Saturday, January 13, 2018

Triskaidekaphilia: '13 Dead Men' (2003)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

I didn't keep close count, but I am almost certain there are not 13 dead men in 13 Dead Men, the title of which apparently refers to 13 death row inmates who've exhausted all their appeals and are set to be executed imminently. This is explained in a single throwaway line, and the only one of the 13 who actually appears in the movie is Malachi (Ashley Tucker), who's been convicted of killing a cop but maintains his innocence throughout the movie. I couldn't tell if he was actually innocent of the cop-killing, but he was definitely not innocent of stealing millions of dollars worth of diamonds, which the prison's warden (David Weininger) is determined to take for himself. The warden and most of the guards keep devising new ways to torture Malachi so he will tell them where the diamonds are hidden before he's scheduled to be executed.

Also looking for the diamonds are Malachi's former partners, all of whom apparently escaped arrest, led by Santos (Lorenzo Lamas). Eventually they launch some sort of half-assed plan to break Malachi out of prison, which mostly involves getting themselves into the prison and then fighting all the guards until they find Malachi. Surprisingly, this plan mostly works, because Malachi is being held in the most poorly secured and guarded prison of all time, along with barely enough other inmates to make it to the movie's titular number. Nobody's goals in this movie are particularly coherent, but the diamonds are just a flimsy excuse for director and co-writer Art Camacho to stage an endless series of listless fight scenes.

Camacho is a veteran of straight-to-video action movies and a prolific stunt performer/coordinator, but the fight choreography in this movie is absolutely terrible. The fight scenes are less believable than professional wrestling matches, with punches and kicks that clearly land nowhere near their intended targets, and characters lumbering slowly around each other. Say what you will about Lorenzo Lamas, but he knows his way around a low-budget action movie, and his fights are the only ones in the entire movie that even come close to credible. His acting is another matter, but it's not like anyone in the cast (which also includes rapper Mystikal, who joins Lamas in being billed above actual main star Tucker) gives a good performance. At least Lamas seems to be having fun as the cynical badass who gets the hot girl, which is more than can be said for the mostly flat line deliveries from the rest of the cast.

Although there isn't any nudity, there are some gratuitously misogynistic sex scenes between the warden and his wife/assistant, which go overboard in establishing him as a sadistic asshole. The women in the movie are generally just tools to further the agendas of the macho male characters, whether that's the lone female guard who's basically in love with Malachi and helps him contact his associates (only to be brutally murdered by the other guards and the warden in a faked suicide); or the female member of the robbery crew who goes from Malachi's girlfriend to Santos' to a captive of the prison guards (although she does get to kick ass eventually); or the warden's poor mistreated spouse. It's less a failing of this particular movie than just standard-issue for this kind of movie in this era; nothing about 13 Dead Men sets it apart from other cheap straight-to-video action movies of the '00s. Even Lorenzo Lamas has done better.

Saturday, January 06, 2018

My top 10 non-2017 movies of 2017

I'm a little behind on getting this done, but I didn't want to miss out on one of my favorite annual traditions. This year, I made a resolution (that I stuck to more often than not) inspired by this Matt Singer ScreenCrush article to watch at least one movie a week that was released before I was born, so I probably had a wider selection to choose from than in previous years. Here are the best movies I saw for the first time in 2017 that were released in previous years.

1. The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (Nicolas Gessner, 1976) I didn't know what to expect from this movie, other than a young Jodie Foster in some sort of thriller. What I got was a fascinatingly unpredictable mix of thriller, coming-of-age drama, horror and teen romance, with one of Foster's best-ever performances (at age 13!), as a teenager trying to balance a secret life after both of her parents die, leaving her alone in a big, isolated house. Martin Sheen is wonderfully creepy as the sleazy neighbor who wants to expose (in more ways than one) the young girl's secrets, and the plot deals with serious issues of morality, maturity and consent in a frank and direct way while still telling an entertaining, twisty story.

