Doctor Sleep (2019)

Mike Flanagan

Ewan McGregor - Dan Torrance
Rebecca Ferguson - Rose the Hat
Kyliegh Curran - Abra Stone
Cliff Curtis - Billy Freeman
Carl Lumbry - Dick Hollorann
Zahn McClarnon - Crow Daddy
Emily Alyn Lind - Snakebite Andi
Bruce Greenwood - Dr. John Dalton
Jacob Tremblay - Bradley Trevor

Genre - Horror

Running Time - 152 Minutes

PLOT (from IMDB)
Years following the events of THE SHINING, a now-adult Dan Torrance (Ewan McGregor) meets a young girl (Kyliegh Curran) with similar powers as he tries to protect her from a cult known as The True Knot who prey on children with powers to remain immortal.

Even though Stephen King released his sequel to the 1977 novel The Shining back in 2013 to big success, not many people were clamoring or asking for a follow-up to either King’s book or the divisive Stanley Kubrick adaptation from 1980 that even King himself dislikes. But Doctor Sleep received both commercial and critical acclaim at the time of its release, although some had issues with the story’s villains and how some of the newer characters were connected to the Danny Torrance character that they felt was an unnecessary retcon of sorts. Personally, I enjoyed Doctor Sleep and figured it would be turned into a film or television adaptation because of how big THE SHINING has been regarded as a horror classic. But with King hating the Kubrick adaptation, and his own 1997 faithful-to-the-novel miniseries being considered near the lower end of King adaptations, how would the film version of DOCTOR SLEEP be presented? Apparently Mike Flanagan, of TV’s The Haunting of Hill House fame, figured it out and decided to adapt the novel as faithfully as possible, while at the same time having it take place within Kubrick’s universe. With King’s massive approval and a solid cast bringing the adaptation to life, I’m more surprised that more people didn’t go out and watch DOCTOR SLEEP this weekend than how well the adaptation was presented. DOCTOR SLEEP is a pretty great sequel and horror film in general - even having good buzz and marketing behind it, which makes me wonder what went wrong in terms of audiences.

What really sells DOCTOR SLEEP is the cast, who all do a great job in bringing these characters to life from the novel. Ewan McGregor is very good as Dan Torrance, the adult version of the young kid from the original story. McGregor is a versatile actor and he’s able to portray Dan’s trauma, fear, confusion and eventual reluctance to use his gift to save others in a believable way. Even though he did a good job filling some big shoes, I thought there are other actors that outshined him. But he is a solid lead nonetheless. Honestly, I was more impressed with Rebecca Ferguson and Kyliegh Curran as Rose the Hat and Abra Stone respectively. Ferguson plays a great villain as Rose, using her beauty to lure victims in, portraying a charm that hid a level of evil underneath. She also portrayed a malicious side that I found captivating as her character grew more desperate towards the finish line. I’ve seen Ferguson in other films and always thought she was fine in those other roles. But this is the first time I felt truly impressed by any one of her performances. She’s really good here, as her presence here is pretty amazing. I also like Curran’s performance as the young Abra, a teenage girl who also has similar powers to Dan, but much stronger. Curran is truly confident in her performance, portraying a typical teenager well who is smart, brave and intuitive. She also upstages both McGregor and Ferguson at times, making her a force to watch. I also liked Cliff Curtis in his role as Billy, sharing some nice chemistry with McGregor as their two characters grew as friends and started to trust each other. Zahn McClarnon is also solid as Crow Daddy, Rose’s lover and right-hand man. He had a threatening presence that added a lot to the story. And it was cool to see a cameo from the original Danny Torrance, Danny Lloyd, who has retired from acting and is now a school teacher. Just a really solid crew of actors all around.

I also though Mike Flanagan did a great job bringing both the novel and Kubrick’s vision together in a logical and believable way visually. The flashbacks and the last act that occur within The Overlook Hotel, which looked exactly how it did back in the 1980 film, were shot and directed really well. Even with new actors playing familiar roles within these scenes, you still felt Kubrick’s presence while catering to Stephen King’s vision for these characters. I also felt the rest of the film, which just adapted the Doctor Sleep novel, looked great and felt like it’s own film outside of THE SHINING. If you’ve seen GERALD’S GAME or The Haunting of Hill House, you’ll be pleased at how similar the film looks to both of those, but with a bit more style and flair that doesn’t overshadow the story. Flanagan also focuses more on the suspense and tension rather than jump scares, even though there are a couple that don’t really work as well as they should. But overall, Flanagan focuses more on atmosphere and mood rather than frights, which is fine for this sequel. I also thought DOCTOR SLEEP was paced extremely well, going really fast for a two-and-a-half hour movie. There are some editing and transition choices here and there I could nitpick and probably change if it were me, but overall doesn’t take the experience away. I do feel that maybe the film is a bit too long for some, which may have caused the box office failure of the film. Plus, those expecting a true SHINING experience may be disappointed as DOCTOR SLEEP would rather be its own thing for the most part. I thought this was Flanagan’s best work as a director just for taking such a scary task to follow up a classic movie and actually making it work by pleasing both fans of the Doctor Sleep novel and Kubrick film all in one.

As for the adaptation itself, I thought it was mostly handled really well. Many of the core elements of the novel were done with justice in DOCTOR SLEEP. Dan’s alcoholism was touched upon, including his eventual sobriety and his role as an orderly in a hospice care facility where he’s dubbed “Doctor Sleep” due to speaking with patients moments before they pass due to this uncanny morbid awareness of the hospice's cat [who may have the “Shine” itself, as it senses death]. Then you get all the True Knot stuff where this group attacks young children who have this “Shine” so they can feed off of them like vampires, leading to an eventual confrontation with Abra [who may have the strongest “Shine” of all] with Dan helping her. 

