Archive for February, 2015

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Okay, let me state for the record right out of the gate here that Alexandre Aja’s 2013 cinematic adaptation of Joe Hill’s well-regarded horror/fantasy novel Horns (which never made it to theaters in my area but is now available via Netflix instant streaming as well as on Blu-ray and DVD) is a flick that I was rooting for before I’d ever even seen it. I’m a fan of most of Aja’s previous efforts (yes, even Piranha 3D) and, while I haven’t read the book, I definitely  consider Hill’s Locke And Key to be one of the best comics of the past couple of decades, so — yeah, this one had all the makings of a “dream team” pairing for genre aficionados such as myself. What could possibly go wrong, right?

Now, if  I’m being perfectly frank, I have to admit that not much does — the film is well-cast, lavishly shot, has a reasonably involving story, and snappy, intelligent dialogue. Hill didn’t write the screenplay, that task having been passed to Keith Bunin, but it’s easy to see from this movie alone why his work has such a large and loyal legion of fans — he utilizes the trappings of “dark fantasy” in order to tell stories that are relevant to the human condition and creates interesting and relatable characters along the way resulting in a “finished product” that isn’t entirely dissimilar in flavor and tone to the work of, say, a Neil Gaiman, but has enough of a unique twist to brand it as something entirely its own. All in all, then, you’ve gotta say “so far, so good.”

But maybe that’s the “problem,” unfair as it is, right there. Horns is just kinda — well, good. Which is fine. It beats being bad (unless you’re in the mood for a bad flick). Still, I have to be honest — it comes within such close “sniffing distance” of being great that to see it fall short, as it ultimately does, is more than a tad bit disappointing.

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Here’s the thing, though — trying to pinpoint exactly where it goes “wrong” is almost an exercise in futility and ends up making me sound like I’m bitching about a movie that gets it right at almost every turn. My mom taught me never to sound ungrateful, and it’s generally pretty good advice, but a closer examination of Horns does, in fact, bring its flaws to the surface at least somewhat readily, and so, in that spirit, and despite the fact that I almost feel like I should be apologizing for doing so, let me now reluctantly lay out my case for why this movie just ain’t “all that.”

Ig Perrish (Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe) isn’t the most popular guy in his Pacific northwestern town (yes, this was shot in Vancouver) since they found his girlfriend, Merrin Williams (Juno Temple) dead out in the woods. Ig’s always been something of an outsider, and everybody’s surer than sure that he’s responsible for her murder. Plus, as events play out, it turns out that most every other guy he knows —including his brother, Terry (played by Joe Anderson), and best friend/attorney, Lee (Max Minghella) — had the hots for his old lady, too. Shit, even his dad (James Remar) was’t entirely immune to her charms. Killing your girlfriend is bad enough, but when she’s the most popular lady in town, that can only add to your troubles.

Of course, Ig didn’t do it — no “spoiler” there. But that set of horns that suddenly starts growing out of his head? Well, shit like that tends to make a guy look guilty. And he seems to developing a strange sort of control over snakes. And everyone in town seems to be telling him their most intimate secrets for no reason at all. How do horns, snake control, and mind control all go together? That,  friends, is a darn good question.

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It’s also one that Aja, Hill, and Bunin never answer. Simply put, for the most par they’re plot contrivances explicitly designed to move the story forward and have no real purpose beyond that. Maybe the origins of each of these individual pieces of “high weirdness” is fleshed out a bit more on the printed page, but here they all just kinda happen, and while the horns are an obvious and pretty blunt metaphor for anything that makes a person different , the whole snakes thing and the “I’m gonna bare my soul to you outta the blue” thing don’t even fit into the story’s admittedly obvious “let’s not judge others based on appearances” theme.

