Leprechaun (1993)

Mark Jones

Warwick Davis - Lubdan the Leprechaun
Jennifer Aniston - Tory Redding
John Sanderford - J.D. Redding
Ken Olandt - Nathan Murphy
Mark Holton - Ozzie Jones
Robert Hy Gorman - Alex Murphy
Shay Duffin - Daniel O’Grady

Genre - Horror/Comedy/Slasher

Running Time - 92 Minutes

PLOT (from IMDB)
When Dan O’Grady (Shay Duffin) returns to the U.S. after stealing some Irish leprechaun’s (Warwick Davis) pot of gold, he thinks he can settle down and enjoy his newfound wealth. He thought wrong. The leprechaun followed him and O’Grady barely gets away with his life, having locked the little monster in his basement.

Ten years later, J.D. (John Sanderford) and his spoiled daughter Tory (Jennifer Aniston) move in. By accident, the leprechaun is released and almost immediately the annoying creature starts to look for his gold, not displaying any respect for human life.

As any horror fan knows, holidays are always an easy theme to craft a scary story around. HALLOWEEN, BLACK CHRISTMAS and MY BLOODY VALENTINE are perfect examples of that. Not even St. Patrick’s Day is safe, which explains the existence for 1993’s LEPRECHAUN - an attempt to create a franchise horror character for a popular day on the calendar like MGM & Universal had done for Chucky with CHILD’S PLAY. LEPRECHAUN is a film I don’t watch all that often, but I’ll probably leave it on in the background if it plays on television. It amazes how many sequels this film has gotten, but people love this dumb Leprechaun and his silly puns. LEPRECHAUN is a bad movie through and through, but it has an odd charm about it that makes it worth watching at least once - especially around St. Patrick’s Day.

The main issue with LEPRECHAUN is that it doesn’t have much of a narrative. The film is just about a vengeful Leprechaun looking for his stolen pot of gold due to some stupid and annoying humans, leading to some violent times - sort of anyway. I don’t mind horror films having a real simple story. Hell, some of the classics could be summarized in one sentence. But what those had over this film are characters we could actually like or care about. It’s obvious from the start that the producers want the audience to love and root for the Leprechaun character. He has the mission. He has the funny dialogue. He has the most interesting things to do in the story. He’s the star from beginning to end. In fact, the first shot of the film is the Leprechaun descending stairs to check on his gold without any sort of set up or explanation. He’s the character the franchise is going to be build around, so why wouldn’t he be the focus? The problem is that the Leprechaun is supposed to be the antagonist, yet he’s justified in his actions because greedy humans stole what belonged to him and he just wants what owed to him. If the supposed protagonists were as interesting or as charismatic as the title character, the simplicity wouldn’t be an issue. But most of them are annoying and unlikable, while others are just there to add to the low body count. You’ll want the Leprechaun to play tricks and hurt these people, which could be fun. But the film plays that aspect a bit safe as well, making one wonder what’s the point. It’s just a strangely written screenplay.

It doesn’t help that you’re not sure what kind of tone this film is supposed to take. It’s obviously a horror film because this Leprechaun is enjoying tricking and killing some folks. But there’s also this goofy, silly vibe that doesn’t totally succeed because the film isn’t all that funny anyway - at least not intentionally. The Leprechaun is obviously inspired by later Freddy Krueger, using jokes and puns while he’s hurting other to amuse the audience. Some of the lines are genuinely chuckle worthy, while most of them deserve a tomato or two being thrown at them. But at least these kind of jokes and puns fit for a Leprechaun character, regardless of how well they work. But that doesn’t excuse the human characters from having really terrible dialogue that makes you roll your eyes and groan more than anything. Each character thankfully has a personality, but that doesn’t make them watchable when they’re alone in scenes together. Tory is a brat who preaches others about being vegan and not having the luxuries of living on a farm rather than the city. Ozzie is the slow one, while his annoying kid sidekick Alex is seriously grating anytime he speaks. And Nathan is just the token good-looking hero that doesn’t have a clue what he’s doing. Seriously, none of these characters would be missed if the Leprechaun had gotten them.

The story does have a few things going for it. For one, I actually like the fact that a four-leaf clover is his weakness like a crucifix would be for a vampire. This Leprechaun enjoys giving people a sense of bad luck, so having the symbol of good luck destroy him makes sense. And the concept is never overused here, making it more effective during the film’s conclusion when it’s utilized. I also really got a kick of the Leprechaun having this OCD deal with shining shoes. There’s one moment where the humans throw their shoes at the Leprechaun, realizing he’s compelled to shine their shoes regardless of how dirty they are. It’s honestly amusing and displays one of the better moments for the human characters. I also thought some of the death scenes were unique. The main one that fans remember involves the Leprechaun using a pogo stick to impale some shop owner until he died. There’s also one that involves clawing a deputy’s face before snapping his neck. And seeing the Leprechaun’s go-kart actually ram and turn over a normal sized automobile is pretty funny. So while the majority of the screenplay leaves a lot to be desired, it does have memorable moments from time to time.

The direction by Mark Jones isn’t the most exciting honestly. We get a lot of tilt and pan, especially when most of it isn’t necessary. And his use of both slow and fast motion at times didn’t really feel like they fit the scenes they were a part of. At least the film is well paced, even though it really should have had more action within the middle portion of the film. And the blu-ray remaster makes the film look really great, probably more than it deserves. I also thought the gore effects looked pretty good as well. While also a terrible movie, I do think Jones did a better job on RUMPELSTILTSKIN, where he was able to cut a bit more loose notwithstanding the quality of that movie. LEPRECHAUN looks fine but nothing that’ll pop out for the audience.

