking furiously in the dark blackness and it would wrong of me to lie and say my heart wasn’t beating a little faster when one character enters the water in a totally misguided moment.  You’ll be screaming at the screen the entire time at their lunacy…I was.

While all of this is happening, audiences are going to be waiting for a look at what’s hungrily chomping at the cast members and every time the shark appears it looks like stock footage that’s been blown up to look like a far more fearsome creature.  The rapid shift to clear nature documentary shots only confirms a severe lack of actual CGI created…or at least until the end which is where the significant amount is used.  Still, by then it’s too late to have the same kind of impact that would have been nice to have had all along.  At least Spielberg (and subsequent sequel directors) gave us an animatronic scare every now and then that at least looked believable. 

Acting their way around an enemy that isn’t there is difficult, and the cast does a fine job in selling what they are supposedly seeing.  Bowden was always a bit of a blank spot during her tenure on NBC’s 30 Rock and hasn’t made an impression in the years since, but she’s a believable heroine here and easily outpaces the bland Jakubenko and his character who suffers from PTSD after surviving a shark attack years before (do you think he’ll have to face his fears at some point?).  Tsukakoshi is around for the screams and Kano is there to give you someone above the water to loathe when the shark isn’t around.  While his character makes a few spectacularly stupid decisions, Te Kohe Tuhaka’s cook is the most agreeable in the bunch.

One of these days we’ll get a director and studio that wants to spend the money and time creating a creature that looks like the real thing and moves like the real thing.  Maybe it’s created on a computer, maybe it’s something tangible the actors can react to in the moment.  Whatever it is, it has got to be better than the downward slide that is going on now.  If we can create free apps for our phones that can make it appear our friends are singing “Chim-Chim-Cher-ee” with Julie Andrews, we simply must be able to get a shark to swim through the water and eat an unfortunate swimmer…right?  Until that time, watch Great White and think about what could have been.

Movie Review ~ Séance

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Camille Meadows is the new girl at the prestigious Edelvine Academy for Girls. Soon after her arrival, six girls invite her to join them in a late-night ritual, calling forth the spirit of a dead former student who reportedly haunts their halls. But before morning, one of the girls is dead, leaving the others wondering what they may have awakened.

Stars: Suki Waterhouse, Inanna Sarkis, Madisen Beaty, Ella-Rae Smith, Seamus Patterson, Marina Stephenson Kerr, Megan Best, Stephanie Sy, Jade Michael

Director: Simon Barrett

Rated: R

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  What terrific fortune is this?  Two respectably good female-led slasher films released within weeks of each other?  Can it be?  After a long dry spell with a pile of duds and clunkers, an eerie wind of change is blowing and bringing with it revitalized energy to a genre that was barely standing.  Early May’s Initiation was a clever subversion of the typical college-set slice and dice thrillers that populated many cinemas throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, giving tired tropes an entertaining dust off.  Now along comes Séance with its spooky boarding school setting and Craft-ian vibes to send some chills through your screen. What both films may lack in overall budget and the benefit of a release via a larger platform, they more than make-up for in playful deference to their treasured inspirations.

I could understand some dubious feelings about Séance at first glance, because I had them too.  The original poster with pouty girls in school uniforms in front of a foreboding dormitory made it look like one of those generically terrible Redbox cheapie titles that come out of nowhere and offer little return for your overnight fee.  A closer inspection (and a better poster) unveils some pedigree behind the scenes and that was enough to get me signed up for writer/director Simon Barrett’s feature debut.  A screenwriter on respectable genre outings like You’re Next and The Guest, Barrett also penned the attempted reboot of Blair Witch in 2016 that was better than many gave it credit for.  Teaming up with Dark Castle Entertainment (the production label responsible for remakes of House of Wax, House on Haunted Hill, and original titles The Apparition, Ghost Ship, Gothika, and Orphan) and streaming service Shudder, Barrett was able to get this one made during the pandemic without sacrificing any of its effectiveness in the scare department. 

The exclusive Edelvine Academy for Girls is supposedly haunted by the spectre of a former student that died under mysterious circumstances.  At least that’s what the group of girls attempting to call her spirit forth late one night in a dark bathroom mirror are hoping for.  Saying her name into their reflections several times doesn’t produce the result they are expecting, but it does leave one skeptic so frightened that she winds up dead later that night.  Was it an accident, was it the spirit, or was it someone else with a razor-sharp axe to grind?  The tragedy leaves an opening for a new student, though, and Camille Meadows (Suki Waterhouse, Pokémon Detective Pikachu) is the next name on the list. 

Failing to make a great first impression to the headmistress (Marina Stephenson Kerr, The Grudge, a sort of B-list Michelle Pfeiffer) after getting into a nasty fight with HBIC Alice (Inanna Sarkis) before she can even unpack her bags, Camille doesn’t fit the new girl mold in kowtowing to existing hierarchies or ways of doing business.  Instead, she asserts her dominance from the get-go and isn’t above landing or taking a punch from Alice or any of the other girls that run in her gang. (Side note: when did girl fights get so crazy? Camille refuses to move from Alice’s table and in response Alice punches her several times right in the face for her ‘crime’. Yeow!)

