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.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Texas Chainsaw Week: 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre' (2003)

Nine years after Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation seemingly killed the franchise, Michael Bay's Platinum Dunes production company acquired the rights and put together a slick remake/reboot from music video director Marcus Nispel (who'd later go on to direct the Friday the 13th remake as well). Although it follows the broad strokes of the original story, and is set around the same era (in 1973), this new Texas Chainsaw Massacre also adds and changes a lot, with different characters, more plot elements and a serious increase in blood and guts. Those changes are mostly for the worse, although Nispel puts together a serviceable mainstream horror movie that's more accessible and watchable than the previous TCM sequels, albeit also much less distinctive or interesting.

The nods to the original movie also include getting the same cinematographer (Daniel C. Pearl) and recruiting John Larroquette to once again handle the opening narration. There's no onscreen text, but otherwise the movie opens similarly to all the rest in the series, with a new set of "facts" about the original crime. In this case, we're told that the massacre committed at the home of the Hewitt family (renamed from Sawyer and then Slaughter) has been a cold case for the last 30 years, which sort of puts the filmmakers in a bind when it comes to potential sequels (not that it ended up being an issue). Other than a shot of a filing cabinet, though, there are no present-day reflections, with grainy footage of a police crime-scene investigation (similar to the snapshots in the original movie) serving as the story's framing sequence.

As in the original, the new TCM features five young people (here possibly slightly older than the original characters) on a road trip through rural Texas in a beat-up van. Nispel and screenwriter Scott Kosar add in more plot details, with a bit more back story on the characters' relationships, an actual destination in mind (they're on the way to Dallas for a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert) and a quickly discarded subplot about smuggling pot from Mexico. But of course all of that becomes more or less irrelevant once they find themselves stranded in the backwaters of Texas after picking up a crazed hitchhiker. Here, though, the hitchhiker is a victim of the homicidal family rather than a member, and she commits suicide in the group's van, necessitating their stopover.

From there, they fall into the clutches of the Hewitts, including one who poses as (or actually is, maybe) the local sheriff, played by R. Lee Ermey at his most unhinged. The other Hewitts are less distinctive, although this movie does offer the best take on Leatherface (played here by Andrew Bryniarski) since the original, returning him to a figure of menace after his more cartoonish appearances in previous movies. Nispel relies more on copious gore than on building suspense, and he doesn't skimp on the chainsawing. Jessica Biel is sympathetic but not always convincing as the scared young woman who finds the resourcefulness to get away (or possibly is just lucky), and the rest of the young cast never rise above chainsaw-fodder. The showy gore and the dingy visuals (everything in the Hewitt home is either grimy or dripping or both) fit in with the movie's modern horror aesthetic, but they don't do much to connect it to the original. As I said in my initial review (which doesn't appear to be online anymore), this is tolerable as a mainstream horror movie of 2003, but it doesn't do justice to the legacy of the movie it's remaking.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Texas Chainsaw Week: 'Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation' (1994)

Shot in 1994, premiered at South by Southwest in 1995 and barely released in theaters in 1997, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation never had the chance to be more than a cult object, which is mostly what it's become. Although just as terrible as the third movie in the series, The Next Generation is more of an eccentric vision and thus more interesting to watch, even if it's largely incoherent. Kim Henkel, who co-wrote the original movie with Tobe Hooper, returns to serve as both writer and director (it remains the only movie he's directed), and if the second movie was Hooper's twisted perversion of the original approach, then The Next Generation is Henkel's. Once again, the movie more or less ignores previous continuity to serve as a direct sequel to the original, an idea this franchise returns to again and again.

The opening text crawl is also back, serving to rewrite continuity as it contradicts the third movie's assertion that one of the original perpetrators had been apprehended; here we are told that none of the original murderers were ever caught, and that two "minor incidents" have occurred since then, which is an odd (and inaccurate) way to describe the second and third movies. Anyway, once again it also doesn't really matter, since the homicidal family (renamed the Slaughters from the Sawyers) is made up of completely new characters whose relation to previous villains is unclear. They've got their own Leatherface (played by Robert Jacks), of course, but at this point Leatherface is almost like a code name and persona that anyone can adopt, rather than an actual character.