As for the acting, it’s not the greatest either. But some of the actors do try to elevate a silly script. For those who don’t know, LEPRECHAUN is the film debut of one Jennifer Aniston, who would become a phenomenon a year later by starring on Friends. A lot of people consider Aniston’s performance in this film “the period before she took acting lessons”. And yeah, she can pretty rough around the edges at times as Tory, the city brat who soon becomes the heroine of the film. But honestly, I rather take her shaky performance here over any performance she had during and post-Friends, which is pretty much one-note and the same every time. Despite her annoying character, Aniston handles herself well and manages to take it as serious as she can, considering the material. I doubt she even discusses this film anymore, but she happens to be one of the better things about it.

Even better is Warwick Davis as the Leprechaun, who made all the films in the franchise that he was involved with watchable with his energetic performance. Davis has been a highlight in a lot of the projects he’s been involved in, especially multiple STAR WARS films, WILLOW, and several HARRY POTTER movies. Even though it shouldn’t work, Davis makes the Leprechaun character charming and fun in a dumb way, You can Davis is having so much playing the role, which makes it charming to watch him portray it. This series would be nothing without him and it surprised me when he was replaced in recent installments of the franchise.

The other actors are okay. Ken Olandt uses his 90’s hair, chiseled looks and biceps do the work for him. Hey, when it works, it works. Mark Holton played the typical slow overweight redneck in a horror movie role. It feels more like a caricature than an actual performance, to be honest. I wish he had played it more subtle, but then I remembered what film I’m reviewing here. Robert Hy Gorman is pretty grating, but I chuckle whenever a child says a cuss word every now and then. I’ve seen worst child actors. And John Sanderford doesn’t get to do a whole lot but get his hand bitten by the Leprechaun. He was more memorable as Zack Morris’ dad on Saved by the Bell.

While this film has its fans, I find 1993’s LEPRECHAUN just meh for the most part. Warwick Davis is the highlight as the title character, having a blast in the role and making the silly gimmick work as best as possible. And while a bit rough around the edges, I would take this version of Jennifer Aniston [in her film debut] over the Friends Jennifer Aniston we’ve gotten in the last 26 years. The kills, especially the pogo stick kill, is pretty amusing. And while the puns and jokes don’t always land, at least the film seems to be trying to entertain the audience. But besides the Leprechaun, the human characters are either stupid, annoying, or both - which is more disappointing when the body count is so low. And the direction is pretty pedestrian and not all that memorable, even though the blu ray remaster looks freakin’ great. LEPRECHAUN doesn’t really succeed as either a horror film or a comedy, but there’s something stupidly charming about this one for some reason. I would only recommend this film for Bad Movie Nights or you need something to watch for St. Patrick’s Day. Otherwise, not the pot of gold you’re probably looking for.

1.5 Howls Outta 4


The Invisible Man (2020)

Leigh Whannell

Elisabeth Moss - Cecilia Kass
Oliver Jackson-Cohen - Adrian Griffin
Aldis Hodge - James Lanier
Storm Reid - Sydney Lanier
Harriet Dyer - Emily Kass
Michael Dorman - Tom Griffin

Genre - Horror/Thriller

Running Time - 124 Minutes

PLOT (from IMDB)
When Cecilia’s (Elisabeth Moss) abusive ex (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) takes his own life and leaves her his fortune, she suspects his death was a hoax. As a series of coincidences turn lethal, Cecilia works to prove that she is being hunted by someone nobody can see.

Despite classic films like 1920’s THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI, 1922’s NOSFERATU and 1925’s THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, the horror genre didn’t really become popular for the mainstream until Universal Studios started adapting horror novels beginning in 1931 with DRACULA. FRANKENSTEIN, THE MUMMY, THE INVISIBLE MAN, BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, THE WOLF MAN and THE CREATURE OF THE BLACK LAGOON would soon join DRACULA as immortal horror films that popularized the title characters into the pop culture lexicon to this very day. These characters are still beloved today by multiple generations, getting marathons during Halloween season, as well as being a huge monetary success in terms of the home video market. Universal still makes a lot of money with these characters, which is why the studio has been doing multiple attempts to retell their stories for the last 20 or so years.

Out of all the characters, it seems The Mummy has been the most successful in terms of box office and franchise building. In 1999, the story was changed from horror to a more action-adventure film starring Brandon Fraser that was a huge box office success during that year’s summer season. This success would lead to an even more popular sequel that created its own spin-off franchise with THE SCORPION KING, as well as a third film that didn’t do as well but still made money. Ever since this, however, Universal has been struggling with their monster franchises.

The studio attempted a remake of THE WOLF MAN in 2010. Despite an A-list cast and good special effects, audiences didn’t care too much about it. In 2014, Universal released DRACULA UNTOLD - a horror-action film that invented a different origin story for the character rather than follow the novel the character is based on. It was a surprise box office success for the studio, yet they didn’t really do much with a potential franchise afterwards. Seeing how successful Marvel Studios and Disney had become with their MCU films crafting multiple franchises that tied in together in one large world for major crossovers that destroyed box office records all over the world, Universal wanted in some of that action. Plans for Luke Evans’s Dracula from DRACULA UNTOLD started to slowly form to be part of Universal’s “Dark Universe” - an attempt to reimagine all of the Universal horror characters in their own films before putting them all in a single film as a huge event. Instead of doing a sequel to a successful film that people seemed to have enjoyed, the studio instead decided to remake THE MUMMY again in 2017 with Tom Cruise and Russell Crowe. Despite the star power, the film pretty much bombed both commercially and critically, destroying any plans for a Dark Universe - at least for now.

