Lake Bodom (2016)

OCTOBER 23, 2016


On the rare occasions I have time to kill, I like to read up on old unsolved murder/disappearance cases, partially to freak myself out a bit (some of them chill me more than any horror movie can, especially re: having a kid now), but also to fill the Robert Stack-shaped void in my heart now that whoever owns Unsolved Mysteries had to be a ninny and take down all of the clips on Youtube. I don't get too interested in alien or ghost stories when it comes to the unknown, but show me a case about a girl who was acting strange and then disappeared off the face of the earth one night (preferably with a weird final clue - there was one where the last time she was proven to be alive was with a ticket stub to American Beauty? Did that movie's pretentious sappiness push her over the edge?) and I'm hooked. It was during one of these (usually Wikipedia-heavy) sessions that I first found out about the case that inspired Lake Bodom (formerly just Bodom), a modern-set slasher film that uses a real life murder as a jumping off point but is otherwise largely unrelated.

But you can't blame writer/director Taneli Mustonen for not sticking to the real case all that much, as one of the more memorable things about it is how vague it is. Four teens (two couples) were camping in the woods, and sometime between 4 and 6 am (a detail that always stuck out - it was close to "safe" daylight time) three of them were stabbed to death, one more viciously than the others. That one's boyfriend was the lone survivor, though he had several severe injuries, including being bludgeoned to the back of the head - a detail I bring up because he was later accused and tried (and acquitted) of the murders, which seems odd when he sustained trauma I don't think he could have caused himself, based on the way the injuries are described. Plus some boy scouts who saw the mangled campsite reported seeing a blond guy walking away from the scene, all but clearly establishing a 3rd party who was in all certainty the one who committed the murders. Alas, the killer has never been found - the case remains unsolved and open.

Given the "campers in the woods slaughtered by a maniac" narrative, it's obviously of much interest to slasher fans, so I'm surprised that it took over 50 years for someone to make a slasher movie out of it (in fact, three different ones all around the same time - this one, the 2014 found footage entry Bodom, and another one titled Lake Bodom that is coming next year). The film only briefly touches on the original murders (complete with a blond guy, not much older than the victims, watching them while sharpening a knife) before flashing forward to the present day, where four teens (not couples, it should be stressed) are trying to find the murder spot so that one of them can do a reconstruction. This element is very poorly explained (possibly the fault of the subtitles - it's a Finnish film), as I was never quite sure what he planned to do - take pictures, I think? - or why he was being all secretive about it, to the point where he described his intentions as "complicated" when pressed by one of the girls (who were rightfully starting to wonder if they were in danger).

Luckily, the slashing begins fairly quickly, and despite the minimal number of victims, the pacing is actually far from languid. Mustonen teases us a bit with a few obligatory moments where the friends try to scare each other, but they work well, and since it's relatively early on you can be forgiven for thinking you're watching another would-be prank when our first teen is killed (it's not until blood starts pouring out of their mouth that we are guaranteed it's legit). Then we get the usual panic and chasing for a while, followed by a lengthy flashback sequence where we discover just why these girls agreed to come out into the woods with these two weird dudes they seem to barely know. It's an unusual structure, I must admit - we spend a good 45 minutes or so hearing these vague references to some racy photos that one of the girls was shamed by, and our natural inclination as viewers is to piece it together in our heads, because why would you think there would be a 15 minute flashback scene at the end of the second act? There were a few scenes set in/around school at the beginning, so there was plenty of time to fill us in on this stuff beforehand - why wait?

Well, because it ties into a twist, one that doesn't take too long after the first death to be unveiled, but still one I wouldn't want to reveal either. It's a tough nut to crack - the key to a good twist is to not clue the audience in that there will be one (Sixth Sense is a good example, at least to people like me who saw it opening day and not after people said YOU GOTTA SEE THIS MOVIE'S TWIST!), so they won't be looking for anything. Here, Mustonen kind of split the difference - he left things clunky and vague so that we knew there had to be more to it than presented, but revealed things around the halfway point, so that it didn't drag down his whole narrative. Once that stuff's out of the way things pick up considerably, highlighted by a terrific scene where the killer has two of the friends trapped in their car, which is being dragged by his tow truck. It feels like the most exciting scene a Joy Ride sequel never offered us, and serves as one of the best standalone setpieces in a slasher movie in who knows how long.

