8.09.2020

[Animal Summer 2020] Roar (1981)

DIRECTED BY
Noel Marshall

STARRING
Noel Marshall - Hank
Tippi Hedren - Madeleine 
Melanie Griffith - Melanie
John Marshall - John
Jerry Marshall - Jerry
Kayla Mativo - Mativo

Genre - Family/Horror/Thriller/Adventure/Bad Animals

Running Time - 102 Minutes


For the last few years, there has been one film I’ve been wanting to review during Animal Summer. That film is 1981’s ROAR - a film so notorious that I didn’t believe the hype until I finally sat down and watched it a few days ago.  ROAR is a film that’s not easy to review since it’s really just a movie where a bunch of animals [mainly big cats like lions] scare the actors and attack them as naturally as they can since they’re not trained professionals. This film isn’t a film you watch for it’s technical and storytelling aspects. This is an experience that must be seen, with a behind-the-scenes story that’s more interesting than what was put on screen. How the hell ROAR was even made and given the chance to see the light of day is a question many who have watched it still ask to this day.

PLOT (from IMDB)
A naturalist (Noel Marshall) living with big cats in East Africa expects a visit by his family of four from Chicago. A mix-up leaves him searching for his family, who have been left in the clutches of wild lions.

REVIEW
Before 2020’s phenomenon over the lunacy that was Netflix’s Tiger King, we had 1981’s ROAR. Like I mentioned previously, trying to review this as an actual movie isn’t really possible, or the point for that matter. While there is a story, it’s so basic that it’s not worth even mentioning. I mean, the film even forgets about it for 85 percent of the time. The direction is just someone filming people getting scared and mauled by lions, to the point where you start to wonder if Noel Marshall was developing his own snuff film here. And the “acting”… I mean, how else is one going to act when a hungry lion is swiping their big paws at them at all sides? These people were scared and nervous to death and it’s plain to see on film.

What makes ROAR still so appealing is the gall everyone involved had in thinking this was a good idea in execution. For those unaware, filmmaker Noel Marshall and actress Tippi Hedren [famously of THE BIRDS] were married and actually lived with a bunch of wild cats after they were inspired by a game warden [who also lived with big game cats] on a safari. Along with their children, Marshall and Hedren would collect felines they felt were being mistreated at zoos, as well as breeding new cats in order to live this game warden’s life for whatever reason. Thinking it would be cool to document this life, Marshall and Hedren created ROAR - a film that pretty much took eleven years to complete due to funding issues [gee, I wonder why?]. While the idea of a loose documentary/thriller about living with lions, tigers and panthers isn’t a bad one, it didn’t help that nobody in the family had any idea how to train or even raise these wild animals without fearing that someone would get hurt, or even possibly get killed, while cohabiting with these beasts. It was just normal life for the family, as they slept with lions and played with them as if they were house pets. 

Even though the film was obvious staged to create this family adventure film with wild cats, behind the actors’ fears is a lot of affection for these animals. After all, these pets were a major part of their lives and they just wanted to capture genuine scenes of emotion and thrills to entertain mainstream audiences. Even the animals, themselves, seem to understand they’re in a film and act accordingly, even showing to be playful and affectionate towards the humans. But wild animals are just that - wild, unpredictable, and most importantly dangerous. Without personnel who could control these cats, you knew bad things would happen. 

While no one shockingly died behind-the-scenes, the amount of injuries between the crew and even the cast themselves, is probably unheard of for any other film in history. Seventy people suffered filming ROAR - and you can see some of the brutality onscreen. Melanie Griffith, in one of the most nail-biting moments in the film, actually gets mauled by a lion as it clawed her face. The damage was so bad, she had to get facial reconstructive surgery. If I hadn’t known that, I would have never guessed since she still looked pretty much fine after ROAR, having a very successful career as an actress and a model. The richer you are, the better the doctors apparently.

Future SPEED and TWISTER director, Jan De Bont, took a job as cinematographer of ROAR. He’s the reason why the film looks pretty damn good. Unfortunately during production, De Bont had a terrifying encounter with the animals, leaving him scalped to the point where he required over 200 stitches to reattach his scalp back to his skull. And the dude still returned to the set and finished the movie! Give this man all the awards… and some therapy to help with his obvious insanity and trauma!

Lead actors and then-married couple, Noel Marshall and Tippi Hedren, had such bad experiences on the set that parts of their body were attacked by the animals. This led to infections that gangrened, requiring immediate hospitalization. Marshall’s infection came from an early scene where lions bit his hand all the way through, infecting his entire arm. He also got dragged down the stairs by the leg at one point - also eventually getting infected. Hedren’s infection was courtesy of a broken ankle when a pissed off elephant grabbed her foot with its trunk. You can actually see the moment where the elephant breaks the ankle on the film, which is wild.

Other crew members suffered similar fates due to the uncontrollable environment, including some bitten with almost fatal puncture wounds. One person even lost their ear because of filming. The main issue is that ROAR was a non-unionized project, meaning there were no mandatory protocols for safety or animal handling on the set. The crew kept changing because they were able to quit without hurting their careers. And without a script to follow due to the untrained animals, no one really got a sense on where things began and where things ended. And you can tell by watching the final product.

The lack of an union also, unfortunately, led to some of the animals getting hurt or even killed during filming. The film claims that no animals were harmed, but it’s been pretty much documented that at least three of the lions, including one of the credited ones [Robbie], was shot by the local sheriff’s department since they were considered dangerous. I also believe that there was also a flood during filming, which caused some of the lions to flee into the wild to who knows where. It’s really tragic, considering that this film shouldn’t have been made period and these lions should have been handled better. You’d think the Humane Society or some animal organization would have put a stop to this back in 1981, but i guess not.

And of course, the main casualty for the actors/family involved was the divorce between Marshall and Hedren because of ROAR. Hedren, realizing that her daughter was almost killed by lions, realized that she couldn’t put her in any more danger and wanted out of the marriage. Considering Marshall did everything in his power to finance ROAR through money from being part of the crew for THE EXORCIST, making deals with foreign investors who backed out when they realized what the money were being used for, and outside jobs, being married to a man who had no issue putting his wife, two sons, and step-daughter in real danger was probably not the best idea. And since ROAR bombed at the box office and wasn’t officially released to home video until a few years ago, it probably wasn’t really worth the drama. What a mess.

