Testing the Waters with Cecil B. Demented

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I’m still dipping my toes into the world of iconic anarchist director John Waters’ filmography. I liked the rawness of his early work 1971’s Multiple Maniacs but years ago when I tried to watch the Tracey Ullman sex comedy, A Dirty Shame, I couldn’t even last thirty minutes. Water’s MO for his decade-spanning career has been to push the boundaries of censorship and social norms. His films are known for depicting vulgarity for vulgarity’s sake. It’s why his films can be hit or miss for so many audience members, it depends on if you’re willing to embrace that uniqueness as well as enjoy it. I’ve been on the side of respecting his boldness and experimentation but finding the finished product either mildly boorish or boring because of the narrative’s focus on the gross-out rather than a compelling story. His new millennium entertainment satire Cecil B. Demented is somewhat of a departure than what I expected from a John Water’s joint. While crying “rebellion”, Demented has a very clear engaging plot and exceptional production value. The unorthodox characters and casting are what give it Waters signature feel.

The film opens at a local Baltimore movie theater prepping for a red carpet premiere of a new major motion picture starring aging actress Honey Whitlock (Melanie Griffith). It’s established she’s kind of a bitch, shown by how poorly she treats her assistant played by Ricki Lake, and that all her movies are mainstream trash. During the lavish event, she is kidnapped by a group calling themselves SprocketHoles, a youthful terrorist organization who want to send a message to Hollywood that they must stop making schmaltzy garbage and indie, radical filmmaking is the only true artful cinema. Honey is held hostage in their bohemian dwellings and transported to locations across the city to film guerilla style scenes for director and rebel leader, Cecil B. Demented (Stephen Dorff). Their unethical practices lead to shootouts and all participant are willing to die in the name of cinema, even Honey as she becomes indoctrinated into their cult. It’s very obvious that John Water’s wanted to make his version of the Patty Hearst Story and structuring it as a Hollywood satire is a great way to channel his message through. It does stand as one of the more grabbing aspects because I immediately delved into a K-hole of reading about Patty Hearst details and it’s as bananas as this movie makes it out to be. I should also note Hearst plays a small role as a concerned mother of one of the anarchists and it’s both off-color and fascinating.

I need to take a second and breakdown some of the cast because it’s intriguing. First, Melanie Griffith is both the worst and best choice for the lead. I’ll say it here, we give her a pass for Working Girl but she’s a terrible actress. Her delivery is always flat and unconvincing. I like this in scenes when Honey is acting for the camera because it’s a statement that Hollywood will turn no talent pretty faces into a star but I wish for all the other scenes she could be a real person but Griffith always sounds stilted. It makes sense that Waters would want her because he loves offbeat performances. Patty Hearst can’t sell a line to save her life but it’s weird and that’s what he wants. Yet the supporting cast is astonishingly good due in part to the casting of youthful up and comers like Maggie Gyllenhaal and Michael Shannon (credited Mike). The collective, in general, contain the most fun characters, each representing an aspect of the filmmaking process, Gyllenhaal’s Raven is the makeup artist and Shannon’s Petie is the driver and they all have codenames tattooed on them of famous independent directors, Fassbinder, Almodovar, etc. Each member is a little crazy either by drugs (Adrian Grenier’s glue huffing Lyle), sex (Alicia Witt’s porn star Cherish) or Satan (Raven is a satanist). I will say the two black members of the team Lewis (Larry Gillard Jr) and Chardonnay (Zenzele Uzoma) while during the kidnapping are essential but once out of disguise become troubling stereotypes of what someone in the year 2000 would call “urban”. They are relegated to providing a hip-hop score to the residence and when Lewis speaks (Chardonnay has very few lines other than rapping) he has an unnecessary ebonics dialect. Can’t say it’s much of a surprise that writing black characters isn’t John Waters strong suit.

As much as this is John Waters criticizing the Hollywood system, this feels closer to a studio movie. It’s a large budget than his initial projects so it’s all around better quality than the grainy amateurishness associated with his early work. But that’s the changing of the industry. Movies like Mondo Trasho and Pink Flamingos were edgy in the 60’s and 70’s because they were perverted and unlike anything that a studio would be willing to create but as society progressed his debauchery was less groundbreaking. Cecil laments that mainstream cinema “stole our sex and co-opted our violence” referring to the boundary pushing that underground cinema pioneered. This film isn’t that revolutionary or avant-garde because as Waters sees it, it’s almost impossible to do so anymore. Hollywood embraces weirdness in a way it wouldn’t 40 years earlier. The unforeseen twist of it all is that if this movie came out a year later, it would be seen as very divisive. Cecil B. Demented is wholly a pre-9/11 movie. With the amount of terrorism and mass shootings this film contains, it really struck a cord as a 2017 viewer. Gun violence in a movie theater is less of something to laugh about now and radicalization as much more significant connotations. I hope Waters’ finds solace that retroactively this movie becomes tasteless.

