5.02.2020

Lunar Cycle - April 2020



Since I don’t have as much time to write longer reviews than I used to, I figured I would just post shorter reviews for horror/cult films that I feel deserve your attention. Expect these Lunar Cycle posts once per month.


INTO THE DARK: I’M JUST F*CKING WITH YOU (2019) - ** out of ****

Directed By: Adam Mason

Starring: Keir O’Donnell, Hayes MacArthur, Jessica McNamee, Charles Halford, John Marshall Jones

Genre: Horror/Comedy

Running Time: 81 Minutes


Plot: Siblings headed to a family wedding endure a night of increasingly frightening practical jokes while staying at a secluded motel.


Review:
Another month, meaning it's time to look at some more Into the Dark installments from Hulu and Blumhouse. The first April installment, I’M JUST F*CKING WITH YOU, is based around April Fool’s Day - not about the day exactly, but more about the pranks people pull on others, no matter how mean they can be. An online troll has no issue dishing out bullying comments and memes. But when they’re trolled by someone who has no shame about it, how would they react to it? I’M JUST F*CKING WITH YOU has been on Best Of and Worst Of lists when it comes to this anthology series. I’m probably in between, as there were things I did enjoy about the film. But honestly, it didn’t push the premise hard enough for me and just left me feeling “meh” about it by the movie’s end.

I think the best thing about I’M JUST F*CKING WITH YOU is the cast. In particular, Hayes MacArthur as Chester - a motel clerk who pretty much pulls pranks 24/7, which obviously seems to be hiding something more sinister. He’s so over-the-top and annoying that it actually works in terms of the film’s premise. You see, the main character [Larry] is an online troll who posts nasty messages and memes about an ex-girlfriend who is marrying his cousin. He’s big and bad online, but is meek and social awkward in real life. Chester makes fun of him and puts him in awkward situations right from the start, causing Larry to feel somewhat bullied by all this attention. The troll is getting trolled throughout this movie, and Larry slowly breaks under the pressure because he’s now on the other side of the fence. MacArthur is the perfect actor to make the situation believable because he’s so out there and seems to be having fun joking around. But he also brings a sinister and sociopathic performance that’s bubbling underneath the surface, slowly making itself visible by the time the film reaches it’s first half. If I have to be honest with you, MacArthur is really the reason to watch this installment. He may grate on you, but he brings so much energy - something a lot of these installments don’t usually have. MacArthur is all in and tries to elevate a troubled screenplay as best as possible.

The other two main actors, Keir O’Donnell [as Larry the troll] and Jessica McNamee [Larry’s sister Rachel], do fine as well. O’Donnell is totally outshined by MacArthur in the first half of the film. But once his character goes through the emotional ringer, O’Donnell begins to shift his performance and becomes quite fun and manic by the film’s end. McNamee is fine in her role, but she doesn’t really get to do a lot but act tough when she needs to, or show fear.

I also liked the look of the film. The cinematography by Lyn Moncrief is very nice to look at, especially when it comes to how the film is lit. It’s rare that I’M JUST F*CKING WITH YOU is not shot under some neon light, especially light blues and reds. There’s a definite 80s, Miami vibe going on here, and I liked that aesthetic a lot. I’m not sure if it really adds to the story itself, but the film pops visually.

The direction by Adam Mason, who is probably best known for his work on 2006’s BROKEN, is decent. The film is extremely well paced, as the 81 minutes flew right by. Some of the staging and blocking of scenes added some atmosphere to the film, creating some creepy moments here and there that don’t last all that long really. The film isn’t scary at all, however, and there’s no real tension or suspense going on here. It’s obvious the film wants to be more comedy than horror, which becomes an issue when Mason can’t balance the tone. There’s a serial killer element in the film, yet it never felt threatening. Not only is that a story issue, but that’s also a direction flaw because I was never sure what I was supposed to get out of this film. The gorier elements, such as a knife going through someone’s ear, as well as the aftermath of dead victims, are a few and far between. But I bought it all and wish there was more of that visually. The film looks great, but the presentation could have been better.

As for the story, I love the premise but I was never sure how to feel about it after it all played out. To see a mean troll get out-trolled by a more sociopathic one is a great concept, especially if you think about turning it into a character study of how the bully becomes the bullied. Does the troll realize the error of his ways and change? Does he become more of a bully to defend himself? Or does something worse happen? It’s a premise that’s still relevant, more so with social media being as popular as it is, making me believe that I’M JUST F*CKING WITH YOU would really go for it.

