Sep 22, 2020

DEAD DICKS (2019)


If David Cronenberg had a sense of humor, he would’ve made something like Dead Dicks. Pushing aside, of course, the obvious connection that Dead Dicks is a Canadian genre production, I’m actually focusing more on the large, otherworldly, interdimensional vagina that’s growing out of the apartment wall modeled after the opening that protrudes from James Woods in Cronenberg’s Videodrome, but which acts like Phantasm’s space gate. In the same way that the Tall Man sees his comeuppance throughout the Phantasm series and a fresh copy of the Tall Man re-enters the world through said space gate, removes his corpse, and takes over for him from there, Richard (Heston Horwin) is caught in a never-ending cycle where he’s desperate to end his own life inside his cramped apartment, but each time he does, a fresh copy of him is borne from this giant vaginal opening in his bedroom.

Written and directed by first-time feature directors Chris Bavota and Lee Paula Springer, Dead Dicks is a wild way to break onto the scene, and that it’s being distributed by Philadelphia label Artsploitation Films is both a minor victory for the filmmakers and a way of labeling Dead Dicks as certainly outside the norm. In case you’re unfamiliar with the label (and you should really dive deep into their catalog if you are), Artsploitation Films releases uncompromising international titles that defy genre conventions and will never be caught dead screening at your local multiplex. While some of their titles veer way outside normality at the expense of the story being told, their most successful titles are those that play with strange and wild ideas while infusing their stories with real, relatable, emotional backbones that make such wild ideas wholly approachable. Germany’s Der Samurai, a previous acquisition from the label, is a perfect example of this balance (and, honestly, is a favorite of my own), and Dead Dicks eagerly follows in its footsteps. A little bit horror, science fiction, comedy, and drama, Dead Dicks is obviously hard to categorize. What it very much is, however, is about something – in this case, mental illness, depression, suicide, and how those things can affect a family that’s not prepared to deal with it. Bearing the brunt of Richie’s burden is his sister, Becca (Jillian Harris), who has spent her adult life trying to offer support to her sullen brother but feels her patience running out and wanting nothing more than to, for the first time, focus on her own life. The giant vagina and an apartment filled with copies of Richie’s dead body certainly puts the kibosh on that.

Based on the collection of genres that it bandies about, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Dead Dicks’ tone gets a little schizophrenic at times, exacerbated by inconsistencies with how “serious” the characters are taking the very surreal events of the story during certain times. Through a weakness in the writing or a strange choice to convey Becca’s initial ambivalence over Richie’s shocking reveal, it’s hard to tell, and harder still, whether or not to determine if this was intentional to maintain the film’s point about a family’s failure to notice the warning signs about suicidal behavior, but once we move beyond this initial point, the amount of seriousness over the siblings’ surreal new reality begin to take centerstage, which allows for moments of perfect humor to balance out the story’s darker themes. Indeed, unlike most genre films, Dead Dicks’ second act is the most effective in the film, allowing the audience to settle into the film’s surreal concept and also allowing them to find humor in the situation. (There’s a pretty great moment when Richie looks down at one of his own dead bodies and laughs immaturely at how it looks – you’ll have to see the film to understand why.)

Horwin and Harris are capable leads, with Horwin having to do much of the emotional work. He proves himself highly capable of carrying such heaviness in his performance even in the midst of the R-rated cartoon his life has become, while Harris struggles at times to offer a consistent performance. I wouldn’t ever describe her role as being poorly presented, but she seems more comfortable with the smaller moments than the ones dependent on dramatic bravado. (Her comedic timing, however, is perfect.) Still, being that we’re dealing with low budget filmmaking, the ensemble is up to the task in ways you might not expect from reading the plot synopsis, and that goes for every performer. In keeping with the wackiness, the last few moments of Dead Dicks are, to be honest, befuddling, and I’m not sure how the ending will land with most viewers (I’m still working it around in my head), but one thing is for sure: if the out-there breakdown of Dead Dicks’ plot appeals to the part of you that’s become bored with mainstream genre filmmaking, then you’re already the intended audience and likely more willing to put the extra work into determining what it all means. If you can and do, be sure to drop me a line and tell me because I’m still in the dark.

Dead Dicks is now on Blu-ray and DVD from Artsploitation Films.

Sep 20, 2020

HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY (1981)

Second only to Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci is likely Italy’s most infamous and highly regarded director of horror, murder, and the macabre. Though Fulci’s Don’t Torture a Duckling is considered to be the director’s masterpiece, it never achieved the same amount of adoration as Argento’s own masterpiece, Suspiria. Having said that, the bulk of each director’s filmography has very different goals. While Argento was more interested in sexualized murder-mysteries, Fulci, though his earlier work explored similar material, eventually became indebted to the “monster” sub-genre. Perhaps best known as having directed the famous unofficial Dawn of the Dead sequel Zombie, he also helmed what’s known as the unofficial “Gates of Hell” trilogy. Not quite zombie movies, City of the Living Dead aka The Gates of Hell (1980), The Beyond (1981), and House by the Cemetery (1981) tread familiar ground about a remote or infamous location concealing a literal doorway to hell that becomes inadvertently open, unleashing sentries of the dead to kill in extremely gruesome ways. This theme and the presence of lead Catriona MacColl in all three entries are the sole ties that bind them together, along with Fulci’s unrelenting dedication to executing the goriest and most surreal deaths you’re likely to see in Italian horror.

As usual with “trilogies,” every fan has his or her own favorite (I’ve always been partial to City of the Living Dead, even with its hilariously nonsensical and unfinished ending), so I honestly don’t know where House by the Cemetery lands with fans. I do know that it’s among the director’s most unintentionally amusing, mostly thanks to the character of Bob (Giovanni Frezza), an unnaturally cherubic looking young child dubbed in post-production by what sounds suspiciously like a grown woman putting on a “kid’s” voice. A line of dialogue as simple as “My name is Bob” shouldn’t be as funny as it is, but it’s part and parcel with how charmingly clumsy all of House by the Cemetery is. Each film in the trilogy isn’t known for its concrete and fluid storytelling (The Beyond is downright befuddling), and House by the Cemetery continues the trend by presenting a story that somehow feels both incomplete and overstuffed, seemingly propelled by the movie operating by its own rules. Zombies, ghosts, potential and otherworldly co-conspirators – Fulci is ready and willing to throw them all against the wall to see what sticks – if it does: great, and if it doesn’t: whatever. This is and always has been the Italian way: directors feeling more indebted to atmosphere and style than presenting an air-tight story with every t crossed and i dotted; so long as there is forward momentum that eventually leads the audience to the conclusion, even if they stumble through the dark for most of their journey, then that’s good enough.

