Nov 20, 2019

BRAINSCAN (1994)


You can tell just from watching Brainscan that its makers were desperate to create their own money-printing Freddy Krueger slasher villain. Considering that Brainscan ultimately comes off sillier than Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare, the nadir of that series and ultimately the end result of a softening/sillying of its lead boogeyman that eventually killed the franchise, it’s no surprise audiences weren’t eager to see Brainscan’s lead techno-monster come back for additional installments.

Besides, it’s difficult to generate any real fear when your villain, called Trickster, resembles the lead singer of ‘80s Eurodisco band Silent Circle:


The ‘90s were a ripe time for film exploring mega-overblown concerns about computers. Just ask Brainscan lead boy Edward Furlong, who put himself on the map as the very first John Connor in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. But for every major title like that, there are dozens of B-movies that were begging audiences, “Be afraid of your personal computer!” The Ghost in the Machine explored similar tactics, as did an outlandish sequence in the otherwise sex thriller Disclosure, during which Michael Douglas, while VR-ing into a private network, is pursued by a Michael Myers-like 2D avatar of Demi Moore. Then there was Hackers, The Lawnmower Man, Johnny Mnemonic, Virtuosity, and more than one episode of The X-Files. And let’s not forget The Net, which, to its credit, started out as unbelievable tripe but eventually became sadly prophetic in our new age of rampant identity theft.

Brainscan stands head and shoulders above these titles as being the absolute stupidest, but I’ll be — the filmmakers seem to be taking this concept seriously. I don’t know what’s stranger: that a humanoid manifestation of a murderous video game begins stalking an underage boy while simultaneously eating all his bananas, or that Frank Langella is in this at all.


If Brainscan has anything going for it, besides how hilariously dated it already is, it’s the grisly violence, which can come off at-odds when juxtaposed against a silly concept (and sillier villain). I almost wish it had been a box office hit because I’m dying to know what a Brainscan 6: Virtual Mortality would look like.

If you yearn for ‘90s horror cinema, you’re weird, but you’re also in luck, because Brainscan is the most ‘90s horror title there is: the computers are just blocky enough, the soundtrack just Butthole Surfers enough, and the visual effects just terrible enough to make you stand up and scream, “the ‘90s are back! Someone get me my cordless phone!”


Nov 19, 2019

HANGMAN (2017)



From the opening moments, you can just feel that Hangman is going to suck. Before you catch a single lousy performance, or a sampling of overwrought directing, the sense of mediocrity to come is innately palpable. You could call this snap reaction either snobbish elitism, preconceived notion, or uncanny intuition. I don’t care — whatever. Regardless, it’s not going to turn Hangman into anything other than the tired, silly, and twenty-years-late ripoff of Se7en that it’s obviously vying to be.

Not a single name in the cast gives you that hope of, “Hey, this could be good!” Karl Urban’s name is not synonymous with quality. Nor is that of Brittany Snow, who Prom-Night-remaked herself into the mainstream before ending up in almost exclusively quiet VOD releases (unless it’s a Pitch Perfect sequel) because she’s simply not a strong performer. And then, of course, there’s Al Pacino. Ironically, he and his counterpart, Robert De Niro, have been considered kindred spirits throughout their entire time in Hollywood: the actors (both of whom appeared in The Godfather II) became linked not just because of their cultural lineage and tough mafia guy personas, but because of their brooding intensities and dedications to their craft. (That Heat came along later and brought them together yet again, resulting in simply one of the all time greats, solidified this bond between them.) But, like De Niro, Pacino has been rubber stamping everything that’s come his way.

Hangman is no exception, and it’s really odd to see Pacino slumming it in this particular flick, being that it offers zero intrigue or uniqueness; there’s no obvious draw for him, and offers him absolutely nothing new. Was it the chance to play a cop, even though he’s already played a cop seven times before? The chance to play a homicide detective who regrets his past choices while hunting a serial killer? He did that in Insomnia. Another homicide detective chasing down a gimmicky serial killer? He did that too, in 88 Minutes. So why return to this well? The chance to, what, work with the venerable Karl Urban — the guy from Red? Or maybe he just wanted to vacation in beautiful Atlanta. No, wait — I’ve got it: it was the chance for Pacino to try on a southern accent that doesn’t sound at all convincing. And speaking of unconvincing, Pacino is flat-out bad here. Obviously, he’s made bad films in the past — name me one actor who hasn’t — but even in any of those bad films you can conjure, at least Pacino was good in them. In Hangman, he’s bad. It’s like he knew right off the bat that Hangman was doomed — in the hands of a workman director eager to show off every film school trick, and being released by a studio who needed to fill their February slot in the Redbox at the local ACME — so why bother putting in a good performance?


