5.23.2019

The Last Witch Hunter (2015)


DIRECTED BY
Brick Eisner

STARRING
Vin Diesel - Kaulder
Rose Leslie - Chloe
Elijah Wood - Dolan 37
Michael Caine - Dolan 36
Olafur Darri Olafsson - Baltasar Ketola/Belial
Julie Engelbrecht - Witch Queen

Genre - Horror/Fantasy/Science Fiction/Action/Witches

Running Time - 106 Minutes


PLOT (from IMDB)
The modern world holds many secrets, but the most astounding secret of all is that witches still live amongst us; vicious supernatural creatures intent on unleashing the Black Death upon the world. Armies of witch hunters battled the unnatural enemy across the globe for centuries, including Kaulder (Vin Diesel), a valiant warrior who managed to slay the all-powerful Queen Witch (Julie Engelbrecht), decimating her followers in the process. In the moments right before her death, the Queen curses Kaulder with her own immortality, forever separating him from his beloved wife and daughter in the afterlife. Today Kaulder is the only one of his kind remaining, and has spent centuries hunting down rogue witches, all the while yearning for his long-lost loved ones. However, unbeknownst to Kaulder, the Queen Witch is resurrected and seeks revenge on her killer causing an epic battle that will determine the survival of the human race.

REVIEW
You’d think a film where badass Vin Diesel battles witches would be awesome, if not at least fun, right? Unfortunately if you’ve watched 2015’s THE LAST WITCH HUNTER, you’d know the idea sounds cool on paper but the execution leaves a whole lot to be desired. It’s disappointing because I’m a sucker for any Diesel vehicle, but this film didn’t do much for me to be honest. If I wanted to watch the same story that THE LAST WITCH HUNTER tries to tell, I’d rather watch CONSTANTINE, VAN HELSING, BLADE, or any other film that tells a similar story in a more entertaining way regardless of their respective quality. For a film about hunting witches, it sure had no idea how to put me under its spell.

The best thing about THE LAST WITCH HUNTER and the only reason it was made to begin with is Vin Diesel himself. Diesel has a really interesting personality in which his muscular frame contradicts with how big of a nerd he is. Even though he can probably handle himself well in a physical fight, Vin Diesel seems more at ease playing "Dungeons & Dragons" or watching some sci-fi show like Star Trek. I think it’s really cool to see himself embrace his geekdom, making him relatable as a fan of these types of films. His character of Kaulder is actually based on a character he created while playing Dungeons & Dragons when he was younger, which in turn helped bring this film to life. Out of all the actors in the film, Diesel feels the most comfortable with everything, playing himself as a tortured man who hunts and kills evil sorcerers as an act of vengeance. His character is the only one that feels fleshed out in any way, making us care about him somewhat and giving us a reason to understand his actions along the way. The probably is that the film seems to be based on an idea of this Kaulder character without really knowing how to interestingly create a world for him to live in. It’s a cool idea on paper and Diesel is obviously game for it all, but it doesn’t matter if we don’t give much attention to everything else that’s happening around him.

It doesn’t help that the script isn’t all that inventive. Or creative. Or even silly enough for us to have fun with. THE LAST WITCH HUNTER takes its dumb concept too seriously and never lets the actors and their characters enjoy themselves along this adventure. The first half of the film is at least coherent, as we’re given an interesting mystery that allows the film to introduce characters and world-building elements to flesh out a universe in which Kaulder and company exist in. But the last half just meanders into a boring mess of a film that’s too focused on creating relationships for characters that never earn them, or plot twists that we see coming a mile away but don’t really matter at the end because they’re never given enough attention for us to care. There's a lot of potential going on here, but it's never fully realized whatsoever. It’s obvious with all the jammed-in subplots going on in the film, the producers wanted THE LAST WITCH HUNTER to begin a new franchise for Diesel. But studios have seemed to have forgotten that franchises are earned, not forced upon us because Marvel hit a major jackpot with their MCU success over time. Instead of trying to set up things for possible future movies, focus on a single-film narrative that would be good enough for audiences to want more. And judging by the lackluster success of this film, I think everyone involved probably realized that the hard way.

The direction by Breck Eisner, who also made the not-so-great SAHARA and a good remake in THE CRAZIES, is just there. It visually never feels innovative or passionate, instead feeling like Eisner was hired by a studio to film this in their vision rather than his own. The pacing is off at times, with the action scenes and the slower moments never flowing right. In fact, a lot of the middle portion of the film that involves Diesel and friends going around town to find out answers to the film’s mystery can feel downright dull in terms of its presentation. The action scenes are okay, but unfortunately are edited with quick shots and close ups that never allow us to feel thrilled by what we’re watching. The CGI is a mixed bag as well. Some characters, like the Witch Queen and the monstrous Sentinels look pretty damn good. But the rest of the effects look like a cartoon, taking me out of the film when they appear. It almost makes me wonder where the budget went if this is the best they can do with special effects.