I guess the good news coming out of all this is that people can finally see what the hype was all about and experience ROAR for themselves. And Hedren, realizing the trouble she had been a part of making ROAR, decided to dedicate the rest of her life creating a preserve where the surviving animals [as well as new ones] could be protected and loved in a safe environment. I believe she still owns the animal preserve and makes sure nothing like ROAR ever happens again. Hedren also didn’t murder her husband, which is something I can’t surely say about other people who preserve big, wild cats. But that’s another story for another time.

THE FINAL HOWL
What can be said about ROAR? It’s not much of a film in terms of a narrative or anything technically special. The film has no real story, no real style, and the acting isn’t even acting - unless you consider actors trying to survive wild lions “acting”. But the film is an experience and a half, especially when you research the behind-the-scenes fiasco for multiple years that led to ROAR’s existence. As someone who has anxiety issues, watching real animals swipe, slash and bite scared and nervous actors didn’t help, as the film is filled with constant tension knowing actual danger is playing on my screen. And that’s the real reason to watch ROAR - it’s a car crash you can’t look away from. For those who enjoyed this year’s Tiger King on Netflix, ROAR will definitely be up your alley. And watch any documentary or behind-the-scenes videos because they’ll only add to the viewing experience. ROAR is a mess, but a captivating one that fans of the genre should watch at least once. 


SCORE
3 Howls Outta 4


8.02.2020

Into the Dark: Culture Shock (2019)

DIRECTED BY
Gigi Saul Guerrero

STARRING
Martha Higareda - Marisol
Richard Cabral - Santo
Barbara Crampton - Betty
Felipe de Lara - Oscar Molina
Creed Bratton - Attwood
Shawn Ashmore - Thomas

Genre: Horror/Thriller/Science Fiction

Running Time: 91 Minutes


PLOT
This thriller follows a young Mexican woman (Martha Higareda) in pursuit of the American Dream, who crosses illegally into the United States, only to find herself in an American nightmare.

REVIEW
Since I'm pretty much ending the Lunar Cycle posts for the time being, I figured it was time that even the Hulu Into the Dark reviews would get their own posts. And besides the post for GOOD BOY, which was an Animal Summer 2020 themed review to begin with, I’m kind of glad that CULTURE SHOCK gets its own spotlight since I consider it the best Into the Dark installment that I’ve watched so far since I started last October. Is it perfect? No. But it does have something important to say, even if it loses it’s way somewhat by the film’s end.

CULTURE SHOCK is one of the more relevant entries in the anthology’s history so far, as it deals with xenophobia, illegal immigration, and a look at the American Dream and how real it is to achieve it. I know a lot of people are tired of politics and how it has divided a lot of us unfortunately, but it’s still a topic that should be discussed if done in the proper, open-minded way. The last few years, especially, have put a spotlight on the immigration debate and what’s the right way to handle the situation. 

So I appreciated CULTURE SHOCK in tackling the topic from an immigrant’s point of view. While not a horror film in terms of jump scares, I’m sure it’s a terrifying situation for anyone put in that position, wondering if America will help them achieve their dreams or just disillusion them to the point where regrets will be felt. The film takes the topic and approaches it as a STEPFORD WIVES and GET OUT sort of tale, taking away one’s former identity and culture and turning it into the “American Way” where people have to act a certain and dress a certain way in order to fit in. The world of CULTURE SHOCK tells us that the American Dream is one of conformity, where one misstep will give you the wrong kind of attention and make you feel treated as an outcast. We live our lives in a pattern. We wake up, drink coffee, go to work. come home, eat dinner, watch television and then go to sleep to repeat the cycle all over again. Only those who break that rhythm manage to get ahead of the others. But only the white folk in this movie seem to have the power, with jobs in politics and education, while the illegal immigrants are the workers who build the towns and help set up the Fourth of July celebration. The main character, Marisol, realizes that her old life in Mexico would grant her the same opportunities that it would in America. She’s the only character who sees the class and color difference in this American utopia created for the film. That’s makes her a threat to be eliminated.

I think the best part of CULTURE SHOCK is that it doesn’t let the political angle overshadow the story itself. Yes, it’s the driving force of the film, but the filmmakers never hammer you in the head with it. The film is subtle and slowly unveils the message and what’s really going on with Marisol and the rest of the Mexicans who were captured at the border who are suddenly acting like pod people. It takes that common idea of people thinking immigrants needing to learn the language and embracing the new culture and norms of the country they’ve tried so hard to enter into, wondering what the point is if they don’t bother. We watch this PLEASANTVILLE scenario where people have assimilated by dressing the same, greeting each other the same, and even eating pizza and hamburgers like gluttons the same. Instead of freedom, it just feels like a programmed assembly line of what some believe America to be. It’s so manufactured, it’s accepted because it’s the easiest way to conform with the least drama.

And it wouldn’t be an Into the Dark feature without some sort of horror/sci-fi tinged aspect. There’s a reason why all these immigrants are all acting the same way, as they’re stuck in an experimental simulation in some underground bunker at the U.S.-Mexico border by a xenophobic scientist believing he’s solving the issue of illegal immigration. So there are moments where it feels like GROUNDHOG DAY, where days repeat for Marisol with different scenarios playing out depending on what she does. And we see occasional glitches and even a force field that makes Marisol realize she’s living in a bubble rather than the real world. It shows that even when a world is perfect [maybe too perfect], there’s still something missing. A lot of people believe that style is everything, but a lot of us prefer to have that substance along with it. The American Dream is a great idea, but if you have to act like everyone else to achieve it, is it worth it?

The film isn’t perfect though. While the first act is interesting with its setup to leave Mexico for a better life in America at the border and the second act is inviting with its false Americana portrayal, the more science fiction third act doesn’t feel as thrilling or as satisfying as it should really. The escape from the lab seems a bit too easy, as it feels clumsy and a bit forced because Into the Dark is a horror anthology and horror aspects need to be implemented to fit the series. It’s definitely ambitious though, with some decent action and character moments. And I really liked the last couple of minutes of CULTURE SHOCK. But considering what Marisol and the others went through, I was expecting more of a punch. It’s fine for what it is, but the first two acts are so strong, the final act kind of pales in comparison and feels old-hat. I found the political stuff more interesting than the horror aspect, but maybe someone else will feel differently.