Camille does manage to find some people she likes; shy Helina (Ella-Rae Smith, The Commuter) was friends with the girl who recently died and Trevor (Seamus Patterson, Books of Blood) is the son of the headmistress and a handyman/boy around campus.  Through them, Camille learns more about the “accident” and other strange goings-on around the school, just in time for her detention to begin with the other girls for their opening day fight.  While they’re cleaning out and organizing a musty section of the school, they decided to press their luck and try out another séance, but this time their ceremony definitely brings something into reality…a slinky killer that begins to swiftly chop away at the girls. 

As he has with his previous scripts, Barrett makes efficient use out of his dialogue and doesn’t waste a lot of time with extraneous tangents.  It’s not Pulitzer Prize winning stuff, nor is it intended to be.  However, there is a mystery at the heart of Séance the audience is meant to figure out and clues are dropped along the way to help those paying close attention unravel in advance of the Big Reveal (one of several, I might add) near the end.  Barrett also excels at creating strong female characters that fight back, not just those that have a surge of energy when they most need it, either.  These are women that are prepared and not helpless and I like that he seems to have that in mind as he develops the story.  The idea of victimhood isn’t at the forefront of his mind and none of the women in the movie are portrayed as feeble or lacking…only in terms of perhaps coming up short in the conscience department.

There is a nice overall tone achieved and more than a few sly frights along the way. With the scary comes the silly and a dance sequence with some questionable skill level is one you’ll just have to bite your tongue through.  It’s also worth noting that it took my partner and I a full forty-five minutes to decide if this was a prep school or a college because the ages of the actresses are so varied you can’t quite tell the academic institution they are attending.  If you’re looking at Waterhouse, it should be a college.  Then you look at Madisen Beaty (To the Stars) and you’d believe it could be a boarding school for children of rich parents. 

Nitpicks and a few plot holes aside, Séance is one I think horror fans can join hands and get their arms around with ease.  It’s well made and at brisk 92 minutes moves at a nice clip, dotting it’s time with the appropriate amount of momentum so that it doesn’t experience that middle sag which can drag a lesser film down.  It joins recent feminist slasher films in skewering expectations without beating audiences over the head with any agenda to do so.  Would be a great Saturday night choice or could even be enjoyed as a late afternoon watch if the clouds grow dark and the rain falls.

Movie Review ~ Jakob’s Wife

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The Facts:

Synopsis: After a chance encounter with “The Master,” the wife of a small-town minister discovers a new sense of power and an appetite to live bigger and bolder than before…even as the body count around her grows.

Stars: Barbara Crampton, Larry Fessenden, Bonnie Aarons, Sarah Lind, Phillip Jack Brooks, Robert Rusler, Mark Kelly

Director: Travis Stevens

Rated: NR

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: Growing up, movie length was a big deal to me for some reason.  I think it was because I enjoyed going to the movies (and film in general, let’s be real) so much that the longer the movies were, the more time I could be lost in that experience.  When a movie I was waiting forever for, like Batman Returns, clocked in over two hours, I rejoiced.  If the umpteenth horror sequel in a long running franchise along the lines of Halloween H20: 20 Years Later only made it to 86 minutes (with credits) it filled me with honest to goodness grief.  Eventually, I started to realize that 86 minutes might equal less character development in favor of pure audience pleasing thrills and over two hours could mean an overstuffed narrative that was unnecessary to the overall plot. It all depended on the movie. 

Now, reviewing movies as much as I do, you better believe I pay attention to time because it’s more precious than ever when you have multiple films to watch.  Did that Australian revenge drama I watched a month ago really need to be two and a half hours?  Could a documentary about the ‘90s been a bit longer?  Mostly, I fall on the side of everything needing some trimming; I like a well-paced film but not one that breathlessly needs to finish the race at lighting speed.  Horror films are typically the trickiest to get the timing right and lately I’ve noticed a trend away from the shorter, rock ‘em, sock ‘em thrills in favor of the more auteur-driven pieces, handsomely made efforts that milk all they can out of extra time that winds up counteracting their good intentions. 

Lonely Anne (Barbara Crampton, You’re Next) dreamed of traveling the world but instead has spent her formidable years as the wife of a minister in a tiny town on the outskirts of Nowheresville.  Her stoic husband (Larry Fessenden, The Dead Don’t Die) is a fuddy-duddy bore that appears to notice the unhappiness present in his congregants more than in her.  You understand why she jumps at the chance to meet up with a former flame (Robert Rusler, Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street) who even in his current middle-aged state reminds her of the chances she didn’t take.  It turns out to be too little too late for both, because they wind up touring an abandoned warehouse where things heat up but blood runs cold as they come across the temporary resting spot of a new monster in town. 