Unlike Kubrick’s THE SHINING, much of what I read in Doctor Sleep feels pretty much intact on screen. However, the film does take some liberties with the novel, but I feel a lot of them were improvements over the source material. In the novel, there is a connection between Dan and Abra that I feel would have upset a lot of people unfamiliar with it since it would have seemed tacked on if they’ve only watched Kubrick’s film and nothing else. I think getting rid of it here was a good move and just would have complicated the adaptation. The major change from book to film is pretty much the entire act. In The Shining novel, Jack destroyed The Overlook Hotel to save his family and Dick Hollorann by setting it on fire and blowing it up. But since Stanley Kubrick completely changed the ending in his adaptation and that’s what most people are familiar with, The Overlook Hotel was left standing. So Flanagan decided to keep Doctor Sleep’s ending setup while combining it somewhat with the novel’s ending to The Shining. I’m not sure which ending for DOCTOR SLEEP I prefer, but I think the one Flanagan used is a better fit for cinematic reasons. It keeps the spirit of the novel’s ending while giving Kubrick’s version of things a fitting conclusion at the same time, surprising me at how much it truly worked when it really shouldn’t have. 

If I had to nitpick anything, it would be the use of the True Knot members. Rose the Hat and Crow Daddy are used very well and come off as threatening. Even Snakebite Andi gets some great moments to shine, even though I feel she was underutilized during the middle portion of the film. Grandpa Flick, the oldest member of the crew, has some nice emotional moments as well. But the rest of the crew are just faceless goons and I wish they had personalities to differentiate one from the other. I get every group needs a couple of pawns, but even the pawns should have names and characters I should remember by the movie’s end. At least they still managed to come across as evil as they brutalized a few children. That scene with Bradley Trevor is really messed up and translates well from novel to screen better than I would have thought. Children haven’t had the best of luck in Stephen King adaptations this year, have they?

Even though mainstream audiences didn’t bother to go out and see this film for whatever reason, I thought DOCTOR SLEEP was a worthy and solid follow-up to the 1980 Stanley Kubrick’s film with a faithful-enough adaptation of the Doctor Sleep novel with added elements of both the novel and film versions of THE SHINING. The cast - Ewan McGregor, Rebecca Ferguson and Kyliegh Curran in particular - is pretty damn great, while Mike Flanagan managed to successfully adapt Stephen King’s work into Kubrick’s universe by focusing more on mood and atmosphere over jump scares and keeping many of the story elements from the novel intact. Even the changes that were made for the adaptation in terms of certain characters and even the ending work in the film’s favor, pleasing both fans of the novels and films. While some of the villainous True Knot characters could have been used more, and some abrupt moments are noticeable visually, I’d say DOCTOR SLEEP is a bigger success than I would have believed when the film was first announced. Let’s hope more people wake up for DOCTOR SLEEP because it deserves to do better than what it is currently doing box office wise. 

3.5 Howls Outta 4


Vice Squad (1982)

Gary Sherman

Season Hubley - Princess
Wings Hauser - Ramrod
Gary Swanson - Detective Tom Walsh
Pepe Serna - Pete Mendez
Beverly Todd - Luise Williams
Nina Blackwood - Ginger
Joseph DiGiroloma - Kowalski
Maurice Emanuel - Edwards

Genre - Action/Crime/Mystery/Thriller

Running Time - 97 Minutes

PLOT (from IMDB)
A Los Angeles businesswoman, known only by her street name of Princess (Season Hubley), turns to prostitution to support herself and her young daughter when she’s forced by Detective Tom Walsh (Gary Swanson) and his vice squad to help them arrest a brutal pimp named Ramrod (Wings Hauser) for the murder of a prostitute named Ginger (Nina Blackwood). But when Ramrod learns that he was set up, he escapes from police custody and begins a long night of tracking down Princess while Walsh and his vice squad are always one steps behind him.

VICE SQUAD is an exploitation action crime thriller that I hadn’t seen in decades and totally forgot about until its recent Scream Factory blu-ray release earlier in the summer. Sure, I’ve recently seen the clips of Wings Hauser going psycho in TERROR IN THE AISLES, where Hauser proves he’s easily the best part of VICE SQUAD. But I hadn’t seen the film as a whole for a very long time until the last couple of days, and I still dug it quite a bit. It’s not perfect, nor is it the best exploitation crime thriller I have ever seen. But there’s a lot to like here to make it worthy of a blu ray purchase at least.

Even though it’s not the best exploitation film out there, it’s probably hard to rival one as entertaining as VICE SQUAD for majority of the film. VICE SQUAD is one of those films that seems to balance multiple sub-genres better than it has any right to. It’s a crime movie. It’s a thriller. It’s also a sort of slasher flick where a psycho pimp is targeting a prostitute who did him wrong. Every scene in the film has something going on that will keep you invested in what you’re watching, no matter how major or less so it is for the movie’s narrative. Not many exploitation films can capture that for all the right reasons, but VICE SQUAD definitely does.

I think what makes VICE SQUAD’s story work are the main characters, who all have some sort of arc that intercepts in the final act. Our main protagonist is Princess, who we follow for much of the film as she leaves her young daughter behind to head into Los Angeles to become a prostitute to support her family. She’s caught up in this police sting to arrest this terrible pimp named Ramrod due to her association with Ramrod’s main prostitute, Ginger, who brutally abuses and rapes Ginger to death. Just wanting to make a living for herself and her daughter, she’s constantly reluctant to help the police, who threaten her with prison time over her work, while getting the attention of Ramrod, who realizes that she’s technically an informant who wants to stop his rampage. While we only see a glimpse of Princess’ life prior to prostitution, VICE SQUAD mainly follows her as she encounters multiple johns who reveal… interesting fetishes and kinks that will make most mainstream audiences’ eyes widen. Once Ramrod comes into the picture though, she has to evade him at every turn before he kills her. We realize that prostitution is something she’s doing for her family and not because she enjoys it, putting on a performance any time she tries to sell herself. Through the night, her initial enthusiasm fades, just wanting the night to be over while an evil pimp and eager cops are after her for one thing or another. Through her actions and reactions to the situations she puts herself in willingly or not, we learn a lot about Princess. She may have a tough exterior, but she’s just a scared, desperate woman who just wants to get her job over with so she can go back home to her daughter.

