Friday, December 15, 2017

12 Horrors of Christmas: 'Elves' (1989)

Already an object of cult fascination, Jeffrey Mandel's Elves has the potential to be a bad-movie phenomenon if it were more widely available. As it is now, though, I was only able to watch a low-quality VHS rip on YouTube, and even in that degraded state it was still a fun time, the kind of crackpot vision that makes for the most enjoyable terrible movies. Director and co-writer Mandel isn't at the outsider-artist level of someone like Tommy Wiseau or Neil Breen, but he isn't just some Hollywood hack churning out generic crap for a paycheck, either. There's a level of professionalism to Elves that makes it look like a "real movie," which in turn makes its batshit absurdities all the more surprising and delightful.

There's actually just one elf in this movie, and although it takes place around Christmastime, the elf in question has nothing to do with Santa Claus or his toy-making minions. It's a sort of ancient monster that goes back to Biblical times, accidentally raised up by teenager Kirsten (Julie Austin) and her two friends, when they perform some sort of silly "anti-Christmas" ritual. Really, though, that's just a goofy distraction, and the elf rises thanks to the spilling of Kirsten's blood. As we later learn, Kirsten is the product of inbreeding between her Nazi grandfather and her cold-hearted mother, conceived with the sole purpose of mating with an elf on Christmas Eve and thus giving birth to the master race. Yep, the elves and the Nazis are in league with each other, and Kirsten must avoid being raped by an elf in order to save the world.

She's helped by Mike McGavin (Dan Haggerty, best known as TV's Grizzly Adams), a cop turned department store Santa who takes an inordinate interest in the secret history of elves, even accosting various university professors on Christmas Eve in order to learn about the movie's ridiculous mythology. Mike's interest in Kirsten seems like it would edge into leering or prurient, but he's apparently just a really well-meaning guy who's willing to believe all sorts of crazy shit about elves in order to help some teenage girl he just met. (He's way better than his predecessor as store Santa, who feels Kirsten up, snorts cocaine in his dressing room and then gets stabbed to death in the genitals by the elf.) There's a lot of weird sexual suggestiveness in this movie, including Kirsten's preteen brother talking about her "big tits" and her friends all planning what amounts to a sex party for them and their boyfriends after-hours in the department store.

The elf itself is a rather stiff-looking effect, shuffling along awkwardly toward its victims and never speaking or making much noise at all. It doesn't appear to have any supernatural abilities, instead requiring a knife or other tool to kill its victims. Far more dangerous are the Nazi associates of Kirsten's grandfather, who have no qualms about killing anyone who gets in the way of the grand rise of the elf-Nazis. They even plant a bomb in Mike's car, which leads to the hilarious scene of him discovering it in the glove compartment and then awkwardly tumbling out of the car before it explodes. Those awkward moments are the movie's greatest asset, though, as Haggerty and the other cast members throw themselves into the movie's increasingly nonsensical plot. Clean up the picture, get some bemused cast member to do a commentary track while Mandel explains his artistic vision, and a Blu-ray release of Elves could be a cult-movie goldmine.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

12 Horrors of Christmas: 'Black Christmas' (2006)

Back in 2010, I wrote a series of posts on Christmas movies, including a handful of Christmas-related horror movies. When I wrote about the 1974 proto-slasher classic Black Christmas, I mentioned that I could probably fill an entire month with just holiday horror. That might stretch things a bit thin, but for this holiday season I figured I could cover the Christmas-appropriate number of 12 yuletide horror movies, starting, fittingly enough, with the 2006 remake of Black Christmas. Part of the ongoing trend of remakes of any horror property with a remotely recognizable name, the new version of Black Christmas keeps the same basic plot (a killer terrorizes the members of a sorority during the Christmas break) while adding in a lot more gore and extraneous back story.

