Archive for October 7, 2017

First up out of the gate in our October-long look at some of the more — and I say this with all due respect — obscure horror offerings available for streaming on Amazon Prime we have Chameleon Shadow, a micro-budget affair from writer/director/star Sam Mills, who apparently spent somewhere in the neighborhood of $10,000 (probably of his own money) to shoot this thing in his hometown of Salt Lake City, Utah, earlier this very year. This is one of those flicks that barely has an IMDB presence and has attracted very few reviews to date, so let’s see if I can get the intrepid Mr. Mills on the “scoreboard” with his first official “external reviews” link, shall we?

Right off the bat we’re greeted with some far more well-composed and “artsy”-looking shots than we’re accustomed to from essentially “homemade” efforts such as this, and while I can’t say for certain, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to learn that Mills, like his character of Cameron in the film, was a photographer by trade. The moody B&W opening sequence is actually quite effective and atmospheric, and if the whole thing played out like this it would probably, yeah, alienate some viewers, but I wouldn’t be one of them. Unfortunately, though, it doesn’t — and that’s where we get into some “problem territory.”

Obviously no one in their right minds expects much in terms of production values with a flick of this nature, but seriously — even by amateur standards, this is some sub-amateur stuff. The premise here is actually kinda intriguing — Cameron, plagued by troubling dreams, acquires a vaguely Mothman-esque companion in the form of our titular Chameleon Shadow, a supernatural (perhaps even psycho-kinetic or straight-up psychosomatic) “being” (after a fashion) that can ease his restless nights, but at a terrible cost : his dark nightmares becoming a reality in the waking world — but a lot of the execution really does let the side down. Mills himself isn’t much of an actor and can’t be relied upon to carry a production (even one that he’s helming); key supporting performers such as Kirsten Caron, who plays his friend Patty, and Louis Burkhardt, who plays one Dr. Finch, fare no better and are in need of some community theater training, at the least; sound quality is obviously something Mills is still in the process of figuring out; uneven pacing grinds the story to a halt at times when it should be ramping up; somewhat competent visual effects work is hampered by lack of creativity moreseo than lack of funds — you get the idea. Lots of scenes really do look good, but when Mills ventures out of the art-house and into straight, “point-and-shoot” filmmaking, the whole thing becomes both dull to look at and, I’m sorry to say, a bit of a chore to endure.

I’ll say this much, though : I certainly don’t believe it’s for lack of trying. Mills seems to have invested a lot of heart and soul (as well as probably his entire savings) into this project, and I’ll always respect that. And he gets bonus points for not taking the easy, cop-out route of trying to write his film’s technical shortcomings into the script itself by presenting it as yet another “found footage” horror flick (we’ll be getting into a few of those as the month goes along, no doubt), but I’m just not a generous enough critic to equate a “try” with a “win.” I appreciate the fact that Mills is, in fact, doing his best to make a movie on what he’s got — but that doesn’t mean that what he ended up making is worth your time to watch.

Which, I suppose, comes off as at least a trifle harsh. And when it comes to labors of love like this one, I always feel vaguely like an asshole for pissing on something that so much blood, sweat, and tears went into. But if I don’t call it like I see, then shit — what’s the whole point of this “armchair critic” gig in the first place? As long as all proper allowances are made for the inherent “shortcomings” (although the truly inventive find ways to make those strengths) of micro-budget flicks, a person should always feel free to judge ’em on their merits, am I right?

And hey, it’s not like I think Mills should give this whole “moviemaker dream” of his up and see if Costco is hiring. He shows a fine eye for composition and there’s a kernel of a good story hiding under all the half-assed dialogue and dodgy plotting in Chameleon Shadow. He, like any number of other backyard Spielbergs, just needs a lot more practice —and, yeah, okay, maybe some more money. But get the practice in first, please.

Well, whaddya know : Stephen King seems to be experiencing one of those mini-resurgences in the overall pop culture zeitgeist that happens for/to him every now and then (the last probably being in 2007 with the box-office success of both The Mist and 1408), usually just at the point where it looks as though all the material that the prolific (to the point of being ubiquitous) horror scribe has cranked forth from his apparently-bottomless imagination has been mined for all it’s worth.  Granted, new King adaptations are almost always debuting somewhere on TV, the silver screen, or various streaming services, but their sheer and constant volume pretty much guarantees that few, if any, will have much impact beyond the author’s admittedly-large fan base — which is usually more than enough to ensure that they make at least a nice, tidy profit, I’m sure, but I doubt that most Hollywood observers would have predicted that It would become the highest-grossing horror film of all time, or that its runaway success would have a “coat-tail effect” that would elevate the movie we’re here to discuss today, Gerald’s Game, well above the rest of Netflix’s  direct-to-streaming offerings in the public consciousness. And yet here we are — and I have to say, it’s not such a bad place to be.

