May 31, 2019


During my virginal viewing of Teen Witch, it was inevitable that my mind be blown. As someone who adores cinematic misfires – films being the equivalent of “ideas that seemed good at the time” – the triumphant Teen Witch offered much entertainment.

The plot – so ludicrous.

The hair – so big.

The fashions – so ‘80s.

The random dance and rap sequences – so inexplicably present.

All of Teen Witch plays like a dream. At no point does it feel like it takes place in a real reality, and even for a movie reality it seems to be making it up as it goes.

Is it a musical?

No, not really.

Then why do people randomly break into song and, apparently, use musical interludes to solve conflicts using the hip-hop masterpiece “Top That”? (Speaking of, what’s particularly amazing about the “Top That” rap sequence is that it’s not one of those musical moments where the entire cast break into song. Rather, a handful of teenage boys are just out in the street randomly rapping and dancing with each other, and our femmes encounter this with a detectible look of apprehension. It’s kind of amazing — especially when the girl in the bucket hat gets magic courage and starts frontin’ Greaser Ryan Reynolds, who seems offended that she’s not steppin’ off.)

Is it a comedy?

Why yes, sometimes it is.

But how do you separate the intentional from the unintentional? Sure, it’s funny when Louise uses witchcraft to make her least favorite teacher take off his clothes during class in a Rated-PG manner, but is it supposed to be funny when during a pivotal emotional moment where Louise decides she doesn’t need witchcraft to fall in love that right behind her there’s an extra who looks like a demonic Jerry Seinfeld wearing a hideous sweater and dancing in the most awkward way possible while staring right at her?

Is it a dramatic, Hughes-ish, coming-of-age that real teens can relate to?

“Be happy with your non-witch form” is the lesson learned, so…maybe?

I…honestly don’t know.

Teen Witch is very ‘80s, and it’s interesting to see how much has changed in teen culture and the films that depict it, along with how much has been retained. Once Louise transitions from ugly duckling to beautiful swan, wearing Lauper-type ensembles comprised of bright colors and tutus, she becomes adorable. But the pre-witch version of Louise, in her frumpy clothes, her gigantic coats, her bulky sweaters, was still obviously adorable anyway. No amount of flat hair or awkward behavior was going to camouflage that. And that’s still a popular trope that’s been parodied in recent years – the beautiful girl that no one could see was beautiful because she wore glasses. However, amusingly, what the ‘80s depicted as the nerd – thick glasses, sweater vests, pompadours – is the version of today’s hipster and can be found in every catalog for Old Navy. See below:

Repeating my recent loss of innocence as it pertains to Teen Witch, I understand that I am treading on sacred ground. The catalyst for Teen Witch ending up on my reviewer radar was the announcement of the title on the Blu-ray format and the subsequent outrageous amount of enthusiasm for its release and the adoration of this title. Post-viewing, as I was walking around in a daze and inquiring if any colleagues had managed to get the license plate number off the bus that ran me down – aka, seen Teen Witch – I received a handful of disparate responses. One among them: “Um…TOP THAT is my favorite song!” 

How do you argue with that? I mean, listen to that soundtrack! Quick, pick your poison. What’s your favorite. “High School Blues”? “I Like Boys”? Perhaps “What Are You Doing About Love”? Spoiler: they’re all stupid! But I’ll be damned if they don’t add to Teen Witch‘s enjoyment.

Nostalgia is powerful. It can result in everything from fond memories to sheer denial. If I had grown up with Teen Witch in the same way many others did, perhaps my response to it would be different. And maybe these people recognize Teen Witch as cheesy, silly, irreverent, and somewhat poorly made at times (in one scene I swear Zelda Rubinstein is reading her lines off cue cards like Christopher Walken during an SNL skit), but it’s also admittedly perfectly harmless and certainly worthy of your embrace. And anyone who knows me knows that I’ve embraced much worse for far less. One thing is for certain: while watching Teen Witch, I was never bored, never not entertained, and I’ll probably never forget it.

Top that!

May 28, 2019


Popular belief posits that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different result. This isn’t actually true, mind you – kinda like the whole “left brain vs. right brain” thing – as the true definition of insanity can be found throughout our current President’s twitter feed.

