Friday, October 19, 2018

On Blu-ray/DVD: UNFRIENDED: DARK WEB (2018) and DOWN A DARK HALL (2018)

(US - 2018)

2015's UNFRIENDED had some problems (like teenagers who looked to be in their mid-20s, and a late-film collapse into cheap jump scares and tilted BLAIR WITCH camera angles), but the real-time, Skype-set fright flick was more compelling than it had any business being. Unfolding entirely on a computer screen, the inevitable sequel UNFRIENDED: DARK WEB tells a different story with a similar set-up, jettisoning the supernatural angle of its predecessor to focus on an online game night that goes horrifically off the rails. Acquiring a laptop through the dubious means of grabbing it after it was left behind at a coffee shop, Matias (John Mayer lookalike Colin Woodell) plans on joining some college friends on Skype for Cards Against Humanity. At the same time, he's trying to smooth things over with his deaf girlfriend Amaya (Stephanie Nogueras), who's tired of his lax efforts in learning to sign. The laptop, which he tells everyone he got on Craigslist, repeatedly glitches out and messages keep coming through for its rightful owner. Things escalate in a gradual fashion, with Matias finding some truly disturbing videos on the laptop as he's getting some increasingly hostile instant messages from the laptop's owner, the apparent culprit behind an abduction seen in one of the videos of a missing girl who's currently all over the local news.

UNFRIENDED: DARK WEB is grounded in relative reality, even if it glosses over the more intricate aspects of its technological capabilities and doesn't really have anything to do with social media. Without divulging spoilers, Matias and his friends--paranoid conspiracy theorist AJ (Connor Del Rio), aspiring DJ Lexx (Savira Windyani), just-engaged couple Serena (Rebecca Rittenhouse) and Nari (Blumhouse regular Betty Gabriel), and London-based Damon (Andrew Lees)--soon get in way over their heads with a cabal of superhackers intent on making them--and Amaya--pay for Matias' bad judgment. There's some forced humor and a little of Del Rio's grating AJ goes a long way, but some sly jokes land, like writer and debuting director Stephen Susco (whose past scripts include THE GRUDGE, TEXAS CHAINSAW 3D, and BEYOND THE REACH) opening with a static shot of what we soon realize are Matias' failed login attempts to his ill-gotten gain, starting with passwords like "password" and "login," and ending with desperation Hail Marys like "FeelTheBern" and "Covfefe." Like a lot of films of this sort, UNFRIENDED: DARK WEB probably only works once, but it succeeds on a base, visceral level, especially once the stakes get serious and almost inconceivably cruel, leading to a late reveal reminiscent of a great late '90s paranoia thriller that's never really gotten the respect it deserves. Four endings were shot, and some different ones apparently played in various theaters around the country. Three are presented on the Blu-ray as alternate endings, and only one is even remotely uplifting. By no means is this some modern horror classic, but co-producer Timur Bekmambetov has a knack for shepherding these kinds of things where others (like Nacho Vigalondo's OPEN WINDOWS, which couldn't wait to ditch its core premise) have fallen short. Bekmambetov would finally perfect this online scare formula with the late summer sleeper hit SEARCHING, but like UNFRIENDED, this mean and uncompromising sequel surpasses expectations. (R, 92 mins)

(Spain/US - 2018)

Based on a 1974 YA novel by Lois Duncan (I Know What You Did Last Summer, Hotel for Dogs), DOWN A DARK HALL has some intriguing ideas but the story never comes together, getting bogged down in sentimentality and shot in such a murky, dimly-lit way that it's often impossible to tell what's going on. Updated to the present day with era-appropriate can't-even and "#whatever" 'tude, troubled teen Katherine "Kit" Gordy (AnnaSophia Robb) has been suspended from school, had a misdemeanor arrest, is facing an arson charge, and, as the school psychologist points out, is so disengaged from school that she got an F in gym. Kit's never gotten over the death of her beloved father when she was nine, and her mom (Kirsty Mitchell) and stepdad (Jim Sturgeon) are at a loss as to what to do with her. Dr. Sinclair (Jodhi May) recommends she be sent to the remote, isolated, and ominously gothic-looking Blackwood Boarding School, run by Madame Duret (Uma Thurman, apparently entering the "sinister boarding school headmistress" phase of her career). There's only four other students--Izzy (ORPHAN's Isabelle Fuhrman), Sierra (Rosie Day), Ashley (Taylor Russell), and pyromaniac mean girl Veronica (Victoria Moroles)--all with behavioral and psychological issues, though Madame Duret is certain she can find the artistic, creative young women within. It isn't long before aspiring painter Sierra is crafting brilliant, ambitious canvases, brainy Izzy is solving impossible mathematical equations, and Kit, who long ago abandoned her interest in music, is playing emotionally-draining and difficult pieces on the piano, almost as if a spirit has possessed each of them them and is bleeding the art out of them. And of course, they start seeing ghosts in the hallways along with other supernatural happenings, all of which are written off by the clearly up-to-something Madame Duret.