Cecil B. Demented is a decent gateway into the foray of John Waters. It gives you a gist of the of extremes he incorporates like the fact the climax of the film is people literally climaxing in a rooftop orgy. Like all his films it’s about outcasts and perverts and how life is better with eccentricities. There is a lot of accessible parody for a laymen viewer like the sequel hating stance towards “Forrest Gump 2”. The tone is overall silly which makes it highly palatable to watch these brightly colored sets and over the top characters try to make a movie. The wackiness of the crew running into and hiding out in different movie theaters in the city (family friendly, action oriented and porno) makes for Scooby-Doo level hijinx which is easier to convince someone to see than a movie that has a fetish rape (a John Waters standard). Yeah, it’s a little demented, but it’s mostly a lot of fun.

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The New Stepford: The Influences of Get Out

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Brainwashing, body snatching, experimental procedures, what have you, there’s a lot to fear from the power of affluent white people. That may sound crazy but science fiction ulterior motives are almost more comforting to believe in than a grand evil scheme concocted by white upper class than age-old racism and sexism. Get Out has made a huge splash as being one of the most woke horror movies ever made. It brings the subtext of oppression and otherness that past genre films have alluded to and made it literal text. The story of a black man Chris (Daniel Kaluyaa) going on a weekend vacation to visit his white girlfriend’s parents devolves into a conspiracy of modern day slavery and exaggerated cultural appropriation. Sure it is a heightened scenario of a white community luring black people to be used as body surrogates since they are superior physical, artistic and intellectual beings but there are many other smaller interactions that director Jordan Peele tackles of modern day racism such as a black man being followed by a car in the suburbs or the excessive need for the white people Chris meets in this upstate neighborhood to prove they’re not racist by stating how much they like Tiger Woods. Get Out couldn’t have come at a more opportune time for America where the conversation on race has come to the forefront. Now being a white person, I’m not the right person to talk about the importance of Get Out or the black experience in any way but Peele has expressed that his inspiration for the movie came from 1975’s The Stepford Wives, that premise being a similar affluent suburb of Connecticut has men turning their wives into subservient robots. The female experience being something I’m more familiar with, I decided to double feature the 70’s horror film as well as it’s 2004 comedy remake to see where Peele drew his influence and how I can tangentially talk about Get Out.

I’m first inclined to believe that Peele derived from both incarnations of Ira Levin’s novel. Obviously tonally he’s going for the thriller elements of the 1975 Wives which was also a slow burn build up as Joanna (Katharine Ross) and her husband Walter (Peter Masterson) move to the town of Stepford from the big city and during her four months stay, she notices the abnormal perfections that are the women of the prim and proper suburb. Yet Frank Oz’s Stepford Wives is a richer satire as well as being a broad comedy which has some time to shine in Get Out which supporting actor LilRel Howery brings in the third act. The thesis statement in those films is that the modern woman is becoming too independent and free-thinking so their boilerplate, vanilla husbands invent a way to replace their partners with identical looking fembots whose only desire is to please whether that be sexual or dedicating their time to a clean house and home cooked meals. This obviously derives from the 50’s idyllic homemaker which is more pronounced in the remake. Not subtly shown in the opening credits montage are vintage household appliance commercials being modeled by ecstatic women then once actually in the town, everyone is made up in the dresses and hair dos presented in the aforementioned ads. The real biting satire comes from the fact that all the transformed Stepford wives were career women, CEOs and novelists whose husbands were left inferior and therefore compelled to “upgrade” their women into big breasted cyborgs. The motivations in the ’75 version are much less warranted where our lead Joanna is not the creative director for a television network but a stay at home mom with a budding photography interesting. The fact that her schlub of a lawyer husband Walter feels the need to change her because they sometimes argue is way more disturbing.

Stepford Wives is examining the gender gap of “boys will be boys” and “women belong in the kitchen” stereotypes which in Get Out translates to the gap between the long-standing racial divide in America. Both have a storied history in these McMansion neighborhoods. Peele is examining how going back to slavery, blacks were viewed as either the help, seen at the Armitage estate with the housekeeper Georgina (Betty Gabriel) and Walter (Marcus Henderson) or as sexual beings like former Brooklynite Andre (Keith Stanfield) standing as arm candy for a much older woman. Chris and Joanna are witnessing these reductive molds being forced on their peers and know that no one does this willingly. Just as Joanna sees her slobbish, eccentric friend Bobbie (Paula Prentiss and Bette Midler respectively) transform into trophy wives, Chris similarly sees the phony exterior of Andre and the haywire mechanism triggered by either a camera flash or slight trauma proves that their humanity is somehow vacant. All films are tales of humans using advanced technology to simplify one’s identity, the funniest instance is that of in ’75’s Wives it’s an ex-Disney Imagineer who is the proprietor of the Mr. Lincoln-esque fembots. It’s the paradox of no matter how far we improve in science and technology, there’s the need to hold on or revert to the past, in this situation the oppressive former ways of life.