What doesn’t feel old-hat is Gigi Saul Guerrero’s direction. As a co-screenwriter for the film, Guerrero knows actually where she wants to take CULTURE SHOCK, expressing her opinion of the whole immigration and American Dream issues that have taken over society for the last few years in a big way. Her direction is very confident and very subtle as well, never showing off too much to be flashy, but leading the audience in a visual direction that feels natural and captivating enough to keep us invested. 

I think what I liked the most about Guerrero’s direction is how each act looks and feels different from the other. The first act in Mexico has this sepia tone that shows how drab Marisol believes her life there is. It’s also shot hand-held style, which added a bit of grittiness to this part of the film, which added to the tense situation of hiring people to help Marisol out of the country and towards the border where the characters not only have to deal with Border Police, but the Mexican Cartel as well messing things up for them. The second act is the more Technicolor portion of Marisol’s “American Dream”, with bright colors and this creepy characterization of what Apple Pie America was portrayed for many decades in the media until the late 1960s changed all that. Instead of being hand-held, the shots are all static and filmed like an old TV family sitcom. The third act is back to the hand-held, gritty style but with a splash of color here and there. It also has some decent gore moments with people getting stabbed to death and even a bullet to the head moment. It’s also shot with a quicker pace to accentuate the tension of the lab escape and having the characters decide whether going to America is still the plan or not. I definitely want to see more of Guerrero’s stuff because she definitely has a vision and a voice that we could use more in any genre.

The acting is really great as well - probably the best acting I’ve seen in the first season of Into the Dark. Martha Higareda carries the film with super confidence as Marisol, our eyes and ears to this whole ordeal.  She plays every emotional beat naturally and believably. Marisol deals with a lot of traumatic stuff during the entire film and Higareda handles it really well. She also has this strength from the start that just grows. It’s really nice to see and it helps us root for her. It helps that she’s aided by a wonderful supporting cast - including horror legend Barbara Crampton playing a Stepford Wife type with cold, stunning eyes, Shawn Ashmore playing the Mayor of the American utopia with an underlying edge that slowly gets revealed and American Crime’s Richard Cabral as a bad boy immigrant who befriends Marisol and helps her to escape the entire situation. All actors are committed and I bought the entire thing.

THE FINAL HOWL
I’ve been kind of on a roll with these Into the Dark installments lately, as CULTURE SHOCK may be the best of the lot that I’ve seen so far. While more of a political allegory than a standard horror/sci-fi movie, the themes presented here about illegal immigration, and this idea of the “American Dream” and how it may not be achievable by everyone who lives in America, are presented in a subtle, interesting way that had me invested from beginning to end. The use of taking elements from other films, like PLEASANTVILLE, GET OUT and THE STEPFORD WIVES, adds to this theme that sometimes a dream is just that and reality hits us in the face so hard that we start to realize that things aren’t usually what they seem at all. And CULTURE SHOCK works that well, thanks to director and co-writer Gigi Saul Guerrero’s voice and vision. The actors - especially Martha Higareda, Barbara Crampton, Shawn Ashmore and Richard Cabral - carry the film strongly on their shoulders and help elevate a controversial theme and make it accessible and understandable to those on both sides of the issue. The final act brings the film down a bit due to the horror and science fiction aspects feeling a bit forced [it’s an Into the Dark installment, after all]. But overall, CULTURE SHOCK is a really good socio-political thriller that has something to say for an audience with a hopefully open mind.


SCORE
3 Howls Outta 4


7.29.2020

[Animal Summer 2020] Into the Dark: Good Boy (2020)


DIRECTED BY
Tyler MacIntyre

STARRING
Judy Greer - Maggie
Ellen Wong - Annie
McKinley Freeman - Nate
Steve Guttenberg - Don
Elise Neal - Dr. Linda Johnson
Maria Conchita Alonso - Bea
Travis Schuldt - Nick

Genre: Horror/Thriller/Comedy/Bad Animals

Running Time: 89 Minutes


PLOT
When Maggie gets an emotional support dog to help quell some of her anxiety, she finds him to be even more effective than she imagined… because unbeknownst to her, he kills anyone who added stress to her life.

REVIEW
Due to lack of motivation last month, I didn’t get a chance to watch and review the June 2020 edition of Hulu’s Into the Dark series titled GOOD BOY - a film celebrating International Pet Day and starring some familiar faces that probably make this the most high profile Into the Dark installment so far. Starring and executively produced by the fantastic Judy Greer, GOOD BOY surprised me by being one of the best Into the Dark episodes and giving me hope that the series still has a lot of juice left.

GOOD BOY is more of a comedy than a horror film, although it does have a small, cute dog transforming into a bigger, vicious dog who murders anyone stressing out its owner. And I think having the film focus less on giving the audience cheap horror tropes and more on the funny character moments actually helps the film in terms of its presentation. GOOD BOY excels in giving us a main character with a lot of depth going for her. Maggie is a single, middle-aged woman who freezes her eggs hoping she’ll eventually have children someday in her life. She’s a journalist who isn’t given enough respect for her work, demoted to a part-time gig while she has to work as a barista on the side to pay the bills. Her landlord is a hard-ass, the men she meets on dating apps are creeps, and feels like her life is passing her by as she sees how all her friends are advancing in their lives both professionally and personally. It’s when she adopts Reuben, her dog, that she seems to find support and purpose for the first time in a long time. And when Maggie realizes that her dog protects her more than a dog should probably do, she struggles with her appreciation for Reuben against her morals and ethics.

Maggie feels like a real person from the start, due to Judy Greer’s wonderful performance. We sympathize with her personal problems, root for her when things start falling her way both in friendship and in love, and kind of side with her some of the time when she would rather cover up the bodies than turn Reuben in because of what he has provided for her in a time of need. She’s a flawed character, but GOOD BOY has this strange way of justifying her bad actions. In a time of uncertainty due to our political and social climate, as well as a pandemic that grows more out of control by the day, who wouldn’t want to protect those who bring us happiness and support regardless of their evil actions? A lot of us don’t want to deal with more drama than we have to, so I can see many supporting a character who hides the evidence to protect the one animal that understands her and protecting her emotional state. And the film does well in slowly building a relationship between the two characters that makes it easy to understand why one would protect the other and vice-versa.