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Which, again, isn’t to say that they don’t “work” in terms of what they’re supposed to do — only that what they’re supposed to do apart from give the writer an easy way to nudge the proceedings along is never made clear in the least. And that’s probably why Horns is, ultimately, something of a let-down as far as viewing experiences go. It’s a great-looking film, with fine performances all around (especially on Radcliffe’s part) that  immerses its audience in an intriguing, well-structured fantasy world that’s close enough to our own to be believable, but different enough to be interesting. The supporting players all acquit themselves well and it’s  nice to see talented, but under-utilized, performers like Heather Graham, Kathleen Quinlan, and David Morse get material worthy of their skills and abilities. There’s a semi-generous helping of nudity, sex, and gore for us sleaze-hounds. There’s a strong element of the supernatural for those who dig that sort of thing. The characters are well-developed, fleshed-out people that you actually care about. And yet — it’s all just a bit too obvious. The horns on Ig’s head twist and turn but they’re not that sharp. The film ticks every box on the “must-haves in every horror story” checklist right in front of your face, and either comes up with a “the moral to this story is —” reason for their inclusion, or just blows off providing a reason entirely, content in its own ability to win you over through sheer technical competence, which it has in spades. But it’s all brain with very little heart . It could be damn near perfect— if it wasn’t trying so hard to be precisely that.

 

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There’s no doubt about it — E.L. James’ “Fifty Shades” trilogy has been something of a cultural phenomenon for a good few years, and now that the books are being adapted for the gra — err, silver screen by British director Sam Taylor-Johnson, we can probably remove the “something of” from that statement and just admit that we live in a world where, for better or worse, a poorly-thought-through, breathtakingly unrealistic, teenage-fantasy version of what dominant/submissive relationships are like has won the day. Prior to subjecting myself to the film earlier today, the little bit I’d read about it online seemed to indicate that almost no one, even fans of the novels, liked it very much, and that no group was more up in arms about how flat-out shitty it is than the actual BDSM (or D/S — or, hell, even D/s, if you prefer) community itself. Now that I have seen it, I can report without hesitation that this is, indeed, one  of those rare occasions — which are usually quite painful to a knee-jerk contrarian such as myself — where consensus opinion is actually right. In fact, even the most negative reviews are probably, if anything, too kind.

Where, then, to begin with the laundry-list of atrocities? Well, we could start with the fact that 27-year-old billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan, who has all the personality of a plank of wood and struggles to keep his Scottish accent buried throughout) would even find “plain Jane” cub reporter Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) worth pursuing for his idea of “romance” in the first place. Or that his corporate security would be so lax as to allow her to show up as an unannounced substitute for her roommate, who was actually supposed to be the one interviewing him (some “control freak” he is) for their college newspaper, without “vetting” her on some level first. Or that a guy who’s amassed a huge fortune at such a young age — which would presumably take a fair amount of work (not that we ever actually see him doing any) — would also find time to become an accomplished pilot and to stay in perfect physical health. Or that anybody as rich as Grey would have trouble meeting a woman who would be willing to take on the role of being his submissive-for-pay. Or that Taylor-Johnson would think that a movie whose primary “dramatic” element is an extended fucking contract negotiation could possibly hope to maintain an audience’s interest for just over two hours.

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Ah, you say, but this movie isn’t really about any of those things, right? It’s primarily concerned with being “steamy” and “sensuous” and “erotic,” and should be judged on how well it performs when the lights are low, the music is soft, the clothes come off, and the handcuffs and floggers come out. Well, I’m sorry, but Fifty Shades Of Grey fails miserably on all those counts, as well. When Anastasia gets bent over Grey’s knee for her first spanking (complete with him giving her the most groaningly obvious line you’re likely to hear in a movie this year — “welcome to my world”), all I could think was “that’s it?” I’m sorry, but even the most square, hung-up, “vanilla” guy in the world has given his wife or girlfriend a harder slap on the ass than  the ones “Mr. Dominant” dishes out here, and all that comes well after a guy who, again, is  supposedly all about power, control, and having things his own way consents to plenty of standard-issue, strictly-by-the-numbers sex (while taking every opportunity to remind both her and us that he actually hates this “intimacy” shit) in his attempts to woo her over to his “dark” side.