The acting is just there as well. Vin Diesel plays himself, only as a witch hunter this time around. Since it’s based on a character he created, Diesel is totally into his role and made me wish he was in a better written film to really make it work. Rose Leslie as Chloe is cute and actually helps give THE LAST WITCH HUNTER some much needed personality whenever she appears. But she has a two-dimensional role that never really goes anywhere. Michael Caine came for a paycheck, but at least he seems in on the joke. I wish Caine was in the film more because he shared some nice chemistry with Diesel. Their banter was quite fun. Elijah Wood tried to make his role of Dolan 37 work, but he felt out of place for me. It didn’t help that he didn’t do much in the film besides look surprised or confused until the end. He’s usually reliable, but he didn’t seem all that invested here. And Julie Engelbrecht was a pretty bland villain, but she tried to act menacing. Meh.

THE FINAL HOWL
THE LAST WITCH HUNTER is the epitome of an action-horror film that has a cool character idea, but never knows how to form an investing universe around it to execute the narrative properly. Vin Diesel is the only real redeeming part of this film, as he’s playing a character that’s probably close to his heart and is totally passionate about. But with a messy narrative that’s more focused on building a franchise rather than telling us a good standalone story, characters that aren’t fleshed out enough for us to care, visuals that are a mixed bag and actors who don’t get much to do because the script doesn’t allow it, THE LAST WITCH HUNTER is a disappointing and dull failure for the most part. There’s nothing bewitching about this one.


SCORE
1.5 Howls Outta 4



5.10.2019

Deadbeat at Dawn (1988)


DIRECTED BY
Jim Van Bebber

STARRING
Jim Van Bebber - Goose
Paul Harper - Danny
Megan Murphy - Christie
Marc Pitman - Bonecrusher
Ric Walker - Keith

Genre - Thriller/Action/Horror/Drama

Running Time - 80 Minutes


PLOT (from IMDB)
After one too many encounters with The Spiders, The Ravens’ leader’s (Jim Van Bebber) girlfriend (Megan Murphy) tells him to quit the gang or it’s Splitsville. He does so, but the leader of the Spiders (Paul Harper) is hellbent on revenge and arranges the murder of the girlfriend. That ticks off the boyfriend, who wreaks havoc with the two gangs, who have joined forces in order to pull off a security truck heist.

REVIEW
If you cross 1979’s THE WARRIORS and 1984’s COMBAT SHOCK, you’ll get 1988’s DEADBEAT AT DAWN - a low budget and ultra violent action-thriller that proves with just four years and $10,000 at his disposal, one man could make a gritty, grindhouse cult film that even over three decades later would still be talked about and admired. It’s gritty, violent and disturbing in all the right ways. When you can make THE WARRIORS feel tame, you’ve got something with your movie. DEADBEAT AT DAWN isn’t a complicated film, nor should it be. It’s your standard revenge film, where the protagonist loses a loved one due to a rival and just wants vengeance against this individual. It’s DEATH WISH, but more romantically punk and rough around the edges. 

What makes the simple story work are the major players that get most of the focus. It helps that DEADBEAT AT DAWN revolves around Goose, the leader of The Ravens who goes through a lot within 80 minutes. While a bit of a prick at first, we soon see how much he loves his girlfriend Kristy. So much so, he’s willing to step down as leader and leave The Ravens [which doesn’t settle well with the rest of the gang]. Even though he’ll sell drugs and steal to make ends meet for him and his girl, Goose comes across as caring and romantic in an unorthodox way that makes him likable and charming in his own unique way. Unfortunately, his life crumbles when Kristy is murdered, leading him down a path of drinking, doing drugs, and even dealing with a greedy drug addict for a father who is still suffering PTSD from his time in Vietnam. But when he’s forced back into gang life, he decides to finally take control of his own destiny by getting revenge on everyone who’s wronged him. Most 2 hour films barely have any character arcs that are as detailed as Goose’s in DEADBEAT AT DAWN. The man completely changes from the start of the film right to the film’s very bloody end. I’ll discuss Jim Van Bebber’s performance in a bit, but he really gives Goose life and makes us care for him to the point that no matter how he has to do it, you want him to get revenge on these bastards who took away everything that meant something to him. That’s the quality of an interesting, well-written (enough) character.

