Friday, November 15, 2019

Winchester



Winchester (2018)
Dir. The Spierig Brothers
Written by Tom Vaughan, The Spierig Brothers
Starring, what the absolute fuck, Dame Helen Mirren, Jason Clarke, Sarah Snook, Eamon Farren



Yes, yes, I know everyone in the world said this was absolute garbage. But come on, look at the ingredients here! First and foremost, of course, we get the tantalizing prospect of Academy-award winner and grand duchess of acting Helen Mirren slumming it up in some dumbass haunted house thriller. I know, I know, it’s not like she exactly has an untrammeled record of high class prestige films. She has NATIONAL TREASURE: BOOK OF SECRETS, THE NUTCRACKER AND THE FOUR REALMS, and three separate –and counting!—FAST AND FURIOUS movies on her resume, along with THE MADNESS OF KING GEORGE and THE QUEEN and GOSFORD PARK and all that. Hell, she’s in a 2005 DTV Cuba Gooding Jr. crime thriller. But still, of all the Oscar winners I’ve encountered shamelessly slumming in lowbrow horror fare for a quick paycheck –and there have been a lot this year, including Jack Palance, Martin Landau (twice!), Jose Ferrer, Dorothy Malone, and Joan Crawford—Mirren still seems like the most unlikely, and certainly the one least in need of this kind of garbage. Horror gets them all eventually; either before their star has risen (a young DiCaprio in CRITTERS 3) or as their career starts to flag (Ray Milland in THE PYJAMA [sic] GIRL CASE), but seldom indeed does horror come calling in the middle of what is, to all appearances, a career as vital and productive as it has ever been. It’s a truly befuddling decision, but obviously I’m all for it (just as I was for Octavia Spencer’s recent horror pivot in MA), even if I can’t claim to understand it. It feels like we won, somehow. We got her!

And then, as if that wasn’t enough, you’ve also got Jason Clarke (LAWLESS), Eamon Farren (Twin Peaks: The Return) and Sarah Snook (JESSABELLE, Succession), the latter of whom we last encountered absolutely slaying it in PREDESTINATION, a film directed by these very same Spierig Brothers who serve as directors here! The same Spierig Brothers, in fact, who were kinda on a roll for a little while, with 2003’s UNDEAD, 2009’s DAYBREAKERS, and 2014’s PREDESTINATION all turning out to be remarkably delightful genre fare (I’m not really a SAW guy but it seems like people mostly agreed their 2017 JIGSAW was OK, not great). So that’s a winning team already assembled, and on top of that, you can add a splendid premise: it’s a film about the famous Winchester Mystery House, a topic which has always intrigued me and seems like it should all be itself be unique and colorful enough to fuel a solid gothic horror flick. Oh, and I even like the poster, which has an appreciably stark, evocative M.C. Escher look (see above). This movie really seems to have everything going for it, I mean, how could it not be grea… oh crap.



To the surprise of no one, I can now add my own voice to an essentially unanimous consensus that there is definitely a way for this to not be great, and that way is the one you can see on-screen. There is initially reason for hope, though; the location footage of the house itself is quite lovely (the film was shot by Spierig regular Ben Nott, who also deserves a mention for shooting 24 HOURS TO LIVE) and makes it seems like it’s at least going to be a classy Victorian affair with an interesting setting (in both the house itself and sunny, tropical California/Melbourne locale, an unusually bright and lush milieu for a horror movie even under perpetually troubled gray skies). Stately Victorian-Gothic haunted house flicks are not exactly a surefire guarantee of white-knuckled terror (let alone entertainment), but at least we don’t get very many of them, and this one seems to have a can’t-miss premise.

…which is then almost immediately missed, first with some eye-rolling clichés (Jason Clarke is –and you won’t believe this!—a guy haunted by grief following the death of a loved one!) which quickly give way to a stultifying death march of agonizingly rote jump-scares, and not even that many of them.* Amazingly, even that wasn’t enough to immediately tamp down my at-this-point wholly inexplicable optimism. That’s partially because the first jump-scare, at least, is the final flourish of a rather nicely staged little sequence of coquettish misdirection, and it gave me false hope about the level of effort that was going to go into them. But if I found myself in a remarkably lenient mood towards this kind of chicanery, it’s also because I swear to god, I discovered that in this age of gloomy, dour A24 “post-horror” mopefests, encountering a corny old boo! jump-scare was like running into an old friend. Aww, buddy, how long’s it been? It feels like I haven’t seen you in ages!

