Movie Review ~ It Lives Inside

The Facts:

Synopsis: An Indian-American teenager struggling with her cultural identity has a falling out with her former best friend and, in the process, unwittingly releases a demonic entity that grows stronger by feeding on her loneliness.
Stars: Megan Suri, Neeru Bajwa, Mohana Krishnan, Vik Sahay, Gage Marsh, Beatrice Kitsos, Betty Gabriel
Director: Bishal Dutta
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 99 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: As I sit here a week away from a landmark high school reunion, I was thinking back at how relatively simple we had it when I graduated at the end of last century.  Email was becoming a must-have accessory ( thank you!), Netscape Navigator was the browser of choice, and leaving your AOL-IM on all night just in case someone you’d been crushing on logged in and messaged you wasn’t out of the ordinary.  Now, you couldn’t pay me enough to go back and suffer the high school experience.  There’s too much pressure between home and school responsibilities, not to mention the social hierarchy that must be sidewinded daily.

Plenty of memorable movies have been made about clawing your way toward being an upperclassman, and a fair share of them have been in the horror genre, but what sets the good ones apart (think Carrie) is how they can remain timeless.  Yes, Brian de Palma’s Carrie may have funky fashion, but aside from that, it could take place now.  That feeling of aging well surrounds It Lives Inside by director Bishal Dutta.  While it’s nothing wholly original and isn’t going to wind up sitting on a high shelf next to the true greats, it’s a fiery good time that delivers its promised scares amidst a spooky mood not reliant on traditional tropes. You’ll be able to revisit this one in a decade, and I feel it will hold up remarkably well.

Samidha (Megan Suri, Missing) is a typical teenager who would rather hang out with her friends than lean into her Indian heritage.  While her father is more open to letting his American-born daughter find her path, her concerned mother (an excellent Neeru Bajwa) prefers to keep tradition alive.  When Tamira (Mohana Krishnan), Samidha’s classmate and sole other Indian American student, shows up to school carrying a creepy mason jar that we see her dropping raw meat into, we can understand why Samidha broke ties with her to protect her social reputation.

Yet Tamira needs Samidha’s help because only the former friends can understand how their culture plays a part in the danger Tamira has harnessed in the icky but seemingly innocuous jar she’s protecting.  It’s soon too late as the jar breaks and brings forth an evil force that gains power by targeting the vulnerabilities both teens are trying to hide.  As an ancient entity casts its shadow over Samidha’s family, friends, and a well-meaning teacher (Betty Gabriel, The Purge: Election Year, playing the pseudo-Betty Buckley character from Carrie), she’ll need to rely on the trust, teachings, and protection of the one person she struggles to connect with the most.

Part creature feature and part cult thriller, It Lives Inside often takes the easy path to glory in each subgenre and easily crosses the finish line.  If Dutta’s script (co-written by Ashish Mehta) isn’t the most challenging of material and can feel a tad reductive, it at least puts an Indian American story front and center for a genre that is often homogenous.  And it’s scary too!  Working with a limited budget, Dutta stretches the cash a long way, and the results are solid, though you’ll need to decide for yourself how successful the final act is when the curtain is finally pulled back on the Big Nasty.

Had this not been PG-13 (and I’m not advocating for every horror movie needing to be R and gory), I think It Lives Inside might have had a certain cult appeal, at least on the home video market, where most viewers will likely catch it.  There’s a bit of holding back where violence is concerned, which can be refreshing, but here you wish Dutta had allowed himself (or the producers had allowed him) to go as far out with his ideas as he wanted. 

Movie Review ~ Dark Windows

The Facts:

Synopsis: A group of teenagers take a trip to an isolated summerhouse in the countryside. What starts as a peaceful getaway turns into a horrific nightmare when a masked man begins to terrorize them in the most gruesome ways.
Stars: Anna Bullard, Annie Hamilton, Rory Alexander, Jóel Sæmundsson, Morten Holst
Director: Alex Herron
Rated: NR
Running Length: 80 minutes
TMMM Score: (6.5/10)
Review:  I tend to have a strong aversion to screenplays that double back on themselves, so generally, movies that start at the end raise an alert for me. Inevitably, what we’re shown at the start is a red herring to what occurs when we return to the action an hour or so later. I’ve never understood the purpose of this awkward framing device, primarily because it’s been used so often, and you wonder if the filmmakers think audiences aren’t aware a bait-and-switch is about to happen.

English-language Norwegian horror thriller Dark Windows begins at (or very near) the end when a survivor of a night’s worth of terror has been cornered and is seemingly ready to meet their maker. A quick jump takes us several days earlier to find Tilly (Anna Bullard) struggling to enter the wake of Ali, a friend recently killed in a car accident. Tilly, Monica (Annie Hamilton, Marriage Story), and Peter (Rory Alexander) were in the car, but all three made it out with barely a scrape. Feeling the pressure of a town’s worth of stares and questions about why they survived, and their friend didn’t, the three escape to Monica’s remote weekend home for a few days to relax and take stock of what’s next.