Honestly, you have to wonder if James, screenwriter Kelly Marcel, and Taylor-Johnson, who comprise this film’s all-female “creative core,” did any sort of research into the subject of BDSM at all before going ahead with this thing. It’s well-documented that the books actually began life as Twilight fan fiction with Edward and Bella in the dominant and submissive roles, and if it had stayed as such, its portrayal of the power exchange in D/S relationships wouldn’t have been any more unrealistic. It’s probably a bit fat-fetched to expect any big-budget Hollywood production to give an honest accounting of the sheer drudgery that’s often a part of completely controlling someone else’s existence and/or having someone else completely control yours, but it’s certainly not too much to expect a film that hinges more or less completely on its glamorized depiction of sado-masochistic erotica to at least find a way to make it either titillating, intriguing, or both. Instead, Taylor-Johnson brings all the “passion” to her “playroom” (does any self-respecting dominant person actually refer to his or her sex chamber as that?) sessions that Tommy Wiseau did to his “love” scenes in The Room — and with fairly similar end results.

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One of the weirder things about this flick is trying to decipher why any woman would be interested in Grey (who is always dressed immaculately in expensive tailored suits but has a pair of torn and frayed jeans mysteriously appear whenever it’s time to make The Beast With Two Backs And 2,000 Bruises) for any reason other than his money, such a blank and uninteresting slab of  (admittedly well-cut) meat does Dornan’s lackluster performance make him out to be,  yet we’re expected  to believe that there’s so much going on “underneath the surface” with him that a reasonably educated, purportedly interesting young lady like Anastasia will turn to absolute jelly for him after one measly helicopter ride with the guy  —while also, paradoxically, holding so much power over him that she’s slowly able to, even by his own admission, begin turning him into  the kind of “regular” boyfriend she wants him to be. Dornan’s constantly blank look also doesn’t do anything to help us understand why someone in his position would — sorry to use the term, but — submit to her basically doing the legal equivalent of jerking him off but not letting him cum for days on end while she hems and haws over his stupid fucking contract offer. Johnson (the daughter of Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith) displays considerably more in the way of acting “chops” than her co-star, and she has a more realistic (if  still slightly anorexic) frame than most other Hollywood leading ladies, but she doesn’t exude any of the mystery or charisma, or even uniqueness,  that would be required to keep an honest-to-goodness young, handsome billionaire — even one completely devoid of personality, much less anything resembling “charm” — waiting around for her with baited breath. Far be it from an armchair critic like myself to know enough about the art of filmmaking to offer advice to an established director like Taylor-Johnson, but here’s a tip anyway : when you’ve got a movie that pivots entirely on the relationship between its two leads, those leads really do need to be pitch-perfect for their roles.

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Okay, yeah, there are numerous hints given along the way that there’s a lot more to learn about both of these characters, especially Grey, as the series progresses (it’s strongly intimated, for instance, that he’s got some serious “mommy issues”), but it’s the job of this first flick to at least make you interested enough in what’s going on to ensure that you’ll be back for more, and unless you’re a much bigger masochist than Anastasia seems capable of becoming (did I mention that she’s also a virgin until about halfway through the film?), that’s not likely to happen. Furthermore, unlike, say, Steven Shainberg’s 2002 flick Secretary — which had its flaws but at least tried to convey something about sado-masochistic relationships with some degree of authenticity — watching the proceedings here actually takes you further and further away from understanding the psychology behind dominance and submission, thanks in large part to dialogue and settings so contrived as to have “ready-for-the-MST3K treatment” stamped all over them.  Hell, if you’re not careful, you may even find yourself so worn down as to grow dumber right along with the story — and that brain matter you’ll feel oozing and seeping from your ears? I’m willing to bet that it’ll be 50 shades of gray.

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Do you ever get those emails sent to your inbox from Netflix saying “we’ve added a new movie to our instant streaming lineup that we think you’ll like”? Yeah, I do, too. And do you usually blow them off? Yup, same here. But have you ever opened one — just one — and followed the link, and actually watched the suggested film just for the sheer novelty of proving to yourself how little they truly know about their customers?

No need to raise your hands all at once, let me break the uncomfortable “no way, I’m too cool for that” silence by admitting that’s precisely what I did last night on a whim and that, dear friends, is how I found myself plunked down on the sofa watching the newly-released (as in it’s not even out on Blu-ray and DVD yet and its IMDB listing has a production date of 2015) British (well, okay, Welsh if you wanna be specific about it) indie horror The Last House On Cemetery Lane.

