[31 Days of Horror Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan] Day 26 – [Happy 20th Birthday!] Bones (2001)

Director: Ernest Dickerson
Cast: Snoop Dogg, Pam Grier, Khalil Kain, Clifton Powell, Bianca Lawson, Michael T. Weiss
Screenplay: Adam Simon, Tim Metcalfe
96 mins. Rated R for violence/gore, language, sexuality and drugs.

I remember the VHS cover for Bones. I remember seeing it when I’d peruse my local video store. I knew nothing about it, except the guy on the front cover looked like that rapper I didn’t listen to. It was a creepy cover, but I had nothing else drawing me to it. I only recently learned that was directed by Ernest Dickerson (Juice, Blind Faith), someone I’ve been aware of for years. I figured, since the film is celebrating its 20th anniversary today, now would be the right time to check out Bones and see if it was as underrated as I’d heard.

It’s been twenty years since the death of Jimmy Bones (Snoop Dogg, Training Day, Turbo), and the brownstone building that was his home has become a relic and a tomb. Now, four friends, led by Patrick (Khalil Kain, Renaissance Man, Coming to Africa), have purchased the Bones house and update it to open a nightclub inside. This sets off a chain reaction that begins the resurrection of Bones who is out for vengeance against those who betrayed him decades ago.

Dickerson’s biggest strength as a director is his ability to play into the genre and utilize a strong filmic sensibility for practical effects. When he utilizes practical effects in the film, it’s a kickass experience. The practical effects are gorgeous and grim and wholly captivating. The problem is that Bones also uses visual effects which are completely distracting and poorly lit. So many of the visual effects have aged and ineffective.

That’s not the only area of mixed execution in the film. Snoop Dogg is utilized quite well in the film. He hadn’t done much acting as of this time period, and he’s played as more of a presence with a bit of an over-the-top flair. He also plays nicely off of Pam Grier (Jackie Brown, Ghosts of Mars), who plays his romantic interest, Pearl. Snoop and Grier had done music videos in the years leading up to Bones, and that chemistry is here as well, but remember I said that acting was mixed? Well, our group of four friends opening up the nightclub are all pretty lackluster. None of them are written all that well, nor are they performed all that well. Mostly, they are overwritten and overacted to the point of parody, and while Bones isn’t meant to be taken seriously, these four youths are seemingly in a different movie, which is disappointing.

Bones is filled with mixed bits because while certain performances and effects work, others do not. The practical effects work is lit well, but the CG is not. The production design is excellent, but the editing is a bit rough and scattered. It’s a movie of parts that work and parts that do not, though I would still give the film a mild edge because enough of it works to have fun. Bones isn’t a classic by any means, but I had enough fun with the narrative and Dickerson’s direction to enjoy myself.

3/5
-Kyle A. Goethe

  • For my review of Ernest Dickerson’s Tales from the Crypt presents Demon Knight, click here.

[31 Days of Horror Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan] Day 24 – [Happy 35th Birthday!] Trick or Treat (1986)

Director: Charles Martin Smith
Cast: Marc Price, Tony Fields, Gene Simmons, Ozzy Osbourne
Screenplay: Michael S. Murphey, Joel Soisson, Rhet Topham
98 mins. Rated R.

There’s an interesting yet undiscussed part of horror culture, beginning in the 80s, that I would call Rock Horror. It’s a combination of horror elements with a heavy influence on Rock n Roll, and it’s more of a loose sub-genre. Slumber Party Massacre II would likely fall under this umbrella, as would Black Roses or Rocktober Blood, but the one that seems to be earning that cult status more and more recently would be Trick or Treat, the feature directorial debut of actor Charles Martin Smith (Dolphin Tale, A Christmas Gift From Bob). Finding a copy of this film is not easy (musical rights issues have plagued many attempts to get the film on home video), but I was able to hunt one down, so let’s turn up the stereo and get bloody.

Eddie Weinbauer (Marc Price, Hell’s Bells, TV’s Family Ties) is an unpopular loner who has only ever felt a connection to his hard-rocking idol, Sammi Curr (Tony Fields, Dance Academy, Across the Moon). When Sammi Curr perishes in a mysterious hotel fire, Eddie is utterly shattered, but when he receives a copy of Curr’s unreleased final album, he becomes enamored with hearing the final new works of the late musician, but somethings not quite right with this record, and Eddie soon discovers that Sammi Curr is speaking to him from beyond the grave, and he’s not quite ready to move onto the afterlife.

Perhaps the greatest asset of this film is the special effects work of Kevin Yagher. Most of what’s on display is pretty cheaply done, and not all of it works, but this being a very early work by Yagher on a more minuscule budget, he stretches a lot of impressive effects work out of his pocketbook.