What’s next is being stalked by a killer intent on making them pay for their survival by ensuring they don’t see the light of day. Gradually, secrets from the night of Ali’s death are revealed, leading audiences to believe that maybe the killer knows what they did that summer night and is taking bloody steps in avenging a loved one…or is someone closer to them trying to eliminate loose ends?   

Director Alex Herron maintains a good air of suspense throughout, and despite some third act swerves into true brutality, the viscera found in Dark Windows is relatively tame. That leaves room for tension to rule above gore and fleshed-out performances (solid across the board) to emerge. It’s a fairly standard story, as written by Ulvrik Kraft, but getting it on its feet and handing it to the filmmaker and actors puts it in the “worth a peek” category.

Now Available On Demand

Movie Review ~ Theater Camp

The Facts:

Synopsis: The eccentric staff of a rundown theater camp in upstate New York must band with the beloved founder’s bro-y son to keep the camp afloat.
Stars: Noah Galvin, Molly Gordon, Ben Platt, Jimmy Tatro, Patti Harrison, Nathan Lee Graham, Ayo Edebiri, Owen Thiele, Caroline Aaron, Amy Sedaris
Directors: Molly Gordon & Nick Lieberman
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 94 minutes
TMMM Score: (8.5/10)
Review: The last time I was scheduled to go to summer camp, I ran into the bathroom of the YMCA we were departing from and locked myself in, refusing to come out until the buses were forced to leave without me. My parents were, understandably, apoplectic, and looking back on it now, I don’t know why I wouldn’t have leaped at the chance to get out of the city and enjoy the time away. I mean, I understand why I flipped out at the time. I’d already gone the previous summer and hated it. Picture it: I was an only child, a theater nerd, “sensitive,” hadn’t had my first sleepover, and generally wasn’t used to being around so much uncontained testosterone in one deodorant-free cabin.

In the following years, my obsession with camp blossomed as if I were the poster child for the sleepaway experience. I sought out each TV show, movie, book, article, you name it because though it never turned out to be part of my adolescence, I lived vicariously through these fictional characters that lived (and in the case of the Friday the 13th’s, died) in this tranquil setting. Now, if I knew I would be in an environment like the one depicted in Theater Camp, I might have sucked it up, found my light, and made sure not to upstage my big moment. 

Walking the fine line between razor-sharp comedy and overly winking send-up is tough, but Theater Camp, written by Ben Platt, Noah Galvin, Molly Gordon, and Nick Lieberman, gets it so terrifically right that you’ll be absolutely howling throughout. My inner theater kid was literally screaming with laughter at some of the perfectly crafted one-liners and expertly timed bits. Best of all, it is not so insider Broadway that it excludes but instead is filled with the kind of “if you know, you know” references that only enhance enjoyment.

A much-loved theater camp in upstate New York, Camp AdirondACTS, faces a crisis as summer approaches. Its founder and camp director, Joan (Amy Sedaris, Somebody I Used to Know), suffers a stroke while attending a performance of Bye, Bye, Birdie! and it falls to her son Troy (Jimmy Tatro, 22 Jump Street) to keep the (stage) lights on and the staff employed, fending off ruthless real estate investors and his dopey inexperience to survive. Meanwhile, Amos (Platt, Dear Evan Hansen) and Rebecca-Diane (Gordon, Love the Coopers), popular teachers (and former campers) who have jointly agreed to put their own performing careers on hold, run into their first conflict as they write and direct their annual original musical.

There’s so much good to go around in Theater Camp that one watch on the big screen won’t be enough for many. This is one of those surefire cast party/sleepover movies destined to be rewound, rehearsed, and rehashed in the years to come. It’s been made mainly for theater people expressly by theater people, but its theme of wanting to be the best version of yourself at every level of achievement is universal. That’s why you may find yourself unexpectedly emotional at the end, when a song about nothing suddenly becomes linked to everything important to the characters and, somewhat magically, to us.

I can try to resist Platt all I want, and while I found him the least effective of the leads in Theater Camp, he’s cast himself in a terrific, if unchallenging, role as a narcissistic nerd who has gotten used to being a big fish in a pond that’s always stocked with little fish. He’s acting alongside longtime friend Gordon, and that relationship gives credence to the tension their characters experience as the movie tools along. Gordon (who also directs with Lieberman) is a bona fide star (if you couldn’t tell after watching season two of FX’s The Bear) and walks away with the movie, even if she gives the best lines away to Platt and Tatro. Platt’s fiancée Galvin (Booksmart) has a sweet stagehand role hiding talent bigger than he may know. 

Sure, I may have rethought some of Ayo Edebiri’s role as a last-minute hire by Tatro’s character for multiple positions he needs, though she isn’t adept at any, but even Edebiri gets a few moments to shine. It’s also a pleasure to see actors like Nathan Lee Graham (Zoolander 2) and Owen Thiele step up for some uproarious moments as teachers who don’t hold back their cutting opinions on their young students. An impressive cast of young talent singing and dancing throughout is the bow on the glittery fun of Theater Camp. It’s the perfect length for this type of comedy and never stays in a bit longer than it must. This is one camp I think about revisiting soon, if only that YMCA one I hid from all those years ago could say the same thing!