As far as generating genuine terror, there are moments that work as intended, and sometimes, it would seem, in spite of the flick’s clumsiness. None of it ever makes much sense, like young Mae (Silvia Collatina) hallucinating walking nightmares of headless, bloody mannequins or the extended bat attack that goes on forever. When Bob has his final-act encounter with the walking terror that haunts his new country house, the sequence goes on for so long that the action turns from suspense to tedium before turning back to suspense again, and it’s because Fulci reinvents the sequence with added horrific imagery during a chase scene that is already horrific enough. (I’m just speculating, but this sequence seems to have informed how James Wan directed one of the creepier scenes in The Conjuring, featuring Vera Farmiga’s Lorraine Warren cowering from a hanging specter in a farmhouse cellar.) Also helping the scary agenda: Italian horror has never shied away from not just gore, but from committing on-screen taboos. Children aren’t safe from their film’s respective boogeyman threats, and neither are the lead characters whom we are brainwashed to believe that just because their names are first in the opening credits that they’ll walk away terrified but relatively unscathed. Anyone can bite it at any time, and when it comes to Fulci, everyone normally does.

Italian films, especially horror films, have their own look, feel, and complete disregard for a cogent story. Because of this, the style is upped significantly to at-times overbearing degrees. Characters rattle off more extraneous dialogue than is necessary; the camerawork, though fluid and beautiful even when capturing moments of the grotesque, can sometimes come off as excessive. Take that, add in all the aforementioned gore, and there you go: Italian horror. There’s nothing like it, and that’s both good and bad. House by the Cemetery, for better or worse, is the prime example of that.

House by the Cemetery is now available in beautiful 4K UHD and 3-Disc Blu-ray editions.

[Reprinted from Daily Grindhouse.]

Sep 18, 2020

Z (2019)

[Contains minor spoilers.]

When I was a kid, I had an imaginary friend named Mr. Suit. I called him that because of the old looking clothes that hung from his tall and lanky body, completed by a matching bowler hat and a beard so thick that Grizzly Adams would’ve felt genetically deficient. I never told my parents about Mr. Suit, and I made sure never to “play” with or talk to him when they were around, because, by that time, I was already feeling a little ostracized by the other kids at school and I didn’t want to engage in any further behavior that might seem weird. You see, I somehow knew Mr. Suit was imaginary, and no one else could see or hear him, so why complicate my life even more? Still, he was my only friend, so I almost always did the things he’d tell me to – most of which were pranks, and fairly harmless. He used to make me pinch clothespins around the tail of a neighborhood cat that often wandered my small town’s backyards looking for food, or he told me to dig up large shrubs from the neighbor’s garden and plop them down in the middle of the busy road so cars would come along and plow into them in the dark. One night, very late, Mr. Suit told me to go stand next to my mother and stare at her as she slept; eventually, he said, I’d know what to do, because he would guide me. I did what he said, but after a while, no epiphany came, so I merely stood at her bedside and stared at her in the dark until she’d woken up on her own and, upon seeing me, let out a half scream of surprise. This was the most dramatic show of influence Mr. Suit ever perpetrated over me, and as time went by, he visited less and less until he never came again; I assumed he’d dismissed me as a disappointing protégé and moved onto a more promising kid. For a long time after, I questioned what Mr. Suit wanted from me until the day came when I finally understood that I was Mr. Suit, and I was the one telling myself to do these things. I wrote it off as childhood nonsense and eventually forgot about the whole thing. A few years ago, I was reading online about area serial killers and that was when I first learned about H.H. Holmes, known, infamously, as the first serial killer discovered in the United States and subject of the non-fiction book The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America (the adaption of which is allegedly coming from Leonardo DiCaprio’s Appian Way production company and possibly director Martin Scorsese). Upon seeing the last photograph taken of this murderer of 27 people before he was hung in 1896 in Philadelphia, roughly fifteen minutes away from my childhood home, I would’ve told you, without a moment’s hesitation, that this H.H. Holmes had been my childhood friend, only his name back then was Mr. Suit, and he’d slept standing up behind the curtains in my room at night while softly laughing at the funny dreams I assumed he was having, or maybe at all the weird, dangerous things he was conjuring in his imagination for me to do.

I’m obviously kidding. My point is: imaginary friends are creepy, aren’t they? And in horror, they are typically one of two things: the devilish, dangerous side of a child’s personality, or a walking entity masquerading as childhood fancy. The imaginary friend is an under-explored concept in horror, generally utilized in haunted house movies (The Conjuring, The Grudge) where it ceases being referred to as such after the first act, because by then it’s revealed that said imaginary friend is actually a trapped spirit or something much worse. Rarely does the imaginary friend concept stick around for the duration; the closest exception I can drop is, hilariously, Drop Dead Fred.

And that’s what makes co-writer/director Brandon Christensen’s Z so refreshing. Elizabeth (Keegan Connor Tracy) is one of many parents in the world who accepts the fact that her son, Josh (Jett Klyne), has an imaginary friend, this one named “Z.” Over time, however, Elizabeth begins to realize that “Z” has an unhealthy hold over her son, and may be persuading him into doing increasingly dangerous things. “Z,” also, becomes much more than imaginary, in that she begins to see him in the flesh, and with everyone else in her life, including Josh’s father, Kevin (Sean Rogerson), not experiencing the same things she is, her battle against “Z” soon becomes one she has to fight on her own.

Z seems to have picked the bones of the last ten years of supernatural fright flicks, including Lights Out, Sinister, and especially Insidious, but that’s not necessarily a complaint. The horror genre has always been cannibalistic, perpetuating itself by living off previously explored ideas. Ironically, even Insidious is a perfect example, in that it’s story of ghostly events leading a scared family to obtain the services of mystics and paranormal investigators has been lovingly borrowed from Poltergeist. On the surface level, Z is familiar territory – the peculiarly acting child and his creepy drawings, the lone parent who begins to question her sanity – but as Z plays on, it begins to forge its own identity. There’s a genuine attempt at establishing histories for our characters, which not only help us to sympathize with them, but which also provide just enough personal trauma to make us wonder if the creepy goings-on are actually the result of our lead character’s psychological break with reality instead of a surface-level supernatural infestation. 

The titular boogeyman is only spotted a handful of times, and only for a few frames. All told, “Z” appears on screen for less than three seconds across its entire running time, but what you see is genuinely unnerving. The golden rule in the haunted house sub-genre is the more you see the specter, the less effective it becomes. In that regard, Z presents its creepy figure in just the right way. (Resist all temptation to press pause on the figure, believe me.)

