ReelReviews #118: Lights Out (2016)

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OCTOBER 21, 2017: Lights Out

 

 

BOO! There are two ways to frighten the audience in “scary movies”: The “jump scares” that startle the audience, and the “creepy folklore” storytelling that leaves views unnevered and uncomfortable. The latter is much harder to pull off, but gives people a film with much more depth when they successful use it. Not surprisingly, Lights Out uses the former technique (startling the audience) but does it very, very well.

Lights Out is a slim 80 minute movie, so it knows that it lacks depth, but it doesn’t overstay its welcome. All these types of movies have some type of malevolent presence, and the one here is named “Diana”. That kept me thinking about the Princess of Wales, so I wish they would have gone with something more exotic sounding. Still, “Lights Out” came up with a cool twist where the evil spirit isn’t really an “evil spirit” at all. The backstory is actually rather interesting, since it appears the evil being here is actually a girl with a rare illness that seemingly “died” in the 1970s but is actually still alive. According to the film’s lore, they conducted an experiment on her to “cure” her of skin deformity, but instead it just destroyed her corporal form. This is hinted at through the movie, as the mother of the protagonist keeps telling “Diana” that “You can’t exist without me”.

Of course, this strange Dr. Manhattan type origin story is really just an excuse for what’s the meat of the movie: the premise that “Diane” can only be seen in total blackness, and cannot exist wherever there’s light. The film requires some suspension of disbelief because one would assume the characters would be sure to have portable light readily available at all times after they know such a being exists and is actively trying to hurt them. That being said, the movie milks this scenario for all its worth, and creates a final showdown that is extremely tense and frightening for a viewer watching the movie alone in the dark — which happened to the case when I viewed the movie.

After Lights Out was over, I couldn’t help but have to switch on the lights in the basement before exiting, and carefully look over my shoulder to make sure everything was OK. So as cheesy as it seems, did Lights Out accomplish its goal as a horror movie? It certainly did.

*** out of ****
 

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ReelReviews #117: A Cure for Wellness (2017)

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OCTOBER 20, 2017: A Cure for Wellness

 

 

Wow, how can I review this film?

A couple years back, I screened a Spanish language horror film called “Here Comes the Devil” and thought the film was a total piece of crap right from the start – until it finally got better and had me totally sold on the film by the end credits. “A Cure for Wellness” managed to do the same – but in reverse! Here is a film that I feel in love with from the very beginning, watching it slowly unfold and becoming engrossed in that world and the magic of the movie, as thoughts of “wow, this is BY FAR my favorite horror film since Let Me In, I’m gonna have to rewatch this gem later when I get whatever 3-disc special edition is out on Blu-Ray”) danced in my head. Sadly though, the movie completely unraveled by its third act – turning into some idiotic twist that required a huge sketch of the imagination (which would have been acceptable if the film was marketed as fantasy, but its not) and dragged me through a cringe worthily clichéd and through predictable ending, even up to the last line of dialogue in the film. I sat there in silence as the end credits rolled, crushed that “A Cure for Wellness” managed to screw that up so badly.

Still, A Cure for Wellness gets so much RIGHT in the first 2/3rds of the movie that its impossible for me to give this movie a “bad” review no matter how much the ending ruined it for me. One of my favorite non-horror movies of all time is the similarly titled “The Road to Wellville”, and this film very much plays out like a dark, twisted, evil version of that world. “The Road to Wellville” is a bizarre “based on a true story” historical romp/sex comedy about a turn-of-the-century “Health Clinic” that had cult-like followers and a very unorthodox “Doctor” who ran it with an iron first, the eccentric real life figure of Dr. John Kellogg — creator of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes. In the case of this movie, “A Cure for Wellness” likewise is set in a very bizarre, unorthodox, Victorian-era looking “Health Clinic” that supposedly “rehabilitates” people, and is likewise run by a strange “Doctor” who has absolute control over the clinic’s methods and his patients. As the story unfolds here, a young man visits the clinic with the intent of having a patient there immediately discharged so he can attend to some important business involving stocks at his firm. The patient, of course, refuses to leave, and the man soon discovers that none of the “patients” ever seem to “get well” or want to leave, despite appearing to love the Doctor’s methods and being free to leave any time they wish. The man conveniently ends up in a horrible car accident when he tries to report back home, and then the clinic, of course, takes him in to “cure” him.

Everything about this movie falls into place perfectly from the start – and that means not only the story, but the art direction, music, cinematography, and especially, the general gothic/steampunk atmosphere. The casting was also impressive, and all the actors seemed a perfect fit for their role, including the brilliant choice of Jason Issacs as the twisted “Doctor” who runs the clinic. The film runs nearly three hours but didn’t seem bloated at all, because I found myself truly immersed in its strange world. Everything seemed to reveal a bigger piece of the puzzle, and I especially loved one aspect of the movie where a young (teenageish?) girl at the clinic wanders around randomly singing a haunting melody, and is eventually revealed to be a “special case” at the clinic, given that almost all the other patients are elderly. Our hero decides to take her out to town to see the real world one day, with devastating results and consequences.