Directed by Rodrigo Cortes (BURIED, RED LIGHTS) and co-written by Chris Sparling (BURIED, ATM, THE SEA OF TREES), DOWN A DARK HALL benefits from some well-crafted, Guillermo del Toro-esque production design in the long corridors of Blackwood, but once the horror kicks in, too much of the film is spent trying to watch Kit wander around in almost total darkness until an occasional spectral jump scare appears in the frame. Robb (SOUL SURFER) is convincingly angry without coming across as too obnoxiously bratty, and Thurman has some fun with a freewheeling, all-purpose Euro accent as Madame Duret, but DOWN A DARK HALL has too many tedious stretches, and once its ghostly goings-on are explained, it doesn't really hold up to much scrutiny even by horror genre standards, especially considering that the recruitment of these "gifted" girls has been going on undetected for quite some time. It looks great when you can see what's going on, and the setting, the characters, and the climax definitely have some enjoyable shout-outs to SUSPIRIA, but even with the easy box office of YA-based horror, it's not really a mystery why Summit and Lionsgate relegated this misfire to VOD this past summer with its 2016 copyright still displayed in the credits. (PG-13, 96 mins)

Monday, October 15, 2018

In Theaters: BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE (2018)

(US - 2018)

Written and directed by Drew Goddard. Cast: Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Chris Hemsworth, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Cailee Spaeny, Lewis Pullman, Nick Offerman, Xavier Dolan, Shea Whigham, Mark O'Brien, Jim O'Heir, Charles Halford, Manny Jacinto, Tally Rodin, William B. Davis, Katharine Isabelle. (R, 141 mins)

A cursory glance at the trailer for BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE would suggest a throwback to the kinds of winking, referential neo-noirs that were commonplace in the post-Tarantino craze of two decades ago (THINGS TO DO IN DENVER WHEN YOU'RE DEAD, 2 DAYS IN THE VALLEY, etc). It's actually more in line with the later phase of Tarantino's career that gave us a motor-mouthed chamber piece like THE HATEFUL EIGHT, but even that isn't a completely accurate assessment since it's not nearly as self-indulgent. Written and directed by J.J. Abrams and Joss Whedon protege Drew Goddard (screenwriter of CLOVERFIELD and THE MARTIAN), EL ROYALE shares many themes and motifs as his previous directing effort, the meta genre deconstruction THE CABIN IN THE WOODS, so much so that as the story begins to play out and the sense of paranoia kicks in, you almost wouldn't be shocked to find Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford observing the goings-on from a secret installation at an undisclosed location and placing bets on who makes it to the end. Goddard also blatantly patterns the structure on vintage Tarantino by dividing the film into chapters and frequently going backwards in the narrative to fill in what was going in at the same time other events have happened, but for the most part, EL ROYALE manages to be its own unique work despite Tarantino's unavoidable influence. It's got a clever, twisty structure with a ton of genuine surprises, a dark sense of humor, shocking bursts of violence, and a game cast, but at nearly two and a half hours, it starts to run on fumes by the end, and the payoff ultimately isn't on the same level as the intricately constructed, densely-plotted build-up.

In a prologue, a man (Nick Offerman) rents a room, pries up the floorboards and stashes a bag full of money before being blown away by an unknown assailant. Cut ahead ten years and it's 1969, and a group of strangers arrive one by one at the El Royale, a dilapidated Lake Tahoe motor lodge that literally straddles the state line, its lobby split down the middle between California and Nevada. There's aspiring singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), who's on her way to Reno for a low-paying gig; aging priest Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), who says he's visiting his brother in Oakland; obnoxious, good ol' boy vacuum cleaner salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm); and Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson), a hippie with a bad attitude who signs the check-in registry with a "Fuck You." The El Royale has seen better days, having lost its gambling license a year earlier, and there only seems to be one employee running the place in frazzled desk clerk Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman), who frequently goes MIA and ignores the bell, leaving the guests to serve themselves coffee and drinks from the bar. Once in their rooms, it's clear that all of them have something to hide and aren't who they claim to be. Sullivan drops the overbaked Southern accent and makes a phone call before locating and dismantling dozens of bugging devices from everywhere in his room. He finds Miles passed out with a needle in his arm, and in a long, single-take sequence, ventures down a secret corridor behind the office, where he's able to see into each room through a one-way mirror. Darlene is singing, Father Flynn--clearly not a real priest--is tearing up the floorboards, and Emily is dragging a bound and gagged young woman (Cailee Spaeny) in from the trunk of her car. Sullivan goes to a nearby pay phone and calls the FBI. He mentions the apparent kidnapping and is told that "Mr. Hoover" wants him to disregard it, stick to his assignment, make sure no one leaves, and retrieve what he's there to find.

Shot on actual film and with a Michael Giacchino score that often sounds affectionately reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann, BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE is often just as indebted to Hitchcock as it is Tarantino, particularly PSYCHO with its motel setting and the character getting the most screen time in the early going being unexpectedly killed off before the midway point. Others will find the secret corridor and see things they aren't supposed to see, which seems to be the entire purpose of the El Royale's continued existence, a place where bad things go down and equipment is in place to record it all. A classic MacGuffin comes into play in the form of a stag film shot from behind the one-way-mirror looking into one of the rooms, dating back several years and featuring someone both prominent and dead. BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE keeps piling on the twists and turns and is an absolute blast until Goddard loses his way with the third-act, dark-and-stormy-night introduction of Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth), a charismatic, Manson-like cult leader who arrives with murderous goons in tow to find one of his flock who got away from him and is keen to stick around once he sees there's a bag of loot and a potential blackmail reel involved. It's no fault of Hemsworth, who attacks the role with amused gusto, but Billy Lee is a two-dimensional villain with too little screen time to make an impact. So instead of creating a fully-developed character like the ones we've been able to get to know, Goddard lets Hemsworth ham it up and show off by smirking and strutting to Deep Purple's "Hush," while he holds everyone captive and plays roulette with their lives as the film turns into a rote, generic "terrorizing the hostages" scenario.