Unfortunately, the film doesn’t push the envelope at all. It’s just your standard serial killer movie with hints of THE HITCHER, VACANCY and PSYCHO sprinkled in. As far as that storytelling aspect, it’s fine and it’s certainly watchable. The reveal to what’s really going on and how it plays out [besides the questionable ending] happens to be a lot of fun with neat visual tricks and strong acting. But none of the characters, besides Rachel, aren’t likable at all. That hurts the concept because if Chester was more of a hero type who is teaching Larry a lesson about his online actions, it would be more relatable. But Larry is a jerk and his standoffish personality doesn’t help. Chester can be funny, but he becomes a bit much to handle to the point where you sometimes want him to go away. There’s also this whole wedding subplot that is the basis of Larry’s trolling, but not much is really done with it. In fact, when certain parties learn the truth about what Larry has done, it comes across as way too easy and not enough punishment to justify the crime. And the ending is just bizarre and even though I understood the intention, it still left me unsatisfied. I understand Into the Dark doesn’t have a large budget to work with and it usually does well with what’s given. But maybe it would be better if these films were shorter for the most part, as the narrative doesn’t support a full-length format for most of these. Maybe with less time, more chances could be taken and really explore the great premises these installments have. I’M JUST F*CKING WITH YOU almost gets there, but doesn’t know how to stick the landing in a way that we feel it was worth the time watching this. I think there was a really good film in here somewhere, but not all the elements were in place to make that happen.

Overall, Into the Dark’s I’M JUST F*CKING YOU is another average installment of Hulu’s anthology series, having a great premise about pranks [catering to April Fool’s Day] but unable to really maximize the concept beyond that. It’s nice to see a relevant story about an online troll getting bullied by a sociopathic prankster who’s a better troll than he is. But I guess I expected more of a character study of how that changes a person - either for better or for worse - instead of a standard serial killer concept that was inspired by VACANCY and THE HITCHER. It doesn’t help that all the main two characters are pretty unlikable as people, making me not care what happens to either of them. At least the serial killer portion is pretty fun, even though it leads to an ending that leaves a lot to be desired. What saves this film was being a total must miss is that it has a solid cast [especially Hayes MacArthur as the over-the-top Chester], some of the gorier elements, and it’s beautiful use of lighting the film in mostly neon. Adam Mason’s direction is also alright, but he has trouble balancing the tone throughout. It’s never a scary film, as Mason favors more of the comedic side of the narrative - even though the comedy doesn’t always work. Still, I liked this more than DOWN or MY VALENTINE, although barely. 






INTO THE DARK: POOKA LIVES! (2020) - *** out of ****

Directed By: Alejandro Brugues

Starring: Wil Wheaton, Felicia Day, Malcolm Barrett, Rachel Bloom, Jonah Ray, Lyndie Greenwood, Gavin Stenhouse

Genre: Horror/Slasher

Running Time: 80 Minutes


Plot: A group of thirty-something friends from high school create their own Creepypasta about a Pooka for laughs, but are shocked when it becomes so viral on the internet that it actually manifests more murderous versions of the creature.



Review:
Now we arrive at this April’s entry for the Into the Dark series, this time the series’ first sequel - POOKA LIVES! - which takes the popular antagonist of December 2018’s POOKA! and builds upon his legend in the horror genre. I enjoyed the first POOKA! film, which took place during Christmas, as it was a decent monster-slasher movie in the vein of CHILD’S PLAY while mixing a psychological element to the story that bumped up my enjoyment. I also thought Nacho Vigalondo’s direction, with the use of Argento-like colors, was really solid and made POOKA! one of the better films in this series. However, I think POOKA LIVES! is actually a better film and probably my favorite Into the Dark episode I’ve seen so far.

Instead of a real holiday, Into the Dark places POOKA LIVES! in the fictional holiday of Pooka Day - a day where the toy would get an upgrade and new look that would lead to massive consumer success. I was expecting an Easter story due to Pooka looking like a weird bunny, but a fake holiday makes sense for the sequel to exist outside of Christmas. It shows how huge the character had become within Into the Dark’s canon. It gives reason for the insane power fans give Pooka that explain its rampage later on. And it also showcases the greed and lack of empathy of businesses when it concerns their tired workers and their consumers. Especially at a time where businesses are struggling due to COVID-19, the idea of making money at the cost of others is very relevant.