Sadly, Trick or Treat takes far too long to get going, and I was floundering searching for its magic. The film takes too much time setting up Eddie’s fascination with the musician and then immediately dispatches the rocker. Then, we spend so much time with searching for a plot until he acquires the record. I think the beginning of this film would’ve been better served had we been introduced to Sammi himself as a living, breathing character before his death in order to perhaps better understand his character when he returns from the dead. I’m not really sure what Sammi wants in his return. He lacks character in favor of style. Eddie is the other way, character with no style. Marc Price’s performance is lacking in anything memorable that I struggled to be interested in him as a protagonist. There’s just very little to cling to.

I really wanted to like Trick or Treat, but the finished product left me rather mixed. There’s some really cool stuff here, and I cannot fight anyone for loving this movie. I just found too many detractors, but it’s a film I still feel like revisiting next year, and, had they followed it up with a franchise, I think there’s enough here to enjoy, even if I was left wanting more.

2.5/5
-Kyle A. Goethe

  • For my review of Charles Martin Smith’s A Dog’s Way Home, click here.

[31 Days of Horror Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan] Day 23 – [Happy 40th Birthday!] Galaxy of Terror (1981)

Director: Bruce D. Clark
Cast: Edward Albert, Erin Moran, Ray Walston, Taafe O’Connell, Robert Englund
Screenplay: Marc Siegler, Bruce D. Clark
81 mins. Rated R.

Okay, so I didn’t intend to cover two different Alien ripoffs this month, but here we are. Unlike Luigi Cozzi’s Contamination, the film we’re talking about today was actually quite important to the legacy of the Alien franchise. Galaxy of Terror had an up-and-coming filmmaker, James Cameron, as its Art Director. Not only that, Cameron hired his pal, Bill Paxton, to work as set dresser for the film. Cameron saw an opportunity for himself on the film and wiggled his way into being second-unit director, and it was his work on this film that got him his first directing gig on Piranha II: The Spawning. A few years later, Cameron would be directing the sequel to Alien, Aliens, with his pal Bill Paxton performing in it. Sometimes ripoffs can be very important, see?

Galaxy of Terror is the story of the spaceship Quest and its crew as they arrive at the planet Morganthus. Their mission is to discover the whereabouts of another ship that disappeared on the surface of the planet some time ago. They quickly discover that Morganthus is not without life, and something horrible is stalking them as they search for answers, picking them off one-by-one.

Galaxy of Terror is the kind of movie that could work. As I mentioned, for a low-budget endeavor, the art direction from Cameron is quite good. There’s an influence from Alien, for certain, but there’s a more colorful and vibrant feeling to this movie that serves its campy tone quite well. The costume design and set work is admirable, and they stretch that thin budget as far as they can.

A few select performances work quite well here. I liked Edward Albert (Butterflies Are Free, Midway) as our main protagonist Cabren, a veteran of space travel who keeps a cool head amidst the teror of the ission. I’m also a fan of Ray Walston (Popeye, Fast Times at Ridgemont High), especially when he appears in genre work, and he’s great as Kore, who carries a very similar arc to an Alien character but comes at it in a different way. Robert Englund (A Nightmare on Elm Street, Nightworld: Door of Hell) also outperformed my expectations, as I was expecting him to not have much to do, but he is enthusiastically enjoyably throughout.

The problem with thos performances is that, even with the cast and crew trying hard, this script is flimsy at the best of times and director Bruce D. Clark (Naked Angels, Hammer) doesn’t do much to spice up the narrative with his uninspired direction. Even at 81 minutes, Galaxy of Terror feels overly long because, trying as hard as they are, these performers can’t do much with this weak material. Albert’s Cabren would’ve worked if he had anything to do as a lead. Walston is putting everything into his performance, but it seems that Kore, as one of the most interesting characters, is forgotten for large swaths of the narrative, and Englund’s Ranger could’ve really excelled if given better than a paper-thin character dynamic to work with. There’s a lot of people raising the material, but the script and direction doom this movie.

What’s even more frustrating is how close they come to workable, but then Clark and producer Roger Corman elect to force unneeded schlock back into it. The infamous “worm rape” scene is a prime example of this. There’s a way to have a schlocky bit of excitement terror and still use your tools to create suspense and mood. Instead, Corman directed this scene in a neanderthalic way, choosing “boob boob alien sex make fun fun money.” Perhaps I’m being harsh, but when you compare this sequence to another infamous horror scene, the “tree rape” scene from The Evil Dead, you can see a clear separation in purpose. Raimi’s film uses the scene to build upon the horror and tone and mood and also to disturb. Corman, stepping in to direct the scene in Galaxy of Terror, uses it like a kid who discovered his dad’s porno mags and wants to show them to you. I love Roger Corman but this just didn’t work.

Galaxy of Terror has perhaps more promise than one would expect, but it still comes up short. There are bits and pieces of this film that show a better work beneath the surface, but much like the spaceship Quest at the start of this film, Galaxy of Terror comes in for a crash landing.

