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Friday, October 20, 2017

In Theaters: THE SNOWMAN (2017)


THE SNOWMAN
(US/UK/Sweden - 2017)

Directed by Tomas Alfredson. Written by Peter Straughan, Hossein Amini and Soren Sviestrup. Cast: Michael Fassbender, Rebecca Ferguson, Charlotte Gainsbourg, J.K. Simmons, Val Kilmer, Jonas Karlsson, Chloe Sevigny, Toby Jones, James D'Arcy, David Dencik, Ronan Vibert, Genevieve O'Reilly, Jacob Oftebro, Adrian Dunbar, Michael Yates, Jamie Clayton, Peter Dalle, Sofia Helin, Leonard Heinemann. (R, 120 mins)

THE SNOWMAN is the first big-screen adaptation of Norwegian mystery writer Jo Nesbo's Harry Hole series. Though I believe the intended pronunciation is "Hol-uh," the fact that they didn't take into consideration that the name "Harry Hole" is only going to induce Beavis & Butthead snickers for English-speaking and American audiences, especially since they just say "Hole" throughout the movie (I've read two of Nesbo's Hole novels, and it's easy to overlook on the page) is a good indication that this was never going to work. Nesbo's books--his non-Hole novel Headhunters was turned into a film in 2011--were part of the post-Stieg Larsson/Girl with the Dragon Tattoo explosion that launched the Scandinavian mystery subgenre into the literary mainstream (see also Henning Mankell's Wallander novels, adapted for television with Kenneth Branagh in the title role, and Jussi Adler-Olsen's Department Q series, which was turned into a movie trilogy) and generated renewed interest in older works by the influential Maj Sjowall & Per Wahloo, and others. THE SNOWMAN is a bit fashionably late to the party as far as movie adaptations of Scandinavian noir go, and it was originally conceived several years ago with Martin Scorsese planning to direct. Scorsese eventually left the project in 2013 as it was put in turnaround but remains credited as a producer, having passed it on to Tomas Alfredson to direct when it was given the green light again in late 2015. Alfredson has two classics to his credit--2008's LET THE RIGHT ONE IN and 2011's TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY--but THE SNOWMAN looks like a film that's been so mangled in post-production that everyone involved simply walked away and gave up trying to fix it. After the film opened to disastrous reviews in Europe, Alfredson attempted to do some damage control in the days prior to the US release, saying that the film was rushed into production with little planning, and when it came time to hit the editing room, he found that he only had, by his own admission, "85%" of the footage he needed, forcing him to use voiceovers and restructure character arcs in an attempt to put everything together. The Band-Aids precariously holding THE SNOWMAN together are all too obvious, starting with several name actors having nothing to do with anything, at least two critical subplots dropped without explanation, that there's a plethora of credits for "additional photography" and a team of editors (including Scorsese's legendary secret weapon and right hand Thelma Schoonmaker), and the fact that virtually none of the footage, dialogue, or implied plot developments in the trailer are actually in the movie. If you're enough of a film nerd, you can tell when a movie has had a troubled production and the end result is barely hanging together. And if you're familiar at all with film editing, you know that if Thelma Schoonmaker can't make it work, then it just wasn't meant to be.






That said, it's not terrible. It's by no means "good," but it's hardly the total dumpster fire that its chaotic backstory and Alfredson's excuses would indicate. It looks good, there's some effective atmosphere and striking location work in Norway, and I'm a sucker for cold, snowy, depressing mysteries. As the glum, alcoholic Hole, Michael Fassbender keeps the story interesting even as it's falling apart at the seams. In relatively crime-free Oslo, a serial killer is decapitating single mothers and putting their severed heads on snowmen (the mechanism used is similar to that seen in Dario Argento's 1993 film TRAUMA). He also seems to be stalking cold-case detective Hole, sending him a taunting note calling him "Mister Police." Hole has nothing to do ("I'm sorry about Oslo's extremely low murder rate," his boss tells him) and can go on weeklong benders with no none really noticing he's gone, so he teams with younger investigator Katrine Bratt (Rebecca Ferguson), who seems hellbent on tying wealthy Oslo politician and businessman Arve Stop (J.K. Simmons) and fertility doctor Idvar Vetlesen (David Dencik, a fixture in Scandinavian mystery adaptations) to the murders. Hole also digs into secret files Katrine has stashed away about a similar string of killings nine years earlier in Bergen, which were investigated by corrupt detective Gert Rafto (Val Kilmer). Hole's obsession with cracking the case puts a strain on his relationship with Oleg (Michael Yates), the teenage son of his ex-girlfriend Rakel (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Hole is still on good terms with Rakel, even though she's involved with shrink Matthias Lund-Helgesen (Jonas Karlsson), but Hole sticks around because Oleg has always viewed him as a father figure and, unbeknownst to the boy, Hole is his biological father (not a spoiler--it's divulged very early).


There's a lot of story in THE SNOWMAN, and I didn't even mention Chloe Sevigny playing dual roles and getting about five minutes of screen time total before disappearing from the movie. The whole subplot about sleazy Stop trying to get the Olympic Games to Oslo ends up being a time-wasting, dead-end red herring that goes nowhere, along with pervy Vetlesen--who paints his toenails--acquiring young girls for him (are they pimps? Human traffickers? Who knows?). The killer's identity is easy to figure out, especially with a flashback to a young boy witnessing the drowning of his mother twenty-odd years ago, which a) must mean something, and b) gives you a good idea of what age that kid would now be, and Rakel and Oleg serve no purpose whatsoever other than being put in jeopardy. The motivations of Katrine and her drive to continue Rafto's work are obvious long before Hole figures it out by visiting a cabin that somehow hasn't been touched in nine years, and the editing is so bad at times that you'll wonder why Schoonmaker even left her name on it (how can the killer be throwing a snowball at an intended victim as she walks to her car and at the same time be in the car parked right behind her when she gets in hers?). The plot requires characters to be idiots in order to move it forward (the killer leaves cigarette butts all over the crime scenes, yet no one runs a DNA test on any of them), and the film's version of high-tech is laughable, as evidenced by the "EviSync," a cumbersome, clunky gadget that Katrine totes around that looks like an oversized iPad prototype from 1988.