In a weird way, Transformers: The Last Knight proves that this long-held definition of insanity is a fallacy:
  1. Director Michael Bay makes the same Transformers movie over and over again. 
  2. The audience willingly pays to see the same Transformers movie over and over again.
  3. Michael Bay expects to get much richer from making gigantic robots with celebrity voices glint and spark and look cool. (He does). 
  4. The audience walks into the theater wanting to see gigantic robots with celebrity voices glint and spark and look cool. (They do). 
  5. Everyone gets what they want while doing and expecting, respectively, nothing at all different, and this on top of the most important part: that this series has never been within cannon-fire distance of “good.”
That’s insanity.

The Transformers series:

Sometimes Shia Lebeouf is there. Sometimes Mark Wahlberg is there. John Turturro is there all the time. They are all there, looking up at the robots and talking to them, and being their friend. The robots are cars sometimes, but sometimes they are robots. If the robots are dancing, they are in robot form. If they are going very fast, they are probably cars.

Robots are aliens. From space. The planets. Transformers.

I think I’m losing my grip on reality.

Focus, me. Focus.

The Transformers movies are bad. All of them. If you want to be that person who defends the first one, have at it. You’d be the person defending the one good Hot Pocket you’ve eaten in your life.

By now the Transformers series has become a punchline on Internet whenever someone wants to put down someone else. “You didn’t adore Inherent Vice? I bet you like Transformers.” Even the people who bravely defend their enjoyment of Transformers don’t have that much kindness to share toward it. “What’s wrong with turning your brain off once in a while?” asks the guy whose brain has been left on the charger since birth.

In Transformers: The Last Knight, John Goodman plays a fat robot because he is fat, and Stanley Tucci plays Merlin because he is magical. Mark Wahlberg’s character name is Cade Yeager. There are puppy dinosaur robots that shoot fire from their mouths and also take naps, even though they are nonliving mechanics that shouldn’t suffer from fatigue. Sir Anthony Hopkins is there, for some reason, putting the words “Optimus Prime” and “Cybertron” in his mouth.

Robots. America. Transformers. American flag. Bumblebee. Car. America! Cars go very fast in Transformers when they are the robots, the transformers. 



Pull back. 

Cybertron! The moon! The knights and transformers!

The robots look and sound really cool. The humans look and sound really cool. The music stirs, we hear it, it sounds good and cool. The things explode, the buildings fall, the humans look stoic, the robots look cool. (America.) It all looks really good and cool here in Cool Shots, U.S.A. The men and the women of America who like the transformers will be very happy with how the transformers look and sound.

Okay, I’m losing it. Time to bail.

After Transformers 3, Michael Bay said he was done making Transformers movies.

Then he made Transformers 4.

After Transformers 4, Michael Bay said he was done making Transformers movies.

Then he made Transformers 5.

After Transformers 5 made a buttload of money, Michael Bay said he was done making Transformers movies and Paramount said they were going to make a bunch of Transformers spinoffs to continue this money-printing franchise of theirs long into the future.

If you think Michael Bay is done making Transformers movies, you’re insane.

Listen, you’ll have to excuse me. I have a lunch meeting with Cliff Huxtable at the Four Seasons in twenty minutes.

May 12, 2019


[This article contains minor spoilers for each title.]

The concept of a haunted house and slasher hybrid, which sees your typical masked slasher villain take a backseat to a murderous house filled with ghosts and/or demons and/or witches doling out the bloody comeuppance, wasn’t exploited nearly enough. This brief movement likely came in response to how well haunted house flicks like The Amityville Horror and its sequel, The Possession, along with The Shining and The Changeling, were cleaning up at the box office during the ‘80s era of the slasher, which made the concept of combining the sub-genres into one film very alluring. Sure, haunted house flicks are a dime a dozen, and sometimes they off a few cast members, but how many can you name where a hapless victim gets chewed literally in half by a window?

While I want to believe there are many more, I can only name you two: 1982’s Superstition and 1989’s The House on Tombstone Hill.   