2/5
-Kyle A. Goethe

[31 Days of Horror Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan] Day 14 – [Happy 10th Birthday!] Paranormal Activity 3 (2011)

Director: Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman
Cast: Lauren Bittner, Chris Smith, Chloe Csengery, Jessica Tyler Brown
Screenplay: Christopher Landon
83 mins. Rated R for some violence, language, brief sexuality and drug use.

I’ve spoken before about my initial reluctance to watch the Paranormal Activity franchise, and how I was won over by the incredible concept and storytelling put together for the second film in the franchise, with its clever use of flashback and still finding a way to move the plot forward. So I went into Paranormal Activity 3 with high hopes for when the story was going. The third film ending up being the best-reviewed of the entire series, with many critics seeing the film in a favorable light. Was I one of them?

Paranormal Activity 3 begins by showing us that Katie and Kristi have amassed a large quantity of home videos from their childhood, and then flashing back to the contents of those tapes, in 1988. We are presented with the earliest footage of this paranormal activity, showing exactly how the sisters first became involved with the entities that have followed them for decades.

There’s a lot of love for Paranormal Activity 3, but as a critique purely of the story, I was ultimately let down. The issues of the Paranormal Activity franchise have something in common with the Resident Evil films in that they sometimes seem like a setup for the next film instead of driving forward the narrative. Paranormal Activity 3 is the franchise at its most wheel-spinning. There is a lot of entertainment value and visually impressive technical display in the movie, but whereas the second film was mostly prequel, it still drove the story forward. PA3 seems like the movie that, were it removed from the narrative, would ultimately change nothing. As a complete franchise, it works better, but looking at it on its own, it struggles to find purpose.

I mentioned the films technical display, and I like how we get an explanation for why everyone keeps going to filming the unusual happenings by introducing Dennis (Chris Smith, Enough Said, Little Children). With that, we get some ingenuity in camera placement and technique, specifically when Dennis attaches a camera to a spinning fan in order to provide some really exciting moments. This franchise has always been a feature-length horror version of I Spy, with viewers scouring frames of the static camera, looking for ghosts and creeps and crawlies, subconsciously working themselves up for the scare in advance.

I also really like what we’re given in the 1980s, as a mythology builder. This is the first time in the series that I feel an overarching narrative is being built (yes, even though I’m criticizing the lack of forward momentum, I like the info we’re being delivered). I was also intrigued with the kind of narrative back-stepping being done. I had not guessed the directions this film would take us as viewers, and again, had the film moved the narrative forward while simultaneously stepping backward, I think it would have worked better, especially given where the previous film had ended. Give us something to go with.

Paranormal Activity 3 is a fine enough sequel to the franchise, and it introduces a lot of elements that the franchise would continue to use going forward. I just wish the film actually worked the narrative because it feels meaningless, like a side quest film, and that shouldn’t be the case in building a world and franchise, especially following the excellent second installment. This one is a well-made film that sputters for too much of its run time, but it should offer sufficient scares for fans of the series.

3/5
-Kyle A. Goethe

  • For my review of Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity, click here.
  • For my review of Tod Williams’s Paranormal Activity 2, click here.
  • For my review of Christopher Landon’s Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, click here.

[31 Days of Horror Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan] Day 13 – [Happy 15th Birthday!] The Grudge 2 (2006)

Director: Takashi Shimizu
Cast: Amber Tamblyn, Arielle Kebbel, Jennifer Beals, Edison Chen, Sarah Roemer, Sarah Michelle Gellar
Screenplay: Stephen Susco
102 mins. Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, disturbing images/terror/violence, and some sensuality.

It only took three days after the release of the American version of The Grudge for this film to be greenlit. Then, it spent close to a year in development hell before finally gracing screens on a Friday the 13th in 2006. Now, 15 years later, this notorious reviewer known for his distaste of J-horror remakes tackles The Grudge 2!

Immediately following the events of the first film, The Grudge 2 continues the tale of the spreading curse of evil that has attached itself to Karen (Sarah Michelle Gellar, Cruel Intentions, TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Now, Karen’s sister, Aubrey (Amber Tamblyn, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Nostalgia) is headed to Tokyo in search of her sister…and answers, but the Grudge is a continually spreading curse which has also attached itself to a group of schoolgirls and a family living in an apartment complex in America, but how do all these pieces fit together?

This seems like a hot take, so stay with me while I explain myself: I think this is my favorite of the American Grudge films. It’s not amazing by any means but this film feels closest to what the original Ju-On films were. It seems, to me at least, to improve on many of the faults of the first film. Again, I don’t really think these movies are scary at all, but this is at least the most engaging story and overall viewing experience of the four American films.