Peele gleans a mix of small details (the heroes being photographers because they have the eye to see the truth) and the larger arcs (rich white people shouldn’t be trusted) to make a more relevant version of Ira Levin’s work but with the less often shown perspective. As a white person, even watching the 2004 Stepford Wives I couldn’t help but be taken aback at how upper class and removed that environment feels. It’s a prerecession America and all those husbands now are the 1% who have a hard-on for Paul Ryan and his tax cuts. The film doesn’t even address the lack of diversity, their chosen statement of inclusion is a gay couple and an obviously self-loathing one at that (Roger’s partner apparently hates his flamboyant nature). At least the 1975 version addresses the fact that the neighborhood has been strictly caucasian until the local busybody giddily informs Joanna and Bobbie that a black family is moving in and that Stepford is the “most liberal town around.” In Get Out whether you’re black or not you relate to the uncomfortableness of the opulent lifestyle. Millenials distrust of old money and those wealthy people that placed us in our current political and economical predicament informs the tension of the film, even if they say they would have voted for Obama a third term. They probably didn’t vote for Hilary! I digress, all this is to praise Peele for making a more identifiable movie for my generation. Just as Moonlight was the movie that needed to win Best Picture, Get Out is the horror movie needed to start off this year. When the world turns sour, in response, the best art is born.
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For brief reviews of Get Out, The Stepford Wives (1975) and The Stepford Wives (2004) here.

The Vintage Revisits: 40 Days and 40 Nights

The premise of 40 Days and 40 Nights is pretty arrogant on its part which is where some of the hate towards it stems from. Having not seen it since high school, my touchstone of knowledge came from the Flophouse Podcast whose three white male hosts are steadfast in their opinion that it’s one of the worst films ever made and have gone on record stating “if you see it in a video store, you should rent it and then throw it away.” I understand their frustration when at a glance this is a movie about a guy who is having so much sex that he feels compelled to give up all types of sexual pleasure for lent. Pretty infuriating if your twenties weren’t as fruitful in love. As a woman, I don’t harbor that resentment regarding the “lothario” Josh Hartnett’s dilemma or attraction to him for that matter as Harnett has always come off as the blankest slate of a human being. I find the film appealing as a sweet sex comedy and I enjoy watching the brief but sexy career of Shannyn Sossamon. Not that the movie deserves much credit, it’s not the waste that certain podcasters may lead you to believe.

 
It’s actually a movie about a guy dealing with a break which is something I respect. Maybe because I want to see men hit as hard by a break up as women, I like the perspective of a dumped Matt (Hartnett) whose friendships, sexual encounters, and productivity at work are all stunted by a crushing end to a relationship. The straw that breaks the camel’s back is his inability to orgasm during a one night stand due to visions of his ceiling crumbling and he seeks solace in his priest-in-training brother which is where he gets the idea of cleansing himself of sex for the 40 day long lent season. Yes, it’s ridiculous but the movie is aware of it as his quest is far from saintly. It’s not smart or bold enough for a critique on religion but tongue and cheek with the Christ illusions. The crux of the story is that during Matt’s symbolic absolution he meets the irresistible Erica (Sossamon) and finds himself at a crossroads of wanting to sleep with this stunning woman who he develops feelings for and following through on this commitment that becomes a bigger deal than anticipated. The plot gets dumber as I explain it as it relies on the stereotype that men are ravenous, sex crazed beings who can’t go a month without getting some. While that’s more far fetched, I buy Matt’s need to follow through on his word when it becomes this sprawling bet and friends, coworkers and complete strangers will benefit financially if he breaks the purge.

 
The sensual romance that blooms from the celibate relationship is what charms me and that courtship is what I’m a sucker for in rom-coms. At the same time, 40 Days contains the most aggravating trope which is that most of the conflict that arises is from simple miscommunications. They fight because he didn’t tell her he was undertaking an abstinence pledge, they fight because she thinks he had sex with his ex, the opening incident of him not orgasming is embarrassing because he inexplicably lies about. The film is adamant that all men are liars and pigs. The workplace which is an upstart tech company (ahead of the curve in 2002) is prime for a sexual harassment case as it’s the most uncomfortable business environment I’ve seen since Secretary yet the film presents it very casually. This is tangential but a convenient moment to appreciate Maggie Gyllenhaal in the best friend role who straight up kills it as “roommate who rolls her eyes.” A movie could always use more Gyllenhaal but the film works in spite of the grating plot devices and limitations of the actors. Where Hartnett falters, he makes up for it by having the perfect look of handsome enough that he can get laid consistently but boy scout-ish enough that you grasp the moral compass that leads him to this undertaking. And Sossamon who is not strong in other roles creates convincing chemistry that compels the balance of laundromat meet-cutes and board room boner jokes that are done exemplarily here.