That’s not the end of Anne’s story however, because she emerges from the warehouse a changed woman.  She’s stronger and more confident, able to speak up when once before she was less inclined to say what she wanted.  More importantly, she finds a nice big cup of blood makes all of her new senses amplified tenfold…the fresher, the better.  Her husband doesn’t understand what’s happening to his newly sexualized wife but gets an idea quickly after a run-in with a missing parishioner that also had a nighttime meet-up with The Master (Bonnie Aarons, The Nun), a Nosferatu-ish rat-like beast that likes to whisper names and rip open necks that explode with blood for feasting.  With Anne transitioning into a ghastly beast and Jakob waking up and realizing her value, it’s time to exterminate The Master once and for all. 

Nothing would have made me happier than to report that Jakob’s Wife is worthy of your time and, more importantly, of a horror icon like Barbara Crampton’s.  Sadly, it’s a gore snore that appears to have spent more time and energy on devising ways to get blood the color and consistency of Hawaiian Punch to gush like a geyser out of necks than it did on any other production value.  Aarons make-up as The Master is ghoulish to be sure but it also feels like vampire-rodent 101. As an actress, Aarons is quite good at selling these freaky creations but even she can’t get this fiend to frighten. 

If Crampton had been afforded more of the true spotlight with interesting moments we haven’t seen before, the film may have cut some new territory as well.  Instead, the revitalized Anne trades her gray sweats and mousy hair for the vamp tramp look which is about as cliché as you can get.  Crampton didn’t get to her legendary status in horror for her acting, let’s be honest, but she brings a certain aura of sophistication to her roles. Even she looks uncomfortably out of sorts for the majority of the film, a rare occurrence. It’s likely because Anne may change outwardly but screenwriters Kathy Charles, & Mark Steensland (who I discovered was a production intern on 1987’s Mannequin…a trivia fact I had to include) haven’t done much to show the true changes she feels within…and that can’t be left to Crampton to do on her own.  In a similar vein (heh heh) Fessenden has a certain genre following that I don’t quite understand, and he doesn’t fit this material in the least.  Dead or undead, Anne needs to pack it in and leave Jakob in the dust and we don’t need to wait 90 minutes to understand this.  As for the rest of the supporting cast, let’s leave them with their anonymity as they deserve. 

What a curiously bad film like Jakob’s Wife serves to remind us of is that no matter what, horror will live on in interesting forms.  I just don’t think it needed to be a feature film that’s quite so long.  At over 90 minutes, it doesn’t have the plot (or, frankly, the budget) to make its case and that becomes brutally clear with each passing frame.  Instead, I wish a director like Travis Stevens, who has begun to make a name for himself in horror with a buzzy calling card flick like Girl on the Third Floor, would gather his contemporaries and get back to the anthology days of the fight film.  A number of genre directors right now have interesting ideas, can attract decent names, know how to stretch a buck, but often feel the need to make everything feature length.  I’d be willing to bet a nickel or two that if Stevens, who also co-wrote, presented Jakob’s Wife as a thirty-minute chapter in a longer anthology the reaction to the film would be far different.  In its current state, it doesn’t do anyone, apart from the special effects folk, any favors. 

Indie horror is where the creative juices can flow and that’s why Jakob’s Wife should have found some more skilled ways to subvert the vampire genre considering its limitations.  Instead, it feels like the filmmakers embraced these shortcomings too much and tossed their money behind the wrong horse.  We’ve seen excessive blood flow and gore before…what we really want are the stories and characters to back-it all up.  Without that, it’s all rat droppings. 

Available in Select Theaters, On Demand, and Digital on April 16th

Movie Review ~ The Reckoning

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: In the aftermath of the Great Plague and amidst the subsequent witch-hunts against women, a young widow grapples with the tragic death of her husband in a society completely consumed by fear and death and faces her own inner demons as the devil himself starts to work his way into her mind.

Stars: Charlotte Kirk, Sean Pertwee, Steven Waddington, Joe Anderson, Suzanne Magowan, Ian Whyte, Callum Goulden, Sarah Lambie, Leon Ockenden

Director: Neil Marshall

Rated: NR

Running Length: 110 minutes

TMMM Score: (1/10)

Review:  In the early 2000’s there was the real possibility that UK director Neil Marshall could have made a significant play for the big leagues.  Achieving good notices for his first feature film in 2002, the cult werewolf creature feature Dog Soldiers, he followed that up in 2005 with the bona fide classic in the horror genre, The Descent.  I vividly remember seeing that majestically haunting movie after hearing the advance buzz and the reports on how truly scary it was and wondering during the screening who was screeching so loudly at the numerous terrifying moments…only to realize it was me.  Marshall clearly was gaining momentum.  Of course, Hollywood came calling and if the next films weren’t all that creative, they weren’t bad but didn’t make a dent at the box office.  Retreating to television for the next decade, Marshall wouldn’t make another film until the failed attempt to reboot the Hellboy franchise and, well, all know how that turned out.