And then, quite unfortunately, the “secret” behind the clinic was revealed, and the movie went downhill from there. It almost makes me want to recommend this movie since so much potential was being built up as the movie rolled forward, only to see it crushed into a complete disappointment and utter waste of time at the end. I truly have a love-hate relationship with this movie. I love the journey it took me on, but I loathe the destination it got me to.

 

**1/2 out of ****
 

ReelReviews #116: Cult of Chucky (2017)

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OCTOBER 19, 2017: Cult of Chucky

 

“Sorry Jack, Chuck’s Back!” was the famous catchphrase from the first Chuck sequel. We’re now up to the seventh movie in the series, and a horror franchise about a doll possessed by the soul of a serial killer has lasted nearly 30 years. For most film franchises, that would probably mean the series has really gotten tired and stale at this point. But for Child’s Play, it’s still in full gear. I have to agree with the professional critics on this one. “Cult of Chucky” may be a low-budget direct-to-video afraid, but you won’t be sorry Chucky’s Back.

The vast majority of the film takes place in a mental hospital and it also features the return of Alex Vincent as Andy Barclay. The now adult actor had been the child star of the first two films, and did a brief cameo in the sixth movie. Here, he doesn’t seem to be used to his full potential, but he does kick off an intriguing premise where are multiple Chucky dolls seemingly going on “killing” sprees at the mental hospital, while Andy still has the served (and still very much alive) head of the “original” Chucky doll locked in his closet – which means the “Chucky” we all know couldn’t have committed those crimes. So who’s the true culprit? You’ll have to watch the film to find out.

If there’s any flaw to be found in Cult of Chucky, its that the ending is pretty much just an obvious setup for yet another sequel, and without giving away what happens, it might be the only Child’s Play film where Chucky actually “wins” at the end. The only other issue with Cult of Chucky is thru no fault of its own – the sixth installment in the franchise, Curse of Chucky, was a clever “in-universe reboot” that tricked the audience into thinking it was a straight up remake of the first movie – until gradually revealing it was actually another sequel! Cult of Chucky follows up from that movie and just doesn’t have the same surprise factor. Many alumni from all six of the previous movies return, the mental hospital setting works well for the story, and aside from some rather blatant attempts to “update” things for 2017 (we just gotta mention some character is gay and married to another man, for example) the film stays remarkably fresh and true to its origins. Let’s hope the inevitable sequel to THIS movie is just as compelling.

 

*** out of ****

 

ReelReviews #108: It’s Alive (2009)

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MARCH 16, 2017 SCREENING: IT’S ALIVE (2009)

It’s Remade! Most people complain about endless Hollywood remakes. The odd thing here is that there’s an entire valid case to made for remaking It’s Alive. The original film is not any sort of beloved classic and while it got a good response, the style of filmmaking doesn’t work in the 21st century and the story could be entirely updated 35 years later. The first thing many modern audiences said about the 1974 movie upon seeing it is “This movie could use a remake”, and they have a valid point. And thus, I can’t bash this movie for being a remake. I can, however, bash how they decided to do the remake.

The biggest change (and a strange choice, IMO) is that the killer baby in this version looks just like a normal human baby (except for some bizarre reveal in the third act where it inexplicably has sharp pointed teeth to make it look “scary”) The “normal” looking baby is still capable of somehow massacring multiple full grown adults with its bare hands, so the result is some very unrealistic looking CGI to create a fake “normal” looking human infant in 99% of the scenes. This turns out to the biggest flaw in the movie, and one that wouldn’t have been an issue if the premise of the movies were reversed (a “normal” looking baby played a real baby in the 1974 movie because the special effects technology was primitive, but a fully mutated deformed monstrosity in the 2009 remake)

Most of the bad reviews of this movie couldn’t get past the obviously-fake CGI “normal” baby, and I believe the film does indeed deserve to be blasted for that problem. However, other aspects of the movie also really hurt the film, with a weak script, and short running time that didn’t allow the story to be fully fleshed out, or effective.

