Movie Review ~ My Animal

The Facts:

Synopsis: Heather, an outcast teenage goalie, falls for newcomer Jonny, an alluring but tormented figure skater. As their relationship deepens, Heather’s growing desires clash with her darkest secret, forcing her to control the animal within.
Stars: Amandla Stenberg, Bobbi Salvör Menuez, Stephen Mchattie, Heidi Von Palleske, Cory Lipman, Joe Apollonio
Director: Jacqueline Castel
Rated: R
Running Length: 100 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: I do my best not to play favorites in writing these reviews, but any movie that opens with a reference to Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre earns instant mad respect in my notebook. Running from 1982-1987 and comprised of 27 star-filled episodes, these are somewhat forgotten now due to lack of availability on streaming services but fondly remembered by those (like me) who grew up with them. I’m not sure if My Animal’s director, Jacqueline Castel, or writer Jae Matthews chose to reference the Season 3 episode Beauty and the Beast (starring Susan Sarandon and Klaus Kinski). Still, it was an inspired way to introduce this modern story with dark parallels to that bedtime tale.

An ordinary Canadian town is the setting for this high school coming-of-age story that doubles as a moody werewolf horror flick. Teenage Heather (Bobbi Salvör Menuez) works at the local ice rink where her younger twin brothers play hockey. She knows she would make a solid goalie if only the team’s captain would get over his gender bias, but so far, her only time on the ice is running the Zamboni after the players have left. Ignored by her classmates, she also harbors a dark secret that only her family truly understands. Each full moon, she undergoes a painful transformation she can’t control, bringing a hunger and a habit she desperately rejects. 

It’s a curse shared by the men in her family, including her father (Stephen McHattie, Nightmare Alley), but resented by her mother (Heidi Von Palleske, Red), who has been injured too often by her out-of-control loved ones. Into this dangerous mix comes Jonny (Amandla Stenberg, Bodies Bodies Bodies), a new student at Heather’s school who figure skates with her father. When the girls see each other, there is an instant connection, and Heather experiences a feeling, a knowledge she hasn’t known yet. But a relationship with Jonny has consequences for all…and there’s a full moon rising soon.

While My Animal has a strong opening act and admirable performances all around (Menuez, in particular, is fantastic), it starts to lose steam before it reaches its halfway point. A familiarity enters the mix, and we begin to see where Matthews’s script is taking us instead of finding ways that surprise us. The good news is that Castel has an eye for visuals, and combined with a hypnotizing score by Augustus Miller, the overall ambiance created by My Animal is alluring, if unmemorable.

In select Theaters on September 8, 2023
On Digital September 15, 2023

31 Days to Scare ~ Death Valley (1982)


The Facts:

Synopsis: A divorced mother, her young son and her new boyfriend set out on a road trip through Death Valley and run afoul of a local serial killer.

Stars: Peter Billingsley, Paul Le Mat, Catherine Hicks, Stephen McHattie, Wilford Brimley, Edward Herrmann

Director: Dick Richards

Rated: R

Running Length: 87 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: One of my bucket list road trips remains an out West journey to visit the Grand Canyon and drive through Death Valley.  So perhaps watching this 1982 horror movie about a family that get tangled up in a murder mystery after the precocious youngster of their trio stumbles onto a murder scene and makes off with a key piece of evidence that can identify the killer wasn’t the best advertisement to pack up the car next summer.  On the other hand, as presented by director Dick Richards from Richard Rothstein’s original screenplay, Death Valley is a lot less intense than it could have been and that’s both a good thing at times and a bad thing when it sadly should count the most.

Shall we pump the brakes for a second, take the first exit, and make a quick loop to see what got us here?  We’re back in the early days of the slasher film when the studios were clamoring for content, but no one had truly settled on what was going to be attractive to audiences.  They’d later find out that this crowd preferred as much violence, gore, and nudity as possible, so these initial attempts were cautious on all of the above elements and that’s readily apparent in Death Valley.  Even the casual observer can tell Richards is uncomfortable with bloody violence and has included only the bare minimum and though there was obviously more nudity in one scene early on, it’s been edited down to a quick glimpse to protect the innocent. 