As a horror fan, I’m glad to see Keegan Connor Tracy enjoy a lead role, as she’s been a constant part of the genre since the 2000s, with turns in White Noise, the loony Final Destination 2, Bates Motel, and a handful of appearances on the CW’s never-ending Supernatural. (Amusingly, she was also in the direct-to-video sequel The Net 2.0, where she played a character named Z.Z.) As such, she’s well practiced as someone playing against a horrifying threat, which makes her turn as a beleaguered mother an easy and effective sell. Though she plays a familiar archetype, Z imbues Elizabeth with a history that moves the story into a more mythical and emotional direction, and thankfully, she doesn’t just play “the mother” or “the wife” – a bystander observing the action and offering a zero-hour nugget of advice that guides the hero to victory. She’s the hero, or at least she’s the only one who can vie for that role because she’s the only one who can, and when she descends into pure mania before film’s end, Tracy throws everything she has into the role with impressive dedication. That she spends the first act of the flick caring for a terminally ill mother alongside her sister, Jenna (Sara Canning), helps to both ground the movie’s wackier events and add an additional twist on the concept. In genre films, someone always dies, but in Z, someone is already in the process of dying, which helps it to feel different and poignant while basking in the cemetery of other films that came before it.

If you don’t expect a reinvention of the wheel, then give Z a fair chance. Though it makes a few of the same mistakes that its brethren often do, depending on visual effects it can’t quite afford, and with an ambiguous ending that borders on mean-spirited, Z still manages to offer a fair amount of creepy imagery, dense atmosphere, and a fresh twist on an old concept. 

[Reprinted from Daily Grindhouse.]

Sep 16, 2020

CASTLE ROCK: SEASON TWO (2019)


[Contains spoilers for both seasons of Castle Rock.]

If anyone deserves the shared-universe approach to a large, accumulated body of work, it’s Stephen King. The author of over ninety novels and who-knows-how-many short stories and novellas has spent the last forty years creating a rich and intricate history with his many characters doing ghastly things in the fictitious town of Castle Rock. His most well-known Castle Rock-set stories include the mammoth Needful Things, his early effort The Dead Zone, and his novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, which inspired you know what.

The first season of Hulu’s Castle Rock successfully fulfilled its mission statement as being a brand new story set in the world of Stephen King’s creations, borrowing characters (or relations of characters) and giving them new conflicts to contend with. Certainly not hurting is the casting of at least one prominent actor from a previously heralded King adaption, with Carrie’s Sissy Spacek fulfilling that role, and which resulted in one of the best episodes of any television show ever (that would be “The Queen”). Overall, the first season of Castle Rock was a well-made, unusual, ambiguous, and creepy new yarn that somehow managed to capture those Stephen King vibes without the author serving as an active part of the show, as it contained the usual Kingisms we’ve come to except from our favorite master of the morbid: the strained father/son relationship, the conspiratorial town, the secret that soon becomes public and threatens to destroy everything in its path, and, of course, the horror. It was also filled with a bevy of easter eggs – not just as they pertained to the story it was telling, but as fun quick glimpses in the background, designed for the most ardent and eagle-eyed King fan. (If the shady man-and-boy duo of Odin (Charles Jones) and Willie (Rory Culkin) weren’t meant to channel Dick Halloran and Danny Torrance from The Shining, I’ll surrender my geek card right now.)


Whereas the first season of Castle Rock relied on the mystical and the mysterious, season two backs away from that approach, vying to tell a more easily digestible story, even if its elements border on the absurd and the silly. Season two embraces the more supernatural aspects of King’s work, setting the bulk of the action in Jerusalem’s Lot. King’s Salem’s Lot, one of his earliest works (and my personal favorite of the author), as you might well remember, was about a small New England town being slowly overtaken by a vampire disease, started by the arrival of the unseen Kurt Barlow and his human familiar, Richard Straker (played by James Mason in Tobe Hooper's 1979 miniseries adaptation).

Season two jettisons the novel's vampire threat, replacing it with a similar kind of monstrosity that acts in much the same way: an awakened evil takes refuge in the long-abandoned Marsten house and begins to “turn” members of the town one by one, an effort led by the recently possessed Ace Merrill (Paul Sparks, House of Cards), a character who previously appeared in the Castle Rock short story “The Body,” which was adapted into Stand By Me and featured Kiefer Sutherland as the switchblade-twirling character. Meanwhile, unknowingly driving head-on into the conflict is Annie Ingalls (Lizzy Caplan, Cloverfield), real name Annie Wilkes, a nurse on the run alongside her teen daughter, Joy (Elsie Fisher, The Addams Family). A freak accident strands them in the town of Jerusalem’s Lot, where they end up in the dangerous cross-hairs of Ace Merrill, nephew of “Pop” Merrill (Tim Robbins, returning to the land of King following The Shawshank Redemption), seemingly the town’s Irish godfather. A confrontation between Annie and Ace leaves the latter dead, and Annie, who is on the run and can’t simply call the police, instead dumps his body beneath a local construction site, unwittingly awakening a dangerous and dormant evil that begins to transform the town.


The second season of Castle Rock experiences moments of greatness, almost entirely relegated to Annie Wilkes’ subplot, especially when it goes back in time to her childhood to shine a light on her neuroses. Normally, we like our “horror” villains free of such backstories, as we prefer the mystery to speak for itself and our imaginations to fill in the gaps of what happened to make a person so monstrous. However, the writers have provided a very rich, poignant, and emotional trip into the past, dedicating more than an episode’s worth of running time to exploring Annie’s origins, presenting her as a troubled student with a learning disability, leaving her a pariah at school and forcing her to be home-schooled by her father. The dynamic between her parents, Carl (John Hoogenakker, Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan) and Chrysida (Robin Weigert, Deadwood), begins with tension and soon gives way to an unhealthy power struggle, putting further strain on an already emotionally unwell Annie. All of these bits are where season two resonate the strongest and exercise the firmest grasp of the story, and it doesn’t hurt that every actress who brings Annie to life is exemplary (Ruby Cruz as the teenager; Madison Johnson as the grade-schooler), with the top honor going to Lizzy Caplan. Normally, unless we’re dealing with the portrayal of a real person, I’m not a fan of mimicry in performance, as it can be distracting and come dangerously close to spoof, but Caplan’s take not just on Annie Wilkes, but Annie Wilkes as previously and infamously played by Kathy Bates (which netted her an Academy Award), is eerily good. She's nailed the mannerisms, the aw-shucks voice and frumpy wardrobe, and most importantly, the ability to go completely blank behind her eyes during her most extreme moments, losing herself in pure unhinged mania.

What’s interesting about this iteration of Annie Wilkes is, unlike Misery, where she imprisons a crippled man and inflicts all kinds of tortures upon him, Castle Rock turns her into the hero – but one that lacks the straightforward, one-dimensional characterization where she’s always a good person who does the right thing. Annie, actually, seldom does the right thing, falling back on lying, fraud, theft, and even murder to keep from being found out, but everything she does is in servitude toward protecting her daughter from the dangerous person or people she’s convinced are in pursuit of them. (And seeing her wield a sledgehammer again, this time to kill a bad guy, overcomes how obvious an idea it is and still manages to be strangely satisfying.)