It's a shame Goddard couldn't figure out a way to give keep the same level of intensity and bring the story to a conclusion worthy of its set-up, but the first 2/3 of the film is so good that the less-inspired and comparatively weak final third can't help but end with a fizzled shrug. It isn't a complete deal-breaker and it's still recommended, but part of the problem is that there's simply no reason for this film to be as long as it is. But it's beautifully shot, has some wonderful production design, and the cast is terrific, particularly Erivo (a Tony-winner for 2015's Broadway musical version of THE COLOR PURPLE) and national treasure Bridges, who lends a convincing weariness to a bad guy who maybe has some redeeming qualities after all. In the end, BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE averages out to a film that's quite good, but for an hour and a half, it flirts with being a great one.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

On Netflix: APOSTLE (2018)

(US/UK - 2018)

Written and directed by Gareth Evans. Cast: Dan Stevens, Michael Sheen, Lucy Boynton, Mark Lewis Jones, Bill Milner, Kristine Froseth, Paul Higgins, Elen Rhys, Sharon Morgan, Sebastian McCheyne, John Weldon, Richard Elfyn, Ross O'Hennessy. (Unrated, 129 mins)

Welsh-born writer/director Gareth Evans is best known for his Indonesian action extravaganzas with Iko Uwais (MERENTAU and the two RAID films), but he's explored the horror genre as well with his little-seen 2006 debut FOOTSTEPS and the "Safe Haven" segment of 2013's V/H/S/2. "Safe Haven" was set in the present-day and centered on an Indonesia-based religious cult, a topic Evans explores in a different time and place with his latest film, the Netflix Original APOSTLE. In the early 1900s, Thomas Richardson (Dan Stevens), the black sheep of a wealthy British family, is summoned home after years away by his near-catatonic father's attorney. Presumed dead for reasons the film specifies later and looking perilously close to feral amidst his upper-class surroundings, Thomas' return is an absolute last resort: his younger sister Jennifer (Elen Rhys) has been abducted and whisked away to a distant island, where a religious cult led by the Prophet Malcolm (Michael Sheen) has fled England and established a community called Erisden. She didn't join the cult--she was taken for ransom and they want it delivered personally. Thomas must infiltrate Erisden, blend in, and bring Jennifer home. His doing so ends up costing an innocent man his life when Thomas switches out his marked invitation, indicating that Malcolm and his right-hand men Quinn (Mark Lewis Jones) and Frank (Paul Higgins) have no intention of letting Jennifer or her rescuer off the island alive.

The obvious point of comparison in the early going is the 1973 classic THE WICKER MAN, which was already ripped off by Ben Wheatley with 2011's wildly overpraised KILL LIST. But THE WICKER MAN is just a launch pad for APOSTLE, as Evans has more metaphorically loaded ideas in mind. He doles out just enough details--about Erisden, Malcolm, and especially Thomas--to methodically tighten the screws and drive up the tension (abetted significantly by a nerve-jangling soundtrack that vacillates between folkish instruments and screeching violins). As Malcolm's rebellious (conveyed in a rather facile fashion by her fiery red hair) daughter Andrea (Lucy Boynton) says to Thomas, "Your eyes...they've seen things." But she hasn't seen the scars and burns on his back, part of a backstory that will make things much clearer as the film goes on. Unlike most self-appointed prophets of this sort, Malcolm is initially practical, save for the requirement that the new arrivals on Erisden must leave a small jar of their blood outside their quarters every night. The crops have failed, but Jennifer hasn't been taken to Erisden as a sacrifice to their version of a wicker man, but rather, because they need money and goods brought from the mainland and kidnapping an heiress for a hefty ransom is a last-ditch act of desperation. Malcolm brought his flock to Erisden but reality seems to have given them a swift kick in the ass. This is also represented by the blossoming (and secret) relationship between Frank's son Jeremy (Bill Milner) and Quinn's daughter Ffion (Kristine Froseth), which sets off a chain reaction of tragedy and terror that takes APOSTLE into genuinely horrific, Stephen King-by-way-of-Neil Gaiman territory in the second hour.

To divulge more plot is difficult without going into spoilers, but while it only briefly detours into the bone-crushing action choreography that's synonymous with Evans, APOSTLE is his most conceptually ambitious work yet. That's not just in the unforeseen roads the story travels, but also in its multi-dimensional characters, even finding some sense of morality in the lunacy of Malcolm and his ideas. He's not even the most dangerous person--or thing--on Erisden, which becomes painfully clear to him when things spiral out of his control. There's also a harsh lesson to be learned for those on Erisden who commit heinous acts in the name of their god or their religion. When one character exacts his personal revenge on another, triumphantly declaring "I've wanted this," it's proof positive that Erisden has lost its way and its people are doing things not out of religious conviction but rather, control and power. There are those on Erisden who are complicit in the worst things happening and hide behind their religion, increasingly divorced from what they purport to stand for and believe, thereby offending a god who sees fit to poison the crops and make the land toxic. These notions make parts of APOSTLE a blistering indictment of rampant religious hypocrisy, but despite its grievances, the film is ultimately a spiritual one that falls on the side of faith. Evans also doesn't forget he's making a Gareth Evans joint, coming up with some innovative torture devices and increasingly painful ways for people to be killed, particularly one nightmarish mechanism that serves as a rustic tribute to the legendary drill scene in Lucio Fulci's CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD. And don't be surprised when cosplay versions of "Her" and "The Grinder" start appearing at fan conventions.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

On Netflix: 22 JULY (2018)

(US - 2018)

Written and directed by Paul Greengrass. Cast: Jonas Strand Gravli, Anders Danielsen Lie, Jon Oigarden, Maria Bock, Thorbjorn Harr, Seda Witt, Isak Bakli Aglen, Ola G. Furuseth, Monica Borg Fure, Matthias Eckhoff, Hilde Olausson, Lena Kristin Ellingsen, Tone Danielson, Tomas Gudbjartsson. (R, 143 mins)