The main antagonist, Ramrod, is a piece of work himself. Unlike Princess, who is completely sympathetic, Ramrod is a horrible person in every way. He abuses his workers. He rapes some of them with coat hangers and gets some sort of sick pleasure out of it. He forces himself on random women by either pressing himself on them, putting his dirty fingers in their mouths, and other disgusting things. He believes he owns the place and is totally corrupted by the reputation he has gained on the streets. He’s a deplorable character with no redeeming quality, so you want justice to be served whether peacefully or violently when it comes to Ramrod.

And then you have the police characters, in particular Detective Tom Walsh who is eager to take down Ramrod and play hard ball with Princess to make that happen. He’s surrounded by incompetent cops, which frustrates him to no end. And while he can be a bit of a hard ass when it comes to threatening to put Princess in jail for prostitution, he does care for her and wants to make sure she’s safe enough to continue supporting her daughter. He wants to do the right thing, even if he has to get dirty at times to make it happen.

And the supporting characters, while not having a ton of screen time, add a lot to build the atmosphere of VICE SQUAD. You get colorful pimps, other prostitutes doing their thing, and clients who raise the exploitation level by being really bizarre at times. You ever wanted to know how hiring a prostitute for a funeral wedding scenario would turn out? This is your movie! Ginger, the troubled friend of Princess and Ramrod’s main prostitute, doesn’t get a lot of screen time either, but she’s the catalyst for the entire story. She suffers from Battered Wife Syndrome, wanting Princess to help her get away from Ramrod, but falls for that trap when Ramrod apologizes and states his love for her. You feel sad for Ginger, especially after what Ramrod does to her. You know enough about her and situation to feel something towards everyone involved. I thought the good writing helped in that.

The narrative is your pretty standard police procedural where cops use a prostitute to bust a pimp, which backfires on them and causes the prostitute to be the pimp’s new target. But VICE SQUAD does it well, even though I feel the first half of the film - the universe building portion - is the more interesting and engaging portion of the film. Once Ramrod wants revenge on Princess in the second half of the film, the storytelling gets extremely random as there aren’t a lot of moments of Ramrod going after Princess, but rather Princess hanging out with her friends or encountering men who have interesting sexual requests for her. It’s not until the final fifteen minutes when Ramrod and Princess finally encounter each other, does VICE SQUAD pick up again. I’m not saying what Princess deals with is terrible, because those scenes are memorable and entertaining. But you get a sense that the filmmakers needed to fill up time before the climax. I think the Princess and her clients scenes add a lot to her personal story, but they don’t really matter by the film’s end to be honest.

Gary Sherman, best known for his directorial work on 1981’s DEAD & BURIED, 1986’s WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE and 1988’s POLTERGEIST III, confidently directs a good looking exploitation film that captures the vibe of early-1980s Los Angeles. All the characters, the locations and even the awesome soundtrack feel authentic - creating this gritty nostalgia for me that a part of me wishes I could go back to. Sherman captures a sleaziness and dirtiness that a film like this should definitely have, keeping up with a rapid fire pace and well shot scenes that are extremely memorable and worth discussing within film circles. Sherman actually cut the film down quite a bit, feeling there was too much filler and only wanted to maintain the scenes that focused on Ramrod’s pursuit of Princess. This would explain the disjointed feeling of the film’s second half, but Sherman did the right thing taking out as much filler as possible. It’s a short film and never wears out its welcome, making an easy watch for exploitation fans.

I feel the strongest aspect of VICE SQUAD is the acting. I might as well start with Wings Hauser - an actor I feel is extremely underrated and should have had a more memorable career than he did. Hauser is absolutely electric as the despicable Ramrod, taking what should have been a caricature B-movie villain and turning him into this genuine monster who leaps off of the screen and grabs you by the balls. Hauser is so into the role, relishing in being evil and devoting his performance to make audiences hate the guy - even though I’m sure some people love Ramrod because of Hauser’s colorful performance. He’s just so great in this film, to the point where TERROR IN THE AISLES had no choice but to include his scenes in their horror compilation, even though VICE SQUAD isn’t technically classified as “horror”. Hauser truly steals the film from everyone else, crafting one of the most entertaining and hateful psychopaths in exploitation film history. Hauser also sings the film’s opening song, “Neon Slime”, which is interesting in its own right. The man is VICE SQUAD, plain and simple.

Season Hubley is also great in her own way as Princess. Going through a terrible divorce from her then-husband Kurt Russell, Hubley used a lot of that sadness, grief and anguish to make Princess a sympathetic figure despite if one believes her profession is low class. Hubley is both tough and vulnerable, making her actions and reactions believable. The two scenes, where she finds out about Ginger and the end where Ramrod tries to murder her, show her range in capturing a complex character who continues to sink into a situation she’s trying to get out of. I wish Hubley and Hauser had more scenes together because it would have been great to see them play off of each other within multiple scenarios.

The other actors are very good as well. Gary Swanson plays your typical 80s police detective, giving the character a likable toughness and empathy towards Princess that another actor could have screwed up. Swanson plays the role seriously and makes Tom Walsh a fully fleshed out character who peels multiple layers from start to finish. The only other actor of note is Nina Blackwood as Ginger. Blackwood, one of the original MTV VJs, does very well as a troubled prostitute who is so abused and put down by her pimp, that she’s victim of going back to him and dealing with the negatively as long as he takes care of her. You totally believe her and while you question her decisions by the end of her story arc, you also understand it, making it all the sadder. Really solid cast for a film you’d probably wouldn’t expect that of.