 
If you can sit through the stupidity or at least suspend your disbelief that not having sex is such a brutal challenge that a man would turn to model plane building, then there’s fun to be had. This was released during the height of R-rated sex comedies like American Pie and Van Wilder which have questionable gender politics. There is a female-initiated rape scene that goes wildly unaddressed in the narrative which would have spun into a million think pieces if released today. I’d be harsher on this film’s reduction of women to sex objects if it wasn’t that the whole movie’s focus being about sex and that the men are portrayed equally poorly. I didn’t care for the trite scene of parents talking about sex which is awkward and unnecessary for the characters in the sequence and the audience or the sea of bare breasts Matt envisions as his abstinence drives him insane. There is the childish humor and male gaze that isn’t my taste but the love story gets me. As I said, I’m in it for the Sossamon and for some reason I can forgive most of this movie to arrive at the satisfying moments with her. It beats watching her being date raped in Rules of Attraction but I’ll save that review for another day.

Surviving Martyrs

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Martyrs since its release in 2008 has become less of a movie and more of a dare. It’s infamously known as such a shocking piece of cinema, it remains this challenge to see if you can stomach its contents. As a lover of horror, I’ve always been aware of its menacing reputation and the word of mouth spooked me enough to avoid it. Just seeing the poster of two frightened women, I could speculate that they probably endure so sort of physical and/or sexual brutality which I wouldn’t call a good time. Rape is an immediate turn off from a film with the exception of The Last House on the Left for reasons concerning some tonally inconsistent bumbling cops. I’m someone who thinks anyone that likes Irreversible is a monster. If you’ve never seen Martyrs you’ll be happy to learn the movie is completely rape free. In fact, that’s even highlighted in the dialogue as if it’s an achievement to be so depraved without that horrid act. I’m finally getting around to this movie as always because of a podcast, in this case Faculty of Horror, which will be dropping their New French Extremity episode this month. It’s scheduled to include discussions on the stated film as well as the more obscure 2004 back woods thriller Calvaire or The Ordeal. Only two scholarly Canadian podcasters could motivate me to watch such deplorable cinema and while I still love them in my heart, I’m quite conflicted of what I had to sit through.

New French Extremity is a film movement that cultivated in the early 2000’s with the prevalence of art house horror coming out of France. It conjunctively rose in prominence with the American genre coined “torture porn” with franchises such as Saw. Out of all of these that I’ve viewed from both side of the pond, definitively I can say Martyrs earns that “Extreme” title. The plot follows two girls, Lucie (Mylène Jampanoï) who escapes a mysterious torture ring as a child and Anna (Morjana Alaoui) her lifelong friend and protector. Fifteen years after Lucie’s traumatic incident, the two hunt down the captors and uncover more than they intended. No doubt, Martyrs lives up to the hype but what I realized as I settled into what would be an upsetting hour and a half, it dawned on me that I had never questioned if this was a good movie. I’ve known it to be notorious and never questioned if that translated to meaning “good” or “bad.” There’s a reason why its perception as one of shock and astonishment rather than one of criticism. I’m still torn about my feelings because I almost want to review it in two parts. You could break these 90 minutes down to two halves, the first being this home invasion/paranormal/People Under The Stairs thrill ride and the second a numbing, exploitative Hostel rip off. Each isolated I would give widely different ratings.

What makes the first hour so captivating is it’s genuinely unpredictable. I couldn’t name the last time I watched a movie especially horror in which I couldn’t foresee the formula or any projected twists and turns. From the introduction to the ten-year-old girls wherein as they sleep a lumbering, mutilated woman attacks Lucie, I was immediately disoriented (but in a good way.) Director/writer Pascal Laugier throws in such unimaginable elements to keep you unsure of what’s around the corner. When the time jump occurs you meet this nuclear family having breakfast with siblings arguing about school and post-graduation prospects. Right at the moment, you think your TV must have switched over to French All In The Family until Lucie rushes in with a shotgun and shows no mercy as she mows down the pseudo-Bunker clan. This whole section is filled with these jarring moments which are so exciting. It’s dark, sadistic and assuredly fucked up yet uniquely creative. Anna attempts to clean up the mess as Lucie is consumed with the residual trauma and mental illness personified as the horrid woman we saw previously. From the mass murder, the plot never stops escalating as we move between the actual physical battles between Lucie and her personal demons to the near escape of the shotgunned mother to the eventual discovery of the underground lair. The set up is so abundantly rousing and extraordinary that there’s no way they can produce a satisfying resolution and that in itself becomes the point of the whole movie.

