Midnight Confessions Ep. 131: "Don Dohler Double Feature"

Our last episode of the year and we're spending with Don Dohler, because...why not? We take a look at Dohler's first 2 films, THE ALIEN FACTOR (1978) and FIEND (1980). We also do a year end recap [to the best of our recollection], plus music by Murderock because...why not? We'll be back in February! So until then, Happy Holidays from the MC Crew!


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Death Wish (1974)

Michael Winner

Charles Bronson - Paul Kersey
Hope Lange - Joanna Kersey
Vincent Gardenia - Lt. Frank Ochoa
William Redfield - Samuel “Sam” Kreutzer
Steven Keats - Jack Toby
Stuart Margolin - Ames Jainchill
Jeff Goldblum - Freak #1
Kathleen Tolan - Carol Toby

Genre - Drama/Crime/Action/Exploitation

Running Time - 93 Minutes

With Eli Roth’s remake being released in theaters at the end of November during a time of social unrest in terms of politics, civil rights, and police violence, I figured it was the right to reflect on the original DEATH WISH franchise starring Charles Bronson. It’s funny how a film from 1974 is still as relevant today as it was back then, but the original DEATH WISH still manages to tackle certain issues the current generation is still struggling with. Back when the original Charles Bronson classic was released, the days of black-and-white heroism and happy endings were long gone. Instead, we had anti-heroes who expressed grey morality, not following the tradition societal rules, hoping stepping outside the box would breed positive change through not-so-positive actions. Clint Eastwood’s turn as Harry Callahan in 1971’s DIRTY HARRY set a trend for a movie hero who took the law in his own hands when law enforcement wouldn’t get their hands filthy to clean up crime. Bronson’s Paul Kersey follows the trend of a man who feels justified about his “above the law” stance to clean up the streets of New York City after tragedy strikes his family. The fact that many people today believe that owning guns to protect themselves and eliminate any sort of threat that the police refuse to get involved with shows that not much has really changed since the 1970s when it comes to individual thoughts on justice.

Based on a novel by Brian Garfield, DEATH WISH is about architect Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) whose life turns upside down after returning to New York City from a wonderful trip with his wife Joanna (Hope Lange) to Hawaii. When Paul is at work, Joanna and daughter Carol (Kathleen Tolan) are followed by three thugs (including a young Jeff Goldblum) after a trip to the supermarket. These hoods force their way into their apartment, brutalizing Joanna and raping Carol to get back at the upper class. When Paul learns of the incident, he’s devastated to find out that Joanna died from the attack and Carol is now in a catatonic state due to trauma - the point that she can’t function emotionally and has to be placed in an institution. Paul wonders what the police will do about what happened to his family, upset that the police have nothing on the thugs and can’t follow any leads to serve justice. And as his world crumbles, his paranoia gives him tunnel vision of all the crime around him in the city.
During a work-related vacation in Arizona, he meets developer Ames Jainchill (Stuart Margolin) -  who convinces Paul that guns are the way to maintain a civil society. After Ames gives him a revolver as a gift, Paul returns to New York luring muggers and fatally shooting them. As the killing spree grows, the news of a mysterious vigilante decreasing muggings in the city pleases the public. However, the police are worried with Lt. Frank Ochoa (Vincent Gardenia) in charge of hunting down Paul and stopping him from taking the law into his own hands - even though if he and some of his fellow officers aren’t totally displeased by Paul’s actions.

An exploitation film at heart, DEATH WISH struck a chord with audiences upon its release. The 1970s were a frightening time for many in the middle and upper classes of society, due to the upswing in crime in major cities in the United States. The police couldn’t seem to get a handle on it, and politicians were dealing with putting out scandalous fires of internal espionage and unnecessary wars to be too concerned. DEATH WISH is not subtle about its message. Within the first five minutes, a supporting character quotes urban crime statistics to Paul the moment he returns from utopian Hawaii, complaining about how dangerous New York City has become. Almost every other scene in DEATH WISH depicts crime - from Paul watching thugs vandalize a car right outside his window, to muggers attacking him in the streets or on subway trains - making New York City feel like a dystopian area that seems almost unbelievable to exist. This is even made for evident when Paul travels to Arizona, which looks like paradise compared to the gritty NYC. No one is afraid there. Everyone is having fun watching western shows [which Paul feels inspired by since shoot outs create justice] and driving through miles of desert. This freedom, as Paul’s developer Ames claims, is due to owning guns and protecting themselves from anything bad. There’s also a claim that overcrowding leads to more crime, which Arizona doesn’t have to deal with. DEATH WISH lays it thick with its message, but it also makes you wonder if the message isn’t all that far from the truth.