On the other hand, this movie does not deserve the across-the-board “ZERO STARS! IT SUCKS!” scathing reviews that it got. The remake of Its Alive is very flawed, but it does have some good things going for it. Strangely, the best part of the movie was Bijou Philips, the model-turned-actress daughter of singer John Philips (of “The Mamas and the Papas”) fame. Philips is basically the lead in this movie and has to ensure all the emotional gravitas as the mother of the evil baby. The film requires her to slowly realize her baby is murdering people and that she is shocked and horrified by this fact, but tolerates it because of the love she feels for the newborn as its mother. Philips put in an amazing performance here (which surprised me since I didn’t consider her to be a real “actress”) and could have rightfully won a prize for the role if she weren’t in such a weak movie overall. Likewise, the last scene and final moment of the movie deserves to be up there with classic horror films like “Psycho” and “The Shining”. Yes, I’m serious! Without giving it away, I spent the entire movie wondering how they would resolve the story, and the film’s ending is truly heartbreaking and haunting, leaving the viewer feeling anguished at what’s happened. It’s a tragedy this brilliant ending couldn’t be part of an actual GOOD movie. Many horror films resort to one last cheap “scare” to end the movie (usually “he’s not REALLY dead!”) , others come up with more clever twists, but very few manage to “scare” you in a way that truly makes the audience feel unnerved and creeped out by what they’ve just seen. It’s Alive manages to do that, and to top the nicely chilling of the original 1974 movie! Despite being a really lousy movie overall, I’m actually awarding it an extra half a star for the great ending. The only downside is you have to see the rest of this crappy movie for the ending to be effective.

For the record, original It’s Alive producer/writer/director Larry Cohen absolutely loathed the remake of his movie. I don’t loathe it, but I do feel it was a big missed opportunity.

* 1/2 out of ****

ReelReviews #107: It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive (1987)

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MARCH 15, 2017 SCREENING: ISLAND OF THE ALIVE (1987)

The good news: Unlike many other “third movies” in a trilogy, this movie isn’t a complete joke that ruins everything you liked about the first two movies. The bad news? It’s still a disappointment compared to the first two. It’s watchable, yes, but unsatisfying.

Ironically, the third film provided a great setup for building on the universe from the first two movies and giving the audience something much bigger and bolder. The most obvious question from the first two films is what would the killer mutant babies actually be like IF they grew up? Additionally, there is the question of how the evil mutant babies would interact with their own kind, what they would do if left their own devices, and there was very little in the way of actually SEEING the babies in full detail from the first films because of the makeup limitations of those movies. It’s Alive III addresses all those points – and in many cases, it provides a perfectly valid answer to those questions. But alas, something is still missing.

Compared to Basket Case 3 (which shifted the tone so much from the first movie, it was like they were intentionally trying to make a bad joke), Island of the Alive sticks to the style of the first two movies very well. The film opens in a courtroom where they argue over the fate of one of the mutant babies (finally seen in full detail thanks to stop-motion animation). Without going into too much detail, the killer mutant babies are eventually quarantined on an island that is restricted to the public, hence the title. Of course, there wouldn’t be much of a plot if they just stayed there forever and no one ever saw them again, so a few years later, they decide to send an expedition out to track down if the killer mutant babies are still alive on the island.
None of this (aside from perhaps the tense courtroom scene where the father has to “touch” the baby in the cage to “prove” it’s safe) plays out as horrifically and dark as it could from the way it sounds on paper. I think part of the problem is that that Island of the Alive was made a decade after the first two movies, and the late 80s setting simply gives the movie a different feel than its mid-1970s counterparts. (I have no idea why there was such a large gap in time between the filming of the second and third movies). Strangely, 70s cult horror star Karen Black shows up in this one as a disgruntled girlfriend of one of the characters, and I found her role unintentionally funny. Even Rob Zombie couldn’t seem to use Karen Black in a serious role. It’s Alive III just seems to lack the same quiet, creepy, dark vibe of the original movie, despite having the same writer/director.

The film does deserve kudos for an interesting script that eventually reveals that the mutant babies mature at age four and are able to reproduce, and communicate with each other through some type of sign language and/or telepathy. This results in some type of “Captain Phillips” type scenario where one of the characters is held hostage on a boat commanded by the mutant babies. The scene itself, however, was neither funny & campy nor terrifying and creepy, it was just sort of there, and make me shrug, “eh?”

The film provides a satisfying conclusion to its own events, but as part of a trilogy, it’s the weakest of the trio. Whether it’s worth watching is really up to you.

** out of ****

ReelReviews #106: It Lives Again (1978)

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MARCH 14, 2017 SCREENING: IT LIVES AGAIN (1978)

The film poster summarizes this entire two hour movie very easily: The killer mutant baby from “Its Alive” is back: only this time there are three of them.