The problem with season two is that it’s overstuffed with too many subplots, and eventually, Annie and her daughter soon become bit players in the season’s main conflict – that of the supernatural threat invading the town. Also vying for space is “Pop” Merril’s own conflicts having to do with his two adopted Somalian children, now adults: Nadia (Yusra Warsama, The Last Days on Mars) and Abdi (Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips), a doctor and a construction developer, respectively. Normally, one can overcome a chaotic season with confident and complex writing, ensuring that all subplots eventually connect and never feel forced or extraneous, but season two isn’t up to the task. There are way too many instances of coincidence, convenient timing, extreme abuses of the expression “suspension of disbelief,” and just-go-with-it moments required to drive the story forward, and while a few of these could be forgivable, there are unfortunately many more than a few. To its credit, Castle Rock has a few surprises in store that ferment the conflict and provide additional pathos for some of its characters, one of which directly ties it back to season one (which remains a point of contention, as every season was supposed to be its own unique story); however, to its discredit, every major twist is easily predictable, and though, on the surface they help to enhance the story, it does leave the ultimate impression that season two has very few tricks up its sleeve.

Much like the novel Misery and its film adaption of the same name, season two could’ve easily presented a story that skirted supernatural elements while still being horrific – one fully focused on the story of Annie Wilkes, her daughter, their complicated past, and the possible future that lay ahead for them. To be fair, Castle Rock’s goal from the beginning was to take a “what if?” fan-fiction approach to Stephen King’s universe and put certain elements on a chess board to see how things could play out, and that’s where the series has been the most successful. It is odd, however, to see a character from one of King’s more grounded novels appearing in a new story that’s outright supernatural, as it somewhat cheapens the emotional and mental journey of the Annie character and serves as more of a distraction to the path she has to eventually take, which is the one that, in the end, feels more profound.


In spite of season two’s stumble, I am eager to see what the as-of-yet unannounced season three will bring to the table (and which prominent actor from a previous King adaptation will appear – fingers crossed for Kathy Bates or Christopher Walken). There are a wealth of characters and concepts in King’s body of work to borrow (and in spite of the series’ name, being that Misery took place in Colorado, everything he’s written is up for grabs), so in a way, as long as this series keeps getting the greenlight, Castle Rock has barely scratched the surface of the stories it can tell.

Sep 14, 2020

DILLINGER (1973)


In 2009, Michael Mann had hoped to tell the definitive story of the most famous bank robber ever—Public Enemies. With Johnny Depp as the John Dillinger, Marion Cotillard as his love, and Christian Bale as “G-Man” Melvin Purvis, the potential was there for not just another solid crime thriller from the director of Heat and Collateral, but for a new classic to stand alongside the great period crime films like The UntouchablesRoad To Perdition, and more. Unfortunately, Public Enemies proved to be, er...the nice way of putting it would be an underwhelming disappointment, when taking into account the pedigree involved in bringing it to the screen.  It’s hard to gauge how much of Public Enemies’ audience was aware that the story of the John Dillinger Gang had already been told nearly forty years prior, written and directed by John Millius. It’s also hard to gauge how many people realize just how much better Dillinger is. The film opens with a sequence which sees this version of John Dillinger, played by Warren Oates, ordering a bank teller to make with the cash, even though he’s at this moment breaking the fourth wall and directly addressing the audience. “Nobody get nervous, you ain’t got nothing to fear,” he tells us. “You’re being robbed by the John Dillinger Gang—the best there is!” This opening scene alone is better than the best parts of Public Enemies.

Back-to-back viewings of Dillinger and Public Enemies will tell a pretty similar story, though in different ways, and utilizing a different timeline of events. Like Public Enemies, however, Dillinger presents its title “character” as a charming, lively, no-nonsense bank robber more interested in stealing from the federal government than from the pockets of the individual. Oates’ take on Dillinger might be a bit more true to life, presenting him as someone who takes what he wants—including women—by force. The start of the union between himself and Billie Frechette (Michelle Phillips) ain’t exactly romantic, as it’s more akin to a kidnapping, and the black eye she later sports is dismissed as a “marital disagreement,” The usual suspects are there: Homer Van Meter (Harry Dean Stanton), Harry Pierpont (Geoffrey Lewis), Pretty Boy Floyd (Steve Kanaly), Baby Face Nelson (an irascible Richard Dreyfuss), with Melvin Purvis (Ben Johnson) pursuing them all.


Dillinger unfolds in a docudrama fashion similar to Roger Corman’s period Chicago gangster flick The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, relying on voice-over to provide fact-based narration that propels the narrative forward (supplied by Johnson’s Purvis). Being that more time is spent with the gang than with the FBI agents hunting them down (very little time is spent on investigatory techniques; mostly these confrontational scenes begin with the agents already at the scene), it’s easy to determine that Millius was infatuated with these criminals and less so with “the law.” 

Ben Johnson offers a gruff performance as Purvis—one punctuated with glee each time he takes the life of a criminal and lights a cigar in celebration. In fact, one of his final scenes has him promising the woman who ultimately gives up Dillinger's location that “no harm” will come to him, with Pruvis stating he wants to take him in peacefully. Whether this is something the real Purvis had promised and subsequently defaulted on, or was a cinematic creation to heighten Millius’ seeming skewering of the FBI of that time period, that moment pushes Johnson’s Purvis from a relentless law agent to an Ahab-like figure pursuing a personal vendetta. (Historically, Purvis does not fire the fatal shot.) (Also, interesting, two historical accounts slightly differ in Dillinger’s final moments—some claim he realized the agents were there and attempted to pull a gun from his coat pocket; another claims he did successfully retrieve his gun and ran into a dark alley, intent on shooting his way out of the situation. Both Dillinger and Public Enemies have him being shot down in the street with no attempts to take him alive. This, likely, leans closer to history than what “history” claims.)


Dillinger’s post-Little Bohemia shootout finale takes a bit more time to draw to a conclusion, as we see each of the Dillinger Gang’s surviving members disperse and attempt to elude authorities, and it slows the film’s pace somewhat, but the before mentioned theater assassination punctuates the film and allows it to end on a somewhat somber (and violent) note. (The whole film, in fact, boasts much more violence than Public Enemies—with no cheap CGI blood to offend the eye.)

The John Dillinger Gang story has been told numerous times already, and it’s safe to assume Public Enemies won’t be the final word on the subject, all the Depps and Bales notwithstanding. Dillinger, however and so far, is the best attempt. Historical inaccuracies and somewhat broad character archetypes aside, it’s a captivating, violent, well-made, and mostly accurate account on the John Dillinger Gang—the best there is.