After all these decades, VICE SQUAD still manages to be an entertaining exploitation flick that has more than earned its cult status. While the first half of the film is stronger than the second half [besides a suspenseful final ten to fifteen minutes], the script builds colorful characters who feel right at home in a gritty, sleazy 1980s Los Angeles. Director Gary Sherman manages to create atmosphere and suspense by allowing the audience to follow three separate people living in different worlds - a tough yet vulnerable prostitute, a murderous pimp, and a hungry-for-justice cop - as they come to a collision course along a road of blackmail, abuse, and sexual fetishism that would make a lot of people blush. While Season Hubley and Gary Swanson are very good as the prostitute and cop respectively, it’s Wings Hauser as psychotic pimp Ramrod who steals the show through his powerfully manic and vicious performance. VICE SQUAD is a grungy, memorable and fun ride of a film that should be a must-see for any exploitation fan needing a fix.

3.5 Howls Outta 4


Lunar Cycle - October 2019

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.

THE INTRUDER (2019) - *1/2 out of ****

Directed By: Deon Taylor

Starring: Dennis Quaid, Meagan Good, Michael Ealy, Joseph Sikora, Alvina August, Lee Shorten

Genre: Horror/Thriller/Drama

Running Time: 102 Minutes

Plot: A psychological thriller about a young married couple who buys a beautiful Napa Valley house on several acres of land only to find that the man they bought it from refuses to let go of the property.

Back in August, one of the Lunar Cycle features was for a film called THE PERFECT GUY - an “erotic” thriller that would have instantly gone on Lifetime’s Movie Network if not for its recognizable cast. It starred Michael Ealy as this psycho lover who doesn’t take rejection well, going FATAL ATTRACTION on his former lover until it’s predictable ending. It wasn’t a great film but had enough moments to be something you’d have on the background while you’re doing something else.

Funny enough, I’m back with another film that stars Michael Ealy that could have also been on Lifetime’s Movie Network - 2019’s THE INTRUDER. While Ealy plays the protagonist this time around [along with the beautiful Meagan Good], we have Dennis Quaid playing our villain. It’s very rare to watch the usually heroic and charming Quaid play a bad guy in a film, which pretty much raised its marketing appeal over other films that follow this sort of template. And believe me, he’s the main attraction of THE INTRUDER by a country mile, casting a big shadow over his co-stars and the film’s very predictable and pedestrian narrative.

Seriously, without Dennis Quaid, THE INTRUDER would be a forgotten flick on Lifetime during a Saturday Night. The man goes all out here, hamming it up for the audience and creating truly unintentionally funny moments while also being creepy at the same time. That is quite a feat! Even from his first appearance in the film, Quaid never hides the fact that there is something not right with his character of Charlie Peck, a widower who sells his house to a young couple, but is unwilling to let it go for whatever reason. His twitchy performance is great, slowly building into a performance where Quaid goes all Joker on some naive fools. Quaid gives the character a level of sympathy at the start of the film, making you think he’s still in that grieving process where he feels socially awkward and just comes across as weird to those who haven’t been in his shoes. But there are moments where you see the man is about to snap, but holds it together, until we start learning the truth and the rubber band snaps towards a violent conclusion. Quaid could have played the role subtly and just have been an unmemorable villain in a generic thriller. But you can tell the actor is loving playing against-type, going over-the-top by the end to entertain the audience. He took a bland screenplay and made it fun to watch just through his hilarious acting. He’s so enjoyable that I wish he were playing the same role in a much better film. Honestly, Quaid would be the only reason I would recommend anyone to watch THE INTRUDER.

Michael Ealy and especially Meagan Good are fine in their roles as Scott and Annie. It’s too bad they’re given material that’s been seen and done before. Ealy plays his usual charmingly cool performance, letting his looks do most of the talking for him. He’s given a decent role of a husband who is suspicious of his new home’s previous owner, while feeling somewhat bitter about his marriage and his wife’s naive behavior towards a total stranger. There are moments in the script where Ealy wants to make Scott this flawed character who hates his current role in his marriage, while also being portrayed as a flirt who sometimes takes it a bit too far. You can tell the actor wants to give the role some depth and make him someone we want to root for. But Ealy comes off as bland because the script and direction don’t allow him to be anything else. Good also suffers because she has to play an idiot until the last few minutes of the film, playing dumb to Quaid’s actions while feeling jealous and neglected with her more observant husband. There’s no real female empowerment with her character, nor is she all that interesting as a character. She’s just a damsel-in-distress waiting to be saved until she wakes up and sees things for what they are. She deserved a better role than what she got.

I thought the only interesting actor other than Quaid was Power’s Joseph Sikora, who plays Scott’s best friend Mike. While he’s not in the film a whole lot, he has great chemistry with all of his co-stars. Plus, he gets a few scenes where he banters with Quaid, creating a level of tension and drama that’s not really found in the rest of the film. It’s a shame that Sikora wasn’t given a bigger role in this film because he actually had a character I could relate to one some level, unlike the others.

The direction by Deon Taylor of MEET THE BLACKS and CHAIN LETTER fame [sorry, I almost puked typing that] is nothing special. It looks and feels like any other thriller of this kind, but at least it’s well paced and well edited. And the film does look polished. There are some moments of genuine tension and suspense, especially near the end, that work. It’s just unfortunate what we’re watching is nothing new and we know all the beats by now. Not everything needed to feel fresh, but there wasn’t enough twists and turns to make THE INTRUDER stand out visually. 

The problem is really the screenplay, which gives all the interesting stuff to the villain while making the protagonists pretty dumb and sometimes unlikable as characters. Charlie’s the one with all the backstory and mysterious aura. Did his wife really die of cancer, or is something more sinister at play? Why is he so obsessed with this house? Why is he testy with Scott but kind to Annie? Charlie is an interesting character, unlike either Scott or Annie - who are just bland people without much going on without Charlie interfering with their lives. Annie, in particular, is just there as an object for Scott and Charlie to fight over. Scott, at least, has a small backstory involving his dislike for firearms, as well as visible profession in marketing that leads to a cheating sub-plot that ends before it could even get started. Honestly, this young couple aren’t so much protagonists, but victims of Charlie’s twisted story.