But the biggest point of discussion about THE SNOWMAN is bound to be the bizarre appearance of Kilmer, in his first role in a major movie in years. For the last several years, Kilmer's health has been the subject of rumors until he finally admitted earlier this year that he'd been battling some form of tongue or throat cancer. Kilmer's Gert Rafto is only seen fleetingly in a handful of flashbacks. The veteran actor looks gaunt and visibly ill, almost unrecognizable, and when he opens his mouth, it's instantly obvious that he's been dubbed over by a voice that sounds absolutely nothing at all like his own. There's also a near-GODZILLA effect as the words barely match his lip movements--probably a sign of post-production rewrites--and Alfredson bends over backward to keep Kilmer's face offscreen while his character is talking. There's even scenes where people are talking to him and he awkwardly says nothing in return. It's a distraction even if you're aware of Kilmer's health problems (back in the '60s until his death in 1973, throat cancer robbed beloved actor Jack Hawkins of his voice, requiring him to be dubbed in everything, but at least effort was made to sound like him). You're taken out of the movie every time he's onscreen. Kilmer's dubbed voice couldn't be any more jarring if it was done by Gilbert Gottfried. It sounds like the kind of deep-voice distortion given to a silhouetted whistleblower in a 60 MINUTES interview. Sure, maybe he needed the work and has a friend at Universal who wanted to do him a solid, but even if he was unable to speak or if his words were garbled post-cancer, they couldn't find anyone who sounded even remotely like Val Kilmer to dub his dialogue and not completely sabotage his performance?

Monday, October 16, 2017

In Theaters/On VOD: BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 (2017)


BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99
(US - 2017)

Written and directed by S. Craig Zahler. Cast: Vince Vaughn, Jennifer Carpenter, Don Johnson, Udo Kier, Marc Blucas, Mustafa Shakir, Thomas Guiry, Dion Mucciacito, Geno Segers, Willie C. Carpenter, Fred Melamed, Clark Johnson, Pooja Kumar, Victor Almanzar, Calvin Dutton, Michael Medeiros, Devon Windsor, Tobee Paik, Rob Morgan, Philip Ettinger. (Unrated, 132 mins)

With 2015's horror-western hybrid BONE TOMAHAWK, novelist/musician/jack-of-all-trades S. Craig Zahler immediately established himself as a filmmaker worth watching. The best description being "THE SEARCHERS if remade by Ruggero Deodato," BONE TOMAHAWK was an instant cult classic that was deserving of the label. Influenced by everything from Hollywood classics to Italian splatter films to underground metal (his musical projects include singing and playing drums in a band called Realmbuilder, and playing drums in the black metal band Charnel Valley), Zahler tackles the prison genre with BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99, a hyperviolent and stunningly brutal revenge melodrama with the kind of wonderfully old-school title you'd expect to find on a mid '50s Allied Artists programmer. In a welcome departure from roles he's been coasting through for years and what the little-loved second season of TRUE DETECTIVE hinted at, Vince Vaughn is almost the spirit of Lee Marvin incarnate as Bradley--do not call him Brad--Thomas, a man with a dark past who's just trying to make an honest living and get by. Stoical and serious, and with a large cross tattooed on the back of his shaved head, Bradley and his wife Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter) are recovering alcoholics living in a small house in a crummy part of town. Bradley drives a wrecker for a local mechanic, but business is slow and he's let go. Arriving home, he finds Lauren about to take off for some afternoon delight with a man she's been seeing for the last three months. Bradley is not an abusive man but he reacts in the only way he can at that moment: by calmly and methodically tearing apart her car with his bare hands.






After resolving to work through their problems and preserve their marriage, Bradley decides to go back to an old job: "delivering packages" for local dealer Gil (Marc Blucas). 18 months go by, and Bradley and Lauren are in a spacious new home and she's six months pregnant. Against Bradley's gut instinct, Gil goes into business with powerful Mexican drug lord Eliazar (Dion Mucciacito), whose crew of irresponsible fuck-ups end up in a shootout with the cops, during which Bradley takes out Eliazar's guys to save the cops and keep the situation from escalating. That still does him no favors with the judge, and after he refuses to give up any names of his associates, Bradley is sentenced to seven years in a medium-security prison. Lauren promises to wait for him, assuring him that "that same mistake won't happen again." Determined to keep a low profile and hope he can be paroled after a few years for good behavior, Bradley's plans expectedly go to shit almost immediately: he's visited by the mysterious "Placid Man" (Udo Kier), posing as Lauren's doctor but actually a representative of Eliazar. The Placid Man's boss isn't happy about Bradley's actions during the shootout, which cost him two men and $3 million. Eliazar has taken Lauren hostage with an abortionist at the ready--one who claims to be able to "clip off" the legs of the fetus but let it live, maiming it in utero--if Bradley doesn't pay off his debt by getting himself transferred to Red Leaf, a maximum-security hellhole in upstate New York, where he's to take out a top Eliazar enemy who's being held in cell block 99. Bradley goes to extreme, limb-snapping measures to get himself transferred upstate, and once he's at Red Leaf, he's forced to work his way into cell block 99 while also dealing with conditions that make Gitmo look appealing, plus endlessly bullying guards and sadistic, cigarillo-sucking warden Tuggs (Don Johnson).


If you're familiar with BONE TOMAHAWK, the languid pacing and slow burn methodology of BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 won't come as a surprise. While BRAWL isn't quite on the level of BONE, Zahler again demonstrates a unique ability to build the world in which the film exists on his own terms and at his own pace. He brings a novelist's style and sensibility to the crafting of this story, letting it unfold like an long, engrossing book with vividly detailed characters. With his first two films, Zahler fuses pulpy grindhouse and serious arthouse more effectively than anyone since Quentin Tarantino in his prime. As with BONE TOMAHAWK, which ran over two hours and took 90 minutes to get to the crux of its horror plot, the 132-minute BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 is in no particularly hurry to get to the title event. Instead, for about 105 minutes, we watch a fundamentally decent man who's been dealt one shitty card after another, his ability to keep his head above water growing more tenuous by the day, doing what's necessary to provide, to do what's "right." Vaughn is a revelation here, his every moment on screen seething with a palpable, slow-boiling rage. He knows he's in a bad business, but he's not a bad guy and still tries to do what's "right." He refuses to flip on his employers. When he's told he'll be out in four years and the judge hits him with seven, he shuts up and takes it like a man because his wife and his unborn child are all that matter. And when they're threatened, he's willing to put himself through every punishment imaginable to ensure their well-being. It's a remarkable performance, given a boost in some of the many shockingly violent, often sickening scenes of Bradley snapping limbs, stomping heads, and scraping faces across concrete walls and floors. Like BONE TOMAHAWK, BRAWL isn't all grim and humorless. There's no shortage of quotable tough-guy, B-movie dialogue--when asked how he's doing after losing his job, Bradley shrugs "South of OK, north of cancer;" when a fellow convict wishes their prison was like a state-of-the-art facility in Norway, Bradley snaps "You should aim higher with your wishes;" and during a jaw-off with a Eliazar flunky, patriotic Bradley gets in his face and says "The last time I checked, the colors of the flag weren't red, white and burrito." Released unrated and almost certainly worthy of an NC-17 for its extreme violence, BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 isn't for everyone and may not even be as accessible as the decidedly offbeat BONE TOMAHAWK (however accessible a cannibal horror western can be), but it's an unusual and compelling character piece in the guise of a bonecrushing exploitation grinder.

