Monday, February 26, 2018

The Stuff (1985)

I've never really given much thought to The Stuff, but this artwork gave me a flashback to seeing its VHS cover as a child and feeling repulsed and fascinated - a vibe I still chase to this day, within the genre!

Anyway, The Stuff, written and directed by Larry Cohen, is a satirical, campy, if slightly untidy B movie sci-fi/horror/comedy.

The "stuff" in question is a mysterious creamy dessert that's taken America by storm. The pink and purple signature colours and neon are seen everywhere: billboards, delivery trucks, street vendors... as well as sexy TV commercials and its claim of "Enough is never enough!".

A few people are rightly convinced that something sinister is going on, though. We have David 'Mo' Rutherford (Michael Moriarty), an industrial espionage expert hired to find out about this enigmatic product; Nicole (Andrea Marcovicci), an advertising executive who up until now has been peddling it to the masses; 'Chocolate Chip' Charlie (Garrett Morris), the face of another once-popular snack whose business got swallowed by the Stuff grabbing so much market share; and a young boy by the name of Jason (Scott Bloom) distrustful of the creamy goo after witnessing it moving around his fridge on its own, then being forced to run away from home when his parents and brother (played by his real brother: they both have crazily striking blue/green eyes!) all go nuts and try to attack him.

At one point Jason comes home to find all other food in the house tossed in the rubbish, and his mother serving a huge dish of Stuff to the family, in a bizarre take on a family dinner. 

Where did this delicious and dangerous treat come from, though? We're never told. The closest we get is in the opening scene, with an old geezer finding it oozing up from a hole in the ground. He tastes it(!) and decides that it's delicious enough to sell. Then it's back to present day (in 1985) with the immersion of the dessert into everyday culture and Stuff-induced mind-control of the population well underway.

We follow the aforementioned group of level heads as they travel around trying to uncover what the Stuff actually is, and then attempting to get the word out about its dangers. Their adventures even have them crossing paths with Paul Sorvino, chewing the scenery up as a military dude.

Effects are either goo or body-horror based, taking the form of practical (upside down and miniature sets, crazy fake heads, and just plain ol' pumping the stuff into and through things) and CGI (now laughably dated looking green screen). There are some inconsistencies with exactly how the Stuff affects a human body; sometimes people appear to bleed it when attacked, and others appear to be empty vessels after the alien pudding has left them. This isn't the worst thing in the world (this is a B movie after all) but it's a bit confusing.

I'm pretty sure I used to conflate this and The Blob, for obvious reasons, and it's not unlike it, of course. But the 1980's Blob brings nastier gore and a sense of its substance being actually dangerous. The Stuff, despite clearly turning people into zombies and occasionally (and far too seldom) oozing its way out of bodies, never really feels like a palpable threat in the moment. Everyone is obsessed with it, but ultimately the tide turns in public opinion and we're even shown riots against it, by the end of the movie?! It got one thing right: humans are fucking fickle.

The slightly chaotic plot seems to be the result of edits made from the original cut. Formerly longer than its now 87min runtime, edits were demanded to help with pacing. And help the pacing it did... only, it sacrificed anything the film ever had in the way of the art of crafting a story. Whereas presumably the longer cut fleshed out character decisions and actions, this version bounces speedily from one sequence to another with no time to lose!

According to Cohen the studio still wasn't too happy with the finished film, despite the cuts:
"New World wanted a straight-up horror film, and, in retrospect, The Stuff had more comedic aspects to it than the executives were perhaps expecting. They thought they were going to get a flat-out horror movie with a lot of gore and scares, and we made a film that was more satirical and had a lot of humour and commentary in it."

He's right, this definitely plays as a silly satire with occasional nasty moments, rather than an all-out "let the bodies hit the floor" horror movie. And that's cool! It's perhaps better viewed in company rather than alone, as it's so nonsensical it'll have you exclaiming out loud as it all plays out. Even the score sounds like it would be more at home on a chirpy Spielberg movie than this.

Streaming on Shudder at time of writing. Watch while eating something creamy!