In some ways, you’d think DEATH WISH was a propaganda film created by the NRA to justify the right to bear arms and defend yourself from muggings and random violence. Paul, who was in the military during the Korean War - but as a medic, is pretty much anti-violence. But after what happens to his family and witnessing crime with his own eyes, his stance begins to change to reflect the world around him. Ames takes Paul to a gun range in Arizona, surprised how well Paul handles shooting targets with ease. And once Paul finds out Ames presented him with a pistol, he begins to take his frustration on the lawlessness of his environment by luring muggers and murdering them. It startles him at first, but the thrill of murder and taking the law into his own hands revitalizes him to the point it becomes an addiction. And when he pops up all over the news as the mysterious vigilante, it almost makes him feel good and justified for creating discussion about his actions. Even law enforcement officials are torn between following the law or applauding Paul’s actions. DEATH WISH seems to suggest that to fight crime, individuals must stand up to it and prey on those who are creating trouble. And watching this in 2017, it kind of shines a light on how things haven’t really changed much. It’s sad, to be perfectly honest.

While DEATH WISH is obviously a classic in cinema, there are detractors who feel that it doesn’t live up to its rape-revenge motif. Paul’s wife gets murdered and Paul’s daughter gets raped [even painted with red paint on her butt as a target - obviously inspired by 1971’s A CLOCKWORK ORANGE] by three thugs, whom Paul never gets revenge on due to lack of evidence and identity. Instead, Paul uses his grief to get rid of other criminals to prevent the same thing happening to others that happened to him. So technically, Paul never gets revenge on those who wronged his family, making DEATH WISH an oddity in the rape-revenge sub-genre. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as the message still plays out as it should. It also allows Paul to carry out the character arc the story puts him in, going from peaceful grieving husband to violent vigilante. But the fact that the culprits are never caught or dealt with is disappointing in a narrative way, even if it does happen from time to time in the real world. However, the film still works, even if it isn’t one hundred percent satisfying. 

The other characters deal with the events in their own way as well. Paul’s daughter Carol is completely traumatized by the rape and death of her mother, dealing with catatonia and the inability to handle human contact. Paul nor Carol’s husband Jack can’t help her, sending her to an institution so they can deal with it. Speaking of Jack, he pretty much follows the status quo. He grieves the loss of his family, he struggles dealing with his catatonic wife, and doesn’t understand why Paul is so calm about everything all of a sudden. He feels doing nothing and letting things happen is the civilized way, even though this conformity is just making the world around him worse. And Lt. Ochoa is on the hunt for Paul, wanting him to stop taking the law into his own hands - while understand why Paul is doing it and quietly admiring him and respecting him for his actions. It’s good to see a variety of reactions towards the whole vigilante situation, as it broadens the depth of the message being told.

The direction by Michael Winner, who has directed Bronson in the fantastic 1972 film THE MECHANIC, as well as directing the cult horror film THE SENTINEL from 1977, sort of presents DEATH WISH as a gritty city version of your typical western. Instead of cowboys, Winner presents Bronson as a gunslinger hero who shoots evil people who threaten the status quo. It’s not the most stylish film and looks like your typical exploitation film of the 1970s at times. But there’s a certain level of sleaziness that crafts the film’s atmosphere, using the scenes of muggers threatening Paul and others as a way to build tension and anxiety as the film runs. New York City is shot in such a dirty, scuzzy way that it differentiates itself from those beautiful, colorful scenes of Hawaii or Arizona. There’s a dark cloud over DEATH WISH through majority of the film, with Bronson being the story’s only hope of a silver lining. For that, I think Winner does a good job visually bringing the story and its message to life.