31 Days to Scare ~ Cursed

The Facts:

Synopsis: A werewolf loose in Los Angeles changes the lives of three young adults who, after being mauled by the beast, learn to kill it to avoid becoming werewolves themselves.
Stars: Christina Ricci, Jesse Eisenberg, Joshua Jackson, Milo Ventimiglia, Judy Greer, Mýa, Shannon Elizabeth, Portia de Rossi, Kristina Anapau, Solar, Derek Mears, Nick Offerman
Director: Wes Craven
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 97 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review:  Perhaps I’m getting more nostalgic in my old age, but I’ve developed a fondness for revisiting several films from my high school and college years that proved formative.  Steering clear of the true childhood classics from the ‘80s, I’ve focused instead on those late ‘90s to mid-‘00s features that launched (or sunk) numerous Hollywood careers.  What has surprised me most about these trips down movie theater memory lane is not the films that have held up nicely but the titles that improved through the years.  Some have gone from good to excellent, while others have moved in my mind from “bad” to “what took me so long to rewatch this?” 

Today’s example is Cursed, a werewolf movie with a Scream-vibe released in 2005.  Cursed isn’t a great movie; it’s been altered and chopped up too much from its original version, damaging the intended vision of director Wes Craven (Summer of Fear) and his production team.  It is, however, so much better than I had remembered it and absolutely not the dumpster fire it was classified as when it was initially released.  Based on an original screenplay by Kevin Williamson (The Faculty), the script went through numerous rewrites by various other screenwriters. Hence, it’s hard to figure out to whom the final product should be attributed.  Some might argue Miramax/Dimension Films producer Harvey Weinstein shaped the version released in theaters because he ordered so many changes during the over two years of production the crew endured.

Yes, that’s right.  Over two years were spent once filming began before the troubled production finally made it to theaters.  In that time, cast members were changed, storylines were cut/modified, and the special effects team was let go.  What audiences saw in theaters reflected that mess, and my recollections were of a film that wanted to get to the kills faster and faster.  It made little sense, with characters appearing and disappearing without much explanation.  We’ll likely never see that originally filmed version that tested either poorly or well (depending on who you talk to), but instead, we have a director’s cut which aims to restore some narrative order to the film.  In this reassembled package, something more in line with a movie Craven and Williamson would have collaborated on finally emerges. While it isn’t a showstopper on their resume, it has some excellent sequences.

Becky and Jenny (Shannon Elizabeth and singer Mýa) are at a carnival in Los Angeles and are warned by a psychic (Portia de Rossi) that one of them is in danger and to beware of a beast they know.  Shortly after, Ellie, a young professional (Christina Ricci, Mermaids), and her younger brother Jimmy (Jesse Eisenberg, American Ultra) get into a car wreck with Becky on a deserted stretch of road in the Hollywood hills.  As the siblings try to help Becky, they watch as she is attacked by an unseen creature that they are both scratched by.  The next day, brother and sister exhibit strange behavior, such as an advanced sense of smell and lightning-fast reflexes. 

Doing some old-fashioned detective work at the library, it becomes clear to Jimmy that the creature they encountered was a werewolf, and now he and his sister are becoming similar beasts.  As the werewolf continues to attack friends of Ellie and Jimmy, there is an urgency to find out who the monster is and their plan in choosing their victims.  The list of potential suspects is long, and who in their circle of friends they can trust is shrinking rapidly.

You can see why Dimension Films were so key in making Cursed a variation of their popular Scream franchise, which had petered out right around the time Williamson turned in his original script for this werewolf whodunit.  Substituting out a flesh and blood serial killer for a hairy werewolf taking a bite out of a group of young adults in Hollywood was a good way for the studio to keep a proven business formula going without continually tapping the same well of characters.  Early test screenings provoked discussions that led to suggested changes that major players disagreed with, and that’s when the tinkering started to set the movie on its eventual collision course with post-production hell. 

While Cursed is undeniably silly at times (the reshot scenes are unfortunate, look at poor Eisenberg’s hideous wig in the newer footage) and major cringe at others (a subplot about Jimmy’s rumored gay leanings and how it plays out is beyond dated), it offers more than a few classic Craven passages that get the blood pumping.  That original car wreck is well-staged, ending with a horrific image only available in the director’s cut.  The centerpiece is Mýa’s lengthy chase scene through a parking garage where the creature pursues her.  This scene is edited masterfully and a real nail-biter.

Cursed is a case of ‘your mileage may vary’ on how well another viewer might receive it.  I found a rewatch of it seventeen years after it was released to poor reviews and lackluster box office, an eye-opener to how decent a film it is.  Maybe it’s because I know how much worse it could have been or know that a truly poor edit of Craven’s film is out there, but the Director’s Cut is the only way to see this film.  When searching for it, you’ll see the sanitized version if you see a PG-13 rating.  Hold out for the unrated version (or buy it here from Scream Factory), and you’ll be pleasantly surprised…and a little scared!