Imagine my surprise to see Marshall’s name attached to an indie horror film like The Reckoning and you better believe I was all over that screening opportunity.  Something about the film’s subject matter (witch hunts around the Great Plauge near the end of the 17th century) seemed to fit perfectly with Marshall’s oeuvre and I wondered if this wouldn’t be a fine return to form for the director that clearly had a sense for visuals, just not one for picking the right scripts to make those visuals come to life.  Then I started to get more information and my hopes started to sink.  The film was co-written, executive produced, and starring Charlotte Kirk.  Charlotte Kirk is Marshall’s fiancé.  Oh.  It started to make sense why he’d be involved in a smaller picture like this but I still held out some hope it wouldn’t be a mere vanity project for the lovebirds to hang out together and get paid for it.  After The Reckoning is released to the public on February 5th, I’ll be amazed if they ever tie the knot.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen a movie so ineptly terrible as The Reckoning and I’ve seen a lot of ‘em.  My tolerance for these genre offerings are high so when I tell you I seriously considered stopping this on several occasions and pretending the link never arrived in my inbox, take it to heart at how poor this experience can be for you if you get a notion to explore the horrors that Kirk, Marshall, and company have worked up for you.  (By the way, I would never do that…pretend a link never arrived so I wouldn’t have to review it — I’m in it for the long haul no matter what!)  Whatever promise of jangled nerves was held in the very real story of women falsely accused of witchery and subjected to brutal tortures and death is replaced by your own fear of never escaping the dungeon of repulsive imagery, sets so cheap a brisk wind would knock them over, and acting so horrendous it makes a chicken in a cage playing Tic-Tac-Toe look like Chekov.

You have to hand it to Marshall, it takes bravery to follow-up an extended title sequence that alternates between the production credits and a slow motion shot of an unknown family being forcibly removed from their home with another drawn out scene showing how new mother Grace Haverstock (Kirk, Non-Stop) has come to bury her husband Joseph (Joe Anderson, The Grey) after he winds up at the end of a noose.  I can’t verify this and I didn’t write it down, but I’m fairly certain Marshall acts as his own editor so these were his decisions and it gets the movie off to a glacial pace, hobbling it narratively from the get go.  Without a man to provide for her, Grace asks the owner of their land for an extension on their rent but he’ll only consider a different kind of payment that she isn’t willing to fu…I mean, fork over.

In those days, there was nothing worse than a man with a hurt pride and finger to point out the latest woman that rejected his advances as a witch.  Before long, Grace is in prison surrounded by pestilence and growing visions of a horned devil that prefers her without clothes and greased up, if possible.  No one will step up to save Grace, especially when she comes before the Witchfinder General Moorcroft (Sean Pertwee, Event Horizon) and his assistant Ursula (Suzanne Magowan) a former accused witch burned at the stake by Moorcroft that survived and now works to help him do the same to other women.  (Y’know, a real girls girl.  Gee, thanks Ursula!)  Though he doesn’t know it, Grace has history with Moorcroft and as his methods of extracting a confession out of her grow more devious, she plots a revenge that has been long in the making.

In the honor of full transparency and giving the little credit I can offer, there’s a rather interesting story going on in The Reckoning that I thought could have been explored/exploited to a far greater effect had the filmmakers access to better, well, everything.  It’s the production across the board that makes the film sink like a stone and stink like a sore.  I’m sure Kirk and co-screenwriters Marshall and Edward Evers-Swindell must have done SOME kind of research in putting this storyline together, it’s just a waste of a story with such silly execution.  If you don’t outright laugh the first time you see the small “town” in the middle of a green field I applaud you.  It looks like someone cut out a castle from a children’s book, scanned it, and photoshopped it onto a postcard.  Really terrible.

If you ever wondered how long eye make-up stayed on in the 17th century, especially after being lashed multiple times, take a look around the halfway mark of the film and see Kirk’s nigh-perfect eyeliner and mascara.  She’s just been whipped within an inch of her life but her face looks gorgeous, darling.  In fact, though her body is put through the wringer (one scene in particular is so far over the line of good taste I’m not surprised it took over a year for the film to find a distributor) her lipstick and foundation game are always on point.  The rest of the cast are best left unmentioned in the hopes they will all either go on with their lives in a different chosen profession or find better projects next time.  The only one I will call out is Magowan who is a bright spot as the only character that appears increasingly conflicted (at least adequately) as the brutality against Grace goes on.  She’s obviously been through something similar and lived to tell about it.  Her burned flesh is covered by black robes and her face is hidden by a fabric veil but just through her eyes we can see the worry grow.  It’s a lively performance in an otherwise deathly film.

Absolutely the lowest of the low where film is concerned, the only consolation is that Marshall may eventually make a comeback on a smaller scale and leave the feature length films alone.  His television work has been impressive in the name recognition but sporadic in terms of occurrence.  It’s because of these types of blunders that sully his once-good name.  I won’t even go into all the mess surrounding Kirk (Google her and do investigate yourself) but starring in this one awful movie isn’t going to do any more damage at this point in time.  The final question of The Reckoning is more or less if you’re willing to sit through nearly two bodaciously bad hours of this nonsense.