The acting works for DEATH WISH. Charles Bronson is probably best known for his role as Paul Kersey, even though his acting won’t catch the attention of those handing out awards. It’s fascinating to watch Bronson in this film. Whether finding out his wife has been murdered and daughter raped, or showing euphoria for murdering muggers, his facial expression never really changes. Bronson is pretty much stoic throughout the film, making you wonder whether he wants Paul to display any sort of emotion at all. But for some reason, it’s perfect. You’re always wondering what’s on the man’s mind, waiting for the moment until he finally snaps - which never happens. It’s a wonderful performance of an actor not doing much at all, but saying a whole lot for 90 minutes. Vincent Gardenia is also great as Lt. Ochoa, the man chasing after Paul to stop him. He plays your typical gruff cop who secretly respects what Paul’s doing, but know it goes against his job, Gardenia also adds in ticks, like sneezing and coughing, that give Ochoa personality. Stuart Margolin is great as Ames, the man who makes Paul reconsider his stance on justice. He brings some humor to the film, acting as the catalyst to Paul’s vigilantism in his short role. And it’s funny to see Jeff Goldblum in his first film role as “Freak #1”, one of the thugs who murders Paul’s wife and watches Paul’s daughter get raped. And Christopher Guest as a young police officer towards the end of the film is also neat to see as well. A really solid cast in DEATH WISH.

And I can’t end this look on DEATH WISH without mentioning Herbie Hancock’s jazzy score, which adds a funky mood to a bleak film. It’s great stuff.

DEATH WISH still resonates today as much as it did back in 1974. The message of using violence to stop violence is something many in our current society are still struggling with, whether some of us quietly agree with the idea of “an eye for an eye” or downright oppose it and want peace instead. DEATH WISH doesn’t really work as a direct rape-revenge film since he never really gets vengeance on those who harmed him and his family. But as a commentary of 1970s urban anxiety and the need to make change happen in a lawlessness world through any means necessary, it works extremely well. Charles Bronson typecast himself as the stoically gruff vigilante character with DEATH WISH, but that’s a credit to Bronson being so well cast for the role of Paul Kersey. Exploitative at times, gritty, violent, and even thought-provoking, DEATH WISH maintains a film that audiences should watch all these years later. 

3.5 Howls Outta 4


Jigsaw (2017)

The Spierig Brothers

Matt Passmore - Logan Nelson
Callum Keith Rennie - Det. Halloran
Cle Bennett - Det. Keith Hunt
Hannah Emily Anderson - Eleanor Bonneville
Laura Vandervoort - Anna
Mandela Van Peebles - Mitch
Paul Braunstein - Ryan
Brittany Allen - Carly
Tobin Bell - John Kramer/ Jigsaw

Genre - Horror/ Survival

Running Time - 92 Minutes

PLOT (from IMDB):
Bodies are turning up around the city, each having met a uniquely gruesome demise. As the investigation proceeds, evidence points to one suspect: John Kramer (Tobin Bell), the man known as Jigsaw, who has been dead for ten years.

I’m sure modern audiences barely remember, but the SAW franchise was a big deal for the horror scene throughout the mid-to-late 2000s. It introduced us to James Wan and Leigh Whannell. It made Tobin Bell’s Jigsaw character a pop culture icon. And it helped create that annoying term, “torture porn”, for horror films where sadistic killers used elaborate traps to murder their victims. The first SAW from 2004 is a modern horror classic in my opinion due to its stylish direction, inventive storytelling, and a twist that everyone should have some coming but somehow we never did. The sequels have had their ups and downs. In fact, the original intended trilogy is still some great stuff. The last few sequels were pretty much just cash grabs - except you SAW VI, we still love you. 2010’s SAW 3D: THE FINAL CHAPTER [not] was a weak ending to a franchise that started with a really strong foundation. It proved that the series had been milked dry creatively and even financially, looking like a shell of its former self.

So it’s been seven years, and news about an 8th SAW film had been around for years. Considering how much time has passed and how the last SAW turned out, I was actually looking forward to a new SAW. Sure, a part of me wondered what the point of bringing the series back would be. Would Jigsaw even fit within the modern horror scene? Would audiences even care? But hey - if it could improve upon how the previous film had ended things, then why not? I mean, seven years is a long time to come up with new ideas to reinvent the franchise. JIGSAW has to be better than THE [not so] FINAL CHAPTER, right?

And after watching JIGSAW, yes - the 8th SAW film is better than both THE FINAL CHAPTER and SAW V. But it’s disappointing to see that no one thought about reinventing the wheel and making the series feel fresh. Instead, JIGSAW pretty much follows every other SAW sequel that exists - traps, red herring characters, and a convoluted twist that you’ll either admire, or roll your eyes at, for being ridiculous. I’m all for Lionsgate for wanting to bring the series back to make a profit. It’s just too bad I’m not all that eager to watch a new one if it ever comes to pass.

