Slaughterhouse (1987)

MARCH 14, 2017

GENRE: SLASHER
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (REVIVAL SCREENING)

I don't know why I never rented Slaughterhouse as a kid; I distinctly recall seeing it at my usual video store right next to the Silent Night Deadly Night series, and obviously I was all about the slasher genre that it clearly belonged to, but for whatever reason I never gave it a chance. Maybe it was because I didn't hear much about it in Fangoria and such chances rarely paid off (see, or don't see: Iced), or maybe the lack of a mask on the killer's face left me less impressed. Or maybe I just somehow knew if I was patient I'd get to see it in the ideal setting: on the big screen with 200 other horror fans, on a 35mm print that would definitely contain the gore that may have been cut from the VHS*. Alas, as the film unspooled, I realized there was another possibility for skipping it: perhaps I just knew it wasn't very good.

Don't get me wrong, it's not a disaster or anything, and I could name a few worse slashers just from that same year (Open House, The Outing, Slumber Party Massacre 2...), which is worth noting since this was past the heyday of the genre and thus they were a bit rarer at this point, as even indie producers were making more creature/ghost-driven vehicles that could spotlight showy FX as opposed to splattered blood and disembodied limbs. So the slashers that were coming around, like this, weren't so much trying to compete with the Friday the 13ths and the like, but merely just catering to the non-discerning. With slashers only coming around every once in a while (as opposed to nearly every week as they were in the early '80s), there wasn't as much need to be GOOD, just... well, to exist at all for the people who were then like I am now: willing to watch anything as long as it had a big guy hacking up teenagers.

Whether this leeway dawned on its filmmakers or not is unknown, but after listening to their Q&A I don't think it did. The director did mention that he preferred comedies but understood it was easier to get a horror film made/sold than a comedy when you didn't have a lot of money, but I didn't get a sense that they were a bunch of get rich quick schemers - they seemed to genuinely want to deliver a good movie. And to its credit, despite their inexperience (if writer/director Rick Roessler has ever made anything else, the IMDb hasn't caught wind of it) the film actually manages to deliver some effective shots and interesting beats, including more than one wide shot where Buddy (the hulking brute killer) is there but not being heralded with a musical sting or anything like that. There's one terrific one where the heroine - who will be drawing your eye - is at the bottom of the frame looking for her friend, whose corpse is being dragged out of sight by Buddy, walking on the level above her. Stuff like that says to me someone was at least putting in effort to give the movie a little more oomph than required, and not just doing the bare minimum to get the movie finished and profitable.

If only that sort of elbow grease was applied to the script, they could have had a legitimately solid entry into the slasher canon. The ingredients are all there, but they're let down by a script that is hellbent on focusing on the wrong things, and goes beyond slow pacing into almost surreal territory. For example, we meet our standard group of six teens in the first scene, where they are partying near the titular location. Two of them sneak off to fool around, annoy Buddy, and get killed - perfectly normal stuff. Then we cut to the next morning, and the other four have noticed their friends are missing but don't think much of it. After a full reel of farting around town (I swear a good ten minutes of this movie is just of the male lead driving his orange jeep around), they all go back to the slaughterhouse to film a music video (the '80s, man...). At this point I'm thinking "OK, now things get going!", in that they will show up, do their thing, find something odd (or even one of the bodies), and Buddy could start finishing them off. But no! They leave AGAIN and kill more time around town, only to finally return with about 20-25 minutes to go in the runtime. This is not how one structures their slasher movie!

And like I mentioned, there's a strange focus on things no one would possibly care about listening to. Just as the aforementioned Open House spent a lot of its time explaining the real estate business in detail, Roessler's script has its adult characters (all rival slaughterhouse owners) go on and on about their equipment, their process, etc. One even shouts at another about his tendency to allow 30% fat on his roast, which I guess is bad but I mean, I don't really care much unless I plan to actually buy my meat from this fictional character. There's a fine line between fleshing out the characters and simply boring the audience by spending too much time on irrelevant minutiae. It's like Roessler watched Texas Chainsaw Massacre (a very obvious influence, with a bit of Motel Hell too) and got annoyed that they didn't spend enough time explaining the meat-making process because they were in a rush to be scary, and was determined to correct it. The script also curiously doesn't understand how foreshadowing works; the male lead's poor driving skills are brought up twice (and he almost runs a guy over in a separate incident!), with the sheriff (his girlfriend's father) even getting a close-up as he says that "someday I'll have to scrape you off the highway", which is ironic when he... uh, is smashed in the head by Buddy. Inside the slaughterhouse. When he's not driving.