Hangman is every bit cop movie that you’ve come to expect. And if you’re hoping that it has that scene where a homicide detective shows up to a crime scene and asks the coroner examining the body, “Whaddya got?,” well, you’re in luck. Everything about Hangman is dull, and generic, and simply uninteresting. The only thing it tries to do that’s the least bit different is add a journalist into the mix who basically rides along with our detectives from crime scene to crime scene to obtain research and insights for an article she wants to write. And that I’ll totally buy. What I won’t buy is that this journalist follows the detectives directly into danger — into houses where suspects are hiding, where blood was spilled and where her ignorance could very well contaminate evidence, and where she actually puts herself in harm’s way to help catch a suspect. There’s nothing believable about this — and if this does actually go on in the real world of law enforcement, we have major problems.

The film only momentarily comes to life when the killer is prominently introduced in the last act (and to give Hangman credit, it at least takes another page out of Se7en and introduces a new character instead of hamfistedly and impossibly revealing the killer had been a main member of the cast). The killer, as played by the underrated Joe Anderson (The Grey), has awful motivations and his link to one of the main characters is hazy and unconvincing, but Anderson still manages to shine through all that and bring to the table something resembling an actual performance — which is more than can be said for anyone else in this garbage.

Potential viewers, you’ve seen Hangman a hundred times already — all of them, even the worst of them, much better than this. 

In fact:
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I  T    B L O W S


Nov 18, 2019

ONLY AS HEALTHY

I tried several times to call her, but after the first call, she wouldn't come to the phone any longer. 
I also sent flowers but with no luck. 
The smell of the flowers only made me sicker. 
The headaches got worse. 
I think I got stomach cancer. 
I shouldn't complain though. 
You're only as healthy, 
you're only as healthy as you feel. 
You're only as... 
healthy... 
as... 
you... 
feel.


Nov 16, 2019

THE CURSE OF DOWNERS GROVE (2015)


A high school student, clearly under the influence, climbs up a water tower.

His drunk compatriots cheer him from down below.

He begins shimmying across the very thin metal piping.

He slips. He falls. He smashes his head open on the hard ground.

Two girls step up, horrified. "It's the fucking curse!" one of them states.

Roll opening credits.

This is The Curse of Downers Grove, and it’s very stupid. (Based on a true story, which means at one point a high school senior died through his or her own idiocy.)


Chrissie (Bella Heathcote, a 28-year-old still playing a high school senior) lives in Downers Grove, a town allegedly cursed, in that seniors on the cusp of graduating seem to die awful deaths. The curse isn't just something the kids whisper about, but the parents, too, seem well aware of it, so much that it gives Chrissie's mother (Helen Slater) pause for leaving her and her little brother alone for the week. 

She does though because the plot demands it.

At the urging of Chrissie's friend, Tracy, the two attend a party in the next town over where Chrissie meets Chuck (Kevin Zeggers, who at 31 is still playing high school seniors); Chuck is bad news, since every shot has him flashing smile-glares at the camera as ominous music plays. After he sexually assaults her, Chrissie pokes him in the eye like Curly and peaces out, leaving Chuck to scream and get his ass handed to him by his father, played by a pantsless Tom Arnold. 

Conflict ensues because the plot demands it.


The film's marketing is quick to point out that The Curse of Downers Grove is co-written by American Psycho author Bret Easton Ellis, whose bland, sardonic prose ("The suburbs are the ghettoes of the meaningless)" is all over this mess, along with his unsubtle methods for dissecting and exploring sub-cultures of society. It's desperate to put the suburbs under the microscope and reveal it for all the hidden evils and depravity that allegedly thrive beneath the surface, only it fails by not exploring this concept nearly enough, except for having high school kids act like total dicks while living in suburbia.