There are some good things about JIGSAW. I thought the Spierig Brothers did a great job behind the camera. Along with cinematographer Ben Nott, the Spierig Brothers give the film a more subtle visual presentation compared to the manic editing and yellow-green filters of the previous films in the series. It was nice to visually understand a SAW film for once, as the later sequels got too caught up in their style to be one-hundred percent coherent at times. It’s directed well, flows well, and the Spierig Brothers attempt to make a smaller scale SAW film look bigger and more expensive than it actually is. It’s not the greatest directed horror film ever, but JIGSAW is one of the better directed films in the series.

I also thought the acting was good. Everyone plays their roles well. Matt Passmore does a decent job as the leading man, Logan. Callum Keith Rennie is great as the lead investigator of the new murders, making you question where his loyalty lies at times. I also thought that of all the victims in the film, Laura Vandervoort did a solid job in creating a strong performance that has many subtle layers that start to unravel by the film’s end. Hannah Emily Anderson was also a fun performance as forensic pathologist Eleanor, who seems to be a fangirl for Jigsaw’s murders. And I love seeing Tobin Bell in anything, and his presence here is great as always. I thought this was one of the better acted SAW films.

And while the traps aren’t as memorable or as gory as the previous films, I did think the gore effects weren’t terrible. I thought the spinning cylinder trap was probably the highlight of the death traps really, as it brought some actual tension to the film. And the last trap with the head device surrounded by lasers was pretty neat as well, including watching a head split into multiple segments once the lasers strike.

But just like my gripes with 2017’s LEATHERFACE, it’s the narrative that brings JIGSAW down. You have seven years to come up with something fresh. So what do you do? You just do the same thing that the other films did! Talk about playing it safe just to make money. I was expecting something innovative somewhat, and it’s just the same film we’ve watched eight times already. Gory traps? Suspicious characters? Victims with a horrible backstory that make them less sympathetic as the film rolls through? A convoluted twist at the end that feels as if that’s the only reason the film exists? They’re all here. But I thought some of the previous sequels did these things much better in terms of execution. Some of the other sequels felt clever in their screenwriting. JIGSAW just feels forced when it comes to these things.

I’m kind of bummed that I’m even giving JIGSAW a less-than-positive review, since I actually like this franchise for the most part. Hell, I even liked JIGSAW more when I watched it. But after weeks of thinking about it, I felt more negative about it because I expected more out of it. Even if it was the worst SAW film because it was super different in terms of its approach, at least I could have appreciated it for trying something new. JIGSAW just feels underwhelming because it’s nothing we haven’t seen before in the franchise. And since it attempts to be a reboot, ignoring plot points from the previous films, the twist at the end was easy to figure out because they went to the tired-and-true storytelling that we saw in the first SAW. Sure, some of the victims’ backstories were interesting. And the new characters had interesting arcs at times. But it doesn’t change the franchise, or add anything new. And as much as I admire how they tried to sell us on the twist at the end, it honestly didn’t make any sense if you really think about it. It feels really forced. And if this twist is going to lead to more sequels, I may just wait until home video because how many times can I pay for the same thing but with a different cast? I know fans will love it, but horror has changed since THE FINAL CHAPTER. JIGSAW should have implemented some of that change and continued on that wave for potential future installments. Maybe they will if they ever do another one. But I think it may be too late by that point. But who knows - maybe Lionsgate will surprise us like they did with SAW VI back in 2009.

Not the worst SAW film in the series, but still a pretty disappointing entry in the franchise. I commend the Spierig Brothers for bringing a nice, refreshing visual style compared to previous SAW films. I also thought some of the traps were cool and the acting was mostly solid. But it just feels like the same old SAW film we’ve seen seven times already - but more tame and with a twist that feels more forced than usual. After seven years, you’d think the producers would try something different - or at least twist the usual storytelling around to create something new. Fun at times, but JIGSAW doesn’t bring anything new to the table. Hopefully the next installment [if it happens] changes the formula a bit. But I’m not holding my breath on that. For fans only.