What can I say? I’m a sucker for any and all “Last House” flicks, simply because I love a rip-off so cheap and cheesy that the producers know damn well the public isn’t going to be stupid enough to think their flick has anything to do with Wes Craven’s seminal 1972 masterwork The Last House On The Left, but they go ahead and do it anyway. It’s almost like they’re saying “we’re not that dumb — and you’re not that dumb — and we know you’re not that dumb — and you know that we know that you’re not that dumb — but damn, give us a break here, you  probably aren’t gonna see this thing regardless, but without that “Last House” in there, you definitely won’t.”

Besides, if you don’t give ’em all a go, you never know — you might miss out on some real gems. Is there anyone, for instance, who’s seen Roger Watkins’ The Last House On Dead End Street who doesn’t think it’s one of the most visceral, nihilistic, uncompromising, and frankly unforgettable horror films of all time? And how many of us would ever have seen it in the first place if it bore Watkins’ original title, The Cuckoo Clocks Of Hell? I rest my case.

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All that being said, I definitely should have deleted this less-than-helpful recommendation email from Netflix, or at least had the good sense to turn this flick off early on, because writer/director Andrew Jones’ low-budget effort is a complete waste of time in every sense. About the only thing I can say in its favor is that at 75 minutes or so at least it’s not a waste of that much time, but that’s what we would-be/armchair critics (and even the pros, come to think of it) refer to as “damning with faint praise.”

Here are the particulars, for those of you who absolutely must know : tired of the London hustle-bustle, supposedly semi-successful screenwriter John Davies (Lee Bane), retreats to the Welsh countryside to search for inspiration for his next project, and takes up as a lodger in a quaint-but-rickety old house owned by an aging blind woman named Mrs. Connelly (Tessa Wood). Things start going bump in the night reasonably early on and it’s clear the house has something of a past, but rather than high-tail it the fuck out of there, John decides to explore the haunted manor’s secrets and attempt to kick up a romance with his reasonably fetching next-door neighbor, Cassie Konrad (Georgina Blackwood), while he’s at it. Oh, and there’s another quasi-creepy old woman named Agnes (Vivien Bridson) who might know more about the house than the landlady is willing to divulge.

Or maybe Agnes is the blind landlady and Mrs. Connelly is the other quasi-creepy old woman. I honestly can’t remember — and as I said, I just watched this last night. Some movies just make a lasting impression that you can’t ignore, I guess.

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Anyway, as things get weirder, John’s grip on sanity begins to fray, and — oh, fuck it, doesn’t this all sound familiar enough already? As you’ve no doubt been able to surmise by now, despite the “Last House” title, this flick is pure Amityville Horror rip-off all the way, with a dash of cut-rate influence from The Shining thrown in for less-than-good measure. And now I’ve gotta get brutal for a second, so bear with me.

I’m not one to try to dissuade young (at least I hope  he’s young, otherwise there’s no excuse) filmmakers from pursuing their dreams, but unless Andrew Jones goes back to film school (assuming he ever went in the first place) for some remedial crash-courses at night, he needs to think about fast food, selling power tools, janitorial work, or manual labor as serious career options, because literally everything on offer here is just plain bad, from the acting to the story to the cinematography to the not-so-special effects. All that we see here literally screams “been there, done that, and it was better the first 50 times.” I’m trying really hard here to think about something I liked about this movie just to avoid “piling on,” but ya know what? It ain’t happening, struggle as I might.

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Still, for all its flaws (and it has nothing but those), The Last House On Cemetery Lane did manage to implant one idea in my mind that’s going to be damn hard to shake — barring a miracle, this will definitely be the last of these “Last House” films that I’ll be bothering with.