So it's got some clunky storytelling decisions, and I had to laugh at the opening text reminding us that there are several theories about what happened and this is merely one of them, when it's not actually about what happened at all (the original murders are never mentioned again after the first act), but overall I think it works. It delivers some good scares and suspense, and hits the comforting slasher beats without taking the ironic approach that has ruined so many other modern body count films. They could have used the original story in a better capacity, but then again - could they come up with anything as scary or unsettling as the fact that the killer might still be out there? And turning the original tragedy into a slasher movie might feel exploitative, so perhaps it was for the best that they sort of just nodded in the general direction of the real murders before focusing on their own story.

What say you?


Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016)

OCTOBER 21, 2016


It really annoys me when someone like Chris Pratt or one of his MCU buddies visits a children's hospital (in costume of course) and people start tweeting about how they're only doing it for publicity. Even if that's remotely true, do they honestly think it matters to the kids who have had their not-very-fun lives brightened by their visit? And is it worth risking planting that idea in their head? All they know is, Star-Lord just showed up to talk to them and lift their spirits, and that's all that counts. It's something I was reminded of during Ouija: Origin of Evil, as our protagonists are TECHNICALLY con artists, pretending to talk to spirits on the behalf of their still-living loved ones, but the people are put at ease by what they're making up - so is it wrong?

I don't think so. I mean, sure, it might be a bit sketchy to come up with this idea to put food on the table, but we see mom (Elizabeth Reaser) refuse money from a customer who was spooked by their session (due to one of her daughters going off-script a bit), while still comforting him with assurance that his late wife is no longer in pain. This occurs only a few minutes into the movie, and tells us what we need to know: this isn't a woman who is out to defraud or exploit anyone - she genuinely wants to provide some ease of mind to the people that come to see her. It's not long after that that we learn why she has such sympathy - her husband was killed in a car accident, and knows all too well how frustrating it can be to not get to say goodbye to someone, to say the things you wanted to say, etc. That she's also raising their two daughters alone now also keeps us from thinking less of her, the way we might think about Michael J. Fox's character in The Frighteners or whatever.

"OK, what does this have to do with a scary Ouija board?" you might ask - when she buys one as a prop for her fortune telling sessions, one of the daughters takes a liking to it, and sure enough before long they are being menaced by some real deal ghosts, and also actually conversing with the spirits that people pay them to talk to. But are the ghosts all harmless? Of course not, this is a Blumhouse horror movie, not to mention a sequel (well, prequel) to one that inexplicably became one of their biggest hits despite being one of their most creatively bankrupt offerings. The younger daughter starts doing and saying strange things, a priest (Henry Thomas!) gets involved, things get hairier, their home's secret past is revealed... all that stuff kind of goes through the motions we've come to expect from our modern supernatural horror movies. But the stronger-than-expected character work, and a focus on people who are genuinely good folks who got dealt a crap hand and are trying to work through it (the dad's death seems to be fairly recent, maybe like six months? If they specify, I missed it) give it an easy leg up on the likes of The Darkness or The Quiet Ones.

It's also a giant improvement on the original Ouija, though that can't be much of a surprise to anyone, given the low bar it had to clear - they would have had to turn to a hack like Declan O'Brien to manage to churn out something worse. Instead, they went with Mike Flanagan, who has yet to make a disappointing film (this is probably his "weakest" and it's still good), which inspired confidence right from the start, though the early strong reviews didn't hurt, either. Flanagan's role as writer/director (and editor, for good measure) is the reason I would see a prequel (something I very rarely like) to a movie I very nearly hated first thing on opening day, and I was happy to see he didn't let me down. I can only assume the Platinum Dunes folks weren't too hands on with this one, since it focuses on adults having real conversations instead of teens. Indeed, my heart sank a bit when the older daughter snuck out to a party, introducing a circle of friends that could very well have been our main focus when the scary stuff started happening. But of the three we only see one of them again, a love interest for her who is only in a few more scenes, one of which he's being (quite humorously) dressed down by Reaser's character. I'm sure teens will still be the primary audience for the film, and it offers enough of what they probably came for, but unlike the interminable original, adults should find a lot to enjoy here too.