So it was pretty surprising when 2020’s THE INVISIBLE MAN went forward after plans for a shared universe fell through. Realizing they couldn’t force a movie universe, Universal stepped back and decided to just focus on modernizing the character for a newer generation through individualized storytelling that wouldn’t force audiences to watch multiple films to understand what they were watching. Hiring screenwriter and director Leigh Whannell [mainly of SAW, INSIDIOUS and UPGRADE fame] to helm the film and casting Emmy Award winning actress Elisabeth Moss as the main character who would be subjected to the terror of the title character, this remake had a lot going for it. The trailers, while they looked good, had me worried a bit as they gave off a Lifetime movie-of-the-week vibe, just with a bigger budget. You’d think they gave away the entire film by watching those trailers, causing me to wait a bit to watch the film rather than rush out so I could write a review for it. But color me surprised - this new INVISIBLE MAN turned out way better than I had expected, with the trailers only showing a portion of what the film is about. In fact, this may be one of the smartest horror films I’ve seen in a theater in a long time, giving you an important social commentary that doesn’t feel forced but a natural progression of the story the film is trying to tell. Take that, BLACK CHRISTMAS (2019)!

There’s so much good about THE INVISIBLE MAN that I’m not sure where to exactly start with its praise. I guess if there’s anything that makes the film worth anyone’s while, it’s Leigh Whannell’s masterful eye behind the lens. While the film does have a few jump scares, especially during the last half of the film, Whannell is more focused on building tension and suspenseful throughout to put us in the position of Moss’ Cecilia from beginning to end. And Whannell wastes no time in building mood and atmosphere, as it’s evident right from the start as Cecilia tries to escape the clutches of her abusive boyfriend [last name Griffin, one of the few references to the 1933 film] during a dark, quiet night while he sleeps. Just the way Whannell slowly pans and tilts the camera to capture every moment, even frame space that doesn’t seem important, slowly starts to unnerve you. The use of security camera footage to see if he’s still sleeping and the lack of a musical score make you tense, wondering what’s about to go wrong to set up the rest of this film. Cinematographer Steven Duscio helps Whannell visualize this beautifully polished look for the film that’s just a shell for the ugliness of Cecilia’s situation. Shots are skillfully framed throughout to have her in a certain part of the frame with so much open space next to her, making you wonder if someone is actually there but we can’t see him. When the first loud noise is made, I actually jumped a bit because you don’t expect it. There are great moments like that in the entire film, not just in the awesome opening act. The direction starts to make you paranoid a bit, even though you know Cecilia is right about her ex-boyfriend haunting her as some sort of invisible man. Sometimes nothing happens in the frame. Then once in a while, an object would move on its own. Or a noise is made. Or the ex-boyfriend just attacks Cecilia or the people she’s close to, making them see her as a liability. Throughout the film, the title character is trying to drive Ceclia insane and punish her in the worst ways possible mentally and emotionally. I’ll get to the abuse commentary in a bit, but it’s so well done visually that you sympathize heavily with Cecilia and you want her to get rid of this prick. 

When it comes to the special effects, Whannell and his team did an awesome job updating the invisibility aspect. Using a more technological storyline to explain how someone could become invisible, it updates the story in a modern way and makes her some cool visuals when the title character is made visible through liquid, smoke and other means. The final half of the film focuses on these visuals, making things tense when the villain pops in and out visually, never in a predictable pattern. It looks so accomplished and flawless that you totally buy into the concept. The best special effect is when you don’t see The Invisible Man at all, making you look around the screen to see if something moves around that shouldn’t be. And when Cecilia tries to talk to him and he doesn’t answer to unnerve her, it sort of unnerves us too. I’m completely amazed how well Whannell and his team accomplished the visual presentation of THE INVISIBLE MAN because it’s one of the better directed horror films I’ve seen in a long time. Whannell has come a long way and he’s doing more-than-good for the genre.

And honestly, the visuals would be nothing if it wasn’t for the immaculate performance by Elisabeth Moss in the lead role of Cecilia. Moss has so many emotional and physical layers to play throughout the film, you’d really think she was being put through the ringer in real life. Moss plays the role of an abused woman so believably, you start to think that it had to come from a place of reality for the actress in some aspect. Most of the time, Moss has to be inside of an empty room having dialogue with someone who you can’t even see or hear - but you know he’s there watching her crack under the pressure to punish Cecilia for leaving him. Most actresses would look silly doing this, either overdoing their portrayals to the point of slapstick and silliness. It’d come off so melodramatic, you’d probably end up laughing at the actress rather than feeling sorry for her. Moss is so fantastic that you buy every emotional beat she plays to a tee. Watching Moss play out Cecilia’s story in such an enduring, harrowing way is masterful stuff, especially since you connect with her right away and wish her to be free of this “ghost”. With the help of a fantastic supporting cast, Moss is able to elevate the material that could have been silly for a lesser actress. She won’t get any major award nominations for this, but I would seriously consider the thought at least. Moss is wonderful.

The commentary of abuse and how it affects the victims is strongly at play here, but the film never really pushes the agenda in a way to be “woke”. I kept seeing people who hadn’t watched the film complain about another film dealing with “women being wronged by men”, believing THE INVISIBLE MAN is hammering this message of feminism to a mainstream audience that threatens toxic masculinity, I guess. Have these people watched films or television? The subject of abuse - either physical, mental, emotional, and/or sexual - has been in media for decades. Soap operas deal with this topic. Cop shows, like Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, has had 21 seasons of dealing with this subject. Hell, Lifetime has become a household name for many TV movies dealing with people trying to escape an abusive relationship by any means necessary. THE INVISIBLE MAN is not a film that’s telling its audience that “men are evil”. There are male characters in the film who are actually good guys who want to help Cecilia deal with her emotional suffering so she can get back to a normal life. This is a story about an abused woman who struggles escaping and being haunted by a terrible person, who just happened to be a man, hoping someone will believe her cries for help. When this terrible person messes with her to the point that he’s framing her for things and doing things that make her look like an awful, crazy person because he wants power over her, she has to take it upon herself to make a change and stop this person from haunting her ever again. It’s a tale that’s been told for generations, using the issue of abuse to drive its story forward into a horror-thriller direction that people of all genders will be able to relate to and hopefully enjoy enough to see this abused victim get some satisfying justice. I thought it was handled extremely well and as realistic as you can get with an invisible man running around.