After a full day inside the house of the crime scene, the secret organization arrives to shut this chaos down. They’re too late for Lucie who slit her throat during a violent frenzy but they kill another freed prisoner who was in the thralls of a similar outburst. What is a glimmer of hope for Anna becomes a nightmare as her saviors are now her captors. Here is when we get the explanation as to why this dungeon of pain exists. It’s a provocative concept that the Mademoiselle (Catherine Bégin) dressed as a gypsy from the 40’s, lays out for Anna, that this underground society believes that bringing someone to the brink of death brought on by constant cruelty will cause them to see the beyond. The idea that the affluent would commit unspeakable acts to learn about the existence of an afterlife doesn’t sound that farfetched. It’s the sadistic shit we all assume the rich do. Where the film takes a fatal turn is that we are subjected to witnessing this martyrdom process. Up to this point, the movie has been over the top but here it’s excessive. We’ve already seen flashbacks to the same instances of beatings, force feeding and cutting off the hair inflicted on young Lucie, now its repeated exorbitantly with Anna. It’s a double-edged sword because while I’m complaining that it’s too much, the whole point of this genre is being extreme and up to that point you’ve been dying for an answer to Lucie’s past so they give it to you ten fold. I’ll give it that it’s consistent with its unpredictability because as the cycle of beatings continues in the isolated metal room, I kept thinking “she must get out somehow.” I should have foreseen her bleak demise considering Lucie was disposed of so early but till the final scenes I kept expecting her escape. Alas, the title of the film is upheld and even still Laugier finds a “fuck you” note to end on.

 
My ultimate feelings towards Martyrs falls somewhere in the middle. I respect and enjoy the clever way the narrative subverts my expectations. The entire movie thrives on being unexpected. Anna is an unconventional final girl, strong until the bitter end but still perishes. I’m fascinated by the premise and that they make the shadowy collective more than just black robed Satanists. It comes down to the gratuitous violence committed towards Anna that is way too self-serving. The story could have gotten its point across without having to endure watching her pain. Plus the sequence is visually derivative of Hostile in a way no other part of the film has been. It’s a relief to have this film done with and check it off my bucket list. I recommend listening to Faculty of Horror because they’ll have even greater insight to this contentious feature. Pairing it with Calvaire is interesting as that one is more conventional with its remote location and imprisonment themes but their twist is that the final girl is actually a boy. That film has a rape scene which I will sight as my immediate trepidation towards a film so the fact that there isn’t one in Martyrs automatically puts it in my favor. But does lack of rape make for a perfect feature? Hell no. And would I recommend this to people? Probably not. It’s only worth it for the iconography it’s made for itself in the horror genre. You see it to say you’ve seen it and hopefully leave not regretting all your life choices. All that’s left is A Serbian Film. Oh god, I hope they don’t cover that next…

The Vintage Revisits: A Blair Witch Double Feature

No, it’s not Halloween but it might as well be Christmas for me as the unexpected Blair Witch sequel directed by Adam Wingard will drop September 16th to a hungry public. Not that I’d consider myself a Blair fanatic, I was too young to partake in the hype during its initial run but I’ve enjoy Wingard and his writing partner Simon Barrett’s previous work, the home invasion blood bath of You’re Next and the stylistic, ominous thriller of The Guest. I have faith in a team that has kept with the genre and not jumped ship to do some Marvel movie to make a passionate sequel to this iconic property. I look forward to entering this new movie as blindly as possible (no trailers please!) but thought it worth while to reexamine the 1999 film as well as its lesser known follow up, Book of Shadows.

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I can’t believe how well this film holds up. For a low budget horror that turned into a blockbuster sleeper hit and immediately became over exposed in pop culture, you’d expect diminishing returns. Yet still, watching it in my room on a television during a quite Friday night, I was genuinely creeped out. What constantly gets overlooked is that this isn’t a movie about some Maryland urban legend, it’s about being lost in the woods. It’s what happens when three people who don’t know each other that well (how close are Heather and Josh anyway?) lose there way, are without food or guidance and have the slightest inkling that they might not be alone. With this watch I found myself particularly afraid of Mike with his angry outbursts and maniacal laugh as he reveals he kicked the map into the creek. He’s just sound guy being hired for this weekend gig, they didn’t do a background check or know what he’s like besides a lover of UTZ (and who isn’t.) As a woman, I felt completely weary of Heather’s safety as she doesn’t know what that man is capable of.

It’s still mind boggling to think a psychological thriller such as this could be a massive hit. There’s no jump scares or gore, it’s on you to project what could be lurking in the shadows. Is it a witch, is it the ghost of Rustin Parr or should these kids be afraid of each other? The ending, which is fantastic, you don’t see any apparition. You can’t even differentiate where noises are coming from as that scene is so disorienting as the film cuts back and forth between Mike running with the video camera and Heather following with the 16mm. Since only the video camera records sound, it throws the voices of characters so that you can’t distinguish where anyone is and you’re taking in this dilapidated house speeding by you. The final moment being Mike in the corner and the camera dropping to the ground is an unsettling hard out when you’ve barely had time to catch your breath. The film has racked tension all leading up to this point and even though so little happens, it amazingly pays off.