The most notable aspect of the movie (and part of the reason its release was contested for years) is the presence of pre-fame stars Renee Zellweger and Matthew McConaughey, who'd both appeared in Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused the previous year and were part of the mostly Austin-based cast. While The Next Generation was busy finding distribution, the two stars hit it big (McConaughey with A Time to Kill, Zellweger with Jerry Maguire), and their reps reportedly worked to block the release of this low-budget horror embarrassment. The truth is that it's not really an embarrassment for either of them: Zellweger is solid as the would-be victim who finds her inner strength, and McConaughey is amusingly hammy as the leader of the Slaughter family, in a much more effective performance as a psychopath than his recent turn in The Dark Tower. He even gets to throw in a signature "all right, all right, all right."

Zellweger plays one of a group of teens who wander off from their prom and get lost in the woods where they encounter the Slaughter family, who apparently live like a 10-minute drive from a major suburb. The first movie made it seem like Leatherface and his kin were hidden away in some mystical backwater, but here Darla (Tonie Perenski), the Slaughters' accomplice, literally goes out and picks up fast food at one point in between murders. McConaughey plays Vilmer, this movie's version of the seemingly sane family member who turns out to be the craziest of them all. He has some sort of bionic attachment for his leg that he controls with old TV remotes (!), and the increasingly bizarre final act seems to imply that he might not be human at all.

That final act, in which a mysterious Englishman shows up in a limo and tells Zellweger's Jenny that the Slaughters are part of some grand Illuminati conspiracy meant to use fear to inspire transcendental experiences in their victims (similar to the motivation for the villain in the Saw series), is just insane enough to keep the movie kind of intriguing. While Henkel at first seems to be going for a generic, slightly self-aware teen slasher movie in the vein of other contemporary horror films, he takes things in weirder and weirder directions as the story goes on and the family gets more screen time. Leatherface himself is often relegated to the background, barely getting to use his signature chainsaw and never actually chainsaw-massacring anyone. He's made into a full-on Buffalo Bill-style crossdresser in the finale, adding yet another nonsensical layer to the story that Henkel doesn't bother exploring or explaining. The commercial release of the movie cut seven minutes from the original version, which might account for the choppy pacing but probably can't justify the onslaught of utter nonsense.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Texas Chainsaw Week: 'Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III' (1990)

With Tobe Hooper completely out of the picture and New Line Cinema (home of the Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th franchises) picking up the rights, Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III ended up a generic slasher movie, as the studio tried hard to turn Leatherface into the next Freddy Krueger or Jason Voorhees (hence the prominence of his name in the title). As different as they may have been from each other, the first two TCM movies were each bold, unique visions, but TCM3 is never anything more than a pale copy of other horror movies of the time, and not even good ones at that. (Although it does have a bitchin' theme song by metal band Lȧȧz Rockit.) Mired in controversy at the time over supposed extreme violence that got it slapped with an X rating, it now comes off as tame and rote, going through the motions of what some executives decided were key elements of a horror franchise.

For the third time, the movie opens with a text crawl and somber narration, although it's already rewriting continuity; while TCM2 indicated that none of the perpetrators of the original crime had ever been caught (and that the Sawyer family was considered a sort of urban legend), here the movie claims that one of the Sawyers was tried, convicted and executed in 1981, and that the case was assumed closed. It also says that original Final Girl Sally (whose uncle, played by Dennis Hopper, was out for revenge in TCM2) previously died in 1977 in a "private health care facility" (presumably an insane asylum), although there was no mention of her death in the previous movie. All of this is more or less irrelevant anyway, as the movie introduces an entirely new Sawyer family whose relation to previous characters is unclear, although they do have their own Leatherface (now played by R.A. Mihailoff). Is he the same Leatherface as in the previous two movies? No one involved in making this movie seems to care.

All they care about is lining up a few new hapless victims to be slaughtered by Leatherface and his homicidal family, including three new brothers (one of whom is played by Viggo Mortensen), a kid sister and a wheelchair-bound mother. The cannibalism and meat-processing angle from the first two movies is downplayed in favor of indiscriminate murder, as the Sawyers stalk a road-tripping couple (Kate Hodge and William Butler) and a military-trained survivalist (Ken Foree) through the Texas backwoods. There's a brief nod toward character development with the bickering couple at the beginning, but otherwise the movie is just a grim march toward death for the main characters, along with some hammy acting from the various Sawyers (although Mortensen comes off fairly well).