Friday, October 13, 2017

On DVD/Blu-ray: THE POUGHKEEPSIE TAPES (2014); ARMED RESPONSE (2017); and OPEN WATER 3: CAGE DIVE (2017)


THE POUGHKEEPSIE TAPES
(US - 2014)


For a long time, THE POUGHKEEPSIE TAPES was shaping up to be the DAY THE CLOWN CRIED of found-footage. Filmed in 2007 and screened at that year's Tribeca Film Festival, the film was abruptly yanked from the schedule by MGM just a week before its planned February 8, 2008 release date (for some perspective on how long ago this was, that weekend's other major releases were FOOL'S GOLD, WELCOME HOME ROSCOE JENKINS, VINCE VAUGHN'S WILD WEST COMEDY SHOW, and IN BRUGES), even though a trailer had been out and multiplexes had promo material on display for several weeks. The found-footage genre was still in its post-BLAIR WITCH PROJECT era in 2008, and THE POUGHKEEPSIE TAPES would've preceded the next wave brought in by PARANORMAL ACTIVITY by over a year and a half had MGM released it on schedule. While no explanation was ever given for why the studio buried this like a dark family secret, the filmmakers--writer/director John Erick Dowdle and his producer brother Drew--had a hit later the same year with QUARANTINE, a remake of the Spanish found-footage horror phenomenon [REC], before going on to make the 2010 M. Night Shyamalan production DEVIL, the 2014 Paris catacombs-set found-footage opus AS ABOVE, SO BELOW, and the 2015 Owen Wilson thriller NO ESCAPE. The Dowdles got QUARANTINE on the basis of THE POUGHKEEPSIE TAPES, and while none of their subsequent films were blockbusters, their moderate success still wasn't enough to free POUGHKEEPSIE from the MGM shelf. It eventually got a stealth release on DirecTV in 2014, but just as word got around to horror fans that it was available, MGM pulled it once more without warning. Only now, in the fall of 2017, has the now-decade old film been made widely available, with Shout! Factory's Blu-ray and DVD release rescuing it from oblivion and finally giving it, for all intents and purposes, it's first actual, widespread exhibition.





You'd assume this must be a terrible movie, but the end result is quite surprising. It's unfortunate that the found-footage genre has played itself into overexposed irrelevance, because THE POUGHKEEPSIE TAPES is one of the best of its kind. There's no jump scares to be had and the gore is minimal, but its violence and intensity are such that it's quite dark, disturbing, and sometimes difficult to watch. It's hard telling if that's why MGM got skittish about releasing it, but the closest comparison I can draw to illustrate just how utterly real and horrifying this film can be is the sad and heartbreaking Australian found-footage outing LAKE MUNGO. Set up as a faux talking-head documentary, THE POUGHKEEPSIE TAPES chronicles the exploits of the east coast serial killer The Water Street Butcher, tracing his murders back to 1991 via a vast collection of homemade snuff videos found in his house in 1996. The madness begins with the abduction and murder of a little girl right from her front yard, escalates to a couple being kidnapped on their way home to Poughkeepsie from Pittsburgh, and soon, he's very intricately crafting the murder sites to deliberately mislead the investigators and misdirect the profilers when the FBI is called in. To throw them off even more, he changes his M.O. and kidnaps 19-year-old Cheryl Dempsey (Stacy Chbosky), holding her captive as a sex-and-torture slave in his basement. He even shows up at Cheryl's house and films himself talking to her mother, laughing and taunting her ("If there's anything I can do...") before running away once the mom realizes she's looking right at the man who kidnapped her daughter. The murders go on, with the killer deliberately leaving DNA behind as if he's trying to get captured, and that's when things take an unexpected and even more horrific turn, with Dowdle even working in 9/11 in a plausible, non-exploitative fashion.

THE POUGHKEEPSIE TAPES takes full advantage of one of the unsung ringers of modern-era horror: blurry video and garbled audio, which always gets under your skin if done right. This film excels at it, even if you have to cut them some slack that all of the VHS tapes are somehow 1.78:1. The unpredictable patterns of the murders, the rawness of the tapes that make them look like genuine snuff films, the intelligence and the patience of the killer, and the horrific conditions in which he leaves the victims (the couple is found with the man decapitated, his head surgically implanted into the woman's stomach with his face protruding like some demented tribute to TOTAL RECALL's Cuato) are the stuff of nightmares straight from the Hannibal Lecter or SE7EN playbooks. The same goes for the notes read by the investigating agents ("His genitals were removed and placed in the sock drawer of the master bedroom"), and one absolutely chilling scene that rivals the cell phone discovery in LAKE MUNGO, when an exhaustive study of the now-dead Pittsburgh-to-Poughkeepsie couple on surveillance footage from a gas station gives police their first look at the killer, a blurry image of a figure standing on the far edge of the frame, seemingly communicating to the camera in sign language in so subtle a fashion that it takes them a while to figure out that he's telling them where they'll find the bodies. There's a bit of a logic lapse later on involving the killer's fate, but it's a minor quibble in a very effective film that's so bleak and unflinching that it probably wouldn't have done well in theaters. This is grim, bleak shit that makes SE7EN look like the feel-good movie of the year. Maybe that's why MGM had no idea what to do with it.  (R, 81 mins)



ARMED RESPONSE 
(US - 2017)


Fusing elements of a PREDATOR-type actioner with EVENT HORIZON, THE KEEP, and the short-lived, late '80s "haunted prison" craze (DESTROYER, PRISON, SLAUGHTERHOUSE ROCK, THE CHAIR) had some potential for some batshit craziness, but ARMED RESPONSE is a lethargic, drably-shot, ploddingly-paced bore that only comes alive in the last five minutes, by which point it's way too late to care. It's probably going for slow burn, but there's no tension, no suspense, and about 90% of the running time consists of people either walking down dark corridors with flashlights and military weapons at the ready, staring at rows of monitors, or arguing with one another. Gabriel (BROTHERS & SISTERS' Dave Annable) is still in shock over the death of his young daughter (some backstory that has no payoff) when he's visited by Isaac (Wesley Snipes), his old commander in Afghanistan. Isaac needs him to investigate some strange occurrences at "The Temple," a secret compound inside an abandoned prison. The Temple is the next stage in the evolution of the war on terror: a sentient, AI lifeforce whose technological capabilities to weed out the truth trumps all lie detectors and "enhanced interrogation" techniques. Gabriel is a former MIT whiz kid who designed the security system inside The Temple, and he may be needed to get Isaac and his team, among them no-nonsense Riley (Anne Heche) and hothead Brett (WWE star Seth Rollins), in and out of the facility. It seems the last team stationed at The Temple were slaughtered when The Temple went rogue. Security footage shows the team being attacked by unseen and apparently supernatural forces, and soon those forces start coming for them. The Temple is able to detect wrongdoings and buried secrets, and like the last crew, Isaac and his officers committed swept-under-the-rug war crimes in Afghanistan and The Temple intends to make them pay, as illustrated by such dialogue as "There's a presence in the code!" and "The Temple has judged us deserving of punishment!" and "The Temple has reached a tipping point." So will most viewers by that time.






