Thursday, August 2, 2018

Ghost Stories (2018) and the Problem Of The Twist

Ghost Stories (2018
Written and Dir. by Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson
Starring Andy Nyman, Martin Freeman, Paul Whitehouse, Alex Lawther

Here’s the problem with watching an absolutely unhealthy, physically exhausting, emotionally deadening amount of movies. No, it has nothing to do with the socially isolating effects of forgoing the last vestiges of real human experience to follow the flickering siren of obscure horror cinema, don’t be stupid. The problem is, eventually, you see pretty much everything.

I don’t mean, of course, that you literally run out of new material (there are still CRITTERS sequels I haven’t seen, for God’s sake!), I mean that you eventually just see so many iterations of the same narrative and stylistic tricks that they lose every lingering remnant of their once-potent ability to surprise you. There is a never-ending stream of new movies, but they increasingly reveal themselves to be merely thinly repackaged iterations of older ones, familiar as an old shoe, and about as exciting. Twists which once blew your mind, you can now confidently identify from a trailer. Clever narrative sleights of hand get repeated so often that you have pet names for them all. Eventually you find yourself getting uneasy 15 minutes into some indie thriller, and furtively asking “this isn’t going to turn out to be another fucking time loop cop-out is it?” In short, nearly everything you watch becomes predictable (to an alarming degree of accuracy) just by virtue of revealing its basic structure -- not through any particular fault of its own, but simply due to the titanic amount of predictive power all that accumulated experience with the medium brings.

            That might sound a bit dispiriting, but it’s honestly not as bad as all that. Despite the obsessive, almost fanatical emphasis fanboy culture now puts on avoiding “spoilers,” (a phenomenon of modern vintage, I think --at least in degree-- possibly traceable directly to the unbelievable hype surrounding the release of the STAR WARS prequels*) some foreknowledge is not entirely incongruous with enjoying a narrative tale. Sure, experiencing a story for the first time is usually going to produce a greater impact than subsequent tellings, but the joy of most narratives is found in the journey, not in some abrupt twist or turnaround which can be “spoiled.” This is particularly true in genre fare, where basic story structure is necessarily somewhat fixed and rigid, but it’s largely true for fiction in general; most stories are build around recognizable archetypes, so the emphasis becomes less about the unravelling of a plot and more about the unique details of this particular iteration. We don’t doubt that James Bond is gonna bed the girl and route the bad guy, we don’t doubt that Jason is gonna hack up those horny camp counselors, and we know roughly how they’re going to go about it. There’s nothing narrative to “spoil”; the pleasure is in the experience of watching it.

Not every film is quite as heavily invested in formula as those two examples, of course, but even films with more significant narrative “twists” often hold up smartly upon rewatch. Hell, there are even cases where a movie is probably better once its surprise has been revealed; I certainly felt that way about REGRESSION, a movie whose arguable strengths are found entirely upon the ostensible revelation of its secrets. And come on, is TOTAL RECALL less fun once you know the nuts and bolts of its story? Absolutely not. Does the fact that every single living human learns --apparently in utero-- the “twists” in EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and PLANET OF THE APES and SOYLENT GREEN make them any less enduring? Their shocking twists are so iconic that, to modern audiences, they barely even read as though they were ever intended to be surprising. And yet they remain unflaggingly popular and beloved, perhaps even more universally now than when they still retained their ability to surprise.

So a movie which indulges in a game-changing twist is hardly a lost cause, and hardly in bad company -- or even exclusively modern company, for that matter. 1920’s THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI has a twist ending, for fuck’s sake. And if you want to trace its lineage even further back, it’s a simple matter to follow a thread that leads you to Robert Chambers, and Ambrose Bierce, and probably rightfully to Poe (maybe further, though older examples elude me. Anyone think of one?).

But while plenty of stories which include a shocking twist may still maintain their potency upon subsequent viewings, the prospects for films which are fundamentally built on surprise tend to be dimmer. Whodunnits, for example --with their singular narrative focus on the solution to a mystery-- can find themselves much diminished once their secrets have been revealed, as can movies which deliberately identify and subvert the audiences’ narrative expectations in an attempt to catch them off guard (for example, the rote role-reversals of the JJ Abrams STAR TREK reboot). So too can works of fiction which don’t particularly traffic in shocking twists, but rather prioritize provocative conceptual conceits over compelling narrative content (a friend of mine was recently bemoaning his disappointment in reading an anthology of early sci-fi short stories and finding it comprised mainly of perfunctory plotlines built around great sci-fi concepts… concepts which, unfortunately, had been so thoroughly cannibalized and scavenged by subsequent genre writers that they barely even registered anymore, leaving the reader with a very lean meal indeed.) But of course, the subset of fiction most vulnerable to the kryptonite of foreknowledge combines the two, packaging a radical conceptual element as a shocking narrative turn. And so it is that otherwise perfectly adequate meat-and-potatoes horror movies become overcome by hubris enough to point their artistic wings of wax straight at the sun on the hottest day of the summer. That sun, of course, is the twist-ending mindfuck.

The mindfuck thriller is a subgenre which seems to have proliferated significantly since the 90’s, perhaps inaugurated by PRIMAL FEAR and certainly catalyzed by THE SIXTH SENSE, but finding its most devoted acolytes in the indie boom of the 90’s and more recently the indie horror boom of the last decade or so. For two distinct waves --ebbing somewhat in the dour mid ‘noughts-- it often seemed, and still seems, that mindfuck twists have been the expected standard more often than they’ve been the shocking exception.

A mindfuck, of course, is more than just a surprise, and more than just a twist; it’s a twist which radically recontextualizes everything that preceded it, alters the fundamental meaning, and sometimes even the actual fact, of the events which led up to it. It’s not a spoiler to tell you that our long-neglected subject of the day, 2018’s GHOST STORIES, is angling for a mindfuck; it telegraphs the fact pretty openly, right from its first scenes. And that’s inherently and immediately reason enough for concern, but not quite reason enough for a general abandonment of all hope. It’s a risky gamble, but also a potentially rewarding one. Successfully executed, a good mindfuck can throw viewers into a perfectly beautiful chaos, upending reality and forcing a sudden and elemental reevaluation of every assumption made so far, sifting for hidden layers of meaning. At its best, it is a kind of primal creative destruction, smashing apart a narrative so an audience can rebuild something more complex from the pieces. But it carries a high risk: a mindfuck which fails to justify itself can simply leave an audience sitting in the shattered ruins of a wrecked narrative, resenting the person who broke it.