Besides the character stuff, what works best about the movie is how Flanagan approached the idea of making a prequel. Rather than reverse engineer it from the original film, he went about making it as if it was a film that existed all along, and that the Ouija we snoozed our way through in 2014 was the 30-years later sequel. By that I mean not only do you not have to see the first film to get the most out of this one - it actually works BETTER if you haven't seen it at all (or at least don't remember it), just as a normal movie/sequel relationship would work. Indeed, I forgot most of the original, and thus it wasn't until over an hour into this one that I realized the connection to the first film's characters, but only in a general sense, not in a way that would have me knowing exactly who would definitely survive the ordeal (it'd be like watching Phantom Menace knowing *someone* in the movie later became Darth Vader, just not precisely *who*). If you were planning a refresher (or if you haven't seen the first and figured you'd check its Wiki or something), I would highly encourage you not to do that - Flanagan smartly did not rely on your familiarity for a single thing in his film.

And his approach wasn't limited to his screenplay - he actually put effort into making a film that mostly looked like it could have been made nearly fifty years ago (it's set in 1967). He uses an old-school Universal logo (and neither Blumhouse or Platinum Dune's logos play along with it - seeing a half dozen of these fucking ego trips is a modern trend) and the title comes up with its copyright info along the bottom the way old films used to. And, for the film geeks in the crowd, he even added cigarette burns every 15-20 minutes to signify a reel change (complete with a slight hiccup on the cuts between), because on film is how everyone would have seen the film back in the '60s. And like those older films, it's more concerned with building up atmosphere and character than scaring us every few minutes. I'm not trying to spoil anything by saying so, but most of the spooky bits you saw in the trailer come in the film's final third - it's definitely more a slow-burn than a jump-scare fest, which is actually something it shares with the original. It's amazing what a difference well-rounded characters can make!

I just wish it had more of them. There are basically only five full characters in the movie, and if you remember the original you know the fates of the majority of them. Flanagan's always stuck with stripped down casts (his previous film, Hush, literally only had five people in it), but here I think he could have benefited from opening it up a bit, or at least followed up with characters who only appeared one or two times. We've all seen the bit in the film where the possessed little girl causes a bully to slingshot himself, but what you can't tell from there is that's the last time we see anyone else from the school, and nothing really comes of it. Another trailer reveal involved the girl writing in Polish, and when it gets translated we only hear about the woman who does it, rather than actually see her. It's not that the film feels truncated or anything, just that in his quest to keep the focus on the family, Flanagan sometimes let things feel slightly undercooked. Like the slingshot bit is great for the trailer and all, but with no real payoff in the film (and no other instances of her using that particular ability, to the best of my memory) it could have been cut quite easily.

But look. I can't think of a movie with more red flags - we're talking about a PG-13 Platinum Dunes prequel to a crappy movie based on a board game, which might as well be the standard example for the phrase "recipe for disaster". That it's even watchable is something of a shock; that it's actually a pretty good movie and worth seeing inches on genuine miracle. All the credit goes to Flanagan and his crew, of course, but I think we should give Blumhouse (and the Dunes, maybe?) props for allowing him to do something far more interesting than they probably had in mind (i.e. do the same thing that made them a lot of money last time). It's almost a shame that it's tied to a movie that no one seemed to actually like (despite making the money it did, I've never spoken to a single person who enjoyed it - and I know fans of the Nightmare on Elm St remake), because it'll probably hurt its chances at the box office and as a fan of Flanagan's I'd love to see him get a big win since he's always getting screwed by distribution. But that's just how it goes these days, and regardless of how much money it makes, the fact that Flanagan made a real movie within "the machine" of IPs and franchises and not one but two production companies that are too often content to fall back on their proven formulas is something to be lauded.