There's potential for some insightful, layered commentary here, but ARMED RESPONSE goes the generic route, offering a bunch of cliched military hardasses in lieu of characters or interesting ideas. The whole idea behind "The Temple" is half-baked and never really clearly expressed, and it only gets remotely interesting when Gabriel has to reboot the system and The Temple slowly regains its power, with its cinder block walls coming to life and reaching out to unlucky victims, yanking their arms out of their sockets. That kind of craziness would've been helpful in the 85 minutes up to that point, but director John Stockwell, a former actor (CHRISTINE, MY SCIENCE PROJECT, TOP GUN) who made some successful movies (CRAZY/BEAUTIFUL, BLUE CRUSH, INTO THE BLUE) before his post-2011 slide into the world of VOD/DTV (CAT RUN, IN THE BLOOD, KICKBOXER: VENGEANCE) just seems to be coasting through, and the end result looks like an updated and slightly higher-end version of something Roger Corman's Concorde would've released in 1989. Snipes and Heche are the big names here, and while they're in the whole movie and don't pull any Bruce Willis or Steven Seagal phone-ins, they're definitely sidelined in favor of the bland Annable. The film was produced by WWE Studios (hence, Rollins' involvement) and upstart Erebus Pictures, a production company formed by none other than KISS icon and NEVER TOO YOUNG TO DIE villain Gene Simmons, who also briefly appears in either a bald cap or sans wig (looking a lot like late-career Michael Ansara) in a flashback as a suspected terrorist. Simmons is also all over the accompanying making-of featurette, and if you watch that before the movie, you'd might think that he's the star of the movie. (R, 94 mins)


OPEN WATER 3: CAGE DIVE
(Australia - 2017)


After a ten-year hiatus, Lionsgate dusts off the OPEN WATER franchise for another go by taking an Australian shark attack movie called CAGE DIVE and slapping the "OPEN WATER 3" prefix on it. It's very similar to what they did with 2007's OPEN WATER 2: ADRIFT, where they took a sharkless German film called ADRIFT, with a bunch of people stranded in the ocean, unable to get back on a yacht after they all jumped off and no one pulled the ladder down. Neither in-name-only "sequel" has anything to do with Chris Kentis 2004 micro-budget indie hit OPEN WATER, and CAGE DIVE, is more or less a remake, with some added melodrama and the requisite found footage angle, taking advantage of the Trend That Wouldn't Die. Probably hastily prepped for VOD after the surprise success of the long-shelved Weinstein castoff 47 METERS DOWN, CAGE DIVE opens with the remains of a digital video camera found on the ocean floor, its memory card still intact. Faster than you can say "I wonder who the real sharks are," we're watching shaky, handheld footage of Americans--siblings Jeff (Joel Hogan) and Josh (Josh Potthoff), and Jeff's girlfriend Megan (Megan Peta Hill)--traveling to Australia to visit Jeff and Josh's Sydney-born cousin (Pete Valley) before heading off to a cage dive, digital camera in tow since Jeff wants to get them all on a daredevil reality show. They head out on a group excursion, and while the three of them are in the cage, a freak tidal wave appears out of nowhere, capsizes the boat, and the few survivors who weren't killed in the impact are soon eaten by great white sharks until only Jeff, Josh, and Megan remain, treading water. Of course Jeff never stops filming, even as hypothermia and delirium set in, and writer/director Gerald Rascionato (also credited with producing, photographing, editing, and casting) also makes time for turgid melodrama with Jeff finding out what the audience already knows from his camera being left on earlier: Megan is cheating on him with Josh, which really puts a damper on his plans to propose to her on the trip. OPEN WATER 3: CAGE DIVE has some convincing shark action, but relies too heavily on characters doing stupid things (luck sends a lifeboat drifting their way, so of course Megan sets it ablaze when she freaks out and mishandles a flare) to the point where you'll eventually start rooting for the sharks, in which case, you'll get a happy ending. (R, 81 mins)






Friday, October 6, 2017

In Theaters: BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017)


BLADE RUNNER 2049
(US - 2017)

Directed by Denis Villeneuve. Written by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green. Cast: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Jared Leto, Robin Wright, Dave Bautista, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Mackenzie Davis, Carla Juri, Lennie James, Barkhad Abdi, Edward James Olmos, Wood Harris, Hiam Abbass, David Dastmalchian, Tomas Lemarquis, Sean Young. (R, 164 mins)

Ridley Scott's BLADE RUNNER, based on Philip K. Dick's 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, is so highly and rightfully regarded as an influential sci-fi masterpiece to this day that it's easy to forget that it only did middling business in theaters in the summer of 1982 and the reviews weren't all that great. Over time, thanks to incessant cable and TV airings and the reconstruction of the "director's cut" in 1992 (assembled from the workprint and Scott's notes; he was busy working on 1492: CONQUEST OF PARADISE at the time and wasn't directly involved in it other than being consulted) and later with Scott's official "final cut" in 2007, the film's reputation and significance grew. The compromised theatrical version was a thorn in the side of both Scott and star Harrison Ford, who wasn't pleased about adding hard-boiled voiceover narration and made every effort to ensure that it sounded as if it was doing it at gunpoint. The director's cut removed the narration and added the much-debated unicorn scene, meant to ambiguously convey that perhaps Deckard (Ford), the titular blade runner, was himself a replicant just like those he was assigned to pursue and "retire." In the unlikely event you haven't seen BLADE RUNNER since it was in theaters and all you know is the now-obsolete theatrical version, then you're going to be completely baffled as to what's going in BLADE RUNNER 2049, which uses the director's cut as its springboard. With Scott onboard as executive producer, the original film's co-writer Hampton Fancher (his first credit since 1999's THE MINUS MAN) contributing to the script, and acclaimed filmmaker Denis Villeneuve (PRISONERS, SICARIO, ARRIVAL) at the helm, BLADE RUNNER 2049 established its bona fides before filming even began. Villeneuve promised to remain true to the beloved original and he more or less does. It in no way insults or diminishes the memory of the 1982 classic, and it throws in plenty of winking callbacks, but at the end of the day, it's still a 35-years-later sequel that doesn't succeed in justifying its existence.