            It is, then, one of the most potent narrative tools available, and consequently requires a supreme mastery of storytelling to wield effectively; it requires, in essence, no less than the complete creation of two completely self-contained parallel narratives, both comprised mostly of the same pieces but independently able to produce radically variant results, and both of which independently read as satisfying drama. No easy task in itself, but made vastly more difficult by an increasingly savvy audience, watchful for any hint of such trickery, and for whom the film's drama will be irrecoverably hobbled if they get ahead of the plot. Surprise, is, after all, a vital part of this formula; an audience that sees the trick coming is, I think inevitably, an audience which is waiting for the movie to catch up. But surprise alone is not enough; to pull the trick off --which is to say, to invest your entire raison d'être in a sudden and radical “twist” which fundamentally shifts the viewers’ understanding of what they’ve seen -- you need tightly crafted storytelling and a genuinely intriguing concept.

Gosh does this poster resemble but remain legally distinct from that other Martin Freeman-starring genre hyrbid SHAUN OF THE DEAD! I bet the guys who made this were really kicking themselves when they realized they'd made such an embarrassing blunder!

            GHOST STORIES, frankly put, does not have an intriguing concept. There’s not a frame of the movie which isn’t derivative to the point of parody, and its brazen denouement, in particular, is more likely to inspire groans than shrieks. That’s a problem, because as a unabashed and enthusiastic mindfuck, it’s absolutely a movie which lives and dies by its ability to stick the landing. It is, in fact, exactly the sort of movie we’ve been so enjoyably discussing the in abstract for 1400 words now; one which gambles its entire existence on its ability to pull off a particular magic trick. And in this case, that magic trick, once revealed, is such a corny old chestnut that you can barely help but laugh at the absurdity of the seriousness with which it is executed. It’s as though a fierce-eyed stage magician drenched in blood and covered in occult tattoos emerged from a pit of fire, dramatically shouted incantations summoning the blackest demons of hell, and then pulled out a peanut can with a coiled snake in it.

            But it is executed with seriousness, and quite a bit of care, as well. Which brings me back around to my original question: is it this movie’s fault that I’ve seen this exact movie before? Can a mindfuck still be worthwhile once experience has rendered my mind essentially unfuckable, or at the very least utterly impervious the the kind of low-imagination fuckery which is employed here? Should a work of art be judged solely upon the sturdiness of its execution, or are we permitted --perhaps even required?-- to consider its content against our awareness of the vast panoply of its brethren? Judged on one standard, GHOST STORIES is deserving of a modest admiration. Judged against the other, it’s very possibly a disaster, if not an actual insult.

            While we consider that question, however, let us first explore what GHOST STORIES indisputably is. It commences in the childhood memories --by which I mean the 8mm footage, which is apparently just what memories look like on film now****-- of Professor Philip Goodman (Andy Nyman, a busy actor in Peaky Blinders, DEATH AT A FUNERAL, BLACK DEATH, and serving triple duty as co-director and co-writer here, adapting his work from the successful stage play of the same name). Goodman is ostensibly a professor by title, but TV star by trade, as he serves as creator and protagonist of the paranormal debunking show Psychic Cheats, and is introduced to us pulling off an exact recreation of James Randi’s famous expose of charlatan faith-healer Peter Popoff.***** Despite (or, the movie insinuates, more likely because of) his strict Jewish upbringing, Goodman is a militant atheist skeptic (and apparently so insulated in that mindset that he’ll later be confused and visibly annoyed when a priest insinuates that there might be some kind of afterlife), which in real life is arguably a sane, logical worldview, but in horror movies is inevitably a sign that he’s a close-minded husbrisical fool who needs to be taught a lesson in humility.

If that were true, pal, I'd be watching a better movie right now.

            This lesson will be administered in the form of three interviews with different characters who claim to have experienced paranormal phenomenon, cases pushed upon him by a hostile former mentor who dares him to try and explain them. This neatly divides the movie into something of a portmanteau, albeit one where the individual segments are not exactly self-contained stories in themselves so much as little clues to a larger puzzle masquerading as separate incidents. (This is, again, hardly a spoiler, as the movie is unabashedly unsubtle about the repeated motifs it drops with a thud [or, more often, a loud musical sting] in front of the audience’s face over and over, lingering almost pornographically over them until they become impossible to miss, even absent any context for them). In the first, Goodman interviews a former nightwatchman (Paul Whitehouse, “Gentleman Drunk” in BURKE AND HARE, absolutely terrific here) who spends a scary night wandering around the poorly-lit halls of an abandoned mental hospital. Next, he interviews a young man (Alex Lawther, Black Mirror, overacting so hard it’s physically exhausting just to watch) who recounts a demonic encounter while driving. And finally, a posh banker (Martin Freeman, every movie) who encounters a poltergeist while his wife is at the hospital giving birth to his child.

            The movie begins worrisomely flat-footed, with some very awkward talking to the camera in the context of a painfully unconvincing “documentary” Goodman is making (a conceit which is rapidly abandoned) and also some unmotivated narration over freeze-frames, immediately and unnecessarily muddying the water of the film’s basic perspective. Thankfully, this turns out to be merely early jitters from first-time full-length writer-directors Nyman and Jeremy Dyson (best known as part of the comedy troupe the League of Gentlemen) and the film quickly settles into a much more simple and elegant style, aided to a degree which would be almost impossible to overstate by cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland (prolific TV work, including The Missing and The Crown) who imbues the film with a splendidly oppressive gritty surrealism that somehow emphasizes both the broken-down plainness of the surroundings and the omnipresent otherworldliness hovering (mostly) unseen just beyond our ability to perceive it.

This part of the movie is virtually identical to the 2013 micro-budget HEAD TRAUMA, which was also bad and derivative. Spoilers, if you've seen HEAD TRAUMA, I guess?

            For a while, this works quite pleasingly indeed, drawing strength from an unhurried but steady pace and some stridently solid filmmaking fundamentals. The first and third interviews are textbook perfect specimens of patient, tightly controlled suspense scenes, perfectly evoking the universally relatable experience of apprehensively wandering through a quiet, empty building with boogeymen lurking in every shadow and beneath every squeaking floorboard. The second segment confusingly swerves into some kind of broad, borderline-comic EVIL DEAD tone (including an unmistakable steadicam run through the woods, just in case there was any doubt), but not entirely without success. There’s not a single beat in any of these which isn’t a screaming cliche, of course, but that doesn’t mean they’re not well executed, or even that they’re not effective. Sure, it feels cheap and lazy by this point in history to pull out the old gag where a ghost which was not previously visible suddenly and impossibly appears behind you accompanied by a loud musical sting, but you still can’t argue with its utility.