Both of those are pretty standard tactics for horror remakes, and pretty much everything about this movie is standard-issue for a mid-'00s horror movie, including its cast of former and future stars, led by current CW superhero favorite Katie Cassidy. Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Lacey Chabert and Michelle Trachtenberg are the other recognizable faces as the sorority sisters of Cassidy's Kelli, and Andrea Martin, who played one of the college students in the original, shows up here as the sorority's house mother, in a nice little nod to the past. Martin's comedic talents are mostly underused, though, and while the younger stars are all solid performers, none of the cast members particularly stands out. Mainly they go through the familiar slasher-movie motions, as a mysterious killer picks them off one by one.

That killer may be Billy Lenz (Robert Mann), former inhabitant of the sorority house and current mental institution inmate, who killed his mother and stepfather years ago. Writer-director Glen Morgan, a genre-TV veteran, includes a lot of flashbacks to Billy's origin story, but they only clutter up the narrative, facilitating a climactic twist that is mostly underwhelming. The gory kills are sometimes creative and fun, but a lot of the blood and guts seem gratuitous, and the various sorority sisters are mostly interchangeable, even as the story goes on and the killer whittles down the numbers. Kelli gets a subplot about her relationship with her boyfriend (Oliver Hudson), but that's mostly just a tool for Morgan to set up red herrings.

Morgan creates an impressive visual style for a Christmas horror movie, bathing nearly every shot in the garish red or green glow of Christmas lights, almost like a Dario Argento version of a holiday tale. He doesn't go quite far enough with the Christmas iconography to make any kind of commentary on the holiday, though, and the story never amounts to anything more than your basic slasher beats. After the requisite fake-out vanquishing of the killer, it ends anticlimactically, with the killer's entire saga closed off, as opposed to the eerily ambiguous ending of the original. Morgan shouldn't have to tell the exact same story that's already been told, but his updates only make the movie less distinctive. While the original pioneered a genre, the remake is just a generic follower.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Triskaidekaphilia: '13 Demons' (2016)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

There are no actual demons in the cheapo straight-to-VOD "horror" movie 13 Demons, and even the faux-demons slain by the main characters never quite add up to 13. Shot almost entirely in two cramped rooms, 13 Demons has a grand fantasy premise that is far beyond the meager means of its filmmakers, who fail completely at conjuring up a fantastical realm outside the limited onscreen action. The title refers to a notorious board game discovered by a trio of unnamed gamer nerds (played by Stephen Grey, Michael Cunningham and writer-director Daniel Falicki), who bring it back to their dingy apartment to play. The nerd who finds the game tells the other two that 30 years ago it was banned because players went crazy and committed murders while claiming to be characters from the game. So once the main characters start playing, they ... go crazy and commit murders while claiming to be characters from the game.

Plus, the movie starts with a flash-forward to two of the three gamers being interrogated by the police, who begin by helpfully recounting how these two guys murdered a bunch of people, while the gamers spout a bunch of nonsense about being knights on a quest. So the movie tells you what it's going to be about, in two different contexts, and then proceeds exactly along those lines, without any deviations at all. We don't even get to see any of these brutal murders being committed, because the production is too limited. Instead we spend what feels like an eternity watching these three slovenly nerds roll dice and read overwrought Dungeons and Dragons-style prose from the game's manual, as they move pieces around a board that looks like it was made at a summer-camp arts and crafts activity.

Even at only 73 minutes, 13 Demons drags on interminably, and in the first half, the characters constantly comment on how dull and repetitive the game is, speaking in monotonous tones and frequently yawning. It's like one of those YouTube videos designed to help you relax and fall asleep, and it came close to working on me a few times. When we finally get to the demon-slaying, it's a crappy green-screened hallucination, as the characters imagine themselves dressed as knights and killing the exact same shadowy-looking demon each time, against a swirling CGI background that looks like an effects program's sample graphic. There's virtually no violence or blood, just the same rudimentary attack over and over. When the movie returns to the police interrogation, it devolves into the gamers and the cops yelling the equivalent of "Is not!" "Is too!" at each other, until the movie just ends abruptly without any resolution. Even the crappiest boards games know to come to some sort of conclusion.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Triskaidekaphilia: 'Female Prisoner 1316' (2004)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