Set 30 years after the first film, BLADE RUNNER 2049 opens in an even more dystopian California. Due to repeated replicant rebellions like the one led by Rutger Hauer's Roy Batty, the Tyrell Corporation went bankrupt. Replicant production began once more when what was left of Tyrell's operation was purchased by billionaire industrialist Niander Wallace (Jared Leto). Blade runner K (Ryan Gosling) arrives at the isolated desert farm of Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista), an old-school Nexus 8 replicant with an indeterminate lifespan. After a violent confrontation, K does his job and takes him out before reporting back to LAPD headquarters for a "baseline" debriefing required of replicants. Yes, that's right. BLADE RUNNER 2049 immediately answers the million dollar question: blade runners are replicants, and they're now integrated into society, even though they're regarded as second-class citizens, or "skinjobs" and "skinners." Investigation of Morton's property reveals a box of human skeletal remains near a tree. Examination of the remains indicate that it was a woman who died giving birth, and further analysis of the DNA shows proof that the skeleton is that of a replicant, thus blowing the doors off everything known about the bioengineered "skinjobs," who can apparently sexually reproduce, one last experiment pulled off by the Tyrell Corporation before it imploded. K's investigation into the whereabouts of the woman's child leads him to numerous places--very slowly--and also involves his hologram love interest Joi (Ana de Armas); a "memory designer" (Carla Juri) who knows about a specific real or imagined event that's been planted into K's memory; Wallace's ruthless enforcer Luv (Sylvia Hoeks as Milla Jovovich) who's also out to find the now-adult child; and even a visit to a retirement home with Gaff (Edward James Olmos), who's still passing the time and busies his hands by making tiny origami animals.


Eventually, K ends up in the radioactive ruins of Las Vegas, where Deckard has been in hiding for 30 years after running off with now-deceased  replicant Rachael (Sean Young) at the end of the first film. To say anymore would involve too many spoilers, but let's begin with the positives: it's just as visually stunning as you'd expect, thanks in large part to the work of the great cinematographer Roger Deakins, the Susan Lucci of D.P.s who's been nominated for 13 Oscars and has yet to win. The world of BLADE RUNNER 2049 is just as vividly dystopian as its predecessor in its own ways, this time mixing its neon-drenched cityscapes with dusty wastelands and the almost Overlook Hotel-esque appearance of the abandoned casino resort Deckard calls home. Ford's appearance here is not unlike Charlton Heston's extended cameo in BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES: BLADE RUNNER 2049 runs an ass-numbing 164 minutes, and in one of the most delayed entrances this side of Marlon Brando in APOCALYPSE NOW, Ford's first appearance doesn't even happen until nearly two hours in. Atmospheric slow-burn is one thing, but the ponderous and relentlessly gabby BLADE RUNNER 2049 is oppressively overlong, with scenes going on much longer than necessary and too many instances of characters introduced making overly verbose expository proclamations from the shadows only to slowly emerge in the light (Leto only has two scenes, and he enters both of them in this fashion). Everyone in this movie is a slow talker, and it probably adds 30 minutes to the running time.


Knowing now that Deckard is a replicant doesn't change the events of the first film since the director's cut more or less said as much, but Ford still managed to create a compelling and complex character. Here, Deckard just looks befuddled and grouchy. In other words, he looks like Harrison Ford, reliving his Han Solo and Indiana Jones glory days in present-day nostalgia trips that don't quite measure up to the classics that came before (STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS was fun, but have you ever met an INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL fan?).  K is a character that, on paper, plays to the strengths of Gosling's moody persona as seen in DRIVE and ONLY GOD FORGIVES, but Nicolas Winding Refn made those enigmatic Gosling characters a lot more interesting in those films than Villeneuve does here. K's love for Joi is an interesting concept that never really feels developed, but then, nor do any of the characters. BLADE RUNNER is a hypnotic experience that feels new and compelling and fresh with each revisit. It's timeless. But for all the talk of replicants finding their humanity in BLADE RUNNER 2049, there's nothing here even remotely as memorable or gut-wrenching as Rutger Hauer's "Tears in Rain" monologue before his final, resigned declaration of "Time to die." And while Vangelis' synth score is one of the 1982 film's most memorable components, the score here by Hans Zimmer is so aggressively, overbearingly bombastic that it almost qualifies as self-parody. Vangelis enhanced the mood and the vision and contributed to the hypnotic nature. Zimmer's score stampedes and bulldozes over everything to the point where it's an overwhelming, suffocating distraction that actually detracts from the effectiveness of numerous scenes. I gave BLADE RUNNER 2049 time, fidgeting through its laborious first hour and legitimately intrigued by a major plot reveal that finally seems to set things in motion, but it resumed dragging ass shortly thereafter and Zimmer's score got even more obnoxious, and no matter how captivating the visuals were, I finally had to accept the fact that it was well past two hours into this thing, its contrivances and developments were getting more half-baked and nonsensical (I'm still not sure what's going on with the replicant "revolution" that gets brought up near the end and is instantly dropped) and the point had passed where I ran out of excuses and had to admit to myself that I wasn't connecting with it at all. BLADE RUNNER was slow in a methodical way that was never boring. BLADE RUNNER 2049 is so concerned with replicating that feeling that it never finds its footing and never gets any momentum going. Maybe I'll look at it again in a year.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Retro Review: THE DEVIL'S HONEY (1986)


THE DEVIL'S HONEY
aka DANGEROUS OBSESSION
(Italy/Spain - 1986; US release 1991)

Directed by Lucio Fulci. Written by Ludovica Marineo, Vincenzo Salviani, Jesus Balcazar and Lucio Fulci. Cast: Brett Halsey, Corinne Clery, Blanca Marsillach, Stefano Madia, Bernard Seray, Paola Molina, Eulalia Ramon, Lucio Fulci. (Unrated, 83 mins)