If I were to nitpick anything, I thought the conclusion happened way too quick for me. Don’t get me wrong, it was completely satisfying. But I expected more of a physical confrontation than what we were given. Then again, this entire film is pretty much a cat-and-mouse chase, so it feels kind of silly wanting more of that in the last few moments of the film. I also felt there were some narrative inconsistencies that I honestly can’t discuss due to spoiler territory. But small things happened for the convenience of shaping later events, although they shouldn’t have existed logically in this world. Plus, the title character is just a supporting character rather than the lead. I’m sure it’ll upset some people, even though I enjoyed the change of perspective when it came to THE INVISIBLE MAN. 

THE INVISIBLE MAN (2020) will definitely be a highlight for cinema, especially in the horror genre, this year. It’s suspenseful, tense, and bleak - creating this distressing world of domestic abuse through the eyes of the victim as she struggles to escape the abuser that continues to haunt her, even though no one else can sense him but her. The social commentary is very timely, yet it never pushes this agenda. Rather, writer and director Leigh Whannell lets the commentary drive the story and make us sympathetic with the lead character as she tries to regain her freedom from the ghost of her past. Through the use of fantastic direction and cinematography by Scott Duscio, the visual presentation heightens the narrative by framing scenes in such a way that we’re looking for things that aren’t there - or maybe they are. The film is greatly elevated by an incredible strong performance by Elisabeth Moss, who plays every emotional beat perfectly. You totally buy her journey from scared and fragile abuse victim who is afraid to leave her own house, to a desperate woman who just wants out of this toxic relationship. It’s nice to see a film that isn’t focused on creating a franchise or trying to be part of some shared universe for a studio to milk these brands dry for a quick buck. THE INVISIBLE MAN is able to breathe as its own thing, telling a story a lot of people can relate to while giving familiar fans a new perspective to the usual story. This is a remake done right.

3.5 Howls Outta 4


Lunar Cycle - February 2020

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

INTO THE DARK: DOWN (2019) - ** out of ****

Directed By: Daniel Stamm

Starring: Matt Lauria, Natalie Martinez, Arnie Pantoja, Christina Leone, Diane Sellers

Genre: Horror

Running Time: 82 Minutes

Plot: A pair of coworkers get trapped in an elevator over a long weekend, but what at first promises to be a romantic connection turns nefarious as each party begins to reveal who they truly are.

Another month, another journey Into the Dark from Blumhouse and Hulu. This time it’s for the first season’s Valentine’s Day entry, DOWN - a film whose premise has been done to death, especially in recent years, but managed to have a interesting first half that quickly travels to predictable territory that makes everyone look stupid in the end. DOWN probably could and should have been better, but it plays things safe and just ends up feeling disappointing.

I won’t get too much into the story itself since it’s probably better not knowing than it is me going into detail about the film. I’ll just say that if you enjoyed both 2008’s P2 and 2010’s DEVIL, you’ll probably find something to enjoy in DOWN. The film pretty much focuses just one two characters, Jennifer and Guy, who are co-workers [yet strangers since they work in different departments inside the same building] who get stuck inside of an elevator the night before Valentine’s Day, ruining their respective plans. As two people would do inside of an elevator, the two characters share information about their lives as a way to know each other, eventually leading to a weak moment where both have sex to fill some time. Unfortunately, one person thinks of the sex as a one-time deal, while the other changes their tune when they feel rejected and want more when it comes to their new “relationship”.

This portion of the film [the first half] is the better part of DOWN, as it’s just a character study and dramatic look at two people who attempt a bond in order to pass time inside of a small elevator, hoping to be rescued. While it’s obvious this is all just the calm before the storm, at least we get a glimpse at the main characters in order for the audience to relate to each one. Jennifer is tough and independent, coming off a bad relationship she’s trying to remedy. Guy is a nice, caring dude who seems like a hopeless romantic. Watching the characters bond is really well done, as we get a sense of who they are and care about what’s going to happen with them and between them. It’s the perfect storytelling tool for a film like this and it works because I was really enjoying the film during these moments.

However, that all changed in the last half. I don’t think it’s a terrible second part of the film, to be honest. But it gets predictable to the point of almost insulting and silly, making me wonder why they bothered developing characters in the first place if they’re just gonna do things out of character later on. Truths are revealed and the characters portray themselves as almost caricatures. Jennifer, who seems like a smart woman, does really idiotic things as a narrative convenience. Guy is just over-the-top in his behavior. I mean, logically the story did do what’s expected. But considering how strong and smart the first half is, I think it could have been handled a bit more grounded in order to up the fear factor - which this film has none of, unfortunately.

I think why the narrative brings DOWN [get it?] the film is because the film’s message is flawed in its execution. DOWN is obviously tackling the #MeToo movement and toxic masculinity, which is perfectly fine. Considering how things switch in the second half, it definitely makes sense to use those specific social commentaries. But the storytelling doesn’t justify any of those commentaries since the characters are portrayed in ways that contradict both. The #MeToo angle is flawed because there’s no rape or sexual harassment going on here. The sex is consensual, especially when the person who believes it as a one-night stand was the one who initiated it. One-night stands are cool and while the reason why they’re both trapped in the elevator probably constitutes as kidnapping, the sexual aspect was completely willing. Now the toxic masculinity commentary can definitely have merit as the response to the “no strings” deal is a bit violent. But then the film wants you to sympathize with the villain, taking away that message too. Since this film was written and directed by men, maybe DOWN would have worked better from a female’s perspective? I wasn’t sure what this film was aiming for beyond its predictable cat-and-mouse chase in the final act. What did DOWN want me to get out of it besides what was on the surface? Truly baffling.