Apparently cheapo women-in-prison exploitation movies are still a viable subgenre, at least in Japan, and 2004's Female Prisoner 1316 (also known as Death Row Girls) hits most of the expected beats for this sort of thing. It stars your basic rebellious badass criminal, Aki Hoshino as Misaki, who comes into the hardened prison to shake things up. Here the prison is actually some sort of mysterious training camp for secret agents (or something like that; the movie isn't really interested in clarifying things), where some of the most dangerous female criminals from throughout Japan are sent without their knowledge or consent. The training mostly seems to consist of running through the woods, with a single scene of the inmates learning hand-to-hand combat. If they're being prepared to be Japan's elite fighting force against terrorism (as the warden claims to Misaki at one point), then Japan is probably screwed.

Given the number 1316 (all inmates are referred to by numbers rather than names), Misaki teams up with another inmate to escape from the training camp, which is allegedly on a remote island, although most of the scenes look like they were shot in somebody's backyard. Their escape plan is pretty poorly thought-out, but it's just a loose framework for the requisite scenes of catfights and nudity that the genre requires. None of it is particularly exciting or titillating, and the performances are fairly subdued for a movie like this, without the campy excesses that would make the movie a little more entertaining and help transcend its budgetary limitations.

Even the nudity is fairly rote, mainly in gratuitous scenes of group showers (although there are a couple of scenes in which one of the prisoners just takes off her top for no apparent reason). There's very little action, and the climactic escape attempt ends without any closure, as Misaki simply swims away from the island, with no idea of where she is or where she's going or how to survive. The plotting isn't ambiguous as much as it's lazy, with the filmmakers avoiding any explanations of what's happening presumably so they don't have to expand the scope of the movie beyond the limited available locations (aside from one brief flashback to Misaki's crimes, the whole movie takes place at the compound). 

We get a semi-offensive portrayal of a little-person guard, a couple of ridiculous sex scenes, and the discovery of a cache of skeletons under the prison, but the salaciousness is all pretty mild. There seems to be a thriving industry for softcore "pink films" in Japan (check out this absurdly comprehensive list on Letterboxd), with which I am entirely unfamiliar, so I can't say whether Female Prisoner 1316 upholds the standards of the genre. But in comparison to American exploitation movies, it's pretty tame, with all the limitations of its low production values but almost none of the charm.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Texas Chainsaw Week: 'Leatherface' (2017)

Once Texas Chainsaw performed surprisingly well in theaters in 2013 (especially considering its budget), it was inevitable that the producers would come up with another way to mine the franchise, and after scrapping initial plans for a sequel, they ended up going the same route as Michael Bay's Platinum Dunes did in 2006: a prequel exploring the origins of Leatherface. Unlike The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, Leatherface (not to be confused, of course, with Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III) doesn't just rehash the typical Texas Chainsaw formula (group of young people stumbles into the clutches of Leatherface and his homicidal family) in a slightly earlier era, instead going in a different, more melancholy direction with its story.

The movie opens in 1955 with a familiar dinner scene featuring the Sawyer family torturing a captive, while young Jed Sawyer is reluctant to participate, even when handed the family talisman of a chainsaw. Later, Jed helps lure a young woman to her death at the hands of his kin, but when she turns out to be the daughter of a local cop (Stephen Dorff), Jed is taken from his family and sent to a home for troubled children. Ten years later, Sawyer family matriarch Verna (Lili Taylor) -- who was the mysterious grandmother leaving an inheritance to Alexandra Daddario's Heather in Texas Chainsaw -- shows up demanding to see her son, but the home's sadistic director tells her that all the kids have been given new names to help them start new lives, and he doesn't even know which one is Jed.

This is a cheap piece of misdirection meant to make the true identity of Leatherface a mystery for most of the movie, once Verna's visit causes a disruption that allows several of the teen inmates to escape. We follow a group that includes a hulking, mentally disabled teen named Bud (Sam Coleman), who's clearly designed to play into viewers' ideas of what Leatherface is like, but the real Jed is actually the intelligent, articulate and seemingly compassionate Jackson (Sam Strike), which is revealed in overblown fashion in the movie's final act. Never mind that his size and demeanor are nothing like any previous depiction of Leatherface (including in the 1974 original and in Texas Chainsaw, the two movies this one connects to explicitly), or that his transition into the more familiar character is abrupt and unconvincing. A good two-thirds of the movie is invested in setting up this weak, obvious twist.