            Even so, some of it doesn’t quite click. The acting is mostly pretty good --Whitehouse is flat-out terrific, and Freeman does a perfectly serviceable job with his stunt casting as one of those overtly-friendly Europeans who threatens you in a cheery voice while wearing a really nice suit. Lawther seems to be acting in some completely different, much wackier movie, but it’s to generally strong effect, and isolating him in a single segment at least makes the competing tone feel separate and distinct, rather than utterly out of place. Unfortunately, Nyman himself is the weak link here. He’s not a bad actor by any measure, but his mopey doormat of a character makes for a maddeningly passive protagonist, and the movie, even punctuated by its three marquee flashbacks, unmistakably posits him as such. There are arguably thematic reasons for him to be such a weenie, but anchoring the film to this offhandedly irritating sadsack who is doomed to be emasculated and easily humiliated by everyone he encounters until he’s simply impossible to root for… well, it makes for a slog of a journey. Everyone loves an underdog, but no one roots for a born loser, and that’s what his character amounts to, simply offering no reason for us to identify with him.

I mean, look at this fuckin' asshole, here.

I think it was a mistake from the start for director Nyman to play this character; had he cast another actor, simple vanity on that actor’s part might have inspired them to push for just a little more resolve and dignity. But Nyman, free to direct himself, approaches the role with a destabilizing black hole of anti-charismatic self-loathing, and there’s never a frame where he’s not being dominated by another actor (or just the scenery). One gets the sense that, as a writer and director, Nyman doesn’t like this character, and his contempt for Goodman’s smug facade (masking desperate insecurity) all but drips off the screen. In fact, given his role as writer and the intense, personal way in which the film despises its protagonist, one is tempted to speculate this must come from a personal place-- a portrait of someone he really has a deep-seated anger towards, or, perhaps more intriguingly, a autobiographical portrait of tremendous self-hatred.  

There’s a sort of boldness, I suppose, to making a film which is so thoroughly contemptuous of its central character. And it is, I think, intended as a generous performance, the performance a director gives when he’s acting in his own movie and self-consciously trying not to showboat and steal the stage from his fellow actors. But there’s no escaping from his centrality to all this, and the part desperately needed someone with a little less whipped-dog acquiescence if it had any hope of capturing our sympathy for this man.  

(This also, incidentally, turns the film’s ostensible conflict of skepticism versus belief into a distressingly fixed fight; Goodman fails to put up even the feeblest defense of reason, and since the movie never fails to humiliate him and show him up as a vain, insecure phony, it ends up [probably inadvertently?] being one of the most casually dismissive films about atheism this side of GOD’S NOT DEAD. I’m not certain this is the movie’s intent; absent any reason to believe Dyson or Nyman are militant believers with an ax to grind against skeptics, I think it’s more likely this is intended as a study of this specific character--and possibly even an unflinching self-critique by a couple of avowed atheists-- not a comment on skepticism more broadly. Nevertheless, the film’s structure stubbornly drags the subject of scientific skepticism into the spotlight again and again -- it begins with Goodman’s unhappy, strictly religious childhood, segues into his professional pride in exposing frauds, and posits its three segments explicitly as “unexplainable” cases which he is goaded into investigating as a proxy for justifying his life’s work. The subject’s centrality to the movie makes it very difficult to wave away as a mere plot device, but the movie has absolutely no interest in an honest discussion about it.)

            Nevertheless, the genre goods, such as they are, are certainly present and accounted for. It certainly fits snugly into the burgeoning subgenre of low-key, all-atomsphere low-budget indie horror flicks like IT FOLLOWS or THE WITCH, or particularly I AM THE PRETTY THING THAT LIVES IN THE HOUSE. It has none of the imagination of any of those, of course, but it shares with them an ambition for fanatically slow-burn scenes of ambiguous, lingering dread. Irritatingly, though its modern vintage is written in every frame, many reviewers (including Variety’s Guy Lodge, AV Club’s Mike D’Angelo and Newsweek’s Andrew Whalen) seem to have latched onto its British pedigree and episodic structure to advance the absolutely misguided idea that it’s some kind of nostalgic throwback to the heydey of British horror, particularly citing the Amicus anthologies of the late 60s and early 70s. It’s self-evidently nothing of the kind, except in the most mild superficial ways, serving as yet another reminder both that most mainstream critics' knowledge of horror films is often unfortunately shallow --Variety’s Lodge offhandedly cites the “Decayed Victoriana associated with the genre” as a signal of the film's aspirations towards nostalgia, obviously forgetting that Amicus’ whole MO was dodging the Gothic flavor of Hammer by cultivating a thoroughly modern setting******-- and that their appreciation for the genre is too often correlated almost exactly with the degree to which a horror film can be categorized as anything but a horror film (a meta-textual analysis of the genre, a psychological drama in horror dress, a cheeky referential throwback... anything but the genuine article).
            Still, I don’t consider its lack of nostalgia to be a weakness -- if anything, it would probably be more irritating if it was trying to mine some goodwill from half-remembered sentimentality of the good’ ol days of British horror. It seems comfortable enough in its own shoes, mostly content to cultivate a glacially spooky vibe, but occasionally indulging in bit of real horror red meat (even if it is almost exclusively of the most blandly familiar variety). Indeed, if it were only this, I could probably feel confident offering it a mild but unambiguous recommendation.

But of course, it’s not only offering that. It is, after all, a mindfuck, and a mindfuck is almost never offering what it first appears to be. Which brings us back to the topic which has taken up so much of your valuable life today, and which we have been putting off for an absolutely unforgivable amount of time: What happens to a perfectly fine film which insists on blowing itself up with an ill-conceived movie-negating twist in its final minutes?

The answer, I guess, is that it falls apart. Or rather, it deflates, leaking momentum and goodwill like a dying balloon, until at last you’re left with a flabby, hollowed-out skin of a narrative, every aspect still visible, but wrinkled and distorted and diminished, lingering shamefacedly as its complete insubstantiality is nakedly exposed. I don’t think there’s any other narrative device which has the potential to be so completely devastating. A mindfuck isn’t just a twist, after all, it’s a trick. It’s a bait-and-switch. It tells you what it is, and then, once you’ve comfortably settled into that assumption, reveals that it’s not at all what it claimed to be, that it is actually something altogether different. So if you liked the thing it was claiming to be, you’re going to find it rudely yanked away from you and replaced by something altogether dissimilar and often decidedly more threadbare.