Movie Review ~ Psycho Goreman

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: After unearthing a gem that controls an evil monster looking to destroy the Universe, a young girl and her brother use it to make him do their bidding.

Stars: Matthew Ninaber, Nita-Josee Hanna, Owen Myre, Adam Brooks, Alexis Kara Hancey, Kristen MacCulloch, Reece Presley, Rick Amsbury, Matthew Kennedy, Timothy Paul McCarthy, Conor Sweeney, Robert Homer, Anna Tierney, Rich Evans

Director: Steven Kostanski

Rated: NR

Running Length: 99 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  During the tumult of 2020, one big positive I took was getting to see more indie horror films long before they became another new release to add to a growing queue of titles I would struggle to return to.  With space on the schedule thanks to the studios moving their bigger projects out months or years, my inbox became an increasingly fertile ground for all kinds of features with creatures both real and imaginary. Most were expectedly good, some unexpectedly great, and of course we had a stinker or two that just balanced everything out in the end in my eyes.  Each week there seemed to be something new to spook you and it’s important to keep these studios/titles/filmmakers in mind as we head into 2021 when we start to get back to “normal.”  That’s a thought for another day though because there’s another title out that’s worth your time here and now and while Psycho Goreman may have some rough edges and more schlock than shock, it’s a goofy good time that can serve as a throwback for fans wanting retro kicks or a perfectly enjoyable modern take on a popular formula.

As the film opens, an introductory scroll tells us of the Archduke of Nightmares and how he was defeated by the good people of the planet Gigax.  Imprisoned on Earth for his crimes and separated from his power source, a glowing gem that was buried deep within the soil, his reign of terror over the galaxy was put to an end and everyone lived happily ever after.  That is, until the present day when suburban siblings Mimi (Nita-Josee Hanna) and Luke (Owen Myre) accidentally awaken the demon during their afternoon match of Crazyball and hypercompetitive Mimi winds up with her bratty hands on the amulet he is desperate to be reunited with to regain his full strength.  Realizing that as long as she has what he wants he’ll do anything for her, she names her new pet Psycho Goreman (PG for short) and sets about wreaking almost as much havoc as PG did, sometimes with more disastrous results.

In between montages of PG learning about the people of Earth, there are secret neighborhood crushes turned into a oozing oversized brain and a run in with the police that turns into a face melting bad time for one of the officers.  To the increasingly horrified Luke, this is the stuff of nightmares, but to Mimi it’s her own plan for world domination coming to fruition…just a few years earlier than she expected.  As Mimi and Luke befriend PG, who grits his teeth as Mimi’s personal gopher, galaxies away his revival has sent an alarm to the Gigax elders and alerted them that their ancient nemesis may be making a return visit.  In short order, the alabaster warrior Pandora (Kristen MacCulloch) is sent to Earth to make it clear they aren’t accepting visitors. Then, when a horde of PG’s former fiendish allies also descend upon the small town and several double-crosses are revealed that loop in the kids’ squabbling parents (Alexis Kara Hancey & Adam Brooks), Mimi and Luke turn to their beastly bud for assistance and find that PG might turn out to be the savior of Earth and not its destroyer.

Writer/director Steven Kostanski has a clear affinity for the low-budget efforts from studios like Troma, Full Moon Entertainment, and Empire Pictures.  These production houses churned out cult classics that might have been stuck together with goopy glue and popsicle sticks that still had remnants of a Fudgsicle on them, but they were so much fun to watch you hardly minded.  Film production has come a long way since then so Psycho Goreman uses its low budget in all the right places, going sparse in the way of special effects and focusing on make-up and costuming instead.  That’s where the creative energy really starts to flow and there are several of the old PG friends that were designed to be so disgusting and/or funny that you very nearly want to stand up and applaud the imagination brought to life.

That same energy flows into the performances as well, starting with Matthew Ninaber under layers of latex (and, later, some goofy costumes to disguse himself) as the titular character.  The suit is always a suit but it has a surprisingly effective presence even when you can see it puckering in at odd angles on the actor.  All of the actors in full costume deserve major props for navigating what I’m sure where hard conditions to film in; it can’t have been comfortable, but the results are well worth the efforts.  If the humans feel a little second banana, it’s only because they are so ordinary compared to the extraordinary nature of their out-of-this-world co-stars.  Audiences are either going to love Hanna’s preposterously awful Mimi or wish she’d get a laser blast to the cranium post haste and while it took me longer than it probably should have to warm up to her, by the end I understood why she had to be drawn with such big bold lines.

Definitely bound to appear on every “Best Movies You Haven’t Heard Of” lists for whatever streaming service this one lands on and more than likely headed toward a status of cult, Psycho Goreman is a fun film that takes itself only as seriously as you’d let it.  It delivers everything it promises and more, with a plot that’s more fleshed out than usual, excellent physical effects that blend nicely with computer generated ones, and performances that sell the material without turning it into a poorly timed farce.  The final act (and specifically the last 15 or so minutes) is really going to tweak a sweet spot for horror fans but by then I’m betting most viewers will already have been won over by PG’s R-rated antics.