The other major characters are memorable as well. Goose’s girlfriend, Kristy, is obviously the inciting incident that sets everything to its downward spiral. But she’s an interesting love interest as she dabbles in witchcraft, meaning as a means to protect her boyfriend from getting hurt, or even killed. She’ll talk to fortune tellers, play with Ouija boards, and even create magical amulets for Goose to wear as protection even if it will cost her hers. She doesn’t have a whole lot of depth, as she’s the typical girlfriend character, but these other elements give her enough to stand out. On the other side of the spectrum, we have Danny - the leader of the Spiders. Talk about a character we were born to love to hate. Not really sure what his deal with Goose is, but it’s probably due to Goose defeating him in every fight and pretty much owning his turf. When he ends up ordering for Goose’s death but gets Kristy’s instead, he uses it to his advantage to get one up on his rival. It also doesn’t help that Danny is an abusive creep, beating up his loving girlfriend - in one case, punching her when she declares her love for him. What a stand up guy you want taken care of by the end of this film. His sidekick, Bonecrusher, is no better. The guy is a psychopath who enjoys hurting others and proudly using it to get a reaction out of others. Bonecrusher probably has the best dialogue in the film and it’s no surprise why he’s considered a cult fave. The dude is nuts. Another person of note is Keith, who was Goose’s second-in-command but turned leader when Goose leaves The Ravens. His disapproval of Goose’s quitting turns him into a creep, becoming power-hungry and even working with his enemies just to get a quick payday. While we don’t know their life stories or anything deep like that, the supporting characters fit their archetypes well and help create a bleak atmosphere that makes the actions of these characters tolerable and understanding to watch unfold.

If there was any flaw with the script, it would be that sometimes the film has exposition or moments where characters talk about something that doesn’t really contribute a whole lot to their characters or the plot. A lot of exploitation films do this to compensate for a lack of a major budget and/or to beef up the run time. It doesn’t detract much from DEADBEAT AT DAWN, but you can tell when the film is trying to fill up time before the next major incident happens. I also would have liked a bigger backstory about the rivalry between Goose and Danny, but again doesn’t really hurt the film since Danny makes things really personal within the present story. 

The direction by Jim Van Bebber [who also wrote, produced, and even plays main character Goose] is pretty good, considering Bebber didn’t have a ton of resources to use while filming. Shooting around Dayton, Ohio provides a ton of gritty atmosphere, as the location looks like a place no one would want to live in and would shape people into violent and heartless folks. I’m surprised that Dayton looked really dirty and bleak back in the late-80s. You’d think it was pre-90s New York City or something. The editing and sound design at times can be a bit rough, but it sort of brings a certain level of charm to the film. I did think the fight sequences looked and felt as realistic as possible, despite a lack of polish choreography. There are some cool gore effects, including a hand being shot off, fingers bitten off, throats being pulled apart, and even decapitations. Plus, Bebber is awesome with a pair of nunchucks, kicking major butt with them. The film also has a nice flow and moves pretty quickly for its 80 minutes. It looks and feels like an exploitation film made for grindhouse theaters, which is probably why DEADBEAT AT DAWN works better than it should. The most interesting thing about the film is that while bleak and sort of depressing in terms of its premise, the execution plays out as this over-the-top fun time in terms of its violence and oddball characters. Bebber had a clear vision and did a great job visualizing it on film.

The acting isn’t the greatest out there, but it works for DEADBEAT AT DAWN. Paul Harper plays a really hatable villain in Danny, a role I’m sure Harper had a lot of fun to play. Marc Pitman is even better as Bonecrusher, portraying a nut job with gutso, enjoying himself while quoting the film’s most memorable lines. Megan Murphy and Ric Walker are good in their respective roles. But the real star is Jim Van Bebber as Goose. The man is captivating on film, portraying a man with so many layers, it’s hard not to care and root for the guy. He’s a force on screen, peeling every layer out of Goose from start to finish. From happiness, to grief and to angrily vengeful, Van Bebber creates a fleshed out human being that we wish deserved a better run at life than he actually does. The man also did his own stunts and can wield a wicked pair of nunchucks like nobody’s business. DEADBEAT AT DAWN exists because of this man and he makes the most out of everything. Nothing but respect and appreciation for his performance and his behind-the-scenes work.

THE FINAL HOWL
DEADBEAT AT DAWN eluded me for decades, but I’m glad I finally got to catch up with this awesome exploitation film. Gritty and violently fun, it’s a film that won’t win any awards but will keep your interest at how well done it is considering it is super low-budget. You have a revenge story you can understand, over-the-top gore that will either shock or impress you, and a strong performance by jack-of-all-trades Jim Van Bebber that more than keeps the film afloat for its short runtime. Fans of ultra-violent exploitation action films should get a kick out of this one if they haven’t already.


SCORE
3.5 Howls Outta 4



4.04.2019

What We Do In the Shadows (2014)


DIRECTED BY
Jemaine Clement
Taika Waititi

STARRING
Jemaine Clement - Vladislav
Taika Waititi - Viago
Jonathan Brugh - Deacon
Ben Fransham - Petyr
Con Gonzalez-Macue - Nick
Stu Rutherford - Stu
Rhys Darby - Anton

Genre - Horror/Comedy/Vampires/Werewolves

Running Time - 85 Minutes


PLOT (from IMDB)
Viago (Taika Waititi), Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) and Vladislav (Jemaine Clement) are vampires who are finding that modern life has them struggling with the mundane - like paying rent, keeping up with the chore wheel, trying to get into nightclubs and overcoming flatmate conflicts.