That, of course, is the case here, and in order to go further I’m going to have to SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER the end of the movie. There are a number of different mindfucks which could be employed here, and you’ve probably already narrowed it down to three equally hacky possibilities: he’s being gaslighted, he’s really a ghost himself, or he’s hallucinating all this as he lies dying. You’ll notice each possibility negates the plot in a slightly different way, but they have one thing in common: they all render most of the runtime completely moot, even within the context of the fiction. If he’s being gaslighted, for example, the the stories which compose the bulk of the runtime are just arbitrary lies, and we might as well never have heard them for all they end up meaning. That would be an infuriating enough end, but unfortunately I’m obligated to inform you that it would be absolutely scintillating stuff compared to what they did go with: The fucking ending of WIZARD OF OZ. Or, the ol’ Owl Creek Bridge, to give it a name which speaks to its antiquity.

SPOILERS CONTINUE SPOILERS CONTINUE SPOILERS CONTINUE SPOILERS CONTINUE It seems, in fact, that Goodman is really unconscious in a hospital bed, suffering from locked-in-syndrome after a failed suicide attempt (so that’s why everyone he’s been meeting has been going on at length about this obscure medical condition!) and basically making up random, meaningless stories in his head based very loosely on the various people who wander around his hospital room (the janitors, doctors, nurses -- “and you were there, and you were there!”) and then because he’s so incredibly dull, not even imagining those stories are happening to him, but imagining that he’s some dolt being told these stories by fictitious characters, and, I guess, visualizing the stories that the imaginary characters in his own head are telling him in a surprisingly cinematic way. (Yes, you read that correctly: this jackass has a subconscious that requires a framing device for stories which occur entirely in his own head). So, to summarize the movie … nothing happened. Nothing at all. None of it happened and none of it meant anything. A guy in a coma or whatever dreamed he had three conversations with fictional people where they told him stories about a time when they slowly walked around someplace scary and then at the end there was a jump scare (his imagination apparently provides musical stings).

In the movie's defense, this poster is fucking fantastic. If anything like that happened in the movie, this would be a very different review indeed.

SPOILERS CONTINUE SPOILERS CONTINUE SPOILERS CONTINUE SPOILERS CONTINUE Now, just as a movie with a twist isn’t inherently doomed, so too are movies which are all a dream, or all unreliable narrator, or otherwise fictional even within the context of the story, not inherently doomed to make you shout “oh, come on!” at the screen and roll your eyes until your optic nerves droop out of your eyesockets in exasperation, although admittedly that is a very real possibility. RASHOMON, THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI, and a personal favorite of mine, CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND, for example, are all movies where much of what we see on-screen is later revealed to be entirely fictitious, even in the context of the story. But the difference between those movies and the single most infuriating film of all time (SHUTTER ISLAND) is that a good mindfuck doesn’t negate the bulk of the story which we see; it recontextualizes it, gives the events new meaning. What you see may not be objectively true, but the very subjectivity of it imparts a different kind of truth. RASHOMON’s conflicting perspectives aren’t just meaningless falsehoods; they’re stories-within-a-story designed to communicate something specific -- just something about the storytellers, rather than the plot. We can assume that almost nothing we see in CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND actually “happens” -- the whole story is a lie. But through the lie we learn a great deal about the liar, and why he would feel compelled to make up this particular bizarre lie.

SPOILERS CONTINUE SPOILERS CONTINUE SPOILERS CONTINUE SPOILERS CONTINUE There is something of that in here, of course; there are little glimpses in the imagined stories which must reflect the unconscious anxieties Goodman is feeling as he lays, paralyzed, at death’s door, mostly having to do with his fears of death and his guilt over a fantastically cliched incident from his childhood. But not enough. His subconscious seems more interested in spooky atmosphere than working through his issues, and most of the references to his own state of mind are tertiary, glancing little things, meant to broadly hint at the existence of a hidden meaning, rather than add any independent significance to that meaning. Goodman keeps glimpsing the figure of a mysterious child in a coat, for example, which will be explained when we learn that this is the central focal point of a guilt-ridden memory lurking in his subconscious. But wait, does foreshadowing this figure in an otherwise unrelated ghost story really tell us anything meaningful, even in retrospect? Not really. Learning what’s “really” going on doesn’t elucidate these incidents or add any particular layers of meaning, it just confirms that, yes, the film has indeed been really blatantly teasing us with a twist for the whole movie, and now here it is. That’s basic problem; the twist is the point here. The movie is serving the twist, not the twist the movie.

How can you tell the difference? I propose a simple question: would this be a story worth telling if the twist was moved to the beginning of the film? Because after all, that’s what you’re ultimately left with: once the deception has been revealed, the film up to that point has to stand up to scrutiny in this new light. If knowing the truth enriches the whole experience, it could have done so, albeit perhaps not quite so impactfully, from the get-go. If knowing the truth cheapens the experience, well, it was probably just a lazy gimmick all along, a petty contrivance to try and hustle you into believing a dull story was more interesting than it really was. A successful mindfuck must have a narrative that justifies its twist, and GHOST STORIES simply cannot make that claim; if anything, the reveal undercuts the movie’s genuine strengths (some solid meat-and-potatoes suspense scenes which in retrospect never happened) and replaces them with a dismayingly rote hail mary towards some kind of psychological surrealism. The surrealism actually works OK, but the psychology is not even interesting on a purely superficial bullshit movie logic level --since we already hate the character and the movie does too-- let alone on a level of any actual meaningful insight. It’s a miserable substitute for a finely-tuned ghost story, at any rate, and the way it firmly shrugs off any consequential connection between the two means that it can only be a substitute, not a compliment (in fact, it even has the audacity to turn one of the movie’s few genuinely effective shocks into a dumb joke in the last second before the credits roll).

I began this review by musing about what happens when a filmgoer has seen so much that the ability to be surprised becomes elusive, and I preceded my discussion of the movie itself by asking how a critic ought to approach a film which features sturdy construction, but relies on a completely predictable twist. Now, having indulged in some 5,000 words in which to mull it over, I’m less inclined to think that these are the right questions to ask. A good movie with a bad ending is a good movie with a bad ending, nevermind whether or not you saw it coming. And GHOST STORIES is only an OK movie with a bad ending. Surprise or no surprise, this ending stinks to high heaven, and there’s not nearly enough red meat here to warrant leniency. Even the most credulous possible viewer, even a neophyte so unfamiliar with the basic tropes of genre fiction that this lame WIZARD OF OZ bullshit would seem fresh, might experience a moment or two of surprise and disorientation, but would be forced to concede upon even a moment’s reflection that it doesn’t add up to anything. Surprise can be a powerful tool, but that tool has to be used in the construction of something. Far too many recent films seem to have forgotten that vital truth, and the result is something akin to a very long shaggy dog story which peters out without a punchline. OK, you brought us here, now what? Even if such a film manages to actually get ahead of a viewer enough to go somewhere unexpected --and that’s a very big if indeed-- it’s all wasted effort if that unexpected place turns out to be dull. A minute or two of mild surprise by itself is not a destination worthy of a 98 minute journey with so few roadside attractions.