Let’s address my faults with the first film. First of all, as I mentioned, the first American Grudge is just not scary. The sequel isn’t either, but I did have one moment that worked for me in the later portion of the movie. I also think that the atmosphere and structure of the sequel work to deliver some decent unnerving quality that affected me. The ASMR ghost thing still mostly fails to deliver on frights, but this is a much moodier picture.

The nonlinear style of storytelling here is the film’s best asset. It caused me to really invest in the narrative as I tried to wrap my head around connecting the various pieces of the film. I’m not sure if any of these narrative threads would work on their own, and by the time the film was at an end, I was losing a bit of drive in answering my questions, but it kept my focus more than any other American Grudge film. The first film’s focus on Karen was its downfall.

You can also tell that director Takashi Shimizu (Homunculus, Suicide Forest Village) is having more fun in his playground this time around. As opposed to the first film, which is a fairly close remake of the original, this sequel allows him to tries some new things and tell an original story again. The Grudge 2 isn’t a remake of the second Ju-On film as some would believe, but it actually takes more from the Jurassic Park sequels in picking and choosing elements from the source material to include (the JP films played a lot with unused material from Crichton’s books, but you get what I mean). Shimizu pulls elements from Ju-On: The Curse and the more well-known Ju-On: The Grudge, and even grabbed some elements from the Japanese short films that preceded the Ju-On series. With that, there’s a more interesting sandbox feeling to this film, which Shimizu himself admitted to enjoying more than the first film. For someone who directed every single installment of the franchise up to this point (up until 2009 for the direct-to-DVD sequel The Grudge 3), he really knows his world and has an interesting tale to give us.

This sequel still struggles to give us worthy performances from any of its cast, and I know many of them are capable of more than we’re getting. It’s helpful that the nonlinear storyline doesn’t give us any one lead so we aren’t stuck with anyone for too long and it allowed me to invest in the story more instead (not a win, but at least an ever-so-slight improvement).

The Grudge 2 is not the holy grail of horror films, but there is a renewed excitement for what’s to come next (at least until you see what came next), and the film is engaging and interesting with a moody texture and some surprising narrative choices. Sadly, it underperformed so hard that Sony cancelled the Blu-Ray release of the film. In fact, the film still, to this day, does not have a Blu-Ray release because of its performance at the box office. You might say that Sony knows how to hold a…Grudge? All joking aside, the film is a mess but that’s kind of the point, and it understands its messiness better than the previous entry and way better than the latter American installments. It may not win you over, but if you liked the previous installment, give this one a try…on DVD.

3/5
-Kyle A. Goethe

  • For my review of Takashi Shimizu’s The Grudge, click here.
  • For my review of Takashi Shimizu’s Marebito, click here.

[31 Days of Horror Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan] Day 9 – [Happy 40th Birthday!] Full Moon High (1981)

Director: Larry Cohen
Cast: Adam Arkin, Roz Kelly, Ed McMahon, Elizabeth Hartman, Bill Kirchenbauer, Joanne Nail, Demond Wilson, Louis Nye, JM Bullock, James Dixon, Kenneth Mars
Screenplay: Larry Cohen
93 mins. Rated PG.

Up until seeing Full Moon High, my only experience with a Larry Cohen (God Told Me To, It’s Alive) film is watching Q: The Winged Serpent a few years back. I own a number of his films but just haven’t gotten time, but I’ve been told by great many colleagues that he’s got that Grindhouse flavor but he’s cleverer than he’s given credit for. Well, if you’ve seen Full Moon High, you can perhaps imagine my shock when the film turned out to be a cheesy satirical comedy about werewolves. Then, the question must be asked: how does Larry Cohen deal with parody?

High school student Tony (Adam Arkin, A Serious Man, Pig), while on a trip to Transylvania with his father, is bitten by a werewolf. With his new affliction, Tony cannot age, and he is forced to disappear when the curse becomes too much to deal with, only to return decades later to fix his high school status.

Full Moon High appeared near the beginning of a long line of werewolf movies. The 80s were oversaturated with werewolves, with 3 Howling films, 2 Teen Wolf films, Wolfen, The Company of Wolves, and of course An American Werewolf in London. The latter of these films featured the makeup effects of Rick Baker. His protégé, Steve Neill, did the effects for Full Moon High. With all that werewolf mania, Full Moon High actually kind of stands out from the crowd, or at least it should have. This movie is delightful and I’m surprised it isn’t discussed more, even among Cohen’s works. Far from flawless, I found the satirical edge of Cohen’s writing and the likable Adam Arkin leading the cast, Full Moon High mostly worked for me.

That being said, this is a movie that, very early on, makes it clear what you are about to see, and it presents its tone very capably, almost like an episode of Saturday Night Live dedicated to making werewolf jokes for 90 minutes, and that comparison is apt because, like SNL, this movie has some bits that are uproarious and others that are…not so much.