Unfortunately, after a warm reunion, it quickly became clear that this was more like running into an old friend you haven’t seen in ages, and then, after 5 minutes of talking to them, remembering that the reason why you haven’t seen them in ages is because they’re intolerably annoying. Right, there was a reason this kind of hacky business was wisely and correctly cast out of society. It’s unendurable. But the five minutes of fond nostalgia was fun while it lasted.



There’s not too much to say about the plot, which is, like the setting, both inscrutably complicated and functionally useless. Let’s just say that it feels self-consciously compelled to introduce far too many characters and plot twists and backstory for a narrative which basically boils down to “there is a haunted house and Helen Mirren is there.” There is one pretty charming twist involving the identity of the villain, exactly the kind of empty-headed but gleeful silliness which could have made for a fun romp. But unfortunately the script mostly takes itself exceedingly seriously. Much more so than I would have imagined possible for something which features a haunted roller skate. In fact, it generally seems to unwisely, --disastrously, in fact-- believe itself to be yet another weepy, dismal metaphor for dealing with grief, which is a dire mode for the Spierig Brothers, who are at their best with zippy, high-concept entertainment and have –to their credit, I suppose—no patience whatsoever for lugubrious atmospherics. They seem openly bored with the grinding slow build, whooshing around the camera impatiently and itching to get to the next setpiece. Except, with this lame script (which they co-wrote it, so they’re not entirely off the hook**) there is no next setpiece. All you have to look forward to is the next jump scare with a loud musical sting. It’s a bad fit between filmmakers and material (not that Kubrick himself would be able to squeeze much atmospheric dread from this limp, dusty ol’ lemon of a screenplay), though I guess given the two bad options available to them, going for hoary whammy instead of mannered gloom was the more honorable decision. And it does kind of pay off in the ending, which takes a direction so amazingly boneheaded it tilts towards active parody, and might actually get there if it wasn’t also so boring. Not that their commitment to frothy entertainment pans out at all, but at least it’s sprightlier than it would be if it was a Blumhouse or A24 production. That’s something

I should also, I guess, mention that the movie really seems to think it’s about guns or something – the Winchester of the title is, of course, the abode of Sarah Winchester, widow of William Wirt Winchester, heir to the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, and her hauntings are said to be the result of all the death brought on by those repeating arms. She goes on and on about this in a perfectly workable American accent. “You - feel responsible for the misuse of your product?” Asks Clarke. “If a weapon works as intended, one can hardly call it a misuse,” she responds, frostily. When complimented on her “superior” rifles, she retorts that they’re superior at “Killing. Indiscriminate killing. Very superior.” It’s not exactly subtle. So you figure, sure, mean ol’ liberal Hollywood hates the Constitution and wants to take your guns, fine, whatever. But here’s the weird thing. SPOILERS SPOILERS at the end, you know how they defeat the evil ghost? Fuckin’ shoot him with a magic gun! Firearms: The cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems. I can’t tell if this is, like, deliberate subversion of Winchester’s anti-gun policy, or if this script was just written by lazy idiots who didn’t realize they completely negate their point. I guess it doesn’t matter though because guess what, we’re not getting rid of the guns, it just ain’t gonna happen. If Helen Mirren being haunted is the price we have to pay to keep guns to protect ourselves from asshole ghosts, Americans are willing to pay that price. END SPOILERS



Anyway, with a paper-thin story, you’re really gonna need the actors to carry a movie, and maybe that’s what the Spierigs were counting on, because they definitely got some ringers. But alas, here we learn once again that professional acting is simply not something which greatly benefits an otherwise threadbare genre movie. Mirren is perfectly adequate in a very dumb and exposition-heavy role, but honestly not doing anything appreciably different than any normal professional old lady actor could give you. And it wouldn’t really matter if she was; this role could be played by Tara Reid in an Andy Warhol wig and it would amount to about the same thing. In fact, it would almost certainly be better just by virtue of being something. Clarke, who is capable of being exceedingly good but just as often seems to vanish into the background, at least brings a sort of weird detached annoyance to his role, which is something, although maybe just what he was feeling at having to read these dumbass lines. Sarah Snook, so terrific in PREDESTINATION, is criminally wasted on a useless nothing of a character, though I guess you could argue the Spierigs just wanted to throw some work her way. Fair enough, the poor lady’s gotta eat while she waits for Hollywood to set her loose on something worthy of her talents.