The real social commentary of POOKA LIVES! involves how social influencers can make anything viral, including challenges and urban legends, while also having the power to “cancel” certain individuals if they feel they’ve done wrong to them or to others. Derrick, once a successful writer, loses his job and status due to criticizing this annoying YouTuber, Jax, who uses his platform to ruin Derrick’s life both professionally and personally. Wanting that power again, Derrick persuades his hometown friends to help him create a Creepypasta involving Pooka under a pseudonym, creating this viral success that ends up conjuring Pooka itself due to the angry spirit of Pooka’s maker, who murdered her husband and killed herself when Pooka’s design was threatened to be changed. As part of the Creepypasta, a challenge is created sort of like “Bloody Mary” or CANDYMAN where people perform this ritual while wearing a Pooka mask. If they’re considered naughty, Pooka will hurt them badly. POOKA LIVES! seems to be making fun and criticizing all these social media challenges that seem to be for attention, rather than doing something creative that would benefit society and the world. It also highlights the power that Creepypastas has had in pop culture, in particular Slender Man, who has become a controversial figure and even had its own film based on the character. If you put power behind anything, tangible or not, it can become very real for a lot of people. POOKA LIVES! uses that concept to bring the character back to life, but in a much dangerous way due to fans changing the story and making Pooka stronger than ever.

The film is greatly helped by likable characters who you care about enough to see where the story will take each and every one of them. They’re regular hometown friends having a reunion of sorts, all of them struggling how they’re lives turned out in adulthood compared to when they were younger. Marriage isn’t easy. Exes trying to rekindle that fire can be a struggle when both parties are in different places in life compared to when they were together years ago. One person has come out of the closet and lost a lot of weight since high school, still seeing himself as that obese teenager and living through his profession as a deputy rather than as a person. As an adult nearing 40, I can relate to these adult struggles - especially with friends you’ve known for a long time wondering how much it has all changed over the years. These characters all feel like real people you would meet in the world, even behaving in realistic ways that don’t insult you at all. They create a viral monster and love the fact it’s so popular, making them feel young again. When things go horribly, they struggle with ending it until it hits too close to home. Sometimes it’s not worth recapturing that power of youth, especially when society and technology has changed a lot of what life used to be.

I did have a few issues with the story, though. One, it never takes the premise far enough. POOKA LIVES!, if you couldn’t tell from the title, is a slasher film with a giant toy mascot killing those who are naughty. However, the body count isn’t all that high. And when people do get attacked or killed, some of it is offscreen. The only major kill sequence involved a pair of scissors going through a person’s skull and then getting pulled out so the person could bleed to death. It’s a solid scene and for an Into the Dark feature, it’s pretty graphic. Even the opening scene of the film has some graphic murder going on with repeated stabbings involving scissors and fire. But considering how low the budgets are for these films, the filmmakers probably couldn’t do more than they show here. It’s a shame because this film deserved a slasher-like high body count onscreen, even if the film does get violent and bloody at times.

I also thought the ending was a bit weak. It’s almost as if they were at the end of the shooting schedule and the budget didn’t allow for more days to shoot a complete ending with actors. So we get this cartoon ending during the closing credits, which is fine I guess, but feels unsatisfactory considering the build up to the final confrontation. It’s a shame because this film deserved a better ending than it got.

The direction by Alejandro Brugues isn’t as good as Nacho Vigalondo’s, but it does have some stylish moments and suspenseful moments POOKA LIVES! needed to succeed. The use of red and blue flood lighting returns, mainly in the last half of the film, which is always welcomed. There is a nice bit of atmosphere and tension at times, especially when Pooka appears out of nowhere from behind someone. The stalk and slash moments work well, creating some suspense you wouldn’t expect from this series. And at 80 minutes, POOKA LIVES! flies by incredibly fast because there’s always something happening visually throughout. I thought the visual presentation in POOKA! was stronger, but Brugues handles this sequel well.

The acting is also very good, especially from a cast of familiar names that elevate the material. Malcolm Barrett is really good as Derrick, fleshing out a character who struggles with losing his fame due to online trolls and social influencers, but also enjoying the attention he constantly complains about because it makes him feel important. Felicia Day and Jonah Ray are a lot of fun to watch play off of each other as a married couple who struggle with her new age and spiritual obsessions and his too grounded realism. Lyndie Greenwood as Susan plays off Barrett well as his ex and current co-worker, bringing a romantic angle to the story that’s kind of cute. And Gavin Stenhouse has some funny moments as Bennie the deputy. There’s also a special appearance by Will Wheaton in the opening scene that’s quite good. Just too bad he’s not in the film more. But this is probably the most star-studded edition of Into the Dark I’ve seen and I think it helped the film’s appeal for me. I thought the cast did great with the material and made POOKA LIVES! enjoyable.

Overall, POOKA LIVES! is probably the first Into the Dark installment I’ve watched in a while that I actually enjoyed. A sequel to the December 2018 installment POOKA!, POOKA LIVES! manages to be a fun slasher with relevant commentary on viral trends and challenges, cancel culture, business greed, and the struggles of growing up. The concept of creating a Creepypasta that gives Pooka life is great, justifying the return of the character in a canonical way and creating genuinely tense and suspenseful moments as Pooka stalks and slashes those he considers naughty. The cast, including Malcolm Barrett, Felicia Day, and Jonah Ray, help elevate the story and made the film an enjoyable watch. I do wish some of the slasher kills were done onscreen [most are done off due to budget reasons] and the ending is pretty flat and unsatisfactory. But I dug this installment more than I thought I would as it catered to my slasher needs for the most part. Definitely better than the first POOKA! and one of the better films in this Hulu series by a mile.