Sep 12, 2020

AMERICAN RICKSHAW (1989)


During the finale of American Rickshaw, which takes place in a television studio, a producer in the control room looks out on the events unfolding on the stage – where Donald Pleasence’s Reverend Mortom is snorting uncontrollably like a pig and the stage’s television screens at his back are showing a hijacked transmission of a youthful Chinese woman gleefully taking it all in – and then looks to his team in pure dismay as he demands, “Will somebody tell me what’s going on?”

That right there sums up the experience of watching American Rickshaw.

Released in 1989, and also known as American Tiger (a title that makes a bit more sense), American Rickshaw was directed by cult Italian director Sergio Martino, who, among many other films, had made the classic gialli All The Colors Of The Dark and The Strange Vice Of Mrs. Wardh. Following the announcement of American Rickshaw making its Blu-ray debut some time ago, I was aware of this. I recognized the name and thought, in my unending quest to see every Italian curiosity, “Well now I have to see this.” 


Over the following months, however, I’d forgotten about Martino’s connection, and when my screener of American Rickshaw arrived, I’d tentatively given the disc a spin, assuming it was a random title made by a random American director with no real recognition. When the credits rolled, I switched to the special features and saw the name of Sergio Martino, and that rediscovered revelation made what I had just watched even stranger.

There’s one word to describe American Rickshaw, and it’s this: baffling. From the opening moments where an elderly Chinese woman (Michi Kobi) rests on a bench in the thick of a rainstorm, and random American rickshaw driver (Mitch Gaylord) stops to pick her up, and as she stares at him with a smile reserved only for lovers, you are already baffled. Who is this woman? Does she know this young man? Does he know her? Fucking rickshaws in Miami?

And you’re off and running, and not even five minutes in!


American Rickshaw is a complete and total mystery – not just from understanding the movie’s living-thing plot, but also trying to figure out how the hell this thing got made in the first place. Because of its try-anything kitchen-sink approach, American Rickshaw seems like ideal double-feature fodder alongside John Carpenter’s Big Trouble In Little China – not just because of the superficial Chinese connection, or that it’s a weird, weird twist on the Indiana Jones format, but because it’s a mishmash of half-a-dozen different genres with none of them taking centerstage and allowing a viewer to say, “Oh, well, it’s primarily X.” American Rickshaw has it all: horror, mystical fantasy, intrigue, action, noir, and lastly, unlike Big Trouble In Little China, not a single goddamn joke. And unlike Big Trouble In Little China, where you at least had recognizable faces like Kurt Russell, Kim Cattrall, and James Hong taking you by the hand and leading you down into the depths of a studio release, the only person you’ve ever heard of in American Rickshaw is, ironically, another Carpenter connection, Donald Pleasence…but, if you’ve seen a good portion of his output from the mid-‘80s and up until his death in 1995, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re safe. 

At this point in his career, even though the Halloween series was proving to be his mainstream bread and butter, Pleasence said yes to everything that came his way. In American Rickshaw, he plays another Sam – this one a television evangelist doing his usual amount of spitting, proselytizing, and money grubbing. It somewhat recalls his role as The President in Escape From New York, only this time Pleasence really goes for it, embracing the curiosities of playing a villainous caricature falsely championing the word of God to enhance his personal worth. He relishes in playing a scumbag, and he’s very good.


Native Italian productions have their own feel, but so do Italian productions that are filmed in America using American crews. The aloofness and clumsiness of the Italian sensibility is still present, only it’s been filtered through the American aesthetic, presenting the final product as glossy, bright, and very Hollywoody. Umberto Lenzi’s Welcome To Spring Break aka Nightmare Beach, a slasher also set and filmed in Florida, is a perfect example. Italian films play by their own rules, the biggest being: it doesn’t matter if the story is illogical. The story might not even make sense to the filmmakers, and as Dario Argento himself has said in the past, it’s less about the story making sense and more about your immersion in the story itself, and the collection of scenes and images that connect them all together. There’s a beginning, a middle, and an end; there’s a hero, a villain, and a conflict; there’s danger, terror, violence, and sexytime. To quote Pleasence’s Dr. Sam Loomis, what more do you need?

American Rickshaw and Luciano Onetti’s Abrakadabra, the third in a kinda-trilogy of very stylish and faithfully rendered giallomages that began with Sonno Profondo and Francesca, are the debut releases from Cauldron Films. They are a good sign of things to come from the label; I know for sure I’m eager to see what comes next.


American Rickshaw and Abrakadabra are now available through Diabolik DVD.

Sep 10, 2020

VHYES (2019)



I tend to avoid falling victim to trends – not because I’m the rebellious hipster type, but because I genuinely don’t understand most of them and feel like even more of an outlier because of it. (I still don’t know what fidget spinners are and I never want to.) But this rebirth of fondness for the VHS movement and everything that comes from that beautiful ‘80s time period? Yes. It’s mine, and I want it. I want the big hair and the scrolling VHS lines and the keyboard synth and all the dumb real-world-blindness that came from kids piling into jeeps for trips to the beach or bowling alley instead of staring at the constant barrage of bad news on their phones and growing more and more despondent because of it.

This fondness for everything ‘80s began rolling in during the early 2000s with filmmakers designing throwback horror films to honor that long-lost decade of Giorgio Moroder, cocaine, and the Paramount era of Friday the 13th. Whether it was a fondness for a bygone era, or a necessary escape to a less traumatic time, who knows, but we’ve been going back in time more and more as the years bleed into each other, and that suits me just fine, being that, in case you haven’t noticed, 2020 and the several years before that have really, really sucked.


Most of this time traveling seems to have revolved around the horror genre in one way or another, be it low-budget indie films (House of the Devil, It Follows), mainstream Netflix content (Stranger Things), or the music scene, which has seen the post-Daft Punk explosion of dark-dwelling synthwave artists like Carpenter Brut, Perturbator, and Dance of the Dead. VHYes, written and directed by Jack Henry Robbins (the offspring of Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon, who both cameo in extremely odd but hilarious ways), seems to know this. Even though VHYes is a comedy for most of its running time, there are constant bases being touched in the horror world, be it the science-fiction (and chastely presented) porn parody about three Swedish lesbian aliens, or the true-crime tale of the Witches Coven, which ended with a sorority house burning down following a mysterious event. Also, given VHYes’s presentation as a VHS tape of random television bits and camcorder hijinks being accidentally recorded over a young boy’s parents’ wedding tape, there is a “found footage” element that comes into play – subtly at first, and then much more prominently towards the conclusion of the film, at which point VHYes becomes less of an amusing, quirky, and lighthearted comedy and more of an abstract, nightmarish, and even horrific descent into pure terror and purer heartache.