2. Red-Headed Woman (Jack Conway, 1932) This delightfully disreputable pre-Code comedy, starring a fantastic Jean Harlow as a brazen gold-digger and home-wrecker, was my favorite film at the 2017 TCM Fest. Harlow's Lil Andrews openly declares her intent to sleep her way to the top, seducing her married boss, marrying him and then seducing an even older, richer industrialist. She never even really faces a moral reckoning, although the hapless men eventually get wise to her scheme. It's weirdly feminist in the way the anti-heroine exploits the patriarchy for her own selfish ends, and it's absolutely hilarious while she does.

3. Don't Bother to Knock (Roy Ward Baker, 1952) I've seen Marilyn Monroe in entertaining performances that play to her popular image, but this is the first time I've been truly impressed with he dramatic skills, and it's a shame that this movie isn't as well-known as her more stereotypically sexy performances. She's still sexy here, but she's also haunted and tragic as a woman whose mental instability becomes more apparent as she works as a babysitter in a hotel and flirts with a fellow guest. Richard Widmark plays the ostensible hero, who has a more sensible love interest waiting in the wings, but Monroe is the real star of this surprising, unsettling and sad movie.

4. Christmas, Again (Charles Poekel, 2014) I have a sort of love/hate relationship with Christmas movies, finding them fascinating but also mostly annoying, but it's worth watching the bad ones in order to come across gems like this, which I checked out thanks to a review from colleague Mike D'Angelo. Like Joe Swanberg's Happy Christmas, it's a micro-budget mumblecore take on the Christmas movie, starring indie stalwart Kentucker Audley as a mopey guy working at a bargain Christmas-tree lot in New York City. Audley is endearing, and the movie is full of entertaining character details, charming little moments of interaction that get at the spirit of the holidays without being sappy, and while always balancing the cheer with melancholy.

5. The Children (Tom Shankland, 2008) And speaking of Christmas movies, this was probably the nicest surprise of the series I did on Christmas horror movies at the end of 2017. It's a creepy killer-kids movie that takes advantage of the inherent stress of family togetherness during the holidays to create a tense atmosphere even before the kids start committing violence against their family members. The characters are well-defined enough that the domestic squabbles feel real, but there isn't more back story than is needed to fuel the suspense. The kids are genuinely frightening, the isolated rural estate is a great location, and the ending has just the right mix of cruelty and triumph. More in my original post.

6. Ava's Possessions (Jordan Galland, 2015) Sometimes things sit for so long in my Netflix queue that I have no idea why I wanted to see them when I finally get around to watching them, so I can't say how this random straight-to-video horror movie came across my radar, but I'm glad it did. Like a lot of the movies on this list, it's unpredictable and determined to confound expectations, starting out as a dark horror comedy with a sitcommy premise (what if there was a support group for people recovering from ... demon possession?) before veering off into darker, more twisted territory. Director Galland gives it a sort of garish, sickly neon color palette somewhere between noir, EC Comics and an '00s alt-rock video, and the plot gives Louisa Krause's title character the chance to go from victim to righteous avenger, all with a devious smile.

7. Ride Lonesome (Budd Boetticher, 1959) One of the best Western plots is "determined lawman does the technically right thing even though it will lead to his certain death and is also futile," and this movie really nails that story. It's embodied by Randolph Scott as self-destructively righteous bounty hunter Ben Brigade, who uses a wanted outlaw to bait that outlaw's brother (Lee Van Cleef) into coming after him, delivering perceived justice for both, most likely at the cost of Brigade's own life. Scott's Brigade is stoic and tragic, and the movie is, too, with its beautiful but harsh frontier vistas and a pair of opportunistic gunmen entertainingly played by James Coburn and Pernell Roberts.

8. Risky Business (Paul Brickman, 1983) I put this on expecting a light '80s teen comedy in the vein of a John Hughes movie, and I discovered something more like Ferris Bueller's Day Off meets The Graduate. Sure, everyone remembers Tom Cruise dancing in his underwear to "Old Time Rock and Roll," and this movie also features Curtis "Booger" Armstrong as the main character's crass best friend, plus a giant over-the-top house party (filled with hookers) while parents are away. But it's also surprisingly bleak and pessimistic, with an undercurrent of hopelessness about the future. Cruise's Joel Goodson discovers that his life of privilege and wealth is completely hollow, and risking it all for an alluring prostitute (played by Rebecca De Mornay at her most alluring) is more meaningful than getting into Princeton.