While I like the characters and the situations presented that gave justification for Reuben’s actions, I thought the film’s final act didn’t really climax in a satisfying way. The first two acts of GOOD BOY have a lot of momentum, energy, and fun going for it. It’s fluffy and cute and you feel like it’s building to something memorable. However, the third act is more focused on the horror aspect and cover up for Reuben’s actions, leading to a predictable conclusion that I wish took more risks. The tone also changes within the third act, making a fun movie feel colder and darker than it ought to, considering what came before it was anything but. It’s as if they remembered this was an Into the Dark film and it needed to match the other installments in the series.

The visual presentation is good. Director Tyler MacIntyre, who brought us 2017’s TRAGEDY GIRLS, brings us a colorful, energetic film that has no issue embracing the silly premise and comedy for much of its run time until the tonal change in the final act. The film flows really well and goes by at a quick pace, making GOOD BOY an easy watch. There’s nothing really visually stylish about the film, but it’s shot well and shots around the death scenes better than expected, considering the budget limitations. A lot of the aftermath moments of Rueben’s rampage are pretty gnarly and bloodier than I was expected, including mutilated corpses and the dog eating fingers more than once. The CGI is a bit iffy though, especially when Rueben transforms into a larger creature to attack his victims. I mean, I would have loved to have seen Reuben do his thing on-screen without these moments either happening off-screen or in shadow. But what can you do? I think MacIntyre did the best he could with what he was given.

The acting is really great, with Judy Greer carrying GOOD BOY easily on her shoulders. She’s honestly the reason to watch, as I always found her onscreen presence enjoyable and welcoming. It’s nice to see her as a lead for once in a project, as she’s usually a supporting player. She’s really likable and hits every emotional beat believably. Great comic timing too. The rest of the cast includes G.L.O.W.’s Ellen Wong, Maria Conchita Alonzo and Steve Guttenberg - all very good in their supporting roles. I also liked McKinley Freeman as Greer’s detective love interest. A really solid cast that elevated a predictable premise by giving it more flavor than it probably deserved.

THE FINAL HOWL
GOOD BOY is one of those rare Into the Dark installments that I would recommend to anyone interested in the series, as it’s actually pretty good and does more right than wrong. Judy Greer elevates the predictable material with her charismatic and comic performance, helped by a script that gives her character some depth to play around with and make her sympathetic for the most part. The script handles the comedy aspect [which made me genuinely laugh a few times] better than the horror aspect, especially in the first two acts that are nothing but fun and energetic to watch. Director Tyler MacIntyre does what he can with the budget limitations, creating a colorful and well paced film with some dodgy CGI and camera tricks to hide the onscreen violence, only sharing the sometimes gruesome aftermath. And besides Greer, the supporting actors - especially Ellen Wong and Steve Guttenberg - are wonderful as well. I wish the final act was better tonally and creatively, as it doesn’t really match the build created by the first two acts. But for an Into the Dark film, I was surprised by how much I dug this. There’s hope for this series yet if they continue on this track. More of this, please Hulu!


SCORE
3 Howls Outta 4



7.18.2020

[Animal Summer 2020] Crawl (2019)

DIRECTED BY
Alexandre Aja

STARRING
Kaya Scodelario - Haley Keller
Barry Pepper - Dave Keller
Morfydd Clark - Beth Keller
Ross Anderson - Wayne Taylor
Jose Palma - Pete

Genre - Horror/Natural Disasters/Bad Animals

Running Time - 87 Minutes


With all the negativity going on in the world in the decade known as 2020, I figured I would bring back a feature that was popular a couple of years back - ANIMAL SUMMER. Yes, it’s always been a personal tradition of mine to watch animals running amok on film during the summertime, regardless of how silly these films can be. And right now, silliness of good or bad quality would be helpful to my mental health right now.

First up on the list this year - 2019’s CRAWL. CRAWL is a film I wanted to check out last year when it was released in theaters. It looked like your typical SyFy creature feature but with a much bigger budget. It also had the awesome Alexandre Aja, a director whose profile should be higher in the genre, as well as having Sam Raimi as a producer. As much as I had wanted to see CRAWL last year, I figured it was one of those films probably better waiting for at home, since no one else wanted to see it with me and figured it wouldn’t be worth the $16 for a barely 90-minute movie. Luckily, the film hit Amazon Prime in the United States, finally giving me the chance to check it out. And while the film isn’t perfect, CRAWL is definitely 87 minutes of alligator fun.

PLOT (from IMDB)
Against all logic, the competitive swimmer, Haley (Kacy Scodelario), drives into the mouth of a furiously destructive Category 5 hurricane on a collision course with her hometown of Florida, to check in on her estranged father, Dave (Barry Pepper). There, in their weather-beaten house amid a rapidly sinking and alligator-infested town, Haley and her father find themselves trapped in the labyrinthine mess of their flooded crawl space, where a merciless pair of six-meter predators is silently stalking them. Now - as Haley and Dave are gasping for air in the claustrophobic basement - only their will to survive can help them stand a chance against the scaly adversaries’ powerful jaws. Can they escape without getting eaten alive?

REVIEW
While it’s great to watch the terrible goofiness of most of SyFy’s B-movie catalog, it’s nice to see a B-movie with a good story, good special effects and solid acting like CRAWL. While it’s probably scary for some to see concepts like SHARKNADO, ZOMBEAVERS, and a MEGA SHARK VERSUS GIANT OCTOPUS fight becoming trending topics within the last few years, CRAWL tries to ground things a bit with a massive Florida hurricane, alligators and looters. And at the heart of the film is a drama between an estranged father and daughter trying to mend fences in order to work together for survival. Sure, it’s there for convenience sake for certain plot devices to work along the way. But it’s nice to see a B-movie actually have a narrative relatable enough for us to care about besides the creature feature action that’s catering to a popcorn audience.