There's not nearly as much gore or graphic violence as one might expect from the ratings controversy, nor is there the kind of prolonged torture of the finales of the previous two movies. When Hodge's Michelle is held captive by the Sawyers and forced to sit at their twisted family dinner table, it's just an obligatory box to check off, like Freddy invading a previously good dream or Jason popping back up after being seemingly defeated. Those characters developed into iconic horror villains not because of some studio mandate, but because audiences responded to them and filmmakers added creative elements to their depictions. Leatherface is a horror icon, too, but this cynically calculated attempt to make him a household brand name is not the reason why.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Texas Chainsaw Week: 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2' (1986)

Between its release in 1974 and the release of its sequel in 1986, Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre built up a reputation as one of the most terrifying movies ever made, as well as a significant critical and cult following. Hooper himself hit a commercial high with 1982's Poltergeist (even if consensus all these years later seems to be that Steven Spielberg did most of the directing on that one). So when Hooper finally decided to get back behind the camera for a belated TCM sequel, his plan was to make ... a comedy? Almost perversely at odds with its acclaimed, successful predecessor, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 often feels like a middle finger from Hooper to all the fans who no doubt spent more than a decade clamoring for a sequel. "You want a Texas Chain Saw Massacre sequel?" this movie seems to say. "Here, choke on this."

While the original movie was an exercise in sustained terror but kept most of its violence just offscreen, TCM2 is rarely all that scary, yet full of graphic gore courtesy of horror effects legend Tom Savini. There were flashes of dark humor in the original, but TCM2 is often full-on wacky, treating Leatherface (played this time by Bill Johnson) and his family as a sort of cannibalistic version of the Beverly Hillbillies. Original Final Girl Sally made believable snap decisions in the face of terror, while TCM2 protagonist Vanita "Stretch" Brock (Caroline Williams) makes dumb choice after dumb choice, constantly putting herself in danger. But Hooper and screenwriter L.M. Kit Carson (a cult figure himself who co-wrote Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas) aren't really interested in logic or character consistency; they're just looking for the most outrageous approach possible.

The movie opens with another somber text crawl and voiceover, this time asserting that while the incidents of the first movie have never been officially acknowledged, mysterious disappearances and deaths across Texas have continued in the 12 years since, and "the Texas Chainsaw Massacre has not stopped." (Never mind that the first movie clearly shows cops taking photos of evidence at the home of the killers.) Seemingly the only person dedicated to tracking down the evil Sawyer family is former Texas Ranger "Lefty" Enright (Dennis Hopper), the uncle of siblings Sally and Franklin from the first movie. He's out for vengeance for his kin (Sally's survival is referenced in the opening text but she's never seen), and thanks to a pair of dumbass teens calling in to Stretch's radio show literally while being chainsaw massacred, he finally has the evidence he needs to get his revenge.

Although he mentions Sally and Franklin a few times, Lefty doesn't seem to have much of an emotional connection to his niece and nephew, and Hopper puts so much craziness into his performance that eventually Lefty seems like as much of a psychopath as the murderers he's chasing. That makes the movie's third act a little monotonous, as Stretch and Lefty follow the Sawyers to their new hideout in an abandoned amusement park, and both spend the next 20-30 minutes running around the underground tunnels and screaming a lot (Stretch in fear, Lefty in homicidal rage). Leatherface's weird romantic feelings for Stretch are kind of funny but mostly ill-conceived, perhaps an effort to make him a more palatable pop-culture figure like Freddy Krueger or Jason Voorhees.

Actor Jim Siedow is the only person reprising his role from the first movie, as the mastermind of the Sawyer family, the one who interacts with normal people by selling all the human meat they cook up as award-winning barbecue. His folksy manner was menacing the first time around, but here he dials it all the way over the top, matched by horror icon Bill Moseley as a fellow Sawyer known as Chop-Top. Their scenery-chewing is amusing for a while but goes on for too long, especially as they're almost literally dancing circles around Stretch in the climax. Things perk up thanks to a chainsaw duel between Lefty and Leatherface, but Hooper and Carson seem to run out of clever subversiveness before they can get to the end of the movie.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Texas Chainsaw Week: 'The Texas Chain Saw Massacre' (1974)

In past years, I've looked back at horror franchises that more or less follow a single continuity thread, but this year for Halloween I decided to tackle the severely disjointed Texas Chainsaw Massacre series, which has been rebooted and debooted (a term I just coined for a series returning to a previous continuity) multiple times. And it all started with the late Tobe Hooper's 1974 low-budget The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, a production that no one could have envisioned would launch a franchise that was still going more than 40 years later. Although it introduces an iconic horror villain in Leatherface (played here by Gunnar Hansen), the movie isn't designed to set up a long-running series to showcase its deranged hillbilly killer. It's a lean, self-contained story of death and terror, built on sustained intensity more than suspense, and less gory and explicit than its reputation suggests.