9. Who Can Kill a Child? (Narciso Ibáñez Serrador, 1976) And we're back to killer kids! I actually saw the remake of this movie (titled Come Out and Play) at AFI Fest in 2012 without having any knowledge of the original, and I found it slow and dull and not very scary. But (not surprisingly), the original is much better, an incredibly eerie, suspenseful and downright nasty movie about a vacationing British couple finding themselves on a Spanish island full of kids who've turned homicidal. There's a misguided prologue with real news footage of atrocities affecting children, and the movie doesn't quite support that thematic weight. After that, though, it's tense and well-acted, full of impossible situations as represented by the title question, the answer to which is always bad news.

10. The House on Telegraph Hill (Robert Wise, 1951) I had a few potential choices for this last spot and went with this one in part because like so many movies on this list, it unfolds unpredictably, at first seeming like one kind of movie and then developing into something else. The main character is a concentration-camp survivor who moves to San Francisco by adopting the identity of a fellow inmate who died, but the story isn't about her deception being uncovered. Instead it's about her uncovering deception and murder in the wealthy family into which she insinuates herself, going from one horror into another that's more devious and not as readily apparent. The shots of 1950s San Francisco are stunning, and Wise builds an atmosphere of dread that sustains all the way until the very end.

Previous lists:

Monday, December 25, 2017

12 Horrors of Christmas: 'Silent Night, Deadly Night' (1984)

To close out this feature on Christmas horror movies, here's the closest thing there is to a signature Christmas-horror franchise, with six installments that, in true horror fashion, are sometimes related to each other in name only. Silent Night, Deadly Night is not nearly as popular or well-known as many other franchises that originated during the slasher boom of the 1980s, but it's an enduring horror brand name that seems likely to get another reboot sooner than later (especially with the current high demand for holiday horror). Also like many horror franchises, it springs from a movie that wasn't very good to begin with, valued more for its name recognition and general concept than narrative or filmmaking quality.

The opening prologue (of two) is pretty creepy, though, with young Billy (Jonathon Best) visiting his institutionalized grandpa (Will Hare), who appears catatonic when others are around but gives the kid an unhinged warning about the dangers of Christmas Eve and the vengeance of Santa Claus. Then on the way home, Billy and his family are attacked by a criminal in a Santa suit, who kills Billy's parents (after attempting to rape his mom) and leaves Billy and his infant brother traumatized orphans. Disappointingly, the grandpa never returns to the story, and Best, the most effective of three actors as Billy, is replaced as the character gets older. A second prologue finds a slightly older Billy being bullied by the strict nun who runs the Catholic orphanage where he and his brother have ended up, further traumatizing him by forcing him to celebrate Christmas and interact with a man playing Santa Claus.

Finally after 15 minutes or so, we get to the main portion of the story, in which Billy (now played by Robert Brian Wilson) is a strapping 18-year-old still dealing with PTSD but getting no sympathy from anyone. He gets a holiday-season job at a toy store, which is obviously a terrible idea, and eventually ends up having to fill in for the store's Santa. That finally breaks him and sets him on a murderous rampage dressed in a Santa suit. The setup is so choppy (including an absurdly upbeat toy-store montage set to an atrocious easy-listening Christmas ballad) that the movie has basically lost all momentum by the time the chopping starts, and even though Billy's history of Santa-related trauma is painstakingly established, his reasons for killing his various victims are muddled. He starts by "punishing" a co-worker for attempting to force himself on another toy-store employee, but then just slaughters everyone at the toy store indiscriminately, and picks his later victims seemingly at random.