With the release of 1979's ZOMBIE, genre-hopping journeyman Lucio Fulci established himself as the foremost Italian splatter auteur, launching a seemingly unstoppable run of trailblazing films over a few busy and prolific years--most of them produced by Fabrizio De Angelis--that ran until 1982's MANHATTAN BABY. It was during that film that the working relationship between Fulci and De Angelis went south after the producer slashed the film's budget by 75%. Following their acrimonious split, De Angelis started directing Italian ripoffs of American blockbusters under the name "Larry Ludman," while Fulci returned to his role as a director-for-hire, dabbling in the sword-and-sorcery CONQUEST, the post-apocalyptic THE NEW GLADIATORS, and the FLASHDANCE-inspired giallo MURDER-ROCK: DANCING DEATH. Some serious health issues sidelined Fulci for much of 1984 and all of 1985, and 1986's THE DEVIL'S HONEY marked a comeback of sorts, though he'd never attain the heights of fame and infamy that he had in the days of ZOMBIE, CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD, or THE BEYOND. The latter years of Fulci's career have a few interesting moments--fans generally cite TOUCH OF DEATH and his meta cut-and-paste job CAT IN THE BRAIN as the high points--but are mostly dreadful affairs like SODOMA'S GHOST, DEMONIA, and the boring DOOR TO SILENCE, a 1991 dud that proved to be his final film before his death in 1996. He was scheduled to direct the Dario Argento production WAX MASK, but his rapidly declining health forced him to back out and he was replaced by Italian makeup maestro Sergio Stivaletti, though Fulci did receive a co-writing credit on the film, released a year after his death.






THE DEVIL'S HONEY is an odd outlier in the later years of Fulci's filmography, primarily because it's a Skinemax-ready 9 1/2 WEEKS knockoff that isn't the kind of film one usually associates with the beloved Godfather of Gore. Essentially a sort-of Fifty Shades of Fulci, THE DEVIL'S HONEY is an extraordinarily trashy, S&M-crazed erotic thriller that took five years to get a straight-to-video US release in 1991, shorn of several minutes and generically retitled DANGEROUS OBSESSION. After over 25 years languishing in obscurity in the US, THE DEVIL'S HONEY has resurfaced on Blu-ray from Severin Films in its uncensored, 83-minute version (the trimming of the most explicit content took the DANGEROUS OBSESSION cut down to a mere 78 minutes) to allow fans to marvel at some often jaw-droppingly kinky Lucio After Dark sexcapades. Jessica (Blanca Marsillach) is a naive and submissive young woman being dominated in a sadomasochistic relationship by sleazy, saxophone-playing asshole Johnny (Stefano Madia). You know THE DEVIL'S HONEY will be something special when the first scene has Johnny kicking everyone out of the recording studio so Jessica can strip down to her panties and get off on the vibrations of the melody being blown through the bell of his grinding sax. That's almost immediately followed by Jessica giving him a handjob while they're speeding on his motorcycle and an episode of rough anal sex where she's shown growing more aroused each time she tells him to stop. Then we meet Dr. Wendell Simpson (Brett Halsey), a middle-aged surgeon who's grown bored with his wife Carol (Corinne Clery) and spends his free time meeting hookers for degrading quickies in no-tell hotels. When Johnny suffers a head injury after a motorcycle wipeout, he's rushed into surgery. Simpson is the surgeon on call, but he's so distracted by an argument he just had with Carol that he can't focus on the task at hand and Johnny dies on the operating table. Enraged, overwhelmed by grief, and so co-dependently addicted to being treated like shit by Johnny, Jessica snaps and confronts Simpson at gunpoint, forcing him to drive to Johnny's country house where, in between erotic fantasies about her dead lover and how much she misses being abused by him, she makes Simpson sit in his piss-soaked pants before stripping him nude, chains him to a wall, prances around in the buff to tease him, forces him to eat dog food, pours hot candle wax on him and generally humiliates him in between death threats brandishing the gun that Johnny would frequently use to penetrate her, which only serves to turn the surgeon on rather than frighten him.





Even for connoisseurs of the halcyon days of Eurotrash softcore porn, THE DEVIL'S HONEY stands alone. A year earlier, Fulci had a hand in the screenplay for LA GABBIA, aka THE TRAP, a film he wanted to direct but when his health made it impossible, the producers went ahead with Giuseppe Patroni Griffi (THE DIVINE NYMPH) at the helm. LA GABBIA, released straight to video in the US in 1988 as COLLECTOR'S ITEM, has some surface similarities to THE DEVIL'S HONEY: Tony Musante is a lothario who cheats on his girlfriend (Florinda Bolkan) with an old one-night stand ('70s Italian sex goddess Laura Antonelli), who snaps and holds him captive, treating him to the whole stripped-and-restrained, humiliation and degradation act. It even features Marsillach as Antonelli's daughter, who also has designs on Musante, who may or may not be her biological father from that 20-year-old one-nighter. Marsillach is up for absolutely anything in THE DEVIL'S HONEY: she's naked half the time, masturbating in nearly every other scene when she isn't delirious with anger, and enthusiastically dives into whatever depravity Fulci demanded. Clery has little to do and disappears about midway through the film, but with getting to take part in steamy sex scenes with a disrobed Clery and Marsillach, it's easy to see what drew Halsey to the project. Born in 1933, he was groomed for success by Hollywood studios in the 1950s but it didn't quite pan out (his most high-profile early role was probably starring with Vincent Price in RETURN OF THE FLY). Instead, he tested the waters of the European film industry in the 1960s where he found much more success in 007 knockoffs like SPY IN YOUR EYE and spaghetti westerns like TODAY WE KILL, TOMORROW WE DIE. He was married to future THUNDERBALL Bond girl Luciana Paluzzi from 1960 to 1962 and to popular German singer and actress Heidi Bruhl (THE EIGER SANCTION) from 1964 to 1976. For some reason, even though he was established and known in America and Europe and enjoyed a certain level of success as Brett Halsey, he inexplicably tried to reinvent himself and made a few movies from 1968-1970 using the name "Montgomery Ford." This only served to confuse his European fans and do nothing for his career, so he switched back to Brett Halsey when he decided to give Hollywood another go. He spent the rest of the 1970s and into the 1980s doing countless guest spots on tons of TV shows, including mandatory stops on THE LOVE BOAT and FANTASY ISLAND (shockingly, he never ended up on a MURDER, SHE WROTE), in addition to writing several Harold Robbins-esque beach-read novels about the movie industry.