VHYes, in case you weren’t able to pick up on this, isn’t presented as a straightforward narrative, but that’s not to say there isn’t a forward-moving narrative that connects all the different skits in a meaningful way. (Said skits feature the likes of Thomas Lennon, Mark Proksch, an absolutely scene-stealing Kerri Kenney, and many more.) You’re not hit over the head with this narrative either, and that’s VHYes’s biggest accomplishment, at least from the point of view of someone who absolutely detests being spoon-fed lazy exposition by films that assume its own audience is too stupid to follow along. If your audience is perceptive enough and wants to do the work to piece it together, VHYes offers you just enough to give you a glimpse of what life and domesticity look like when people think no one is looking. 


If you want to get really analytical, VHYes plays out almost like a commentary on social media – a skewering of the feelings of inadequacy you feel when so many of your e-friends are purporting to lead these lives where they’re sky-diving in Hawaii and riding camels in Morocco and all the other bullshit things they’re lying about. Like social media, the characters in VHYes act a certain way when the camera is on them, but when they think it’s not, they’re lost in moments of self-reflection and existential helplessness. In the modern age, we post funny videos and memes and jokes on our social media accounts in an effort to present the illusion that everything is fine, but meanwhile, on our end of the screen that no one sees but us, we’re sobbing. In VHYes, a quick scene of a woman sitting at a breakfast nook by herself and sipping coffee while lost in some dreadful thought conveys more meaning and honesty than when that same woman is capering and grinning after she sees the little red light glowing near the camera lens. We live two lives, VHYes is saying – the one we want people to see, and the truth.

With VHSYES, your mileage with vary, as they say on Internet. For this reviewer, I laughed from beginning to end – and when I wasn’t laughing, it’s because I was lost down the unexpected rabbit hole of adolescent pain, confusion, and sometimes pure terror. Just as the film intended.


VHYes is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Oscilloscope. I cannot recommend it enough.

Sep 8, 2020

SOME SORT OF ANIMAL: ‘THE HILLS HAVE EYES’ (1977)


In the horror film documentary The American Nightmare, Wes Craven talked about what it was like being in the presence of a “dangerous filmmaker.” What that meant was to be watching a film, directed by said filmmaker, that was willing to do anything — include any taboo — to unsettle the audience. In context, Craven was talking about his colleague Tobe Hooper and his Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but he easily could have been talking about himself. Hitting the ground running as a soon-to-be-legendary horror director with his first film, The Last House on the Left still remains the most controversial title in his career — one that features an extended rape sequence of a young girl, and which leads her parents to take bloody revenge. Craven followed up five years later (but in between, directed a softcore porn film about incest under the pseudonym Abe Snakes) with The Hills Have Eyes, semi-based on a true story, and which reined in (slightly) the disturbing shocks of The Last House on the Left while exploring similar territory: how do the civilized react when facing an uncivilized threat?

Based on the infamous Sawney Bean clan — a cannibalistic family who lived in a cave in the dusty west and who preyed on weary travelers before they were caught and tortured to death “for justice,” The Hills Have Eyes follows that concept beat-for-beat. A family on vacation takes a shortcut (no!) through abandoned desert land previously used by the government for atomic bomb testing and run afoul of cannibal mutants who like to eat people. And, like the history that inspired it, The Hills Have Eyes asks: at what point do the “good” people, forced to do what they think is right, become just as vicious as those victimizing them?


Hearing Craven speak of dangerous filmmakers conjures images of his first two films; and when it comes to The Hills Have Eyes, following the cannibal clan’s first attack on the sitting-duck family, during which one of their members is raped, and her baby taken, you realize that Craven is one of those dangerous filmmakers about which he muses. At that moment, the audience are terrified to see what becomes of the stolen child. Based on what they have seen up to this point, they throw in the towel and readily believe they are in the presence of a filmmaker who will do anything to shock them. The baby, in a real or unrealized way, becomes the focal point that binds the two families together — the only “innocent” one among them, both families are willing to do anything to possess her, and both for very different reasons.

Compared to The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes is more polished, and seems intent on telling a more accessible story. (I said “compared to,” mind you.) Having said that, The Hills Have Eyes is still an ugly film — one that’s willing to strive for certain “dangerous” goals, and show you a group of people who are willing to do anything to survive, including a heartbreaking scene where they’re forced to use one of their departed family members as bait for the cannibal family clan hunting them.


But Craven also wants you to consider the source of evil, and The Hills Have Eyes asks the question in reverse. A good family turns to evil to fight off their attackers; the attackers are forced to evil once their land becomes contaminated by government testing; and being that this was a late ’70s film, the recently ended Vietnam War was still weighing heavily on everyone’s minds — including filmmakers — so at what point does the government become evil while committing it in the name of good? The Hills Have Eyes suggests that the creation of evil is on an endless loop: what is evil will corrupt that which is good, and that former good will go on to corrupt, etc., until nothing good is left.

The Hills Have Eyes bares every bit of its limited budget, from its single shooting location, to its not-so-seasoned actors (including an early on-screen appearance from the most famous mom in cinema history, Dee Wallace of E.T., Cujo, and The Howling), to its filmmaker still honing his skills with the written word and behind the camera. The Hills Have Eyes may ride on a simple concept, but it asks a complicated question — one that filmmakers have been trying to answer since it was unleashed upon audiences forty years ago.

The Hills Have Eyes would go on to accumulate one sequel (which is infamously bad — I’ve somehow never managed to see it, despite it featuring a flashback experienced by a dog) and one very credible, if not superior, Craven-produced remake (which would inspire its own terrible sequel written by Craven and his son), along with a metric ton of rip-offs. Despite the series’ collection of strongpoints or shortcomings, none of them contained that element of danger of which Craven originally spoke. In that regard, The Hills Have Eyes has taken to the desert utterly alone.


[Reprinted from Daily Grindhouse.]

Sep 6, 2020

FORCE OF NATURE (2020)



By now, whether we want to know or not, it’s become depressingly clear the industry that produces the movies we love, which enables us to lose ourselves in worlds of fantasy and engage with other like-minded movie fans, is filled with closets, and those closets are filled with skeletons, and those skeletons are hideous. Some of the most revered people in Hollywood have had their falls from grace become very public, becoming a hashtag on Twitter or a criminal charge that eventually leads to litigation. Sometimes these people escape mostly unscathed, and after a few years of chemical and reputational rehab, they can return to us and re-obtain both greatness and the respect from audiences and colleagues they lost. For others, their past misdeeds seem damn near unshakable, and no matter how many apology tours they make and teachable moments they profess to learn and movies they make to widen the time between their unfortunate past and their hopeful present, those misdeeds won’t vanquish. I speak, of course, of Mel Gibson.