Leading up to that is a sometimes soulful, sometimes gruesome story about troubled teens on the run, but Seth M. Sherwood's screenplay mostly seems to be biding time until it can get to the big Leatherface reveal. French directors Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo, making their English-language debut, throw in some of the creatively nasty gore that their other films (including cult classic Inside) are known for, but those moments are surprisingly infrequent. The rest of the low-budget production (with Bulgaria standing in for Texas) is pretty rudimentary, with Taylor giving the best, most believable performance (although she's offscreen for most of the middle of the movie) and Dorff chewing scenery as the redneck cop out for revenge (he's also apparently the father of the redneck mayor in Texas Chainsaw, which really stretches the timeline's believability). Thanks to Maury and Bustillo, this is probably the most stylishly and confidently directed installment since Tobe Hooper's first two, but that's not really saying much.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Texas Chainsaw Week: 'Texas Chainsaw' (2013)

After the relative box-office failure of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning in 2006, Michael Bay's Platinum Dunes production company relinquished the franchise rights, which eventually ended up with Lionsgate, who took a much smaller-scale approach to the production of the next movie. Also known as Texas Chainsaw 3D, the simply titled Texas Chainsaw positions itself as a direct sequel to Tobe Hooper's 1974 original, ignoring the earlier sequels (which themselves often ignored each other) and the reboot continuity of the previous two movies. By connecting itself so clearly to the classic original, Texas Chainsaw only draws more attention to its own shortcomings, which are plentiful.

The contrast is apparent from the very beginning, as this is a direct sequel in the truest sense, picking up just minutes from the end of the original movie. Instead of the customary opening narration and/or title cards, the opening credits play over three straight minutes of footage from the 1974 film, a sort of "previously on ..." recap that summarizes the horror perpetrated by the homicidal Sawyer family. Once director John Luessenhop cuts from Hooper's footage to his own, though, it's a pretty harsh transition, and the efforts to re-create the original look and feel are not very effective. After Sally's escape from the Sawyers, the local sheriff shows up at the house, demanding to arrest Leatherface (here given the name Jedidiah Sawyer, and played by Dan Yeager), and suddenly there are like twice as many family members (including one played briefly by Gunnar Hansen, the original Leatherface) in the house. Before the sheriff can do his job, a lynch mob of local rednecks show up and burn the place to the ground, killing all the Sawyers in the process.

Well, not all the Sawyers, of course. Obviously Leatherface somehow gets away, and a previously unseen Sawyer baby gets picked up in the confusion by a local couple, who adopt her as their own. Cut to some number of years later (the timeline is maddeningly unclear), and that baby is now Heather (Alexandra Daddario), who grew up not knowing her heritage but is drawn back in when her grandmother (whose exact connection to the slaughtered Sawyers from the beginning of the movie is also unclear) dies and leaves her a massive estate. Determined to explore her roots, she packs up a few of her easily disposable friends and heads to the Texas homestead, where Leatherface has just been chilling out in a basement for around 25 years, apparently.

The setup is at least a slightly different twist on the constantly rewritten mythology, but the first half of the movie is just standard low-budget horror fare, in the "person inherits a creepy old house" mode, as the oblivious young people stumble through the house, inadvertently setting Leatherface free. He slaughters all of Heather's friends surprisingly quickly, at which point the movie switches into its somewhat more interesting second half, with Heather learning about what really happened to her ancestors at the hands of the same redneck townspeople she's now appealing to for help. The movie changes into a twisted (and also kind of nonsensical) sort of revenge story, but it can never make Leatherface and the Sawyers into the sympathetic figures they need to be in order for the narrative pivot to work. Plus, Daddario is fine as the hot girl running from the killer (the movie goes to absurd lengths to make sure her midriff is bared at all times), but she can't quite sell Heather's gradual embrace of her psycho-killer roots.

