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we’ll send him cheesy movies

After my recent post about William Malone’s 2002 film Feardotcom, I decided to take a stab at his 2008 follow-up (Masters of Horror episode notwithstanding) Parasomnia. It turns out that I had already watched the first third or so of this movie once before, but something had interrupted me and I hadn’t gotten any farther. Which is probably okay, but also kind of a bummer, since most of the best stuff is in the last reel, but none of it is really worth watching twice.

I’m a little surprised that I haven’t heard more talk about Parasomnia in weird fiction circles–not because there’s actually all that much to talk about, but because of four words in the opening credits: “Conceptual Art – Zdzislaw Beksinski.” Beksinski’s work is so beloved among many in the weird fiction world that I figured his involvement–even if it seems to be more inspirational than actually direct–would be enough to attract some attention to the picture, and certainly, once you know to look for it, it’s hard to miss in the film’s surreal dreamscape images, even if they are also unduly burdened with low-budget CGI and lots and lots of spinning mirrors (plus apparently at least one monster that was scrapped from Malone’s Masters of Horror episode).

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Weirdly, for all that William Malone financed this film himself and gets his name in front of the title like John Carpenter or something, this actually feels substantially less stylized than previous outings, possibly due to the budgetary constraints of shooting an indie rather than a studio feature. While IMDb doesn’t list a budget for Parasomnia, a little online sleuthing suggests that it’s considerably cheaper than either Feardotcom or House on Haunted Hill, and as a result, with the exception of the occasional foray into the aforementioned dreamscapes, the film reserves most of its visual style for the last few minutes, which bring in automata and a mesmerized string duet wearing goggles and corsets.

There are a few good gore effects, including a body that’s walled up in an abandoned bookstore bedecked with posters for old-fashioned stage magicians, but even when the film is throwing everything it has at the wall, it feels positively constrained compared to Malone’s previous films. (Though the shots of the mesmerist serial killer bad guy–a phrase that should be enough to win me over all by itself–using his powers are actually pretty cool.)

Sean Young shows up for all of a minute, Jeffrey Combs essentially revives his role from Feardotcom, Timothy Bottoms plays the exposition doctor who really needs to study up on patient confidentiality and medical ethics, and John Landis makes a cameo as a department store manager who turns out a semi-comatose, blood spattered girl onto the streets without so much as calling the cops.

Compounding any of Parasomnia‘s other problems is the fact that its central premise is pretty gross/creepy, in the way that Sleeping Beauty stories are often kinda gross/creepy, but maybe even moreso here. As our ostensible protagonist falls in love with a girl who has been asleep for most of her life and therefore has the emotional and mental development of a child; as they “bond” in scenes where, during her brief periods of wakefulness, she rubs ice cream all over her face like a toddler, plays with a doggy chew toy, or dresses up like a cheerleader; and as he bathes her sleeping body in scenes that are overtly sexual, or tells his kooky 80s movie best friend that he loves her, I found it impossible to go along with the movie’s notion that this “relationship” was on the up-and-up.

An insinuated connection between the two because they once met when they were very small, in a house that looks a lot like Elise’s house from the later Insidious movies, and a scene returning both characters to childhood in the film’s closing moments attempt to ameliorate the sexual predator vibe, but it’s really too little too late. Fundamentally, our “protagonist” may be less of a serial killer than the sinister Byron Volpe, but he doesn’t really come off looking a whole lot better aside from that.

Without the interference of a studio, Parasomnia should have been Malone’s stylistic triumph–the ultimate affirmation of Roger Ebert’s claim, regarding Feardotcom, that if “the final 20 minutes had been produced by a German impressionist [sic?] in the 1920s, we’d be calling it a masterpiece”–but instead it is so bogged down by its stricter budgetary limitations and its dedication to a problematic script that it feels like a lesser cousin to even the least of Malone’s more studio-oriented work, where, while the scripts were often still bad, the movies at least seemed less interested in them.

[This post previously appeared on my Patreon.]