For the record, I hate having to include this journey back down Shitty Memory Lane, and normally I abhor any other article or review that feels the need to shoehorn Gibson’s past misdeeds into said article or review and make it a talking point. Separate the artist from the art, as people often say, and ideally, that’s the way it should be. After all, Polanski still gets to make films that win Academy Awards, and Robert Downey Jr. still gets to play Iron Man 37 times and make 37 billion dollars at the box office. (For the record, I’m not equating them for their past misdeeds, as they're not even in the same league. I’m more pointing out that our favorite artists have engaged in varying degrees of terrible behavior and should be judged accordingly.) Which brings me back to Mel Gibson, and his newest endeavor as an actor, Force of Nature, which also brings me to my point: had Gibson not so dramatically, offensively, and disturbingly fallen from grace a decade ago, there’s no way in bloody hell he’d be appearing in something so ham-fistedly stupid and incompetently made as Force of Nature. Somehow directed by Michael Polish, who developed somewhat of a small, underground following after his two quiet and quirky indy dramas, Twin Falls Idaho and Northfork, Force of Nature feels like a script that would’ve been politely rejected by Gibson somewhere in the late ‘90s following his string of his warmly received thrillers Ransom and Conspiracy Theory. The reason I say that is they already made this movie in the late ’90s. Hard Rain, with Christian Slater, Morgan Freeman (his first of what would be many forays into mediocre genre entertainment), and the crazy Quaid brother, became legendary during its production and following its release because every single person creatively involved never missed a chance to describe how miserable a time they had making it. As far as’90s action flicks that don’t star Van Damme go, it was...a movie. The genre was kinda on its way out by then and would soon be revamped by The Matrix and Universal’s long-running Cars Go Fast series, and when genres die for a little, they go out neither with a whimper nor a bang, but a long and sustained whine that you wish would just shut the fuck up. That’s where stuff like Force of Nature belongs.


Emile Hirsch plays a cop named Cardillo too young to be burned out and cynical, but we know he’s burned out and cynical because he discourages his new partner, Jess (Stephanie Cayo), from responding to calls on the police band and also says “fuck” a lot. Following a meat-related disturbance call at a local grocery store (I’m not lying), Cardillo crosses paths with Gibson’s retired cop, Ray, who seems to be dying of cough and not that likeable. The Boston accent he’s trying on and the stories he tells about being a cop that don’t exactly paint his past in the best light immediately establishes that he’s going to be stubborn, violent, and tough as nails. You also know that he’s an asshole, because at one point he mutters to himself, “I’m such an asshole.” In the face of a growing hurricane, Cardillo and Jess force-evacuate Ray from his apartment and naturally run afoul of some pretty bad men, led by John “the Baptist” (David Zayas, playing a villain almost as boring as the one he played in The Expendables), attempting to pull off a heist of some rare black-market artwork. Naturally, Cardillo, Jess, and Ray are the only ones who can intervene, save the day, uphold the rule of law, and yadda yadda yadda – rest assured, had Gibson said no to this movie like he should’ve, Force of Nature would’ve been a Nicolas Cage vehicle through and through, because that’s exactly the kind of thing you’re getting.

The script is dreadful, finding ways to split up all the different occupants of the Puerto Rican apartment building where the majority of the film unfolds, which means that – yep, Gibson’s face prominently displayed on the cover isn’t as prominent as his role in the movie – leaving the film’s other bland characters to have heart-to-heart conversations about sad things which is supposed to make them feel like real people. The machinations of these well-worn tragedies feel so trite that you halfway expect Gibson to break down in a sad monologue about that one time on the force when he accidentally shot a kid and he’s been looking for redemption ever since. That doesn’t happen. Instead, Hirsch’s Cardillo takes the reins of the tragic backstory, which comes damn close to killing a kid, while Gibson’s Ray mutters about being poisoned by his own shit (literally), hence all the coughing. Meanwhile, in another apartment, a man named Griffin (William Catlett) is recovering from the wounds inflicted by his real lion named Janet he keeps locked in his closet and being cared for by Bergkamp (Jorge Luis Ramos), who may or may not be an escaped Nazi, and if you’re reading all that and thinking, “how on earth could Force of Nature be boring?,” well, my friend, that’s because you haven’t seen Force of Nature. (And if you think Janet the lion doesn’t figure into the bad guy’s comeuppance at the end, you’ve never seen a movie in your life.)


One would be tempted to think, and I wouldn’t blame them because I was hoping for this too, that Force of Nature might be good, at the very least, for watching Mel Gibson be old and irascible and shoot lots of bad guys in violent ways. While that does happen, it doesn’t happen nearly enough to make the overall experience any more than tolerable. Not as engaging or suspenseful as Dragged Across Concrete, nor at least as consistently if vapidly entertaining As Blood Father, Force of Nature, let’s hope, is the worst movie Gibson makes between now and the end of his career. Whether or not he deserves better than something like this kind of dismissible bilge is for you to debate, but what I can say, conclusively, is that audiences definitely deserved better.

In addition, the 1999 Sandra Bullock movie Forces of Nature is currently available via HBO On Demand. I’ve never seen it, but it’s gotta be better than this.




Sep 4, 2020

BELZEBUTH (2019)


The horror genre exists in ebbs and flows, putting away certain concepts like the slasher flick or the haunted house movie until something comes along and reinvigorates it for a new generation, similar to how Scream revived the slasher in the mid-‘90s and Paranormal Activity resurrected both the haunted house and found footage movie. There’s been one mainstay throughout all this ebbing and flowing, however; appropriately, if you’re gonna have one main baddie to encapsulate the genre, it better be the main baddie – the Devil himself (and I’m capitalizing “devil” because I mean the real guy!). Being that the Devil is the oldest foe we have, it makes sense that he’s our oldest on-screen foe as well, having appeared on celluloid as far back as 1922’s Häxan, and in various forms of pre-film artwork going back thousands of years before that. The Devil, his spawns, or his concubines have popped up in every genre, in every era—from the Hammer films, to big studio fare like The Exorcist and The Omen, to small dumb shit like 1987’s Rock ‘N Roll Nightmare, to big dumb shit like Arnie’s End of Days in 1999. (Shout out to last year’s fantastic I Trapped the Devil.) No, there’s no keeping a good devil down, and that’s fine with me because every so often one of these movies turns out to be pretty good!

The newest of these satanic slices of pure hell comes by way of Belzebuth, an original movie produced by the increasingly popular Shudder streaming service, a joint production between the U.S. and Mexico (though it’s largely based in the latter, and mostly in Spanish language). It’s easy to roll your eyes at yet another movie about the Devil, the end times, possession, and the second coming of the so-called Messiah, because it feels like this movie gets made and released over and over. (And, especially during these pandemic times, who’s in the mood for another movie about a potential apocalypse?) But what makes Belzebuth alluring is that, above all, it’s trying to exist in as realistic a landscape as possible. Though the events and conflict of the film may be way beyond believable (depending on your personal philosophies), much of the film’s horror is relegated to the real world. A supernatural dread drapes over every frame, but the film’s conflict is built on the foundation of true terror ripped from daily headlines: a violent school shooting at the hands of a youth, or a suicide bomber blowing up a packed movie theater. Belzebuth slyly takes these sad, everyday events and posits that they may be part of an overall plan to bring about the end times—that every tragedy brings the earth closer to the unleashing of the Devil. 