Still, there are enough funny bits scattered through the movie that really work, and there are some surprises for fans of classic comedy as well. Is that Bob Saget playing two different roles? Yes. Is that 3 Arkins in the movie (Adam, father Alan, and brother Anthony)? Yes. We even get a healthy dose of Kenneth Mars (Young Frankenstein, The Producers) as both the coach and principal of the school, and he gets some very Mel Brooks-inspired scenes throughout.

Full Moon High is quite a funny little comedy that has sadly been buried by time. I had to do some heavy searching for a copy only to come across an embarrassingly low quality version on Paramount+. This is a style of comedy very akin to Mel Brooks and Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker, and it that’s your thing, I think you’ll get a kick out of this one…if you can find it.

3/5
-Kyle A. Goethe

  • For my review of Larry Cohen’s Q: The Winged Serpent, click here.

[31 Days of Horror Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan] Day 6 – [Happy 15th Birthday!] The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning (2006)

Director: Jonathan Liebesman
Cast: Jordana Brewster, Matt Bomer, Diora Baird, Taylor Handley, Lee Tergesen, R. Lee Ermey
Screenplay: Sheldon Turner
91 mins. Rated R for strong horror violence/gore, language, and some sexual content.

It seems like so many people are out to criticize graphic violence in movies, but they don’t even know that the movie we are going to talk about today, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, is so much more than that. This movie is a love story. Well, not really, but lead actress Jordana Brewster (Furious 7, Hooking Up) met her future husband, producer Andrew Form, on the set, and they fell in love amidst all the gore and blood. So that’s pretty close right? We’re just one sequel away from Leatherface in a romantic comedy, and I’d pay to see that.

The Beginning tells the story of the Hewitt family in 1969 and the start of the most heinous crime in American history. When Thomas Hewitt loses his job at the slaughterhouse, he cannot control the rage within him. As he returns home, chainsaw in hand, the family is forced to make a stand to protect one of their own. After, Charlie Hewitt (R. Lee Ermey, Full Metal Jacket, Se7en) assumes the role of Sheriff and begins his own brand of justice, starting with a group of teens on the road attempting to enjoy one last bit of fun before shipping out to Vietnam.

Let me start by saying I’m pretty uninterested in most prequels, and I’ve criticized the hell out of movies that forcibly tell you how EVERYTHING happened with the original film or the original character. In fact, that was the worst aspect of Solo: A Star Wars Story (here’s how he got his name!), but most of this film worked for me. I’m not even sure I can qualify why, but let me make the distinction like this: the MASSACRE in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre seems to always be described as a singular event instead of a series of them, but when you consider the original series of films has 6 entries with each having their own massacre, it seems like you would stop describing it as such because it’s become another thing entirely. This duology of the 2003 TCM and this prequel seem to treat the MASSACRE like an actual singularly disturbing event “in the annals of American history” as the narrator puts it. Since this film is only tied to the 2003 remake, it seems that there can be a lot of checklisting without going too far. Whereas Solo tried to explain in 2 hours how Han Solo’s entire character was crafted and summed up, this film is really only aiming at adding to and setting up the 2003 film, so it feels like less of a stretch to explain the origin’s of Leatherface, Sheriff Hoyt, and the events of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre as a piece of “historical” context. It has to set up a single event, and in that way, I buy it a whole lot more than most other explain-y prequels. As the story goes, Platinum Dunes was not really interested in doing a sequel, but fans kept clamoring, asking questions about the Hewitt family, and they eventually tried to take a crack at a prequel. Not sure if that’s true at all, but I feel like the set-ups in this film have payoffs in the 2003 TCM, so they work very well as a double feature.

This group of teenage chainsaw fodder is really not much different from the ones in the 2003 film, which gives the real shining star to the Hewitts, particularly R. Lee Ermey’s Charlie. Ermey stole the show in the 2003 film, and he does so again here, and that’s not an easy thing to do given that Leatherface is a horror icon. To have someone of Ermey’s caliber in this film and really chewing on his dialogue and downright having fun in the role is very helpful to the movie’s entertainment value. Outside of his role in Full Metal Jacket, I’m not sure if there’s a better performance on his resume than Charlie Hewitt/Sheriff Hoyt.

Outside of all that, I can genuinely say that the 2003 Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a better made film than The Beginning, but I enjoy watching The Beginning more. It’s that classic Karate Kid Part II argument. For me, entertainment goes a long way, and I can look over most of the faults of this film without issue.