What say you?

P.S. If you ARE one of those elusive fans of the original, make sure you stick through all the credits for a little gag that's kind of obvious but will make you smile anyway. If you're not a fan, or haven't seen it - don't bother staying, it won't mean anything and might even confuse you into thinking you're seeing a scene from a different Blumhouse franchise.


Fear, Inc. (2016)

OCTOBER 19, 2016


As I've said before, I don't like to know too much about a movie before I see it, especially at a festival, but I took it to a new extreme last night for Fear, Inc. - I didn't even know what the movie was CALLED until I saw a notice inside the theater (not the lobby, the theater itself, where we sit) telling us our reactions would be filmed. It's Screamfest time, after all, and since I knew I couldn't go on Thursday (horror trivia) I just made my way there on Wednesday without even looking at the schedule. For all I knew it could have been a revival screening of Paul Haggis' Crash for some goddamn reason. Luckily, it wasn't - and it turned out to be a movie that spoke to a number of my sensibilities, which would be like agreeing to a blind date and it turns out to be (name your actor/actress crush).

Basically it's the horror movie version of The Game, the David Fincher thriller from the '90s that doesn't get as much love as his other efforts from the era (until Zodiac it was pretty much my favorite of his films, actually - it took me a while to really warm up to the filmmaker). Our hero is bored with standard haunted attractions and is complaining about them when he is approached by someone working for the title company, who promises a true terror experience catered to them. As with The Game, he is "rejected" when he calls, but of course that's just to throw him off, and because (as we've learned since) he is a major horror movie fan, his experience is catered around his passion, and thus he's impressed with how they reference Scream and Friday the 13th in their attempts to terrify him. But is it really all a game? Are people really dying?

That's where the film primarily differs from The Game, as these folks don't like wipe out your bank account or whatever - they kill your friends and seemingly try to kill you as well. But it still apes that film in that you have to wonder what's real and what's being staged, and I don't think the filmmakers would mind me making the comparison, since the characters actually directly mention Fincher's film as a point of reference to explain what's going on. And that brings me to one of the two things about the movie that bugged me - they spell out too many of the references, which seems unnecessary in a film aimed directly at horror fans. Some are fine, even hilarious (there's one involving a particular Scream character's wardrobe that had me howling), but too many others are awkward and obvious, like when our hero finds his friend tied up to a death trap and says something about Jigsaw - and then their tormentor ALSO mentions the films directly. It was an obvious reference from the visual alone, making even the first clarification unneeded - having a second one moments later is overkill, and groan-worthy.

The other thing that irked me a bit is that there's one switcheroo too many. Perhaps because they reference The Game directly they felt they couldn't get away with a similar single "it was all a game!" reveal, so we have a couple of them, so the main character thinks it's a game, then real, then a game again, then real, then... you get the idea. I won't provide the exact count so as not to spoil anything (don't worry, this back and forth-ing starts rather quickly), but I couldn't help but wish they had stripped the film of at least one switch-up and just used that time elsewhere - perhaps by adding another character into the mix or something. I wouldn't call it a crippling issue, but when you have a character not once but twice re-enter the narrative saying something like "We got you!", it starts to feel padded (there is also an unnecessary prologue showing one of the game's other "victims", adding another 10 minutes to the runtime).

To be fair, this is tied into one of the film's STRENGTHS, which is that they never cheat, and each time you find out it's real (or a game), you can mentally run down the list of things that happened and see that it checks out. The characters race along from one scenario to the next (albeit mostly in their gorgeous LA home), so stopping to check a pulse or whatever isn't ever in the cards, and naturally to us in the audience who knows that none of these people are really dead (several of them were in the audience, in fact), if we believed what we saw on-screen, faked by professional makeup artists and performed by actors, there's no reason to think that the characters in the movie couldn't be fooled either, especially when in a stressful situation. And the "how far does this go?" setup aids some standard scenes, like when the heroes are pulled over when they have something incriminating in the car with them. It's the sort of scene you've seen a million times, but with the added bonus that you don't know if the cop is part of the game or a legit officer (and if he is, will the game people intrude to keep their plans in motion?). The script gets a lot of mileage out of that uncertainty, and despite the lag and repetition that settles in around the hour mark, it at least keeps you guessing about everything's true nature until the very end.