2 Howls Outta 4


Leatherface (2017)

Julien Maury
Alexandre Bustillo

Stephen Dorff - Hal Hartman
Lili Taylor - Verna Sawyer
Vanessa Grasse - Lizzy White
Sam Strike - Jackson
Finn Jones - Deputy Sorrel
Sam Coleman - Bud
Jessica Madsen - Clarice
James Bloor - Ike
Christopher Adamson - Dr. Lang

Genre - Horror/Slasher/Thriller

Running Time - 90 Minutes

PLOT (from IMDB):
A teenage Leatherface escapes from a mental hospital with three other inmates, kidnapping a young nurse (Vanessa Grasse) and taking her on a road trip from hell, while being pursued by a lawman (Stephen Dorff) out for revenge.

2017’s TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE prequel, LEATHERFACE, had a lot of hype among horror fans awaiting its release. Even though there was a mixed reaction to 2013’s TEXAS CHAINSAW 3D despite its classic line of “Do your thing, Cuz!”, the film was a financial success and was ready for a sequel. However, the studio and producers couldn’t agree on a story, creating the need for a prequel instead - even though there was already a prequel [THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE - THE BEGINNING]. But I guess that was for the remake story and not for the original continuity that the franchise is back riding on [why are these horror franchises so confusing?]. Anyway, it was believed that audiences would appreciate an origin story for the franchise’s main character, Leatherface, explaining how and why he became the horror film icon we’ve all grown to love. Bring in INSIDE and LIVIDE directors Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo to helm the film, with Lili Taylor and Stephen Dorff as the leads, and you got some excitement for a film no one really asked for but still wanted to see nonetheless.

However, the production was troublesome. Either due to dissatisfaction from Maury & Bustillo, or from Lionsgate itself, reshoots and multiple edits delayed the release of LEATHERFACE by two years. It also didn’t help that its potential theatrical release was dropped, settling for a DirecTV release in September before hitting all VOD platforms a few weeks ago. Unlike many years ago, the direct-to-video stigma no longer exists. But its distribution made many question whether LEATHERFACE was worth the watch. And while it’s not a terrible film, LEATHERFACE just ends up being pointless and a victim of an identity crisis.

Let’s just get the good stuff out of the way:

LEATHERFACE is a well-made movie. Maury & Bustillo try to bring back a lot of the lighting and feel of the original Tobe Hooper classic in LEATHERFACE, giving the film a classic look while maintaining a modern vibe that modern fans could probably appreciate. The action sequences involving the more brutal moments of the story are shot really well, with the directors attempting to bring tension and cringe-worthy moments that could leave some feeling uncomfortable - and others feeling like they’re back home in Leatherface’s world. There are scenes that are definitely meant to shock audiences, including a moment where a couple have sex while a break out is happening inside a mental asylum. This same couple also have sex on top of a corpse in a later scene. It’s grotesque and disturbing, which is exactly what this franchise should be capitalizing on. It’s edgy where it matters, due to Maury & Bustillo understanding how to bring that kind of tone in a horror film like this one.

Speaking of the visual presentation, LEATHERFACE also has some nice gore effects. We get some grisly decapitations, lost limbs, faces getting mutilated, and the expected chainsaw murders. The film doesn’t hold back when it wants to be brutal, which I appreciated. It’s great stuff.

And I have to compliment the acting in this film. I thought the performances are very good here. Lili Taylor is a delight as Verna Sawyer, the mother of the clan. She takes the role seriously and brings something menacing subtle with her performance. While she does awful things to people, you can also sympathize with her situation as well. I wish she were in the film more, but I appreciated her commanding presence whenever she was on screen. Stephen Dorff was also good as Hartman, the Texas Ranger who wanted revenge on the Sawyer family for murdering his daughter. It could have been a one note performance, but Dorff brings enough dimension to his grief and feelings that you want to sympathize with his character arc - even if the character is heavily flawed in his actions. I thought Sam Strike was very charismatic as Jackson, while Vanessa Grasse played the classic role of “final girl” Nurse Lizzie well. Finn Jones played his part as well as the script would allow him to, while Christopher Adamson played the sinister doctor to a tee. I thought LEATHERFACE had a pretty great cast….

….It’s just too bad that the script and narrative is what ruins this film big time. Now, I wasn’t expecting this prequel to be as good as the classic 1974 film or its first couple of sequels. But I was expecting it to be better than TEXAS CHAINSAW 3D. Sure, LEATHERFACE is better made and better acted. But TEXAS CHAINSAW maintained a consistent tone and mood, while feeling like a modern day TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE film for a newer generation regardless of its quality. LEATHERFACE only feels like a TEXAS CHAINSAW film during its opening few minutes and during the end of its final act. It’s almost as if the screenwriters forgot what film was supposed to be a prequel for.

