Thursday, October 23, 2014

On DVD/Blu-ray: SEE NO EVIL 2 (2014); LIFE AFTER BETH (2014); and PERSECUTED (2014)

(US - 2014)

It's hard to name the bigger mystery: why we're getting a sequel to the completely forgettable 2006 torture porn slasher SEE NO EVIL in 2014 or why the acclaimed Jen & Sylvia Soska--the "Twisted Twins"--are directing it. The Canadian siblings and Eli Roth protegees earned significant acclaim even from outside the usual horror circles with last year's body modification film AMERICAN MARY. It was a colorful and stylish, but ultimately empty and overrated film that nevertheless has found a major cult following thanks to the Soskas and GINGER SNAPS star Katharine Isabelle. The Soskas probably viewed the Lionsgate/WWE production SEE NO EVIL 2 as a stepping stone into the majors, but other than one inspired death scene and an admittedly clever "Directed by" credit placed over the sisters playing corpses in a morgue, the film is completely and utterly ordinary in every way. It's dimly shot, it's not scary, and neither the protagonists nor the killer are the least bit interesting. Even the idea of subverting audience expectation over the "final girl" isn't exactly new, so what we're left with is yet another rote slasher movie with an unstoppable killing machine working his way through a cast of soon-to-be dead meat.

SEE NO EVIL, directed by former porn auteur Gregory Dark (who previously made a slew of early '90s DTV erotic thrillers under variations of the name "Alexander Gregory Hippolyte" and a couple of action movies as "Gregory Brown"), had hulking murderer Jacob Goodnight (7 ft. tall WWE star Kane, real name Glenn Jacobs), aka "the God's Hand Killer," gouging out the eyes of a bunch of unlikable dickheads in an abandoned hotel as some obscure vengeance against his domineering, insane mother. He was killed at the end, and the Soskas' sequel opens with Goodnight (again played by Kane) being brought to the morgue during the graveyard shift, overseen by wheelchair-bound Holden (Michael Eklund) and his on-duty staff, Seth (Kaj-Erik Eriksen) and birthday girl Amy (convention circuit scream queen Danielle Harris). Holden lets Amy's friends in to party and things go south when the dead Goodnight inexplicably reanimates while serial-killer-obsessed Tamara (Isabelle) and Carter (Lee Majdoub) are screwing on a slab next to him. Soon enough, Kane slaughters the revelers one-by-one as they run through the endless corridors of the morgue, which starts to resemble Freddy Krueger's boiler room and has roughly the same square footage as a typical Costco, not to mention an alarming lack of exit doors. There is one well-executed kill that would get an audience wound up had this actually been released in theaters instead of VOD four days before its Blu-ray/DVD release, and it's more of a straightforward slasher film than its uglier and more SAW-inspired predecessor, but there's nothing here to get excited about. The fanboy/fangirl hype surrounding SEE NO EVIL 2 is more about the Soskas than anything in the film or any demand for the further slice-and-dice misadventures of Jacob Goodnight, and it's again indicative of the too sycophantic environment of horror fandom. Thanks to conventions and social media, horror filmmakers are without question the most accessible and fan-friendly of any genre. And they almost always seem like cool people who would be awesome to hang with and watch movies. That sometimes makes people maybe praise the movies more than they would if the people who worked on it weren't their "friends." The Soskas obviously have talent and the potential to be unique voices in cult horror cinema. They're smart, funny, and extremely charming in the "Twisted Twins" bonus feature. You'll totally want to hang out with them. I know I do. But AMERICAN MARY didn't work its magic on me and SEE NO EVIL 2, written not by the Soskas but by first-timers Nathan Brookes and Bobby Lee Darby, looks and plays like the director(s)-for-hire gig that it is, and if it didn't boast the novelty of the can't-miss selling point of hip, cool twin sisters behind the camera, there's a good chance nobody would give even give a shit about SEE NO EVIL 2. (R, 90 mins)

(US - 2014)

