Thursday, December 21, 2017

On Blu-ray/DVD: LEATHERFACE (2017) and BLOOD MONEY (2017)

(US - 2017)

2013's TEXAS CHAINSAW functioned as a direct sequel to 1974's THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, negating the three previous sequels (1986's THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE PART 2, 1990's LEATHERFACE: THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE III, and 1997's TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: THE NEXT GENERATION) as well as the 2003 Michael Bay-produced remake THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and its 2006 prequel THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: THE BEGINNING. Even though THE BEGINNING addressed the early years of iconic chainsaw-wielding Leatherface in a prologue, LEATHERFACE sees fit to tell his origin story once more, but in feature-length detail. Shot in Bulgaria (some desolate farm areas and dirt roads doing a surprisingly credible job of doubling for Texas) in 2015 and shelved for two years before its gala premiere on DirecTV, LEATHERFACE was directed by the team of Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo, the French duo responsible for the 2007 cult classic INSIDE, one of the key films of France's extreme horror boom from a decade or so back. After the international notoriety of INSIDE, Maury and Bustillo were initially attached to HALLOWEEN II until Rob Zombie decided to direct it himself, and for a long time, they worked on developing a remake of HELLRAISER before finally leaving over creative differences during pre-production. LEATHERFACE marks their first English-language effort and if nothing else, they brought their gift of transgression along, with one scene involving a threesome with a decaying corpse as the third participant going down as one of the more jaw-droppingly depraved moments in a 2017 horror movie. The film was cut to avoid an NC-17, but what's here is probably still the goriest entry in the CHAINSAW canon.

While Maury and Bustillo enthusiastically throw gallons of blood all over the place (most of it the convincingly wet, practical kind), the story really leaves a lot to be desired, coming off like a half-baked retread of Rob Zombie's filmography, which serves as proof that everything comes full circle as Zombie's entire career seems like a tribute to the first two CHAINSAW movies. Owing a tremendous debt to THE DEVIL'S REJECTS and Zombie's remake of HALLOWEEN in terms of style and characterizations, LEATHERFACE (which counts the late Tobe Hooper and his back-in-the-day creative partner Kim Henkel among its army of producers) takes place in the 1950s (only the cars provide any shred of period detail; everyone else looks and talks like they're from the present day), with young Jedidiah Sawyer declared a ward of the state after being taken away from his deranged mother Verna (Lili Taylor, who really should have better things to do). He's renamed Jackson and as a teenager (played by British actor Sam Strike), he ends up as an unwitting accomplice in a mental institution breakout after Mother Firefly...er, I mean Verna incites a riot upon being denied a chance to visit her long-estranged son. Jedidiah/Jackson and new nurse Lizzy (Vanessa Grasse) escape with homicidal lovers Ike (James Bloor) and Baby Firefly...er, I mean Clarice (Jessica Madsen) and lumbering oaf Bud (Sam Coleman). Ike and Clarice hold Jedidiah and Lizzy captive and go on a killing spree, with vengeful Sheriff John Quincy Wydell...er, I mean Sheriff Harwood (Stephen Dorff as William Forsythe) in pursuit and still seeking vengeance after Verna's elder son Otis Driftwood...er, I mean Drayton (Dimo Alexiev) killed his teenage daughter years earlier. The script by Seth M. Sherwood tries to generate sympathy for young Leatherface much like Zombie's HALLOWEEN attempted to do for Michael Myers, and as in Zombie's film, it's all for naught. No one needed one Leatherface origin story, let alone an extended revisionist take a decade later. For all their insistence on staying true to their vision--the main reason they walked away from the HELLRAISER remake that has yet to materialize--you'd think Maury and Bustillo would deliver something more than stale leftovers from the tattered, dog-eared pages of the Rob Zombie playbook once they got another shot at a major horror franchise. Sure, there's some good splatter here and that necrophile menage-a-trois is legitimately shocking, but the story is rote and uninspired, a copy of a copy, and ultimately does nothing to enrich or enhance the CHAINSAW mythos. (R, 88 mins)

(US - 2017)

It never quite comes together, but there's occasional flashes of a better movie trying to break free with BLOOD MONEY, the latest from MAY director Lucky McKee. A millennial TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE mixed with a survivalist thriller, BLOOD MONEY has three college-aged, childhood friends--Victor (BOYHOOD's Ellar Coltrane), Lynn (Willa Fitzgerald of the TV series SCREAM), and Jeff (GLEE's Jacob Artist)--going on a weekend rafting and camping trip. The tension is already palpable: Victor and Lynn slept together once just before graduating from high school. It was a one-time thing, but he's never gotten over it, and it doesn't take him long to figure out that Lynn and Jeff have hooked up and haven't gotten around to telling him yet. Victor's also passive-aggressively resentful that Lynn went off to college with a scholarship and Jeff comes from a rich family while he's stuck at home with a shit job and his friends calling him a "townie." Things are already nearing a boil when Lynn finds four duffel bags filled with a total of $8 million, wedged up against some logs on a riverbank. The money belongs to Miller (John Cusack), who followed it out of a plane by parachute but got separated from it on the way down. The trio periodically run into Miller, who seems to be an aimless, eccentric hiker trying to bum smokes and even strikes up a sort-of friendship with Victor after he leaves Lynn and Jeff over being a third wheel in terms of their weekend and after he's outvoted in his feeling that they should turn the money over to the police. But it soon dawns on Miller that Lynn and Jeff have the money and he forces Victor to take him to them, resulting in a game of cat-and-mouse between the bickering friends and Miller, which will of course end up in a confrontation at an abandoned grain mill.

There isn't a single likable character in BLOOD MONEY, but that might've worked if the filmmakers committed to the kind of pitch black comedy that's the specialty of the Coen Bros. There's far too much time spent on the ennui of the three friends whose longtime bond gets more frayed by the minute. It's interesting the way expectations are subverted and Lynn becomes so incredibly ruthless about keeping the money. Fitzgerald also gets a great speech near the end where she lets Lynn's long-gestating frustration rage forth, telling Victor how much better it was when they were kids and they were all happy just being friends, "but then I got my period and grew a pair of tits, and became a prize for you two to compete for." Cusack fares much better here than in his recent VOD atrocity SINGULARITY, a career low where newly-shot scenes of the actor were plugged into a long-shelved sci-fi movie from several years earlier. He still seems to exist in another movie than his co-stars for the most part but it works in context, as does his newfound disheveled look with his all-black wardrobe and bandana (he didn't bring his black cap and vape pen along for this one). Given his dubious track record in recent years, it's a rarity these days that a film is most alive when Cusack is onscreen, but he actually seems to give a shit here, spouting funny and possibly ad-libbed dialogue when he's tearing into Victor, who won't stop whining in self-pity about how he lost Lynn. He mocks him over his shitty townie job ("You think that's enough for Miss Thing?"), he dispenses unhelpful romantic advice ("Take her back to your one-room hovel and romance her on minimum wage"), and even throws in pop culture observations ("Everybody loves Metallica!"). It's in those moments where Cusack seems to channel his inner Nic Cage, and in Lynn's lashing out at Victor along with her unexpected character arc, that BLOOD MONEY hints at something better and smarter. It needed more of that to be a success, but in relative terms, it's one of the better Cusackalypse Now titles of late. Admittedly, that's a pretty low bar. (R, 85 mins)

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