What makes DOWN even worth a look is the strong performances by Matt Lauria and Natalie Martinez, who carry the film the entire time even when their characters weren’t probably written ideally near the end. Both actors had already worked together on a show called Kingdom, who it made sense why they had so much chemistry with each other. Both easy on the eyes and extremely likable, DOWN would have been somewhat of a success regardless despite its dumbed down script. Even when things got silly, both actors played their roles like troopers and managed to make it all watchable while I was rolling my eyes at some of it. I hope they work together again in a stronger project.

As for the direction, I thought it was really good as well. Daniel Stamm has a lot of fans due to his work on 2010’s THE LAST EXORCISM and 2014’s 13 SINS and it’s easy to see why. The film is mostly shot inside of an elevator that slowly grows more claustrophobic as the characters begin to bond and then drift apart. The first half of the film is shot in typical elevator lights, making the scenes look perfectly natural and normal. But once truths come out, the lighting shifts to a dark red that resembles Hell - which is exactly what the characters are going through at this point and time. The cat-and-mouse chase sequences are well shot and have some suspense going for them. And while the film isn’t particularly gory, there is one cool death involving an elevator crushing someone and splitting them in half. While DOWN did feel more like a TV movie than some of the other entries I’ve watched, I thought it was visually pleasing and was paced very well. So nothing but positive words for Stamm and his direction here.

Overall, DOWN is a real mixed bag within the Into the Dark series on Hulu. With only two actors really being focused on within the entire runtime of the film, the first half dealing with character development was really well done, allowing me to invest in the characters and relate to each one on some level. Unfortunately, the film plays it too safe and quickly follows into predictable and silly territory that similar films like P2 had done better in a multitude of ways. The themes of #MeToo and toxic masculinity are pretty much in vain since both characters [and the screenwriter] do things that don’t really justify either one of those commentaries, making me wonder if a female perspective would have handled this material better and made DOWN feel more important than it tries to be. No one really forces themselves on the other. The villain is given scenes for the audience to sympathize with them. What is this film trying to say?

However, the performances by both Matt Lauria and Natalie Martinez are very strong, even when the characters do things that made me roll my eyes. They carried the film quite well. And Daniel Stamm’s direction is also very good, capturing the slow claustrophobic feeling of being trapped within an elevator, while presenting a nice elevator death that will have some people splitting in two. DOWN is a film that should have been better than it was considering how simple the narrative is. Might be worth a look if you want, but I’m probably taking the stairs next time.

INTO THE DARK: MY VALENTINE (2020) - *1/2 out of ****

Directed By: Maggie Levin

Starring: Britt Baron, Anna Lore, Benedict Samuel, Anna Akana, Sachin Bhatt, Tiffany Smith, Shaun Brown, Alan Chow, Ally Maki, Ruben Vernier

Genre: Thriller/Horror

Running Time: 79 Minutes

Plot: A pop singer’s artistic identity is stolen by her ex-boyfriend/manager and shamelessly pasted onto his new girlfriend/protege. Locked together late one night in a concert venue, the three reconcile emotional abuses of the past… until things turn violent.

Continuing with Into the Dark, we come to the newest episode - MY VALENTINE - a Valentine’s Day theme story really in name only [the main character’s name is Valentine] while it’s more focused on themes of toxic relationships, the downfalls of the music industry, and Stockholm Syndrome when it comes to abuse. You’d think all this commentary would help elevate your standard horror film. But you’d be wrong.

MY VALENTINE is probably the least interesting film that I’ve seen from this series, considering the subject matter is relevant and could be used to tell a relatable story. The film is based on the real life drama between musician Mars Argo and her lawsuit against producer Titanic Sinclair and his newest collaborator Poppy, that ended with Argo gaining back all the rights to the music Argo believed Sinclair & Poppy had stolen from her. Argo claimed Sinclair abused and manipulated her, as well as dumping her for lookalike Poppy, who she claims was styled after her. In this film. Valentine is Argo, Royal is Sinclair and Trezzure is Poppy - using similar themes of abuse and manipulation to clearly paint who are the protagonists and antagonists. 

Even not knowing what the film is based off of, the narrative does enough to make it clear that Valentine was wronged by her former producer and his new protege has stolen her gimmick. We see flashbacks of Valentine & Royal in happier times, building her musical career while also being intimate. But Royal soon grows controlling to the point that Valentine feels like she needs to get out. Out of revenge, Royal finds a lookalike and names her Trezzure, using Valentine’s song to make Trezzure a star. In the present, Royal is clearly unhinged, displeased with Trezzure’s ability to create her own music, begging Valentine to write for her as if he still has power over Valentine. Valentine is clearly traumatized by what Royal did to her, finding any way out of the situation, even if it involves violence. 

Unlike last year’s DOWN, the themes actually do work here. Royal is clearly a textbook abuser, manipulating everyone around him to get what he wants. Even though he hurt Valentine, he feels betrayed by her leaving him, which led to the creation of Trezzure. Valentine is still haunted by what Royal did to her, trying to move on with her life by taking back her identity and rights to the songs Royal stole from her. You also hear a voiceover from a motivational tape that Valentine uses to overcome her past, making her become emotionally stronger as the film goes. And Trezzure is a pop star with a lot of fans, but she’s clearly miserable being in a relationship with Royal. She’s in total denial about the abuse and the manipulation, only slowly opening her eyes when Royal does some bad things, as well as Valentine’s proof of what he had done to her personally that sound familiar to Trezzure’s own experience with him. Honestly, the whole abuse angle and both women overcoming it in their own way is the strongest aspect of MY VALENTINE story wise. You just want to see Royal get his in the end, and you won’t be disappointed.