CRAWL’s simple narrative is both a good and a bad thing. The family dynamic is obviously contrived and a trope. Haley doesn’t have a close relationship with her father Dave due to his divorce with her mother that she blames herself for, due to feeling that Dave focused too much on making her a swimming champion which took time away from the marriage. Haley feels that Dave is more of a coach than a dad, which has strained her relationship. It all feels a bit too cliche, and it doesn’t add much depth to either of them beyond “unmotivated, insecure swimming star” who must build herself back up and her “hard-ass, overbearing deadbeat coach-dad”. I guess with all the chaos happening around them, deep characters aren’t necessary. But a lot of work went into creating this relationship through flashbacks and constant discussions about why things went so bad with their family. With two main characters, you might have as well gone all the way with it.

There are also bits where Haley has a estranged relationship with her sister as well, although the sister is just there as a plot device to introduce Dave. And since the film is so focused on Haley and Dave’s dynamic, other characters barely get any time to shine. This includes a trio of looters and a pair of officers - one being Haley’s ex-boyfriend who doesn’t add as much as you’d expect considering their connection. So while the focus on two main characters [and their dog] fuels the drama, it would have been nice if these other players would have had a bigger role and created more drama and tension for our leads.

That being said, CRAWL is more focused on the tension and suspense of the situation. The hurricane backdrop, especially in a state like Florida, is an easy way for an audience to relate to the danger of the situation. Hurricanes are no joke, especially a Category 5. Watching a character reluctantly drive through dangerous rain and winds to make sure a father she barely speaks to is okay not only makes Haley likable, but it adds to the perilous nature of the story when she finds Dave’s home trashed and flooded, with Dave stuck inside a crawlspace stubbornly needing help. A hurricane is bad enough, considering how unpredictable natural disasters are. But then you add in the creatures of the film - a pair of hungry alligators who are looking to take advantage of a bad situation to feed their bellies. CRAWL incredibly succeeds in creating action-filled atmosphere as Haley and Dave have to elude these alligators just to reach the roof of Dave’s home so they can be saved by the National Guard. It’s bad enough they have to outsmart these predators, but it’s made worse during a massive hurricane. 

Because of the simplicity of the character narrative, CRAWL is allowed to be a B-movie “animals run amok” flick that’s more grounded than your usual modern fare. Haley has to save herself and her father from a pair of alligators playing a cat-and-mouse game. When they think they outsmart these gators, the animals surprise them along the way, doing more damage than you’d expect to these characters considering they’re the leads. The flashbacks of Haley’s swimming training from her father pop up every few minutes to remind us how the two will probably escape this threat. Like I said, it’s all convenience, but it’s not totally a bad thing. The other characters are nothing but food for these alligators, adding to a decent body count and missing body parts to please horror fans. And I really enjoyed that CRAWL took a somewhat realistic take with the gators, not making them overpowered or supernatural. They are just doing what nature intends them to do, and these poor humans are in the wrong place at the wrong time. I’m sure the portrayal of the alligators aren’t completely fact, but it works considering the scenario.

It’s nice to see Alexandre Aja back directing a horror film. He’s one of the few modern horror directors who gets it and always manages to inject fun and humor to his work, so audiences can just enjoy what they’re watching without thinking about things too much. Regardless of what one thinks of the actual films he directed [HAUTE TENSION, 2006’s THE HILLS HAVE EYES, MIRRORS, 2010’s PIRANHA 3D], no one can say that his visual work and style weren’t the highlights of each of those films. CRAWL is a much simpler affair in terms of Aja’s work, as it’s a much more straightforward “killer animal” flick that quickly gets to the point. At a brisk 87 minutes, Aja gets to the point of the matter by thrusting the audience into this hurricane, while slowly revealing that alligators are terrorizing our characters. The film looks great, with a believable picture of a hurricane ravishing a town with realistic rain, floods, and collateral damage. The alligators are CGI, but it’s some of the best CGI I’ve seen in a film like this, as they look and move close to realistically than I would have ever believed. The film doesn’t have as much gore or death scenes as one would expect. In fact, a lot of the deaths happen underneath the water and we don’t really see much besides some loose limbs, bite attacks and blood coloring the water. I appreciate that Aja wanted to class up the joint, but a bit more bloodshed wouldn’t have been too bad. And the best part is that CRAWL flows well, has a quick pace, and doesn’t leave you feeling bored. I’m glad Aja is back behind-the-lens and I hope he continues to do more stuff in the future since CRAWL did pretty well at the box office.

With only two main actors in CRAWL, the film is pretty much carried by Kaya Scodelario and Barry Pepper. Scodelario, of THE MAZE RUNNER fame, is really great as Haley. She’s smart, tough, and is totally committed to the role. I thought she and Pepper had nice father-and-daughter chemistry as well. Speaking of Barry Pepper, he’s also solid as Dave. Gruff and guilt-ridden, he brings out a lot of vulnerability in his character even when he acts tough. Again, Pepper is completely committed in his role here and makes what’s happening to his character onscreen believable. The other actors play their roles well enough, adding to the narrative by either supporting our leads or being victims to the environment. Scodelario and Pepper could have really winked at the audience and treated this film as a total goof, but they never do, making CRAWL more successful than how it reads on paper.

THE FINAL HOWL
A modern B-movie done right, CRAWL is a lot of creature feature fun. While not deep in its characterizations and dramatic narrative, the use of a massive hurricane and a duo of alligators creates a lot of suspense, tension and action in a grounded way that you won’t be seeing on any SyFy Original anytime soon. Alexandre Aja directs a tense thriller, making the film’s 87 minutes fly by with active characters, alligator violence and plot devices that are convenient, but no less entertaining. The alligators themselves, pretty much full CGI, look amazing for a film like this, moving and acting mostly believably - although the film could have used a bit more gore, as a lot of the violence happens offscreen until the final act really. THE MAZE RUNNER’s Kaya Scodelario is really great as the lead Haley, supported wonderfully by Barry Pepper, as both actors take their roles very seriously and don’t treat the film as a joke. On paper, CRAWL looks like total fluff that most audiences would snub their noses at. But with a great director, fantastic actors, and a breezy story to go along with it, CRAWL is a good popcorn B-movie that deserves your attention if you dig animals running amok.