 

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To quote the Man In Black himself — “I sense something, a presence I’ve not felt since —” oh yeah, since the last horeshit Star Wars comic I read, Jason Aaron and John Cassaday’s Star Wars #1. Marvel cranked out the second issue (which I didn’t buy) of that series a mere two weeks after the first, and now here we are a week on from that with the debut installment of their first “spin-off” book, Star Wars : Darth Vader, which comes our way courtesy of respected creators Kieron Gillen and Salvador Larocca.

Given the thorough dressing-down I gave of Aaron and Cassaday’s comic (a view not shared by many, as most write-ups online have been positively effusive in their praise for it) , some readers might be surprised that I forked over five bucks for this one, but I was determined to give it a shot simply due to the fact that  Gillen is one of my absolute favorite writers at the moment (are you reading The Wicked + The Divine? Because you really should be), and the “virgin art” preview pages for this tacked on at the end of Star Wars #1 made it look kind of interesting. What the hell, I figured — even if it’s lousy, I can cut my losses quick and high-tail it after the first issue.

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Needless to say, that’s exactly what I’ll be doing. Yeah, I admit I went into this prepared for the possibility that it might suck, but there’s no way I could have guessed that it would suck this badly. Larocca’s art is nice, sure, even if it’s highly and obviously photo-referenced, but his stubborn insistence on horizontal panel grids for every single page (apart from the double-page splashes) begins to grate rather quickly, and even colorist Edgar Delgado’s nicely-rendered hues can’t save this comic from working your last nerve in the visuals department for too long. Salvador, buddy, you can draw pretty well — now please vary things up a bit so we actually want to keep looking at your drawings from the first page to the last!

Still, that’s a chump-change complaint in comparison to the larger one I have about this book — one that, in retrospect,  should have been obvious from looking at the cover alone. I’ll freely admit that Adi Granov gives us a nicely-rendered, iconic Vader pose to kick off the proceedings (one of a dozen different options for the easily-snookered consumer to  choose from, including the ever-popular Skottie Young and “Action Figure”-style variants, as shown), but within a few pages it becomes apparent that he didn’t opt for a “timeless”-style image simply because this is a first issue, but because nothing fucking happens in this comic that he can base a cover on. Yes, the fact that this is most likely a standard-length story that was expanded out to 30 pages so Marvel could gouge an extra buck out of readers is a problem (and one not unique to this book — Marvel recently had Joe Quesada spread Grant Morrison’s “lost” Miracleman story out from what should have been three or four pages to 10 for All-New Miracleman Annual #1, with predictably disastrous results) that well-nigh destroys any sense of pace and timing Gillen’s script could theoretically have possessed, but the simple turth of the matter is that there’s not even enough happening here to fill a standard 20-page comic.

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Consider : Vader is sent by the Empror to cut some sort of deal with Jabba The Hutt. Upon arrival, he kills a couple of Hutt’s lackeys with his light saber. He attempts to cut a side-deal of his own while there, and a flashback sequence showing him being chastised by Palpatine for letting the Death Star be destroyed (like Aaron and Cassaday’s Star Wars this series apparently takes place between A New Hope  and The Empire Strikes Back) that dovetails with events happening over in the “main” SW book shows why he’s opting to play this little gambit of his out. Then he meets up with the guys who are going to help him with his  “off-the books” mission, Boba Fett and some Wookie sidekick of his. The end. Positively scintillating stuff, is it not?

Yeah — I didn’t really think so, either.

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About the only thing I can say in this book’s favor story-wise is that the opening “credits scroll” is kinda fun in that it’s clearly written from a pro-Empire, pro-Vader point of view, but beyond that I have to admit that Gillen really seems to be mailing it in here. Some might just chalk this up to the absence of his frequent creative partner Jamie McKelvie, but that theory quickly falls flat on its face when you consider that  Uber is a pretty good book and McKelvie is nowhere to be found on that one. More than likely I think the obviously talented writers Marvel is employing on their Star Wars comics don’t seem to give much of a shit about the work they’re turning in here because the publisher itself doesn’t give much of a shit. As long as they have all the superficial trappings in terms of look and feel of the films themselves, the so-called “House Of Ideas” knows that most of the suckers out there will be back every month. The old saying might go “once is an aberration, twice is a coincidence, and three times is a pattern,” but two strikes is definitely enough for me as far as these SW series go. Star Wars #1 was a failure, Star Wars : Darth Vader #1 is an absolutely dismal failure, and the forthcoming Princess Leia, Luke Skywalker, and Han Solo “spin-off” books won’t be getting any of my hard-earned cash.