The only interesting thing about this generic and predictable thriller is that THE INTRUDER may have some sort of political subtext that the film never really focuses on. Scott and Annie are a young African-American couple who are able to buy a million dollar home from a white man who wears a red cap and enjoys shooting animals and possibly human beings as well. While people agree with it or not, there’s definitely a commentary dying to get out here. But the screenwriters either feel too afraid to lean towards a political and social direction, or just didn’t care enough to explore it further to make THE INTRUDER stand out amongst the rest. I think exploring this angle would have brought some controversy to a standard thriller, but at least it would have given the film a personality and something to discuss. Unfortunately without it, no one is talking.

Overall, THE INTRUDER is your typical horror-thriller that would play during a random weekend of Lifetime if it wasn’t for the cast. The story is beyond predictable and generic. There’s obvious political commentary that wants to be told, but is held back for whatever reason. Most of the actors are given nothing interesting to do besides playing victims to a crazy man’s game, while the direction isn’t visually special [though the film does look polished and extremely well made]. The only reason I would recommend this film to anyone is to see a really great Dennis Quaid performance, where he tackles a rare role as an insane villain who wears a red cap and enjoys hunting. He’s also obsessed with a house, causing him to tick and twitch more than once when the new owners change some of it around. It’s quite the bizarre, unintentionally fun, yet entertaining performance by a class actor. If you have 100 minutes and want to see some prime Quaid, this is your film. Otherwise, don’t bother breaking into this one.

THE APPARITION (2012) - 1/2* out of **** [WTF? Vault]

Directed By: Todd Lincoln

Starring: Ashley Greene, Sebastian Stan, Tom Felton, Julianna Guill, Rick Gomez

Genre: Horror/Thriller/Supernatural/Ghosts

Running Time: 82 Minutes

Plot: Plagued by frightening occurrences in their home, Kelly and Ben learn that a university’s parapsychology experiment produced an entity that is now haunting them. The malevolent spirit feeds on fear and torments the couple no matter where they run. Desperate, Kelly and Ben turn to a paranormal researcher, but even with his aid, it may already be too late to save themselves from the terrifying presence.

With my cousin having lent the DVD to me years ago without an ounce of complaint about getting his copy back, I should have realized that THE APPARITION from 2012 isn’t going to be anyone's favorite horror film anytime soon. Hell, I’d be surprised if anyone would bother watching this movie more than once, as the film even struggles to be mediocre as it wants to be JU-ON: THE GRUDGE and PARANORMAL ACTIVITY both at once and fails at either. Hell, the trailer feels more complete of a film than this does. What a bland, boring film that makes one wonder why or how it was even made and released into theaters.

That plot summary above is as deep as the film ever goes. The concept is interesting and I have a fascination with the paranormal and supernatural that I’m willing to watch THE APPARITION. But there is no character development at all, as we get two prologues pretty much telling us why some evil spirit is haunting this beautiful young couple, leading to another mystery a third into the film that reveals why this couple is being haunted to begin with. After that, it’s just a series of cliches and tropes that have been done to death for decades, but never as interesting or fresh. I could barely tell you anything about Kelly and Ben other than their professions. Hell, I didn’t even realize Kelly was the main character’s name until the end credits! I’m given no reason to believe Kelly and Ben are this loving couple who decide to live together and share their lives because I have no backstory, no personality for either one of them, and most importantly - no chemistry between the characters or the actors playing them. I wish the spirit had fed quicker on these two so the film would have ended sooner. And the film is already like 72 minutes long not including the end credits!

It doesn’t help that these characters are written terribly stupid. Ben figures out that being part of the parapsychology experiment led to all this, but doesn’t really feel any sort of urgency to tell his girlfriend or do anything about it until the third act. Kelly is even worse, as she barely reacts to the strange things happening around her. In fact, when Kelly figures out that Ben is part of the reason she’s being haunted by watching a video on a hard drive of his group conjuring up this spirit, she’s more upset that Ben didn’t reveal his relationship with a girl in his group he had dated prior to meeting Kelly rather than some evil ghost messing up her shit! At one point, she even tries to stop the spirit by locking it inside of a closet, because doors will stop any evil presence from hurting someone. Hell, even the spirit tries to kill Kelly by smothering her in her sleeping blanket via dutch oven. While unintentionally hilarious, dying via dutch oven is a new one even for me.

Add in Ben’s parapsychology partner Charlie, who is just around to give the audience expository dialogue, without giving him much purpose besides that. I think even if he was left out of the story besides the prologue and the hard drive footage, he wouldn’t have been missed at all. None of these characters are written well nor are we given any reason to sympathize with them. It just feels like first time writer/director Todd Lincoln was inspired by other films and just wrote what he liked about them on paper, not giving anything any sort of subtext or cohesion for any audience to care.

His direction is slightly better, but THE APPARITION still drags because what we see is nothing we haven’t seen done better in other films. We get a ton of objects moving inside rooms, hands crawling from behind people, animals sensing danger and dying because of it, and things disintegrating for whatever reason. We also get moments of found footage that could be worse, while some reject from JU-ON: THE GRUDGE makes its presence known in a closet. The film also happens to be way too dark at times, especially when things that should be scaring and shocking people happen. The editing is also rough at times, cutting away from things we ought to be invested in. I think the worst part of the direction [and the screenwriting] is having characters react and investigate what’s going on, only for these moments to be quickly transitioned to an aftermath that falls flat. You have to build tension and suspense for a film like this, and it seems Lincoln didn’t even understand that. The film looks nice, I give it that. But other than that, it’s just visually bland with some moments that’ll make you laugh more than they’ll scare you.

The acting is probably the best part of THE APPARITION, but even that isn’t all that good. Ashley Greene, best known for her work in those TWILIGHT films, looks great and has a moment or two where she acts like a human being. But most of the time, she’s directed not to react naturally to freaky stuff happening around her. Instead of screaming or having this flight-or-fight response, she’ll just look confused. Sebastian Stan is a good actor, but he’s not given anything to do here but play the guilty boyfriend. At least he reacts to things more naturally than Greene did, but he didn’t have much material to bite into. Tom Felton, of HARRY POTTER fame, isn’t given much to do but recite exposition. At least he does it well, I suppose. Dude deserves better. I think with a better script, these three would have contributed to a watchable movie. THE APPARITION isn’t it.