All that being said, The Beginning definitely has faults. The group of potential victims are written a little more blandly than the 2003 film (particularly when you realize that the only one actually doing anything in the narrative is Jordana Brewster’s Chrissie), and the mystery elements of the 2003 film get undone by having them spoiled in this film (something that is always hard to avoid in any prequel) and it would be better to see this film after the 2003 for the first time. I also find a number of logic gaps, particularly in how the film wraps up (though I’m thankful it doesn’t force itself to lead right into the 2003 film, allowing us time to question what else happened between installments. All of these problems are lessened by a break-neck pace run time that just races to the conclusion, keeping the excitement level pretty high.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning is not a film for everyone, but there’s a solid entertainment factor if you can handle the more gruesome and bloody beats of the plot. The technical display is quite high, and if you don’t get hung up on some of the more obvious logic gaps of the story, and especially if you liked the 2003 film, this is definitely something worth checking out, and perhaps even seeing in a double feature with the remake.

3.5/5
-Kyle A. Goethe

  • For my review of Marcus Nispel’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, click here.
  • For my review of Jonathan Liebesman’s Darkness Falls, click here.
  • For my review of Jonathan Liebesman’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, click here.

[31 Days of Horror Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan] Day 5 – [Happy 20th Birthday!] Joy Ride (2001)

Director: John Dahl
Cast: Steve Zahn, Paul Walker, Leelee Sobieski
Screenplay: Clay Turner, J.J. Abrams
97 mins. Rated R for violence/terror and language.

It’s odd that a film like Joy Ride took four years from start to finish. Directed by John Dahl (The Last Seduction, TV’s Dexter), Joy Ride went through so many permutations that you could essentially put together a different movie from just the deleted scenes and alternate endings. This little B-movie slice of Americana thriller is one that doesn’t get talked about too much anymore, and while it had two sequels, it’s just not discussed as a short little piece of tense genre enjoyment. I probably haven’t watched Joy Ride since just after it came out, so I figured now is the best time to look back on this film, give it a rewatch, and see if there’s something worth remembering.

Lewis (Paul Walker, The Fast and the Furious, Running Scared) is a college freshman who has just discovered that his childhood crush Venna (Leelee Sobieski, Never Been Kissed, Amerikali Kiz) is newly single, and he’s embarking on a cross-country trip to pick her up during summer break on the hope to get a little closer. On the way, he’s been tasked with retrieving his deadbeat brother Fuller (Steve Zahn, War for the Planet of the Apes, TV’s The White Lotus), who’s just been released from prison. Fuller and Lewis don’t have the best relationship, and the two find themselves bonding over a silly prank played over the car’s CB radio to a voice known as Rusty Nail, but Rusty Nail doesn’t like being pranked, and he’s out to get vengeance as the two brothers and Venna try to evade him on the open roads.

Rarely is the standout performance of a film just a disembodied voice on a CB radio, but Ted Levine, in an uncredited role, is a nasty and tense and incredible as Rusty Nail. The entire film hinges on his ability to do more with less, and it’s clear that he’s the right choice for role, having been brought aboard the production rather late. We don’t get much to go on with him, as a character, but that’s maybe the best thing for someone like Rusty Nail. Because we, and also our cast of youths, are unable to discern just who this villainous voice is, we have a small-but-impactful bit of whodunnit that ties in nicely with this riff on Duel and The Hitcher.

As far as our group of youths, they are serviceable enough. While Lewis doesn’t have a lot of character development outside of “somewhat horny college kid who makes bad mistake,” Walker infuses him with charisma, which is part of what made him such a special performer. He was always able to add a likability. On the other side of things, Steve Zahn’s Fuller is just kind of an asshole. Zahn is putting everything he can into his performance, but the writing just makes him so unlikable. As the film goes on, you kind of want him to suffer for his actions, making it hard to empathize with his being put into danger. Again, Zahn is capable of adding some likability, but the character is just written too poorly. As for Sobieski, I couldn’t honestly tell you anything interesting about her character, as she’s mostly stock characterized and not all that interesting a character.

The film’s greatest strength has to come from the tension. It’s a flawed movie but it does have a high amount of engagement where I was geniunely concerned about how Lewis was going to thwart Rusty Nail. Again, a lot of tension comes from Levine, but it should be noted that director John Dahl does a solid job of ratcheting up the tension often enough to keep the whole movie entertaining, which makes up for a number of its faults.

And the film does indeed have faults. As with the characterization of both Fuller and Venna being underwhelming, there’s also a significant amount of logic gaps and inconsistencies revolving around Rusty Nail. There are a number of plot points that require Rusty Nail to have a far better understanding of things he should know nothing about. At times, he seems all-powerful and omniscient, and it makes one question the realism that we as audience members have been asked to accept. It also feels like the film ties up a little quickly. There are a number of plot threads that I would’ve liked to see fully resolved instead of just assumed. I’m well aware of the number of alternate scenes and endings that led to Joy Ride’s four-year production, and that’s likely where a lot of this is resolved. Hey, at least they changed the name from Squelch to Joy Ride, right?