REVIEW
Did you ever wonder what THIS IS SPINAL TAP would look like if it involved vampires instead of a fictional rock band? Well you’re in luck, as WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS is pretty much that film. A horror-comedy that’s played more for laughs than scares, WWDITS is a 2015 film that is produced by Jemaine Clement & Taika Waititi - the men responsible for the cult favorite Flight of the Conchords. With the film now having been adapted into a TV show on the FX Network, I figured it was time to finally watch it and see what the fuss was about when the film was released four years ago. And while it’s not a perfect horror-comedy, WWDITS is definitely a must for anyone interested in a comedy based on horror roots.

What makes WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS work is how self-aware it is. Unlike a terrible spoof film like 2010’s VAMPIRE SUCKS, which used TWILIGHT and other pop culture elements to “make people laugh”, WWDITS is a mockumentary that follows a few vampires who live in a house together and film their lives in a human society [with some werewolves mixed in]. It’s The Real World with fanged creatures who attempt to adapt to a modern world and use this learning experience to feed on victims and figure out where they fit in within a society that sees them as sort of a joke. They dress as if they’re still living in their previous era. They have trouble getting inside establishments because they need to be invited. They still pine for a lost love from ages ago from afar. They feel out of place in a world that doesn’t take them seriously nor understand them in a way they want to be understood. Even the werewolves they encounter have a better grasp on the world than they do. Watching them fumble and live their lives within a society that has already moved on is both funny and clever, as most vampire films never really do that sort of thing. It’s also great that they mention pop culture references, such as the noodles from THE LOST BOYS and even mentions of TWILIGHT. It’s obviously the creators are in on the joke and allow us to be on it as well.

The characters are what makes WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS works, as each one has a distinct personality and allows the story to play out as one would expect out of a reality show documentary. Vladislav is the aristocratic Dracula wannabe who loves sex while still being heartbroken by “The Beast”. Viago is the nice vampire who is love sick, a bit effeminate and is innocent in a childlike way. He also seems to be the most grounded and the leader of the house.  Deacon is the bad boy who believes he’s a hipster and just the coolest vampire ever. Add in Nosferatu looking Petyr [who never says a word and has been living in the basement of the house since before the trio moved in] and you have unique characters you’ll be invested in. The drama ramps up when young Nick, a victim-turned-vampire by Petyr, joins the fray. While he’s the youngest and hippest of the group, which angers Deacon, he’s also kind of a douche bag as he goes against every single vampire rule throughout the film. The only reason they keep him around is due to Nick’s best friend Stu, a human the vampires refuse to turn because he helps them adjust to the modern era. Plus, the vampires just like him for some reason. We don’t know why but because they like him, we do also. We also get familiars, werewolves, and that previously mentioned “Beast”. A colorful cast of characters that you entertain you during the film’s short running time.

The direction by Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi is pretty damn great. There’s nothing too stylistic about it, but it works because it’s meant to look like a documentary/reality show. It flows well between characters and the way the character arcs play out are visually expressed well. The film also has some great special effects considering the budget, especially when the vampires turn into bats and start fighting each other. The werewolf costumes are laughingly bad though, but luckily they’re kept in the shadows when they do make their appearance. I also enjoyed a lot of the editing and transitions in the film, which spiced the look of the film. It was simple filmmaking, but it kept your interest the entire time.

The acting is spot on. Jemaine Clement, inspired by Gary Oldman’s performance in BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA, is great as the sex-crazed and aristocratic Vladislav. I also enjoyed Taika Waititi’s performance of the innocent Viago, which was inspired by his own mother. The nagging, effeminate nature of the character was comedy gold. Jonathan Brugh was cool as Deacon, a vampire who thought he was younger and cooler than he actually was. I thought the three of them had great chemistry together, playing off of each other as if they really had been living together for centuries. Even Con Gonzalez-Macue’s cocky performance as the unlikable Nick didn’t hurt the chemistry, even though it sure raised the drama. I even thought Stu Rutherford’s performance as human background player Stu added a lot to the film, even though he was quiet. The cast was totally into their roles and I thought they played loving homages to past vampires while goofing on them at the same time.

THE FINAL HOWL
I can’t believe it took me so long to sit down and watch WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS. It’s a clever, witty take on MTV’s The Real World, but with vampires who decide to get real and attempt to adjust to a modern world that doesn’t quite get them. The characters have depth and all feel unique from one another, thanks to the cast who seem to enjoy goofing on the vampiric pop culture while also playing tribute to that world. The direction isn’t anything special, but it works for a mockumentary that happens to showcase some nice special effects and cool gore. I’m glad the film was brought back to my attention thanks to the very good FX television series of the same name. Not every horror-comedy works, but WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS’ humor definitely worked on me. Invite this one in if you haven’t already.