Overall, THE APPARITION is pretty much a horror movie fail on all levels. It wants to be both JU-ON: THE GRUDGE and PARANORMAL ACTIVITY so badly, yet failing on both accounts enough for anyone to wish they were watching any of those two films instead. The script is nothing but a skeleton, with paper-thin characters put in a predictably generic situation that have been done to death and done much better. The direction is bland, although the film does look nice. For an 80-minute film, the pacing drags and director Todd Lincoln uses too much darkness, terrible editing, and not enough suspense or tension for anyone to care about what they’re watching. Even the actors try and make something out of this film, but mostly fail because the script doesn’t give them much to do but react poorly to things. Not one the worst horror film I’ve seen, but man, it comes pretty close. I don’t blame this evil spirit for being so upset. I would be too if I had to star in this movie. 

ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK (1972) - *** out of ****

Directed By: Sergio Martino

Starring: George Hilton, Edwige Fenech, Ivan Rassimov, Nieves Navarro, Julian Ugarte, George Rigaud, Maria Cumani Quasimodo, Marina Malfatti, Luciano Pigozzi

Genre: Horror/Thriller/Supernatural/Giallo

Running Time: 94 Minutes

Plot: Jane lives in London with her boyfriend Richard. Her mother was murdered when she was young, she recently lost a baby in a car crash and she’s plagued by nightmares of a knife-wielding man. Richard thinks the cure is vitamins, while Jane’s sister recommends psychiatric help. But a new neighbor promises that if she participates in a Black Mass, all her fears will disappear, instead it just seems to bring her nightmare to life.

ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK is a film I’ve wanted to watch for a while now. Even though I hear a great blu-ray was released earlier this year, Shudder had it ready to stream and I decided to check it out this Halloween season. What an interesting trip this film is. Psychedelic and nightmarishly bizarre, this not-so-giallo is a film I’ll probably remember for a while now. There’s so much thrown at the wall and not all of it sticks, but when it does, you’re just captivated by what you’re watching unfold.

Martino was obviously inspired by 1968’s ROSEMARY’S BABY and the rise of the whole “Satanic Panic” that was infiltrating the media and pop culture in general. Jane, suffering from losing her mother at a young age and then losing her own baby in a car accident, is our unreliable narrator as she has horrible visions of pregnant woman [and even herself] getting stabbed repeatedly by this man with striking blue eyes - who eventually begins stalking her in real life even though she had never met him before. Many doubt her visions, thinking she’s just stark-raving mad and needs to talk to a psychiatrist [something recommended by her sister]. Her boyfriend Richard thinks that vitamins will cure everything, as if he’s Tom Cruise or something. But her neighbor believes that joining a Satanic cult will cure her after they force her to drink fox’s blood and gang rape the hell out of her. That white padded room doesn’t seem so bad if these are her friends and family!

The film jars you right away with this nightmare that Jane has of herself and a pregnant woman getting murdered by this blue-eyed stranger. And as the film plays on, we witness more nightmarish visions and hallucinations that make us question what we’re really seeing is reality or just a figment of a emotionally wrecked woman’s imagination. Nothing really beats the opening of the film, as it’s so weird that you kind of hope the rest of ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK would keep up with that vibe. But the film, besides the rollercoaster changes between reality and fantasy, never really lives up to that opening, pretty much playing things straighter than you would expect out of a film involving a Satanic cult. I will say that the second half of the film is more interesting than the first, as Jane deals with the aftermath of joining the cult and then regretting her decision and wanting to leave - which the cult has a huge issue with. The twists and turns keep coming, making you question what is the real deal with all of these characters and why Jane has been targeted from the start. I do think the ending is extremely flat and makes you wonder how anyone could just end the film with such a whimper, considering the loud bang the film begins with.

I also feel the idea that ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK is a giallo is a bit misguided. It doesn’t really contain the tropes any common giallo would have, like a shadowy figure who wears a disguise and gloves stalking and killing people until it leads to a very convoluted resolution of the killer’s identity. The film feels more like a thriller involving a troubled woman who enters a cult of Satan worshippers, being targeted for a particular reason once she refuses to assimilate. The only mystery is why Jane is having these particular nightmares that predict certain futures and introduces us to characters we hadn’t met yet up to that point. All the characters all have particular motives and reasons to pull Jane in multiple directions that end up doing more harm than good.

The characters aren’t the most interesting honestly. Jane is really the only character given any depth as she’s the main focus of the film, learning about her backstory pretty quickly and watching her emotional distress as she interacts with her boyfriend, her sister, this cult, and so on. The other characters all so have personalities and most of them come across as pretty unlikable people, but we end up only caring about Jane at the end because we’re understanding the story through her eyes - making us wonder if it’s all in her head or if it’s really happening. 

I think the best part of ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK is the fantastic direction by Sergio Martino. The surreal nature of Jane’s dreams and hallucinations are perfectly shot, as the shot scale is all over the place and we get weird editing that make us realize what we’re watching isn’t at all natural. In other scenes where the characters are acting in interior locations, Martino uses greens and reds in certain rooms that make these particular scenes pop and create an atmosphere through this unnatural lighting scheme. The pacing is also well done, as the film is less than 90 minutes and breezes right by. I also thought the gore we do see was done well, as well the make up and costumes used for the cult - especially the leader who had fabulous jazz hands displaying his blue and gold nails. Never knew 70s Hans Gruber could accessorize. While I prefer TORSO, I do feel this film is better directed and captures much of the “Satanic Panic” he was going for.