SCORE
3 Howls Outta 4



7.02.2020

Lunar Cycle - June 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.



KILLER PARTY (1986) - ** out of ****

Directed By: William Fruet

Starring: Martin Hewitt, Ralph Seymour, Elaine Wilkes, Paul Bartel, Sherry Willis-Burch, Alicia Fleer, Woody Brown, Joanna Johnson, Terri Hawkes, Deborah Hancock, Laura Sherman

Genre: Horror/Slasher/Supernatural/Comedy

Running Time: 91 Minutes


Plot: Three sorority pledges are tasked with ensuring that the gals of Sigma Alpha Pi throw a killer party at an abandoned fraternity house. Unfortunately a vengeful spirit decides to take the killer epithet literally. With a special appearance by ‘80s hair metal titans White Sister!


Review:
Out of the three April Fool’s Day themed horror films from 1986, KILLER PARTY was the one I had the least familiarity with. The reason is that I had believed I had seen this film before, but I actually hadn’t! So I was kind of excited to watch something new out of 80s horror. Too bad my excitement quickly dissipated as the film went along, because KILLER PARTY is a severely flawed slasher film. Sure it’s better than APRIL FOOL’S DAY, but it never comes close to matching the absurdity and silliness of SLAUGHTER HIGH.

To be honest with you, I’m not exactly sure what KILLER PARTY is trying to be. Obviously it’s focused on being a slasher film, with a few stalk-and-slash moments to ramp up a body count. The final act becomes some sort of supernatural possession movie that doesn’t fit with the rest of the movie. And then most of the film’s tone feels like a frat comedy, where things are played for laughs rather than any sort of terror or seriousness. William Fruet’s direction of KILLER PARTY leaves a lot to be desired, as there’s no consistent tone and I was confused as to what I was supposed to get out of the film in general. Films can work with multiple tones, but Fruet doesn’t have the ability to balance it all for it to flow organically. As much as I dislike APRIL FOOL’S DAY for being extremely dull, at least it has a single tone and mood to make me understand what the producers were going for. Same with the so-bad-it’s-good SLAUGHTER PARTY, which knew it was dumb and embraced it from beginning to end. KILLER PARTY feels like film that wants to be everything at once - a case where the screenwriter and director threw a whole bunch of random stuff at the wall to see what stuck. And it appears a lot of random stuff stuck, creating a movie that suffers from schizophrenia. It honestly took me out of the film for the most part.

There’s not to say that KILLER PARTY is a terrible film. It has a pretty cool opening where we get a film-within-a-film-within-a-music-video-within-a-film. The music video, in particular, is a lot of fun, especially helped by a catchy hair metal song by White Sister [who?]. The sorority hazing and initiation scenes are quite humorous, especially moments where characters have to answer by saying “I want a big, fat cucumber,” to multiple people who ask random questions. The slasher stuff is pretty generic, but I really liked that final act with the possession deal. Sure, it doesn’t fit in with the rest of the film, even though we learn throughout the film that the house the sorority plans to have their Halloween party in is considered haunted. It honestly comes out of nowhere, but I felt that the film finally found its footing having certain characters get possessed, spit out green goo, and attack other people without a care. I wish the entire film had done this because there was an energy here the rest of the film lacked. I even thought the final few minutes up to the ending were quite amusing in a messed up sort of way. Fruet directs this entire act very well and seems to be having fun shooting it. The make up effects are super nice and the special effects are pretty convincing. I understand shooting a slasher would be cost efficient for any production, but the supernatural angle was where it was at with KILLER PARTY.

The acting was fine. Joanna Johnson was good as Jennifer. She’s set up as the Final Girl, displaying her fear for this certain house while being more alert and cautious over the other characters. Johnson gets the most to do in the film, portraying many layers of her character and doing well with all of them. Sherry Willis-Burch is also fun to watch as Vivia, the nerdy prankster of the film. She brings much needed energy to the film and she seems to be having fun being in this film. Ralph Seymour is both funny and creepy as Martin. Seymour plays up the character as so socially awkward that you wonder if he has buried any bodies in his backyard. But he did have genuinely funny moments. And we also have appearances by Martin Hewitt as Jennifer’s love interest Blake. Hewitt is probably best known as Brooke Shields’ love interest in 1981’s ENDLESS LOVE. And we also have character actor Paul Bartel as Professor Zito, appearing in one of the funnier moments of the film. Not sure why he was here, but glad he received a check for his work. Good cast who did what they could with an oddly written script.

As for the soundtrack, we get some New Wave and ‘80s pop songs, including KC and the Sunshine Band’s hit “Give It Up”. Plus there’s the theme song called “Best Times”, which sounds like a cheesy Bananarama rip-off. It definitely fit the times for sure.

Overall, KILLER PARTY is a film I struggle with in terms of how I feel about it. For one, it has a movie-within-a-music-video-within-a-movie opener that’s a lot of fun. It also has a cool final act involving supernatural possession with good tense moments. Plus the cast seems to be having fun and the film has some genuinely funny moments going for it. On the other hand, the tone of the film is all over the place. Is KILLER PARTY a slasher film? A frat comedy? A possession flick? It’s like it wants to be everything at once and only half-succeeding at each tonal change. Plus other than the fun opener and closer, the direction is pretty pedestrian and doesn’t do a whole lot to excite or scare its audience. KILLER PARTY is a film suffering from an identity problem, which makes it a weird watch. But it’s not trash and if it had a stronger vision of what it wanted to be, this could have been a very good film. Only worth accepting the invitation if you have 90 minutes to spare for a mild time.




INTO THE DARK: THEY COME KNOCKING (2019) - ** out of ****

Directed By: Adam Mason

Starring: Clayne Crawford, Josephine Langford, Robyn Lively, Lia McHugh, Dwight Hicks, Shane Carpenter, Willa Miel Pogue

Genre: Horror/Supernatural

Running Time: 85 Minutes


Plot: After losing his wife to cancer, a father takes his two daughters on a road trip where he finds his family in the crosshairs of terrifying supernatural entities.