Anyway, the whole thing is kinda a waste, in fact it’s almost amazing how completely it fails to make anything of the bounty of potential it assembles. It just goes to show you, you can get together the right ingredients, but you still have to BOO!!

Ha, got you. See, that shit’s still fun. Once.



* “Boy, the food at this place is really terrible." "Yeah, I know; and such small portions!”

** Although I have a suspicion they re-wrote it from a previous script by Tom Vaughn (Wesley Snipe’s UNSTOPPABLE), and basically just added the four or five fun parts.

               
 
Haha, wow. Surely whatever they paid her wasn't worth being implicated this graphic design nightmare.
CHAINSAWNUKAH 2019 CHECKLIST!
For Richer or Horror

TAGLINE
Inspired By True Events At The Most Haunted House In History. Also, the much better Terror Is Building
TITLE ACCURACY
There are both a house and a character by that name.
LITERARY ADAPTATION?
No
SEQUEL?
None
REMAKE?
None.
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN
USA/ Australia
HORROR SUB-GENRE
Haunted House, Period Horror
SLUMMING A-LISTER?
Man, I still can’t believe I have to type the words “Helen Mirren” in here.
BELOVED HORROR ICON?
Spierig Brothers? Not an icon, I guess, but I will always think fondly of them for DAYBREAKERS and PREDISTINATION
NUDITY? 
There might be, like, a boob early on? I think Jason Clarke is in a bordello type opium house at one point. I dunno. It’s PG-13, anyway.
SEXUAL ASSAULT?
None
WHEN ANIMALS ATTACK!
None
GHOST/ ZOMBIE / HAUNTED BUILDING?
Yup
POSSESSION?
You betcha
CREEPY DOLLS?
I wanna say no? But if so it’s the only haunted house cliché they left out.
EVIL CULT?
No
MADNESS?
Yes, except it’s one of those madnesses where it turns out it was actually ghosts
TRANSMOGRIFICATION?
None
VOYEURISM?
None
MORAL OF THE STORY
You can assemble all the right ingredients, but you still need an actual movie.



Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Alone In The Dark (1982)



Alone In The Dark (1982)
Dir Jack Sholder
Written by Jack Sholder, Robert Shaye, Michael Harrpster
Starring Dwight Shultz, Jack Palance, Donald Pleasance, Martin Landau


  
            ALONE IN THE DARK opens with a strange man (Academy-award-winner Martin Landau, THE BEING, WITHOUT WARNING) walking into a very strange, very empty diner. It’s called MOM’s, and he greets the waitress at the counter as “Mom,” in a strange, stilted, dreamlike way. And that sense of dreamlike strangeness is, ah, heightened by the fact that his order of “the usual” results in a plate with a single whole raw fish on it, which is quickly joined by a frog that hops into view from off-frame. And then to make matters worse, the cook (Donald Pleasance, THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS) starts shouting at him that he is supposed to cleanse the Earth with fire and blood, and it starts raining indoors, and then he gets chained up by his feet and sliced in half. “Service good, but food underdone and ambiance terrible, two stars.” –Yelp reviewer DinerGuy6969. Alas, this kind of greatness is impossible to sustain; it turns out to be a dream. But it’s a damn great opening sequence, far and away the best thing in the movie. It’s hella crazy, but it turns out to be a smart way to open this particular film, which is very much about crazy people. This will be our sole direct glimpse into the crazy mind of the weirdos with whom we expect to eventually be ALONE IN THE DARK.* We’ll never see things from their perspective again, but this gives us a good hint of just how frighteningly far from reality it is.

            Indeed, it is in this break from reality that we locate the horror. The diner sequence is more surreal than out-and-out terrifying in its specifics –and it is a dream in any case. But the implications for the dreamer are more sinister: what kind of twisted mind, we wonder, would produce this bizarre fantasy? No healthy, rational one. The villains in this movie are not supernatural beings, not particularly stronger or faster or smarter than the average person. What makes them frightening is that they’re driven by thoughts and motivations which are unknown and unknowable to us, motivations we can’t predict, can’t reason with. We have no power whatsoever over a reality which is closed to our influence. They will be impervious to our attempts to convince, threaten, cajole, bargain. In fact, what we do will only matter to them through the warped filter of their madness; we are less real to them than whatever demoniac forces from unknown subconscious depths have constructed the fractured mental world they inhabit. And that makes the anxiety they provoke metaphysical, even beyond the very real material threat of bodily harm.  