The acting is pretty solid as well. The standout here is obviously Edwige Fenech as Jane. Not only is she one of the most beautiful genre actresses to have ever been in horror films, but she wonderfully portrays a woman suffering through a ton of emotional and mental setbacks. Fenech sells the terror believably, making us empathize with her as she goes through the ringer and hopes someone will believe her claims. She also sells the horror of entering the cult, especially during the rape scene, as she clearly doesn’t want anything to do with this. She carried this film extremely well. I thought the other actors filled their supporting roles well, never overshadowing Fenech but adding to her performance as the film ran along.

Overall, ALL OF THE COLORS OF THE DARK is a weird little flick that doesn’t really live up to insanity of the opening five minutes [which involves pregnant woman, an old woman with messed up teeth, and a blue-eyed dude with a stabbing fixation], but still manages to be a worthwhile watch for those who appreciate Italian horror cinema. The film is a more of a “Satanic Panic” vehicle rather than an actual giallo, but the mystery of Jane’s emotional and mental breakdown has enough twists and turns to keep an audience invested until it’s unfortunate bland and flat ending. This may be Sergio Martino’s best directorial work, as his nightmarish visions are shot perfectly with weird shot scales and editing, while his use of colors at random locations create an atmosphere we want to invest our time in. Plus, you have the beautiful Edwige Fenech believably playing a woman on the verge of a mental and emotional breakdown, making us wonder what we’re seeing through her performance is reality or fantasy. Fenech pulls it off well and carries the film without much issue from beginning to end. ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK is an eerie and evocative horror flick that just reminds the audience that they sure don’t make many films like this anymore.

ZOMBIELAND: DOUBLE TAP (2019) - *** out of ****

Directed By: Ruben Fleischer

Starring: Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, Abigail Breslin, Zoey Deutch, Avan Jogia, Rosario Dawson, Luke Wilson, Thomas Middleditch

Genre: Horror/Comedy/Zombies

Running Time: 93 Minutes

Plot: The group will face a new zombie threat as a new breed of zombie has developed. This new super-zombie type is faster, bigger, and stronger than the previous strain of zombies and harder to kill. These super-zombies have started grouping up into a horde going from city to city leaving a path of destruction behind them.

ZOMBIELAND: DOUBLE TAP is probably a sequel that shouldn’t exist, but I have no issue with it otherwise. There had been talks for years about a sequel to the 2009 zombie hit - even a television show with different actors playing the same roles was considered for a while. But the original cast is here, joined by new faces, and the chemistry amongst them all has not changed at all. For that very reason, DOUBLE TAP works better than it ought to, even when this sequel pretty much follows the same template as the first one.

DOUBLE TAP doesn’t bring anything new to the series, or zombie films in general. The characters still behave the same way, even to the point where the girls end up leaving the boys again for a short time because they’re afraid of getting attached - even though they’ve been a family for 10 years. And it all leads to random encounters until they end up at a known destination that becomes overrun by zombies due to the survivors not learning that light and loud noises will just get their attention. The great new element in DOUBLE TAP is the evolution of the zombies themselves, as some have become “Homers” (dumb zombies) or “T-800s” (super strong and intelligent zombies who won’t stay down). This adds a level of unpredictably to the story, where you feel like sometimes a main character may actually get bit by one of these things. We also bring in new characters for laughs, like Madison - the ditzy blonde who is absolutely clueless and hilarious throughout the film, having the best moments in the film. You also have Albuquerque and Flagstaff, who are Tallahassee and Columbus from a parallel universe or something. The interaction between all four when they meet is wonderfully well written and entertaining as hell. I wish the film had a bit more of it, but it’s a definite highlight of the film. And Nevada is a nice addition to the crew, giving Tallahassee a love arc that adds another dimension to the character. We also have Columbus and Wichita dealing with relationship issues, with Columbus wanting to deepen their relationship, while Wichita has cold feet. And Little Rock, now an adult, wants to branch out and experience life outside of the foursome. So there are things to latch onto with DOUBLE TAP, making it feel like an extension of what the first film had done.

I will say that I feel DOUBLE TAP probably should have been released eight years ago. When the first film was released in 2009, the popularity of zombie media hadn’t reached its zenith yet. That wouldn’t happen until the year after when The Walking Dead would premiere on AMC to a massive audience that was unheard of for cable television at the time. Zombies would become the money monsters, with other media arriving quickly after The Walking Dead - like WORLD WAR Z, Z-Nation, iZombie, Fear the Walking Dead, WARM BODIES, and so on. Zombies have become so oversaturated by this point that I’m surprised DOUBLE TAP did as well as it did during its opening weekend. Luckily DOUBLE TAP is a good film and sequel, but it makes one wonder whether it was needed or not.

The direction by Ruben Fleischer is just as good as it was in the first ZOMBIELAND, maybe even flashier due to recent years of working on comic book films like VENOM. The film is well paced, colorful, and has some fun moments with some cool gore. The acting is even better as the original cast step right back into their roles as if they had never left. They have great chemistry and play off of each other very well. The newer additions, like Rosario Dawson, Luke Wilson, Thomas Middleditch and Avan Jogia, help create new foils and a bigger universe within Zombieland. The star of the film though is Zoey Deutch as Madison, portraying a stereotypical blonde Paris Hilton type ditz who comes in between Columbus and Wichita, while creating hilarious situations for the cast. She’s so charming and infectious that I hope I see her in more films. 

Overall. ZOMBIELAND: DOUBLE TAP is not as good or as fresh as the first ZOMBIELAND from 10 years ago. After the last decade of over saturation of the zombie market in all facets of pop culture, you kind of have to wonder why anyone thought it was a good idea to release this sequel now instead of seven to eight years ago. Even so, the film still mostly works as the humor is more hit than miss. The cast is still wonderful and maintain the same chemistry they had in the first film, with newer additions [Zoey Deutch in particular] adding some needed personality to what could have been a cash-in sequel. And I thought Ruben Fleischer’s flashy direction worked well to create a colorful world within a zombie apocalypse. I don’t think there was much demand for DOUBLE TAP, but it’s nice to see a zombie property that plays things for laughs in a world that probably needs more of that. 

