Thursday, June 1, 2017

On DVD/Blu-ray: RUPTURE (2017); XX (2017); and BEYOND THE GATES (2016)

(Italy/US - 2017)

RUPTURE is the first directing effort in a decade from Steven Shainberg, who had some significant critical acclaim with 2002's SECRETARY.  But after the mixed reception of his 2006 Diane Arbus biopic FUR, he concentrated on producing until ending his filmmaking sabbatical with this strange horror film that tries to straddle the line between arthouse and grindhouse and comes up short in both. Renee Morgan (Noomi Rapace) is a divorced Kansas City mom who drops off her son Evan (Percy Hynes White) for the weekend with his bitter, angry father. Heading to meet a guy she's been dating for a skydiving excursion, her plans are derailed when a device attached to her rear tire causes it to blow out and she's abducted on the side of a deserted road by several people in a hauling truck. Shackled and with black tape wrapped around her head with only her eyes, nostrils, and mouth exposed, she's taken several days away to a grimy, dimly-lit, generic horror movie warehouse at an undisclosed location and strapped to a table in an observation room. Various mysterious personnel--Dianne (Kerry Bishe), Dr. Nyman (Lesley Manville), and a well-dressed Bald Man (Michael Chiklis)--interrogate her with personal questions that seem to focus primarily on her fears. Exploiting her fear of spiders--which they already know because of hidden surveillance cameras throughout her home--their goal is to get her to break, to "rupture," to reach the point where she "destroys" her fear. These mystery people--are they part of a secret government operation?--are researching a genetic code known as "G10/12x," which they believe is the key to fear, and to lose that sense of being afraid causes an inner mutation that makes carriers of that gene the next phase of human evolution.

The script by Brian Nelson (HARD CANDY, 30 DAYS OF NIGHT) is filled with heady concepts, but once RUPTURE takes a hard turn towards sci-fi in its third act, its half-baked ideas don't hold up under much scrutiny. For the most part, it's a claustrophobic and unpleasant mix of MARTYRS, HOSTEL, and William Friedkin's BUG, but its disparate elements never really gel. RUPTURE might've made for a solid TWILIGHT ZONE episode, but by the end, there's more questions than answers (such as why, if these mystery people are capable of what they are, do they still have to rely on old-school security cameras to learn more about Renee prior to abducting her?). It's hardly the triumphant return of a briefly-lauded filmmaker, and it's hard telling what it was that made Shainberg decide RUPTURE was the project to lure him back behind the camera. RUPTURE stumbles with some embarrassingly bush-league CGI spiders and shape-shifting that appear to be on loan from a 1997 NuImage production, and other than Rapace, the cast--which also includes Peter Stormare, cast radically against type as "Peter Stormare," as the leader of this mysterious outfit--seems lost. Just as odd as Shainberg directing, it's hard telling what inspired Mike Leigh regular Manville (HIGH HOPES, TOPSY-TURVY, ANOTHER YEAR) to go slumming in something like this, unless it just seemed a lot smarter on the page. Similarly, someone forgot to tell Rapace that she's starring in a garbage B-movie, because she admirably gives this thing everything she's got. She's so committed--mentally and physically--to this character and her situation that she single-handedly makes RUPTURE worth seeing for fans of the original Lisbeth Salander. (Unrated, 101 mins)

(US - 2017)

XX got a lot of buzz in horror circles for its unique standing as an anthology project created by and centered on women. In its initial stages, the filmmakers involved were set to be Jennifer Lynch (BOXING HELENA), Jen & Sylva Soska (AMERICAN MARY), Mary Harron (AMERICAN PSYCHO), Karyn Kusama (THE INVITATION), and former Rue Morgue editor Jovanka Vuckovic. By the time the XX was officially underway, Lynch, Harron, and the Soskas dropped out, with Kusama and Vuckovic joined by Roxanne Benjamin (SOUTHBOUND) and Annie Clark, better known as musician St. Vincent, with Mexican stop-motion animator Sofia Carrillo handling the wraparound and the "interstitial" segments between the stories. Oddly enough, it's the least-experienced filmmakers of the bunch who fare best, with Vuckovic's opener "The Box," based on a Jack Ketchum short story about a child's curiosity about the contents of a gift box held by a stranger on a train ultimately sending a family into emotional and physical turmoil as everyone who finds out what's in the box begins starving themselves. Clark's "The Birthday Party," which she co-wrote with Benjamin, is a deadpan farce with Melanie Lynskey as a wife and mom desperately trying to carry on with her seven-year-old daughter's birthday party even though her husband drops dead right before the guests arrive. It's a one-joke story that gets an admittedly huge laugh at the end, but perhaps not big enough to justify the elaborate buildup.