But the film's primary strength is that it's legitimately funny, and the characters are likable. At first glance you might worry you're getting the loser slacker hero and his bitchy girlfriend, but they quickly prove to be much different than that; he's definitely a bit spacey but he's loyal to his friends and we find out why he's a bit aloof, giving him some humanity and unexpected sympathy (for the record, his girlfriend won me over simply by making a pretty tasteless/amazing Natalie Wood joke via Christopher Walken impression). Chris Marquette and Stephanie Drake as their best friends are also charming, and have a valid excuse for not wanting to take part in the shenanigans (they have children, a relatively rare bit of business for this kind of supporting character). However, my favorite of the lot was Richard Riehle, the great character actor who is used perfectly as a nosy neighbor/former actor, which is a throwaway line early on that is important to remember when he is roped up into the game. As for the laughs, some are derived from movie references, but most are character driven ("You guys are GOOD ACTORS!") and it never becomes a spoofy sort of thing. Like Scream, it's comedic without being a comedy, which I think is the key to its strength - they're never obligated to be funny, allowing them to go full scary/suspenseful when they should, something Scary Movie and its ilk can never pull off.

Interestingly, just two weeks ago I indulged in something like this, Darren Bousman's The Tension Experience, which has a real world game you can take part in, but I just opted for the two hour, one-time experience. If you want you can have them do ARG-style things, where they'll call you at odd hours, have you go to random locations, etc. - but even the regular experience promises to rattle those who, like me, sleepwalk their way through haunted attractions at the likes of Universal Hollywood. Each time you go through is different, and there are something like 200 actors taking part to ensure everyone's experience is unique. It is, in other words, aimed at people like this movie's hero, who want to get those thrills that come naturally to his friends, and like the movie there are times during the experience (at least, my particular version of it) where you have to wonder if that person is really part of your group or someone that's part of their game. It's a new sort of immersive experience that is becoming more popular (at least in NY and LA), and thus Fear, Inc. has been timed perfectly to capitalize on it. By name-checking the film's two major influences (The Game and Scream) you're allowed to buy into their reality because, hey, those are movies we saw/liked too, and that's part of what makes it work so well.

The film hits VOD this week, which is not a surprise but still a bummer - it's a crowd-pleaser type that would benefit from big screen showings. Alas, that's just how it's gonna be from now on; we will get the oddball exception like The Witch, but every other horror movie that isn't from the likes of Screen Gems or Blumhouse you can expect to be watching in your own home on "release" day. It's a sad state of affairs; there are only two horror movies coming out in wide theatrical release this month - and one's a fucking Madea movie (the other is from Blumhouse, of course). It wasn't that long ago that a movie like this would definitely get a theatrical exhibition (maybe not 2,000 screens, but it wouldn't be relegated to only NY and LA, either), and I can't help but wonder if movies like Hatchet and Wrong Turn would suffer the same fate if they were being released today. Much like the hero of the movie, people get tired of the same old and want something different - but they also want to share that experience with others, and that's not a guarantee when your only option is watching it at home. But at least it's a festival movie that won't disappear, so take the good with the bad I guess.

What say you?

P.S. despite Freddy and Jason references (the two male leads even dress as them for their Halloween party), there isn't a meta joke about Marquette, who was in Freddy vs. Jason - and for that I thank the filmmakers.


Slithis (1978)

OCTOBER 6, 2016


As a very vocal champion of physical media, you would think I'd want every movie I enjoy to have some kind of spiffy special edition Blu-ray (if you're reading this review in the year 2050, replace "Blu-ray" with whatever tech you have now), which would offer a complete-ish look at its inception, production, and other history. But when I see a movie like Slithis (aka Spawn of the Slithis), I almost don't want it to get that kind of treatment. A commentary or 45 minute retrospective would likely prove that the screenwriter was not an alien mimicking human behavior, and that the actors did indeed know the camera was on them during some of their scenes, and that would ruin a lot of its appeal for me. Finding out these people were humans and knew what they were doing would just make me sad.