I liked William Malone’s 1999 remake of House on Haunted Hill, and I remember watching his 2002 follow-up Feardotcom back when I was working in a video store. All I remember about it at the time is that it felt immediately dated, and already a little too reminiscent of that year’s American remake of The Ring. (Even though Feardotcom actually beat The Ring into theatres by a couple of months, though of course the Japanese original had already been out for a few years by then.)

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Re-watching Feardotcom today, it still feels immediately dated and sort of derivative of the general atmosphere that was starting to pervade horror cinema as the Asian horror boom began to make its way to American shores, but it also feels weirdly precognizant and definitely very, very of a piece with Malone’s House on Haunted Hill.

Specifically, while still being a stylized ghost movie in the House on Haunted Hill mold, Feardotcom also prefigures the rise of the torture porn genre, and you could extract almost the entire aesthetic of Saw (which wouldn’t hit theatres for two more years) from this film. Meanwhile, the titular website and some of the investigation scenes feature found-footage segments of the sort that would shortly become ubiquitous in horror circles.

While the plot is ostensibly a lift of Ringu, with a “live-cam death site” replacing the cursed video tape as the film’s deadly MacGuffin, following a police detective (Stephen Dorff) and a researcher from the Department of Health (Natasha McElhone) as they try to track down a serial killer who is torturing people to death online, while also trying to figure out why people who went to the website are dying mysteriously within 48 hours, this isn’t a movie that lives and dies by plot. In fact, it feels more like it careens from one moment to another than like it actually has a story, helped along by the unreal and dreamlike atmosphere that Malone conjures up.

Feardotcom is pure stylistic indulgence. From a prominently-featured reference to Mad Love‘s Dr. Gogol in graffiti within the first two minutes to the fact that the film’s cold opening features Udo Kier playing a character named Polidori to a creepy ghost girl with pale hair and a white ball that is probably a nod to the Bava’s Kill, Baby… Kill!, we’re deep into a territory of unrealism before the movie gets very far.

In spite of the website premise, the New York City of Feardotcom is a timeless, rainy, noir metropolis that feels more like the fictional and unspecified urban landscapes of weird fiction than any real or modern place. (See also the setting of Alex Proyas’ Dark City from four years before.)

Exteriors are always the brightest points in the film, in spite of the constant rain, while interiors are claustrophobic and dimly lit, with characters trapped in pools of light like insects frozen in amber, even when they occupy otherwise expansive rooms. As in House on Haunted Hill, Malone juxtaposes grandeur and decay, as in a scene where a hallway filled with peeling paint and flickering fluorescent lights culminates in an elevator with marble panels and gilt edges.

By this point, deteriorating industrial backdrops had already become de rigueur in horror cinema, but in Feardotcom these urban hellscapes are incorporated into the proceedings in ways that make them feel as much internal as external. They are a part of the deteriorating effect that the events of the movie are having on the psyches of the characters. (In some ways, Feardotcom probably feels somewhat less dated now than it did at the time, because the fact that the internet never looked or worked like that just seems part and parcel to Malone’s odd, anachronistic setting, rather than bad artistic direction.)

In spite of sharing a lot in common with Malone’s House on Haunted Hill, however, Feardotcom is never as good as its elder sibling, mostly because it is humorless and lacks that film’s strong central premise (borrowed from the William Castle original) and the accompanying performances of Geoffrey Rush and Famke Janssen. (Also, while the ghosts here are certainly in the same family tree, there are no Jacob’s Ladder-style vibrating heads.)

Still, it’s intriguing to stack the two next to each other, and see how much Malone’s aesthetic vision influences both, for good and for ill. From the same creepy sadomasochistic montages to the same use of plastinated bodies in display cases as a backdrop, there’s even an odd fetish for desk-mounted pencil sharpeners in both films. Feardotcom also relies on a similarly regrettable use of CGI in its closing moments, although it is considerably toned down from the ending of House on Haunted Hill.