Derick Martini's direction and the Easton Ellis-co-written script seem to be battling for the most irritating and pretentious component of the film, and both are winning. A film whose concept is built on the grounds of a mysterious curse would rather spend time with boring, unscary, teen-rape drama, or teen boys getting in fights, than dedicate its running time to anything else. Including random scenes of something foreboding, only for one character to glance at another and say "It's the curse" seems to be as far as the film is willing to go to acknowledge it's based on an idea it completely abandons beyond cursory references to it. Where it lacks in the level of class and uniqueness presented in this year's suburban-set and far superior It Follows, it makes up for with lame and pedestrian editing techniques; i.e., inverting footage of characters and adding BUZZ noise - the ultimate effect being one cheap film-school trick away from exposing everyone's skeletons via x-ray as if this were a cartoon from the 1950s. And wait a minute, you mean to say this sequence over here shows someone in black and white, but her eyes are in color? Welcome to the “Neat Effects!” section of Shutterfly's website.


But that's not all! Quick cuts of barking dogs! Tombstones! Squawking birds! War-painted stabbing Indians! "It's the curse." Do you feel the fear?

Of course not. 

Martini is more interested in stealing quick-zoom, music-driven shots from Scorsese's playbook*, or trying to sell his film as "horror" while doing his best to circumvent any of its traditions and flat-out channel the aesthetic of Larry Clark, only to fail spectacularly. Or this might be because Easton Ellis is less interested in fleshing out his satirical look at horror and more interested in delicious, delicious irony: a quarterback gets his eye popped out; a drummer gets his wrist broken. Can you see all the futures being destroyed? Can you see that everyone is cursed? Do you even care? The script attempts to flesh out its characters beyond walking horror stereotypes, but by doing so, serves only to repeat the same tired ideas and personalities seen so many times before. If Chrissie questioning the existence of a God because bad things happen (like war!) isn't tired enough, perhaps spend some time with her smart alecky younger brother (Martin Sanjers), who has a serious crush on Chrissie's BFF and thinks the best way to express his affection for her is by leering like a pervert.

Further, the avoidance of "plot holes" are dealt with in the laziest ways possible. For instance, of course Chrissie's going to the cops to report her attempted rape. But, upon telling them the name of her would-be rapist, the two duty officers exchange a look before blatantly admitting that he's the son of a fellow officer (Tom Arnold), and hence, yeah, they're not going to help her. (Tremendous poker faces you fellows have.) Now, does this cop/dad revelation figure into the plot at a later time, and to present itself in any significant way? (Spoiler: no.) The writers just needed to plug that little hole. Chuck Sr. may now get back to drinking on the couch with no pants and using way too much profanity, not in the least bit cop-like.


As for the performances, well, director Martini is too busy peppering every few scenes with AHHH! moments to wrangle any semblance of life from his cast. Every performance is mostly terrible, ranging from bland lifelessness to complete, over-the-top unconvincingness, contributed most by the gleefully stupid appearance by Tom Arnold as Chuck's father, who appears in two scenes, both during which he's abusing his son in one way or another**. Heathcote as your lead does marginally well, unless she's providing Easton Ellis' go-to voice-over - during these points, she sounds like she's about to roll over in bed and fall back asleep. One particular monologue that may be attempting to set up a red herring for "the curse" manages the impressive feat of offering lazy exposition as shamelessly forced as it is lifelessly recited: "I've been dreaming about Indians since I was a little girl. Maybe it's because our town was built on land that was stolen from the Indians in 1832. I can't help but wonder if this has something to do with the curse...but if that were case, then all of America would be cursed. Maybe we all are." Mm, maybe. As for Kevin Zeggers as Chuck, he's way evil and way unlikable! Watch as he drinks a beer and throws the bottle aside! Watch as he injects steroids into his muscles and throws the needle aside! Watch as he screams in fury as he lifts weights! Do not trust him! He's evil!

The Curse of Downers Grove really wants to posit the one and only question it thinks matters: what is the cause of the curse? Is it supernatural, or is it caused, of all things, by teenagers' freakishly uncontrollable angst-driven sexual urges? Can fate be escaped, or is it written in the stars and destined to occur?