UNDERWATER (2020) - **1/2 out of ****

Directed By: William Eubank

Starring: Kristen Stewart, Vincent Cassel, Mamoudou Athie, T.J. Miller, John Gallagher Jr., Jessica Henwick

Genre: Horror/Science Fiction/Action/Thriller

Running Time: 95 Minutes


Plot: After an earthquake destroys their underwater station, six researchers must navigate two miles along the dangerous, unknown depths of the ocean floor to make it to safety in a race against time.



Review:
I couldn't tell you how many times I saw the trailer to 2020’s UNDERWATER every time I went to a theater last year. Going to a theater - good times those were. Anyway, I was intrigued by the look of the trailer, obviously knowing what the film was inspired by. But then I saw Kristen Stewart as the main focus, which lessened my want to see the film. While she’s good in some of her roles, I’ve never been a fan of her overall career and she’s not an actress whose projects I’d rush out to see. UNDERWATER eventually got released in early January, bombing at the box office despite surprisingly decent-to-positive reviews. Because of that, the film had remained on my radar because I’m a sucker for monster features involving the depths of the sea or ocean. Since I’m stuck in quarantine like most of you [I hope you guys are and are staying safe], I decided to say “f*ck it” and check out the film. It was one of the newer films I hadn’t seen yet and figured there was no better time. And while UNDERWATER is derivative and a reminder that I could have been watching a better film with a similar premise, the film held my attention for 95 minutes and entertained me. And Kristen Stewart didn’t bother me either. Is this quarantine life? Or is this just fantasy?

Like I mentioned, the concept for UNDERWATER has been done to death many times. It takes elements of 1979’s ALIEN, as well as late 80s films such as THE ABYSS, LEVIATHAN, DEEP STAR SIX and even 1995’s SPHERE. You have a bunch of crew members venturing to depths they’re trying to study, only to put themselves in danger and unknowingly being put up against some creature or monster that doesn’t appreciate their presence in their territory. It’s a narrative that usually never fails to work, as it’s simple to develop as a feature and could lead to some memorable moments and action. 

UNDERWATER is no different, as it focuses on the horror and sci-fi aspect rather than focusing on character building besides with what happens in the moment. The lack of developed characters hurts the film a bit, as we only really know three of the six characters well enough for us to care about them. Norah is tough, smart, and quick on her feet when it comes to saving herself and others from dangerous situations. She also lost her fiancé, making her decisions near the end make a lot of sense. But as the focus of the film, her character works because she’s completely pro-active and figures things out as she goes, rather than just sitting down for a half hour and talking about it. The captain of the team, Lucien, is also developed as well as possible. While Norah shows more leadership qualities than he does, he respects her for letting him call the shots as he’s well aware of what their underwater station is doing to the ocean and knows exactly where to go to find safety. He also lost a daughter, making him feel guilty when he loses co-workers along the way, making us empathize with his character a bit. The other developed character is Emily, who is the biologist of the crew. She’s extremely intelligent, but has no idea how to respond properly to events out of her control. When she doesn’t understand or figure something out on the spot, she panics and just fears for her life and the rest of the crew. She shows bravery as the film runs along, giving the character growth along the way. Unfortunately, the other three characters don’t get much of a spotlight. Paul is the comic relief who carries a stuffed bunny that gets passed around to different characters throughout the film. He’s not all that funny honestly, which didn’t help his case. Liam is Emily’s engineer boyfriend who is pretty much in peril in the last half of the film. And Rodrigo doesn’t get to do much at all. Unlike in other films with a similar premise, you don’t get to know all these people at all, making you wish they only focused on developed half of the characters instead. But you need a body count, so there you go.

William Eubank directs the film well enough. UNDERWATER has some great set design going for it, continually creating this claustrophobic feel throughout. Eubank has a good grasp on pacing, as the film breezes by since there’s always something going on visually, never leaving one bored. The cinematography by the awesome Bojan Bazelli looks great, capturing the interiors of each of the underwater stations beautifully. The in-water scenes had issues in terms of seeing what was going on, but it also created this realistic sense of not being able to see that clearly in those deep depths, which made whenever a creature appearing stand out more. Eubank knows how to build some nice tension and suspense, which makes you keep watching to see when something will pop out and feeling sort of satisfied by the results.