Feardotcom boasts a lot of familiar faces in its supporting cast. Besides the aforementioned Udo Kier in its cold opening, Stephen Rea has a role as the mad doctor serial killer, while Jeffrey Combs plays Stephen Dorff’s dissolute partner. (Combs and Malone seem to have had a good working relationship, as the former is in most of the latter’s handful of feature films.)

Make no mistake, Feardotcom is a nearly-plotless and often inept movie that is primarily of interest because it is so deeply mired in William Malone’s particular vision while also being such an odd harbinger of things to come. I found it fascinating in its way, but fascinating should not necessarily be confused with good.

Sadly, even if Feardotcom had benefitted from a tighter script, it seems unlikely that it would have succeeded on many more levels than it does. Fortunately, the weird stylistic decisions of William Malone are more than enough to keep it oddly compelling, at least for me, even while it stumbles around from one “spooky” scene to another. I remember his Masters of Horror episode “The Fair Haired Child” having a somewhat similar aesthetic, and I can’t actually remember if I already checked out his 2008 film Parasomnia, or just watched the trailer, but I guess it’s time to give it a look (possibly again).

[This post previously appeared on my Patreon.]

 

monster_thriller_scifi_headerPanic Fest is something that I look forward to every year; after all, why wouldn’t I? A world-class horror/monster/sci-fi film festival right in my own backyard, put together by my good friends at Rotten Rentals and the Screenland Armour; what’s not to love? But for me, at least, Panic Fest has become something of a fraught weekend.

Two years ago, just as I was leaving the house to go to Panic Fest, I got a phone call about my dad’s declining health. It wasn’t the first phone call on the subject, but it was one of the ones that triggered the fall of dominoes which made up the end of his life, the realization of a lot of trauma and baggage, and various other things that I’ve been dealing with in one capacity or another for the last two years. As such, Panic Fest always feels like an anniversary: the last weekend where I got to feel normal for a while and just have some fun.

Every year since, when Panic Fest has come around it has brought with it a weird combination of emotions–fraught, like I said. This year was the first time I attended as a “private citizen.” In the past I’ve helped out with the fest in some capacity; manning the Rotten Rentals booth or whatever. This year I just bought my ticket like everyone else and showed up to watch movies and bullshit around in the (really nice) vendor loft. I picked up a copy of the really great-looking book Unsung Horrors, which contains a couple of essays by my friend (and former boss, way back when I still worked at a video store) Jeff Owens.

I also watched four movies over the course of the weekend, along with a handful of really good shorts. That is, I believe, fully twice as many movies as the most I ever managed at a previous Panic Fest, so I’ll call it pretty good. To make matters better, I enjoyed all four movies, which is always nice. Here are my brief thoughts on each, presented in ascending order of quality.

The Barn – An 80s-style VHS throwback, The Barn was funded at least partially via IndieGoGo, and it shows. Because of the film’s intentionally low-rent aesthetic, the budgetary limitations are never really a problem for it, and the result is something pretty charming for anybody who has a nostalgic yen for 80s slashers and monsters that are just guys in Halloween masks. What The Barn can’t do is rise much above that. It’s never quite funny enough to function as pure parody, nor strong enough to stand on its own as anything else. So what you get is a pleasant throwback that seems like it ought to be watched on an old tube TV, popped out of one of those clamshell VHS cases; but a surprisingly crowded theatre at a horror film festival is probably the next best thing.

Don’t Knock Twice – A few days before Panic Fest, I watched last year’s Lights Out for the first time. Don’t Knock Twice shares a lot of parallels with that film–minus its specific light-related central conceit–but Lights Out suffers every time by the comparison. Which is not to say that Don’t Knock Twice is any particularly great shakes, but it stands up better than most of the familiar ghostly fare that so often haunts our multiplexes these days.

The Void – Imagine if the Astron-6 guys couldn’t decide whether they wanted to make a fan film of HellraiserThe ThingPrince of Darkness, or The Fly–so they just did all four. That’s pretty much The Void in a nutshell, and as such it manages to seem both inventive and derivative, while also feeling more like watching someone play Resident Evil than the Resident Evil movies ever managed. The visuals are strong, and there are plenty of gloppy monsters all done with practical effects, so I love that, but I also can’t help noticing that all of the effects feel like they would probably have been more confidently deployed in the hands of any of those other directors.