THE DEVIL'S HONEY marked Halsey's return to Europe, where he would spend the next several years working on films for Fulci (TOUCH OF DEATH), Bruno Mattei (COP GAME), Antonio Margheriti (THE COMMANDER), Luigi Cozzi (THE BLACK CAT), and Jess Franco (ESMERALDA BAY), while finding time to play the second husband of Diane Keaton's Kay Corleone in THE GODFATHER PART III. Halsey approaches the content of THE DEVIL'S HONEY as fearlessly as his alluring co-stars, whether it's brushing his mouth over Marsillach's pubic hair, removing Clery's fingers from her crotch and putting them right in his mouth, or groping a prostitute (Eulalia Ramon) in close-up as she masturbates with a fingernail polish brush (Halsey even gets naked in this thing, probably assuming none of his Hollywood friends would ever see it). He turns in a solid performance, even though he didn't stick around for the dubbing and has been revoiced by someone else. Halsey continued working on American TV in the 1990s and still pops up every now and again (his most recent TV credit is a 2008 episode of COLD CASE) in a low-budget DTV movie. These days, he mainly does conventions and gives interviews for Blu-ray releases of his old movies (he can be seen on the Criterion edition of the late '50s sci-fi cult movie THE ATOMIC SUBMARINE in their "Monsters and Madmen" set), and is revealed to be an engaging raconteur at 84 on the DEVIL'S HONEY bonus features. He speaks fondly of his old movies, doesn't dismiss the trashy ones, and doesn't pull any punches, saying Fulci was always nice to him but could be a tyrant with others, and flat-out admitting that he absolutely hated Marsillach and wished the film gave Clery more to do (he doesn't stop there, also saying that ESMERALDA BAY co-star Ramon Estevez--one of Martin Sheen's sons--was "a nice kid, a really nice kid," but had no business being in a movie). There isn't much in THE DEVIL'S HONEY that's distinctly Fulci--it's not a Filmirage production, but with its hazy, late '80s Filmirage look, it feels more akin to a Joe D'Amato movie than anything--but it's perversely sleazy, entertaining trash that's right alongside MURDER-ROCK as the standouts of his post-Fabrizio De Angelis years.


One of the more subtle moments of THE DEVIL'S HONEY



Saturday, September 30, 2017

On Netflix: GERALD'S GAME (2017)


GERALD'S GAME
(US - 2017)

Directed by Mike Flanagan. Written by Mike Flanagan and Jeff Howard. Cast: Carla Gugino, Bruce Greenwood, Henry Thomas, Chiara Aurelia, Kate Siegel, Carel Struycken. (Unrated, 103 mins)

Based on Stephen King's 1992 novel of the same name, the Netflix Original film GERALD'S GAME comes at a particularly zeitgeisty moment in pop culture: Andy Muschietti's IT, from King's 1986 novel, is a bona fide blockbuster and the biggest horror hit in years, and with its themes of sexual abuse and toxic masculinity, GERALD's GAME is a film practically tailor-made for the era of the woke thinkpiece. It's probably taken this long for Gerald's Game to be made into a movie because it's usually cited as one of King's less filmable works, though director/co-writer Mike Flanagan, one of horror's most promising voices of the last decade (OCULUS, HUSH, OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL, and still-shelved BEFORE I WAKE), gives it his best shot. Gerald's Game was the first novel in what could retroactively be termed King's "woke" phase. It was followed the same year by the acclaimed Dolores Claiborne (made into a movie in 1995) and the middling Rose Madder in 1995 (not yet adapted for the big or small screen, and probably even less filmable than Gerald's Game). GERALD'S GAME works best when it stays focused in the here and now, with its heroine in an increasingly doomed situation. Fatigue sets in and her mind starts playing tricks on her. She begins hallucinating manifestations of long-suppressed traumas of her past that have influenced every decision she's ever made. She summons a degree of inner resolve she never thought possible and King believes in her, and fortunately for Flanagan, he has a game lead actress giving it everything she's got in what should be the role of her career.






GERALD'S GAME is anchored by a gutsy and absolutely fearless performance by Carla Gugino, a jobbing actress who's been a familiar face in movies and TV since the late 1980s, though she first gained notice with her breakout role opposite Pauly Shore in 1993's SON IN LAW. Gugino is Jessie, the beautiful trophy wife of older, wealthy attorney Gerald (Bruce Greenwood). Their marriage has gone stale, and Gerald arranges a weekend getaway at an isolated cabin to reignite the spark. Jessie buys some sexy lingerie, while Gerald packs Viagra and handcuffs. He wastes no time, handcuffing Jessie to the reinforced bedposts and cajoling her to engage in a rape fantasy. Things quickly turn uncomfortable as his play gets a little more rough than Jessie's willing to indulge. She bites his lower lip to get him off of her and in the middle of the ensuing argument, Gerald clutches his arm and his chest, dropping dead of a heart attack right on top of her. She kicks him off the bed and onto the hardwood floor where the fall cracks his head open. There's no one around, Gerald's phone and the keys to the handcuffs are just out of reach, and the design of the bedposts makes it impossible to slide the cuffs off of them to allow freedom. On top of that, Gerald left the front door open in his excitement to get between the sheets, allowing a hungry stray dog inside, who almost immediately helps himself to Gerald's corpse on the bedroom floor. Then the hallucinations start.


Jessie sees herself in the room, giving herself advice and guidance that goes against the vision of Gerald that keeps belittling her and reminding her of her place. The image of Jessie starts bringing up horrific events of her childhood, all centered on an instance of sexual molestation by her father (Henry Thomas in flashbacks) during a solar eclipse while the family was vacationing at a lake when she was 12 (Chiara Aurelia plays Jessie in these scenes). While "Jessie" pushes her to fight, "Gerald" tells her to give in to Death, who will come at night at take her in the form of The Moonlight Man (Carel Struycken), a monstrous specter who collects souvenirs of the dead. When GERALD'S GAME stays in the room, it works, and that's due almost entirely to Gugino's performance. She's ably supported by Greenwood, riffing on his now-standard "Bruce Greenwood" persona (he really is the go-to guy for smug, asshole husbands), but the film falls apart at roughly the same place the book does. Flanagan makes some changes--the book version of Gerald is a unattractive and slovenly, while Greenwood is handsome and impressively buff at 61--but remains faithful to King to a fault. The finale of the novel wasn't a disaster, but on the screen, it doesn't work at all, and not knowing how to end things has been just one problem that's plagued King's inconsistent output since right around the time he wrote Gerald's Game (this was also glaringly apparent with Rose Madder, which starts great but shits the bed and never recovers the moment its battered wife heroine dives into a mirror and enters a fantasy realm, and the issue of whether we're at the point where King's mediocre and forgettable work outnumbers his classics is a valid discussion to have). Flanagan has been a Gerald's Game superfan since he read it as a teenager and has cited it as a dream project that was a main inspiration in his wanting to become a filmmaker. But in the end, his movie adaptation will stand as an example of something not quite translating from page to screen. Stories work differently depending on the medium, and mileage may vary, but the last ten minutes of GERALD'S GAME feel anticlimactic and tacked-on, and the book's ending should've been the first thing to go when Flanagan began outlining the script. Yes, he should be commended for tackling a difficult adaptation and succeeding more often than not (and there's one grisly moment that will make even the most experienced gorehounds grimace and look away), but despite a great performance by Gugino, this aims for the fences but doesn't quite make it.