Joy Ride is thankfully quite an entertaining little B-movie that has some early 2000s grindhouse-y flavor. I found myself quite enjoying this little action thriller and I’ll probably revisit the film again, not it likely won’t take another twenty years. Hopefully, by then, they’ll have released a special edition of the film that randomizes the ending we got with one of several that were filmed and left unused, a la Clue. If not, I’m content enough with the film we got. It’s a fun little time-killer.

3.5/5
-Kyle A. Goethe

[31 Days of Horror Part VII: The New Blood] Day 28 – [Happy 15th Birthday!] Saw II (2005)

Director: Darren Lynn Bousman
Cast: Donnie Wahlberg, Franky G, Glenn Plummer, Beverley Mitchell, Dina Meyer, Emmanuelle Vaugier, Erik Knudsen, Shawnee Smith, Tobin Bell
Screenplay: Leigh Whannell, Darren Lynn Bousman
93 mins. Rated R.

Saw was a horror phenomenon when it released in 2004. It surprised the hell out of me, as I didn’t expect to love it so much, to be rewatching it so regularly, trying to scope out clues and things I had missed before. It wasn’t for everyone, especially those unable to handle gore (even though the first actually didn’t contain as much as the franchise would be known for later on), but for me, there was another element that kept me entranced, and that was the story. I loved the mystery of the film, the clues, the references. I studied that film, and when the sequel came out, it didn’t arrive at my local theater and I was too young to drive to another town to see it, so I waited until the inevitable January DVD release, and I caught it. Now, looking back, let’s see how the first sequel to Saw holds up, and its influence on the direction of the series.

Eric Matthews (Donnie Wahlberg, Ransom, Dreamcatcher) is a bad cop and a worse father. His life isn’t what he thought it was, and now he’s become the target of the villainous Jigsaw (Tobin Bell, Mississippi Burning, The Firm), a killer who likes to play games, set traps, and let his victims kill themselves in their struggle to survive. Eric and his former partner Kerry (Dina Meyer, Starship Troopers, Johnny Mnemonic) have discovered Jigsaw’s hideout, but they soon learn that catching Jigsaw will be tougher than they expected when Eric learns that his son Daniel (Erik Knudsen, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Scream 4) is also a part of Jigsaw’s next game. Now, Eric and Daniel are both playing for survival, and Jigsaw has a few surprises in store for both of them.

Saw II actually started as a completely different movie. Writer/director Darren Lynn Bousman (Repo! The Genetic Opera, Abattoir) had shopped around his script for a film called The Desperate and kept getting turned down, with most telling him that his movie was too similar to Saw. Eventually, the script found its way into the hands of Saw producers, who were looking to get a follow-up to the 2004 smash hit put together. Leigh Whannell, who scripted the original film, came in and adjusted the script into a Saw sequel, and the rest is horror history. In that way, Saw II is a bit of a unique flavor of the Saw films. It has most of Bousman’s writing stamps on it, and it has a look more in line with Bousman’s non-Saw films while still not straying away from the feel of the original. The screenplay, now adjusted to being a Saw sequel, is full of more of those clues and references to the connection with the original, and the way it ends up connecting is bonkers good. In fact, not even the cast was aware of the film’s ending and how it would play into the first film. Although, there are a few times when Jigsaw flat out lies to Eric, something he isn’t known for doing (he stretches the truth and leaves information out, but he never full-on lies to his victims and pawns), and that disappointed me a little.

Donnie Wahlberg is a standout here. His scenes with Tobin Bell as Jigsaw are amazing. The two have such different energies on display, and watching them collide is exhilarating while also highlighting their differences as characters and gives a lot of development to both. Remember, this film does a lot more heavy lifting of the Jigsaw mythos than the first film, in which [SPOILER ALERT!] Jigsaw spends most of the film lying in a bathroom covered in makeup and fake blood. Jigsaw gets to really flex his creed here and the reaction he gets from Eric works so well. Wahlberg’s work as Eric only highlights his own shortcomings as a cop, husband, and father.

Shawnee Smith (The Blob, Believe) also returns from the first film as Amanda, a character with limited but impactful screen time in the original (in fact, her scenes in the original were basically what the short film that inspired Saw were all about). Seeing her as someone who has survived Jigsaw’s game only to find herself back in it is horrifying, and we feel for her, but we also find a level of trust in her as she understands the game better than the others, and we cling to her for support. She also ends up in a fairly uncomfortable trap fighting for survival with the needle pit.

I also want to discuss the house trap, as it’s where most of the action of the film is. It’s a cool house with a lot of history and character to it, and seeing all these people trapped inside with slow-acting poison, looking for antidotes, it creates a larger set piece than the bathroom but doesn’t feel like it betrays the first film. It just has its own flavor, much like the rest of Saw II, probably carried over from Bousman’s earlier script. What I love about the way Bousman directs is that he tries to create a sense that the story never slows down by creating in-camera tricks in filming and editing that make scenes flow from one to the another without actually cutting. Look at the way Eric leaves his apartment early on and ends up at a crime scene. It’s a fascinating shot that emphasizes the best of Bousman’s ability to work low-budget and still create interesting and compelling cinema.