Not that it matters much, of course — some poor schmuck will no doubt buy two copies of every cover for each comic, and Dis/Mar will get by just fine without my custom. Folks like that are the real “target audience” for these books, anyway, as evidenced by the fact that so far there’s been no attempt to even interest anyone else outside of the hardest of hard-core Star Wars fan circles. Mind you, those people probably should be pissed off about the fact that Marvel is so openly contemptuous of them that they aren’t even bothering to give ’em much of anything for their money, but maybe that’s just human nature — if readers are going to fork over the same $4.99 a pop regardless of how much effort you put into it, would you bust your ass, or would you just put the whole thing on cruise control, sit back, and collect their money?

 

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We may as well be clear about one thing right off the bat — director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s 2014 film The Town That Dreaded Sundown (now available via instant streaming on both Netflix and Amazon Prime — before it’s even out on Blu-ray or DVD!) isn’t so much a remake of Charles B. Pierce’s 1976 “true-crime slasher” of the same name as it is an updated take on more or less the same material (to such an extent that original screenwriter Earl E. Smith is even given a story credit here) that semi-cleverly incorporates its cinematic progenitor into the proceedings as a “metafictional” trope in a way that almost makes the new flick closer to a sequel than anything else — but not quite.

For the sake of those who absolutely must categorize this in some way, shape, or form, let’s just call it an “extension” of Pierce’s movie and leave it at that, shall we?

Now, I realize that the ’76 original is a “fan favorite” in certain quarters, but let’s be brutally honest about just why that is — sure, it’s a reasonably well-done, if somewhat predictable, product of its time, but if it wasn’t for the infamous trombone killing and the fact that it features Dawn Wells (Mary Ann of Gilligan’s Island fame — although for the record, I’ve always been more of a Ginger guy myself) it probably wouldn’t be talked about nearly as much as it is today. There’s certainly nothing wrong with it, per se — but is there really anything especially memorable about it on more than a gimmicky level?

Don’t all answer  at once, please.

In that respect, then, it’s pretty fair to say that Gomez-Rejon follows in his predecessor’s footsteps, because The Town That Dreaded Sundown circa 2014 is a competent, even stylish, slasher, but doesn’t do too terribly much to elevate itself above many of its peers. Screenwriter Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa has constructed a pleasing enough (if a bit by-the-numbers) “masked killer” story, and the film’s rapid-fire editing and stylish camera work and lighting add a frisson of menace, but in the end it’s all in service to a rather mediocre-by-the-time-it’s-fully-laid-out central premise that can only be elevated so far no matter how ambitious the execution may be.

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Anyway, let’s take another trip (assuming you’ve seen the first film) to the state line-spanning town of Texarkana (do I really need to spell out which states? Didn’t think so), shall we? In 1946, a sack-wearing killer committed a series of murders in this sleepy little backwater, and was never caught — he just stopped one day, and for all the townspeople knew, he could damn well have been one of them and lived out the rest of his days among the very people his reign of terror traumatized. Fast forward 30 years and a cult horror movie based on the crimes becomes something of a drive-in sensation. Fast forward nearly 40 more years and that film, which has supposedly played every year on Halloween night somewhere in town, has kept the memory of old Sackhead alive and well — much to the consternation of local political and religious leaders, but to the absolute delight of all Texarkana teens.

It looks like this year, though, somebody’s taken things a step further and decided to mimic the murders on screen in real life — and so the circle is complete. Art imitates life and life, in turn, imitates art. Except — what if this killer is the same guy who committed the crimes upon which the film was based? Odds are slim, I grant you, but his statements seem to imply at least some connection to both the actual killings and to their later fictional counterparts. It’s a puzzle, that’s for sure.

