Friday, September 30, 2016

On DVD/Blu-ray: SACRIFICE (2016); EQUALS (2016); and VIRAL (2016)

(US/Ireland/Germany - 2016)

SACRIFICE is one of those "outsider lured to a small town that has a deep, dark secret and everyone's in on it" suspense/horror movies that won't offer any surprises to anyone who's seen THE WICKER MAN or even HOT FUZZ. Hell, the giveaway's right there in the title. It's not really similar to THE WICKER MAN in terms of its story, but it hits the same points. Pregnant Manhattan obstetrician Dr. Tora Hamilton (Radha Mitchell) is devastated after suffering a miscarriage on the job. Looking for a healing change of scenery, Tora and her Scottish-born husband Duncan Guthrie (late '80s Merchant Ivory fixture Rupert Graves) leave NYC and relocate to the small village in the Shetland Islands where his family still resides. Tora's father-in-law Richard (DOWNTON ABBEY's David Robb) pulls some strings to get her on the staff at the local hospital, and all is going well until a woman's decayed corpse is found buried on Tora's and Duncan's property. Strange runic symbols have been carved into the victim's flesh and her heart has been carved out of her chest. Overstepping her bounds at the hospital, Tora also finds evidence that the woman gave birth a week to ten days before her murder. Hospital head McKie (GAME OF THRONES' Ian McElhinney) dismisses her concerns and after digging further, Tora uncovers an epidemic of ovarian cancer deaths among women in the village going back decades. When she brings this up, everyone seems mildly irritable and starts giving her the side-eyed sneer, making it painfully obvious that she's stumbled onto something that she's not meant to know. Of course, she's pursued by a gloved killer at the hospital while working late one night. Of course, Tulloch (Joanne Crawford), the one sympathetic local cop who thinks Tora might be on to something, turns up dead. And of course, Tora catches Duncan having a secret meeting with all of the village powers-that-be who are telling her to shut up and mind her own business.

Tora isn't pregnant again but it's obvious Duncan is pulling some sort of a Guy Woodhouse gaslighting on her and the abundance of ovarian cancer deaths don't seem to alarm any of the men running the village. Duncan's character arc doesn't go quite where you expect it to, and there's an interesting patriarchy element that's hinted at but largely abandoned by writer/director Peter A. Dowling, who's best known for co-writing the 2005 Jodie Foster thriller FLIGHTPLAN. The village has an inherent contempt for women, and they don't quite know how to handle someone as assertive as Tora. Being American, she's already an outsider, plus she's a career woman, and she kept her maiden name after marrying Duncan. Duncan's father expresses some sneering disdain at the way his son doesn't treat his wife as a subordinate, but Dowling doesn't do much with these themes. Other than a De Palma split diopter shot that seems more show-offy than anything, Dowling's direction is workmanlike at best, rushing through the exposition and assembling the film as such that it plays like it should be a pilot to a TV series with Mitchell as a snooping, mystery-solving obstetrician.  Even the opening credits look like a TV show and the abrupt ending feels like it's only missing an "On the next SACRIFICE, Tora discovers..." Mitchell does what she can with the material, but SACRIFICE is the kind of forgettable, frivolous trifle that instantly evapor      (Unrated, 91 mins, also streaming on Netflix)

(US/South Korea - 2016)