Hooper establishes the unsettling atmosphere right from the beginning, with the stern narration from John Larroquette describing the horrors about to come, along with flashes of police photographs of a horrific crime scene. The voice of news on the radio is omnipresent in the background during the first part of the movie, reporting not only the graveyard desecration perpetrated by the cannibal family, but also other unpleasant things happening in the area and around the country. This is a world on edge, even as the main characters seem to be enjoying a carefree road trip in their groovy van. There's tension among this group of ostensible hippie types, though, especially thanks to the whining of wheelchair-bound Franklin (Paul A. Partain), whose disability doesn't prevent him from being inconsiderate and annoying.

The group is hot, sweaty and irritable even before they encounter a deranged hitchhiker who slashes Franklin with a razor blade and laughs maniacally as they throw him back out on the side of the road. Hooper makes rural Texas feel like another world, a corner of the old, weird America (as Greil Marcus called it) where time has stopped and the modern world of protests and the war in Vietnam is distant and irrelevant. It's never clear where the main characters came from (although Franklin and his sister Sally, played by Marilyn Burns, have a family home in the area) or what their destination is, but once they stumble into the movie's realm, it's clear they'll never leave.

Although Massacre is often cited as the prototype for slasher movies, the characters don't spend any time formulating a plan to escape or learning about the danger that's targeting them. Each character aside from Sally is killed almost instantly upon discovering the home of Leatherface and his demented family, without prolonged stalking or build-up. It's the sudden, jarring nature of the violence that makes Massacre so unsettling, and the tension and terror basically never let up in the movie's second half. Sally exhibits more resourcefulness than the typical horror-movie heroine as she struggles to escape the grips of her would-be killers, but the iconic ending makes it clear that even if she's escaped with her life, she's completely lost her sanity. Many viewers felt the same way upon seeing this movie when it first came out, and the power of Hooper's vision is that it can still have the same effect.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

VODepths: 'Dwelling,' 'Girl Flu,' 'OtherLife'

Dwelling (Erin Marie Hogan, Abigail Mary, Mu-Shaka Benson, dir. Kyle Mecca) There's a lot of atmosphere in low-budget horror movie Dwelling, but not much else. The movie opens with a confusing combination of dream sequence and flashback in which Ellie (Erin Marie Hogan) remembers the death of her mother in a house fire (or maybe by drowning or suicide, before the house caught on fire) possibly caused by her disturbed younger sister River. Years later, River (Devanny Pinn) is institutionalized, and Ellie and her husband have custody of River's young daughter Izzy (Abigail Mary). For reasons that I never quite understood, Ellie deliberately moves the family into a well-known haunted house so that she can discover the truth about what happened to her mother, even though the house has nothing to do with her mother's death. Most of the movie consists of standard haunted-house stuff (hidden rooms, strange apparitions, unsettling dreams), much of it focused on an apparently cursed mirror. None of it really explains how or why the house is haunted, how or why that will allow Ellie to understand her mother's death, or how or why it can bring peace to River or Izzy (who is also somehow connected to the spirit world). There are a handful of creepy (but meaningless) images, and Hogan conveys her character's anguish well, but the story never comes together, with an ending as inscrutable and dull as its opening. Available on Amazon and elsewhere.

Girl Flu (Jade Pettyjohn, Katee Sackhoff, Jeremy Sisto, dir. Dorie Barton) I wish I had liked Girl Flu just a little bit more, because it's the kind of indie dramedy we need more of: It's a sweet coming-of-age story about a young girl and her relationship with her single mom, giving a compassionate and sympathetic portrayal to a subject that's often the target of gross-out jokes in mainstream comedies. Tween star Jade Pettyjohn is great as 12-year-old Bird, who's freaking out about getting her first period, among other typical adolescent woes (bullying at school, a crush on a boy, moving away from her childhood home and friends, etc.). Katee Sackhoff, who's known primarily for badass genre roles, shows her range as Bird's screw-up of a mother, but their connection always feels slightly off. There are some nice individual moments, but the pacing is awkward, the supporting characters are too sketchy (Jeremy Sisto's main characterization as Bird's mom's boyfriend is to wear a douchey hat), and the comedy is often weak. The frank approach to the subject matter and Pettyjohn's warm, likable performance are not quite sufficient to make up for the narrative flaws. Available on Amazon and elsewhere.