After returning to the BOURNE franchise with 2016's decent but generally forgettable JASON BOURNE, British filmmaker Paul Greengrass revisits the harrowing, you-are-there immediacy of 2002's BLOODY SUNDAY, 2006's UNITED 93, and 2013's CAPTAIN PHILLIPS, with the Netflix Original film 22 JULY, chronicling the July 22, 2011 terror attacks in Oslo, Norway. Orchestrated by far-right extremist Anders Behring Breivik (played here by Anders Danielsen Lie), the attacks began with an Oklahoma City-like truck bombing with fertilizer and aluminum nitrate in the Oslo business district near the office of Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg (Ola G. Furuseth), and continued when a fleeing Breivik, wearing a police uniform, took a ferry to the island of Utoya and committed a mass shooting at a leadership camp for Norwegian teenagers. Between the Oslo bombing and the Utoya massacre, 77 were killed and 200 injured, the purpose of which is detailed in Breivik's 1500-page manifesto decrying what he sees as Norway's lenient immigration policies and the spread of Islam through Europe, with the Utoya camp being targeted to stop the next generation of "Marxists, liberals, and elites."

The opening 30 minutes are riveting, visceral, and horrifying. The cold, dead glare in Lie's eyes as Breivik methodically prepares to set the truck bomb and calmly talks his way onto the ferry to Utoya before mowing down scores of screaming teens is absolutely chilling and this extended sequence represents Greengrass at his strongest and most unflinching. But once Breivik is in custody, 22 JULY turns more formulaic, to its detriment. Greengrass cuts back and forth between Breivik and his reluctant defense attorney Geir Lippestad (Jon Oigarden, a dead ringer for Uwe Boll), chosen because he successfully defended a neo-Nazi in a case a decade earlier, and Utoya survivor Viljar Hanssen (Jonas Strand Gravli), who was shot five times, once in the head with an exploding bullet leaving fragments in his skull that surgeons were unable to completely remove. We're shown Hanssen's grueling road to recovery, which includes intense physical therapy and a significant case of PTSD. Gravli is fine in these scenes, but the more they go on, the more 22 JULY gets bogged down in melodrama, which doesn't play to Greengrass' strengths as a director. That's not to say Greengrass isn't capable of handling gut-wrenching drama (Tom Hanks does the best acting of his career in that final scene of CAPTAIN PHILLIPS) or that Hanssen's story isn't worth telling, but the arc he undergoes is something we've seen numerous times before, from the mood swings, to the self-destructive lashing out, to the simmering resentment of his younger brother (Isak Bakli Aglen), who made it off Utoya without being physically harmed, but whose own psychological trauma has become a distant second priority with their parents (Maria Bock, Thorbjorn Harr). That same predictable story arc goes for Oigarden's Lippestad as well. He's disgusted by Brievik and his reprehensible views, and doesn't want to defend him, but it's his job, and you know it's only a matter of time before he's getting late-night phone calls threatening his family.

Gravli delivers a committed performance, but one can't help noting Greengrass' missed opportunity in not focusing his attention on Brievik, terrifyingly underplayed by Lie with a narcissistic sociopath's level of non-emotion. When he's being interrogated, he's munching on pizza and asks to pause the questioning to get a Band-Aid for a small cut on his thumb that he got when it was scratched by a piece of someone's shattering skull ("I'm worried it might get infected," he says, barely stifling a smirk). There's a stomach-in-knots urgency to the early scenes of 22 JULY that dissipates after the attacks, leaving the remainder of the film a sometimes laborious slog clocking in at a bloated 143 minutes. Netflix obviously gave Greengrass the freedom to make the film he wanted to make, and it's helpful that the Norwegian cast (speaking English, which isn't a dealbreaker) is almost completely unknown to American audiences (though Kristen Stewart fans might recognize Lie from Olivier Assayas' acclaimed PERSONAL SHOPPER), but wouldn't it be a better film if it was a ZODIAC-like procedural or an almost real-time chronicle like UNITED 93? There's a couple of throwaway mentions of Norwegian authorities being lax in their duties and no one noticing any red flags when Breivik purchased a massive amount of fertilizer and other chemicals seven months before the attack. Wouldn't that have been a good starting point for an examination of this horrific event?  It doesn't yet have a US distributor, but there's a competing Norwegian film that opened in Europe several months ago titled U - 22 JULY, depicting the 72-minute Utoya massacre and its immediate aftermath in real time. That's the kind of film you'd think Greengrass would've made. He did for the first 30 minutes, but the rest of the movie feels like it could've been made by anyone.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

On Netflix: MALEVOLENT (2018)

(UK - 2018)

Directed by Olaf de Fleur. Written by Ben Ketai and Eva Konstantopoulos. Cast: Florence Pugh, Ben Lloyd-Hughes, Celia Imrie, James Cosmo, Scott Chambers, Georgina Bevan, Niall Greig Fulton, Nicola Grier, Stephen McCole, Daisy Mathewson, Charlotte Allen, Shelley Conn, Ian Milne. (Unrated, 88 mins)