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Oculus (2013)

I'll cut to the chase: this is a pretty pedestrian modern horror movie from Mike Flanagan. Which is surprising, given that he worked on Hush and Gerald's Game, both of which are far superior. At the risk of sounding like a snob, Oculus plays like a cash-in summer blockbuster: a hit with non-genre fans (those squares!) who fancy something scary, but a little too "horror by numbers" for anyone with a decent bit of experience.

Starring Karen Gillan (Doctor Who, Guardians of the Galaxy), Katee Sackhoff (Kara 'Starbuck' Thrace from Battlestar Galactica) and Rory Cochrane (the super stoned dude in Dazed and Confused), Oculus deals with family loss, and two siblings trying to overcome it. 

Unfortunately for her brother Tim (Brenton Thwaites), Kaylie (Gillan, sporting what I can only describe as a terrifying fringe) has become obsessed with proving that their father becoming a homicidal maniac 11 years ago was not your average psychotic break but in fact was due to a cursed mirror that hung in his office. She's managed to track it down and take possession, and she's invited Tim - himself fresh out of an institution for killing dad back then, in self defense - to come along and bear witness to the spooky goings on in their old house. What could possibly go wrong.

It's no more of a stretch than the average flick I suppose, but what doesn't help is Kaylie's general cold manner. She's an unlikeable lead character, and her odd rhythm of speech didn't do anything to warm me to her, either (I'd love to know if that was an actor or writer/director choice). We're to assume that her horrific family history affects her deeply, that she's never let go of the terrors she witnessed; yet I couldn't help but think this could've been played with more subtlety, rather than making her an obsessed robot. 

She reprimands Tim for his logical reading of those past events, telling him the doctors brainwashed him... because a killer mirror is so much more believable?! She's dismissive and withholding even to her fiance, too. It's no great tragedy when (spoilers) she kills him, because (a) we barely know the guy, and (b) she doesn't seem to have much of a connection to him anyway. Kaylie is a character born within this story to definitely die by the end of it, there's just nowhere else for her to go.

Additionally, most of the scares here are overworked and cheap. Creepy veiny people with weird eyes glide around the house, there's fingernail violence, and the old "accidentally killing someone who startles another character" plot twist. All of which do their job on a perfunctory level, but things never get any more interesting.

Anyone well versed in the genre will be able to call the majority of the eerie payoffs, they are signposted so blatantly - although the scene where Kaylie appears to bite into a lightbulb thinking it's an apple is one of the better moments here.

Flanagan is adept at fluidly transitioning the action between past and present. The young and older versions of the siblings all inhabit this space together, adding an otherworldly, untrustworthy quality to events happening within the house. Nothing is what it seems within the mirror's "sphere of influence", and this was definitely creepy... but only in a way that what I call the "Hotel California Effect"* always is.

NAILED IT. Full review here.

Oculus gets a 73% on Rotten Tomatoes, which kind of blows my mind.

It's on US Netflix now, but I'm pretty certain there are better choices you could make.

*This is when a character is trying to escape somewhere but the evil force at work manages to trap or loop them into always coming back. So named because my first memory of this eerie idea was from listening to the Eagles song 🎶 (sorry not sorry!).

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Spring (2014)

Relevant to this time of year, Spring is a beautiful film about love ❤

This one was recommended to me ages ago, but I've a habit of deliberately putting off films I'm certain I'm going to really like. Does anyone else do this? The timing has to be right, my mood has to be just so... I want to honour the film properly. So on the eve of Valentine's Day, I was ready. I dove in.

Spring benefits from you knowing as little as possible going in, so we're going to circle around the real meat of the plot here. We're introduced to Evan (Lou Taylor Pucci), a Californian with nothing much left to keep him there: he's lost both parents in quick succession, his best friend is wasted all the time, he has no job prospects and he's in trouble with the cops. Life is shit and he's miserable. To escape it all, he books a random ticket to Italy.

Once there, he meets a couple of rowdy Englishmen who show him the sights, and when they peace out and head to Amsterdam, Evan decides to stay and find work. He gets a job and lodging on a local farm and then attempts to get to know a gorgeous woman he keeps seeing around town.