Saw II is still a step down from the first film, but it continues the story, elevates the characters, and develops the world-building of this franchise quite nicely while feeling like its own contained story. Yes, there are a few screenplay faults, there are more unlikable characters than likable ones, and the film maybe feels a bit too big at times, not allowing us to spend time with the cattle on their way to slaughter, but at least it highlights its most interesting characters like Jigsaw, Eric, Kerry, and Amanda, the ones who are developed enough to interest. I enjoyed the film immensely when I first saw it, and I still do, even if I’ve seen some of its faults on repeat viewings. I would still encourage fans of the original to see this one, and those who haven’t seen it in a while to consider revisiting it.

4/5
-Kyle A. Goethe

  • For my review of James Wan’s Saw, click here.
  • For my review of Darren Lynn Bousman’s Repo! The Genetic Opera, click here.
  • For my review of Darren Lynn Bousman’s The Devil’s Carnival, click here.
  • For my review of the anthology film Tales of Halloween, click here.
  • For my review of Darren Lynn Bousman’s Alleluia! The Devil’s Carnival, click here.

[31 Days of Horror Part VII: The New Blood] Day 27 – [Happy 20th Birthday!] Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000)

Director: Joe Berlinger
Cast: Kim Director, Jeffrey Donovan, Erica Leerhsen, Tristine Skyler, Stephen Barker Turner
Screenplay: Dick Beebe, Joe Berlinger
90 mins. Rated R for violence, language, sexuality and drug use.

Following up a cultural phenomenon like The Blair Witch Project would be pretty tough. Just a short time after the found-footage film found an audience, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 came about. The film is a drastically different take on the mythology, taking on a traditional horror movie vibe and losing the found-footage marker, Book of Shadows elected to acknowledge the first film as a film that may or may not be real, and the effect it had on the residents of Burkittsville, Maryland. A lofty goal, one that almost shouldn’t work on principle, and in fact, the film faltered at the box office and critical stage, so let’s visit this sequel as I finally take a stab at Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2.

In the short time since the release of the hit “documentary” The Blair Witch Project, the town of Burkittsville has been overrun with tourists and fans of the movie all wanting to be a part of the hype. Jeff (Jeffrey Donovan, Sicario, Hitch), a local fanboy, has started offering “tours” of the locations from the film. Jeff takes four young people on a trip into the woods, but they find that this venture carries some dire consequences, ones with the power to unravel the very fabric of their psyches.

It is ironic that a director who primarily works on documentaries chose to make a straightforward sequel instead of a faux doc, but that’s exactly what Joe Berlinger (Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes) did just that, and his heart is in the right place. He had an ambitious take on the material, choosing to critique the faux documentary style of the original as well as fanaticism concerning death and dread. He’s asking questions about why we follow the darkness, why we find ourselves drawn to real horror, which is interesting considering he’s dealt with real horror as a director in a lot of his projects. The problem is that he wasn’t seemingly on the same page as the studio, and interference from the higher-ups was its downfall, choosing to add more gore, violence, and jump scares to a more thoughtful and mood-based horror film. Whether or not Berlinger’s original cut would be any better remains to be seen, but sure, I’d be all for #ReleaseTheBerlingerCut if the movement so chooses.

That’s not to say that this film is awful like most reviewers upon release. It’s just not very good either. The film is at its strongest when it dives into the mythology of the Blair Witch. I feel like Book of Shadows did a lot of mythology heavy-lifting here, really adding a lot more to the Blair Witch mythos (it’s also very important to point out Thorn Celtic symbol that appears in the film, perhaps as a nod to Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers). The concept works better than it should, and the story has enough meat on it to become interesting if executed properly. That just didn’t really happen.

Even with the studio interference, there’s no excusing some of the choppy and dull dialogue at play here. The characters are pretty stock, not contributing anything of complete value, and the jumping around in the narrative is an interesting frame (one that was done by the studio), but it never really amounts to anything that makes its existence meaningful.

Book of Shadows is actually a pretty admirable effort, but its many problems do outweigh the wins. The movie is not awful, but it is far from good. There are elements of Book of Shadows that work quite well. There are just far more that don’t. In that way, it’s very similar to its predecessor. They both have strengths and flaws, but flaws are stronger. Fans of The Blair Witch Project should really give this one a try, but I’m doubtful that it can sway anyone else.

2/5
-Kyle A. Goethe

  • For my review of Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez’s The Blair Witch Project, click here.
  • For my review of Adam Wingard’s Blair Witch, click here.

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