Yes, Slithis is one of those special movies where everything is just "off" throughout its 90ish minute runtime, changing what might have been a generic and poorly paced monster flick into a B-movie masterpiece. Every few minutes I was howling at something: the hero reading a story about two dead dogs on the front page of the LA Times; the will-be victim protesting his wife's request to put on a bathrobe before checking out the noises they hear, the random cop who sneezes his way through his one scene until our hero offers him eucalyptus leaves - all of this occurs in the movie's first 10-15 minutes, mind you. There's a guy we meet probably 45-50 minutes into the movie who gets more of an introduction than our main characters (bonus: if Will Ferrell and/or Adam McKay have ever seen the movie, there is no doubt in my mind that he was the inspiration for Ron Burgandy), which includes its own weirdness (a turtle fight?), as if they were introducing a spinoff movie within the edit of their first one.

As for our actual hero, he's the very bitter/bored head of the local school newspaper, who takes it upon himself to solve the mystery of the Slithis in order to escape his terrible life of shaping young minds so that he can... get a job at the paper, I guess? Over the course of the film he puts together a sad little crew, including a scientist pal and a boat captain who dives for evidence at his urging (our hero doesn't really DO much beyond know people who actually do the work). He also has a girlfriend (or wife? Sorry, I'm writing this a week later so details are hazy) who the director and/or editor is fond of cutting to even if she's not doing anything or contributing in any meaningful way. Or even reacting properly; the hero and his scientist buddy will be talking about their theories and it will cut to her smiling as if one of them just complimented her new haircut. But weird edits are not uncommon in the film - in that same scene, when the scientist comes over the camera doesn't bother to show him entering. Instead we just hear him do so as the camera remains locked on the living room, so you might just assume they couldn't move the camera for whatever reason, but then not 30 seconds later it pans and tracks the wife as she goes into the kitchen to grab him a drink.

Interestingly, the editor went on to edit a few episodes of Dukes of Hazzard, while the director only helmed one other film - a TV movie starring Bo Duke himself, John Schneider. For all we know they didn't ever pursue these jobs again, but Slithis - enjoyable as it is - offers plenty of evidence that they should leave such things to other folks. The pacing is saved only by pointless jibber jabber that really only works with an appreciative (and possibly inebriated in some cases) crowd. It's nearly impossible to see movies made this far outside the studio system on the big screen today, which means if you're not watching them alone you're with a friend and talking over the slower scenes - and that's where this movie's personality really shines through. The monster doesn't look too bad all things considered, but when it's killing folks it's just another monster movie - it's those quiet moments that I find myself thinking about, like the aforementioned bathrobe bit, or the lengthy cameo by Hy Pyke as a police lieutenant who overacts and mugs his way through his one scene as if he will be executed if he stops bugging his eyes out or shouting random words in his dialogue. Like, when the monster dies you almost wish the movie was only halfway through so we could spend another 40 minutes with all these weirdos.

Or 25 minutes every week. There's a delightfully odd sequence late in the film when our heroes discuss their plan, the sort of scene that you see in pretty much any monster movie. But what makes this one unique is that we see them talk for maybe 20 seconds, and then there's a cut to the four of them in a different spot, lined up differently, continuing the conversation as if they hadn't just changed position. It feels a lot like the hangout shots you'd see in an old sitcom, where the cast is just goofing off and they'd use highlights in between the closeup cards with their credit (think Friends, or, god help us, Three's Company). Except they're just talking about killing a Slithis and had no reason to be moving around so much during their conversation. Some of director Stephen Traxler's now trademark directorial in-confidence is on display here too - the sequence kicks off with a long zoom across the water to where the four are standing, at the end of which he zooms back out a bit (he's still too far to even really see any of them clearly anyway).