The rest of the cast is passable at best, but the asshole mayor (who was the leader of the lynch mob that killed the Sawyers back in the indeterminate past) makes for a poor substitute villain once the sympathies ostensibly shift in Leatherface's favor. The idea of a smart, attractive, worldly young woman as the new leader of the murderous Sawyer clan (and caretaker of Leatherface) is sort of promising, but of course the changing fortunes of this franchise mean that it'll never be fully explored. And this cash-in movie is more interested in delivering the expected gruesome violence (which isn't as intense as in the remake duology, as visceral as in the original or as absurd as in the more comedic sequels) than in fully interrogating the series mythology.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Texas Chainsaw Week: 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning' (2006)

To their credit, the producers of the 2003 remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre were reluctant to make a sequel, even though the movie was a success at the box office. Rather than leaving well enough alone, though, they decided instead to make a prequel, which isn't exactly a more noble choice. And really, with a handful of small tweaks, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning could have easily been a sequel to the previous movie. It follows the same basic formula, as a group of young people on a road trip through rural Texas stumble across the Hewitt family and get slaughtered. For the first time, the movie doesn't open with text and/or narration with "facts" about the case (although John Larroquette returns to deliver some narration at the end). Instead, an opening sequence shows the birth of Thomas "Leatherface" Hewitt (played again by Andrew Bryniarski, the only actor ever to play Leatherface twice) in 1939 literally on the floor of a slaughterhouse, and his subsequent discovery by Luda Mae Hewitt in a dumpster outside the facility. But the bulk of the action is set in 1969, just a few years before the previous movie, with the same generic late '60s/early '70s period detail, and not much about it would have to be different for it to be set in 1974 instead.

The young people this time around and headed to a military base so that brothers Eric (Matt Bomer) and Dean (Taylor Handley) can be shipped off to Vietnam, Eric for his latest tour and Dean for the first time. The looming threat of Vietnam is a major background element in the original movie, which of course was made when that was also a major background element of real life, but here it's used just to generate some basic conflict between the brothers (Dean plans to flee to Mexico rather than allow himself to be drafted) and to play with co-star R. Lee Ermey's iconic drill sergeant role from Full Metal Jacket. Ermey is back along with Terrence Evans and Marietta Marich as members of the Hewitt family, making this the TCM movie with the highest quotient of returning actors.

They all return to play the Hewitts in a slightly earlier time, when they're just starting to explore their homicidal impulses. The impetus for this turn toward murder is the shutdown of the local slaughterhouse, where the mentally challenged Tommy has worked for his whole life. It doesn't take much for the Hewitts to move from killing animals to killing people, starting with the local sheriff. The makers of The Beginning seem to think that audiences were desperate to know how Ermey's Hoyt became sheriff (he's just impersonating the murdered lawman), how Evans' Uncle Monty lost his legs and how Leatherface started wearing people's faces, but they fail to answer the most important question: Who cares? The plot minutiae connecting this to the previous movie are superfluous, and its nature as a prequel means that we already know that all of the killers will make it out fine (minus some teeth and legs, at least).

So director Jonathan Liebesman just gets down to the gruesome task of hacking up the main characters, including Jordana Brewster and Diora Baird as the brothers' girlfriends. Brewster shows more determination in the "final girl" role than Jessica Biel demonstrated in the previous movie, but she's much less of a defined character, with no background other than being in love with Eric and slightly sad that he's leaving for Vietnam. There's also a biker gang that serves no discernible purpose other than raising the body count, with Lee Tergesen showing up as a badass, gun-toting biker only to be dispatched by the next scene. The violence is perfunctory, and the increased focus on the Hewitts (especially Ermey's scenery-chewing performance) makes the movie even less emotionally engaging. Even Leatherface, whose ostensible origin story is the movie's hook, gets minimal screentime, and the explanation for his name is that ... he literally wears a leather mask on his face (before developing the habit of wearing the faces of his victims). It's just one more haphazard element in a movie that never justifies its own existence.