At the center of this little web of small-town intrigue is inquisitive young cutie Jami (Addison Timlin), a standout pupil at the local high school who’s being raised by her grandmother, Lillian (Veronica Cartwright). Jami managed to escape from the killer’s clutches, but her quasi-boyfriend, Nick (Travis Tope) wasn’t so lucky, and became the first of the “new” Sackhead’s victims. She’s determined to figure out just who the man behind the mask is, but Texarkana authorities — most notably Sheriff Underwood (Ed Lauter) and sleazy Chief Deputy Tillman (Gary Cole) — are less than enthusiastic about her snooping around. Could they have something to hide?

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Fortunately, the investigation isn’t left entirely in their hands for long — when local “lover’s lanes” continue to be terrorized and bodies continue to pile up, state authorities (at least on the Texas side) begin to take notice, and in due course a team of Texas Rangers led by one “Lone Wolf” Morales (played by Anthony Anderson, who doesn’t look like much of a “Morales” to me, but whatever) make their way into town, precipitating one of those law enforcement “turf wars” we’ve seen a thousand times. This power struggle has the unintended side effect of  giving Jami and her “inside” helper, Corey (Spencer Treat Clark) a bit more leeway to pursue leads on their own — they even manage to track down the fictitious “son” of Charles B. Pierce (in the predictable department his name is Charles B. Pierce, Jr., while in the unpredictable department he lives in a boat that’s docked on dry land — oh, and he’s portrayed by Denis O’Hare) — but as you can probably guess, each step that brings them closer to finding the killer also brings the killer closer to them, etc.

Unfortunately,  that’s the point at which The Town That Dreaded Sundown a la 2014 starts to stumble. The first 2/3 or so of the movie is a fairly well-executed self-aware slasher that falls somewhere between the generalized  “we all know the rules here” set-up of  Scream and the more open “movie-within-a-movie” premise the same director gave us with Wes Craven’s New Nightmare — complete with just-gory-and-sleazy-enough-to-get-the-job-done murders — but the final act sees Gomez-Rejon descend into thoroughly timeworn territory and abandon any pretense of serving up something just a bit different in favor of dishing out cinematic “comfort food” for slasher fans. He goes from acknowledging every cliche in the book to openly embracing them with no transition in tone whatsoever, and the end result is a film that seems to wave a white flag of surrender to the very genre tropes it starts out by at least trying to turn on their collective ear.

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There’s certainly some good acting along the way — Cole is sensational as always and I particularly enjoyed Edward Herrmann’s turn as the town’s local loud-mouthed preacher — but it’s a bit of a drag to see such a sudden drop-off in terms of a filmmaker’s ambition within the space of less than 90 minutes. I can understand a director becoming less ambitious and more complacent over time, and giving us  second and third movies that feel way too much like his or her first, but compacting that entire downward career trajectory into the space of one flick? That’s gotta be some kind of record.

I think it’s relatively safe to say that I’m not “spoiling” anything by revealing that we get another “trombone killing” here — and fortunately for us it occurs well before the film starts to sputter (yay!), so expect some seriously sleazy goodness there — but by the time Gomez-Rejon’s celluloid train  sputters to a halt and the central “whodunnit?” of the story runs out of gas, you’ll be relieved the ride is over. It all seemed pretty exciting at first, but in the end, it turns out we were headed nowhere all along.

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Thinking back, it seems to me that I kind of meant to see As Above, So Below when it played theatrically “back” in 2014 (sorry, it still seems weird to even type that out), but for whatever reason I didn’t, but now that it’s out on Blu-ray and DVD from Universal (featuring widescreen picture, 5.1 surround sound, and a rather paltry selection of extras, chief among them a bog-standard “making-of” behind-the-scenes featurette) I really don’t have any excuses for skipping it, so I rented it the other evening and discovered that — well, I had the best excuse for skipping it all along, I just didn’t realize it : the flick sucks.

Coming our way courtesy of St. Paul’s Dowdle brothers (director/co-writer John Erick and co-writer Drew), who also gave us the reasonably decent (though nowhere near the level of the film it’s based on/ripped off from) Quarantine, and the surprisingly-good-considering-the-low-expectations-I-had-going-in Devil, this is probably one of those movies that really should work, given what a “natural” the Paris catacombs are for a horror story setting (they certainly made for a heck of an album cover for The Moon Lay Hidden Beneath A Cloud back in the day), but ends up just being way too confused for its own good and reaching for several straws at once only to fail at grabbing any of them very firmly.