Movie Review ~ Host (2020)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Six friends hire a medium to hold a seance via Zoom during lock down – but they get far more than they bargained for as things quickly go wrong.

Stars: Emma Louise Webb, Caroline Ward, Haley Bishop, Radina Drandova, Jemma Moore, Seylan Baxter, Edward Linard

Director: Rob Savage

Rated: NR

Running Length: 56 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:   Only the lucky 1% of critics can call watching and writing about movies their only job, the rest of us have to pay our bills and mortgages with a full time gig somewhere else and over the past few months I’ve been working from home at my corporate job that I happen to enjoy quite a lot.  I count myself lucky because it’s rare to truly like both things that keep you busy throughout the week…so…a major win for me!  At my Mon-Fri job, we’ve been meeting on a regular basis through a video conference service my home camera just won’t connect with, no matter how much I try.  Though I’ve been attempting to fix it for a while now it was great at first because no one needs to see the bags under my eyes grow bigger throughout the week.  Eventually, though, I started to regret not being able to be “seen” by my co-workers.

Within the last two weeks, we’ve been told we’re moving to Zoom which has better connectivity for the type of services we provide and also works with my webcam.  I was excited to finally get camera ready and, more importantly, explore the wonderful world of fun backgrounds Zoom has to offer…then I made a silly decision to check out the new Shudder horror film Host.  Filmed over twelve weeks during the recent quarantine by a locked-down crew, this is one freaky flick that gave me serious Zoom Doom.  Proving that you’re not safe even in an innocuous web browser, the filmmakers have taken the current situation and turned a limitation into an advantage.  In doing so, they’ve created a nifty scare treat that will have you praying you don’t see anything similar in your next conference with executive leadership.

Following in similar style to the also-effective Unfriended and Searching, Host nicely brings you directly into the action by having the events play out in real time on the screen in front of you.  Essentially, what’s on the screen is everything everyone else is seeing, hearing, and experiencing so the reactions are immediate, and the tension is able to be cranked up quite quickly with every mysterious noise or moving shadow.  Running a scant 56 minutes, Host manages to fit in more honest-to-goodness scares (and at least two truly grand ones that likely shaved a year off my life) than other ghostly tales that run twice its length.  True, some are of the jump variety but a number are the sort of creeping dread that grows and grows until you almost can’t stand it.

A group of twenty-somethings, bored with their pandemic confinement after being separated from their daily routine for weeks, agree to an admittedly out-there proposition by one of their own.  Haley has organized a séance and while she claims the medium is the real deal and was successful in the past, her friends are mostly made up of skeptics and outright naysayers like the wisecracking Jemma. The only male in the group is ginger goofball Teddy but he’s quickly pulled away by his clingy girlfriend.  With only the girls remaining, an attempt is made to connect with the spirits through Seylan the medium though they are often stopped by interruptions familiar to anyone that’s dealt with web conferencing over the last several months.  Things turn scary, though, when a simple joke by Jemma conjures up a different kind of spirit than they had intended…one that isn’t friendly and doesn’t take kindly to those that don’t believe.

I’d encourage you to approach Host with as little knowledge of how it came to be as possible.  I went into the experience knowing only the basic premise and that it came recommended and that was good enough for me.  Learning more about how director Rob Savage put the film together with the cast might take away some of its well-earned magic because its learning about the process after the fact, not before, that enhances the film.  From start to finish, this is a sterling example of how to make the most out of a bad situation and produce something smart and, if not wholly original, the kind of film that speaks to audiences here and now.

Performances are good too.  The young cast more than capably handles the changing emotions that begin with the hopes for a fun evening before quickly devolving into disbelief at the events transpiring in front of their eyes.  If there’s one nitpick I could point out it’s that the editing is perhaps a bit too convenient to the narrative and often breaks the structure of the Zoom format that has been established.  I get why the filmmakers had to make these small allowances but sticking to a recognized structure is important in capping off that extra dose of reality.  Even so, you’ll find your eyes begin to desperately start to search for the scares before they happen but trust me…it won’t do you any good.  Savage and his crew get you when you least expect it and often have things happen so briefly that you question if what you saw even really happened.

Available on the subscription service Shudder, Host is reason alone to investigate the 7-day free trial they often offer.  While their selections rotate monthly, they usually have a nice selection of standard horror titles as well as international genre pictures that could be of interest if you are looking for something different.  I typically like to sign up for their service around September or October as that is when they begin to load their site with a plethora of tantalizing tales of terror but they seem to be getting out the good stuff early by rolling out Host now.  Log on, sign up, and sit back…this Host is dialed in and ready to scare.

Movie Review ~ Daniel Isn’t Real


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A troubled college freshman, Luke, suffers a violent family trauma and resurrects his childhood imaginary friend Daniel to help him cope.