Louise (Nadia Hilker) is at once mysterious, haughty, and captivating. The first time they talk she makes it clear she literally just wants to have sex with him. Finding this a little full-on, Evan suggests getting a drink together first: "I gotta make sure that you're the kind of crazy I can deal with."

They spend time together, and they eat, they drink, they talk and fuck. In the span of less than a week, they grow close. Louise is affectionate but evasive, sometimes unexpectedly running off or ducking out of dates early. Evan just accepts her as a tempestuous Italian woman, but we're shown tantalising peeks into her world, showing it's way weirder than that.

The layers are expertly peeled back, with the audience faintly aware of Louise's "issues", but not understanding the hows and whys. When Evan arrives at her apartment for the the most jaw-dropping scene of the movie, it starts a series of scenes of natural exposition, unfolding Louise's tale in all of its astonishing glory, and following Evan as he processes it.

I have to give special mention to the character of Evan, who is a genuinely good bloke. He wears his heart on his sleeve and he's just trying to get over some awful personal shit from back home. In his new situation we witness him work hard, have a cool relationship with his boss (an old olive farmer) and fall hard for Louise. You absolutely believe him when he expresses his feelings for her. The softness in his character is portrayed so well by Lou Taylor Pucci; he's vulnerable, but not mawkish; sensible (not just bedding Louise the minute he meets her, like she suggests) and self-deprecating. This is a male lead written in a way a lot of others could learn from!

With a story told so well, and mostly using natural locations (rather than dressed sets), this reminded me a lot of Monsters. It's a film whose location is a strong part of the story, acting almost as an additional character, and despite Spring's settings often being immense - wave-battered coastlines, churches, tombs, ruins - it all still feels so intimate. 

That feeling of falling in love, when you feel like the only two people in the world... Spring captures that.

My congratulations to directors Justin Benson (who also wrote the story) and Aaron Moorhead, and actors Nadia Hilker (who is also fantastic, please don't think otherwise) and Lou Taylor Pucci. This is a beautiful little monster and I'm already looking forward to watching it again.

Available to stream on Shudder right now 

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Grace (2009)

NB: Content/trigger warning for baby and birth-related horror!

Despite a juicy premise, this film was a big disappointment. Grace sadly lacks the gut-punch necessary for baby-horror.

We follow the tale of Madeline (Jordan Ladd), a heavily pregnant woman who loses her husband and baby in a car crash. To the shock of everyone, Madeline insists on carrying the child to term regardless and, in a strange twist in the birthing pool, she somehow "wills" the baby back to life again...

We know where this is going. The poster tells us as much. Baby Grace doesn't want milk, this new mother soon discovers: she wants blood. Madeline - a staunch vegan, no less - must now cross some serious ethical lines in order to keep her baby happy.

I'll admit, at first glance this appears to be good quality ingredients for a bone-chilling stew. The topic of babies in horror alone is one that makes most people deeply uncomfortable. But Grace is further loaded up with two additional subplots: (1) A very, very odd mother-in-law who's kept her milk supply active for decades and wants to steal Grace for herself(!), and (2) Madeline's midwife is actually an obsessive ex-lover of hers. In fact we're left to wonder whether Madeline only married at all, in order to have a baby? The opening sex scene certainly shows her absolutely checked out from any kind of pleasure in fucking her husband. She's literally just there to conceive.

For a film with such a small cast, this all plays out just as muddled as it sounds. There are some nice moments (the gathering flies in the baby's room; Madeline cutting a victim's veins open with scissors! Squick!) but for the most part it's paced too sluggishly with a lack of real unease about what's going on. Which is crazy when you think about it. Baby-based horror that isn't horrific?! Grace also suffers from a real kicker of a horror genre disease: the absolutely absurd, shitty CGI'd last shot before the credits. I was already over this movie by this point, but that was the very final nail in the zombie baby crib.

The most fun I had watching this was playing a game of "Real Baby or Fake Baby?", spotting the rubber doll used for the more gruesome Grace shots. 

Grace was based on a short film of the same name, from the same writer/director (Paul Solet) but instead of keeping any tightness in plot that a small project might have - much like a short story or a play - this feels like the plot was bloated up to meet the confines of feature-length. It's a simple, decent idea surrounded by too much extra stuff that doesn't really work.