Part of the reason it was so successful was that it came during such a dead period for horror movies. Aside from Scream in ’96, the 90’s were dismal for the genre as Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street sequels were taking their final gasps, flailing at the box office and you were inundated with sleek Scream rip offs like I Know What You Did Last Summer and Urban Legends. Blair Witch is so counter cultural to these as it adversely has the unsexiest of teens and no blood splatter in sight. It’s one of the least exploitative horror movies ever. This is almost a fluke with it’s perfect timing for release but also that it’s an experiment in filmmaking. Send three twenty somethings into the woods, leave them directorial notes, have them improvise most of the dialogue then edit it together to create some kind of plot and suddenly Myrick and Sanchez have made a ground breaking horror movie that we still talk about today. It deserves all its praise and has earned its rightful place in the horror cinema hall of fame.

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Contrary to Gordon Gekko, greed is not always good. One of the purest forms of greed I encounter is that of a sequel. Rarely are sequels warranted. They shouldn’t be if your film is a cohesive and contained story. It shouldn’t need to be “completed” by another two hour, three act structure but studios want to make money and if they feel an audience is in place and will choke up their hard earned cash to see the continued narrative then they’ll find a way to make it happen. After the unprecedented success of The Blair Witch Project, Artisan who had distributed the film after Sundance wanted to keep that money train barreling onward and get a sequel in theaters faster than you can ask “where’s the map?” They had their sights set on a Halloween of 2000 release (the first film came out July ’99). It’s not unusual for a studio to demand such an expedited turnaround to capitalize on a successful property (see Friday the 13th Part 2 A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge or Hellbound:Hellraiser 2). Horror is cheap to make, filled with no name actors and if there’s gore and tits, teens will go. That seems to be the thought process of Artisan even though following that formula would negate the entire appeal of the first film.

Book of Shadows exists in this bizarro space as part of it wants to be truthful to the established style and the world of the previous film. While not found footage, camera POV and video tape play a major role in the action. In an attempt to keep with the reality that The Blair Witch was a true event and that Heather, Josh and Mike were murdered while making the movie, there’s an opening title that states this movie too is based on real occurrences and we’re watching a reenactment. No thought was actually put into that as the plot is so twisty and illogical there’s no conceivable way this is a “reenactment”. It has the elements of the shitty late 90’s films I complained about before but with a meta spin. A group of twenty somethings either with mid drifts or goatees take a Blair Witch tour led by Burn Notice’s Jeffrey Donovan as Jeffrey (note all actors play characters of the same name). Burkittsville has become a Mecca for goth thrill seekers hoping to see the witch in person or debunk the lore. This isn’t a bad concept because in all honesty where can you really go when you’re sequalizing a film where A) all the characters die and B) the titular paranormal entity is never shown. It makes sense to instead play off the culture surrounding the phenomenon. Sadly with such rushed development, there’s no effort into fleshing out that aspect aside from an indeed charming montage similar to the first film of documentary style interviews with the townspeople who are selling rock mounds and twig men to inept tourist who are obsessed with the macabre. That literally being the best scene which is no surprise, director Jim Berlinger is an award winning documentarian, but post-interviews it’s your run of the mill T&A debauchery as this ill managed tour group gets wasted while camping out at the Rustin Parr ruins.

I brought up Jeffery Donovan specifically not only because he’s the most famous actor to come out of this but that he’s such a maladministered character. I was confounded at how informal his expedition operation was because rarely do tour guides partake and supply the beer and weed. He’s also the only person with a backstory set up with a flashback (a poorly placed one that muddles the opening timeline) which illustrates his past hospitalization and mental health problems leaving us as an audience to believe his sanity should be questionable. This could have been an effective angle if the plot hadn’t so quickly become about everyone going crazy. After the night of camp site partying, the group of five including a clairvoyant goth, a grad student couple and a hot Wiccan, wake up to find camera equipment destroyed, thesis papers torn up and unfamiliar markings on their bodies. Trust has been broken as the group is desperate to find out who or what caused all this. The remainder of the film is spent at Jeffery’s homestead which is an abandoned mill converted to a black market bachelor pad. Characters unravel as they have visions of a drowned Ring-like girl and hear voices that pit them against each other. Within all this Jeffery never acts out on his crazy making it even clearer that his initial character development was most likely an afterthought. Where in the original film it is purely subtext that the “Blair Witch” is toying with reality and possibly manipulating characters, Book of Shadows makes that the focal center as we learn that these youths have unbeknownst to themselves been on a mass murder spree. Poorly constructed, that’s the major reveal of the finale as the characters left alive are held in custody and shown various surveillance footage as they kill friends, rival tourists and a judgmental convenient store clerk. Dumb as that is at least it fits into Berlinger’s filmography of wrongful convictions. The West Memphis Three didn’t do it, they were possessed by a witch!