SCORE
3.5 Howls Outta 4




2.19.2019

Happy Death Day 2U (2019)


DIRECTED BY
Christopher Landon

STARRING
Jessica Rothe - Theresa “Tree” Gelbman
Israel Broussard - Carter Davis
Phi Vu - Ryan Phan
Suraj Sharma - Samar Ghosh
Sarah Yarkin - Dre Morgan
Ruby Modine - Lori Spengler
Rachel Matthews - Danielle Bouseman
Steve Zissis - Dean Bronson

Genre - Horror/Comedy/Science Fiction/Slasher

Running Time - 100 Minutes


PLOT
The day after the events of HAPPY DEATH DAY, Carter’s (Israel Broussard) roommate Ryan (Phi Vu) [the dude who kept barging into the room at the start of each time loop] experiences his own deja vu as he keeps reliving the same day over and over until he’s murdered by a similarly dressed killer. Ryan, unable to handle what’s going on, decides to confide in Carter and girlfriend Tree (Jessica Rothe), who relays her own experience with the loop. Through their conversation, Tree learns that Ryan has been building a machine called “Sissy” - an invention that has the ability to mess with the aspects of time. Upset by this information, Tree demands Ryan and his friends (Suraj Sharma and Sarah Bennani) to fix this mess so time is back to normal.

As Ryan tries to fix the time stream, something goes wrong. It sends Tree back to her birthday, where she experiences the same loop she lived in the first film. However, things have changed - as the people in her life are now experiencing different lives and different relationships than what she’s familiar with. Will Tree want to live in this new reality, or will Tree help Ryan fix this mess and go back to her old reality?

REVIEW
Making $125.5 million on a $4.8 million budget, 2017’s HAPPY DEATH DAY was a surprise success considering it was a PG-13 slasher. It also proved what a force Blumhouse is, as it continued its reputation as the biggest force in the horror movie industry at the moment. HAPPY DEATH DAY was a really fun film that proved that PG-13 slasher films can work if they’re marketed and executed well. However, I never wanted or expected a sequel to the film, as the GROUNDHOG DAY aspect is a great plot device for one film. When I learned that this was being released and seeing trailers for HAPPY DEATH DAY 2U, I wasn’t sure what to expect. It was presented in the same fashion as the first film, almost looking like a carbon copy but with a few differences. There was no way Blumhouse was doing an actual remake of a film that was barely two years old, right? Luckily, the sequel manages to be its own thing while using familiar aspects of the original film, making HAPPY DEATH DAY 2U worthy of a look if you enjoyed the first film.

Instead of original writer Scott Lobdell working on the script, returning director Christopher Landon steps up to grab the reins. I feel Landon’s approach to the sequel will either turn original fans away, or make current fans hungry for more. While the GROUNDHOG DAY plot device is still in play, it’s not really the focus this time around. Instead, Landon has gone for a more sci-fi approach in terms of quantum leaps, multiverses, and alternate realities affecting the characters this time around. While Tree is still suffering from a time loop, it takes place in alternate reality where the people she knows aren’t the same people from her original reality. And some people who weren’t present in her old one are now present in her new one, making her struggle with the decision to either go back to her old time, or just let things play out - both options causing her to make a huge sacrifice in the process. HAPPY DEATH DAY 2U plays with the whole BACK TO THE FUTURE PART II and SLIDING DOORS idea of different realities being created due to the choices that are made. And it does it for laughs as it tries to explain why Tree is stuck in this loop to begin with.

And don’t get me wrong - HAPPY DEATH DAY 2U is definitely a funny film that totally embraces the silliness and comedic aspects of its story. It feels like those 80s sci-fi comedies, like WEIRD SCIENCE, where the science aspect is played for laughs while trying to build a universe for the franchise to stand on for multiple sequels [it’s gonna happen so don’t roll your eyes]. Watching Tree suffer through different loops is hilarious, as she’s obviously grown tired of this whole deal and just wants to move on with her life. While her personality doesn’t change like it does in the first film, her struggle with dealing with the new reality thrusted upon her makes her mature as well. Unfortunately I don’t think it’s done as strongly as in the first film, but it’s there to see and understand if you’re a fan of the first film. The funniest moments [and moments that may trigger some people] are when Tree decides that she’s tired of being murdered, instead committing suicide in various ways that result in pretty cool visual transitions back to Carter’s bed. And there’s a lot of slapstick comedy, especially during the last act, where our characters try and pull off a heist against the Dean of the college. It’s done really well and I laughed at the silliness of it all. I also liked the emotional moments as well, where Tree doesn’t know whether she wants to keep living in the past or get rid of her fear of facing an unpredictable future. It’s mainly due to the strong writing for these moments and Jessica Rothe’s performance, managing to bring some gravitas to a sequel that surprisingly earns it. The writing isn’t as good as the first film, to be honest, but when it works, it really works.