OtherLife (Jessica De Gouw, Thomas Cocquerel, T.J. Power, dir. Ben C. Lucas) There are some intriguing ideas in the slick Australian sci-fi movie OtherLife, but the execution is a bit lacking. Director and co-writer Ben C. Lucas (working very loosely from a novel by Kelley Eskridge) makes good use of his limited resources, giving the story a sense of scope and ambition even as it takes place mostly in sterile office buildings and apartments. The story starts slowly, establishing the idea of a new technology that implants memories, allowing people to accumulate experiences without actually experiencing them. Eventually the technology's creator, Ren (Jessica De Gouw), ends up the target of some shady power players who use her technology against her, and the movie turns into a thriller that borrows more than a little from Total Recall. The middle of the movie is exciting and unpredictable, but the third act goes back to boring corporate intrigue, and too many of the potentially intriguing plot threads are left hanging. After throwing in some decent (if obvious) twists, Lucas ends on an anticlimactic note, relying on the character relationships rather than the heady sci-fi concepts. De Gouw's performance is strong, but there's not enough of an emotional connection to give the story the impact it's aiming for. Available on Netflix.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Triskaidekaphilia: '13 Gantry Row' (1998)

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

Produced for Australian TV, ghost story 13 Gantry Row is about as musty as the old house in which it takes place. Yuppie couple Peter (John Adam) and Julie (Rebecca Gibney) buy the vintage row house in Sydney for a bargain after its elderly resident dies alone, so you know it's going to be totally haunted. An opening prologue shows a Jack the Ripper-style killer from the Victorian era taking refuge in the house, and his spirit starts possessing Peter via a straight razor that the killer used on his victims, which Peter discovers and begins carrying around. The process is slow and dull, though, and involves lots of scenes of house renovation as Peter and Julie and their friends literally peel away the layers on the walls, eventually reaching the part that holds the evil spirit (I guess?).

The movie is shot in bright, ugly video (which makes sense for '90s TV but still looks awful), and director Catherine Millar tries to liven things up by framing various shots through windows or blinds or, her favorite move, from a low angle that appears to be under a table or other surface. It's more distracting than artful, though, and it doesn't add anything to the plodding progression of the story. The dialogue is functional at best, and the acting is similarly mediocre, with Adam and Gibney expressing almost no romantic chemistry despite a handful of steamy-for-Australian-TV sex scenes. The most notable thing about the cast is the inclusion of character actor Nicholas Hammond, who has the distinction of playing both one of the Von Trapp kids in The Sound of Music and Spider-Man in the short-lived 1970s TV series (here he plays Julie's helpful gay co-worker).

As Peter becomes more and more consumed by the spirit of the killer, he fixates on stealing from the investment bank where he works, and the transition from masked serial-killing to armed robbery is a serious downgrade. The whole subplot about the bank is dreadfully misguided, taking over entire scenes in the movie's third act, as we watch cops interrogate Peter over whether he stole a case full of cash (he fabricates a fictional attacker to account for the missing money and a dead security guard). The violent incidents get dismissed far too easily, and there's never any clear sense of how to defeat the evil spirit (or even whether the characters will bother putting in the effort). The ending, which is meant to be sinister and surprising, is just anticlimactic, without a definitive vanquishing of the evil spirit or a triumph for its murderous agenda. It sort of persists, maybe, although what exactly it wants to accomplish (aside from stealing some money that will help Peter and Julie further renovate the house) isn't ever clear either. As hauntings go, it's not very effective, and that applies equally to the movie.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Triskaidekaphilia: '13Hrs' (2010)

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

There's a sort of cool idea at the very end of the low-budget British werewolf movie 13Hrs (unimaginatively retitled Night Wolf for U.S. release), about how a werewolf's attempts to protect their family from their monstrous nature might only put the family in greater danger, but it's barely an afterthought to this annoying, mostly tension-free horror movie. Thanks to the U.S. title, it's pretty obvious that the mysterious monster in this movie is a werewolf, but the low budget means that director Jonathan Glendening keeps the monster offscreen until the movie is nearly over, and the characters express confusion over what is chasing them even long after it's become readily apparent to the audience. Glendening represents the monster almost entirely via red-tinted POV shots and sound effects, which makes its kills tough to depict (he settles mostly for showing the gruesome aftermath with some mediocre gore effects).

The movie takes place at an isolated English country house, where Sarah (Isabella Calthorpe) has just returned to visit her family after moving to the U.S. for work. She finds her three half-brothers and a few of their friends getting wasted in the barn behind the creaky, spooky family house, but their evening of drunken obnoxiousness is cut short when they discover that Sarah's stepfather (the father of her half-brothers) has been murdered and mutilated. Soon whatever creature killed the family patriarch is stalking the irritating young people as well. They all behave like idiots, setting themselves up for easy kills, but without seeing the attacks, the deaths of the unpleasant characters aren't particularly satisfying.