For the life of me I can't understand why it was paired with Tourist Trap, as the only thing they have in common as far as I can tell is that they're both late 70s horror movies set in California (was was the third film, The Dark, which was a lot more like Slithis, making Tourist Trap the oddball in both narrative and actual quality). I had only seen the film (one of my favorites, you might recall - and one of very few "non canon" reviews to make it into the HMAD book) on 35mm once before, and it wasn't the best print - this one was better, albeit still faded and occasionally beat up (mainly at the reel changes). It was one of the movies I often requested to show when I screened films there, but was told a print couldn't be found - *shrug* - so it was nice to finally be able to see it there, even if I wasn't hosting. Since it had been a number of years since I watched it, it was fun catching up with it, enjoying Robin Sherwood's all too brief appearance (just like Halloween and Friday the 13th - the girl I find the most attractive is among the first to die!) and laughing along with everyone at Davey's bizarre voice. As for The Dark, I kept falling asleep and eventually just went home before it ended, but I had seen it before (or at least, sat through the whole thing - some parts seemed completely foreign to me, so I probably kept falling asleep when I last saw it there in 2013), and quickly remembered that the film's behind the scenes story is much more interesting than the one on screen. Unlike Slithis it had professional actors and real filmmaking on display, so when it was dull it was just dull - not off-the-wall like this one. Worth seeing for William Devane's unusual performance though.

Long story short, this is the kind of movie I would only want to watch with a repertory crowd (a respectful one, not a bunch of assholes trying out for MST3k gigs). If I watched this at home I'd probably get bored quick, as the monster doesn't appear enough and the lead either can't act or simply chooses not to (he sells insurance now, for what it's worth), making it a tough movie to retain your focus. But in a theater you kind of have no choice but to stick with it, and then it's also magnifying the film's quirky little personality, which shines through JUST enough to make this worth seeing under the right circumstances. You can see the Hy Pyke scene on Youtube to get a taste of the strange madness, but be warned - that's about as good as it gets, so if you spoil it for yourself out of context you might be setting yourself up for disappointment (sort of like the people who have only seen the "highlights" of the Wicker Man remake and assume the whole movie is like that). You've been warned!

What say you?


Beyond The Walls (2016)

OCTOBER 3, 2016


It's easy to see how much the landscape has switched from movies to television when almost anyone can tell you that Beyond The Walls (French: Au-delà des Mur) would have worked better as a film than a "TV series" (more like miniseries, as it runs for three episodes that run about standard TV episode length - 45-50 minutes). The "cliffhangers" that end the first two episodes are really just ends of their respective acts, no different than any other movie, and things are quite padded in the first episode to ensure that first big moment comes at the end of its required length. Indeed, throughout the next two episodes I kept waiting for payoffs for those early scenes, distracting me away from what was otherwise a really good take on the standard horror trope of someone atoning for a past mistake via creepy/supernatural elements.

These scenes include some very specific details that have no bearing on anything else, such as the fact that our heroine Lisa (Veerle Baetens) works as a speech therapist, that she pretends to have a husband in order to avoid social encounters, and, in one peculiar moment, is attempting a casual encounter with a guy she met in the bar, only to give him blue balls as she becomes seemingly more interested in an abandoned car in the garage. I kept waiting for these things, given at least half of the first episode, to really tie into what came later (particularly the dusty car), but not only do they not, she never even explains their significance to the other characters. I mean, there's a difference between some character development and seemingly setting up an entirely different kind of movie - if you stripped that chunk out and showed it to someone, they'd assume they were seeing a Repulsion-esque drama about an unhinged woman. Five minutes' worth of screentime is all it would have taken to tell us that she's lonely (partially by choice), which is really all we need out of this material.

The real plot starts (and I should note that this earlier stuff only bugged me in retrospect once I realized it had no bearing on anything - in the moment it's fine, well-acted, well-made, etc.) when she finds out that she has inherited the house across the street after its owner was discovered dead - and had been so for thirty years before being discovered. She never met him and had no connection to his family, so she's obviously a bit confused, but hey - free house! One she can move into by herself (it's not a humorous movie for the most part, but seeing her lug her mattress across the busy street is pretty amusing), and apparently fix up herself too - I don't care if it's "woke" of me to say so but there are fewer things I find more attractive than a woman who knows how to fix some plumbing and wield a sledgehammer in order to knock down an undesired wall. Naturally, she looks the gift horse in the mouth, trying to figure out why this long-dead man would leave her a house (and how he even had her name to begin with), but before long she's got a bigger mystery to solve - who or what is making the noise behind a wall in her bedroom. She knocks that one down too and finds a secret passageway, which leads to a gigantic, rundown ballroom that in no way could have been included in her newly acquired residence.