I think the story fails when it comes to the horror aspect of the film. If you’re expecting a slasher film like the last movie, you’ll be seriously disappointed. I don’t mind that the focus is more on the comedy and science fiction aspect of the story, since it gives the sequel a different feel [which is the right move]. But it sort of starts as a slasher film, quickly forgets that there’s even a killer around, and then decides to go back to the slasher aspect. It makes the film feel disjointed, as the horror stuff feels forced in because that’s how the film was marketed and that’s probably what fans of the first film expected. The new killer is easy to predict as well, sort of playing homage to SCREAM in a way. But the mystery didn’t really work for me like it did in the first film, making me wish there wasn’t a killer at all. HAPPY DEATH DAY 2U could have focused on the science aspect and giving us a commentary on how technology and playing God leads to mischief and trouble and I don't think I would have had much of an issue. I feel this is why some haven’t been too kind to this sequel, as they expected something similar to the first film. I’m happy for the differences in storytelling and tone, but don’t shoehorn in an aspect you don’t plan on developing to please everyone. It usually never works.

I did enjoy how the time loops were used though. I don’t think the events of the first film really needed an explanation, but I thought the sequel did a decent job giving us a reason why Tree was suffering for so long. It was a great use of the budget in recreating scenes from the first film, but making them feel different and giving Tree reasons to keep ending her life in order to save people, or figure out which timeline she wanted to stay in or return to. The new science characters added a lot of charm and humor to the whole film, making the sci-fi stuff easy to swallow and enjoy. I look forward to what the next film [hopefully they make one] has in store, judging by that cute mid-credits sequence that will focus on another supporting character rather than Tree this time around. Should be fun if the film does well enough.

The direction by Christopher Landon isn’t as focused as it was in the first film, but Landon still manages to visually please the audience with funny montages and decent special effects that add to the sequel’s charm. When the comedic tone is at play, it really works due to the film’s flow and colorful visuals. Landon also recreates the original scenes excellently, changing subtle things when you least expect it. Landon really makes HAPPY DEATH DAY 2U feel like a seamless continuation for a movie that didn’t need one, making a guarantee that you’ll need to watch both films to get the whole story. The only time the film doesn’t work is when the tone shifts into slasher mode. There are no tense moments or even scary ones. I felt the pacing in the final act that involved the horror aspect lacked, and felt forced and rushed. I appreciate that Landon wanted to broaden the franchise’s horizons and not contain these characters within a single genre. But I would have preferred if this sequel was either a sci-fi comedy or a straight up slasher film. The slasher aspect really worked in the first film, while it feels like an afterthought here. I felt that Landon had a lot of ambitious ideas that worked eighty-percent of the time.

The acting is just as good in HAPPY DEATH DAY 2U as it was in the first film. Jessica Rothe, once again, carries the film incredibly on her back as Tree. While her character doesn’t have as much growth in terms of maturity like in the first film, Rothe still manages to give more depth to a character that we’ve really grown to love over these two films. Rothe has a knack for comedy, hilariously showing frustration over having to repeat herself again in the time loop. She shares amazing chemistry with her co-stars and even gets to do some real emotional acting in the new timeline. She’s really become an actress to watch out for and is the main reason to watch both of these movies. The only other actress who really stood out is Rachel Matthews as Danielle. While playing the stereotypical snotty bitch in the first film, Matthews has more to do in the sequel. She has a great moment of comedy in the final act that felt kind of inappropriate, but I couldn’t help but giggle at the entire thing. Plus, she still excels at being a snob that you can’t help but feel charmed by. The other actors, especially the returning Israel Broussard, Phi Vu, and Ruby Modine do well with the differences they’re given, showing us new aspects of their characters that will probably continue in the next film [if it happens].

THE FINAL HOWL
While not as fresh or focused as the first film, HAPPY DEATH DAY 2U manages to be a surprisingly fun sequel that’s probably worth watching if you enjoyed the first movie. Jessica Rothe continues to carry the franchise well on her shoulders, showing us that she’s able to charm audiences no matter what genre of film she’s in. The 80s sci-fi comedic vibe gives the franchise a fresh coat of paint that no one was really expecting or asking for, yet it works for the most part by embracing the silliness of the film’s premise. The sequel, however, lacks a focus the first film had - especially with the horror aspect that feels shoehorned to please fans of the first film. If you’re looking for a slasher mystery, you’ll be seriously disappointed. While not as strong of a film as its predecessor, HAPPY DEATH DAY 2U has to be respected for thinking outside of the box and going into a new direction. I went in expecting a rehash of the first film and ended up getting something completely different, which I really admired about this sequel. Fans of the first film should give HAPPY DEATH 2U a shot. It may not work completely for everyone, but you have to respect the direction this franchise wants to go. 