The tone is aggressively nasty, which is kind of refreshing, and the movie was so controversial at the time of its release that it was picketed by concerned parents groups and pulled from theaters. Of course, it all seems pretty quaint now, especially given the proliferation of Christmas horror movies, but this is a film that has no problem gunning down multiple Santas and setting its violence-filled climax at an orphanage full of children. I think I'd appreciate the nastiness if the story and character development were more coherent, and the movie suffers in comparison to the similar, lesser-known Christmas Evil from a few years earlier, which is a much more intense, well-acted and thoughtful movie about a traumatized guy who dresses up as Santa and kills people. Thanks to its trumped-up controversy and catchy title, Silent Night, Deadly Night turned into a franchise, but it's better at branding that at storytelling.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

12 Horrors of Christmas: 'Red Christmas' (2017)

On a much smaller scale than Better Watch Out, Red Christmas is a 2017 holiday-themed horror movie that got some festival buzz and positive response around its VOD release. But while Better Watch Out tackled deeper issues than expected in a surprisingly effective way, Red Christmas attempts to make a political statement in a way that is at best clumsy and at worst tasteless and offensive—and mostly not the kind of tasteless and offensive that makes for a good horror movie. It's a stealth political statement that makes a pretense of being even-handed, the disingenuous "fair and balanced" version of a horror movie.

It's also, however, a slasher movie, albeit not a very well-crafted one. If the scares were stronger and the characters were more interesting and the kills were more creative, the distasteful political message might be more forgivable. But other than the welcome presence of horror icon Dee Wallace in the lead role, there isn't much to recommend Red Christmas as a horror movie, either. Wallace plays Diane, a seemingly well-adjusted matriarch who brings together her extended family (brother, four adult children, two of their spouses) for a Christmas celebration. But as the prologue—which features a bombing at an abortion clinic and a still-viable aborted fetus being whisked away by a mysterious figure—indicates, the family's tranquil holiday gathering is about to be shattered.

Yes, this movie could be retitled Revenge of the Aborted Fetus, because Diane's failed abortion is now a grown-up freak named Cletus, who dresses in a black cloak like the Grim Reaper and covers his deformed face with bandages like the Invisible Man. He shows up on the family's doorstep looking for love and acceptance, but when he's turned away (maybe because he's a scary-looking interloper who starts talking about this woman's abortion from 20 years ago?), he turns violent, killing the family members one by one in gruesome (but not particularly well-staged) ways, while laying the guilt on Diane for her decision to terminate her pregnancy. Also, Diane's son Jerry (Gerard Odwyer) has Down syndrome, and it's revealed that Cletus has it, too, which was the reason that Diane decided to have the abortion.

So writer-director Craig Anderson uses the mentally disabled as a tool for the movie's political agenda, in the same way he uses blood and guts. He does at least try to generate suspense, but the movie is shot with so much shaky camera movement that it's often difficult to follow the action, especially after Cletus cuts the power to the house. Anderson foreshadows weak spots for certain characters only to toss them aside in favor of basic hacking and slashing as each one gets killed, and a lot of the violence happens offscreen, with just a loud crunch and a splash of blood. Like the 2006 Black Christmas, Red Christmas bathes many of its scenes in Dario Argento-style reds and greens as if from Christmas lights, but here the effect is mostly just to make the scenes harder to see.

Even though Cletus is a remorseless killer, the ending gives him a kind of moral high ground (thanks to the heavy-handed device of one of Diane's daughters going into labor during the attack), implying that this murderer may somehow be morally superior to the heathens he hacked up. And after reducing a complex political issue to severed limbs and bashed-in heads, Anderson has the gall to throw in "further viewing" and "further reading" in the end credits, ostensibly representing both sides, as if he's some kind of political science professor. It's nearly as off-putting as all the nasty violence that comes before it.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

12 Horrors of Christmas: 'Better Watch Out' (2017)

There was enough critical acclaim for Chris Peckover's breakout feature Better Watch Out that I had it on my list of 2017 films to catch up with for awards-voting and list-making purposes, not just to include in this feature about Christmas horror movies. While it won't make my top 10 list, it's still one of the better horror movies of the year, and certainly more unsettling and thought-provoking than one might expect from a Christmas-themed horror movie that essentially went straight to VOD. I came in with high expectations and was a bit disappointed, but anyone just looking for some basic low-budget horror would probably be pleasantly surprised.