Superstition was completed in 1982, but sat on the shelf for four years before it opened in the UK, preempted by a trailer that retitled the film As The Witch and which featured narration by eccentric actor Brother Theodore (The Burbs). Helmed by cinematographer James Roberson, it’s clear right away that Superstition is intent on mining from the stalwarts of the slasher, opening with a teen couple doing some car kissing in the middle of nowhere. “You said you loved me,” the boyfriend says, his hand solidly on his hesitant girlfriend’s chest, but there’s no time for love, because a monster head is suddenly thrust into the car’s open window, sending the teen couple speeding off.

Turns out the monster head comes courtesy of a couple prankster teens who have chosen the house—a house, mind you, that’s infamous for its bloody past involving the drowning execution of a witch—to just…hang out in, I guess. (Don’t miss the Unsolved Mysteries-caliber wigs and stick-on facial hair during the flashback witch scene, by the way – they’re hysterical.) The teens don’t have long to celebrate their successful prank, as the house comes to life and dispatches them in graphic and gooey ways. 

After firmly establishing its slasher roots, Superstition moves on to steal its plot from The Amityville Horror, including having a priest out to the house to bless it, only for the house to, er, politely decline the ceremony. However, this time, instead of hordes of flies, a wayward circular saw blade detaches from a table saw, bounces across the floor, and slices directly into the priest’s chest, magically and impossibly spinning/cutting the entire time. Before you can say Father Pieces, we meet a trio of young people, including a pair of girls who wear the skimpiest of summer attire. Despite a cast of mostly adult actors, the presence of young people helps Friday the 13th the proceedings a bit, being that, in this genre, if you’re old enough to drive but not legally drink, you’re probably a goner. As expected, everyone begins to die very graphically. 

Despite a pre-credits running time of 82 minutes, Superstition still runs a hair too long, falling victim to second-act lag as many horror films of this pedigree tend to do. Still, the pace is mostly assured and there’s always a fresh body drop to liven things up when the story begins to stagnate. Except for one off-screen kill (likely because the victim was a child), every death is fully shown, very bloody, and, when we’re lucky, relies on a dummy—my favorite kind of kill. 

As for The House on Tombstone Hill (originally titled The Dead Come Home, and later retitled on home video as the far superior/far stupider Dead Dudes in the House), well, I fucking love it with equal parts sincerity and irony. One of maybe three watchable titles produced by Troma Entertainment (home of The Toxic Avenger), The House on Tombstone Hill inspires the same feelings of enjoyment, awe, amusement, and total bewilderment as 1979’s slasher Tourist Trap, entirely because the oddness factor. As The House On Tombstone Hill unfolds, you honestly can’t tell if director James Riffel (hey, another James!) is in on the joke or not, and that’s my kind of jam.

During the film’s opening/prologue, we see the murderous Abigail Leatherby, who has just killed a man, walk back and forth across the living room, hunched over her cane, apparently coming to terms with what she’s done, all while her teenage daughter sits on the couch completely nonplussed and sipping a drink. You’ll watch Abigail walk back and forth so many times, uninterrupted, in one single shot, without a single line of dialogue, as jaunty piano music plays on a loop, that you’ll realize you’re about to watch something very, very special. 

Like Superstition, The House on Tombstone Hill wasn’t released right away following its production in 1988, though it was eventually relegated to cable and VHS under its new title. (Like most Troma productions, it was shot in New Jersey, easily confirmed by one character, Joey, repeatedly saying, “Hey, yo!” to his friends.) And despite being a Troma production, The House on Tombstone Hill plays things straightforward, which makes the flick come off very weird, as it strives to be a ghost story, a slasher, and a zombie flick all at once. Speaking of ghost stories, The House On Tombstone Hill is happy to homage/rip off an all-time classic in an extended scene where a recently killed college yuppie returns from the dead, possessed by the house’s bad mojo, and begins threatening his girlfriend, demanding to know, “What about my responsibilities?” as she slowly backs away swinging a large 2x4 at him. (Sound familiar?) All during this sequence, you honestly won’t know whether The House on Tombstone Hill is purposely honoring The Shining this long, or if it’s simply ripping it off instead. I don’t know and I don’t want to know; ambiguity is all part of its charm. 