This is why what we now call mental illness remains an unsettling topic to explore, even if we (hopefully) know by now that people who suffer from mental illness are far, far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of it. (We do know that by now, right? Right?) Although ALONE IN THE DARK will, as a slasher film, eventually hinge on our (unrealistic) fear that mentally ill people will enact violence on us, there’s a little more to it than that. We fear the mad not so much because of their capacity for violence, but because it frightens us that we don’t share their world. So much of our comforting assumptions about life are nested in our sense of solid, fixed, and broadly shared reality. Severing that link to a consensus reality results in a deeply unsettling sense of uncertainty. So much classic horror --first and foremost the work of Poe-- locates its fear in the loss of reality which comes from a slipping mind. If we can’t know reality, we’re as good as dead, just senseless dreamers stumbling randomly through a meaningless void, impotent to control a world which we cannot understand. And if someone else doesn’t share our reality… who knows what they’ll do?               

            And, for better or worse, that’s what ALONE IN THE DARK is interested in. Even though the premise is not exactly enlightened, the movie is surprisingly nuanced in its portrayal of mental illness and the treatment thereof. (At least as far as 1980s slashers go). One might fairly ask if “thematically incoherent” might be a better description, but I’m feeling generous enough to think it’s trying to genuinely explore the topic. At the very least, it takes the question of treatment seriously, and spends a surprising amount of time addressing different professional approaches to it. After having seen what the inside of Byron 'Preacher' Sutcliff’s (Landau) mind looks like in the opening, we will spend the remainder of the movie looking in from the outside, through the efforts of Dr. Dan Potter (Dwight Schultz, The A-Team, Star Trek: The Next Generation, FAT MAN AND LITTLE BOY) a psychiatrist who has just been transferred to the psychiatric hospital run by Dr. Leo Bain (Pleasance). Potter seems skeptical of Bain’s permissive, hippy-dippy attitude towards his patients, but also rejects ignorant stereotypes casting the mentally ill as dangerous boogeymen. In fact, his sister, Toni (Lee Taylor-Allan, woah, STARGATE!) has recently been released from a similar institution after recovering from a stress-related mental breakdown, and he neatly diffuses the social stigma that background might impart: “She’s probably better off now than before the whole thing happened… breakdowns can sometimes be very cleansing. Why don’t you give her a chance, she’s a great girl now.” Still, he has some anxiety about the lax security afforded to so-called “third floor patients” at the hospital, four men with violent criminal psychoses. That would be paranoid former POW Frank Hawkes (Academy-Award-Winner Jack Palance, SHANE, but also Joe D’Amato’s BLACK COBRA WOMAN), pyromaniac preacher Sutcliff, obese child molester Ronald Elster (Erland Van Lidth, THE RUNNING MAN), and homicidal maniac John "The Bleeder" Skagg, who refuses to let anyone see his face.



            The hospital prides itself on its humane, unrestrictive treatment. “We don’t lock people up here and fry their brains with electricity,” Dr. Bain proudly tells Potter, and frankly that sounds like a pretty good idea to me. He isn’t in denial about his patients’ need for care and treatment, he just doesn’t think it necessitates that they’re treated as objects of fear and suspicion when they can get by with just a little understanding. He considers their mental illness to be a “journey to the inmost psyche,” and huffs, “I’m running a haven here, not a jailhouse.” In a startling depiction of the faith he has in his patients, he happily lends pyromaniac Sutcliff a matchbook; when minutes later Sutcliff has set own coat on fire, Bain just hurries over to him and calmly talks him down, and then asks somebody to get him a new coat.** He seems like a real caring, progressive guy, and even the skeptical Potter has to admit “he gets results.” In fact, when the “third floor patients” are convinced by the ultra-paranoid Hawkes that Potter has murdered and replaced their former doctor, Potter takes a page from Bain’s empathetic approach and points out that this is a perfectly natural, and even common, coping mechanism for mentally fragile men used to consistency. Their floor monitor, Ray (Brent Jennings, RED HEAT, MONEYBALL), is not comforted by Potter’s measured, calm appraisal of the situation, though. And his point of view is somewhat backed up when a days-long blackout shuts down the hospital’s security system, releasing all four psychopaths, who promptly murder him and escape. Why yes, he is a black guy, why do you ask?