Stars: Patrick Schwarzenegger, Miles Robbins, Sasha Lane, Hannah Marks, Mary Stuart Masterson, Chukwudi Iwuji

Director: Adam Egypt Mortimer

Rated: NR

Running Length: 96 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: There were times when I envied people who talked about their imaginary friend when they were growing up.  Having that special person they could converse with and share secrets sounded kind of fun…a little wacky, but fun.  I wanted to know what these “friends” looked like, were they human, did they age along with you, did they go everywhere with you?  What about when you wanted a moment to yourself?  As an only child, I wondered why I didn’t automatically get one of these because I didn’t have the built-in playmate that a sibling often brings but, sadly, I was left to my own creative ways to pass the time.  Probably for the best…I got into enough trouble on my own.  Mom and Dad, sorry again for all of my shenanigans.

In movies, imaginary friends have been featured in romps like 1996’s trite Bogus and, most famously, in 1991’s Drop Dead Fred which was filmed in my hometown (Minneapolis, MN) and showcased one of the last onscreen appearances of everyone’s dreamgirl of the ‘80s, Phoebe Cates.  Drop Dead Fred was a mischievous imp that got our leading lady into all sorts of trouble but ultimately had her best interest at heart.  He may have royally wrecked her life at the outset but it was all for the best.  In the new psychological thriller Daniel Isn’t Real, a make-believe mate wreaks similar havoc that turns far more sinister the more his true motives are revealed.

Based on a 2009 novel by Brian DeLeeuw, the film has an audacious opening that introduces us to young Luke, showing how he comes to meet up with Daniel at the scene of a violent crime.  (It’s a bit of a shock, especially considering some of the recent headline-making incidents, but it’s a highly effective way to kickstart the movie).  Becoming fast friends in spite of their unique circumstance of meeting, Daniel provides an outlet for Luke to escape the troubles at home where his mother (Mary Stuart Masterson, Fried Green Tomatoes) battles a growing mental illness.  After nearly killing his mother under Daniel’s seemingly benign influence, Luke is finally convinced to lock his friend away in a stately dollhouse where he remains trapped for the next decade.

Now a college freshman struggling with his own issues, Luke (Miles Robbins, Halloween, son of Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon) returns to his family home for a visit to find his mother in a downward spiral of schizophrenia.  Under pressure with school, his family, and life in general he turns back to the one time in his life when he felt special, with Daniel.  Unlocking the dollhouse releases Daniel (Patrick Schwarzenegger, Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse), who has aged into a brooding trickster more than willing to help his old friend sort out some of his current problems.  With Daniel’s assistance, Luke aces a quiz he was unprepared for, gets the confidence to talk to a girl he’s been eyeing (Hannah Marks) and even meets another girl (Sasha Lane, Hellboy) that might provide the kind of challenging love and support Daniel could never offer.  This, obviously, won’t do.  The longer Daniel is in Luke’s life the less it feels like he’s his friend and more like he’s haunting him.  As Luke eventually realizes what Daniel really is and what’s he’s up to, it becomes a fight for survival because how can you run from someone that’s a part of you?

There’s some good stuff going on in this adaptation from DeLeeuw (Paradise Hills) and director Adam Egypt Mortimer, especially in the opening half when Daniel is more of an enigma.  These early scenes when Luke is struggling with the realities of life and discussing his problems with his psychiatrist (Chukwudi Iwuji) have a nice snap to them.  Even the introduction of the adult Daniel has its interesting moments, with Schwarzenegger’s acting being just on the right side of hokey to pull off the vapid poser this creation is presenting himself to be.  I also liked any excuse to see Masterson onscreen, she was such a popular presence in the ‘80s that it’s nice to see her transition into the mom phase of her career with this complex type of motherly character.

What doesn’t seem to work for me is a dreary final forty minutes, mostly because it rests on the shoulder of Robbins and Schwarzenegger and, sorry to say it, these progeny of Hollywood royalty aren’t exactly captivating thespians.  Robbins is so non-threatening that he’d be a great person to bring home as a prom date but doesn’t convince when he’s asked to preen and sneer when he’s possessed by Daniel’s persona at one point near the finale.  Same goes for Schwarzenegger who, aside from those out of the gate scenes that work, becomes one-note (a low one) fairly fast.   Together, they’re a fairly dullsome twosome and as their escapades turn more violent, the less interesting the movie becomes because DeLeeuw and Mortimer have telegraphed from the start just how far Daniel is willing to take things.

Still, there’s something to Daniel Isn’t Real that kept it on my mind long after it was over.  This feeling of not being able to get away from a destructive inner demon that nags at you is relatable and I appreciated when DeLeeuw and Mortimer explored those internal struggles.  I mean, it’s sometimes a bit literal but there are moments when the suggestion is more effective than the presentation and that’s what sets this one apart.  There are some elements of The Cell that enter the picture near the end, visuals included, and while the budget can’t quite support those aspirations I appreciated the attempt at keeping our eyes fixed onto something unique.  I wonder what this would have been like with stronger leads, though.  If we don’t care about the character going through this turmoil, what’s the point?