Luckily the kills are fairly varied; Buddy carries a big axe that could be his Freddy glove (i.e. pretty much the only thing he ever uses to kill someone), but he only uses it a couple times. For the others he mixes it up: the slaughterhouse machinery gets used, and he merely crushes the head of one guy with his bare hands - all presented with minimal (better than nothing!) prosthetics and fake blood spray. Since the blood looks more purple than red in a couple instances, I guess it's fine that this isn't exactly a movie that would give the MPAA a heart attack, but given Buddy's hulking size and the title I was hoping for a little more carnage (that it was showing on a Grindhouse night made me even more hopeful for the sort of stuff we would usually need unrated cuts to see. I mean, next week they're showing Pieces). It's not bloodless, it's just... subdued, I guess would be the best word, with the variety making up for it. Doesn't quite make up for how they're paced, but at least if you were to make a highlight reel of the film it wouldn't be repetitive.

In addition to the kills, the film also offers up the occasional inspired or at least memorable bit that also helps lessen the blow of its stop-and-start structure. The opening credits are set to cheery music played over footage of a real pig being slaughtered (none of the gorier parts of it, thankfully, but we see the poor guy walking to his doom, being hit with the prod, and then being hung up in preparation to become delicious bacon), and there are a number of intentional laughs sprinkled throughout. Buddy has some choice reactions to whatever's going on around him, and I never tired of the awful meat-related puns that accompanied a number of the kills - Arnold as Mr. Freeze would approve of how they never stray from the gimmick. There are also some weird character choices, like the fact that the deputy, who mentions his family for no real reason, is having an affair with the town floozy. He's kind of a goofy guy, so what could have been a simple "He's desperate and willing to settle for the town hussy" note becomes "he's an asshole cheating on his wife and risking losing his kids to a divorce", with no payoff to any of it - we never see/meet the kids and his wife's only contribution is being the unheard other end of a phone call. And he dies, so now we're feeling sad for two fatherless kids, all of which could be avoided if they just snipped the line where he mentioned them. I also enjoyed how we kept hearing about the local radio station's annual jamboree show, and when it finally arrives, it gets shut down after 20 seconds due to a power failure (even better, no one even boos - they just all happily leave as if they had their fill anyway).

So alas, it's just another underwhelming late-coming slasher. Dream Warriors aside, 1987 is hardly a banner year for the sub-genre, so it's not like I'm shocked and stunned to discover this won't be replacing My Bloody Valentine or Black Christmas on my list of favorite non-franchise slasher movies (speaking of the sequel that never came to pass - it's actually set up early in the movie, instead of the end - we are told Buddy has a brother early on, but the finale doesn't establish his return). Maybe I was putting too much stock in its placement as a Grindhouse night selection, but I also kept thinking of the underrated Sweatshop, which also had the "hulking brute killer" scenario but way more of that Grindhouse-y sleaze and attitude. So the lesson to learn here is that if you're a 9 year old looking for something to rent, get Sweatshop and be ahead of the curve when it gets a revival screening in thirty years!

What say you?

PLEASE, GO ON...

Kong: Skull Island (2017)

MARCH 12, 2017

GENRE: MONSTER
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (REGULAR SCREENING)

I was rarely as excited for a big blockbuster as I was for Peter Jackson's King Kong back in December of 2005. It came out the night I flew home to see my family for Christmas, and I was so hellbent on seeing the film I barely even saw any of them before racing off to the theater for the next showing. And within an hour, I felt myself sinking into my seat, feeling guiltier and guiltier about ditching them for that slog of a movie. I knew it was long, but I figured Peter Jackson - the guy who made Dead Alive and was now free to do whatever he wanted post-LOTR - would dive into Skull Island's creatures and give us a $200m creature feature. Instead we got ice skating, and it was just the first of what has been an unbroken streak of disappointing movies from this former hero of mine. Luckily, twelve years later, I got to see most of that movie I wanted to thanks to Jordan Vogt-Roberts and Kong: Skull Island, which is an hour shorter and features twice as much monster action.