However, there are other things with the story that just ruin the experience. Another theme that’s touched on is toxic fandom. A group of fans criticize Valentine during an act because they feel she stole Trezzure’s look and music, even though she had originated it. They think she’s a copycat and they bad mouth her on the internet or to other people during the concert because they feel entitled to defend their favorite artist. When Royal and Trezzure make their appearance at the club Valentine is performing at, these fans cater to their every need, even standing guard outside the exit door to make sure no one gets in or out as he “talks” to Valentine. Even an opening act couple believe Valentine is the wannabe, but they just let Royal deal with the mess. This time of fandom is everywhere when it comes to music, movies, and even politics. A good story could be created from this. But MY VALENTINE doesn’t do much with any of it after the first ten to fifteen minutes, making you wonder why these characters stuck around longer than they should have. The opening act couple play nothing but potential body count victims, while the fans don’t do anything at all. Just felt unnecessary.

And then there’s Royal himself, who is already a dirtbag for doing Valentine wrong and manipulating Trezzure in believing she was always the first pick in his heart. But the film doesn’t ground him as a simple abusing music producer who could be real scary just by being unsuspecting and subtle in his behavior towards each of his creations. Instead, MY VALENTINE makes him this manic and clearly unstable person who accidentally murders someone and instantly fascinates himself with death out of the blue. He records people dying and then gets upset when he couldn’t capture the sound of them dying, which he eventually does later. For a popular music producer who people actually know and interact with, he doesn’t hide his psychopathic and sociopathic tendencies well at all. Royal becomes a cartoon quite quickly and it just takes you out of the entire film. Hey, I’m sure there are people who behave like this in reality. But Valentine is so grounded as a character and the situation feels based in reality that his portrayal doesn’t seem like it fits in this world. Even Trezzure starts subtle at first, becoming more of a caricature as the film goes on. I get this is a horror film and most likely, people have to die. But Royal could have still been a grounded villain who eliminated those in his way without auditioning for The Riddler. I just thought it was silly and took away from the abuse angle that would have been more than enough to carry this film.

Speaking of grounded, Britt Baron [best known as Justine on GLOW] is wonderful as Valentine. I bought her every emotional beat in the story, from fear, to sadness, to anger, to relenting, and then to triumph. She never overdid her performance and made you sympathetic towards her character. The material should have been better, but Baron does the best she can and I liked her performance. I wish I could say the same Benedict Samuel as Royal, who started out okay but soon became a cartoon villain. The only thing he was missing was the twirling mustache. Samuel plays crazy well, but it belonged in a different film. Not once I was convinced this person could be a successful music producer without a single story coming out against him for something criminal. And with his performance, I wasn’t convinced that he could manipulate anyone, especially two young and talented women. He seemed to be having fun in the role, which is great. But I just didn’t feel it at all. We also have Anna Lore as Trezzure, who had her moments [especially when she was performing in music videos], but got pretty grating in the last half of the film. She had decent emotional beats in the first half of the film though and her best scenes were with Baron. The other actors don’t get to do much, which is a shame because I’m sure more could have been done with them.

What really saves MY VALENTINE is both the visuals and the soundtrack. Maggie Levin does a great job bringing a colorful film with energy at times. The music video segments were shot really cool, creating vibrant visuals and having some nice dance choreography that I could believe really existed on YouTube for a specific pop artist. Each one looked a bit different, although they all had a neon look to them, but it made the film pop for me. The scenes in the club weren’t as impressive, but they were shot well and the film was paced decently for its short running time. The soundtrack contains some nice original pop music that I could see teenagers flocking to on Apple Music or Spotify. The songs were catchy, fun, and current for today’s music market. I wish the story had this much attention, but what can you do?

Overall, MY VALENTINE is the worst installment of Hulu’s Into the Dark that I’ve watched so far. While the visuals pop out with their colors and the soundtrack is full of catchy pop music, the story itself brings the entire project down unfortunately. The theme of abuse and toxic relationships in romance and in business is fairly strong, especially since it’s based on the Mars Argo-Poppy deal with their producer, creating a sympathetic character in Valentine and slowly showing the effects of the abuse for both pop singers in the film. But instead of grounding the situation in reality, the antagonist loses his believability factor when he’s turned into a comic book villain who suddenly becomes fascinated by death in an over-the-top manner. The film gets fairly silly and I was taken out of it because of that. Plus, why bring up toxic fandom if you’re not going to do much interesting with that theme? Britt Baron does the best as she can, giving a likable performance as Valentine. The other actors didn’t do much for me [they weren’t terrible though], but I blame how their characters were written more than anything. If I was a teenager, maybe MY VALENTINE would have done more for me. But it doesn’t get a whole lotta love from me, making this installment one to keep in the dark.

GANJA & HESS (1973) - *** out of ****

Directed By: Bill Gunn

Starring: Duane Jones, Marlene Clark, Bill Gunn, Sam Waymon, Leonard Jackson, Candece Tarpley, Richard Harrow, Mabel King

Genre: Horror/Drama/Supernatural/Vampires

Running Time: 112 Minutes

Plot: After being stabbed with an ancient, germ-infested knife, a doctor’s assistant finds himself with an insatiable desire for blood.

I had first heard of GANJA & HESS on Shudder's 2019 documentary HORROR NOIRE: A HISTORY OF BLACK HORROR, which is quite great if you haven’t checked it out already. I didn’t even know GANJA & HESS inspired a remake by Spike Lee in 2014 called DA SWEET BLOOD OF JESUS. The film was way below my radar due to not many really talking about the film until recently, making me curious as to why it had escaped me for so long. With February being Black History Month, I figured it was the right time to sit down and check it out. It was then that I could see why GANJA & HESS has started to gain attention only within the last decade. Unlike other films of the time like BLACULA and BLACKENSTEIN, GANJA & HESS isn’t a blaxploitation film. It’s an arthouse drama with supernatural elements at play every now and then, giving audiences a serious look at the black culture of its time while spinning a different web when it comes to vampire storytelling. It’s not perfect and has flaws, but the film is one I’m glad I finally got to watch.