The tone of this film suffers from a schism it can’t recover from. We have a vengeful sheriff who feels more comfortable in THE DEVIL’S REJECTS than he would here. Two members of the young cast that escapes the mental hospital [Clarice and Ike] shoot up a restaurant, have sex on top of a corpse, and act erratically around others. Did they audition for a prequel of NATURAL BORN KILLERS and stepped onto the wrong set? It honestly feels like a tamer version of a Rob Zombie film, but less memorable and less interesting. I don’t mind this film to be inspired by better movies, but maybe it should focus on what it’s really supposed to be - a prequel to THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. Even THE NEXT GENERATION did a better job at that than LEATHERFACE.

The worst part happens to be the treatment of the title character and how it goes against everything that has been established about him. During the narrative of the film, we’re never told which one of these escaped characters is the real Leatherface. Sure, we have characters that embody what we think Leather would look like when he was younger, but we’re never sure since names have been changed during most of the film. I don’t mind the mystery and I think it’s a decent twist if you never see it coming [I figured it out due to certain characters getting more screen time than others]. But the fact that this certain character ended up being Leatherface just felt odd and forced - as to swerve us along the way for a nice twist. But it could have worked if the script was stronger.

What I had real issue with was how this character suddenly became Leatherface. It seems he became the horror icon we’ve grown to love due to accidental circumstance, rather than a prolonged series of events that twisted his mind and body to the point of no return. We learn how Leatherface’s appearance came to be, which somehow turns him from a normal teenager into a slow-minded and violent killer. We’re also seem to be told that even though young Leatherface seemed to have a sense of morality and ethics at times, his family would always get to him and make him evil. The nature vs nurture argument is fine. But to have a character drastically change so quickly and just become the Leatherface we now know, even though he didn’t show any of these tendencies in any scene prior to this happening, is just bad writing. It does a disservice to Leatherface and to the fans of the franchise.

LEATHERFACE could have been a good prequel to a classic horror film. And while it’s well made and well acted - with some nice gore effects - the story doesn’t do the prequel justice. The character arc for Leatherface doesn’t feel natural and doesn’t fit with the character we would come to know. And the film seems to suffer from an identity crisis, wanting to be any other film besides THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. THE BEGINNING was a way better prequel for the character. LEATHERFACE just ends up being pointless and honestly shouldn’t have been made at all. Not the worst in the franchise, but nothing really memorable either. What a shame.

1.5 Howls Outta 4


Midnight Confessions Ep. 130: "Halloween '17 w/Vincent Price"

It's Halloween and who better to spend the holiday with than Vincent Price? Mr. Price made many a great movies and played many great and memorable characters, but we decided we’d go with one of his greatest roles (and a role where he doesn’t even get to physically open his mouth), none other than Dr. Phibes! Yes, we’ll be taking a look at THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1971) and DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN (1972). 

Plus music by Tim Curry, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, The Viewers and The Rocky Horror Picture Show.


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Midnight Confessions Ep. 129: "Italian 80's Horror Double Feature"

It’s not quite Halloween yet, but we’re feeling the vibes and what is October with out a least a few Italian horror flicks? The two in question this episode are Dario Argento’s classic, TENEBRE (1982) and the more elusive, SPIDER LABYRINTH (1988). 

Plus music by: Baltimora, Goblin, Jack Hammer, and Raf.


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Happy Death Day (2017)

Christopher B. Landon

Jessica Rothe - Tree Gelbman
Israel Broussard - Carter Davis
Ruby Modine - Lori Spengler
Rachel Matthews - Danielle Bouseman
Charles Aitken - Gregory
Rob Mello - Joseph Tombs

Genre - Horror/Comedy/Slasher

Running Time - 96 Minutes

Unlikable Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) treats the people around her like dirt, even though her friends and sorority sisters are treating her with a surprise birthday party. However on the night of her party, Tree’s murdered by a killer wearing the mask of the school mascot. Normally that would be the end, but Tree continues to wake up over and over - dying in different ways by the same killer. Frustrated by these chain of events, Tree figures out that she needs to find out who her killer is and stop them before the deja vu ends up weakening her and ending her life for good.