Say, I have a question of my own: why is this being sold as a horror film instead of the tepid Lifetime Network nonsense that it actually is?

In the film's first act, Chrissie states, "Don't try to understand everything, because some things don't make sense."

If only I'd listened.



* FYI: Zooming in on Ray Liotta snorting cocaine to hard-hitting Muddy Waters > zooming in on Kevin Zeggers snorting cocaine to a song whose lyrics are "party ova here! party ova here! party ova here!"

** If there's one sole reason to ever sit through The Curse of Downers Grove, it's to see Tom Arnold's character beating the shit out of Chuck while asking him multitudes of questions as he does so, to which his son offers the most incorrect answer possible. ("What the fuck happened to your eye?"  "Nothing!" "Can you see?" No!" "Do you know what that does to your fucking football career?"  "No, I don't know!" "They don't even hire a fucking one-eyed mascot!" "I know!" "Dammit!") Then Zeggers gets thrown into a tub. It's glorious, and the anger of Tom Arnold during this sequence nearly matches my own experienced while suffering through the entire film.

Nov 14, 2019

ROAD GAMES (1981)


Director Richard Franklin was known in his native homeland of Australia as “Australia’s Hitchcock,” and that’s not because he was a filmmaker who made notable genre fare, but because, like another noted genre filmmaker, Brian De Palma, Franklin was fascinated by Hitchcock’s techniques and sensibilities and adopted them into his own work. His most direct tie to Hitchcock was his helming of Psycho 2, a belated sequel following 18 years after Hitchcock’s landmark horror shocker. A few years later, Franklin would take a script by well-known Australian screenwriter Everett de Roche (Razorback) and bring it to life as a Rear Window-meets-road-movie hybrid, imbuing it with Hitchcock’s famous themes of paranoia and isolation, along with his use of dark humor and quirky supporting characters.

Road Games gets mentioned a lot when notable 1980s horror titles are being rattled off, especially when that conversation is based around all the horror flicks Jamie Lee Curtis did in her youth to earn the moniker “Scream Queen,” but not only is she not present in a majority of the film, the horror is actually toned down quite a bit in favor of thrills, mystery, and black humor. And despite Road Games being an Australian production which happens to feature some American actors, along with being an obvious homage to Hitchcock, the film also fits right in with ’70s American cinema, unofficially known as the paranoid thriller era. Films like The Conversation, The French Connection, Marathon Man, and more were direct results of the Nixon/Watergate scandal, and the cinematic response was one that would also soon be revitalized by The X-Files, whittled down into one core lesson: trust no one. 


The reason Road Games fits in well with this movement is that for a good portion of the film, Stacy Keach’s Quid is doing nothing more than following his paranoid instincts on what he may have witnessed. It’s not a slam dunk for him from the beginning; he’s not convinced that he’s witnessed anything nefarious, or if he is convinced, he doesn’t have enough evidence to back it up. What he does figure out pretty quickly is that law officials are no help, and all the blokes and sheilas who overhear his frantic demands for help on the bar payphone are not only not overly concerned, but they look upon him with suspicion. There’s an indirect subplot involving a worker’s strike going on in Australia which has resulted in meat becoming scarce, but also leaving natives incredibly wary of people they don’t know. Obviously this doesn’t help matters — not only is Quid American, but he’s a long-haul truck who happens to have a trailer full of meat. Simply put, no one is eager to help him.

Where Road Games falters is with its pace. The first act unloads at a purposeful but ever-intriguing pace. Through Quid’s observations, we “meet” all the other characters on the road around him, and this isn’t for throwaway comedy, but because we will cross paths with these characters again later. It’s through this observational behavior (because what else is there to do on the road besides stare straight ahead and talk to a dingo?) that Quid thinks he may have witnessed a murder — or, at least, a potential murder. Quid fixates on the maybe-killer (Grant Page), who will be personified by his dirty black hippie van for most of the film. It’s when we’re approaching the middle of the second act, after Jamie Lee has hitched Quid for a ride (her nickname is “Hitch” throughout — which serves two purposes: character nickname and Hitchcock homage), where the pace starts to slow. Keach and Curtis have reasonably good on-screen chemistry, and watching them get to know each other is charming, but once Hitch mysteriously vanishes, and Quid begins to question what’s really going on is when Road Games slows to a near halt. After having built such good will with the audience, and provided them with reasons to be as intrigued with the plot as Quid is with that dirty green van, the air is let out of all the goings-on; even as Road Games struggles to get back on track, and it eventually does, too much time is spent waiting for that to happen.