A British import acquired by Netflix, MALEVOLENT doesn't break any new ground as far as ghost stories go, but Icelandic director Olaf de Fleur and rising star Florence Pugh (who won significant acclaim with 2017's LADY MACBETH) make sure to hit all the right notes in a first hour that holds your attention and has a few effective jump scares. But then MALEVOLENT shits the bed in a way we haven't seen since DON'T BREATHE broke out the turkey baster, with a shift in style and tone that's so jarring that you might think the last 30 minutes came from a different movie that was just thawed after being frozen in ice since 2007. Co-written by Ben Ketai (THE STRANGERS: PREY AT NIGHT), and set in Glasgow (in 1986, for no particular reason), MALEVOLENT focuses on two American siblings--college student Angela Sayers (Pugh) and her older brother Jackson (Ben Lloyd-Holmes)--who run a ghostbusting con act with Jackson's girlfriend Beth (Georgina Bevan) and nerdy tech guy Elliott (Scott Chambers), who can barely conceal his unrequited crush on Angela. With prerecorded sound effects, they pretend Angela has an ability to communicate with ghosts left behind, convincing them to leave the house. It's a scam they learned from their late mother (Nicola Grier), an unstable sort who committed suicide after clawing her eyes out. With their American father out of the picture, the Sayers' only family is their irascible Scottish grandfather (the great James Cosmo), who knows Jackson is a fraud just like his mother. D-bag Jackson's also heavily in debt to ruthless loan shark Craig (Ian Milne) and needs a lucrative supernatural hustle to settle a debt.

He gets his wish when they're contacted by widowed Mrs. Green (Celia Imrie), who was once the headmistress at a foster home for orphaned girls until her maniac son Herman (Niall Greig Fulton) killed six of them after torturing them and sewing their mouths shut. Mrs. Green lives alone on the massive property in the middle of nowhere, and she insists it's haunted by the constant cries of her son's victims. Figuring she's a crazy old woman, Jackson sees some easy money and Angela reluctantly goes along. This immediately proves to be a different gig, as Angela actually sees one of the dead girls walking around, even leading her to a hidden basement room where tattered wallpaper covers up disturbing drawings and messages left by the girls before they were murdered. So far, so good. There's nothing here that's original (J.A. Bayona's THE ORPHANAGE comes to mind more than once), but an excellent performance from Pugh (though she and Lloyd-Holmes do both occasionally let their American accents slip) and de Fleur establishing an ominous, foreboding atmosphere--eerie, droning sounds, hissed whispers of "Angela!" and garbled voices heard on walkie-talkies--give it some unexpected cred. But then there's a twist and someone is revealed to not be what they claim to be, and what was a serious and reasonably compelling supernatural horror film turns into an over-the-top, blood-splattered torture-porn throwback, more or less kicking Pugh's performance to the curb and becoming the trashiest horror film to feature the distinguished BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL co-star Imrie since one of her earliest roles from the beginning of her career in Pete Walker's HOUSE OF WHIPCORD. For about an hour, MALEVOLENT seems well on its way to being not a classic, but a pretty good sleeper scare for the season. But when it abruptly crashes and burns in the last 30 minutes, it's haunted not by the vengeful spirits of the dead orphaned girls but by the long-forgotten ghosts of played-out horror subgenres still sticking around a decade past their sell-by date.

Friday, October 5, 2018


(US/UK - 2018)

A longtime pet project of John Travolta's (and we know those always turn out great), the dismal GOTTI was set to be released directly to VOD in December 2017 until Lionsgate abruptly whacked it and sold it back to the producers, who were hoping for a wide release with another distributor. It didn't quite pan out that way, with Vertical Entertainment and MoviePass teaming up to get it on 500 screens, with 40% of the people who saw it theatrically being MoviePass subscribers. Couple that with some obvious juicing of the moviegoer ratings and reviews on Rotten Tomatoes (where a suspicious number of glowing GOTTI reviews were written by people who just joined the site and reviewed nothing but GOTTI), and one might assume GOTTI is not very good. And they'd be right. It's quite terrible, actually, and you know from the start that it'll be something special when two consecutively-placed credits read "Emmett Furla Oasis Films" and "Emmet (sic) Furla Oasis Films." Travolta, one of 57 (!) credited producers, spent years getting this project off the ground, but it looks just like any other straight-to-VOD, Redbox-ready clunker, with NYC mostly unconvincingly played by Cincinnati. GOTTI, a film that makes KILL THE IRISHMAN look like GOODFELLAS, isn't very interested in telling a story as much as it is fashioning a John Gotti hagiography, being quite open in its admiration of "The Teflon Don" and his family, as if they were just hardworking, everyday folks getting a bum rap from the government. It plays like a long "Previously on..." recap from a mercifully non-existent TV series, with no drive or momentum to its narrative and instead going for a Cliffs Notes recap of major events in Gotti's life, with constant mentions of rats, respect, and "fuckin' cocksuckas!" It actually opens with Travolta in full Gotti makeup, breaking the fourth wall, standing with his back to the NYC skyline and addressing the viewer from beyond the grave like he's hosting a TV special: "This is New York City...MY fuckin' city!"

Somehow, it gets worse. A framing device of a terminally ill Gotti (Travolta plays these scenes sans wig) being visited in prison by his son John A. Gotti, aka "Junior" (Spencer Lofranco) comes back around only sporadically. Gotti's rise in the ranks of the Gambino crime family, mentored by underboss Neil Dellacroce (Stacy Keach), is represented by one hit in an empty bar and Carlo Gambino (Michael Cipiti) is never seen or mentioned again; there's a lot of talk about dissension in the ranks that results in the infamous Gotti-ordered 1985 assassination of boss Paul Castellano (Donald Volpenhein) outside a Manhattan steakhouse, but Castellano is seen on one or two occasions and has no dialogue, so we're never really sure what the beef is. The relationship between Gotti and his right-hand man Sammy "The Bull" Gravano (William DeMeo) is so glossed over that when Gravano eventually rats on him, the dramatic tension fails to resonate in any way. Most of the scenes of Gotti's home life involve him yelling at wife Victoria (Travolta's wife Kelly Preston) to get out of bed, as she's fallen into a deep depression after the 1980 death of their son Frankie when a neighbor accidentally hit him with his car. Like the script for GOTTI, that neighbor soon vanished and was never seen again. Given the loss of their own son Jett in 2009, there is some undeniably raw emotion in the way Preston and Travolta play the initial reaction to Frankie Gotti's death, and it's maybe the only moment in GOTTI that comes across as genuine and real.