Friday, September 29, 2017

On DVD/Blu-ray: THE BAD BATCH (2017) and IT STAINS THE SANDS RED (2017)


THE BAD BATCH
(US - 2017)



In the first ten minutes of THE BAD BATCH, heroine Arlen (Suki Waterhouse) is banished to a vaguely post-apocalyptic desert wasteland in Texas, abducted by marauding cannibals who hack off her right arm and right leg and cook them on a grill, then she covers herself in her own shit to make the rest of herself less appetizing. So begins writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour's followup to the acclaimed A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT. THE BAD BATCH is a bigger film with bigger names, but it's definitely a classic case of a sophomore slump. Arlen manages to escape her flesh-eating captors and is taken by a mute, nameless hermit (Jim Carrey, of all people) to a makeshift town called Comfort, ruled by a guru-like cult figure known as The Dream (Keanu Reeves, looking like Joe Spinell circa MANIAC). After encountering one of the women who initially abducted her, Arlen, now sporting a prosthetic leg, kills her and takes the woman's young daughter Honey (Jayda Fink) back to Comfort. Honey was stolen from her father Miami Man (Jason Momoa) with the intention of grooming her for a life of sexual servitude to The Dream. Miami Man--himself a cannibal but hey, he's a sympathetic flesh eater and a loving father with artistic talent-- then ventures into the desert and enlists the aid of Arlen and the hermit to find his daughter.





After an intriguingly strange opening act, THE BAD BATCH just goes nowhere. Repetitive scenes of people walking through the desert and mumbling give the film the distinct feeling of an '80s post-nuke fused with Gus Van Sant's GERRY. An endless mid-film acid trip after a rave at The Dream's stops the film cold and it never recovers. Waterhouse is OK in the lead, but Amirpour can't decide if the focus should be on Arlen or Miami Man, a quandary that isn't helped by Momoa sporting one of the worst accents ever heard in a movie. He's supposed to be from Cuba, but he sounds like Mushmouth trying to do a Scarface impression, making about 90% of his dialogue unintelligible without putting on the subtitles. There's some nice cinematography and the film's vision of a dystopian hellscape is intermittently effective, as are some incongruously '80s and '90s-sounding music choices by present-day indie bands like Federale, whose track "All the Colours of the Dark" is used in a nicely-done montage. At the same time, a woman getting her neck snapped to Culture Club's "Karma Chameleon" and Arlen getting her arm sawed off to Ace of Base's "All That She Wants" comes off as silly and pointless, and reeking of "Well, we got the clearance on these songs, so I guess we have to use them." Watching THE BAD BATCH, it's apparent that Amirpour had the beginnings of an idea but didn't know where to take it. There's certainly some political commentary to be mined from a fenced-off area of Texas, deporting undesirables--"The Bad Batch"--to the harsh outside, and Miami Man being an illegal immigrant, but Amirpour doesn't bother. She also wastes a potentially interesting supporting cast, with Giovanni Ribisi serving no purpose whatsoever as a nutcase called "The Screamer," Reeves getting a long monologue about where shit travels after it's excreted, and the unexpected casting of a silent, grizzled, barely recognizable Carrey in easily the strangest role of his career. Agonizingly overlong at just shy of two hours, and low-key to the point of catatonia, THE BAD BATCH is a barely half-baked concoction that falls almost completely flat and fails to follow through on the promise Amirpour displayed with her impressive debut. (R, 119 mins)



IT STAINS THE SANDS RED

(Canada/US - 2017)


Under their collaborative moniker "The Vicious Brothers," Colin Minahan and Stuart Ortiz earned a small degree of cult notoriety among horror scenesters with their 2011 found-footage debut GRAVE ENCOUNTERS. The wrote and produced that film's 2012 sequel, and they wrote 2014's EXTRATERRESTRIAL, with Minahan directing solo. That arrangement continues with IT STAINS THE SANDS RED, the duo's day-late-and-a-dollar-short contribution to the zombie apocalypse genre. There's a couple of clever ideas here, but they're enough for maybe a 15-minute short film as opposed to a padded, laborious, 92-minute slog. Opening in medias res with the zombie invasion underway and Las Vegas in ruins, we're introduced to stripper Molly (Brittany Allen, also the star of EXTRATERRESTRIAL) and boyfriend Nick (Merwin Mondesir) speeding down a desert highway on their way to an air field where one of his friends has offered to fly them into Mexico. The car gets stuck in the sand as one lone, shambling zombie (Juan Riedlinger) approaches. Nick wastes his remaining bullets trying to shoot it in the head and is eventually killed and eaten when he tries to get out of the car to retrieve his dropped cell phone. Molly gathers what supplies she can--water, smokes, and a vial of coke--and begins hoofing it 30 miles through the desert in her Gene Simmons platform shoes with the zombie following in persistent pursuit. It moves slow enough that she can get a good distance and take periodic breaks, but it never stops and never gets tired, sort-of like a zombie version of IT FOLLOWS.





That's a nifty idea for a short film, but Minahan and Ortiz really struggle to get this thing to 90 minutes. Once the premise is established, along with a gross but admittedly clever bit where she manages to distract the zombie--who she eventually names "Smalls"--by offering it her bloody tampon to munch on while she gets a head start on her next getaway, this thing runs out of gas in record time. Minahan shoots in a saturated and frequently garish style that's more ugly than anything, and hardly any time has elapsed before Molly's babbling to herself and Minhan's already breaking out the surreal, grotesque, NATURAL BORN KILLERS-esque flourishes. She eventually forms a bizarre kinship with Smalls that comes out of nowhere and makes no sense--she even declines rescue from military personnel on one occasion because she doesn't want to leave the zombie alone. There's also a pointless detour involving a pair of yahoos who rescue then rape her, and she keeps having flashbacks to the son she abandoned in favor of her irresponsible, Vegas party girl lifestyle. The sliver of remaining humanity left in Smalls awakening Molly's dormant maternal instincts might've been a good idea if it had any foundation, but nothing in IT STAINS THE SANDS RED (a cool title, at least) makes sense, and everything that happens requires Molly to be conveniently stupid in order to advance the plot. Riedlinger is OK as Smalls, but he's not giving DAY OF THE DEAD's Howard Sherman any competition when it comes to great zombie performances. It doesn't help that he exits the film with nearly 30 minutes to go as Molly, much like IT STAINS THE SANDS RED, continues on aimlessly. An interesting set-up, but this thing just goes nowhere fast and has nothing to add to an already overcrowded genre. (Unrated, 92 mins)