There aren't a lot of scares in this movie (and there's almost no gore), but there is a lot of tension in the story that starts out as one kind of thriller before shifting gears a few times into completely different territory. At first it seems like it's going to be a more lighthearted, Christmas-themed version of a home invasion horror movie like The Strangers. Teen Ashley (Olivia DeJonge) is babysitting 12-year-old Luke (Levi Miller) on some night close to Christmas (it's not clear when exactly), and while she's distracted by her impending move out of town and her bickering with her boyfriend, Luke and his dorky best friend Garrett (Ed Oxenbould) appear to be hatching a plan to fake a robbery so that they can scare Ashley into Luke's arms (or something like that).

When the standard "something's in the house" action starts (doors mysteriously slamming and/or left open, shadowy figures outside, phone lines cut, etc.), it looks like the movie is hinting that the pair's plan has gone awry, and some actual killer has shown up to terrorize the poor kids. But after about 20 minutes of familiar (if effective) running and hiding around the house, Peckover switches gears: Ashley discovers the ruse, calls out Luke and Garrett for tricking her and threatens to get them in trouble, and then Luke turns complete psychopath, kidnapping Ashley for real and committing increasingly violent, unhinged acts while Garrett alternately protests and cheers him on.

There are other twists along the way, but the movie's main surprising development is that the seemingly sweet but misguided Luke is a full-on cold-blooded killer, and Miller is excellent at playing his sadistic acts in the same soft-spoken, nice-kid manner as the earlier more innocuous scenes. As many have pointed out, this movie is sort of like Funny Games meets Home Alone, with its faux-polite, fresh-faced young villain combined with the Christmas setting and the improvised violence around household items (at one point Garrett even explicitly references Home Alone). Luke is so evil and so self-assured that the movie threatens to undermine audience investment by basically allowing him to get away with everything, but Ashley is a worthy adversary who never gives up and isn't just an outlet for Luke's violent and sexual impulses.

Is Peckover criticizing male entitlement and toxic masculinity, or is he sort of celebrating it? It's hard to say for sure, but I think he does a good job of putting the cherubic Luke in typical teen-comedy situations (like having to clean up the house before his parents get home) that would have the audience rooting for him, only to throw in reminders that this is actually a sick, violent predator that we have been tricked into cheering on. It's a tough line to walk, and the movie doesn't always succeed. While the performances are strong, some of the violence gets repetitive, and it takes a little too long for Ashley and Garrett to push back against Luke's dominance and intimidation. Other than an amusingly nasty bit with carolers, the Christmas setting is almost irrelevant, and the final stinger turns Luke into too much of a joke when the movie spent so much time building up how dangerous he is. Still, there's far more thought and skill demonstrated here than is typical for this genre and budget, and Peckover will certainly be a filmmaker to watch as he takes on inevitably bigger projects.

Friday, December 22, 2017

12 Horrors of Christmas: 'Mercy Christmas' (2017)

There seems to be a recent surge in Christmas-themed horror movies, perhaps because adding some holiday trappings to the typical straight-to-VOD horror production helps it stand out a bit. I saw Ryan Nelson's Mercy Christmas at the Sin City Horror Fest back in October, about a month before its VOD debut, and was pleasantly surprised at its playful sense of humor, solid acting and nasty violence, and the way all those elements worked together. It may not reach a big enough audience to become the next holiday horror favorite, but it's a worthy continuation of the tradition, and a fun movie for horror fans in general.

Director and co-writer Nelson's biggest assets are his actors, especially stars Steven Hubbell and Casey O'Keefe, as an awkward office drone and his gorgeous workplace crush, respectively, both of whom transcend their stereotypical introductions as the movie progresses. Put-upon Michael Briskett (Hubbell) loves Christmas but has no one to spend it with, and his douchebag boss saddles him with tons of extra work over the holidays. The only bright spot is that hot secretary Cindy Robillard (O'Keefe) seems to take pity on him, attending his Christmas party when no one else from the office (or anywhere else) shows up, and even inviting him to spend Christmas with her family, so he won't be alone.