The greatest thing about the horror genre, and it’s one thing that old school horror directors like George Romero and John Carpenter exhibited the best, was that it was the genre you could use to make a political statement, or to comment on society heading in the wrong direction, without feeling like you’re overwhelming the audience with agenda. You could concoct as absurd a story as you want, either zombies in a shopping mall or blue-collar construction workers using Raybans to see the true alien face of their fellow “earthlings,” and use that story to unveil the actual horror plaguing society. And Belzebuth uses that same concept, taking a familiar story about the timeless battle between good and evil and using it to tell another kind of story. 

It’s no coincidence that Belzebuth takes place at the U.S./Mexico border, which has been a talking point for the current president and his administration ever since 2016. Belzebuth takes the popular philosophical possibility of Jesus Christ already existing among us in flesh and blood form in the ignored, like the homeless, the maltreated, or the unborn, but anchors it in a specific region. Mexican special agent Emmanuel Ritter (Joaquín Cosio, Rambo: Last Blood) says of the potential next Messiah that he was fated to be born in an “oppressed empire” where his presence could easily be missed and his life taken with authorities neither noticing nor caring. It’s made very clear, through Ritter’s antagonist relationship with a never-on-screen captain, that the reputation of the department is all that matters, and not the department’s results or how those results are achieved. The concept of corruption existing in the Mexican government, though never an outright part of the conflict, isn’t treaded on lightly, either, with Ritter labeling it as such in a moment of dismay and frustration.


But yes, yes—the horror, the horror. Once Belzebuth is satisfied with its underlying metaphor, the on-screen horror finally kicks into gear, contributing some admittedly unique and horrific imagery into the well-worn exorcism/possession sub-genre, in spite of the occasionally dodgy CGI that brings it to life.  Throughout its running time, Belzebuth feels far more violent than it actually is, leaving much of the bloodletting to the imagination. It still manages to feel pretty gruesome, and ultimately that’s the desired effect. You get all of the weird ‘n squishies without having to endure the on-screen images of said weirdness and squish. Having said that, things get very bloody during the frenetic and somewhat overstuffed finale, which tries to throw in a last-minute twist that doesn’t land with any clear footing and only proves to stagger the momentum that the otherwise intense finale had established. 

Compared to the mainstream, Devil-centric bilge the genre has endured over the last however many years, Belzebuth is a breath of fresh air. Its low-key story still feels larger than life, and its cast of unknowns, which includes the adorable José Sefami, Mexico’s equivalent of Danny Devito, help to ground this story and hew it closer to reality. (Tobin Bell of Saw infamy is likely to be the most well-known name in this thing, and that’s saying something.) Belzebuth isn’t quite wholly original, but it’s original enough for the curious to devote a couple hours to the tale it has to tell, even if it’s been told before.


[Reprinted from Daily Grindhouse.]

Sep 2, 2020

ANOMALISA (2015)


Every single film so far in writer/director Charlie Kaufman's oeuvre has been about the longing between human beings, and the inevitable heartache and/or failure to which it leads. Anomalisa may have ditched those same humans in favor of an array of handmade puppets, but the humanity of the piece is still hugely present. Puppets aside, and to parrot some of the more on-the-nose critical notices that Anomalisa has received, this really is the most human of Kaufman's films so far.

Written and co-directed alongside Duke Johnson, Anomalisa is impressive on every single imaginable level--from the immediately obvious technical to the poignancy that slowly accumulates as we witness our lead character, Michael Stone, encounter a sea of sameness: the same faces, the same voices, the same disconnect. That these characters are brought to life with swappable faces isn't just some gimmick--it's essential to the story both thematically as well as logistically. Originally a "sound" play performed live for audiences during an extremely rare two-night event, that Anomalisa has been reimagined utilizing stop-motion animation and handmade puppets sounds like something doomed for failure. But as Kaufman has proven with his intimidating imagination time and time again, he's taken the most absurd of concepts and turned it into something oddly compelling and surprisingly emotional.


Perhaps Kaufman could have fashioned a live-action screenplay and used actual human actors on screen. Perhaps Tom Noonan's face could have been super-imposed on every single secondary character, and his voice dubbed over every single secondary line of dialogue. And as strange as it sounds, Kaufman could have pulled this off--with the same amount of sincerity balanced with absurdity. (If he did it with puppets, than anything is possible.) But it also would have been a page out of his Being John Malkovich (also about puppets, in a sense), and Kaufman doesn't like to do the same thing twice in the same way he doesn't like to make the same film twice, common themes notwithstanding.

As impressive as the puppetry is, what brings them to life is the phenomenal (and extremely limited) voice cast. David Thewlis presents Michael as sad and alone right off the bat, even when he speaks on the phone with his oppressed wife and indifferent son. Jennifer Jason Leigh (a refreshing reminder of her talents following her agonizing turn in Tarantino's insufferable western The Hateful Eight) plays coy and shy remarkably well, imbuing Lisa with believable mental scars as well as physical ones. But the performance of the hour belongs to Tom Noonan, whose calm, monotone voice is somehow simultaneously anonymous and instantly recognizable. It was an utter stroke of genius to cast him as "Everyone Else," being that his voice, with little manipulation on his part, easily suits the array of characters--male and female, young and old--that Michael encounters during his stay at the Fregoli Hotel. (Wikipedia describes "Fregoli syndrome" as "the delusional belief that different people are in fact a single person who is in disguise.") Noonan reads most of his lines with utter calm, easily garnering laughs during the more ridiculous dialogue, but also achieves laughs just as worthy during, say, the scene where Michael overhears a bickering newly wed couple swapping profanities that he passes in the hotel halls. Captured in the ideal way, all three voice actors recorded their lines during a reading of the script, each existing in the other's space to feed off the energy from their performances. This wasn't a case of their lines being recorded separately and pasted together later, and this helps to convey the relationships being established--or destroyed--during Anomalisa's running time.


It's easy to see that many potential viewers will write off Anomalisa before seeing a single frame of it simply because of the way it was made. But those potential viewers with small minds don't deserve to experience something so beautiful. Let it remain a secret for those who want and desire something far more emotional and significant than what can be found right now at the local multiplex. Anomalisa is a gorgeous film with a heartbreaking message at its core and just might be Charlie Kaufman's most personal and revealing film yet. 

If you're even a casual fan of Charlie Kaufman (if such a thing exists--you either love him or hate him), Anomalisa is the next step forward and upward for the acclaimed writer/director. It's a revealing look at the humankind disconnect, our at-times frustrating inability to communicate who we really are, brought to life by things that have the look of man, but not the soulfulness. For its ingenuity, innovation, and humanity, Anomalisa gets the highest recommendation.