The characters are your archetypal young adults, and though most of the actors give underwhelming performances, Victor Verhaeghe, who plays Bob the carpenter, is tremendously over the top, very overbearing, and I wouldn’t change a thing about it. Dialogue doesn’t exit his mouth, but slithers out—with the kind of disdain that makes him sound like the most hateful man alive. (“I ALWAYS have a cigarette before I start a job,” he tells another member of the cast wanting to know if he has to smoke. “It’s a RITUAL with me.”) That Bob is a dick from his first minute to his last makes The House on  Tombstone Hill much more entertaining, and seeing him act the asshole to every single person he evidently calls a friend is glorious. (He’s also the one that resurrects the spirit of Abigail by purposely breaking her tombstone, so every bloody thing that happens to him and all his friends is literally his fault.)

The House on Tombstone Hill’s odd retitling on video wasn’t the only attempt by Troma to market the film to a different kind of crowd, packaging the VHS with completely brand new cover art: 

Falling back on a marketing scheme that will never make sense to me, Troma leaned on aesthetical designs calling forth Home Alone, House Party, and, evidently, the New Kids on the Block, even though none of the dudes depicted on the cover are actors in the film, nor do they come close to representing what the actual characters look like. (I hope you noticed that one of the dudes on the new cover is holding a pair of nunchucks.) 

Previous synopses for the flick referred to the teens as “heart-throbs” and “hip-hop yups,” along with their “groupie” girlfriends, solidifying that Troma was obsessed with selling these characters as musicians/singers. That wasn’t me putting those words in quotes, but Troma themselves on their own VHS releases, as if they were acknowledging they were fibbing about the movie’s plot. (Example: Troma is a “professional” company that exercises “good judgment” in their business practices.)

Having said all that, I’m totally fine with it. It’s all part of what makes The House on Tombstone Hill so great.

Both flicks have recently enjoyed solid high-def releases, with Shout! Factory tackling Superstition and the glorious Vinegar Syndrome knocking it out of the park with The House on Tombstone Hill, which includes reverse artwork with the Dead Dudes/“hip-hop teens” cover that I love so much. To approach either or both titles as mere haunted house films will inevitably lead to disappointment, as “proper” ghost stories work much better with frightening images, suspense, and the establishment of a creepy, ambient environment. However, if you are fully aware of the hybrid you’re getting, I can’t imagine how you could ever be disappointed. Basically, if you’ve marathonned a handful of Friday the 13th sequels and thought, “this would be better if Jason were a HOUSE,” now’s your chance to live out your weird fantasy, you weirdo. (Just remember to invite me over.)

[Reprinted from Daily Grindhouse.]

May 8, 2019


For the first half of Threads, the audience is given a semi-documentary/semi-narrative look at the life and culture of citizens of the U.K. as they go about their lives, all while war threatens to rage in the world between the U.S. (naturally), Iran, and the Soviet Union. Reminders of this war come in the form of occasional narration as well as news reports that play on televisions in the backgrounds — news reports that, in the face of the unexpected pregnancy of Ruth (Karen Meagher) and Jimmy (Reece Dinsdale), for instance, mostly fall by the wayside and go unnoticed. While this isn’t a large part nor even the point of Threads, it is a noticeable addition: war will loom, our media will warn us, but we’ll be too busy wrapped up in our own soap opera lives to actually understand until it’s too late.

And that’s just the first half.

Halfway through Threads, the bomb drops. The U.K. is decimated. Initial estimates say 10-20 million citizens are killed. And we’re there the whole time. We never cut away. We never cut back to a clean room in a clean country that was shielded from the attack. The U.K. is reduced to black and gray: formless and void of anything that once resembled life and culture. Smoldering bodies and body parts are strewn in the streets, buildings are burned out husks or entirely gone, people huddle in cellars hidden beneath mattresses thinking this will save them from the bigger threat from a nuclear bomb: radiation. But of course it doesn’t.