Are we done with zombies yet? I HEART HUCKABEE'S co-writer Jeff Baena apparently doesn't think so, as he returns from a decade-long absence to make his directorial debut with the bland and mostly unfunny zom-com LIFE AFTER BETH. Grieving emo-kid Zach (Dane DeHaan) can't get over the snakebite death of his girlfriend Beth (Aubrey Plaza) and isn't getting much sympathy from his parents (Paul Reiser, Cheryl Hines) or his asshole older brother (Matthew Gray Gubler). Things get worse when Beth's parents (John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon) seem to be avoiding him, but Zach soon finds out why: Beth has crawled out of her grave and returned home, completely unaware that she's dead. Her parents are overjoyed to have her back, and like Zach, they don't seem to mind that she's irrational, prone to banshee-howling, that she gradually starts physically deteriorating, and eventually develops a taste for human flesh, and perhaps most shockingly, smooth jazz. All the while, a zombie outbreak happens all over town, which leads to one of the film's few funny scenes when Zach's dead grandpa (Garry Marshall) returns home, along with the the zombified previous owners of Zach's parents' house. Most of LIFE AFTER BETH deals with Zach deluding himself into thinking a relationship with Zombie Beth is possible, and it's a one-joke premise that gets stretched entirely too thin before Baena just gives up, opting to go for cheap laughs with easy-listening tunes (Benny Mardones' "Into the Night" and Chuck Mangione's "Feels So Good"), and offering nothing but generic zombie apocalypse mayhem. A good cast is wasted (Anna Kendrick plays a potential new--and alive--girlfriend for Zach, and ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT's Alia Shawkat is still in the credits even though she was cut from the film), 30-year-old Plaza and 27-year-old DeHaan are too old for roles that seem like they were written with much younger actors in mind, and the film's tone veers around so wildly that it's hard to gauge exactly what Baena had in mind when he concocted this thing. Co-produced by Francis Ford Coppola's American Zoetrope for some reason, LIFE AFTER BETH debuted on VOD in July before getting a 30-screen theatrical release in September, grossing just $88,000. (R, 89 mins)

(US - 2014)

From the annual Fox News hysteria over the "War on Christmas" to this year's earlier surprise hit GOD'S NOT DEAD, you'd think Christianity was under attack despite between 73-76% of Americans surveyed identifying themselves as Christians. The makers of PERSECUTED feed into that notion of victimization with a sort of faithsploitation version of THE FUGITIVE. Former alcoholic and drug addict and born-again family man John Luther (James Remar), the head of the hugely popular ministry Truth, steadfastly refuses to endorse the Faith and Fairness Act, a bill proposed by (presumably liberal, though the film pretends it's not playing politics) Sen. Donald Harrison (Bruce Davison) that would effectively force the inclusion and acceptance of all religions, equal across the board under the law. Harrison says it's "the most crucial piece of legislation since the Bill of Rights," but the influential Luther ("You reach more people than the evening news!" he's told at one point) refuses to get behind anything that would diminish Christianity. With Luther refusing to play ball, Harrison, working in cahoots with a vaguely Bill Clinton-esque president (James R. Higgins), dispatches a ruthless Secret Service assassin (Raoul Trujillo) to drug Luther and frame him for the murder of a scantily-clad young woman. Luther wakes up and goes on the run, giving proof of his innocence to his priest father (Fred Dalton Thompson), who's almost immediately killed by scary Secret Service hit men. Meanwhile, Luther's second-in-charge, Pastor Ryan Morris (conservative stand-up comic Brad Stine), is playing all sides in his quest to generate more revenue and tax breaks for Truth, and in the quest to clear his name, Luther realizes he's just a pawn in the game of politics and sets the record straight with top cable news host Diana Lucas, played in a real stretch by Fox News' Gretchen Carlson.

Unlike most "bus 'em in," preaching-to-the-converted evangelical titles, PERSECUTED is at least professionally-assembled and looks like a real movie (former Francis Ford Coppola associate Gray Frederickson is one of the producers). Other than being reduced to faithsploitation (where else will Remar get to play a big-screen lead these days?), the actors don't really embarrass themselves, but writer/director Daniel Lusko can't seem to figure out who the villains of the piece really are. As a result, the film more or less comes off as paranoid about everything, which is probably why your right-wing, talk-radio listening uncle will be recommending it to everyone at Thanksgiving. Even the board of directors for Luther's own ministry (including a frail-looking Dean Stockwell) are revealed to be a bunch of unscrupulous assholes quick to hang the heroic Luther out to dry, and when Harrison's true nefarious intentions are revealed and we learn just how unfathomably evil he is, he doesn't sound any different than any conservative politician you'd find if you turn on any random cable news show. And of course, the idea of a Clinton-like Commander-in-Chief dispatching hit men is just pure Viagra for the far-right conspiracy theorists to get their Vince Foster boner on. While PERSECUTED looks like a real movie, the script is laughable, with hilarious contrivances like a group of people hanging out in some bushes who just happen to film the frame-up of Luther, and the way Luther (who, if you recall, reaches more people than the evening news) can move about undetected--even blending in with the crowd at a major, televised Harrison speech--even though he's all over the news as the country's most wanted--and persecuted!--fugitive. Lusko demonstrates zero ability to lay out exposition in a remotely plausible way, as Luther's dad drops this humdinger while talking to his son about Harrison: "That's your friend...the Senator...the majority leader of the United States Senate." Really?  Who talks like that? Wouldn't Luther already know that Harrison is the majority leader? Couldn't Lusko have found a less cumbersome way to pass that info to the audience?  Critiques--like secular audiences--be damned, PERSECUTED's hysterical fantasies play to the most frothing Newsmax junkie but it at least gives some past-their-prime actors something to do while waiting for a LAW & ORDER: SVU guest spot. (PG-13, 91 mins)

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