Drab, mopey, and predictable, EQUALS is another all too familiar futuristic sci-fi saga set in a chilly dystopia where emotion is forbidden and two outcasts commit the unpardonable sin of falling in love. It's all here--the towering cityscapes, the cold, expansive, antiseptic interiors, and everyone wearing the latest in THX-1138 fashions. In this particular dystopia, all illness has been eradicated but a new disease called S.O.S., or "Switched On Syndrome," is gaining ground. It's blamed on "problem genes" that cause "behavioral defects" that lead to "coupling." In other words, people's emotions are kicking in and they're experiencing things like love and desire. Violators are sent to "the Den," or a "Defective Emotional Neuropathy" facility for treatment. Like cancer, it's graded in stages, with stage 1 having a good chance for recovery if discovered early, and beyond-hope stage 3 sufferers encouraged to commit suicide. Silas (Nicholas Hoult) works in a high-tech printing facility and has just been diagnosed as Stage 1 S.O.S. This gets the attention of co-worker Nia (Kristen Stewart), a self-diagnosed stage 1 who's managed to keep her symptoms hidden from everyone at the office. It isn't long before their S.O.S. gets the best of them and they "couple," with Silas getting some help from an underground group of anarchic S.O.S. patients, including stage 2-diagnosed Jonas (Guy Pearce) and Bess (Jacki Weaver), to plan an escape from the city and go on the run with Nia. Of course, that plan hits a snag when the Big Brother-like government rolls out a just-approved S.O.S. cure, making vaccination mandatory and getting everyone back to "Equal" status. Blandly directed by Drake Doremus (LIKE CRAZY), EQUALS gets the look down with occasionally striking location work in some Tokyo and Singapore office districts, but the script by Nathan Parker (who wrote the much better MOON) cribs from too many other influences and just feels like stale leftovers. The pace is excruciatingly slow and it limps along to a tired, not quite Tangerine Dream electronic score by Sascha Ring and Dustin O'Hallorann. Ridley Scott was one of 22 producers, but even his involvement didn't get this on any more than 92 screens in the US. (PG-13, 102 mins)

(US - 2016)

CATFISH masterminds Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman went on to direct the third and fourth PARANORMAL ACTIVITY entries before making this thankfully not found-footage Blumhouse zombie parasite outbreak horror film that spent enough time on the shelf that it ended up being released the same weekend as the duo's next film, NERVE. While NERVE got a nationwide release by Lionsgate and became a modest hit, VIRAL was buried by the Weinstein Company, debuting in a handful of theaters and on VOD. It's pretty by the numbers, with a parasitic outbreak quickly working its way across the country as President Obama (seen in footage taken from Ebola-related press conferences in 2014) declares nationwide martial law in an attempt at quarantining the virus. While the horror elements are pretty much working off a checklist--yes, the infected once again sprint around 28 DAYS LATER-style--much of VIRAL's focus is on the bond between two sisters who have had their share of family upheaval of late. Shy and introverted Emma (THE NIGHT OF murder victim Sofia Black-D'Elia) lives in the shadow of her outgoing, hellraising older sibling Stacy (Analeigh Tipton). Their mom is absent for reasons that are revealed later in the film, but they've just moved to a new suburb with their dad (Michael Kelly), who's been let go from his university job and is now teaching biology at their high school. An infected classmate sends everyone home from school, and it isn't long before the government steps in, with Dad unable to get home and the girls left on their own. Of course, Stacy doesn't listen to Dad's orders and decides to go to a party, pressuring Emma to go along. And of course, someone at the party is infected, as the parasite burrows through its host, feeding off of it and absorbing it, causing it to attack anyone in its vicinity. Stacy is exposed to it at the party, and Emma and Evan (Travis Tope), the sensitive nice guy who lives across the street, barricade her in the bathroom, Emma determined to keep her big sis alive.

The relationship between Emma and Stacy is where VIRAL attempts to differentiate itself from so much of its type, but it's not enough to get the film to the next level. Joost, Schulman, and their PARANORMAL ACTIVITY writer Christopher Landon spend too much time on the same old zombie apocalypse mayhem, with the added bonus of CGI worms burrowing out of peoples' orifices. This is another horror film that depends too much on its characters doing idiotic things to advance the plot, like Emma and Evan chasing an escaped Stacy into an abandoned house where, of course, at least a dozen infected appear out of nowhere. Had the girls just stayed home instead of going to a party, none of this would've happened to them. This is also one of those teen-centered films where parents (other than the sisters' dad and Evan's asshole stepdad) are nowhere to be seen, thus enabling horny kids played by actors in their mid-to-late 20s to disregard police and government orders and orchestrate a kegger. And if it takes everyone else who's exposed about four seconds to turn, why does it take Stacy half the movie? There's no logic in the tired horror elements of VIRAL, but it does get a big boost from the convincing chemistry between Black-D'Elia and Tipton, and a scene where Emma sticks her hand into an opening in the bathroom door to make physical contact with an infected, practically rabid Stacy in an attempt to remind her of her human side ("I know you'll never hurt me!") is genuinely tense, emotional, and well-played by the two stars. Black-D'Elia and Tipton aren't able to completely salvage VIRAL from being a genre afterthought, but they're good enough that you'd probably rather see them working together in something other than a dumb horror movie you've seen a hundred times already. (R, 86 mins)

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