I won’t go too much into detail about the film’s story and what all the symbolism within it refers to. But there is a strong commentary running through the film when it comes to class and religion. Dr. Hess is a well renown anthropologist and has a lot of money, even spending time at upper class functions [mainly consisting white people] and sticking out within his own community due to how well he dresses and behaves. He’s sort of assimilated into a culture that wouldn’t have accepted him years prior, while studying history of his roots in Africa to maintain a level of identity within the culture he was born into.

There’s also commentary on addiction, as Hess is an addict prior to wanting to drink blood due to some ancient germ that makes him immortal. The blood feasting only increases this addition, as withdrawal leads to an annoying buzzing sound with tribal drums beating loudly. This is a clear symbolism of cold turkey and needing that fix before it drives you mad with physical and mental pain.

There is also an element of religion at play here, as addiction and drinking blood from people that have been murdered are most likely considered sins anywhere you go. Hess has a driver who is a minster at a local church, but he never enters the place until the very end when he’s hit rock bottom with his blood addiction and is looking for guidance. It’s almost as if writer and director Bill Gunn was clearly pointing out that good will always triumph over evil, feeling that worshipping a higher power will lead you down a righteous path even if you stepped off that path for a while to commit horrible things. Even science is no match to church, which has been a commentary for years that people still debate about.

Without spoiling things, GANJA & HESS is really a drama that tells an interesting love story between two people that probably should have fallen in love to begin with. Hess meets Ganja, the wife of Hess’ former boss who inflicted him with vampirism to begin with. Ganja looks for her husband, not realizing he had committed suicide after thinking he had murdered Hess. Ganja and Hess just click, as Hess provides Ganja the attention she craves while still maintaining a certain lifestyle while Ganja provides Hess that distraction for his loneliness and addiction. Even when Ganja learns the truth, she accepts it because she’s comfortable with where she’s at, even though the vampirism issue does strain their relationship slowly and surely. It’s not a love story we can really root for or understand if we’re not in their shoes. But it’s intriguing, especially by the film’s conclusion, when you realize that sometimes love just isn’t enough when the bodies and secrets keep piling up.

Bill Gunn directs a rough looking film, only because he only had $350,000 to spend and was an inexperienced filmmaker at the time. It looks like a student feature film one would do in college at times, looking pretty basic with a lot of grain and scratches on the film. But Gunn also manages to overlap imagery over certain scenes to create this provocative and avant-garde surreal feeling that borders on psychedelic, probably matching the feeling of addiction and the high one gets when that thirst is quenched. The blood does look a bit fake, but I can overlook it due to the budget and inexperience, since you still get the visual feeling from the “gorier” moments of the film. The exterior shots are quite stunning at times, capturing a large and private environment that still manages to be claustrophobic for the main characters.

I think the one big negative I have for GANJA & HESS is its pacing. The first and last acts are fine, but the middle portion of the film just feels too long for its own good and just drags. This middle portion is really the love aspect of the film, as both Ganja and Hess court each other. I feel ten to fifteen minutes probably could have been cut to get to the necessary points sooner.

I also have issue with some of the direction with the actors themselves. I’ll get to the performances in a bit, but I feel like the characters didn’t react in believable ways at times. Ganja, in particular, didn’t seem all that concerned that her husband was missing, shacking up with Hess fairly easily after some passive-aggressive flirting. When she does learn the truth, she’s upset at first but then just shrugs it off and moves on with Hess anyway. Maybe being in love surpassed everything else, but it just didn’t connect with me on a personal level.

The performances, however, are very good. Duane Jones, of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD fame, is great as Hess. He captures the laziness and sloth that addiction places upon an individual, while also believably acting suave and charming prior to feeding upon a victim. I thought his performance need the end, when he hits rock bottom, is really great stuff and you feel sorry for his predicament. Jones also shared some nice simmering chemistry with Marlene Clark, who plays Ganja. Unlike Jones, Clark gets to be energetic and sassy right from the start, becoming the catalyst to liven up Jones’ performance and pushing him to react to things. The performance slowly changes though, as Clark soon starts taking some of Hess’ mannerisms by the end, creating this full circle effect for each character. Both of them carry this film really well and make for a pretty cool onscreen couple.

And quick mention to the musical score, which is strange but well-crafted. Tribal beats, gospel singing, and this constant hum and buzz throughout that gets louder when things go terribly wrong. It’s really thought out and adds atmosphere.

Overall, I’m glad to have finally sat down and watched GANJA & HESS - a film that was lost for a while due to being more serious and arthouse than the blaxploitation fare around that time. Yet, GANJA & HESS is the one that resonates above the rest. The commentaries on addiction, religion and class are subtle, turning what could have been an offbeat vampire tale into something meaningful and human. Bill Gunn’s direction, while showing his inexperience when it comes to pacing and directing his actors into providing logical reactions to certain situations that took me out of the film somewhat, still manages to be strong enough look provocative and psychedelic at times to capture a mood his contemporaries weren’t creating. Duane Jones and Marlene Clark are excellent as both Hess and Ganja respectively, carrying the film as well they can through their chemistry and by grounding a vampire story into something I’m sure many have and could relate with. It’s not a home run, but GANJA & HESS is definitely worth a look if you want to see atypical horror film that has something human to say beyond the supernatural.

