Thursday, January 21, 2016

On Netflix, Special "Universal/Blumhouse Dumpjob" Edition: THE VEIL (2016); VISIONS (2016); and CURVE (2016)

(US - 2016)

Blumhouse, the Jason Blum-led production company behind the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, INSIDIOUS, and PURGE films, has a serious backlog of delayed and shelved titles through various distributors. One such distributor is Universal, who released several Blumhouse titles directly to Netflix with no fanfare in late 2014. This week, the studio quietly released to Netflix another batch of Blumhouse product that's been sitting around for anywhere from one to three years. The best of the bunch is THE VEIL, written by Robert Ben Garant (JESSABELLE) and directed by the long-absent Phil Joanou (THREE O'CLOCK HIGH, STATE OF GRACE), helming his first feature film since 2006's GRIDIRON GANG. THE VEIL takes its cue from Ti West's relatively recent THE SACRAMENT in that it obviously references the 1978 Jonestown tragedy in Guyana, but goes in a different and more supernatural direction. In 1985, 47 members of the Heaven's Veil religious cult committed mass suicide by poisoning, including the cult's crazed leader, the shaggy-haired and shades-wearing Jim Jacobs (Thomas Jane). 30 years later, lone survivor Sarah Hope (Lily Rabe), who was only five years old at the time of the mass suicide, is contacted by a team of documentary filmmakers headed by Maggie Price (Jessica Alba). Maggie and her cameraman brother Chris (Jack De Sena) have also had their lives affected by the Heaven's Veil incident--their father was the lead FBI agent investigating Jacobs and the man who led the raid on the compound. It had a profound effect on him and he committed suicide three years later, his body found by young Maggie. Maggie has scoured her father's personal files on Heaven's Veil and in some photos never released to the public, there are visible movie cameras, though any film that was shot was never recovered. As desperate to confront her past as Maggie is to see what truths are to be uncovered on any lost films, Sarah accompanies the group to the ruins of the Heaven's Veil compound where they indeed discover reels of film that show Jacobs experimenting with a brain-death-inducing drug and an antidote that pulls one back from the edge of death with what he claims are newfound, otherworldly, spiritual abilities. It doesn't take long before some unlucky members of the group discover the hard way that Jacobs' spirit haunts the Heaven's Veil grounds, with the intent of procuring new vessels for his and his followers' spirits to carry on their work in the present day.

Admittedly, the early going isn't promising, starting with Jane's character being named "Jim Jacobs" (not a far leap from the real Rev. Jim Jones or Stuart Whitman's "Rev. Jim Johnson" in 1980's GUYANA: CULT OF THE DAMNED) and wearing the signature dark sunglasses (do all suicide cult leaders go to the same Sunglass Hut kiosk at the mall?). But rather than go through the pointless, found-footage Jonestown re-enactment that West did with THE SACRAMENT, Joanou and Garant at least try to do something different with the idea, even if it seems a little reminiscent of EXORCIST III or PRINCE OF DARKNESS at times. Joanou also admirably avoids going full found-footage and instead shows Maggie and the others start watching the grainy, damaged films that seamlessly become flashback sequences. It's a rudimentary technique but it at least avoids the stale, shaky-cam, tilted-angle nonsense that permeates the found-footage subgenre. There's a tremendous sense of atmosphere and chilling imagery throughout, using old-school standbys like shadows, fog, and trees with ominous branches. Dead characters revived and inhabited by the spirits of long-gone Heaven's Veil members walk together and approach their next victims in scenes where Joanou invokes Mario Bava films like the "Wurdalak" segment of BLACK SABBATH and PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES. THE VEIL doesn't break any new ground, but it's a good mix of predictable Blumhouse jump scares and a welcome throwback to horror tropes of old, with a legitimately dramatic climactic twist that leads to a downer ending that pulls no punches. The experienced Joanou (other credits include U2: RATTLE AND HUM and FINAL ANALYSIS) may seem like he's slumming in low-budget horror, but he's done his homework and knows what works, and in the end, it's really just a catchily repetitious synth score away from being a mid-level John Carpenter film. We're not talking about a new cult classic or anyone's new favorite horror flick by any stretch of the imagination, but for a movie buried by its studio and dumped straight to Netflix, THE VEIL is better than anyone would expect it to be. (R, 94 mins)

(US - 2016)