Still, what allows Road Games to speed across the finish line as an overall entertaining contribution to the genre is its identity, helped by the quirky sensibilities of Richard Franklin. Had Road Games been just another slasher flick, but plagued with the same second-act slowdown, it would be just a footnote in the genre timeline. Even though Franklin’s intent was to homage one of the horror greats using an open-road concept, it’s his likeness — far less known to American audiences — that make Road Games a film that’s not willing to be outright dismissed. It’s a flawed film for sure, and some viewers might not have the patience to spend most of their time watching a man riding around in the cab of a truck, but there’s a reason why Road Games has stuck around for so long. Equal measures of mystery, thrills, intrigue, and black humor make Road Games stand out from the rest of its ’80s colleagues, even if it doesn’t play as well as some of them.

Road Games is an offbeat title and definitely not for everyone. The Hitchcock flair is certainly present, both in construction and realization, but also in its usage of black comedy. Though its considered one of the many titles that made Jamie Lee Curtis a “Scream Queen,” her appearance lasts no more than 25 minutes, leaving Keach to carry most of the screen time. (Okay, him and his dingo.) Its pace might be too glacial for some, and its odd tone may turn off those more used to traditional genre fare, but there’s something undeniably quirky about Road Games that makes it easily watchable. 


Nov 12, 2019

THE BLOB (1988)


Ah, The Blob. A film that harkens back to that magical time in horror history when films were remade because someone had a good idea and a good approach, instead of saying, "Well, it's been five years. Let's remake it again."

Long a childhood favorite of mine, for not only terrifying me to death and keeping me away from all kinds of drains for days, but also for introducing me to my first ever horror crush, Shawnee Smith, The Blob works as well now as it did then. Normally the things that would hold back a lesser picture, including the dated (but still perfectly acceptable) special effects and the hilarious fashions, The Blob has always been good enough to surpass those shortcomings caused by the passing of time and still present a fun, nasty, gooey, and ultimately harmless good time.


You all know this one: a meteor carrying a strange jell-o substance from space (or was it?) crash lands on Planet Earth and begins gooing up its inhabitants. Only one man it seems can stop them, even though dozens try. That man is the hilariously-haired Kevin Dillon and the still-adorable Shawnee Smith (call me!).

Because of the time in which it was made, The Blob relies solely on practical and in-camera effects, only resorting to opticals for a couple scenes. (They've been trying to get a new version of The Blob off the ground for years, and once it arrives, I can only imagine the absurd amount of CGI that will be sliming across silver screens everywhere.) To tell someone who's never seen it that a space-foreign (or is it???) slime begins to suck people into itself, where it strips flesh from their bones and causes the blob to increase in size and oh by the way it's actually scary at times—the end of that conversation doesn't bode well. Because of its concept, and because it’s an ‘80s flick, it’s easy to think that The Blob is a light, silly, and inconsequential good time, but it actually has a lot in common with John Carpenter’s The Thing, in that it goes for the throat in unexpected ways and highlights some pretty grisly practical effects. The Blob not only manages to work just with its concept, but in spite of it; it also has no qualms in breaking some serious horror-film taboos. It eats a kid! A kid! Take that, kid!


A wonderful cast of character actors fill the background, including a regular of Frank Darabont (co-writer on The Blob) named Jeffrey DeMunn, who appeared in both The Shawshank Redemption as the lawyer who sends Andy Dufresne to his fate, and one of the guards in The Green Mile. Oh, he also played Dale in The Walking Dead. Perhaps you've heard of it. And perhaps you knew he'd been acting for thirty years before he played a filthy man in a bucket hat for which he'll now always be known (on Twitter). (Bitter hipster fan-boy rant over.)

The Blob is a classic. It's rare to say that a remake of something is a classic, and also bests the original. But this edition of The Blob is, and has. 


[Reprinted from Daily Grindhouse.]