The cast includes Harry Potter's Tom Felton along with some British TV stars, none of whom distinguish themselves in any way (although Glendening does find plenty of ways to showcase model Gemma Atkinson's generous bosom). The characters spend probably half the movie in a cramped attic crawl space hiding from the monster, meaning that the filmmakers fail to make use of one of their only real assets, the creepy old house. It's often hard to tell where the characters are in relation to each other and in relation to the monster, which diminishes the already minimal suspense. By the time Glendening actually shows the werewolf, the build-up has just gotten tiresome, and the makeup effects are laughable at best (the aftermath, with the werewolf changed back to human, features one of the most obvious bald caps I've ever seen in a movie). With a sharper script and more engaging characters, 13Hrs could have overcome its low budget and maybe even offered a new approach to the werewolf movie. Instead it aims for the bare minimum, and can scarcely even manage that.

Friday, September 08, 2017

VODepths: 'The Atoning,' 'Fugue,' 'Unleashed'

The Atoning (Virginia Newcomb, Michael LaCour, Cannon Bosarge, dir. Michael Williams) The real atoning in The Atoning should come from the filmmakers, for making such a slow, turgid, obvious supernatural "thriller" that takes forever to get to its belabored point, with absolutely no creepy atmosphere or suspense or surprises along the way. The entire movie takes place in a creaky old house, where Vera (Virginia Newcomb), Ray (producer Michael LaCour) and their young son Sam (Cannon Bosarge) experience strange phenomena that suggest a haunting. The movie spends the first 40 minutes building to the most overused twist in horror movies (yep, they were dead all along!), which is really just a way to kill time until getting to the actual focus of the story, as the family members must come to terms with how they died in order to move on. The explanation for what happened to them is nearly as predictable as the mid-film twist, and writer-director Michael Williams draws it out as long as possible, spending way too much time on the mundane existence of ghosts in purgatory. There are some silly-looking demons that show up near the end, but mostly this is dull, soap-opera-level family drama, poorly acted, with some supernatural nonsense thrown on top. Available on iTunes.

Fugue (Sophie Traub, George Towers, Tristan Cowen, dir. Jorge Torres-Torres) A woman wanders through the Puerto Rican island of Vieques acting erratically, and Fugue starts by placing the audience inside her disorientation, with no explanation of who she is, where she came from or what she's doing there. Director and co-writer Jorge Torres-Torres creates an impressionistic narrative that mirrors the internal state of protagonist Claire (Sophie Traub), at least at first. Eventually the story comes together, in particular via a clumsy device of Claire, post-recovery, working with a hypnotist (co-writer Tristan Cowen) to reconstruct her memories. It's a mix of straightforward mystery and more experimental storytelling, with a jumbled chronology, and the movie is more intriguing the less it explains. Traub (who also contributed to the story) delivers an immersive performance, but even she stumbles over the chunks of exposition that the movie pauses to deliver periodically. The resolution is too esoteric to be satisfying on a narrative level, but too concerned with explanations to succeed as a piece of purely avant-garde cinema. Available on No Budge.

Unleashed (Kate Micucci, Justin Chatwin, Steve Howey, dir. Finn Taylor) I've enjoyed Kate Micucci in quirky comedic supporting roles, but I'm not sure she's quite up to playing the lead in a romantic comedy. It doesn't help that Unleashed's premise is so dumb and seems like a relic of late '80s/early '90s rom-coms: Lonely singleton Emma (Micucci) wishes there were men out there as wonderful as her cat and her dog, and thanks to some nonsensical magic whatever, her cat and her dog are transformed into people (played by Justin Chatwin and Steve Howey, respectively). There's a lot of strained comedy about these two dudes behaving like a cat and a dog, and their whole attempt to seduce Emma (who doesn't know that they're really her pets) is more creepy than funny (I can guarantee this movie will satisfy someone's very specific fetish). Emma is really meant to end up with well-meaning contractor Carl (Sean Astin), but Carl has almost no personality, and Astin and Micucci have no chemistry. The cutesy music, frequent montages and pseudo-hip workplace setting (Emma is an app developer) make the movie feel like a 2010s riff on movies like Mannequin, and I don't mean that as a compliment. Available on Amazon and elsewhere.