It’s been called Lovecraftian–as anything with cultists, tentacles, or horror on a larger-than-human scale will be (and The Void certainly has all three in spades)–but it owes a much bigger debt to Barker than to Lovecraft. Call it Hellraiser with the aesthetic of Carpenter and Cronenberg and you’re damn close. All this probably sounds a little down on The Void, but it absolutely isn’t meant to be–it’s sitting in my number two spot here, after all–it’s just that, for all its promise and its many great qualities, it never quite rises to what it almost is. (A problem that, honestly, seems to plague many of even the very best of our crop of contemporary horror movies.)

Train to Busan – In a year that has already been full-to-bursting with surreal moments, few were as jarring as walking out of Train to Busan to the news of Trump’s Muslim ban. Train to Busan is, essentially, a Korean zombie movie of the contemporary fast, swarming zombie school, and one that, as you’ve no doubt heard from other people than me, is handled brilliantly well. There’s a lot going on in it, but possibly its biggest and least subtle theme can be summed up as: Turning people away because you are afraid makes you into something worse than the monsters that scare you. As such, it has maybe never felt more topical than in this moment.

All that aside, though, it is also just an extremely solid movie. Like Frank Darabont’s adaptation of The Mist from a few years back–which was also very emphatically a product of its moment with a very heavy social message, but that still plays fine without that context–Train to Busan holds up amidst a sea of similar fare as one of the best of the modern crop of swarming zombie flicks.

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Rarely (if ever) has there been as great a jump in quality from a movie to its sequel (or prequel, as the case may be) as the one from Ouija to Ouija 2: Electric Boogaloo Ouija: Origin of Evil. That’s what I tweeted when I got home from the theatre, and I stick by it. Which is not to say that Origin of Evil is necessarily the greatest sequel (or prequel) of all time, merely that sequels this good normally come from movies that were already pretty great, whereas the kindest thing that can be said of 2014’s Ouija is probably that it was a harmless enough way to spend 89 minutes.

It’s tempting to lay this at the feet of Mike Flanagan’s sure directorial hand, which he has demonstrated time and again, even if I am in the minority in finding Hush, one of his earlier 2016 efforts, merely okay. But the quality of Origin of Evil owes at least as much to the smart, human script by co-writers Flanagan and Jeff Howard (who also worked together on the superb Oculus and this year’s Before I Wake, which I haven’t yet seen). Since it’s a prequel, there’s really no need to have seen Ouija beforehand, though the storyline dovetails with what I remember from the original in ways that I think will probably improve both films, in the long run. Another rare accomplishment for a sequel or prequel.

Origin of Evil is The Conjuring to Ouija‘s Insidious, not just in its period setting and Catholic trappings, but in its family dynamic and choice to deepen its chills by the juxtaposition of moments of real warmth. (And also an unnecessary scare scene with some blankets that feels lifted directly from The Conjuring.) The script is an incredibly slow burn for a movie with a relatively brief running time of only 99 minutes, but in the final reel things go from exposition to full-on haunted house bonkers at the drop of a hat. It’s an explosion of weirdness that is all the more potent for how restrained the movie has been up to that point.

There are missteps along the way, mostly in the execution of a few of the earlier jump scares and obligatory “creepy kid” moments–Flanagan appears to be better at a kind of creeping realization or hopeless desperation than at delivering a sudden shock–but the extravagances of the last act go a long way toward erasing them from memory. There’s one moment in particular during the film’s absurd spookshow climax that feels like it comes bungee-jumping directly out of Junji Ito manga, in all the best ways.

While the sequel to one of 2014’s worst ghost movies may seem an unlikely place to find one of 2016’s best, sometimes we get something better than we deserve, and it’s tough to imagine a better Ouija movie–sequel, prequel, or otherwise–than the one Mike Flanagan and company have brought us here. Recommended.

blair-witch

Seventeen years ago, I sat in a theatre and watched The Blair Witch Project. It may have been opening night; if not, it was close. A friend had wanted to go, and I was always up for a horror movie, but I didn’t know much about what I was getting into except that it was maybe really true (but of course probably not).