HAPPY DEATH DAY is a film that snuck up on me a couple of months ago. It’s inspired GROUNDHOG DAY storytelling peaked my interest, as I really enjoy that comedy. Add a slasher twist to it? You know I’m there, regardless of it’s PG-13 rating. And with Blumhouse’s recent track record with horror films [GET OUT, THE PURGE, THE VISIT], I knew HAPPY DEATH DAY would be at least somewhat decent. I just didn’t expect how fun it would end up being, even if it won’t reinvent the wheel.

Like I mentioned already, HAPPY DEATH DAY is pretty much the horror remake of GROUNDHOG DAY. And if you’ve watched GROUNDHOG DAY, you pretty much seen HAPPY DEATH DAY. The lead character, again, is very unlikable at the start of the film. Tree is a sorority member who is pretty much a bitch to those around her. She looks down on people. She criticizes others. She sleeps around because she’s beautiful. She’s distant with her father. She’s extremely self-centered, leading to someone wanting to murder her. And like GROUNDHOG DAY, Tree begins to change into a better person as she experiences the same day multiple times, realizing that she must change in order for her to see the next day. She also must figure out her killer before the deja vu ends up killing her for good. It’s a simple premise that we have seen before, but done in a horror twist that surprisingly works in its benefit. Watching Tree approach the same day in various ways is entertaining, as it reveals a lot about herself as well as the people around her. The secrets she finds out are sometimes hilarious, making the deja vu aspect worthwhile for comedic purposes.

I also think the GROUNDHOG DAY aspect of HAPPY DEATH DAY is a joke on the slasher sub-genre itself. Usually when you watch a slasher film, you pretty much seen them all but in a different variety. Slashers have always been accused of being repetitive, or being the same film but with a different killer. The fact that Tree lives out multiple slasher scenarios with a killer who uses different methods of murdering her each time seems to be a commentary on how many critics view slashers, and probably horror in general. I like how subtly it makes fun of the world it’s in, making HAPPY DEATH DAY a fun watch.

I also think the mystery of the killer works well for the most part. I figured it out pretty much halfway through the film, but other people in the theater I was in were shocked by the person’s identity. I give the film credit for having many red herrings, some of them actually quite convincing enough. I think the mystery is actually pretty satisfying and its conclusion is pretty great. It helps the ride getting there is well written and charming, making us care about what we’re watching.

I will say that HAPPY DEATH DAY is not a scary film, nor does it have any sort of gore that slasher films are known for. It relies on jump scares at times and it may rely on the gimmick a bit too much at times. It’s also nothing that hasn’t been seen or done before, which may turn off fans who are looking for something new with their horror. But if you can get past the PG-13 rating and lack of scares and blood, you’ll have a good time.

The direction by Christopher B. Landon is confident. Even though HAPPY DEATH DAY is a horror film, and directs those slasher moments really well, Landon also knows how to balance comedy within that horror. He uses the gimmick almost to perfection, using clever transitions that start with Tree’s murder leading into her waking up in bed all over again to restart her day. The film also looks nice to look at and it’s paced extremely well. And each day that Tree experiences plays out the same, but feel different each time, which is a testament to a good director. 

The acting is what makes HAPPY DEATH DAY a joy to watch. The standout is really lead actress Jessica Rothe, who makes for a charismatic, engaging actress. She has great comedic timing, understands when her character needs to be serious or funny, and she’s not bad to look at either. The fact that she starts off so unlikable and manages to be extremely sympathetic and charming by the end of the film is a testament to Rothe understanding her character arc. I expect we’ll see more of her in movies because she carries the film without much of a sweat. I thought the other standout is Israel Broussard as Carter, the potential love interest for Tree. He played the awkward, quirky male lead very well and shared comfortable chemistry with Rothe. I thought their love story arc was very cute and I enjoyed watching them grow closer throughout the film. The other supporting actors all play their roles well and add to the appeal of HAPPY DEATH DAY.

HAPPY DEATH DAY surprised me with its charm and cute approach to the GROUNDHOG DAY deja-vu premise. While more of a comedy and romance film with slasher elements filtered in to move the story along, HAPPY DEATH DAY would rather have fun with its premise than play it up for scares or suspense. This film doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel, but everything about it is solid - especially Jessica Rothe’s lead performance. The PG-13 rating and lack of “serious horror” may turn some people off, but HAPPY DEATH DAY makes an effort to be just a good, fun time. And it definitely succeeds in doing that over and over and over again…

3 Howls Outta 4

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