This leaves Death Valley feeling like a movie that’s almost embarrassed to be what it is and what it is ain’t that awful, just half-baked…or maybe overbaked depending on how you look at it.  At 87 minutes, Rothstein doesn’t quite have enough plot to fill a feature length so there’s more family drama included than audiences of that time would have cared for.  Take the opening of the movie for instance, with child star Peter Billingsley (a year before his iconic role in A Christmas Story) as Billy walking around NYC with his dad (the late Edward Hermann of The Lost Boys) before saying goodbye as Billy heads off with his divorced mom for a trip to the other coast with her new boyfriend.  This is precious time eaten up by melodrama of the Douglas Sirk variety.  The actors are quite stellar and it’s the first indication of the strength of the main cast but, accompanied by a bouncy score, it feels incongruous for what’s to come next.

Arriving in Arizona for their road trip, Billy meets Mike (Paul Le Mat, Puppet Master) the high school sweetheart of his mom Sally (Catherine Hicks, Child’s Play) who has come back into her life after her marriage ended.  Reluctant to accept the new man at first, his aloofness to Mike spurs on his curiosity to explore the sights whenever they stop off at a tourist trap.  That’s how he ends up (rather boldly, like a true New Yorker) going into an RV that has just been occupied by an unseen killer and his latest victims.  Finding a necklace on the ground, he picks it up and walks away with it, only realizing later that it’s the same one the unsettling server (Stephen McHattie, Eddie: The Sleepwalking Cannibal) at their motel wears. Cue the clanging orchestral score to indicate danger. No, really, composer Dana Kaproff’ love of a nice sting is worse than a persistent bee and as effective as it as when it aligns with the action, when it doesn’t it feels like something went wrong in the editing.

While the movie offers a few surprises along the way, including and up to an interesting finale, it has some stretches that get a little iffy where time is concerned.  Like Billy’s evening with a babysitter which is essentially us observing him and his caretaker watching TV while she eyeballs his stash of candy.  Riveting stuff, this is not.  When Richards does put things into motion, there’s a degree of suspense but it’s of the slow-boil variety, never red-hot tension.  It’s fitting that Rothstein went on to create the mystery anthology series The Hitchhiker because Death Valley feels like it could be a predecessor to that show in content and form…and might have worked better within that shorter running time.  This isn’t a skippable effort at all, it’s just a bit of a trip you don’t have to take if you have other destinations, you’d rather get to first.

MIFF Movie Review ~ Eddie: The Sleepwalking Cannibal



The Facts:

Synopsis: A painter struggling for inspiration finds an unexpected muse after he accepts a teaching position in a small town and becomes the caregiver to Eddie, a seemingly docile art student with a rare sleepwalking condition.

Stars: Thure Lindhardt, Dylan Smith, Georgina Reilly, Alain Goulem, Stephen McHattie, Paul Braunstein

Director: Boris Rodriguez

Rated: NR

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  On the way out of the screening of Eddie: The Sleepwalking Cannibal at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival I overheard a member of a motley crew of teens say “What did we just see?”  Now I’m certain this group was enticed into the late night screening by the wacky title and probably thought they were lining up for a more mainstream horror film experience, but I find myself echoing the sentiment as it applies to this strange mix of horror and comedy.

What we have here is essentially another retelling of the plot from Little Shop of Horrors but transplanted from the gutters of Skid Row to the icy barrenness of a small Canadian town.  Not long after arriving to teach art, artistically blocked painter Lars (the nicely offbeat Lindhardt) finds himself watching over mute man-child Eddie (Smith, excellent) who has some problems adjusting to his new living situation.  The more stressed Eddie is, the more he tends to sleepwalk…and munch of some of the local wildlife.

At first terrified, Lars eventually becomes more and more inspired in his art using the blood and guts from Eddie’s kills to get his creative juices flowing.  He begins to sell more paintings, providing money for the local art school and attracting the attention of a pretty young colleague (Reilly).  What happens, though,  when Eddie gets more comfortable living with Lars and stops sleepwalking/eating…and what will become of some pesky neighbors and their yapping dog?

Director/screenwriter Rodriguez has packed his black comedy with a nice amount of small-town yuks and enough blood to satiate those hungry for some gore but not ready for Evil Dead-style violence.  Don’t get me wrong, there are some very graphic scenes here but it’s all so highly tongue and cheek that many laughs don’t land exactly where they should.