The most surprising thing about Threads is its lineage: it wasn’t some banned Video Nasty from the 1970s and ’80s that’s just now enjoying a controversial video release. This thing was made for television — first broadcast in the U.K. before enjoying an encore presentation in the U.S. You’d have to have seen Threads for yourself to know how shocking a revelation this is, because Threads is a brutal gut punch. It’s dark, bleak, angry, cynical, graphic, bloody — everything that also describes war. It is the closest approximation to what post-nuclear life can look like, and hopefully that’s the closest we will all ever get. Above all, it’s the clever editing that enforces such an illusion. Establishing shots of everyday homes and stores and businesses are married to stock footage of demolitions and explosions, one after the other; a simple shot of a cat playing on grass, when reversed and shown only in brief cuts, now looks like an animal suffocating from poisoned air.  Keep in mind, Threads isn’t exactly a Frankenstein of stock footage — only the bomb drop and immediate post-bomb decimation relies on these different footage sources; otherwise, Threads is entirely new footage, but it manages to match the dark and colorless tone of these destructive sequences. And as for the new footage, and its own sense of horror…look no further than the camera angles shot in an almost purposely pedestrian manner that capture a group of office workers from behind as they slip a deceased co-worker’s body into garbage bags, or a woman we presume to be the mother of the dead baby in her arms as she looks into the camera with dead eyes.

This edition of Threads, brought to you by Severin Films, includes a nice collection of special features: audio commentary with director Mick Jackson; “Audition For The Apocalypse: Interview With Actress Karen Meagher,” “Shooting The Annihilation: Interview With Director Of Photography Andrew Dunn,” “Destruction Designer: Interview With Production Designer Christopher Robilliard,” “Interview With Film Writer Stephen Thrower,” and the US Trailer.

Threads is extremely effective and unnerving. It’s an absolutely harrowing experience — one that left me shell shocked and in a daze. It actually coerced me into leaving my house after watching it and randomly driving to a more populated area just to see and be among people for the reminder that society still existed. It’s probably the most psychologically disturbing non-horror horror film I’ve ever seen — and I never want to see it again.

May 4, 2019

MOTHER! (2017)

[Spoilers follow as they pertain to my  interpretation of the film’s themes.]

Darren Aronofsky has always made films exactly the way he wants. Sometimes this leads to universal praise, like Requiem for a Dream or The Wrestler, but sometimes it can lead to pretty polarizing results, like Black Swan or The Fountain. (I adore The Fountain, by the way.) In the wake of its release, mother! has clearly proven to be the most polarizing film of his career — pretty impressive for a filmmaker so far only seven films deep.

mother! has been dissected ad nauseum since it was released, much to the delight, I’m sure, of Aronofsky (the whole thing seems to be an allegory for Christianity, or at least the story of Jesus as adopted by a handful of otherwise disparate religions) but I’m sure there are some hipsters out there dying to let me know I just didn’t “get it”), and it’s easy to see why. What starts off as an awkwardly made stage-play-ish encounter between awkward Jennifer Lawrence’s nameless character and all her awkward and uninvited nameless guests soon becomes a strange journey filled with mysticism and heavy handed symbolism. And though none of the characters are named, you’ll remember them from your Bible class: Adam and Eve; their sons, Cain and Abel; the holy family; the ancient Romans (and don’t forget the Jews!) — everybody’s here to pitch in and make mother! as insufferable as possible.

Good news! Everyone wins.

mother! is ideal for Aronofsky completists, or for those who want to turn up their noses at the more mainstream horror fare that’s proved popular over the past few years just for the sheer act of doing so. And to be fair, mother! is undeniably well made, in spite of It Girl Jennifer Lawrence’s borish and breathy performance. Artistically, Aronofsky bounces back from the traditional and rote Bible epic Noah and returns to the Black Swan era of his career where he made something challenging and provocative, and with mother!, he certainly has. Once the third act begins and mother! descends into utter chaos, you can’t help but marvel at the sheer magnitude and execution of Aronofsky’s grand design, regardless if you either don’t “get it,” or you do “get it” but find his on-the-nose approach increasingly irritating. But beyond that, ironically, you’ll get the notion that Aronofsky is getting overly preachy with his audience even as he re-examines the history/myth of Jesus Christ and turns it into a living art installation brought to life by a handful of entirely unlikeable characters. (In case you were wondering, yes, J. Law plays the Virgin Mary, which we can assume because she not only gets preggers during the film, but it’s after bellowing at her husband that he “doesn’t fuck [her] anymore,” at which point he does. I guess after a period of sexual inactivity the hymen re-seals? That’s a new one on me, but from what I’ve heard, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.)

Here’s a fun idea for the holidays: watch mother! with your real mother and watch her cry and run from the room.