As Above, So Below

 

Unlike most of my fellow armchair movie scribes, “found footage” horror hasn’t completely worn me down yet, and a spate of decent releases in the past few years (Grave EncountersAlien AbductionThe ConspiracyWillow Creek — to name just a handful that I’ve reviewed on this very site) have given me a little bit of renewed faith in the genre, but once in awhile one of ’em comes along that proves all the nay-sayers have a point and that this whole “shaky-cam” thing maybe has seen its day. Los Bros Dowdle have given us a textbook example of that here, with a film that seems tired and well past its “sell-by” date before it even gets going.

Here are the plot particulars for those keeping score at home : multi- talented (and multi-degreed) super-grad-student Scarlett (Perdita Weeks) is on a globe-spanning quest to find the fabled Philosopher’s Stone of the alchemists, a mythic treasure that essentially allows whoever possesses it to conjure up anything they want out of thin air. Her researches have led her to Paris, where she’s convinced it lies well below the ground (in those aforementioned catacombs to be precise), and through a combination of endless brow-beating and a bad-timing run in with the cops, she’s able to ensnare the help of long-time on-again/off-again friend George (Ben Feldman) to go along with her obviously-foolish-from-the-outset quest, which is being video-recorded in its entirety by her distressingly timid and gutless filmmaker pal Benji (Edwin Hodge). The trio enlists the services of a seasoned urban exploration team led by one Papillon (Francois Civil) and his apparent girlfriend Souxie (Marion Lambert), but they’re leery — a legendary local UrbExer who went by the handle of La Taupe (Cosme Castro) went missing down there a couple years back, and where Scalett wants to go is well “off the grid,” to use the lexicon popular in that subculture (hat tip to the fine Archaia comics mini series The Last Broadcast for teaching me a hell of a lot more about urban exploration than this flick did).

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Still, the promise of a 50% cut of the “treasure” our heroine is after is enough to lure Papillon and his crew into the web, and what follows is about 90 minutes of goofy shit that can’t decide whether or not it wants to be The Descent underneath a city or an extended-length pilot for a modern Twilight Zone revival with a typical cautionary tale “be careful what you wish for” message as old childhood fears and tangentially-related historical poltergeists set upon our less-than-merry band once the Stone comes into their possession and they realize that, holy shit, it’s all real — but there’s probably a good reason it was buried away where nobody could get to it.

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As with just about any horror flick, we’ve seen this done before and seen it done better, but in the case of As Above, So Below in particular we’ve seen it done so much better it’s not even funny. Most of the acting here is reasonably up to snuff and the Dowdles throw a few pleasing scares of the decidedly cheap variety our way, but in the end they’ve crafted nothing that’s especially memorable here and end up wasting two reasonably intriguing premises  — urban exploration and pursuing the secrets of the alchemists — by unnecessarily mashing them together in the same story. You’ll tire of the whole thing well before the halfway point, but on the plus side you’ll forget about it almost entirely within ten minutes of it ending.

I take a look at the first issue of new Image/Top Cow “rural noir” series “Postal” fro Through The Shattered Lens website.

Through the Shattered Lens

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One of my favorite things about reviewing comics is finding a hidden gem that no one’s really talking about and doing my part to help spread the word just a bit, and while Top Cow’s new ongoing series Postal (a product of their Minotaur Press sub-imprint) is, in fact,  generating at least a little bit of online “buzz,” given that it’s being released, as ever, by Image Comics, it’s understandably finding itself rather buried under all the hoopla surrounding the debut issue of Grant Morrison and Chris Burnham’s Nameless, which also comes out today. It’s probably not fair to say that Nameless is sucking all of the oxygen out of the room, but — well, it’s coming pretty close. So let’s do what we can to even the scales a bit here, shall we?

I’ll admit right off the bat to not being much of a fan of Top…

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