The unsatisfying twist is the least of the film’s problem. As much as I’d like to be team Berlinger, he seems to have no idea how to build tension as the script falls flat at every turn and his shot like a cheap CW drama. I won’t make him take the complete rap for these missteps as it was reported the studio demanded more violence so frantically inter spliced amidst scenes are orange hued flashes of knives plunging into flesh and a chest being bound with rope. Those pointless additions hinder an already menial story. It’s an uncharacteristic slasher because there’s no formidable threat. No one is being stalked by a man in a mask. Aside from the occasional vision, there is no threat to these characters. You never feel like it’s building up to a grand conclusion, you’re just waiting for it to end. This blunder vindicates how genius the original film is because with so little in terms of money, cast and plot they made one of the most suspenseful films of all time and then it followed up with a $15 million budget sequel that has no idea what it’s doing. I don’t think it even understands its title. There is no Book of Shadows here! It’s as opaque as the witch’s motivations. It’s a slapped on title making clear the rushed nature of the endeavor that was doomed to fail.

If anyone has taken the time to experience the lapse in judgement that is Book of Shadows then you know whatever ever is released on September 16th will be exponentially better. Could this still be a cash grab? Maybe. If so, at least the got the best team in the horror biz to make it. Though proof by Shadows it’s a difficult movie to follow up, I’ve never been more confident that they will blow it out of the woods. Check back in a few weeks to see if I eat my words.

The Vintage Revisits: Dreamcatcher

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There’s a general consensus that Dreamcatcher is an abomination of a Stephen King adaptation. Since it’s release in 2003, it has been widely forgotten and the Matrix short that played before hand during its theatrical is its greatest contribution. I can’t recall what was going on with me during that year but I somehow totally missed it. Yes, I spent most of my teen years not knowing this movie existed even though at that same time I was enthralled with King’s novels. My initial encounter with Dreamcatcher was in 2010 upon my first trip to Cinefamily in Los Angeles where they presented their own house cut trailer which they were promoting for a late night screening. Their trailer promised a campy thriller with a man cheerfully rambling in a British accent on a snowmobile and I was appalled that I had yet to encounter such a gem. This unusual introduction has given me a more lenient perspective on this film than most because I’ve viewed it with this camp lens ever since.

The major flaw in a film about infectious aliens that implant slithering parasites into human hosts which they must violently poop out is that it takes itself painfully seriously. This should be aSlither scenario where you play up this freak occurrence and how poorly people handle it. Here their are alien induced burps and farts and their holding out for an emotional response. They’re not letting the audience laugh along with it just awkwardly laugh at it. At the core this movie thinks its a drama about friendship that gets wrapped up in science fiction elements. It’s focused on four childhood friends all at an impasse in their lives who meet up at a cabin to reminisce away their problems till all hell breaks loose. So much of this movie feels derivative of other King works like Itwhich brings similar childhood friends together over trauma, the flashbacks have the aesthetic of Stand By Me and the quarantine plus creature elements of The Mist. Add that with a life cycle of a xenomorph, you begin to see deja vu. The extra storyline added to this compiling of through lines is that of essentially the Men In Black as Morgan Freeman is running his own extra terrestrial sect of the military who is not too surprised by the slimy E.T. appearances. Though you may be more surprised by his bizarrely bushy eyebrows that dominate every scene.

Why I feel compelled to give this movie the benefit of the doubt is that I’ve encountered so many bad movies that are plain boring and Dreamcatcher is far from it. You’ve got some fantastic talent in the cast, I’d point out specifically Timothy Olyphant as Pete and Jason Lee as Beaver but I’m also immediately dismayed that the film kills them off far too early. The film finds some unique ways to communicate inner monologues and visualizations that lend themselves more to the novel. Characters do speak aloud often but it leads to the amazing scene I alluded to earlier where Jonsey (Damian Lewis) is quarreling with the alien Dr. Gray who has inhabited his body and has undertaken a proper British accent. There’s also the construction of Jonesy memory bank displayed as a personification of all the recesses of his mind which I find is a unique depiction. The downfall of this friend group is the movie relies too heavily on their in jokes and references from when they were eleven which you’d think by their thirties they’d have moved on from. We’re stuck watching them write “SSDD” on every surface as if their cute catchphrase is profound or means anything at all.

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As Cinefamily was trying to push, there is a realm whereDreamcatcher could become a coveted cult movie. You’ve got Morgan Freeman yelling “shit demon” and a scene where Jason Lee tries to contain one of the eels in a toilet bowl. It’s tone deaf approach makes it all the more laughable as characters like Henry (Thomas Jane) respond to Jonesy’s call for help by talking into a gun like a phone. I can never truly consider this bad with such strange moments like that. To me it’s a quintessential good/bad movie because it’s never dull and is viewed completely opposite than it was intended. You can’t help but chuckle as Jason Lee poorly reacts to the cgi creature or as Olyphant writhes in the snow as a parasite bites down on his exposed genitals. I guarantee you there are way worse King films that are overly cheesy or boring. Dreamcatcher has some life to it, that life just happens to be incredibly misguided.