31 Days to Scare ~ Revenge

The Facts:

Synopsis: Never take your mistress on an annual guys’ getaway, especially one devoted to hunting.

Stars: Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz, Kevin Janssens, Vincent Colombe, Guillaume Bouchède, Avant Strangel

Director: Coralie Fargeat

Rated: R

Running Length: 108 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  It’s often a stereotype that horror films are made solely for men, but it’s hard to deny that a great number of them are definitely constructed from a male perspective.  Though the concept of the “Final Girl” has been cemented as one of the classic rules of a horror film, just as many nubile women meet gruesome ends before the last female standing finally defeats whatever has been hunting down her friends.  Women are often treated as set pieces even when they are the heroines of their own stories.  It’s sad, but true.

In 1978 a landmark movie originally titled Day of the Woman arrived to little fanfare.  The story of a woman raped and left for dead who returns to wreak vengeance on her perpetrators was a micro-budgeted stomach-churner that was eventually re-titled I Spit on Your Grave.  With a title like that, it caught more attention and quickly became a late-night cult classic that spawned many imitators, all with a similar (bad) taste level.  Remade in 2010 and getting three more sequels, its infamy lives on.  I’ve seen the original and the remake and…that was enough for me thank you very much.

When I first heard about the French movie Revenge, it was hard not to think about I Spit on Your Grave because they share similar plot elements.  A woman is brutalized and returns with full force to repay the men that think they’re smarter than her.  I resisted the film for a time because I know how extreme European (especially French) filmmaking can be but once I read the movie was written/directed by a female I was intrigued to see how a story like this would play out as viewed through the female gaze.  How would a female approach the violence?  How would she treat her victim?  Would this be any different than the skeezy schlock that had come before it?

Boy, am I glad I gave this one a go because, as difficult as it is to watch at times, Revenge is a sizzling jolt that starts out slowly and builds to a crazed crescendo.  It’s a movie in full control of its narrative and intentionality, always raising the stakes for its victimized star and often putting obstacles that have nothing to do with her tormentors in her way.  Writer/director Coralie Fargeat doesn’t create a reborn Rambo that suddenly develops skills to assist her in her revenge, but lets the woman discover her own strength naturally surprising herself and the audience in the process.  Feeling like it’s happening in real time, we are right there with the protagonist each painful step of the way as she comes back from the dead, brusied and bloodied, and with a necessary score to settle.

Arriving for a long weekend of hunting at his extravagant retreat in the middle of a desert (we never know where this location is but the movie was filmed in Morocco), Richard (Kevin Janssens) has brought along his mistress Jen (Matilda Lutz, Rings) for some extra fun before his friends arrive.  They don’t get much alone time, though, because Stan (Vincent Colombe) and Dimitri (Guillaume Bouchède) show up soon after and it’s just the boys and Jen partying into the night.  Jen is a flirty but friendly, obviously only having eyes for Richard but still being welcoming to the attentions of his friends.  Though she thinks she’s in control of the situation, as observers of the situation we can see how it’s getting out of control. The next morning is when things take a terrifying turn for Jen and when she stands up for herself she’s betrayed by Richard…and that’s all I’ll say about the last half of the film because you have to experience it yourself.

Turning in a truly revelatory performance, Lutz goes from tart-ed up Lolita at the beginning of the film to blood-soaked avenging angel at the end.  The woman we see 90 minutes into the film looks like a completely different person than the one that we started out with. It’s a credit to Lutz that she believably transforms the character so fully from a trusting bombshell to an activated creature unwilling to be tossed aside like garbage.  She begins her journey back just wanting to stay alive but, when it’s clear the men won’t/can’t let her live, she decides to beat them at their own game and learns the tricks as she goes.  It’s a fantastic performance.  Janssens is also slyly good as her lover without much allegiance to anything/anyone and it’s fitting Fargeat asks him to be so exposed in the film’s most memorable sequence.

Fargeat stages the first act of Revenge with such a luxe vibe with glamour shots of Jen, Richard, and their swanky surroundings.  Seeing beautiful people in a beautiful setting is easy to relax into.  It’s when his less refined friends arrive the cinematography starts to get less shiny and more gritty, leading up to the latter half of the movie set in the stark blaze of exposed sun standing in high contrast to the opening.  That’s nothing compared to the bonkers finale Fargeat has worked up…and it’s a marvel that she pulls it off so well.  This isn’t an easy watch, to be sure, and those with issues on rape and violence toward women are advised to be cautious on exposing yourself to this film.  The main violation does occur mostly off-screen but just the fact that it happens is enough to warrant consideration for those who might be affected by seeing this action.  As a film, though, I recommend it highly as an example of taking a subgenre of horror infamous in the way it handles women and giving it a fresh (and exceptionally well-made) perspective.