A much better surprise would be to just tell a story interesting enough to stand on its own.


* Seagalogy author and national hero Vern speculates that the basic desire to preserve the secrets of an artistic work is not new, it’s just that as these discussions moved online it became harder to do and consequently required more effort and focus. 

** This is best summarized by Vern’s “Blues Theory of Slashers,” which proposes that certain kinds of genre films --slashers in particular-- are, like blues songs, remarkably consistent in their basic construction, following extremely predictable structures. The onus, then, is on the performer -- not to reinvent the wheel, but to imprint their own unique personality on a standard format.

***No so fast, THE FORCE AWAKENS

**** Most curiously in BABY DRIVER, wherein a young man clearly the junior to several generations of iphones inexplicably recalls his youth (presumably in the mid-2000’s) in washed-out silent 8mm.

***** The movie begins, in fact, with some spectacularly unconvincing “movie-within-a-movie” footage of what appears to be a documentary on Goodman, a conceit which seems mainly intended to allow for some clunky addressing-the-audience-directly exposition, but also terrifyingly threatens a found-footage premise which mercifully never materializes. Also, you’d think charlatan faith-healers would have retired that trick after Randi caught them at it.

****** In fact, it’s becoming increasingly clear that many of this new generation of arthouse indie horror are being praised lavishly by critics who have little affinity for the horror genre and comparably shallow knowledge of its history. Reading a review of THE VVITCH, for example, is often an exercise in watching it find praise for its fine dramatic work, amended at the end with a grudging admission that yes, it does have some of that tacky genre stuff at the end.

I know, I know, this one is awesome too. 

Thursday, April 26, 2018


Downrange (2017 premier, but 2018 for non-festival-goers)
Dir. Ryûhei Kitamura
Written by Joey O’Bryan, story by Ryûhei Kitamura and Joey O’Bryan
Starring Kelly Connaire, Stephanie Pearson, Rod Hernandez, Anthony Kirlew

            As they’re driving down a bucolic country highway, a group of those damn college kids pop a tire and roll to a stop. The girls pile out, chit-chat, and relax on the car’s shady side while the guys nervously eye the flat tire, poke at it, agree that, yup, that’s definitely a flat tire that needs to be fixed, all right. The spare doesn’t look great and they idly discuss whether to divert to get a new tire, which Jodi (Kelly Connaire, THE END OF THE TOUR [uncredited]) would rather not do, since she’s on her way to a surprise birthday party for her sister. While the new tire is leisurely installed, they make fun of social science majors, take bathroom breaks in the woods, discuss whether or not the hunky guy whose name no one can quite recall (Jason Tobias, apparently set to play hunky Jesus in the upcoming THE SECOND COMING OF CHRIST [!]) is flirting with Jodi, post pictures on beloved utilitarian social media app “Socialize” and attempt to amuse themselves while they wait.

            And the longer they dawdle, the more unbearable the tension becomes, because the characters naively do not realize something that the audience knows only too well: they’re in a horror movie called DOWNRANGE. This idyllic afternoon is about to take a sudden and highly unfortunate turn for them.

            It’s almost a relief, then, when suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, they find themselves under lethal sniper fire from a hidden gunman somewhere in the surrounding countryside. They can’t drive away because of the tire, but the bullets cannot pierce the mighty hide of the imposing SUV (the gunman must be using an older rifle, speculates “army brat [from a], hunting family” and good final girl prospect “Keren” [sic] [Stephanie Pearson, 14-year-old Michelle Monaghan in KISS KISS BANG BANG]), leaving the survivors stuck -- unable to run without becoming targets, but temporarily protected while crouching behind the vehicle. And of course their cell phones get no signal.

            This, then, is to be one of those survival-thrillers I spoke about so unethusiastically in my review for THE RUINS, where a small group gets stuck in a dangerous situation from which they can’t escape, and must endure a crucible of suffering to survive and get out alive (or not). These films seem to be something of a recent phenomenon; I first noticed the trend with 2010’s FROZEN (not the “Let it Go” one, the “Stuck on a ski-lift” thriller from HATCHET director Adam Green), but there’s also BURIED, HIGH LANE, THE CANYON (not the Lindsay Lohan/Paul Schrader debacle, but a 2009 lost-hikers deal), BACKCOUNTRY, BLACK WATER, the upcoming THE WELL, and an ever-increasing number of shark movies (OPEN WATER, OPEN WATER 2, THE SHALLOWS, 47 METERS DOWN, THE REEF). You might even make a case for 127 HOURS. As I pointed out with THE RUINS, these movies tend to be tense, and sometimes downright grueling, which are definitely elements of a horror movie, but something about the essential problem-solving nature of the conflict seems to undermine the most fundamental essence of the horror genre. These are films about being helpless, about a spiraling loss of control, which, at least to me, instills the experience with a fatalism which is more disspiriting than terrifying. It’s the difference between the visceral fight-or-flight adrenaline rush of a slasher movie and the punishing slog of a torture movie. Both subgenres find colorful villains imaginatively mutilating pretty young women, but the mechanics of the conflict --and, consequently, the horror-- are so different that they’re nearly antithetical.

            Fortunately, DOWNRANGE has two significant advantages not usually enjoyed by this genre, which make it much more my pace. First, the danger menacing these kids is not some faceless, irresistible natural force; somewhere out there is a villain, someone who can be fought, and, just maybe --if they’re clever enough-- beaten. That adds a galvanizing personal element to the usual formula, focuses the danger into a single malevolent antagonist. You can’t really hate hungry sharks or cold weather, but when the danger takes the shape of a single, discreet adversary (however obscure), we have an object on which to focus our anxiety and our rage at being made helpless and vulnerable. That helps immensely, --at least in my book-- to solidly locate the film’s narrative and emotional landscape into a distinctly horror mode.

            That’s all well and good, but plenty of total pieces of crap have clear antagonists. Fortunately, DOWNRANGE has a second major advantage: it’s directed by AZUMI, GODZILLA: FINAL WARS, NO ONE LIVES and MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN director and certifiable madman Ryûhei Kitamura --the man who once knocked Ted Raimi’seyeballs out of their sockets directly into the camera in slow motion*-- who is constitutionally incapable of not being outrageous and entertaining. He’s on his best behavior here, mostly yielding to the script’s insistence on tense, gritty realism (it's written by Joey O’Bryan, co-writer of Kitamura’s LUPIN THE 3rd and Johnnie’s To’s FULLTIME KILLER), but you know you’re in good hands early on when Kitamura is unable to resist zooming the camera into a gaping bullet wound, through someone’s skull, and out the other side. That kind of irrepressible exuberance is absolutely crucial to the film’s careful balance of tones, livening a scenario which could very easily slide into gloomy misery-porn. The situation is dire, certainly, but the films never gets dour; it stays focused and nearly fanatical about insisting upon a new wrinkle every few minutes which subtly inches the story forward and the tension higher. Grueling it may be, but it’s never a grind.