HOLLOW MAN (2000) - *** out of ****

Directed By: Paul Verhoeven

Starring: Kevin Bacon, Elisabeth Shue, Josh Brolin, Kim Dickens, Rhona Mitra, Greg Grunberg, Joey Slotnick, Mary Randle, William Devane

Genre: Horror/Science Fiction

Running Time: 119 Minutes

Plot: Cocky researcher, Sebastian Caine, is working on a project to make living creatures invisible and he’s so confident he’s found the right formula that he tests it on himself and soon begins to vanish. The only problem is no one can determine how to make him visible again. Caine’s predicament eventually drives him mad, with terrifying results.

Before I watch and review one of 2020’s most critically acclaimed films so far, THE INVISIBLE MAN, I figured it would make sense to watch another remake-of-sorts that the new film had reminded me of - 2000’s HOLLOW MAN. HOLLOW MAN is directed by Paul Verhoeven, the man responsible for such classics as ROBOCOP, BASIC INSTINCT, TOTAL RECALL, STARSHIP TROOPERS, and probably his masterpiece - SHOWGIRLS. Because of that information, one should expect over-the-top action sequences and possible sexual content will either titillate or offend audiences. However, anyone wanting a character study of what goes on when a man becomes invisible will surely be disappointed. And honestly, the lack of a character study in this two-hour film is a flaw in a narrative sense, when that aspect could have elevated the film above B-movie schlock.

Following the template of many adaptations of THE INVISIBLE MAN that had been released prior, the story involves Sebastian experimenting with an invisibility serum on himself, causing himself to disappear from the human eye. He decides to have some fun with his state while trying to create an antidote. As each attempt doesn’t make him visible again, he grows frustrated and starts going crazy, doing awful things to others. He commits murder, molests women and even rapes one, feeling he has the power to do so without any repercussions. This is as far as the social commentary and character study goes, as the film just becomes a straight on sci-fi slasher film of sorts that’s more ALIEN than anything else. On a brainless level, I guess that’s fine and the film is never once boring. But considering the man is doing some terrible things to women and that part of the film is never really pushed besides some uncomfortable moments between Sebastian and his female co-workers, it feels like there’s something missing in terms of some justice from his victims beyond the typical horror film ending.

The characters are all archetypes as well, even though each one get small moments to shine. I will say that despite the sexual predator angle that never really feels complete as an arc, the female characters in the film do feel more fleshed out than their male counterparts. Linda is smart and resourceful, Sara is tough and confident, and Janice is sassy and sarcastic. While lab assistant Carter plays the comic relief each time he appears, the only male character with development is Sebastian himself. And despite the serum making him more erratic and power hungry as each minute goes by, a small issue is that Sebastian was kind of a egotistical prick right from the start. He thinks he’s so much of a genius, that he can bypass government sanctions to perform experiments without thinking someone will catch on. He spies on his neighbor [the one he’ll eventually rape] undressing without shame. He’ll push himself on ex-girlfriend Linda to get back together, even when she clearly doesn’t want to. And even before he really displays moments of madness, he’s goosing and molesting his co-workers. So did the serum really make him evil, or was he evil all along? This is where a character study could have come in, but that’s not Verhoeven’s forte.

That being said, HOLLOW MAN is still a fun watch that quickly moves by despite the film being about two hours long. It has thrilling and tense moments throughout, especially in the film’s exciting final act. The special effects are pretty solid for 2000’s CGI, even more impressive when they had to shoot most of these scenes twice - one with Kevin Bacon and another with just Bacon himself performing the same motions to overlap the scenes into one. And I liked the whole idea that this guy could be anywhere, creating this claustrophobic feeling throughout. Verhoeven is a very visual director and I think he succeeded here, as the film looks great, is paced really well, and gives great payoffs to suspenseful moments. Plus the gore is pretty gnarly as well.

HOLLOW MAN also wouldn’t be as fun as it is without Kevin Bacon in the main role. You can tell he’s enjoying himself playing this cocky scientist who just ramps up the terror by the film’s end. Despite what the character did, it’s hard not to like Kevin Bacon in anything. He’s totally committed and we look forward to seeing what he’ll do onscreen [or not in this case]. Elisabeth Shue doesn’t really get a whole lot to do until the film’s final act, but she’s likable enough in the role to care about her. She shares some nice tension with Bacon and slightly rises above the generic female heroine deal to root for her by the end. Josh Brolin even gets less to do, but he’s not terrible in his role either. Even though I don’t think he had much romantic chemistry with Shue, even when the film pushes that angle hard. Kim Dickens played it tough and smart, believing her performance. And it’s always nice to see Greg Grunberg in anything. He has a sympathetic moment near the end that I completely bought into. I wish the cast, besides Bacon, got more to do. But they all played their roles as best as they could considering the shallow, yet entertaining script.

Overall, HOLLOW MAN isn’t a deep reinterpretation of H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man story, but it’s a fun one at least. A character study of the main character as his mental state deteriorates while being invisible, as well as a more satisfying resolution to this same invisible man molesting and raping women beyond the typical horror film ending would have been nice. But that’s not Paul Verhoeven’s wheelhouse, rather focusing on visually telling an entertaining popcorn film that is obviously inspired by 1979’s ALIEN or any other thriller that focuses on claustrophobia. The 2000 CGI holds up better than one would expect, while Verhoeven captures a lot of genuine tension and suspense throughout the film, especially in the film’s final act where the you-know-what hits the fan. And while the characters probably could have had more development, at least the actors all try and elevate the material given to them. Kevin Bacon, in particular, is extra good as the film’s antagonist and seems to be having a blast in the role of the title character. Someone looking for something deeper should probably look for another adaptation of the same concept. But if you like gore, good special effects, eye candy, tension and a fun Bacon performance, it’s clear to see that HOLLOW MAN may be worth a look.

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