Completed in 2014 and hopefully the world's first and last oenosploitation horror film, VISIONS is a relentlessly dumb paranormal activity potboiler whose sole saving grace is that it isn't found-footage. A year after surviving a freak car accident that killed a baby in the other vehicle, Eveleigh Maddox (Isla Fisher) and her husband David (Anson Mount) have purchased a vineyard in Paso Robles where they plan to rebuild their lives now that Eveleigh is expecting. It's not long before she's plagued by (spoiler alert) visions, such as a bloody hand print on the wall, exploding wine bottles, an attack by a mannequin, and being stalked by a robed figure with an unseen face. A preoccupied David doesn't take Eveleigh's claims seriously and pushes hard to get her back on antidepressants with the help of her doctor (Jim Parsons--yes, that Jim Parsons), but against the advice of her new prenatal yoga pal Sadie (Gillian Jacobs). Eveleigh does some investigating and discovers that the house's previous owners abandoned it due to ghostly occurrences, and that the paranormal poppycock dates back to the late 1800s, when the home was owned by the great-grandparents of local vintner Napoli (John De Lancie), who conveniently said nothing about this early in the film when he hosted a housewarming party for the Maddoxes.

Written by Lucas Sussman, whose last screenplay credit was collaborating with Darren Aronofsky on David Twohy's impressive 2002 WWII submarine horror film BELOW with , and directed by SAW series vet Kevin Greutert, VISIONS can't decide what it wants to be and is ultimately all red herrings and no payoff. There's an entire subplot about Eveleigh thinking the neighbors are running a meth lab and it serves no purpose whatsoever. The supernatural silliness makes no sense once the twists and turns are abruptly laid out in the climax, which seems headed in a ROSEMARY'S BABY direction before it suddenly shifts gears and turns into a ripoff of the French "extreme horror" outing INSIDE, which may have been a better idea all along. It's never made clear why the paranormal activity is confined to the house or why it's doing what its doing (is it the ghost of Paul Masson, avenging the sale of a wine before its time?) and its ultimately all smoke and mirrors to cover up a really weak script that wastes an overqualified cast of TV vets and others who should have better things to do. Joanna Cassidy turns up as a wine distributor who also--gosh, wouldn't ya know it?--happens to be a medium when the plot requires one, and in easily the most frivolous role of her career, Eva Longoria in a pointless, two-scene bit part as Eveleigh's unattached and on-the-prowl friend. Being stuck on NBC's TELENOVELA is one thing, but what did the former DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES star do to get busted down to minor supporting roles in crummy horror movies where she plays the second best friend to the lead actress? Did she lose a bet with Jason Blum? (R, 83 mins)

(US - 2016)

Shot back in 2013, CURVE is essentially a two-character piece that starts out as a HITCHER ripoff that morphs into a survivalist thriller version of 127 HOURS before wrapping up as a grisly revenge outing. It gives singer and DANCING WITH THE STARS vet Julianne Hough a chance to get gritty as Mallory, a bride-to-be taking the deserted highway route from San Francisco to Denver, where her fiance is currently working. Of course she has engine trouble but that's remedied by a convenient hiker named Christian (Teddy Sears) who happens to stroll by. She offers him a ride to the next town and things go pleasantly enough until he openly ponders if she'd be able to "deep throat his cock," which Mallory correctly interprets as a major red flag that Christian is a depraved psycho. Unable to get him out of the vehicle, Mallory instead crashes through a guard rail on a road, sending them sailing into the woods below. Christian is thrown from the passenger seat  but Mallory's leg is trapped and she's unable to move, so after taunting her a little, Christian leaves. Days go by, with Christian periodically returning to the scene of the accident to hector her some more, because if he killed her, then there'd be no third act where she manages to free herself and track him down at a lodge where he's killed several other people and has a girl (Madalyn Horcher) strapped face-down on a bed.

It doesn't really score any points for intelligence or originality, but CURVE is never dull and Hough is surprisingly credible in the lead. Her fans might be surprised to hear her dropping vulgarities, eating a rat, and drinking her own urine as she's trapped in her car for days on end, but director Iain Softley (HACKERS, THE SKELETON KEY) and first-time screenwriters Kimberly Lofstrom Johnson and Lee Patterson don't offer much in the way of logic or consistency. Why would Christian leave Mallory alive in the car? And why is the highway completely deserted early on, but when Mallory gets in a position to expose Christian, you can suddenly see several cars whizzing by, including a cop (Drew Rausch) who, right on cue, becomes Christian's next victim? Sears doesn't do much as the dull antagonist besides widen his eyes and smirk. It's nice that he doesn't overplay it, but since we know nothing about the character, and what little we do know is unreliable info, it's hard for both Sears and the audience to get a handle on the hows and whys of Christian. Has he left a trail of dead bodies in his wake? Is he from the area? Is anyone after him?  Who knows? For the most part, CURVE is a forgettable retread of other, better movies, but Hough does a surprisingly convincing job of stretching outside her comfort zone and really gives it everything she's got. (R, 85 mins)

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