At that point, XX fails to heed its own advice with "Don't Fall," a useless ten-minute trifle from Benjamin with a group of obnoxious campers being pursued by a shape-shifting desert creature. The closer is "Her Only Living Son," and it's quite a disappointment from Kusama, who doesn't keep her INVITATION momentum going. Waitress and single mom Cora (Christina Kirk) is having a hard time dealing with her rebellious son Andy (Kyle Allen) on the eve of his 18th birthday. He's in trouble at school and he's prone to nasty mood swings, but his increasingly violent behavior is justified or outright ignored by those seemingly under his spell, including the overly friendly mailman (Mike Doyle) whose job it's been to "watch over him" all these years. It's bad enough that Kusama's script doesn't even follow its own internal logic, since much is made of Andy's resentment that they've had to move around every few years to avoid "Andy's father," which immediately calls into question how the mailman has watched over them "all these years." But what really makes "Her Only Living Son" collapse in on itself is that it's ultimately nothing more than fan fiction derived from a certain late 1960s supernatural horror classic that's obvious the moment "Andy's father" is mentioned. It's interesting that three of the four stories--and Carrillo's animation, to an extent--deal directly with the lengths a mother will go to protect her family, but Benjamin's story is not only the odd woman out, but it's also a complete waste of time. XX is a good idea, but two of the filmmakers fall asleep on the job:  Benjamin torpedoes any momentum this thing had going, and anyone who watches enough horror anthologies knows you have to finish big, but Kusama completely drops the ball and regardless of XX's intent, the result is an underwhelming disappointment. (R, 81 mins)

(US - 2016)

Another in a long line of fetishistic '80s VHS horror throwbacks, BEYOND THE GATES has good intentions but stumbles by not knowing the difference between "slow burn" and "lollygagging," taking a promising premise and turning it into yet another fanboy-anointed "insta-horror classic" (© William Wilson) that's just not. Vincenzo Salvia's killer synth tune "Outrun with the Dead" gets things going in the right direction as two estranged brothers--elder, uptight Gordon (Graham Skipper) and younger, aimless slacker John (Chase Williamson of JOHN DIES AT THE END)--arrive in town to clean out and close up an old-school video store (played by the legendary L.A. memorabilia mecca Eddie Brandt's Saturday Matinee) owned by their father, who's been missing for seven months. The brothers clearly don't get along and there's hints of childhood trauma and their dad's heavy drinking, and Gordon's surly unease doesn't let up even with his loving and supportive girlfriend Margot (Brea Grant) in tow. Back in their dad's office, Gordon and John find a VCR/board game called "Beyond the Gates," which includes seizure-inducing strobe lighting as well as a sultry hostess (RE-ANIMATOR's Barbara Crampton) who seems to know of their father's whereabouts. She challenges the brothers and Margot to play the game and find four keys in various unlikely locations in order to save the soul of their dad, who's trapped in some kind of tortured purgatory within the game.

The concept of a haunted VCR board game sounds like something Charles Band would've commissioned at Empire in 1985 around the time of THE DUNGEONMASTER or TERRORVISION, and while that's ultimately the direction BEYOND THE GATES heads with the world inside the game being shrouded in thick fog and purple/pink neon lighting and some probably intentionally janky-looking practical splatter effects, director/co-writer Jackson Stewart takes entirely too long to get there. The script makes an effort to create strong characters, and Skipper and Williamson are believable as distant siblings forced to rebuild their long-lost bond, but BEYOND THE GATES loses its way.  There's a sense of lingering resentment toward recovering alcoholic Gordon, both from John and his bullying, asshole friend Hank (Justin Welborn), while Margot is saddled with unsubtle exposition drops about having a hard time sleeping after injuring her wrist in a vague "fall," a obvious red flag that the cycle of alcoholism and abuse has been passed on to Gordon and it's the very reason he split when he was 18 and never looked back. These are interesting ideas and characterizations that are left flailing as BEYOND THE GATES devotes entirely too much time to Gordon and John sitting around twiddling their thumbs while they decide to enter the game and rescue what's left of their dad. This could've been a smart film with a deeper subtext--like, say, THE BABADOOK or IT FOLLOWS--but it never finds the right balance between its character-driven, mumblecore components and its mandatory indulgence in heavy retro '80s worship. That opening synth jam is a keeper, though. (Unrated, 82 mins, also streaming on Netflix)

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