Years jump by and back again (yet through it all, Lofranco looks exactly the same, with no effort to make him look 15-20 years older in the later scenes), and as a result, director Kevin Connolly (best known from his days co-starring on ENTOURAGE) basically comes off as Dipshit Scorsese. He never gets any kind of pacing or rhythm going, and seems more interested in what songs he can get on the soundtrack, whether it's some incongruously contemporary songs by Pitbull, or ridiculously irrelevant needle-drops, like the theme from SHAFT when Gotti whacks someone in the early '70s, the Bangles' "Walk Like an Egyptian" when he's strutting out of the courthouse, the Pet Shop Boys' "West End Girls" when Gotti underling Frank DeCicco (Chris Mulkey) is blown up in his car (why is that song in that scene?), Duran Duran's "Come Undone" when Junior's house is raided and the Feds bring him in, or The Animals' "House of the Rising Sun" during archival footage of the real Gotti's funeral, as if Scorsese's CASINO never happened. The screenplay is credited to occasional Steven Soderbergh collaborator Lem Dobbs (KAFKA, THE LIMEY, HAYWIRE) and co-star Leo Rossi, though there's little evidence that any of it was used in the finished product. GOTTI doles out its exposition in casual asides (with no previous mention of the brain cancer that would ultimately kill him, Dellacroce stops in mid-sentence, rubs his forehead and mutters "Oh, this cancer!" and goes back to what he was saying) and info dumps treat both the characters and the audience like idiots. The worst example of this comes after Gotti tells Dellacroce of his planned power play to take control of the families, and Stacy Keach, a professional actor with over 50 years in the business, is actually required to say "But only if you have the support of the other Five Boroughs...Queens, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Staten Island, the Bronx." Are we really supposed to believe that middle-aged, lifelong New Yorker John Gotti doesn't know what the Five Boroughs are and needs to have them specifically spelled out for him? (R, 104 mins)

(US - 2018)

The long-delayed fourth entry in the DEATH RACE franchise was shot two years ago and shelved while Universal instead opted to first release the offshoot DEATH RACE 2050, a direct sequel to 1975's DEATH RACE 2000. Whether or not there's two competing DEATH RACE franchises remains to be seen, but Paul W.S. Anderson's big-screen DEATH RACE with Jason Statham in 2008 gave way to a surprisingly decent pair of DTV sequels, both well-directed by Roel Reine, who succeeded in accomplishing much with drastically reduced budgets and has consistently displayed a knack for making his DTV sequel assignments (he's also directed THE SCORPION KING 3, THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS 2, and HARD TARGET 2) look much more polished and professional than most of their ilk. Reine is out for DEATH RACE: BEYOND ANARCHY, and in his place is another DTV sequel specialist in Don Michael Paul, whose credits include JARHEAD 2, KINDERGARTEN COP 2, a fourth LAKE PLACID, a fifth and sixth TREMORS, and a fifth and sixth SNIPER. BEYOND ANARCHY is less a sequel to its three predecessors and more a response to MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, as the hero driver "Frankenstein" is now a faceless villain who hides behind a mask (played by stuntman Velislav Pavlov and voiced by Nolan North). He essentially serves as the film's Immortan Joe, a ruthless driver in the now-illegal Death Race, which is still held inside a walled city called The Sprawl that serves as America's prison, a concept in no way reminiscent of ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK. Frankenstein finds new competition in Snake Plis--er, I mean, Connor Gibson (Zach McGowan), a new convict who falls in with Baltimore Bob (Danny Glover) and the ubiquitous Lists (series mainstay Fred Koehler), who's basically the Joe Patroni of the DEATH RACE franchise. Bob and Lists are running Death Race, broadcasting to 54 million viewers on the dark web (some "dark web"), and after an hour of fight-to-the-death battles, Gibson passes his tests and gets in the final race, teamed with tough-as-nails navigator Bexie (Cassie Clare), and it's pretty much business as usual.

Shooting in Bulgaria, Paul makes effective use of abandoned warehouses and factories to help establish The Sprawl as an apocalyptic hellhole, but the action sequences are done in a headache-inducing, quick-cut, shaky-zoom style, there's too many annoying supporting characters (like Lucy Aarden's Carley, Frankenstein's porn star girlfriend and de facto Grace Pander by way of TMZ, a clever idea that falls flat), there's too much dated, blaring, aggro nu-metal (including too many appearances by what looks like a Bulgarian knockoff of Coal Chamber, obviously riffing on FURY ROAD's beloved Doof Warrior), and it's entirely too long at an exhausting 111 minutes. Danny Trejo returns from the second and third installments as Goldberg, who's now running a gambling den in Mexico and watching Death Race on TV, obviously knocking out his scenes in a day and never interacting with any of the other cast members. TV vet McGowan (THE 100, BLACK SAILS, AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D., THE WALKING DEAD) is a dull hero (he and Paul reteamed for the upcoming fifth SCORPION KING), Glover is collecting a paycheck, and Koehler is apparently waiting around in hopes that someone will write him a Lists origin story prequel. DEATH RACE: BEYOND ANARCHY is by far the goriest of the bunch and has a surprising amount of skin, but despite the set-up for yet another sequel, this series is starting to run on fumes. (Unrated, 111 mins)