I do think some of the creature design was underdeveloped for the most part. I really dug the look of the Big Bad, which was clearly inspired by the look of the Lovecraftian Cthulhu. I thought that looked pretty cool. Unfortunately, the smaller creatures don’t have real distinguishing features that makes them stand out in water, as they just look like pale worm like things one would see in CLOVERFIELD or something. And there wasn’t enough of them doing bad things to the characters, which sort of defeated the purpose a bit. There are some cool moments of gore, especially with people exploding due to water pressure. But I wish it had gone further with the creatures than the film actually does. 

The acting is good for this particular kind of film. The only one who really gets to shine is, surprisingly, Kristen Stewart as the lead Norah. While the supporting actors get their chances to shine here and there, it’s Stewart who carries the film from beginning to end. And she does it really well, bringing a seriousness, toughness, and vulnerability to the role that reminded me of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in the first ALIEN movie. In fact, she even struts around a tank top and underwear like Weaver had done in that same film. But Stewart is the reason the film works because she totally believes in what she’s doing, so we believe with her. I thought both Vincent Cassell and Jessica Henwick has some nice acting moments, especially with Stewart, as well. For a small cast, the actors did what they could with what they were given.

Overall, UNDERWATER is a pleasant surprise. I honestly wasn’t expecting much from this after seeing the trailer multiple times back in 2019. And while derivative and generic in terms of its concept - you’re probably better off watching ALIEN, THE ABYSS, LEVIATHAN, THE DESCENT, etc. - UNDERWATER still manages to be a decent time due to its quick and action-filled pacing and good use of claustrophobia and tension. I’m a character development guy, so that brought things down for me. But some of the characters do things throughout the film that give you a sense of who they are in terms of personalities, so that’s better than nothing. The creature looks could have been developed better, as they mostly don’t have any distinguishing features about them besides their Cthulhu looking leader. The acting is solid for this big budgeted B-movie. Surprisingly for me, it’s Kristen Stewart who makes the film work as she carries it strongly from beginning to end with her tough, smart, and vulnerable performance as lead engineer of the underwater station Norah. She took the role seriously and I bought it. Not a must see film, but B-movie schlock fans ought to check it out if you enjoy underwater creature features that do more right than wrong.






THE DIVIDE (2011) - ** out of ****

Directed By: Xavier Gens

Starring: Lauren German, Michael Biehn, Milo Ventimiglia, Courtney B. Vance, Ashton Holmes, Rosanna Arquette, Ivan Gonzalez, Michael Eklund, Abbey Thickson, Jennifer Blanc

Genre: Science Fiction/Horror

Running Time: 122 Minutes


Plot: Survivors of a nuclear attack are grouped together for days in the basement of their apartment building, where fear and dwindling supplies wear away at their dynamic.


Review:
Usually after I watch a film, I have a sense of my feelings towards the complete product. It’s pretty clear why I enjoyed a movie. It’s also pretty clear why I didn’t. But sometimes, you watch something that has some good elements going for it, but it still leaves you pretty cold and unsure by the end of it. THE DIVIDE is one of those films.

My issue isn’t with the pretty typical post-apocalypse concept. The idea of having characters feeling isolated and stir-crazy inside of a bunker after something catastrophic in the outside world is nothing new. This type of story has been done many, many times before, capturing survivors as they devolve into animalistic ways in order to extend their life and maintain a level of sanity. Some of these survival horror films come with great commentary about society, politics, religion, and usually any topic that most of us can relate to in understanding the actions and beliefs of those characters we’re watching. Some of these films are actually quite captivating as it captures both the hope and hopelessness of the human spirit.

The concept, on its basic level, works because the idea of people hoarding cans of food and other necessities in a safe bunker in case of the apocalypse has always been a debate for decades. Some people consider these people ahead of the curve. Others see them as insane people who let their paranoia ruin their lives for something that may never come. Considering the world we’re living in today, I think the former is looking better than the latter. Having a safe shelter to stay in until things can get better after some terrible event is a part of human nature. Some people may take it too far, but I understand it.

I wish I could understand the characters in THE DIVIDE though. After a nuclear explosion that destroys New York, a man lets a bunch of people who live inside of his building to stay with him inside of a bunker until things get a bit more clear outside. The characters are all scared, but some are rational about maintaining hope. Others are a bit more confrontative about the situation, while the man with the bunker is pretty much laying out the rules to make sure his rations can last long enough until help comes along. Obviously, there are characters who always screw up this plan, driving the main narrative of the film.