For a 90 minute journey into the tricky waters of bizarre horror comedy, Eddie mostly fits the bill as it lumbers along like the title character.  Lindhardt and Smith are very game leads with Smith taking every advantage of his dialogue-free role to convey much without saying anything.  If you have a taste and tolerance for this type of material, Eddie will be a nice film to absorb into your stable of films but all others should make sure they know what they’re getting into.

31 Days to Scare ~ The Tall Man

The Facts:

Synopsis: When her child goes missing, a mother looks to unravel the legend of the Tall Man, an entity who allegedly abducts children.

Stars: Jessica Biel, Jodelle Ferland, William B. Davis, Samantha Ferris, Stephen McHattie, Jakob Davies, Eve Harlow

Director: Pascal Laugier

Rated: R

Running Length: 106 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  The biggest pain in the butt with movies is when a studio pulls a bait and switch move on you.  You know the feeling, the ads for a film indicate that a movie is going to be thematically one way and it’s only when you’re comfortable with your popcorn and beverage of choice you find that you are seeing a movie totally different than what you were expecting.  Most of the time this causes me rage to no end…and justifiably so.  In the case of The Tall Man, a drama masquerading as a horror film, it’s that very misdirection that makes it worth recommending.

If you were to watch the trailer for The Tall Man or peek at its poster…you’d assume you were in for a horror thriller pitting star (and producer) Biel against a force of evil that steals children.  Even the first ten to fifteen minutes including the opening credits up the ominous factor as we are introduced to the residents of a small rural town where a whole bunch of children have disappeared.  With the legend of the mysterious Tall Man blamed for the children vanishing into thin-air, Biel plays widowed nurse living in a cozy but creepy old house in the woods with her son (Davies) and live-in nanny (Harlow).  It isn’t long before the Tall Man inevitably appears again and takes Davies away into the night.

It’s at this point that the movies makes the first of two sharp left turns as Biel slips into SuperMom action woman mode as she miraculously tracks down our title character with a determination only a movie screenplay would allow for.  With a nice display of style, director/screenwriter Laugier films the first part of the movie with a chilly lens that gives the appropriate amount of shivers up and down the spine.  By setting the film in a mining community far from the hustle and bustle of city living, the audience gets a real sense of seclusion from the outside world.  On the dark mountain roads and damp forests where much of the middle part of the film takes place, a nifty film emerges.

Where some viewers might run into a roadblock is when the movie doubles back on itself and turns another corner.  A filmmaker has to have a lot of confidence in his work and commitment to their storytelling to pull this off and I think Laugier did a good job with it.  Upon reflection, the movie sets itself up nicely for this twist and doesn’t arrive at it by cheating the audience.  Furthermore, once the movie changes its direction it sticks with it and follows through ably to the end…something many similarly twisty films can’t claim to do as well.

This final twist is what moves the film further away from its advertised roots.  You see, The Tall Man is really a movie that’s more about parental responsibility than it is about a psychopath on the loose.  Its core values may have a sour taste to those that are sick of being preached to but it’s still a worthy message to hear in this particular genre and medium.

Biel has never been the strongest actress but she navigates the complexities of her role with nice verve that heretofore hasn’t been present in her work.  After her sleepy turn in Total Recall, it was nice to see another performance of hers where she was present and accounted for.  Since much of the film hinges on our understanding of her actions, she colors her work with just the right amount of strength and vulnerability.  It’s a strong performance from the new Ms. Timberlake.

The rest of the cast is populated with Canadian actors that lend the film a vibe of realism.  I bought that these people were residents of this town…they wear their exhaustion and sorrow on their faces and show it in how they carry themselves.  Everyone seems to be on the same page and even if the actual performances are television movie-esque, there’s an overall feeling that the casting is spot-on.

How much you enjoy The Tall Man is entirely dependent on where you set your expectations going in.  It’s not a full-blown horror film…though some of the themes/actions presented in the movie can be frightening.  There’s a fair amount of decent spooky set-up that may satisfying your thrill meter…but stick with it when it changes course and I think you’ll be glad you did.