            It’s clearly Kitamura’s intent to keep this one grounded and plausible, banking on the victims’ vulnerability and the could-have-happened-to-anyone paranoia of the scenario. Most of the action scenes center around small-scale, practical efforts (pulling open a car door to grab a bottle of water, using an improvised dummy to distract their tormentor) that draw their impact from clean, clear execution and effectively communicated stakes. But even restrained Kitamura is still Kitamura, and every now and then, he simply cannot suppress the urge to indulge in some kind of over-the-top tick. That serves him well with the violence, which is lavish, squishy and lingered upon with the kind of pornographic joy that only a true horror director could summon.*** It serves him less well when he gets into showy frenetic editing, or kinetic camera chicanery. There is one POV shot from a rotating tire nut which is worthy of Scott Spiegel --and obviously I mean that as a high compliment-- but also some whooshy drone stuff and choppy wham-bang editing (by Shôhei Kitajima, second editor on LUPIN THE 3rd) which seems unnecessarily insecure about the film’s ample ability to maintain excitement in its microcosmic single setting. It has a whiff of desperation about it -- at its worst, it smacks of the kind of flop-sweat editing kineticism you’d see in a low-effort DTV Steven Seagal money grab, to paper over how little action there is-- which is a shame, because DOWNRANGE is anything but lacking in whammy. There’s not much of that kind of tomfoolery, and it’s certainly not too dire even when it happens, but it’s a noisy distraction from a movie which is mostly tightly controlled, and a good example of how Kitamura’s kitchen-sink ebullience can get in its own way. Case in point: his worst instinct of all is to show the killer. If you’re going to commit to the single-location, boxed-in concept, it’s folly of the worst kind to leave your characters’ perspective and reveal to the audience something they can only wonder about, and even more dire folly to do it for so little meaningful payoff (the killer is just some guy, it’s not like he’s a bigfoot or a giant spider or something that we’d be glad to get a look at).

Never one to worry about overreaching, Kitamura also adds to the pot a few gestures towards poignant human drama, with lulls in the savage assault filled with some quieter existential reflection. I tend to favor embracing the inherent absurdity of a good horror premise, but can also appreciate some genre fare done up as earnest character drama (THE MONSTER, SPRING) given the right execution. DOWNRANGE walks the tightrope between those poles, at times seeming to really commit to the idea that this is a heart-wrenching drama, at times giving in to pure splatterhouse glee. It’s a tough dance to get right, and for my money it stumbles just a few times into maudlin melodrama it can’t possibly support. Though the actors commit to it with a laudable sincerity, the film simply isn’t built to handle lachrymose soul-searching; we need to care about these characters enough that we root for them and fear that they’ll come to harm (which the movie handily accomplishes) but this is a machine build for ratcheting up tension, not morose eulogizing. Its brief forays into earnest pathos are well-enough executed, but are too tangential to have the kind of emotional impact that would justify them, and moreover they sit uneasily with the film’s impulses towards anarchic, irresponsible provocation.

Fortunately, it mostly eschews this kind of hubris; in fact, considering everything it attempts, it’s almost miraculous in its ability to thread the needle between serious, focused tension and occasional moments of over-the-top flamboyant grand guignol spiked with pitch-black gallows humor (particularly in the climax, wherein the devil on Kitamura’s shoulder clearly wins the day and allows him to give in to pure horror movie zeal). It’s not always elegant, but it gets the job done, managing to expound a minimalist scenario into something thrilling, visceral, and wholly absorbing. If it’s not always immaculately tuned to the right tone, it compensates with the gusto it applies, and that’s certainly a trade I’m more than willing to approve.

DOWNRANGE opens 4/26 (that’s today!) in select theaters, including NYC’s Nitehawk Cinema, where the director will be in attendance this weekend. For the rest of us slobs, it starts streaming on the horror streaming service Shudder which it’s probably time to start subscribing to.

* And then another victim slips on the eyeball, and then there’s a decapitation from the severed head’s POV! If I could identify the single most heartbreaking tragedy of the entire modern horror era, surely it is that this scene was not shot in 3D.

** Or, OK, you can, but then it’s GODZILLA: FINAL WARS, and you’ll probably want to lie down and moan for a while afterwards.

*** At one point, I noticed a severed head demurely lying on the bloody ground in a wide shot, whose original owner I could not identify with any degree of confidence. That alone would be sufficient to make this movie an easy one to recommend.

Friday, April 6, 2018

The Dead Pit

The Dead Pit (1989)
Dir. Brett Leonard
Written by Brett Leonard, Gimel Everett
Starring Jeremy Slate, Cheryl Lawson, Stephen Gregory Foster

            In recent years I’ve become rather inured to the self-destructive futility of routinely (well, a few times a month, anyway) grinding out 5000+ words about some godforsaken 80’s video cheapie I watched on youtube and have already mostly forgotten by the time I post the final product. But it needn’t always be that way! THE DEAD PIT is a movie which could easily merit a word count comfortably in the range of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason if I had any inclination to walk you through the plot in detail, but to do so would almost certainly require a commitment of time and energy so spectacularly in excess of the time and energy which went into the original creation of the story that it would completely defeat the purpose of the thing. THE DEAD PIT was, according to a typically unsourced IMDB “trivia” section, written by director Brett Leonard and Gimel Everett (both of everlasting LAWNMOWER MAN infamy) in a mere three weeks, and I’m betting that even at that they weren’t exactly putting in 9-hour workdays. And in fact, “written” is probably a little strong in this case; “assembled” might be more fitting, as THE DEAD PIT seems to have been not so much written as a narrative story as grafted together from basically every hoary movie cliche available to an aspiring z-movie auteur in 1989.