That’s fine and all, but the characters and the way they behave doesn’t feel totally natural considering the amount of time they’ve been in the bunker. The first half of the film is probably the better half, as it sets up the situation, gets the audience in on who these character types are, and gives us a glimpse of what the outside world is up to while these people are trapped inside a single bunker together. There’s a sub-plot involving scientists in hazmat suits kidnapping a child inside of the bunker in order to experiment on her - I guess to see what her radiation levels were during the attack. It’s a great scene because something like this could actually happen and it’s genuinely tense and scary to see play out. And the characters decide to venture out of the bunker to save the little girl and see if they can survive outside of it. But once this sub-plot plays out, the characters quickly lose hope and don’t bother trying to figure out an exit strategy right away to maintain a level of sanity and logic. They don’t bother talking things out, rather screaming and trying to kill each other if one of them believes the other isn’t telling the whole truth. These people aren’t strangers to each other, so you’d think they’d have more faith in one another. But it’s kind of unbelievable when they’re already at each other’s throats without any justification as to why internally. 

It doesn’t help that the characters pretty much play their roles to a tee, not surprising the audience and straying away from the archetypes that they’re put in. The bullies get worse as bullies. The quiet ones get more quiet. The mother, who lost her daughter in the first act of the film, lets herself get raped and abused by two men for whatever reason. I mean, does she have a history with abuse? I have no idea. And of course, the Final Girl remains the least malleable of them all because she sees things for what they are. The devolution of the characters happens fairly quickly too, as if they don’t try to be better people in order to help each other survive. The radiation poisoning that occurs in the final half of the film may explain why some characters act as they do so quickly. But I doubt poisoning will bring out the non-existent abuser or rapist in me. The film doesn’t try to explain where this behavior comes from, which just makes it a really depressing watch overall. Hell, there are barely any scenes of them trying to find a television or a radio to find out what the hell is going on out there. It’s just oddly presented. Who am I supposed to root for here? Why should I care about any of these people when they’re all pretty much weak-minded or assholes?

While the narrative is lacking focus in terms of its purpose - unless the producers just wanted to depress its audience [Guess what… it worked!] - everything else about the film is a lot more positive. Xavier Gens, director of 2007’s FRONTIER(S) and HITMAN adaptation, probably directs his best visual film here. Gens seems to embrace the dread and bleakness of his stories, and he doesn’t fail in doing that here. The film uses very muted and earth colors to capture the depressing and hopeless situation the characters are going through, which works since the film mostly takes place inside of a bunker. The opening and closing shots of the outside world are the total opposite, using brightly saturated colors to capture a beautiful dystopian New York. Gens also brings some nice tense moments that sprinkled throughout, giving off a claustrophobic and anxiety-filled film that just gets more downbeat as it reaches its conclusion. The violence and abuse may be leaning a bit towards a “torture porn” aesthetic at times, but the disgusting and dirty feeling you get from these scenes are probably Gens’ intention to begin with. If I had one major gripe with the direction, it’s that the film is way too long for what it tries to accomplish. I actually checked the time multiple times during the film, amazed that the film only passed the 45 minute mark when I thought it was closer to twice that. This also doesn’t help the pacing or flow of the film, as certain scenes drag either to fill time or to create a shocking moment that’s more predictable than anything. Visually, it’s a fine film. But chopping off 30 minutes would have made THE DIVIDE an easier watch.

I did think the acting was pretty strong for the most part in this film. Lauren German is pretty quiet and almost non-existent at times during THE DIVIDE’s first half, but she makes her a decent Final Girl in the last half of the film. She has a presence on film, even if the material doesn’t really do her justice in terms of acting chops. More impressive are Michael Biehn, Milo Ventimiglia, Michael Eklund and Rosanna Arquette in their roles. Biehn steals the film anytime he’s on screen, easily portraying an angry and commanding presence as he spouts a lot of words that will trigger a lot of politically correct people. Biehn is believable as a man who is prepared for a dark future, using his xenophobia and anti-social nature as his base. Ventimiglia, best known for his work on television on Gilmore Girls, Heroes, and recently This Is Us, really surprised me with his acting here. He plays a jerk that slowly goes insane really convincingly, using a lot of great facial expressions and a strong body language performance that really worked for me. I did think his character lost himself way too quickly, but Ventimiglia was game for it all. Michael Eklund knows how to play crazy or creepy well, and here’s no exception. He’s getting it on with Arquette [both soft and later abusively rough] while grabbing Ventimiglia’s genitals and later crossdressing for whatever reason. Eklund loves his odd characters and he seems to be in his element here. And Arquette probably has the most emotional beats to play in the film - going from a protective mother, to a grieving mother who lost her daughter, to a nymphomaniac and then to an abused victim who is looking for a way out. The character goes through the ringer and Arquette keeps up with it every step of the way. It’s too bad her great performance, as well as the other strong performances, are in such a mediocre film.