(US - 2018)

A belated DTV sequel to the 1995 cult horror anthology, TALES FROM THE HOOD 2 is occasionally heavy-handed, cheaply made, and could use some more polished actors, but it gets a big boost from the return of the core creative personnel--the writing/directing team of Rusty Cundieff and Darin Scott, and producer Spike Lee--which helps make it more than a mere nostalgic, brand-name cash-in. With bona fides in horror (Scott produced 1987's THE OFFSPRING and 1989's STEPFATHER II) and as important black filmmakers in the early '90s (Scott produced The Hughes Brothers' MENACE II SOCIETY, while Cundieff was a protege of Lee's who co-starred in SCHOOL DAZE and wrote and directed the hip-hop mockumentary FEAR OF A BLACK HAT), Cundieff and Scott have picked the right time for a TALES FROM THE HOOD sequel, with at least two of the segments being overt responses to the Age of Trump, and another that couldn't possibly be any more timely, right down to a powerful conservative declaring "Boys will be boys" and sympathizing with a pair of male sexual predators after they're given a grisly comeuppance. A mix of humor and horror, TALES FROM THE HOOD 2 has some serious statements to make and there are times when it's a little too goofy and thus softens the blow somewhat, but it's better than it has any business being, closing big with a segment that's bold in concept and incendiary in execution.

The hokey wraparound segment, "Robo Hell" has storyteller Diomedes Simms (the great Keith David, stepping in for Clarence Williams III's Portifoy Simms) meeting with ultra-conservative weapons manufacturer, private prison magnate, and aspiring politico Dumass Beach (Bill Martin Williams as Robert John Burke as Mike Pence). Overtly racist ("Your brothers and sisters make up a lot of my profits," he sneers to Simms) and constantly groping his female assistant, Beach has overseen the development of a security robot called RoboPatriot, and needs to fill its database with stories and tales to aid in its ability to perceive and judge threats and criminal acts...from a black perspective because, of course, he thinks they're all criminals. The first segment is "Good Golly," where two clueless college girls visit a roadside "Museum of Negrosity" because one collects golliwogs and gets offended when the angry owner doesn't think they appreciate the gravity of the slave experience. The second and most comedic is "The Medium," where a reformed pimp-turned-community activist is confronted by former gang cohorts over the location of a stash of money. When he's accidentally killed before they get the information, they invade the home of a phony TV psychic (Bryan Batt) and force him to channel his spirit. "Date Night" doesn't really fit the "hood" motif, but is instead a Tinder hookup gone awry, as two dudebros meet a pair of sexy young ladies and decide to roofie their drinks and film their exploits once they're unconscious ("They probably like what we're about to do to them!" one says) only to get the tables turned on them in a way they never saw coming. The fourth and final segment, "The Sacrifice," is the standout and the only one that's played completely straight. Kendrick Cross stars as Henry Bradley, a black Republican who's the campaign manager for a white, race-baiting, "Take Mississippi back" far-right gubernatorial candidate. Henry's white, pregnant wife (Jillian Batherson) fears that some angry supernatural presence is affecting their unborn child. That presence soon reveals itself to be the ghost of 1950s teenage lynching victim Emmitt Till (Christopher Paul Horne), retconning Henry's life of oblivious privilege among wealthy white Southerners (he lives in a old, restored mansion that was once a notorious slave plantation) and making him experience the racism and violence that cost him his life and the lives of others like MLK, Medgar Evers, and the Four Little Girls. Horror anthologies have to end big, and "The Sacrifice," compared to the relative silliness of the rest, packs as sobering, audacious, and thought-provoking a punch as any top-tier BLACK MIRROR episode. Genre vet David (THE THING, THEY LIVE) has fun chewing the scenery, and Cross turns in a solid performance, and while TALES FROM THE HOOD 2 could use some better--or at least, better-known--actors, it's surprisingly decent as far as extremely tardy DTV sequels go. (R, 110 mins)

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Retro Review: SLAVE OF THE CANNIBAL GOD (1978)

(Italy - 1978; US release 1979)

Directed by Sergio Martino. Written by Cesare Frugoni and Sergio Martino. Cast: Ursula Andress, Stacy Keach, Claudio Cassinelli, Antonio Marsina, Franco Fantasia, Lanfranco Spinola, Carlo Longhi, Luigina Rocchi, Akushla Sellajaah, T.M. Munna, M. Suki, Dudley Wanaguru, Gianfranco Coduti. (R, 85 mins/Unrated, 103 mins)