THE BODY [INTO THE DARK] (2018) - **1/2 out of ****

Directed By: Paul Davis

Starring: Tom Bateman, Rebecca Rittenhouse, Aurora Perrineau, David Hull, Ray Santiago, Harvey Guillen, Max Adler, Raymond Forchion, Chasty Ballesteros, Sasha Grey, Patrick Hume, Alex Winter

Genre: Horror/Thriller

Running Time: 85 Minutes

Plot: A sophisticated hitman with a cynical view on modern society finds his work made difficult when he has to transport a body on Halloween night, but everyone is enamored by what they think is his killer costume.

It took me over a year to finally sit down and watch Hulu’s anthology movie series, Into the Dark - a series I was interested in when it premiered but didn’t really allow time to give it a shot. Figuring it’s Halloween season and the first episode of the first season is a Halloween episode [each episode takes place during a certain holiday], I finally sat down to watch THE BODY - a tale of a hitman who has trouble transporting a body on Halloween night, trying to blend in with other costumed people to get a ride to his final destination. He eventually meets a woman at a party who is turned on by his murderous ways once it’s all revealed, leading to more complications for the hitman.

It’s surprising that not a lot of people in my horror circle discuss this Into the Dark series. It’s been a year since the series began and I barely know anything about the episodes included on the show. So I was a bit apprehensive starting this series because if no one is discussing it, it must not be worth the investment, right? Fortunately THE BODY happens to be slightly more positive than negative when it comes to its storytelling and presentation. Taking a short story and extending it into a feature-length film isn’t ideal, but it can work if the right people are behind the project. THE BODY does have interesting story elements going for it most of the time, but you can definitely tell there is a lot of filler involving characters and conversations that aren’t really relevant by the movie’s conclusion. There are portions in the film where I felt some of the exposition dragged and slowed the flow down, creating banter and exchanges that either hit or missed, making certain moments feel unnatural at times.

I also thought that as the film went on, the quality of the three acts declined by the film’s end. The first act is the most interesting, as it’s pretty much the simple plot of the story where we’re introduced to our main character, who murders someone for a bounty and has no means of claiming the body for his prize. That is, until he meets some annoying strangers that want to party with him because they think his hitman attire is a costume and the wrapped dead body he’s dragging around is nothing but a prop. You get to see how different his life is from theirs, as he’s stoic and all business while they just want to drink, get high and have fun on Halloween night. That changes when he encounters Maggie, a technological expert who becomes slightly unhinged once she finds out who the hitman is and falls for him.

This reveal leads into a decent second act where the conflict begins, as the annoying strangers steal the body while the hitman and Maggie try to hunt them down. While the hitman’s and Maggie’s relationship begins to grow and begin to understand each other, the other group fight amongst themselves as they realize they’re in over their heads in trying to stop the hitman from completing his mission. The hitman’s relationship with Maggie is a strong aspect of the story as she reveals how twisted and lustful for murder she is, willing to do anything to be the hitman’s partner-in-crime. He, however, doesn’t understand her but appreciates how much she seems to understand him. They begin to scare their rivals through their cell phones, attempting to frame them for everything the hitman has done that night. The annoying strangers aren’t as interesting, too busy fighting amongst themselves and performing dumb actions they haven’t bothered to plan properly. Considering the fact that the hitman is supposed to be the villain of this story, this group of three seem more antagonistic and less worthy to root for.

A surprising twist leads into the final act, which downgrades into a stereotypical slasher flick that doesn’t feel earned at all. The hitman, who has been having trouble locating these idiots, suddenly finds them, shows his cunning and apparent invulnerability, and plays with his victims instead of finding the body - which he is under a time limit over thanks to his mysterious boss. While some of the things that happen are pretty cool in terms of violence and gore, it just feels pedestrian and predictable. The build up is so well written and the thriller aspect is pretty damn good, I feel like the final part of the film cheapens everything that came before it. I thought the ending was kind of funny, but even that felt a bit unearned. 

The direction by Paul Davis is good for the most part. The film looks nice and is paced well enough that THE BODY never drags. The kill sequences don’t really happen until the final act, but I thought Davis handled those very well. Most of it was done via CGI, but it was good looking CGI. Throats are slashed, knives get impaled through skulls, we get gun play and there’s a cool scene of someone’s skull getting crush through someone’s eye sockets. For a TV movie, it’s well shot and well produced.

The acting is pretty solid as well. Tom Bateman is quite good as the hitman, never really playing things for laughs until he becomes a slasher villain. His dialogue may look silly and read heavy-handed on paper, but Bateman delivers them in such a serious way with his British accent that it feels natural for this particular character. I thought Rebecca Rittenhouse played his foil pretty well, slowly becoming more crazy as the film went on. I thought she had good chemistry with Bateman, as they mainly played off of each other through much of the film with ease and interest. Ray Santiago, of Ash vs. Evil Dead fame, plays the comic relief as best as he can with the material given. He’s a lot better in the beginning than he is at the end, but he gives it his all. The rest of the main cast, David Hull [who looks like Seth McFarlane’s younger brother] and especially Aurora Perrineau, are solid as well. It’s a good cast that try to make the most of a script that loses its way as it reaches the finish line.

Overall. I liked THE BODY more than I didn’t. I enjoyed the build up of the plot and introduction of the main characters in the first act, while the decent second act was a bit disjointed, leading to a final act that wants to be a slasher film when not much before it really set that up. The tone was all over the place in this film, but when it stuck to one, the film was very watchable. The direction by Paul Davis is good, pacing this TV movie well enough so it doesn’t wear out its welcome. The kill sequences don’t show anything new, but are shot well and look better than they have any right to. And the acting, especially by Tom Bateman, Rebecca Rittenhouse and Ray Santiago is strong. I wanted this to be better since I dug the concept, but I liked the film enough to give the other episodes a go. We’ll see whether this series is worth going Into the Dark for.

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