The next 81 minutes were harrowing, but how much of that was from the movie itself, and how much the experience, the diving in cold, the “is it real or not” buzz, I can’t say, because I’ve never revisited the film since. Nothing ever seemed like it could touch that first time.

When I sat down last Wednesday night to a preview screening of Blair Witch, I wasn’t expecting that same thrill. I wasn’t expecting much, not really. I had been cautiously excited for the movie back when it was still going under the working title The Woods, to keep its status as a direct sequel to The Blair Witch Project–ignoring the already extant, ill-starred 2000 sequel Book of Shadows, which I’ve also seen but don’t remember–a secret. But my excitement came not from anything I’d seen in the teasers, but from the filmmaking duo of Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett, whose previous films You’re Next and, especially, The Guest, had managed to surprise me in ways that I really enjoyed.

When it was revealed that The Woods was actually Blair Witch, my ardor cooled, but I still hoped that maybe Wingard and Barrett would manage to extract something equally interesting from the nearly twenty-year-old franchise that kickstarted the modern fascination with found footage horror films. For me, they never quite made it.

Which is not to say that I didn’t like Blair Witch. It was fine enough, settling firmly in a spot near the middle of my “movies I’ve seen this year” list, nowhere near as lousy as the worst nor as good as the best, but I was hoping for more of what I had come to expect from Wingard and Barrett, and instead I got more of what I have come to expect from The Blair Witch Project‘s slew of imitators over the years.

There are plenty of moments in Blair Witch that work–I particularly liked one especially large stick figure–but there is also a lot that feels overly familiar, either from this film’s predecessor or from the innumerable found footage horror flicks that have succeeded it. Blair Witch takes good advantage of its sound design, but while the sound of huge trees snapping that accompanies most of the film’s scary moments is very effective, after a while you realize that the majority of the scares are just that noise, followed by people screaming and running and then… nothing.

The stuff that does happen in Blair Witch tends to hew pretty closely to The Blair Witch Project template, although always taking it just a little bit bigger, but never quite as much bigger as I wanted them to. The things that were inexplicable one-offs there become rules here, exposited to us by the characters, and what worked as a creepy image in 1999, doesn’t work as well as a rule in 2016.

Ultimately, how you feel about Blair Witch may depend, in part, upon how much of a fan of the original movie you are, and what you’re excited about in this sequel. Even if the film itself didn’t make it abundantly clear (and it does), the Q&A that followed my screening showed that Wingard and Barrett are die-hard fans of The Blair Witch Project, and they’re coming at this movie with a lot of reverence for the source material. For other fans of the film that may be a feature. For me, as someone who was hoping for more Wingard and Barrett and less Blair Witch Project, I felt like it tied their hands, keeping them from reaching the same heights that their previous films together have enjoyed.

 

 

ShallowsI wouldn’t normally go see a survival picture about a shark in theatres, but I love Jaume Collet-Serra and I’ve been having a shitty week, so I needed something nice to do for myself.

Collet-Serra has sort of made a habit of making movies that I like but wouldn’t have expected to, starting with 2005’s House of Wax. He also made the surprisingly good Orphan in 2009, before going on to helm a string of mostly undistinguished Taken-alikes (though Non-Stop has the distinction of being maybe the best of that breed). I’ve seen all of his movies at this point, except for the 2007 soccer film Goal IIThe Shallows marks the first time that he’s waded into the waters of the horror genre since Orphan.

The Shallows isn’t Jaws, the movie to which it is most likely to be compared. It’s more like the movie that people who have never seen Jaws assume that Jaws is. (Actually, that’s probably Jaws 2.) A more apt comparison to The Shallows might be 2003’s Open Water, a film I never actually saw for the same reasons that I probably wouldn’t have gone to see The Shallows were it not for Collet-Serra’s name in the credits (and one really good trailer).