            If that sounds like a condemnation, though, you may rest assured that it is anything but. Genre filmmaking is built on wholesale thievery, and that’s one of its charms. I consider it a feature, not a bug; after all, I think we would all agree that this world would be significantly poorer without the approximately 87,000 HALLOWEEN ripoffs which proliferated in the early 80s, or the uncountable millions of Italian MAD MAX ripoffs which, by volume, may well constitute the the greatest overall percentage of total films in existence (see the convenient pie chart, below):

 And I mean, the standard format for a Hollywood movie pitch is usually framed as “[famous movie A] meets [famous movie B],” so it’s not like it's just hustling weirdos and Italians that think this way. As in, “It’s INDIANA JONES meets LADYBIRD” or “it’s STAND AND DELIVER meets HOLY MOUNTAIN!” It’s crazy, but it’s true: more often than you’d think, honest to god hard American currency has moved from the hands of some Caligulan plutocrat to the grubby mitts of an enterprising cinematic huckster, with merely the utterance of the words, “it’s STAR WARS meets THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN.” Or, in THE DEAD PIT’s case, “It’s HALLOWEEN meets NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD meets ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST meets INFERNO meets DR. GIGGLES meets AMITYVILLE HORROR meets EMPIRE STRIKES BACK!” Nothing with that many competing impulses was ever going to “work” in the traditional sense, as a functional piece of art. But you know what, I’m betting Everett and Leonard weren’t exactly throwing the word “art” around a lot in the pitch meetings for this one. They want to entertain, not enlighten, and, in its own, goofy, daffy way, THE DEAD PIT is indeed pretty entertaining. Anyway, it’s definitely better than LAWNMOWER MAN.

            We begin our tale 20 years ago, at the imaginatively named “State Institution For The Mentally Ill” (state unspecified). The inmates are jabbering and shrieking and banging their heads into things, but honestly the whole facility looks surprisingly clean and progressive considering that the year must be 1969, an era not known for its overwhelming abundance of professionalism in the field of mental health treatment. Unfortunately, things are not going so great amongst the staff, as the smug-looking surgeon Dr. Ramzi (Danny Gochnaeur, THE DEAD PIT) skulks away down a secret flight of stairs hidden in a broom closet, with a patient slung over his shoulder. When his colleague Dr. Swan (Jeremy Slate, TRUE GRIT) protests that this is not the kind of by-the-book mental health care those stuffed shirts up in corporate will stand for, Dr. Ramzi just derisively brushes him aside and and goes straight about his evil business, which of course involves walking down a series of eerie corridors lit by a curiously unsourced green light.

Standard medical practice, so far. But when Dr. Spoilsport follows this brazen young rebel of medicine, he discovers that he’s been carving up corpses with bizarre occult symbols and wiring up their brains to do god knows what. And, uh, this may not be an isolated incident, from the look of the “dead pit” (that’s a medical term, I believe) next to the operating table, which must have at least a dozen bodies in it. “My god, you’re a doctor! You’re supposed to be saving lives,” Dr. No-Fun eloquently protests. “I’ve done life. Now I’m doing death,” says the blood-spattered killer, matter-of-factly. “You’re a fucking maniac!” his colleague rejoins, somewhat less eloquently, perhaps, but not without a certain blunt charm. As enlightening as this lively philosophical debate is, they obviously can’t keep it going forever, so our hero does the one reasonable thing he could do: blow the villain away with a handy revolver, smash cut to title, seal off the hidden door to the laboratory, paint over it, and forget the whole thing ever happened.* Problem solved, right?

            Well, twenty apparently uneventful years pass, so maybe this was a better strategy than I gave it credit for. But alas, as many a chagrined medical institution has discovered, sealing off rooms filled with murder victims for twenty years is not always the practical long-term solution one might assume it to be. There might be an earthquake which opens the long-sealed door and sets the evil doctor free in zombie form, for example. Which is exactly what happens here. In this particular instance, the earthquake coincides suspiciously with the arrival of Jane Doe (“introducing Cheryl Lawson,” “Palmer’s Wife” in J. EDGAR [!] but most notable as a stuntwoman with nearly 40 credited films!) a young amnesiac who protests in the most hysterical manner possible that she’s not crazy and that “I didn’t lose my memory IT-WAS-TAKEN-FROM-ME-I-TOLD-THEM-IT-WAS!!!”

"I know you think I'm crazy, doctor, but..."

            For some reason, this perfectly sensible line of argument does not convince her caretakers to release her, and so she’s stuck in a mental institution, and to add insult to injury they seem to be out of hospital gowns, or maybe they don’t have her size or something, because she’ll be spending essentially the rest of the movie hanging around the mental institution in her underwear, which is a totally normal and medically necessary arrangement I assume.

            The semi-heroic Dr. Swan, apparently still around after 20 years, believes he can cure Jane’s amnesia by using hypnosis to access her deep-seated memories, despite her repeated incoherent shrieking rants that she’s perfectly fine, she just had her memory stolen by mysterious vaguely-defined shadowy enemies who lurk around invisibly menacing her at all times. Swan’s theories about hypnosis and repressed memories sound scientifically dubious, and we already have reason to entertain serious doubts about his crisis-time decision making, but he seems like a pillar of sanity next to Jane, who does not help her case that she is fine by running around in her underwear hallucinating and screaming about an evil doctor with glowing eyes constantly watching her. Could it actually be, for once, that the highly trained medical professionals are right and the woman in underwear shrieking about how she needs to be released from a mad house to escape invisible enemies is wrong? Of course not, don’t be a dope. This is a horror movie from the creators of THE LAWNMOWER MAN, so obviously she’s right: not only has the long-dead Dr. Renzi returned from beyond the grave as red-eyed ghoul, but he’s skulking around the hospital picking off the staff one-by-one as they wander around vulnerably in the eerie, empty abandoned wing of the old madhouse. And you’ll be surprised to hear that he has a shocking secret which relates to her mysterious past.

             The movie comfortably idles in slasher mode for much of its runtime, as Dr. Renzi racks up his body count and only Jane seems to suspect anything is wrong. It’s nothing special, but the movie benefits immensely from director of photography Marty Collins (a modest career of mostly video shorts and tech credits) who takes the opportunity to indulge in plenty of gaudy visual styling, from noir-ish abstract hard light geometry to Argento-esque impressionistic colored lighting to more esoteric conceits like shooting through a stylized keyhole. It’s perfectly ridiculous, of course, but so’s the movie, and the histrionic visual style deliciously reflects the ludicrous hodge-podge of story and the over-the-top performances (particularly by Lawson) which drift across the line to camp early enough to qualify to vote there by the time the credits roll. In fact, from the gaudy visuals to the alien performances to the slasher structure to the basic dramatic premise about a young woman who is witness to a crime no one believes, it’s got most of the essential ingredients for a perfectly respectable giallo, albeit an unmistakably American one. It even has some laudable gore, though sprinkled perhaps a bit too stingily throughout to compete with its Italian brethren.