Overall, THE DIVIDE is one of those films I’m not sure how I feel about it. It has some really strong performances [especially by Michael Biehn, Milo Ventimiglia, Michael Eklund and Rosanna Arquette], nicely bleak visuals by Xavier Gens and a familiar concept involving survivors in an underground bunker after a nuclear explosion that might be appealing to some. But the film has nothing really to say other than that people devolve and do terrible things when faced with no hope, depressing everyone watching it. The film is also two hours long, although it felt longer honestly. This film should have been a half hour shorter. I was originally going to give this film a slightly higher rating, but the more I thought about THE DIVIDE, the more I disliked it. If you’re looking for something entertaining and/or uplifting, this film is not for you. Otherwise, expect a really downbeat movie which I wouldn’t recommend in our current situation. Meh.





4.26.2020

Tourist Trap (1979)

DIRECTED BY
David Schmoeller

STARRING
Chuck Connors - Mr. Slausen
Jocelyn Jones - Molly
Jon Van Ness - Jerry
Robin Sherwood - Eileen
Tanya Roberts - Becky
Dawn Jeffory-Nelson - Tina
Keith McDermott - Woody

Genre - Horror/Slasher/Supernatural

Running Time - 90 Minutes


PLOT (from IMDB)
A group of young friends stranded at a secluded roadside museum are stalked by a masked assailant who uses his telekinetic powers to control the attraction’s mannequins.

REVIEW
I remember the days when you could go outside without a mask and gloves to go on a road trip with your best friends, only to go down the wrong road and encounter a super-powered masked killer who has a fetish for mannequins. Ah, good times, weren’t they? I guess if there is a positive for being in quarantine during a deadly coronavirus, it’s that you won’t be murdered by a dude wearing a doll mask. But back in 1979, this was entirely possible if TOURIST TRAP is any indication!

TOURIST TRAP is one of those underrated, forgotten horror films that has gained some cult popularity due to a successful blu-ray release and because of Shudder’s The Last Drive-In with Joe Bob Briggs where it was the first film to get the Joe Bob treatment during the show’s revival. The film was released in between two slasher giants - 1978’s HALLOWEEN and 1980’s FRIDAY THE 13TH, making it somewhat forgotten as an innovative slasher film that tried to combine as many genres as possible to create an interesting experience that elevates what is a generic script. The backwoods vibe is similar to 1974’s THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE. The mannequin museum, which is the killer’s secret lair, is reminiscent of 1953’s HOUSE OF WAX. The killer’s mask is a combination of both Leatherface and The Shape. And the killer even possesses the power of the telekinesis like the title character in 1976’s CARRIE. And even when you think that’s a whole lot of going on in one movie, TOURIST TRAP sometimes doesn’t have anything really going on during its short runtime. So even after all this, how does the film still kind of work?

A lot of that has to do with David Schmoeller’s direction. Schmoeller, probably best known for his work on 1982’s THE SEDUCTION and 1989’s first PUPPET MASTER movie, elevates a pretty generic story by infusing the visual presentation with so much mood and atmosphere, it makes you never see a mannequin the same way again. No Starship or Kim Catrall pleasantness here, as these mannequins are things of nightmares. With the use of the killer’s telekinetic power, the mannequins move on their own. Sometimes it’s just the eyes. Sometimes it’s their whole body, shot in medium shots or close-ups to really take up much of the screen to appear as creepy as possible. Yes, sometimes you can see strings pulling the mannequin movements. But Schmoeller makes it look as smooth as possible, creating a vibe not many horror films can capture. Considering this was his first feature film as a director and learned a lot about filmmaking through the process of making TOURIST TRAP, he did a nice job bringing the story to life.

The film is also shot with a lot of natural light or dim bulb light to create a large amount of shadows. While the mannequin museum looks cool, it’s lit like a nightmare that’s waiting to happen. I also think the grittiness of the film stock helps the film, as it doesn’t look polished and gives off a more raw vibe that a lot of films of the era captured really well. It never feels or looks safe, making you glad you’re not one of the characters dealing with this drama in this kind of environment. It’s one of those horror films that is better watching with as many lights off as possible.

I also think the set design is directed well, as the museum feels like a maze at times with multiple rooms waiting to scare and harm the characters. It gives the film a claustrophobic vibe for much of the movie, even when the characters are able to escape outdoors to the woods. Considering it was mostly done by TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE set designer Robert A. Burns, it would make sense for TOURIST TRAP to capture a similar sinister feeling as the Tobe Hooper classic.

And the musical score by the great Pino Donaggio compliments the film greatly. Just like his many works on multiple Brian de Palma films, Donaggio captures the essence of TOURIST TRAP. There is some nice whimsical music at the start, which slowly sounds more evil and sinister as the film slowly moves towards its conclusion. The mannequin score, in particular, can be chilling at times, adding to the visual effect. This is a film many probably would think doesn’t deserve quite a wonderful Donaggio score, but I’m glad it’s here. It definitely elevates the film.