Hubbell and O'Keefe have genuine chemistry as good-natured co-workers, which is why it's especially effective when it turns out that Cindy doesn't actually want to befriend the office misfit; instead she's taking him home to her secretly cannibalistic family to be part of Christmas dinner, and Michael's asshole boss is really her brother. O'Keefe does a great job of keeping Cindy consistent, with the same chipper attitude and eager helpfulness when she's bonding with Michael over Christmas traditions as when she's getting ready cook him up for dinner. And Hubbell brings an impressive amount of inner strength to the goofy Michael, who starts out as an ineffectual Christmas-loving doofus before eventually rallying his fellow captives to escape from the evil Robillard family.

Some of the scenes of squabbling (among the captives and among the Robillards, almost all of whom get character-developing subplots) get repetitive, and the final all-out battle goes on a little too long, eventually highlighting the movie's limited resources. But for the most part Nelson makes strong use of those limited resources, throwing together a sort of sunny suburban Christmas comedy version of the finale of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and finding fun ways to keep the holiday theme at the forefront. It's a promising feature debut and a solid addition to the Christmas horror canon.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

12 Horrors of Christmas: 'Saint' (2010)

In the Netherlands, the main December holiday celebration isn't Christmas, but Saint Nicholas' Eve and Saint Nicholas' Day on December 5 and 6, the name day of the historical Saint Nicholas, who is represented in Dutch culture as Sinterklaas (a figure similar to the North American Santa Claus). Like Santa Claus, Sinterklaas brings presents for good children, coming down the chimney to deliver them. He's aided by the somewhat problematic helper known as Black Peter, typically represented by white people in blackface, which has created a bit of controversy in recent years (the character started out representing a Moorish servant, but these days he's more commonly described as being blackened with soot from climbing down chimneys). Dutch filmmaker Dick Maas' horror movie Sint (marketed in English as either Saint or Saint Nick) takes all of this knowledge for granted, which makes sense for his native audience but provides a bit of a steep learning curve for foreign viewers (I got my basic info from Wikipedia, of course).

Plus, the concept of the movie is that everything people take for granted about Sinterklaas is wrong; the historical Saint Nicholas is a sham, and the real Nicholas was a rogue bishop who burned villages and murdered children. A prologue shows Nicholas and his band of marauders terrorizing a village in the 15th century, defeated when the villagers fight back and burn Nicholas' ship with him and his followers in it. But his spirit returns every time December 5 coincides with a full moon, and a second prologue set in 1968 shows the undead Sinterklaas, with his traditional golden staff and white horse, slaughtering a family and leaving the young son as the only survivor. By the time we finally get to present-day Amsterdam, there's a lot of build-up for what turns out to mostly be a mundane horror story about horny teens fending off evil.

The real main character is Frank (Egbert-Jan Weeber), a teenage doofus who's just been dumped by one hot girl after cheating on her with her best friend. He discovers the secret of Sinterklaas after his ex-girlfriend becomes one of the demon's first victims, and he's then arrested after he's found at the scene of another Sinterklaas massacre dressed up in a Sinterklaas costume on his way to a party. Frank isn't much of a protagonist, and he mainly just stumbles into the main action by virtue of being in the right/wrong place at the right/wrong time. He eventually teams up with police detective Goert Hoekstra (Bert Luppes), who survived the 1968 Sinterklaas attack as a young boy and has been obsessed with stopping Sinterklaas ever since. Goert's a typical horror-movie obsessive, complete with the crazy wall of newspaper clippings, but his big plan is pretty unremarkable, mainly involving lots of explosives.

Sinterklaas himself isn't particularly scary, although he does have a cool look with his red outfit, his giant staff (which he of course uses to stab people) and his massive horse (plus his Black Peter minions, who are definitely black from being horrifically burned). He doesn't speak, and his motives (other than wanting to kill lots of people) are not very well-defined. At one point someone remarks that Sinterklaas will only kill the naughty, but that's quickly corrected, and he doesn't seem to have any particular standard about whom he kills. There's a half-hearted subplot about a government conspiracy to cover up the existence of the evil Sinterklaas, but that's poorly developed and doesn't really fit into the main story. Some of the kills are entertainingly gruesome, and there are a few amusing bits of black humor. But the characters are dull and the plot never goes anywhere exciting after the two prologues. Goert's big plan doesn't amount to anything, and the movie ends with a lack of resolution that's meant to be unsettling but just makes the whole preceding story feel like a waste of time.