            Now on the lam, the deranged foursome stalk Dr. Potter, swinging by his house to menace his infuriatingly precocious daughter (Elizabeth Ward, two ABC Afterschool Specials)*** and surreptitiously hack up the babysitter (Carol Levy, an episode of Tales From The Darkside), who has unwisely taken this opportunity to have an extended hot naked sex scene with her boyfriend (Keith Reddin, THE DOORS, TO WONG FOO THANKS FOR EVERYTHING JULIE NEWMAR).**** The remainder of the film, then, is essentially a home-invasion/siege thriller, with the Potter family trapped in their house, cut off from the outside world by the blackout, and surrounded by a quartet of deranged maniacs. It takes itself pretty seriously, with Schultz and his wife (Deborah Hedwall, Jessica Jones, unnecessarily authentic in a typically unrewarding “threatened wife” role) feeling natural and grounded enough to make the home-invasion angle tense and weighty, with the extreme genre elements pushed right up to the point of ridiculousness but not quite across the line.



Unfortunately, this part, which would usually be known as “the good part” in a genre movie, is the least interesting thing here. It’s perfectly functional as far as home-invasion thrillers go, but without much to distinguish itself from a million other similar movies. Credit where it’s due: the final ten minutes get pretty intense, and include a brazen twist which actually managed to catch me off guard. But mostly the climax is disappointingly boilerplate, which is kind of a shame given the unusual premise, and the movie’s interest in the specifics of the “third floor patients” and their treatment beforehand. These villains mostly behave like any generic home-invasion gang, and the fact that they’re acting on these bizarre paranoid fantasies doesn’t really come into play. You could see that as a missed opportunity, with a potentially interesting backstory petering out into a routine slasher. But I prefer the glass-half-full approach: it’s a predictably average slasher, but with a surprisingly rich backstory. Obviously you don’t need Jack Palance, Martin Landau, and that big fat guy from THE RUNNING MAN to play murderous psychotic goons (and more or less generic ones at that; their individual delusions don’t even play a particularly pivotal role in their mayhem, which mostly just involves them attacking the family with edged weapons of various sorts), but since they got ‘em here for some reason, they add a little extra spice.

            Still, you do kinda need actors like these to create complex portraits of delusional, mentally ill people, and at least Landau and Palance actually do that, kinda. Their psychiatric issues, if not their slasher predilections, are treated more realistically and seriously than you might expect. These are not Hannibal-Lecter-style insane geniuses. As that opening scene very evocatively tells us, these are genuinely troubled guys living very much in their own heads. They’re not necessarily evil or sadistic, though their conditions sometimes make them do things which are both. But they really can’t help themselves. Co-writer/director Jack Sholder (THE HIDDEN, and, of course, NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREE 2: FREDDY’S REVENGE a.k.a THE GAY ONE) says he was partially inspired by Fritz Lang’s M(!) in writing the script. ALONE IN THE DARK is arguably not as good as M, but it does have a similar sense of conflicted sympathy for the villains’ compulsions. They’re bad, but it’s not their fault, exactly. It all makes sense in their heads. Landau does a great job of depicting Sutcliff as a guy only barely aware of the world around him, shuffling through much of the movie in an inward-facing haze until he suddenly bursts out with tantrums of rage which seem to boil up from nowhere to anyone who can’t see the inevitable, internally logical train of thoughts which led there. He doesn’t want to be evil. But, I mean, what would you do if you got served a raw fish and then bisected by your psychiatrist at your Mom’s diner? Could you honestly say you wouldn’t want to stalk and murder Dwight Schultz and his family if you were in his shoes?



             Palance does even better with Hawkes, a Jack-Palance-style tough guy for whom the vulnerability inherent in his mental illness is intolerable. He doesn’t say as much, but there’s a wounded pride in his performance; this was a solider, a guy who obviously prided himself on his macho toughness and self-reliant individualism, and now he’s humiliated and emasculated by his confinement and the embarrassing focus on his disturbed emotional state. Real men don’t have to talk about their feelings, and here he’s being forced by the state to do just that. This is an intolerable insult, a suggestion that he is incapable of controlling himself and his emotions. No wonder he prefers a persecutorial fantasy to reality; looking inward threatens to shatter his entire sense of himself, but shifting the problem outside himself feels infinitely more comfortable. Strategy, aggression, and conflict are areas where he can feel capable, confident. It’s a rather neat, and understated, little parable about the temptation to see the world in a way which is convenient, rather than allow painful reality to change us. Which is a point especially driven home in (SPOILERS SPOILERS) the end, where he is forced into a sudden realization that he’s been wrong. Rather than a vigilante avenger, he’s just been a delusional psychopath all alone, and suddenly he can see that, and it just breaks him. He stumbles out into the night, a wreck of a man, his fury now turned inward. But the very end of the movie curiously offers him some flicker of hope; he winds up with the punk rockers Potter and his family had encountered earlier (at a show by a band called The Sick F*cks, who absolutely slay and seem to have been unfairly ignored by history*****). They seem crazy, half aggressive, half suicidal, and suddenly there’s a moment of strange, half-understood simpatico between them. All right, they’re crazy. Isn’t everybody? Bemoans Dr. Bains. We all go a little mad sometimes. And maybe we don’t need to be completely sane, or even completely understood, to get by in life. Maybe that old hippie Bains was onto something after all. (END SPOILERS)