In fact, things start a touch quicker than I even expected. Jurassic Park was a clear influence on the filmmakers here, but there's no long buildup like that movie had - I think that scene from the trailers where Kong tosses a tree through the windshield of a helicopter comes at about the 30 minute mark. Since there's an action scene right at the top (a flashback that establishes the John C. Reilly character, who crashes on the island along with a Japanese pilot during a WWII dogfight), that means there's really only about 25 minutes worth of setup before the movie becomes, more or less, a nonstop chase/fight movie. Our heroes are going to the island to take photos and see what's there (John Goodman's character is pretty sure there are monsters there, but the mission is disguised as mere recon to see what resources the island may have, before the Russians get there first), and Kong's big initial attack wipes out about half of them and scatters the others into two primary groups. One group stumbles across Reilly and the other jungle inhabitants, and learn that Kong is actually kind of a good guy and acts as the primary defense against the real dangers of the island. The other group, for the most part, keeps running into those other dangers. We go back and forth between the two groups for a while, which allows for a perfectly balanced mix of adventure and character development; we're never away from action for too long, but we also get to know the people who may or may not be eaten by "Skull Crawlers" or giant squids, or stomped on by Kong as he makes his way around his home.

Well, to be fair, we get to know MOST of the people. Goodman, Sam Jackson, Reilly, and Shea Whigham (as one of Jackson's men) get to play fairly complete characters, but they're all billed below Tom Hiddleston, who really serves no function in the movie other than to look gravely concerned at whatever the next obstacle is. He is hired because the island is unknown territory and they need a badass like him to guide them through. He's basically Indiana Jones and Han Solo rolled into one guy, at least as far as his introduction goes - but once they're all on the island he really doesn't do a hell of a lot. He kills a few flying monsters with a sword (while wearing a gas mask, so his big hero moment could just be a stunt guy for all we know) and supplies Brie Larson with the tool that save their lives later, but I honestly think if you digitally erased him from like 90% of his scenes there would be zero effect on anything. He's just THERE, as if they hired him before writing the script and forgot to include his character in the plot, but didn't have the heart to tell the actor he was no longer needed. Near the end he becomes the voice of reason against Jackson, who just wants to kill Kong and everything else on the island, but that stuff could have been given to Larson or Reilly (the latter also serves as their guide once he's introduced, so at that point Tom doesn't even have a useful skill for the group anymore). Larson fares slightly better, but also feels a bit like someone noticed late in the development that they needed another female character in there, rather than an essential part of the plot.

Amazingly, the movie manages to overcome the fact that it doesn't give its two main characters anything to do. While the CGI occasionally suffers from that weightlessness that big movie monsters tend to have (when Kong is toppled during a fight, it feels like his size should be causing a tidal wave or earthquake, but the humans nearby barely flinch), for the most part it shows us the best money can buy. The designers have some up with a variety of monsters, including spiders with legs that are so long that they are initially mistaken for trees, and a four-legged creature that is made out of wood and bark, and acts like a scared dog when shot at. Kong and the "Skull Crawlers" get the majority of the screentime devoted to beasties, but I'm glad that they peppered in some others to flesh out the world of the island a bit more (we're also told that there are ants that sound like birds, but we never see them). And not all of them are antagonists, which adds to the Jurassic Park-y feel - some are just cool to look at and won't hurt you, like the "veggie-sauruses" of that movie. Stuffier types might find it annoying that the monsters are more fleshed out than the characters, but they probably also complained that Godzilla wasn't in Godzilla '14 enough, because such folks are never happy and certainly never consistent, so don't listen to them.

The movie also has a bit of a mean streak that I appreciated. Not like, Silent Night Deadly Night levels of gleeful hatred towards humanity, but certainly more than I was expecting for a PG-13 movie that attracted kids. There's an obvious hero type who gets wiped out at the halfway mark, and that scene in the trailer where a character seems to be sacrificing himself to save his friends doesn't quite work the way anyone would expect. It's also got a respectable amount of carnage (including a through the mouth impaling!) and even a few kinda scary bits (the spider scene, mostly). But it's also funnier than I would have assumed; Reilly is even more gutbusting than he appeared to be from the trailer (I'm still laughing at his final line to the native people), and Whigham gets a number of good, crowd-pleasing lines. There's also terrific use of a Nixon bobblehead (you just have to see it) and even Kong gets a couple of smiles, like when he slurps a giant squid leg like spaghetti (he also uses a big propeller like a kind of brass knuckles, which is awesome).