There are vastly superior films about pregnancy, birth, babies and motherhood... Rosemary's Baby, Inside, AntibirthShelley... and obviously a tonne more - tell me in the comments if you have a favourite one! My advice would be to check out one of those instead.

(But if you must watch this, it's streaming on Shudder at time of writing).

Thursday, February 08, 2018

Tony (2009)

Have you ever gone days without speaking to anyone? Maybe you didn't leave the house for a bit, too. It definitely leaves you feeling slightly disconnected from the world, and aware of everything continuing on around you, regardless. This is basically how our titular main character in Tony exists.

Tony (Peter Ferdinando) has no job, no friends, and his only reliable company is action movies on VHS. He's... an odd chap, so he finds it hard to meet new people; his manner seeming to irritate and/or scare anyone who does ever get particularly close. It's this detachment from people, and the anonymity of London and its boroughs, that makes it easy for Tony to do what he does (kill, keep, and eventually dismember and dispose) and - as far as we know - get away with it.

As someone who spent may years living in London, seeing it displayed in a less than romantic light is really great. The truth of London life, if you're living there as a normal person earning a normal wage, is housing estates, shady looking neighbours and dilapidated buildings. On his many wanders, Tony passes closed down pubs, shop-fronts and unappealing looking blocks of flats (as well as more harmless sights like launderettes and kids playing in the street). 

In amongst the more suburban stuff, we catch glimpses of big London landmarks in the background, like the "Gherkin", Canary Wharf and BT Tower. The city exists all around Tony, the ant hill rumbling along behind it all as he walks, and stalks, and kills. I found this a beautiful and terrifying way of illustrating just how removed from "normal life" an individual can become in a city, with little to no problem (though there is an amusing moment toward the end where Tony is getting grief from the dreaded Television Licence man). This receding back from civilization can work in a loner's favour, as a sort of protection - and this theory is certainly backed up by Tony successfully navigating various situations by either killing his way out or being saved by pure dumb luck.

Tony's kills do become more desperate rather than opportunistic toward the end of the film though, which makes us wonder how much longer he has before someone finally puts two and two together. That said, he's such an invisible presence as he moves through the world, it's also possible that he could continue for years to come. How many killers are operating at any one time in any city? How many have been caught only through fluke or because they wanted to be? Here, Tony does not seem anywhere close to remorseful about what he's doing (he commits murder with a demeanor of pure detached matter-of-factness) so his end will likely come about through being caught, or perhaps killed himself by an underestimated victim.

To make Tony's story even more uncomfortable, Gerard Johnson (who wrote and directed) gives us multiple instances in the film where you kind of feel bad for the guy?! For the most part he's treated like shit if he's noticed at all, and this frustration and sense of further being removed from "normal" people undoubtedly fuels his urge to kill.

The first time we see him he's trying to make small talk to an uninterested DVD seller on the street, and his earnestness and complete inability to read social cues is on full display (see also: watching the arguing couple in the pub). I think this is meant to show him as someone not inherently "evil", it's just that he wants to be part of something... to make a connection, but he lacks the skills to do so successfully. If this is reminding you a little of a serial killer named Dahmer, then yes, there are definite parallels. I'll let you see for yourself to discover just how far those similarities go.

My one gripe about this film is the renaming to Tony: London Serial Killer for certain markets. It's cringe-worthy in its obviousness, and way too on-the-nose for a film so quiet and mundane. "Tony" is one word, one short word, and not even a particularly interesting name... its normality suits the unembellished horror much better.

See, the beauty of Tony is its simplicity. User comments I read (don't ask me why, it's always a mistake isn't it) complained that it was "boring", and "nothing happens". And that's pretty close to being true. If you're the kind of horror fan who needs something to jump or shriek or otherwise spike your blood pressure every few minutes, then this is not going to be an enjoyable movie experience. However if, like me, you love a slow, almost ordinary-feeling film punctuated by violence, Tony is definitely worth checking out.

Streaming on Shudder (I'm doing a 30 day free trial) at time of writing.