            Anyway, I’m probably making this movie sound more interesting than it actually is, because when it comes down to it as a genre film it ain’t any great shakes and as a dense psychological portrait it probably leaves a little to be desired in the ol’ realism department. Still, it’s watchable enough, has two lengthy scenes at a rockin’ punk show, a (hallucinated) zombie by Tom Savini, a funny bit part for Lin Shaye, and some solid meat-and-potatoes siege thriller crap. I can’t say it’s some forgotten gem, but I enjoyed it, and I think it has some unique merits, even if they’re not necessarily merits which much benefit its adequate but undistinguished genre cred. It is historically important for one reason, though: it was the first film ever produced by Robert Shaye and New Line Cinemas, which had previously been exclusively a distribution company. It wasn’t a huge hit, but it got their feet wet, and then it was on to XTRO, POLYSTER, and, of course, Freddy. So without ALONE IN THE DARK, there is no NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 2. And we’d never have this:




            And that’s a sobering enough thought to make anyone crazy.





                *Spoiler: No one is ever alone in the dark at any point during movie. I don’t know what that title means but it’s obviously not meant to be taken literally.

                ** Jack Sholder has said in interviews (for example, in Twisted Visions: Interviews with Cult Horror Filmmakers by Matthew Edwards) that Bain is a parody of Scottish philosopher and psychiatrist R.D. Liang, and it’s pretty on-the-nose; Bain’s explicit rejection of retainment and forced electroshock therapy, and his description of psychosis as being a reasonable and valid reaction to a violent and chaotic world, are almost verbatim Liang. Though Liang is hardly above criticism, I’m not sure I care to hear any parody of psychotherapy from the guy who directed NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 2 without realizing he had made the single gayest film not personally directed by Kenneth Anger.

                *** With the threat of child rape, since Elster is a child molester! Yikes! Fortunately for some reason he’s just not feeling it this time (possibly because the kid is so intolerable) and just contents himself with murdering the babysitter.

                **** IMDB offers an unsourced bit of trivia that “Matthew Broderick was auditioned for the role of [the boyfriend], however Jack Sholder thought Broderick was too talented for the small part.” Probably true, although I bet Broderick wouldn’t have minded being insufficiently artistically challenged considering the whole role consists of making out with a topless blonde nymphomaniac. I guess things worked out OK for him in the end, but imagine a world where both Broderick and Tom Hanks had early roles as pointless boyfriend characters in early 80’s slashers?

                ***** According to IMDB, they were originally called Nicky Nothing And The Hives, but liked their ALONE IN THE DARK moniker so much that they kept it. Apparently they put out and EP in 1982 under the name Sic F*cks but other than this single fanzine article I can find nothing else about them. Anyway, the song they play in the movie “Chop Up Your Mother” is a big sloppy freight train of punk rock, and I’m in fucking favor of it.

               

CHAINSAWNUKAH 2019 CHECKLIST!
For Richer or Horror

TAGLINE
They’re Out… For Blood! Don’t Let Them Find You… ALONE IN THE DARK.
TITLE ACCURACY
Inaccurate, even after the power goes out, no one is ever alone in the dark.
LITERARY ADAPTATION?
No
SEQUEL?
None
REMAKE?
None.
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN
USA
HORROR SUB-GENRE
Slasher, siege-movie, home invasion thriller
SLUMMING A-LISTER?
Jack Palance, Martin Landau. Shultz would go on to a leading role in The A-Team the following year.
BELOVED HORROR ICON?
Martin Landau, Lin Shaye
NUDITY? 
Yes
SEXUAL ASSAULT?
Two teens get murdered while having sex, and there is the lingering threat of “child molester” Elster, but nothing comes of it.
WHEN ANIMALS ATTACK!
None
GHOST/ ZOMBIE / HAUNTED BUILDING?
None
POSSESSION?
No
CREEPY DOLLS?
No
EVIL CULT?
No
MADNESS?
Yes
TRANSMOGRIFICATION?
None
VOYEURISM?
The psychos stalk their victims for several days, though not much is made of this..
MORAL OF THE STORY
We should all be more accepting and empathetic of people with mental illness but at the same time you should probably never keep a gang of homicidal psychopaths in a locked room which will automatically open in the event of a power outage. But JURASSIC PARK hadn’t come out yet so there was no way they could have known that.



Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Family Blood




Family Blood (2018)
Dir Sonny Mallhi
Written by Vinessa Shaw, Sonny Mallhi
Starring Vinessa Shaw, James Ransone, Colin Ford



           

            It was only recently that it dawned on me that the modern wave of gloomy, glacial, uneventful indie horror films was the natural replacement for the waning fad of found-footage. Before FAMILY BLOOD, I kind of took it for granted that the recent wave of “Post-horror” films (as the movement was patronizingly dubbed by The Guardian), about which I wrote at length in my review of HEREDITARY, were, if maybe a bit misguided, at least in earnest. I might prefer a genre film that has some actual entertaining qualities to a film which is basically a slow-motion family drama with a scary soundtrack, but I assumed, mostly due to their cultural ascendancy in the last few years, that at least some people must feel otherwise. That these films were being made by people who wanted to make them and were expressing their own artistic inclination, misguided as they might be.

            Recent events, though, suggests a rather more disturbing possibility. After all, while the found-footage craze might have started with something of a formalist experiment, it flourished as producers noticed they could be made for almost nothing. Likewise, I suddenly wondered, what if the the “post-horror” wave *began* innocently, with a handful of indie wunderkinds paying tribute to DON’T LOOK NOW, but arrived as a movement for rather more sinister reasons, as producers suddenly caught on that audiences would pay for genre movies with literally no genre content at all, if they could pass themselves off as tasteful. I bet they didn’t even mind re-hiring the cinematographers “found-footage” had put out of a job, because you can shoot a perfectly professional-looking movie on a fucking iPhone now. And besides, it’s not the crew that ends up costing money: it’s the content. Found-footage was cheap because it made things so visibly illegible that you didn’t have to cough up a lot of dough for monster costumes or fake beheadings. The revelation producers had with “Post-horror” is that you don’t even have to hide your lack of content, as long as you dress it up as art.  



            I mean, how else to explain a movie as stunningly empty as FAMILY BLOOD? I refuse, refuse flat out, to believe this is a movie anyone wanted to make. This is not the kind of thing that artists make. Artists might make bad art sometimes, but even the worst of it at least betrays some flicker of human intent. This is not even the kind of thing exploitation producers used to make back in the grindhouse days to snag lowest-common denominator dollars. Those could also be bad, but at least they grasped that the point --however poorly-executed that might be in practice-- was entertainment. Maybe they didn’t have the budget to show you tits and gore and explosions, but they at least understood that’s what you would want to see. Even the most impoverished, indolent, artistically bankrupt shot-in-the-Philippines 1970s T&A trash would never dream of releasing a movie as openly unrewarding as this, and certainly no filmmaker with even a glimmer of artistic ambition would bother with something so flimsy. No, this is a movie that could only have been made for the Netflix era, that brief period in history when art was being produced not for the artist or for the audience, but for an algorithm. This is a movie made because Netflix must have content, dammit, and it really doesn’t matter what that content is, specifically, and it doesn’t matter one iota if anyone actually enjoys it, or for that matter if anyone even watches it. It just has to exist. It has to be there, so that the mathematically relevant demographics can see that they have a disorienting surfeit of content to select from, even if they would never even entertain the idea of actually selecting most of it.

            That does, unfortunately, necessitate that if this thing gets accidentally clicked on, 90 minutes of images will follow. And for some reason, I called their bluff and watched that 90 minutes. In it, director Sonny Mallhi (a producer of middlebrow horror trash and remakes going back to 2006’s THE LAKE HOUSE) and co-writer Nic Savvides propose an amazing, never-before considered high-concept hook: what if --and stay with me here—we did a vampire film, but it was a metaphor for addiction? Truly, a groundbreaking notion which has only ever been explored previously in every other vampire film ever made. But that’s not quite the whole concept, because Mallhi and Savvides came up with a crafty twist on the old canard, and amended their conceit thusly: what if we did a vampire film, but it was a metaphor for addiction, and then we took out the part where the vampires did things?