We Run the World: My Top 5 Female Driven Comedies

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As this post goes live, I’m preparing myself of an evening of Ghostbusting in the 21st century and if you have somehow missed the hounding controversy, this 2016 reboot is all women! The hate this film has garnered from misogynist internet trolls has led to more hype as this remake represents something greater than the usual Paul Feig flick. I now must to attend not just out of interest but to represent my people which is a gender that makes up more than half the population. Ghostbusters has become a statement against sexism which is quite a high bar for a movie involving buckets of slime. My enthusiasm for this upcoming release prompted me to compile a list of some of my favorite female led comedies. I sadly realized when I put the kibosh on including rom coms and love triangle centric stories it made choices quite slim. I wanted my top picks to not only have the Bechdel seal of approval but that the driving factors not be about relationships with men. I love Reality Bites but half of that movie is Laney deciding between her opposing suitors, bohemian Ethan Hawke and yuppie Ben Stiller, a Sophie’s Choice that could only exist in 1994. Instead this list is filled with female characters that embolden me with their independence and spirit plus the recurring theme of friendships worth preserving that can’t be stated enough.

5. Charlie’s Angels (2000)Charlies02-1
I hope I don’t lose any feminist cred over this but this new millennium action comedy was a major inspiration throughout those hellish middle school years where I would dream of being a boss like these girls. Before I realized so many of the scenes were homages (alright rip offs) of Mission Impossible, I delighted in the Angels’ detective skills, ass kicking and the ability to turn down guys left and right (please revisit the scene where Lucy Lu shuts down a bothersome party goer.) Even in spandex suits, Natalie, Dylan and Alex are highly intelligent when it comes to stopping a sexy Sam Rockwell from assassinating their employer and saving bumbling Bosley from sumo wrestling (poor Bill Murray). Their flaws are quirky as hell (Alex is such a terrible cook!) but they never back down whether it’s jumping out of planes, extensive fight choreography in well lit alleyways or dancing on Soul Train. They’re my superheroes and they taught me all the words to “Baby Got Back”.

4. Welcome To The Dollhouse (1996)heather-matarazzo-welcome-to-the-dollhouse

Dawn Weiner is one of the most iconic indie cinema characters. A young Heather Matarazzo brings such pathos to this awkward, bratty twelve year old that even if you didn’t have middle child syndrome, you could completely relate too. It’s an unconventional coming of age story that has the pastel splashed dark tone that is Todd Solondz’s suburbia. There’s not much hope for Dawn at this young age as she already attaches herself to unavailable or emotionally abusive men. Junior High has mercy on no one and her world is relentlessly unkind from the likes of cheerleader and burnout bullies. She is the personification of not fitting in and Matarazzo both looks the part and plays it so well.

3. For A Good Time Call…(2012)
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Aside from having to suspend your disbelief that a phone sex hotline could still be a lucrative business in the internet age, For A Good Time Call… is about the sweetest sex comedy I can think of as two sworn enemies down on their luck become roommates and go into business with each other with a dirty talk phone service. Ari Graynor and Lauren Anne Miller have fantastic chemistry as polar opposites in every facet of their being yet becoming the solid relationship missing from each others lives. Graynor shines as she coaches Miller in the art of verbal seduction and fake orgasms. The venture becomes a sexual awakening for both characters as well as introducing viewing audiences to two underserved comedic talents.

2. Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion (1997)rm

On the surface, Romy and Michele are two dumb blondes slumming it on Venice Beach who go to trashy clubs and are incapable of holding down a job. Some of that is true but it’s a travesty to insult the intelligence of two creative women with an eye for fashion and the greatest “fake it till you make it” attitude. In the pursuit to impress their former high school rivals ten years later, our titular characters (played by the underrated and under appreciated Mira Sorvino and Lisa Kudrow) fabricate careers and romances that lead to a falling out only to realize their strongest assets are each other. This movie is all about 90’s career women with strong supporting characters like cigarette pioneer Heather Mooney (a grungy Janeane Garofalo) and Vogue editor Lisa Ludor (Elaine Hendrix) who launches the girls’ groundbreaking fashion careers. I respect any movie that commits to an almost thirty minute dream sequence and any actresses willing to commit to even more outrageous platform heels. Who cares about success, all you need is a best friend and Pretty Woman.

1. Josie and The Pussycats (2001)JP

When Josie and the Pussycats not so subliminally states it’s the best movie ever, it’s not half wrong. The pop music satire may be a time capsule of the early 2000’s but it’s witty, reference soaked dialogue and rocker chick songs still fill me with glee. Bookending this brief list with trios, Josie, Melody and Valerie put friends first as they battle the corrupt and illusive music industry run by Fiona (Parker Posey) who has a thirst for power in the form of popularity. It’s insane that a story so blown out of proportions as a mysterious organization that controls mainstream trends would feel so on the nose. Writer/director team Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan make these women more than just the two dimensional characters they were originally drawn as but small town musicians who struggle to maintain their Riverdale roots in the big city which will swallow them whole. Bigger than “Archie”, this film is a hit in my heart and I can only hope inspired female garage bands everywhere or in my case lip syncing ensembles to the tune of “Three Small Words”.