As for the story itself, it’s pretty much THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE but with less cannibals, less chainsaw murder, and more creepy mannequins. The main protagonists, besides the lead character Molly, are all pretty interchangeable to be honest. But Molly is an interesting character study of a woman who seems a bit more prudish and nerdy compared to her more bombshell friends, seemingly looking for a place to belong. While her friends do appreciate her and enjoy having her around, Molly easily gravitates to the mannequin museum, almost feeling a kinship to these inanimate objects. She also strikes an easy rapport with museum owner Slausen, who gives her the most attention and preening out of the entire group. He treats her like a person, which is ironic considering what’s really going on with his family in that museum. Both characters appear to be tragic figures - Molly for maybe feeling inadequate in her group of friends, while Slausen has lost his wife and brother and only keeps company with mannequins ever since. I do wish the film had done more with this connection between the characters, but it’s obviously hinted at and easy to see.

The other characters have their moments, but are just there really to add to the body count of the film. Some are taking out pretty early into the film, while others are more proactive and manage to fight off the killer before bad things happen to them. They are your standard slasher film archetypes, with their specific personalities in tact. The good thing is that none of them are annoying enough to want the killer to get them, which makes TOURIST TRAP an easier film to digest.

As for the masked killer, I like the sense of mystery behind his or her’s identity - even though it’ll be very obvious who it is if you’ve seen enough of these films. But I liked how goofy and childlike he behaves at times, playing with his victims and enjoying scaring them. If you’ve seen HOUSE OF WAX, you can pretty much guess who some of the mannequins are. So the killer’s process of turning helpless people into his inanimate slaves is quite amusing, as the killer explains how and why they do it while almost getting off on it in a joking manner. The killer definitely has a Leatherface vibe going for them, but he’s more of a chatterer which erases a lot of the terror they should be bringing. But they are an interesting slasher villain with an interesting ability that’s never really explained until the last few minutes of the film.

Besides all that, TOURIST TRAP is your typical slasher narrative through and through. Besides maybe the telekinesis stuff, there’s nothing really original about this film, even for 1979. None of these characters will gain iconic status or anything like that, but they do the job to keep one entertained for 90 minutes. It’s a thin story that doesn’t match the depth that the more iconic slasher films have to keep them timeless. There’s something really special about this film, but it never rounds the bases to really stand out from the rest.

The acting in the film is fine, but nothing that will wow anyone. The two big names here are Chuck Connors and Tanya Roberts. Connors, a professional athlete who is probably best known for his run as The Rifleman on television, plays the museum owner Slausen. He plays the role as both innocent and charming, with just a touch of mystery and sinister underneath. Connors seems to be having a ton of fun playing the role, chewing on the scenery when he can, while elevating the material by making us care about his character. It had been a while since I watched TOURIST TRAP, but I remembered liking the film mainly for his portrayal. That sentiment hasn’t changed, as he’s pretty great here. Tanya Roberts - best known for many projects such as Charlie’s Angels, THE BEASTMASTER, A VIEW TO A KILL, and That 70’s Show - plays Becky, the curious and caring girlfriend of one of the male characters. She’s a beautiful woman and makes her character likable. But other than that, there’s not much to her performance here. She plays scared well, so she does her job. The only young actor who gets a character arc is Jocelyn Jones as Molly, who plays a more bookish Sally Hardesty [from THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE] here. She has a nice rapport with Connors and gets to do some fun stuff in the film’s last act. Apparently, she helped director Schmoeller direct the other actors properly, helping him gain what he wanted out of them in the final cut of the film. That’s probably more important than her acting performance here, but she does well with what she’s given.

THE FINAL HOWL
TOURIST TRAP is one of those horror films that takes a lot of elements from better movies to create something generic and disposable. Yet, there’s a certain charm about it that elevates the viewing experience enough to make it a good and entertaining watch. The story is thin as hell and the characters are stock characters you’ll see in most slasher films. But David Schmoeller’s direction adds a lot to the narrative by infusing the film with a very creepy mood and a bleak atmosphere, elevated by Pino Donnagio’s sinister musical score. The use of creepy mannequins to haunt the characters, as well as a playfully demented killer, will appeal to those who want something more mean-spirited and creepy with their horror. The acting, especially by Chuck Connors and Jocelyn Jones, add some needed depth to the thin script by giving the audience characters to root and cheer for. TOURIST TRAP shouldn’t really work as well as it does, making it somewhat an underrated little slasher film that will probably be enjoyed by horror fans who haven’t given it a chance yet.


THE FINAL HOWL
3 Howls Outta 4


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