Following the rule of sequels, the second film in the trilogy gives the audience what was best about the first movie, but ups the ante and delivers more action, thrills, and violence than its predecessor. In many cases, this type of lazy filmmaking (“give ‘em what they got before, multiplied 3X!) results in an inferior follow-up movie. Here, it actually works…although the film is still a step down from its immediate predecessor. Part of the reason “It Lives Again” works so well is that filmmaker Larry Cohen wisely got John P. Ryan back to reprise his role from the first film, but gave him something entirely different to do in the sequel. In “It Lives Again”, he’s there to warn the parents of other mutant babies what they are encountering in their life, and he’s changed course 180 degrees from the film movie, since now he is trying to PROTECT the mutant babies rather than destroy them.

The entire “hook” of the sequel having THREE killer mutant babies instead of just one little nasty monster is actually the most disappointing aspect of the film. This concept could have made for some very interesting scenarios, but it is not merely as fun as its sounds. For starters, evil mutant baby killer #1 and #2 get killed off about halfway through the movie, so the climax ends with a race-against-the-clock to stop just one killer baby, just like the first film. Secondly, the three evil mutant babies don’t even interact with each other or appear on screen in the same scenes, so what was the point of including them in the first place?

Aside from John P. Ryan (who – SPOILER ALERT—gets killed off in this movie, disappointing me since he was the best thing about the first two films) the only other character to return from the first film is the local police inspector, who looks strangely like a 1970s version of 1980s Donald Trump in both movies. The film eventually runs low on steam, but it has a solid “several months later” ending where the poor father in this film assumes John P. Ryan’s role from the start of the movie of visiting future parents pregnant with evil mutant babies, thus hinting that the cycle will continue…endlessly.

Overall, I liked the movie, but it falls slightly short of the first film. Still, given the fact that it’s a sequel to the type of movie that mainstream audiences and critics would immediately turn their noses up at, It Lives Again has something going for it. It’s worth checking out, especially if you liked the first one.

** 1/2 out of ****

ReelReviews #105: It’s Alive (1974)

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MARCH 13, 2017 SCREENING: IT’S ALIVE! (1974)

In a strange twist of irony, I spent the month of March going from the most critically acclaimed Hollywood movies (namely, looking at past “Best Picture” Oscar winners) to the films LEAST likely to win prizes and critical acclaim: nasty B-grade horror films. The 1974 cult classic “It’s Alive” is actually much better than its reputation would suggestion. For an obscure low-budget Hollywood film, it has some A-list credentials. For example, famous Hitchcock composer Bernard Hermann did the score for this film – and the music is every bit as memorable as his more famous compositions. The makeup designer is Rick Baker, who would go on to do the makeup for An American Werewolf in London (1981), which launched him to fame as Hollywood’s go-to guy for top-notch special effects makeup. The lead male actor in the film, John P. Ryan (apparently “best known” for the 1985 movie Runaway Train, which I’ve never seen) puts in a terrific performance that requires an entire range of emotions and actions for his character, and writer/director/producer Larry Cohen’ story of a deformed mutant baby going a killing spree was unique and “creative” for the time, to say the least. But with all that, is the film actually good? Surprisingly, yes it is.

A few months earlier, I screened the similarly “ugly cult classic” horror film series Basket Case, which I haven’t yet reviewed on my blog. To put it simply, the first one was really compelling, the second was watchable but stupid, and the third was a pile of dung that I shut off halfway through. I wondered if the It’s Alive trilogy (and its 2009 remake) would suffer a similar fate. They did not. It’s Alive, though certainly shunned by “mainstream” film critics and considered some cheap horror film, is a compelling and dark melodrama. Larry Cohen wisely stuck with the “leave much of the horror to the audience’s imagination” rule, and while this may be partly inspired by the difficulty of showing the killer mutant baby on a rampage using low budget 1974 special effects, it works.

The film has a high level of graphic violence, but between the grisly things that occur on screen, the real heart of the story is the mutant baby’s perfectly normal, middle-America parents, who already have a perfectly normal first child who is sixth grade during the film’s chain of events. The film manages the incredibly difficult task of A) Getting the audience to suspend disbelief that such an awful thing could actually happen to this couple, and B) Making it plausible how society at large would deal with the problem. In the movie, the problem with the “Davis baby” eventually becomes a nationwide panic. As the baby’s father struggles to come to grips with what’s happening, he has a moving segment where he compares his family’s nightmarish life to the story Frankenstein because the audience associates Frankenstein as the name of the monster — rather than the scientist who created him. By the end of the film, the father finally has to confront the fact the baby is still his biological child and identifies him as its father, no matter how inhuman and monsterious s the baby acts and looks. The film has a lot of subtle social commentary on the changing role of the American family in the 1970s, even though its first and foremost a violent “things that go bump in the night” kind of movie. The final line the movie was also an excellent punch-in-the-gut for audiences after the horrific events were seemingly over.

The film was very compelling and exciting, regardless of its low budget and amateur filmmaking origins. Highly recommended.

*** out of ****