Not as consistently disgusting as some of its more notorious contemporaries in the Italian cannibal craze, Sergio Martino's 1978 contribution MOUNTAIN OF THE CANNIBAL GOD is almost a mondo take on a traditional jungle adventure for most of its duration. That's especially the case in its significantly truncated US version, retitled SLAVE OF THE CANNIBAL GOD and released on the drive-in circuit by a relatively fledgling, pre-Freddy Krueger New Line Cinema in the spring and summer of 1979. Both versions--Martino's full-strength 103-minute director's cut and New Line's 85-minute US re-edit--are on Code Red's just-released SLAVE OF THE CANNIBAL GOD Blu-ray (because physical media is dead), and they offer a study in contrasts where each has its own unique strengths, the US cut in part because New Line saw fit to trim some of the fat. Indeed, the R-rated, 85-minute cut is better-paced and eliminates a talky early scene at the British consulate that ultimately makes no sense in the longer version. And while it retains a surprising amount of onscreen animal killing--always the major deterrent when it comes to one's ability to enjoy this type of tawdry exploitation fare--it suffers from almost complete lack of any graphic gut-munching, usually leaving the aftermath or reaction shots of other actors. In Martino's version, one major character is disemboweled and devoured, with a lingering shot of what feels like a mile of intestinal tract being yanked out of his gut, while in the US cut, it's reduced to one distant shot of the tribe chieftain holding up the victim's heart. Likewise, a graphic castration shown in Martino's version is merely implied in the US cut. The biggest difference in the uncut version is the inclusion of a CALIGULA-esque cannibal orgy, with some up-close and borderline pornographic footage of a young tribal woman masturbating along with some simulated bestiality involving a tribesman and a large pig. These shots were included in Martino's reconstructed version originally released by Anchor Bay back in the halcyon days of the Eurocult DVD explosion, and are understandably nowhere to be found in New Line's American cut. At the end of the day, regardless of which version of SLAVE OF THE CANNIBAL GOD you watch, both are trashy enough to make you wonder what the hell Stacy Keach and Ursula Andress are doing in it.

Andress is wealthy Susan Stevenson, who arrives in New Guinea with her younger brother Arthur (Antonio Marsina) in search of her missing explorer husband Henry (played in photos by perennial Eurocult bit player Tom Felleghy). They believe he was headed for the cursed mountain of Ra-Rami on the island of Roka, but the British consulate refuses to authorize a search and rescue mission. They instead direct her to Dr. Edward Foster (Keach), an anthropologist who happens to have been a close associate of Henry's (if you're wondering why she didn't just go to him in the first place, the US cut completely removes the ultimately pointless sequence at the British consulate) and is the only person who's been to Ra-Rami and made it back alive. Foster agrees to guide them on the treacherous trek to Roka, though tensions soon flare between him and the obnoxious Arthur and they're eventually joined by rugged adventurer Manolo (Martino regular Claudio Cassinelli). Foster confesses that he was captured by the Puka, a tribe on Roka, and was forced to partake in their cannibal rituals ("You never forget the taste of human flesh!" Foster cries in what's not one of Keach's most dignified moments), and is going along on the trek not to save Henry, but to wipe out the Puka once and for all. Susan and Arthur have their own secret, as she's not quite the probable grieving widow (she attempts to seduce Manolo), but is instead driven by TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE-esque greed and wiling to put Foster and Manolo at risk, knowing Henry was searching for a massive secret uranium deposit on Roka, and they want those riches for themselves.

The expedition is whittled down, from Foster's native guides getting killed along the way to Keach making an abrupt exit with about 35 minutes to go when an injured Foster falls down a waterfall in one of Eurotrash cinema's more hilarious dummy deaths. Susan, Arthur, and Manolo are captured by the Puka and are introduced to the decaying, oozing corpse of her husband, with a Geiger counter planted in his chest and worshiped like a god by the Puka. Then they're submitted to the usual cannibal ritual antics--Arthur is eaten, Manolo forced to watch, and Susan is stripped nude and given a long, lingering oil and body paint rubdown in a scene that would be repeated with Alexandra Delli Colli in DOCTOR BUTCHER M.D. and with Bo Derek in TARZAN THE APE MAN, directed by her husband John Derek, who was once married to--wait for it--Ursula Andress. Martino's version comes to a screeching halt with the X-rated orgy, which really slows things down in a way that makes the third act of the US version move a lot faster, but it's also missing Arthur's disgusting demise, instead relying on Cassinelli reaction shots to convey the horrors taking place. It's worth noting that neither Andress nor Keach are around for the really gross stuff other than an early scene where Foster's guides capture a small crocodile and slice it open for food. Keach is killed off before they even encounter the cannibals, but up to that point, much of the big names' interactions with the horrific onscreen carnage was limited to the magic of the cutting room: the explorers are rowing along a river and someone says "Look!" as Martino cuts to footage of a giant lizard barfing up a snake (that one's not in the New Line version). Martino also gets a thumbs down for a morally bankrupt shot of a monkey being thrown by some rigged mechanism right into the waiting mouth of a large crocodile (that's in the New Line version), essentially negating the oft-repeated argument from directors of these cannibal films that these were examples of "survival of the fittest" caught on camera (some of SLAVE's animal killings were later recycled by Umberto Lenzi for 1980's EATEN ALIVE).

Martino's uncut version looks terrific on Code Red's Blu, and there's an HD transfer of the US cut that's not quite as good in quality but still looks better than it has in any home video incarnation. Keach is on hand for a new interview and expresses no regrets over appearing in the film (this was the same year that his uptight Sgt. Stedenko was a memorable foil to Cheech and Chong in UP IN SMOKE), saying it offered him a chance to work with Andress and to see Sri Lanka. where the exteriors were shot, and where Martino and Cassinelli would return for 1979's THE GREAT ALLIGATOR. He has some vivid memories of the shoot and shares stories about Andress and Cassinelli, and has a good laugh at his ridiculous death scene, but he still doesn't seem to be fully aware of just how foul SLAVE gets in the last third after he was no longer around. 1978 found Keach at the end of a brief sojourn into Eurocult, which included the 1976 gangster thriller STREET PEOPLE and Umberto Lenzi's cheap-looking 1978 WWII saga THE GREATEST BATTLE. But none of those were as dubious as SLAVE OF THE CANNIBAL GOD, where the involvement of respectable actors like Keach and Andress is certainly on par with Henry Fonda in TENTACLES and Richard Harris in STRIKE COMMANDO 2 in the "How the fuck did this happen?" chronicles of Italian trash cinema.