Review:
Into the Dark’s first June installment for the series, THEY COME KNOCKING, is apparently a Father’s Day centered story… that’s more about the ghost of the mother who has left a father and his two daughters grief stricken. Of the installments I’ve seen so far, THEY COME KNOCKING probably has the best acting and the best emotional beats. But like the rest of the episodes, the narrative takes too long to get to its point, weakening the stronger aspects of the film as it reaches towards the finish line.

Since I already mentioned the acting, I might as well elaborate on how good it is. Clayne Crawford, probably best known for the Lethal Weapon television series, carries the film really well as the father. His grief, frustration, anger, confusion and his eventual lament are all believable, making him extremely sympathetic towards his situation. Same goes to the younger actresses, Josephine Langford and Lia McHugh, who also play the same beats but in different ways. Langford is more vengeful and angsty in her portrayal, while McHugh plays it more passive-aggressively until it wears down on her character by the film’s final act. I thought the three of them shared great chemistry and really came across as a real family who deal with the mom’s passing the same, yet different all at once. It was also nice to see Robin Lively of the cult classic TEEN WITCH acting, this time as the unfortunate mom who passed away from cancer. She appears in many flashbacks, but also in visions as she comes across as both loving, sad, and even frightening at times. I thought the cast was, by far, the best thing about THEY COME KNOCKING. 

I also liked how the film played with the audience’s emotions at times. Though I do think the film was padded with way too many flashback scenes and montages to really drive home the sad situation this family is dealing with, at least it allowed me to connect to them on an emotional level. Losing my mom to cancer years ago still aches inside of me, so it was probably easier for me to sympathize with them and care how they would deal with their grief and get out of the ruts each one is in. They’re all dealing with the mother’s passing differently, all justified in their feelings and their anger towards each other about it. For me, the dramatic portion of the narrative was strongest and if the film was shorter and focused more on the human element rather than the supernatural one in the last half, THEY COME KNOCKING would have been a better film for it.

Unfortunately, if THEY COME KNOCKING was just a drama film, it probably wouldn’t have been included in this Hulu series and no one would have noticed its existence. So since this is a horror anthology series, that aspect had to be included. And for me, that’s where the film falls apart. So instead of just a sad drama about grief, the grief takes on a physical representation in creepy hooded children with black eyes. From what I gather, these characters seem to be based on some sort of urban legend or creepypasta I’m not all that familiar with, so their presence didn’t do much for me. Apparently these children knock on people’s doors to be invited in, like vampires, only wanting that invitation to cause psychological and emotional trauma to those vulnerable. THEY COME KNOCKING doesn’t hide its inspirations here. You get a bit of THE HILLS HAVE EYES and THE STRANGERS here, weakening a strong dramatic narrative for a few jump scares and creepy moments that ought to work better than they do. The scenes with the visions of the mother do work, only because we’ve seen the flashbacks and how her death has affected them. And having these children twist the characters’ realities and making them believe in things that aren’t there do have their effective moments. But in the end, it just feels like two films in one and the tone becomes a bit inconsistent because of it. It also doesn’t help that the film takes way too long to get to the creepier moments, replaying similar beats that would have been more effective if the filmmakers had trusted their audience more. But at least the film’s core is well structured and handled, which is more than what I can say for many of these Into the Dark installments.

The direction by Adam Mason, who also directed a previous installment called I’M JUST F*CKING WITH YOU, is pedestrian at best. I’M JUST F*CKING YOU, while I wasn’t the biggest fan of it, at least had a lot of visual flair and presence, crafting this colorful atmosphere that was pleasing to the eye. THEY COME KNOCKING is a lot quieter and muted, which fits the grief element perfectly. But other than that, the film doesn’t have a ton of visual style that would catch anyone’s eye. The evil children are visualized very creepily and some of the stuff the visions of the late mother present are very cool, but done much better before. But other than that, it’s a film with decent editing and flow. Nothing more to really say about it.

Overall, THEY COME KNOCKING is an Into the Dark installment that probably would have been better if it were a bit shorter and had stuck with one tone throughout. The grief element over the passing of a wife and a mother is super strong, with the characters [a father and his two daughters] handling their loss in various ways that end up connecting them by the film’s end. The dramatic narrative works because the film lets you see how devastated they all are through flashbacks and how each one interacts [or barely interacts] with the other. As someone who lost their mother, I was instantly sympathetic to these characters and I cared to see how they would all end up. The acting, especially by Clayne Crawford, is especially good in bringing life and genuine emotion to these characters, allowing the audience to connect with them.

It’s too bad that Into the Dark is a horror anthology though, because the creepier aspects of the narrative weaken the film. Blending THE HILLS HAVE EYES with THE STRANGERS, THEY COME KNOCKING wants to represent the grief through a supernatural means - in this case, hooded children with black eyes who use negative emotions and memories to psychologically damage their victims in order to feed upon their dark energy. The children are creepy at first and the visions they present to the family [using the late wife/mother to manipulate them] works at first. But the film is way too long for a story like this and just ends up dragging its feet to the finish line rather than letting us watch this film get themselves out of their grief in a natural way. Plus, the direction is just pedestrian, with brief stylistic flourishes every now and then but nothing you’ll remember once the film is over.

THEY COME KNOCKING could have been one of the better Into the Dark installments because it had a lot of promise. But its inconsistent tone and focus on cheap scares rather than genuine emotion bring it down a notch.




THE ASPHYX (1972) - *** out of ****

Directed By: Peter Newbrook

Starring: Robert Powell, Robert Stephens, Jane Laportaire, Alex Scott, Ralph Arliss, Fiona Walker, Terry Scully

Genre: Horror/Fantasy/Science Fiction

Running Time: 99 Minutes


Plot: Hugo is a brilliant turn-of-the-century scientist, loved and respected by his family and friends, admired by his colleagues. But he is a man quickly becoming obsessed with a curious and frightening question… what is the mysterious apparition found in the photographs of his dying subjects?



Review:
I always get a kick out of watching horror films from the ‘70s and ‘80s for the first time. 1972’s THE ASPHYX is one of those films, as I had heard about the film every now and then due to its interesting concept and how it may have slightly inspired ideas for the GHOSTBUSTERS franchise. I was expecting some sort of lost classic while watching it. And while the film does present some cool concepts and has good performances, THE ASPHYX is a perfect example of a movie that might have too much substance when it could have used more style to make it more memorable in horror circles.