SCORE
3 Howls Outta 4



1.25.2019

Brain Damage (1988)


DIRECTED BY
Frank Henenlotter

STARRING
Rick Hearst - Brian
John Zacherie - Aylmer (voice)
Gordon MacDonald - Mike
Jennifer Lowry - Barbara
Theo Barnes - Morris
Lucille Saint Peter - Martha
Kevin Van Hentenryck - Man with Basket

Genre - Horror/Comedy/B-Movie

Running Time - 86 Minutes (Director’s Cut)


While he does have a cult following, Frank Henenlotter isn’t a name many horror circles talk about a whole lot. He’s not as crisp of a filmmaker as John Carpenter. He didn’t bring the genre back into the mainstream like Wes Craven. And he didn’t shock people in a polarizing way like Eli Roth, James Wan, and Rob Zombie. Whenever Henenlotter is mentioned, it’s usually concerns 1982’s BASKET CASE, an insane low-budget horror film involving a twisted tale of conjoined twins on a quest for revenge. It’s considered a horror classic by many and one of the many inspirations for low-budget horror directors quickly after [along with Sam Raimi’s THE EVIL DEAD]. Others mention 1990’s FRANKENHOOKER due to its clever name and content. 

But rarely does 1988’s BRAIN DAMAGE gain the same kind of attention. Maybe it’s because it feels like the middle child between two big cult films. Maybe it’s because horror fans weren’t too fond of the film at the time, due to how much the MPAA had butchered it before its release. Thankfully, an uncut version was finally released in the late ‘90s. And while BRAIN DAMAGE has gained a good cult following since its release, it’s usually mentioned third after BASKET CASE and FRANKENHOOKER in some circles. I find it strange, since BRAIN DAMAGE is probably the best of Henenlotter’s films and worthy of more attention than it usually gets.

PLOT
Brian (Rick Hearst) wakes up to find out that some sentient wormlike parasite called Aylmer (voiced by John Zacherie) has decided to burrow itself in his neck and effect his brain functions. Brian quickly realizes that Aylmer needs to survive on a constant diet of human brains and wants to control Brian to find victims. Usually Brian would be against this, but he relishes the feeling of Aylmer injecting a highly addictive blue fluid into his brain that fogs his memory and makes him hallucinate really strange things. Due to these events, Brian has neglected his girlfriend Barbara (Jennifer Lowry) to the point that she runs into the arms of Brian’s brother (Gordon McDonald). As Brian realizes Aylmer is doing more harm than good, he does all he can to make sure both his brother and girlfriend don’t become victims themselves.

REVIEW
It had been many years since I last watched BRAIN DAMAGE, forgetting all about the film until I saw someone mention it on social media due to a gorgeous blu-ray that was released recently. I decided to sit down and check it out, forgetting how great this horror-comedy is, while carrying a strong anti-addiction message that deserves more respect and recognition. Don’t get me wrong - I absolutely love BASKET CASE, as it never fails to entertain me. But let’s be realistic - BRAIN DAMAGE takes the similar concept presented in the previously mentioned film and does it ten times better due to its strong storytelling and unique visual presentation.

BRAIN DAMAGE reels me in due to its story and how well written it is. Henenlotter loves using the theme of symbiotic relationships between a man and some freak of nature that only he understands. And while it’s presented as more of a creepy mystery in BASKET CASE to shock audiences, BRAIN DAMAGE uses the same concept to tell its audience a strong message about addiction. It’s sort of the B-movie equivalent of those drug commercials with that frying egg on the hot pan. Drugs will fry your brain, just like how Aylmer fries Brian’s brain. Even though Brian knows this worm creature isn’t totally on the up and up, the high he receives each time Aylmer attaches himself to Brian is a pretty accurate depiction of an addict. There’s even a scene where Brian tries to do cold turkey away from Aylmer, only for the creature to smugly mock him and force Brian to beg for his help. This is a common story with addicts, who believe they can hear their addictions talking to them as if they’re the only friend they’ll need. Even Brian’s relationships with people in his life and the world around him deteriorate quite fast, due to his willingness to please only Aylmer and the high he feeds Brian. For a silly creature feature, it takes a serious subject [that was extremely topical at the time] and portrays it excellently. BRAIN DAMAGE is never subtle about it, but it never really forces it on you either. 

The characters aren’t deep or anything, but they’re not unlikeable or hard to relate to. We barely know who Brian is before he succumbs to his addiction, since Aylmer possesses him right from the start without any sort of backstory. In a way, it’s as if this creature has raped Brian in his sleep and Brian suffers from some sort of Stockholm Syndrome to maintain the pleasant feeling he receives from Aylmer. It could also be a clue that Brian was weak-willed to start with, and Aylmer took advantage of that vulnerability. Brian does seem to have a decent relationship with Barbara, who adores her boyfriend in an almost obsessive way. It’s like she’s addicted for Brian’s affections towards her! Brian also shares a weird relationship with his brother Mike, who loves Brian so much that he’ll take the first chance to bang Barbara. There’s also this strange fantasy where Brian hallucinates having a threesome with Barbara and Mike, almost insinuating some sort of creepy incest element that doesn’t get fleshed out thankfully. There seems to be something going on with Brian that the film never fully develops, but BRAIN DAMAGE doesn’t really need to. The fact that he takes to Aylmer so quickly and decides to deal with his nonsense for a quick fix proves that Brian is a victim mentally and emotionally.