Less successful is the editing, which shows a number of seams. This movie is under two hours (and that's with very lengthy credits on account of the CGI), and I suspect that wasn't always the case, because what major blockbuster movies are under two hours anymore? At one point Larson begins talking about the Japanese pilot in the past tense, but since she obviously never met him nor had Reilly mentioned him, there was clearly a scene or at least a few lines to set up her reaction. It's not until about ten minutes later that it's even clear who she was referring to, which is just plain awkward storytelling no matter how you slice it. There is also a cutaway of a hex nut falling in between some gears on their boat, which you can assume is foreshadowing a malfunction down the road, but there's no payoff for it. And I'm pretty sure Sam Jackson's squad respawns at some point, because I kept mentally trying to keep track and there were always more alive than I could have sworn was possible given the casualties we just witnessed. As with the weird lack of a point to the Hiddleston character, it's not a crippling flaw, but it definitely raised an eyebrow more than once, and I can't help but wonder if some exec demanded some cuts at the 11th hour to shorten the runtime, resulting in some sloppier than usual editing for a movie this size.

So it's not a home run, but it's a lot closer to one than I would expect out of current day Warner Bros, which is always seemingly bungling its big movies by treating them as parts of a long-running franchise that's being forced on us from inception, as opposed to the good old days where they'd only make sequels to movies we liked. Indeed, the post-credits scene is just there to set up a vs. film with Godzilla (whether it will be the one from the 2014 movie, or a new incarnation a la Batman in BvS, I'm not sure), but at least they weren't dropping a bunch of teasers for it throughout the film like they did in BvS with its bullshit Flash cameos and such. But unlike BvS, this actually excites me about returning to this world; maybe not in a vs. movie, but I'd love to come back to Skull Island (perhaps in a prequel, with Reilly's character in an Enemy Mine kind of scenario with the Japanese pilot) and meet more of its inhabitants. Naturally, they've already dated the vs. film (and, sigh, hired writers to come up with the story for it AFTER they promised us when we'd see it), but as with its DC characters, the shared mega movies being planned doesn't mean we can't get stand-alone entries in the same world. Naturally, I'm more excited about giant monsters than superheroes (even with my beloved Affleck as Batman), so the fact that Skull Island is (so far) better received than any of their DC films is hopefully a good sign that more will be coming.

What say you?

PLEASE, GO ON...

The Girl With All The Gifts (2016)

FEBRUARY 25, 2017

GENRE: POST-APOCALYPTIC, ZOMBIE
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (REGULAR SCREENING)

With Walking Dead scoring massive ratings and World War Z more than doubling the gross of the previous highest grossing zombie film, I don't understand why we never got glutted with zombie flicks at the multiplex as we were with found footage movies in the earlier part of this decade or torture-y/hardcore horror in the '00s. And in turn I REALLY don't understand why The Girl With All The Gifts, based on a popular novel and led by three known actors (the horror genre doesn't need stars to be a hit, don't forget), got this nothing release - even here in LA it only played on one (not large) screen, with no marketing even for its accompanying VOD release. In a few years this is going to be one of those titles that gets cited as a winner the way we do for the likes of The Babadook or Hush, while folks have to be convinced the likes of Bye Bye Man actually got wide theatrical releases. It's a broken system, and has been for years, and I don't see it ever improving again; I'm happy I got to see it theatrically, but it's a shame I had to double check someone's geographical location before suggesting they do the same.

Because unlike many of the horror films you have no choice but to see on VOD, there's actually a scope to this film that would be served well on a big screen. It's not the kind of zombie movie where everyone holes up in a "safe zone" that gets overrun - it's about that safe zone being overrun and forcing our group of heroes (five of them) to make their way on foot through their eerily quiet, crumbling city to another safe area some miles away. The zombies are formed by a kind of fungal virus in this particular story, and it affects the world as well as its inhabitants, spawning these giant vines and pods throughout the city. So it's overgrown like many a post-apocalyptic film, but it's not just a cool-looking bit of production design - it's actually a source of the danger, as the pods threaten to burst and send the virus airborne. The zombies themselves are incapacitated by these vine structures, so our heroes stumble across a few that look like that they are victims of Eldon Stammets from Hannibal (and some are in groups, so it's like a cross between his victims and Lawrence Wells' totem), which is both the creepiest thing I've seen in a zombie movie in a while, and also one of the most unique.

So it's kind of funny that this is not a traditional zombie movie. It has a number of the beats of such films, but the zombies kind of stand in spot, swaying back and forth (like grass, keeping with the plant theme), unless they smell a human target. Humans are issued a scent blocker spray that they apply to themselves like bugspray, and that keeps them safe unless they make eye contact - allowing for a nailbiter scene where they make their way past dozens of zombies who are standing in place like mannequins. Sure, it's not much different than Shaun of the Dead's "let's pretend to be zombies and walk right past" bit (other than the lack of humor, obviously), but the zombies just standing there adds a level of uneasiness that sets it apart. Also, even when one zombie is alerted, it's usually isolated, so when one of our heroes accidentally spooks one, it's not like they're done for - they have to silently (and quickly) dispatch the activated one before any others catch on (kind of like in a Metal Gear game when you trigger an alarm but if you kill the closest guard things are fine). It's genius; it allows the sequence to break tension and then get it right back, which, if I've ever seen that before in a zombie movie, I can't recall it at this time.