But why are we here? That’s a good question, but on the whole I think the simple explanation is that when good directors get ahold of King-related projects, good things happen, and when mediocre or lousy directors get ahold of them, mediocre or lousy things happen — and both It and Gerald’s Game are very well-directed indeed.

In regards to Gerald’s Game in particular, though, what else would we expect from Mike Flanagan? I’ve gushed over a number of his previous offerings on this very site, and I’m firmly among the throng of thousands (if not more) who have struck him with the label, wanted or not, of “one of the most promising horror film auteurs to emerge on the scene in quite some time.” Hush, especially, seems like a perfect “dry-run” for a production of this nature that revolves around a small and insular cast and takes place in an equally small and insular location, so yeah — I had full confidence that he was the “man for the job” from the moment I heard that he’d landed it, and geez, it sure feels good to be right for a change.

Here’s the run-down : vaguely dissatisfied housewife Jessie Burlingame (played by Carla Gugino, and yes, everything you’ve heard is true — this is a career-defining performance for her) and her successful but sorta-asssholeish husband, Gerald (Bruce Greenwood, who gets more from a part that requires him to spend pretty much the entire film in his underwear than most other actors could manage) are headed for a weekend country-house getaway that’s intended to “spice up” their flailing love life when things, as they have a wont to do in flicks of this nature, go horribly awry. After handcuffing Jessie to the bed (now you know the “game” in question) and refusing to release her despite her protestations, Gerald sucks down one Viagra too many and drops dead of a heart attack. The keys are out of reach, so Jessie can’t free herself, but that might be the least of her worries when a hungry wild dog that she’d earlier taken pity on (and fed a raw $200 steak to) makes his way into the house and starts snacking on hubby’s still-warm corpse. And all this before the hallucinatory flashbacks start kicking in.

In her mind’s eye (one little boy, one little man — funny how tiiiiiime flieeees), Jessie is visited/confronted by not only a reanimated Gerald, but also by an idealized, more confident and liberated version of herself, and they both take her on a less-than-sentimental journey through her own troubled past that shows how the compromises she’s made with others and, most crucially, with herself led her to the predicament she finds herself in today. Her troubled mother (Hush star and Flanagan spouse Kate Siegel) and troubled and troubling father (holy shit! That’s Henry Thomas!) loom large here, and there’s some seriously disturbing shit that goes down, but rest assured, as we cut back and forth to current events, there’s no let-up — the emotional and psychological horrors of the past meet their counterpart in the visceral physical horrors of the present and if you feel the need to take a breather or two from the quiet-but-palpable relentlessness of the proceedings you’re sure to be in plenty good company : I’ll bet you anything that the only “button” on Netflix getting more action that “play” on Gerald’s Game  is “pause” on Gerald’s Game.

Gugino, as I believe I may have already mentioned, absolutely kills it here, and straight-up carries the entire film. She has to. And while she only bares, oh, about half her body, goddamn if her entire heart and soul aren’t on display throughout. It’s a nuanced performance that touches a lot of raw nerves, and the whole damn thing could probably use a “trigger warning” or whatever, but good God almighty can we loosen up the Academy’s rules finally and get streaming films some Oscar consideration? If so, she’d have “Best Actress” in the bag. The old “harrowing personal journey” has seldom been either this harrowing or this personal.

Other stuff worth a mention : Chiara Aurelia delivers a breakout performance as Jessie’s 12-year-old self; Flanagan himself both wrote the screenplay and did the editing; gore-hounds won’t walk away disappointed; oh, and Twin Peaks fans? Carel Struycken’s in here, too. And is, of course, cryptically awesome.

Are you sold on giving this a go yet? Because, really, you should be. Gerald’s Game is a film that takes you places — specifically, to places you don’t want to go. To places where you wish Jessie had never been forced to go herself. And it offers no easy answers as to her continued pattern of victimization. You’ll be wishing for her to get out of her handcuffs, of course, but she’s shackled by so much more — and the question of whether or not she can break those unseen bonds, reclaim her own identity, and redeem her existence is the real central conflict that Flanagan and Gugino are liming throughout the film. It hurts to watch, it really does — but you’re never gonna forget it.