            I mean, give them this, at least; they really do put the “post” in “post-horror.” This is a movie about a vaguely-defined divorcee (Vinessa [sic] Shaw, THE HILLS HAVE EYES REMAKE, holy cow, EYES WIDE SHUT) with two kids (Colin Ford, UNDER THE DOME and Eloise Lushina, GRAYBEARD) who has been an addict. She was an addict, and she is currently in an AA-like recovery group, and that is literally as far as the movie cares to go in terms of characterization. Alas, on her way home from a meeting, somebody offers her drugs, and so obviously she takes them –I mean, what are you gonna do, refuse pills offered to you in public by some degenerate, slurring stranger? That would be rude-- and zones out in a public park, which leaves her open to vampire attack courtesy of this guy Christopher (James Ransone, The Wire, SINISTER) who converts her to vampirism, basically because he wants a girlfriend. So the rest of the movie is about her starting to crave blood and act like an addict, because you see, this is a metaphor for addiction, except not really since it actually establishes her as an addict in the text itself. So it’s not so much a metaphor as just a movie about an addict, except blood instead of crack or whatever so that we can sell it as a genre movie because let’s face it, nobody on Earth is going to be interested in this basic-ass addiction drama otherwise.

            You might think there’s more, but that’s it! She’s just an addict, and she does addict things, and her kids get angsty about her being an addict, and her new boyfriend shows her the lifestyle on account of her being an addict. That is the entire plot. Eventually the fact that Addict #1 is addict-y becomes a little too monotonous even for this movie, and the focus shifts to her son, who has to come to terms with the fact that mom is an addict. But it’s not like he’s any more complex or interesting than his mom, it’s still just a bedrock-basic, Lifetime Original Movie addiction drama except with vampires, except without vampires because almost everything interesting happens off-screen. Seriously; there’s eventually even a superpowered vampire fight, and it happens off screen. THIS AIN’T A FUCKIN’ VAL LEWTON PICTURE YOU DIPSHITS. THIS IS A VISUAL MEDIUM. SHOW ME SOMETHING.

            There are perhaps two brief but adequate spooky/stalking sequences in there, and it does get a little bit violent at the very, very end, but there’s just no movie here. This is insipid drama, and barely even horror at all. The cast mostly isn’t actively bad, but these characters are so wafer-thin that even calling them “characters” feels like a misnomer, and nobody here manages to even come close to overcoming that handicap. Even Ransone’s usual livewire nervous energy is quashed almost to nothing (it looks like he was cast entirely on the strength of vaguely resembling Jack Gyllenhall and then given the exclusive direction to “brood more”). In fact, despite being technically much more competent than many movies I watched this October, it managed to avoid the dreaded “unwatchable garbage” tag almost exclusively for the 2-4 seconds of twitchy oddness that Ransone manages to get through. There are worse movies in the world, but there can’t be many that manage to do less with what they have. WINTERBEAST may be terrible, but by God at least it tries to entertain. FAMILY BLOOD chooses not to. I would say that’s because it’s pretentious hipster faux horror that thinks entertaining is beneath it, but I don’t even believe that. I think they just figured they could get by without trying. Pretension is one thing; hell, even contempt is one thing. This just feels like not giving a shit.




CHAINSAWNUKAH 2019 CHECKLIST!
For Richer or Horror

TAGLINE
Even a tagline would require more effort than this movie has in it.
TITLE ACCURACY
Family, check, blood, check.
LITERARY ADAPTATION?
No
SEQUEL?
None
REMAKE?
None.
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN
USA
HORROR SUB-GENRE
Vampire, “post-horror”
SLUMMING A-LISTER?
None
BELOVED HORROR ICON?
Both Shaw and Ransone have dabbled in horror, but I wouldn’t call them icons.
NUDITY? 
No
SEXUAL ASSAULT?
No
WHEN ANIMALS ATTACK!
Animals end up getting attacked rather than the other way around
GHOST/ ZOMBIE / HAUNTED BUILDING?
Vampire!
POSSESSION?
No
CREEPY DOLLS?
No
EVIL CULT?
No
MADNESS?
No
TRANSMOGRIFICATION?
Human into vampire
VOYEURISM?
Nothing much, although I guess you could say than Christopher has been watching the family.
MORAL OF THE STORY
Horror movies which have metaphors are better than “horror” movies which are only metaphors.