That’s not to say that THE ASPHYX is a bad film. It’s just that the script is so dialogue heavy, it can cause one to lose a bit of interest in what’s going on. In a lot of ways, the movie plays out like a theatrical show or soap opera. It has the characters discussing ideas of death, immortality and other deep stuff that’s so super interesting, I wish more films would explore these themes. But the issue is that a film can have too much substance going for it at times where you wish more style and/or action would pop in every now and then. The film gets better at balancing this towards the film’s climax, but it does take a while to get to what we’re all wanting to see - the Asphyx itself.

That being said, THE ASPHYX does contain some intelligent and captivating themes that not many horror films really focus on. Not only is the film presenting certain elements that GHOSTBUSTERS popularized visually, but it’s really a FRANKENSTEIN story at heart. The idea of immortality is a tale as old as time, but THE ASPHYX presents it in a clever way that almost feels like a Twilight Zone episode meant to teach its audience a lesson about the dangers of playing God. The main character, Hugo, is a scientist who takes photographs of people dying or already dead. He sees these dark blots above all the subjects of his photos, realizing there’s something supernatural going on. This is when he learns about the Asphyx - an entity that’s responsible for the death of living things by stealing their souls. Hugo figures out that stopping and trapping the Asphyx will cause people to continue living, making it an obsession for him to understand the creature and the laws of immortality. Sometimes more knowledge isn’t always a good thing, especially if it starts effecting family and friends in dangerous ways. I won’t spoil the narrative more than that, but if you know anything about mad scientist films, you know the end result isn’t usually happy. The idea of immortality is always a concept that is brought up now and then, making us wonder if it’s worth living past our expiration date. If a higher power needed to balance things between life and death, who is anyone to say that’s wrong and should be changed? Hugo thinks it’s worth exploring, even if the people around him are against the idea even as they try to support his quest.

Since it’s a small production, not too many important characters appear in THE ASPHYX. Hugo is a well-written mad scientist who isn’t doing things out of evil or having this predetermined notion of playing against what God intended. He’s a heavily flawed character with well intentions, but even good people can get corrupted with power and knowledge without realizing how much of that is harming the people around them. The only other major character of note is Giles, Hugo’s adopted son who reluctantly helps Hugo with his experiments. He’s fascinated about the idea and is amazed when he and Hugo are able to see the Asphyx in person and attempt to study it. But he also understands the damage it also brings and seems himself in a losing battle against his adopted father. There’s also Christina, I guess, who becomes a bigger player in the final act of the film when she finds out what her father and Giles are doing. She’s the voice of the audience - the person who is against and afraid about what her father is doing. Only Hugo and Giles are remotely interesting, as they get the most screen time and dialogue. It gets a bit tiresome to hear them discuss things rather than doing them by the film’s end, especially once we see the Asphyx in front of our eyes. But they do feel like people that could exist in real life, debating the pros and cons of their actions and doing the wrong thing every time. And while I wish some of the dialogue was a bit simpler and less heavy-handed at times so a bigger audience would be able to embrace this movie more than they do, at least THE ASPHYX is about something worth thinking about. So it gets points for that, even if the execution could have been more entertaining.

Since this is a small production, majority of the film takes place in a Victorian Era manor. Director Peter Newbrook, his one and only directorial film although he had worked on other films such as LAWRENCE OF ARABIA and THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI previously, isn’t the most stylish, but he knows how to use set pieces and a single location well enough to create mood and atmosphere. It feels like a Hammer Film at times, with the manor looking like a stage on a set that brings a level of charm with it. The single location also creates a bit of claustrophobia at times, only providing some relief when characters do manage to go outdoors every now and then. THE ASPHYX is also a beautiful looking picture that’s very British, which I actually dug. The best visual moments involve any sequence involving the title character, who had to have inspired the look of GHOSTBUSTERS’ Slimer. While I’m sure the effect is mainly done via cool tricks with lighting, it looks pretty cool for an early ‘70s flick. The screaming of the Asphyx anytime Hugo and Giles capture it prior to it finalizing a person’s life is chilling. The death sequences are also quite fun, including an electric chair moment, a gas tank that explodes with someone in it, and a guillotine demise that’s probably the most shocking of them all due to mischievous pet. Not the most exciting film to look at, but it’s pretty easy on the eyes and has its moments.

The acting is excellent in THE ASPHYX. Robert Stephens is wonderful as Hugo, our lead mad scientist. He starts off as pretty stuffy, yet very likable and kind. But as the film runs along, Stephens slowly changes the character’s personality to the point where he portrays Hugo as borderline obsessed and insane over his knowledge of the Asphyx, convincingly playing a man who is losing himself in his work. He grows angry, he’s dismissive of his own family, and doesn’t care who he hurts in order to find concrete answers. Stephens makes it all believable. Robert Powell is also good as Giles, playing a man who wants his adopted father’s approval until realizing that getting it probably wasn’t all that worth it when it comes to Hugo’s work. Powell is the antithesis of Stephen, trying to ground the other actor when he goes ham. I thought the two shared nice chemistry and played off well against the other. Jane Laportaire as Christina was fine as well, although she didn’t really do a whole lot besides certain moments near the end of the film. But she played off the two Roberts well where it counted.

Overall, THE ASPHYX is a good film that I honestly wanted to like more considering the concept is very interesting. The theme of immortality and the cost of achieving it isn’t anything new, but the film presents it in a way that is visually fun at times. It’s too bad there aren’t more moments of style and action, because the film does get bogged down a bit due to it being very dialogue heavy and being told about things rather than letting the audience see and experience them first hand. And while the direction isn’t anything special, at least the stuff with the title character is well visualized and captivating, including the death sequences that revolve around the Asphyx. The acting, especially by Robert Stephens as “mad scientist” Hugo, is really good and help flesh out the characters in believable and human ways that ground the film within its supernatural atmosphere. THE ASPHYX is a gothic throwback with enough mood and Hammer Film feel to be watchable for those who need that kind of fix. Considering how it probably had some influence on 1984’s GHOSTBUSTERS and is a decent take on the FRANKENSTEIN vibe, I consider this one a lost gem that should be watched at least once. Not immortal, but has enough life to please for the most part.




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