            And then the zombies show up. Now, nothing leading up to this point suggests zombies in any way, and by the time they show up nearly everyone in the supporting cast has already been killed by the slasher, so they don’t have much to do but shuffle around grabbing at without ever quite grasping our protagonists. But zombies there must be, so zombies there will be, dammit, and I fear I do not have it in me to criticize that logic. There isn’t quite the budget for gnarly grotesqueries (they’re saving it for not one, not two, but three pretty awesome head meltings -- literally the same amount as RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARC, an alpha dog move if ever there was one) so the undead shufflers are pretty much just bald guys in hospital robes with gray facepaint and blood smeared on them, lurching around in a pack. They’re fine, but not independently cool or important enough to the plot to warrant much discussion... except for two small details.

First, though they seem to struggle with opening doors, they apparently manage to successfully disable an entire parking lots’ worth of automobiles in about two minutes flat (“Damn, the distributor's gone! For dead people, they sure are smart,” bemoans the British guy who I forgot to mention earlier [Stephen Gregory Foster, LAWNMOWER MAN]). I dunno if they were all resurrected car mechanics or what, but good job on that one, fellas, that’s some real hustle. Secondly, these may actually be the only cinematic zombies I have ever seen in a non-parody who actually do want to eat brains. Or at least take them out and hold them.** Can it really be that a mere four years after RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, this idea (absolutely not found in any of Romero’s zombie films) had already taken hold so firmly that something like THE DEAD PIT felt obliged to throw it in there with no explanation or narrative purpose?

Anyway, all this leads to some ridiculous business with an insane nun blessing a water tank full of holy water and the world’s most unexpected WHITE HEAT reference. It’s a bit too dreamy and dawdling to quite manage an adequate climax, but at least the Killer seems to be having a good time. One time he’s holding a severed head and then says “I’m the head of surgery.” Later, he hands Jane a bloody disembodied brain and says, “Dr. Swan wanted to give you a piece of his mind!” These dad jokes actually make perfect sense when we discover Jane’s horrible secret: the awful Dr. Ramzi is, in fact: her father! How exactly this works and what happened to her memory and what it has to do with an earthquake or a dead pit or experimental brain surgery, let alone zombies, is never a question the movie even briefly considers (in fact, that British guy even points out the obvious: “that earthquake was a natural phenomenon, this [zombie doctor situation] is supernatural!” to a room which falls awkwardly silent, and then changes the topic), but come on dude, just go with it, it’s way too late for anything to make sense at this point, so why not savor one last inane, inexplicable flourish?

If THE DEAD PIT has any real flaw, it has to be… well, OK, basically everything, from the idiotic dialogue to the hilarious performances to the free-associative narrative to the chintzy tiny homemade model of a hospital that bravely stands in for the establishing shots. But if it has a flaw that actually hurts it, it’s unfortunately the antagonist, who can’t seem to summon the discipline to stick to a gimmicky MO or offer even the barest gesture towards what he’s actually trying to accomplish or what his deal is. I mean, is he back for revenge? If so, what does that have to do with his secret daughter’s amnesia, and for that matter how was he responsible for her memory loss when it happened before the earthquake which we’re explicitly told set him free? What was he trying to do with all that experimental brain surgery, and does it have anything to do with his supernatural return? And what’s up with all those zombies, was this somehow part of his plan, or is that just a happy accident? And do they work for him, or are they just unrelated zombies who don’t interfere with whatever he's got going because he’s a ghost or wizard or whatever and has no brain for them to remove and fondle? And what’s the deal with the bodysnatching final stinger? Is that what he’s been trying to finagle all along, or was the nun in on it the whole time, or what? Lots of things don’t matter at all in a movie like this; narrative logic, believable acting, realistic dialogue. But you gotta do a better job selling the basic conflict, and the only way to do that is to successfully define who your villain is, what he wants, and how he works. Without that, you’ll never make it to THE DEAD PIT 2: RAMZI’S RAMPAGE.

Still, it’s an easy flaw to overlook in light of the rest of the bounty THE DEAD PIT provides. It’s chock full of colorful weirdness, gratuitous violence, and misguided ambition, and all that combined with its gaudy visuals and dreamy plotting adds up to an agreeable cocktail indeed. In fact, this is exactly the sort of thing which is absolutely ripe for rediscovery by Arrow Video, or Grindhouse, or Scream Factory or somebody who wants to give it a handsome Blu-Ray release with a bunch of interviews with the actors (who, with the possible exception of Lawson, clearly know what kind of movie they’re in and look like they’re having a good time with it). And if all that ain’t enough to make you look more kindly on the creators of THE LAWNMOWER MAN, let me sweeten the detail: the original VHS box featured a zombie with goddam glowing eyes. Not all of these reviews need to be 5,000 word long, but sometimes, just sometimes, a movie really earns it.

This is weird, because it's actually a plot point that Dr. Ramzi's eyes glow red, but there's no green eye glowing or glowing zombie eyes of any kind in the film. They came so close to getting it right!

(Bonus: IMDB reviewer Molly Celaschi apparently believes there are such things as "Brett Leonard fans interested in his filmography" and manages to pick out the three most mundane logical gaps in a movie which features extraneous zombies) 

*“Hadn’t thought of it in 20 years,” says Swan 20 years later, apparently having taken his Yoga instructor’s advice to “live in the moment” perhaps a hair too literally.

** Alas, they do not moan braaainnns, BRAAAAINNNS, but there’s no denying that the removal of this organ appears to be their main goal. Besides taking distributors out of parked cars, anyway. Wait, do they think that’s the car’s brain?

The Discreet Charm of the Killing Spree

They’re Out, says the VHS box, noncomittally. But the theatrical poster is better: When the Dead Start To Walk, You’d Better Start Running… THE DEAD PIT… Drop In Anytime.
There’s a dead pit, sure, why not.
Sadistic nurse chains our hero up in her underwear and sprays her boobs with a firehouse until her shirt comes off. But this is revealed to be a dream -- in fact, our hero’s dream -- so we can assume that it’s not just shameless T ‘n A, because who would dream about their own boobs for purely prurient reasons?

She does spend nearly the entire movie walking around in her underwear, as is totally normal in a mental institution.
No animals
Definitely zombie, although I’m not quite sure how to categorize the undead Dr Ramzi, who seems to be some sort of ghost wizard but was apparently solid enough that a locked door kept him quiet for 20 years.
I think it’s the implication of the final shot?
Well, it is a mental institution
If you’re ever involuntarily confined to a mental institution because invisible supernatural enemies are attacking your brain, stay strong and remember YOU’RE RIGHT AND EVERYONE ELSE IS WRONG.