Obviously, we're dealing with a more fantastical kind of horror here; in fact it's almost tough to really call it horror at all. Creepy moments (including one right after she enters that ballroom) are plentiful, but I was reminded more of things like City of Lost Children and Neverwhere than anything full-blown terror oriented. Not a knock on the "movie", of course - just a heads up for those who might hear "French + horror" and go in hoping for the next Inside. Lisa meets Julien (François Deblock), a mysterious man who says he has been trapped in there for three years, and the two work together in order to try to find their way out once they realize that they can't go back the way she just entered. Julien has been compiling a map on the walls of the little room he has set up as his base/safe haven, and it's MASSIVE - the movie almost feels like a video game adaptation for a bit, as impossibly large structures are their forte (think the first Resident Evil) and mysterious strangers temporarily helping you along is an element of pretty much every "survival horror" game ever made. But again, the story and characters are more important than the scary things they find on occasion, and director/creator Hervé Hadmar offers the right balance: the world he creates here is fleshed out just enough to keep from being incoherent, but never so much that it's more interesting than our characters' respective journeys.

As mentioned they both need to atone for something - as it turns out, they both blame themselves for a death they feel they could have prevented. When they were younger, Lisa's sister drowned because she was too busy flirting with a guy instead of watching her swim, and Julien was forced to leave his best friend to die during the war. But unlike Flatliners or whatever, their ghosts are not angry or vengeful - they just want to be back together with their loved ones in this endless would-be paradise. Of course we don't know too much about what Julien was like before he got trapped there, but if there is one benefit to the over-time spent with Lisa's day-to-day, we know that there's nothing for her back in the "real world" and it wouldn't be too much of a hassle for her to stay there with her beloved sister, who harbors no grudge against her for what she did. I liked this scenario - ordinarily the thinking would be "she has to escape and get back to her life!" but here I found myself kind of torn; would it really be so bad to stay there forever? Or will this place get her to realize that an ideal, drama-free life isn't really a life at all, because we need the lows to appreciate the highs?

Weighty stuff for a movie that features a minotaur, I know, but that's exactly what made it so intriguing (it's worth noting that despite my usual exhaustion for this time of the year, AND the subtitles for a 2.5 hr experience, I stayed awake the entire time!). It's a fairly well-balanced mix of many genres, offering just enough world-building to make it compelling but not over-explaining everything and exhausting all of its potential (i.e. a prequel or sequel could be enticing, but not necessary). There's horror, drama, romance, and fantasy all offered in equal doses, led by two solid actors playing characters you'll easily care about. In short, even if it was in English it could never be mistaken for an American horror movie from Screen Gems or Blumhouse, and is highly worth your time even with its peculiar three episode structure. It will be available on Shudder soon, where you can choose to watch it like a traditional on-air TV series if you want, but in this day of binge-watching I can successfully assume no one will bother to break it up even if it was six or eight episodes. It's unfortunate that the 3rd episode (which largely takes place outside the "house", though I won't divulge how/why as I think of it as one movie and thus spoilers) is the weakest overall, but the closing moments tie it all up nicely and it's more just a testament to how good the first two are that it seems like a lesser entry. If you're already a Shudder subscriber (and you should be), there's no reason not to watch - if you're NOT already a member, take advantage of a free trial to check it out. Either way, it's definitely worth the time (and reading, unless you speak French), and hopefully Hadmar has plans to expand on this intriguing universe in the future. And kudos to Beyond Fest for giving it a showcase alongside the traditional features, because not only was that production design fantastic to see on a big screen, but it also gave a spotlight to something that might have gone under my radar otherwise.

What say you?


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