Speaking of Shaun, it's kind of funny that one of the aforementioned recognizable faces is Paddy Considine, who appears in the other two installments of the so-called Cornetto Trilogy but gets a rare lead role here as one of the three adults who are in charge of the titular "Girl", whose name is Melanie and may be the key to saving the human race. She is one of several children who were infected in the womb but did not become full fledged zombies like the others, but live as a kind of hybrid. Like the regular infected, they have a thirst for flesh and blood (animal will suffice, though human is preferred) and get a bit worked up at the scent of one, but unlike the others they are capable of speech, free thinking, etc. Considine's character is kind of a Capt. Rhodes type who just wants to kill her, but he works with (for? I missed some of the specifics) Caldwell (Glenn Close), who wants to dissect Melanie and the other children in order to find a cure, believing their hybrid state is the key to a vaccine. And then there's Ms. Justineau (Gemma Arterton), who is the childrens' teacher and has taken a particular liking to Melanie. Naturally, she wants to protect her, so you have this odd dynamic where Melanie is being kept alive by the three adults but for different reasons. And naturally, the thing about her that makes them afraid of her eventually proves to be essential to their survival, as she can make her way quickly through the zombies to find supplies or a scout the best route, or sniff her way to find a missing member of their group.

And the cool thing is, I agree with all of them. Considine's character is introduced as an antagonist, but he comes around and bonds with her in his own way, and never really enters full "evil human" mode. Close's character actually inches, er, closer to that territory, as she will seemingly stop at nothing to achieve the "greater good", but since we never see any of the people she's allegedly trying to save (there are only like ten named people in the entire movie; we never see any traditional civilization, even in a flashback), her goal, while noble, is hard to really consider when it means the possible death of the little girl who we've spent the past 90 minutes with - a flesh and blood reality vs. a vague notion. Naturally, not everyone survives this journey, but the script by Mike Carey (adapting his novel) smartly balances out the primary characters so that one is never more or less likely to survive than the others, and gives them enough time for us to really care if and when they are dispatched. Not since Dawn of the Dead have I seen a zombie movie (or show) where I literally did not want ANYONE to die, a relieving feeling that I probably won't experience again for a while.

My only real nag about the entire movie was the ending, which generally works fine but I have a major question about how one character is still alive (to be as vague as possible - the final scene is obviously some time later, so what is ______ drinking/eating?), and Melanie's final action against the zombie fungus seemed a bit abrupt. I later learned that the book had a scene that set up her decision (I can't recall if they said it was filmed and then cut from the film, or just excised to begin with), so I get it now and it smooths over some of that concern, but neither I or they can/should expect everyone to follow up with the novel (or movie news sites) to get that context. Not that the ending was confusing or anything, but it seemed like they rushed through the final moments after pacing the previous 100 so perfectly, so it was a bit of a bummer that they couldn't retain that near-perfect quality. Perhaps book readers can mentally fill in those blanks and not even notice (with Carey writing both, I doubt there are any major changes - just things that the movie didn't have time for), but that's the double edged sword of seeing a movie based on a book - you're always going to partially dampen the surprise of one by experiencing the other first. I tend to watch the movie first before diving into the book, because the book will be fleshed out (it's like a director's cut!), whereas watching the movie after reading will almost always feel like you're getting cliff's notes, but rarely do I feel I SHOULD have read the book first so I'd have a little more understanding of the final moments of the story.

But a few quibbles about the ending is nowhere near enough to take away the fact that this is a great addition to the zombie sub-genre, and is very much undeserving of its unheralded release into the world after some well received festival appearances - including Fantastic Fest, and I'm almost afraid to look up what I saw at the same time I could have been seeing this, as I wasn't exactly in love with many of the movies I saw there this year (update: turns out it was Call of Heroes and The Void; I liked this more than either of them, but I doubt I'd have the chance to see them theatrically, so I guess it evens out). Then again, this way I got to buy a ticket at a regular screening, and do my part to try to convince the money men that movies like this should be championed and given a chance to thrive on the big screen.

What say you?

P.S. I didn't even realize it at the time, but the director was Colm McCarthy, who directed Outcast - a HMAD book selection! Definitely a name to watch and one I won't forget next time.

PLEASE, GO ON...

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