Speaking of Aylmer, he’s obviously a smart villain that has no problem taking advantage of people weaker than him to get what he wants - which are human brains that he enjoys feasting on. He’s apparently been around for centuries, attaching himself to others to do his dirty work. He’s also quite the charming wormlike fellow, making us see why Brian [or anyone else] finds him alluring. Plus, he has an interesting visual design with his tiny eyes and weird needle-like teeth. Plus, he has a great singing voice. Why wouldn’t anyone allow him to eat their brain?

Frank Henenlotter and the special effects team do a really great job on a small budget, even though I believe BRAIN DAMAGE cost more money to make than what was used to film BASKET CASE. It’s a more ambitious film than BASKET CASE for sure, which shows the growth of confidence Henenlotter achieved between the two films. The hallucination, trip out scenes are done really well with neon colors that pop out and make you experience the high Brian is feeling. The camera moves smoothly, giving us great angles and shots that build tension and reveal a lot about the characters and the setting of New York City in the late 1980s. Henenlotter also relies a lot on the color blue. Aylmer’s hallucinogen is a blue fluid, while a lot of the scenes where Brian is high are shot with blue hues that add a ton of atmosphere. I especially love the first hallucination sequence where Brian is submerged into the blue fluid. My only minor issue is the repetitiveness of Aylmer shooting his fluid to get Brian high, which is done like four or five times. But overall, it’s beautiful filmmaking from a man you wouldn’t expect that from.

As for the special effects and gore, you won’t be disappointed here. You get a lot of stop-motion sequences, along with multiple moments of Aylmer burrowing himself inside people’s skulls to eat brains. Aylmer, himself, looks quite silly but you get over it due to how he’s portrayed and the voice acting. There’s a creepy moment where Brian pulls his brain out of his ear in a blood-soaked scene that would make Sam Raimi proud. And probably the reason for the uncut version of this film - a very memorable scene of fellatio gone bad where Aylmer enters the mouth of a woman as she gives Brian oral stimulation. It’s gross, shocking, and one-hundred percent funny. BRAIN DAMAGE definitely uses its budget well.

The acting isn’t really much to write home about. But it’s definitely an upgrade of the campiness of BASKET CASE, which wouldn’t work for this film at all. Future soap opera actor Rick Hearst does really well as Brian, convincingly playing an addict who happens to be addicted to a puppet. Considering the type of film he was in, Hearst took it entirely seriously and made Brian as fully a fleshed-out character that the script would allow. I’m not surprised he went on to work on multiple television shows. He has the chops. Gordon MacDonald and Jennifer Lowry were okay as Mike and Barbara. They didn’t really get a whole lot to do but played their supporting roles well enough to make the premise work. And I can’t end this review without mentioning former television horror host and singer John Zacherle. He gives Aylmer so much personality just with his voice, bringing the character to life and making you forget you’re watching a silly looking puppet destroy a young man’s life. I think he was the perfect voice for the character and I loved his singing voice during the cold turkey scene. Just great stuff.

Plus, we get a cool cameo from a familiar guy carrying a basket on the subway.


THINGS I’VE LEARNED WHILE JUST SAYING NO

  • This older couple destroyed their apartment looking for an escaped Aylmer. There are easier ways to get on Property Brothers on HGTV.

  • As Brian hallucinated in his bedroom, his ceiling lamp turned into a giant eye in the sky. The Alan Parsons Project approves of this film. 

  • While high, Brian acted silly in a junkyard at night. He better be careful. He might believe that he’s really watching a dog pee fire to resurrect Freddy Krueger. Nothing stupid like that would ever happen. Oh wait…

  • Brian sat in a bathtub for three hours. Maybe he’s having a Daryl Hannah SPLASH phase. Don’t judge!

  • While high, Brian saw his spaghetti and meatballs transform into throbbing brains. That’s the last time I eat at Olive Garden.

  • Brian slowly pulled his brain out of his ear, tearing his ear off in the process. I imagine this would have been a trick Vincent Van Gogh would have pulled if he had become a magician rather than an artist.

  • Brian caught his brother boning his girlfriend, while fantasizing that he was having a threesome with the both of them in incestuous fashion. This is some Jerry Springer shit!


THE FINAL HOWL
I'm very happy that I decided to revisit BRAIN DAMAGE after not having watched it in many, many years. It’s one of the finest anti-drug films and a clever low-budget film by Frank Henenlotter that proves how good of a horror filmmaker he is. The film has a message that’s presented well, solid acting by the two leads, slick direction, and pretty cool special effects considering its budget. BRAIN DAMAGE is smart, clever, funny, creepy, and satisfying for anyone looking for blood and guts. If you enjoy BASKET CASE and/or FRANKENHOOKER, I have no doubt BRAIN DAMAGE will be up your alley. Definitely recommended, but be careful - you may gain an addiction from the film’s awesomeness.



SCORE
4 Howls Outta 4



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