With an almost insanely stripped-down premise and a lean running time of only 86 minutes, The Shallows is a trifle where Jaws is an epic. It’s a film of modest scope and modest ambitions that ekes out plenty of tension from its core concept and allows Collet-Serra to indulge his aesthetic touch in gorgeous shots of the secret beach and plenty of nice underwater camerawork.

Don’t get me wrong, The Shallows gets plenty big and ridiculous in its final reel. Whether it gets too ridiculous or not quite ridiculous enough will probably depend on where your tolerance for Collet-Serra’s previous work lies. After all, taking a premise that doesn’t really need to be amazing and pushing it past where most people would (perhaps wisely) stop is sort of his stock in trade (see the ending of, well, most of his films). I love that about his movies, and if you love it, too, then you’ll probably be on board with The Shallows‘ final conflict.

Even if you’re not, though, there are moments throughout this movie that would not have been there had anyone but Collet-Serra been behind the camera. See an early shot with a whale carcass, or an underwater moment featuring jellyfish. For me, The Shallows is a movie that’s better than it needs to be, from a director who has pretty much made a career out of making movies that are better than they need to be, but never quite as good as I want them to be. I feel like Collet-Serra still has a horror masterpiece in the chamber somewhere, if he can find the right project. The Shallows isn’t it, but if you want to see Blake Lively and a wounded seagull fight a shark, and are ready for things to get a little silly before they’re done, then it’s a good way to spend 86 minutes.

 

Neon Demon

So, what did I think of Nicolas Winding Refn’s A Very Giallo (But Not Actually As Giallo As I Was Hoping After That Blood and Black Lace Trailer) Black Swan? Er, I mean, The Neon Demon? (A title that, admittedly, I wish I had come up with before Winding Refn did…)

The short answer is that I felt like it was a lot of good moments, scenes, images, and ideas looking for a movie to inhabit and instead being tossed the bones of a bunch of tired tropes to hang themselves on. And if that sounds harsh, I don’t necessarily mean for it to, but I also don’t think it’s inaccurate.

The Neon Demon is an experience that is going to take some time to digest (rimshot), and I’ll once again paraphrase Guillermo del Toro when he said that watching a movie once is a flirtation, twice is a date. Though in this case I don’t know that I’m intrigued enough to ever go back for that date.

It’s a film that is already polarizing people, but it didn’t really polarize me. I neither loved it nor hated it. It looked good and sounded great, it had moments that really worked but overall it really didn’t. How much it works for you will likely depend upon how you react to this sort of thing. For some, it will be your jam, for others, you will completely hate it. Me, I’m just along for the ride.

Prior to watching this, my only experience with Nicolas Winding Refn’s filmography was Drive, which I liked, but not as much as everybody else did. I’m told that, if you liked his follow-up Only God Forgives, you’ll probably like The Neon Demon. One of these days I’m going to watch Only God Forgives, even though I don’t expect to like it, because its aesthetic looks very appealing. This is also emphatically true of The Neon Demon.

Going any further is going to require me to dip into some spoilers, which I will try to keep pretty mild. I’ve seen this movie described as “confrontational,” which is probably a good description to use, but it felt to me like it was trying way too hard to confront me, rather than actually having anything to confront me with. It doesn’t commit enough to its horror premise to really become a horror film, but also goes too far to be much of anything else, and so it’s left in this awkward in-between state that will work for some people and infuriate others.

I had a lot of problems with this movie, even while there were a lot of things that I liked, but I don’t think most of them were the problems that I was supposed to have. I kept thinking that it was headed in the direction of Black Swan‘s transformative body horror, and it kept stepping back. Which is fine, but what it opts to do instead is stumble pretty badly in its last legs and end up in places that are both absurd and laughable–no one walked out of my screening that I noticed, not even during that scene, but plenty of people did laugh, especially in the film’s closing moments. Whether that’s a feature or a bug will probably depend on you. And if this is the most evasive “review” ever, well, that’s just the kind of movie that The Neon Demon is…