Movie is based on the book by John Bellairs and tells of young Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro), whose parents have recently been killed in a car accident. He’s sent to live with his eccentric uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) in a creepy old house and soon finds out Jonathan is a warlock. Lewis also discovers that there is a clock in the walls of the house and one that may have a sinister purpose. Can Lewis, his uncle and their witch of a neighbor Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett) find out the clock’s true purpose and stop it from whatever evil it’s intended for?
Film is directed with surprising restraint by Eli Roth (Hostel, The Green Inferno), who is most known for his over-the-top gore flicks, though it could have used a bit of those flicks’ bombasity. The script is by Eric Kripke based on Bellairs’ book and while the cast give it their all, there is just something lacking from the proceedings. The film is slower paced than Roth’s usual fare and never really ignites the spark needed to make the film more fun. There is plenty of magic and the supernatural on hand and some very spooky imagery, but the film lacks a strong sense of charm or wonder. It’s a decent enough watch and you can tell Black and Blanchett especially are having a good time with the material, but the movie itself never really takes off running as the popcorn entertainment it’s intended to be. Even the last act confrontation with Kyle MacLachlan’s re-animated warlock villain never reaches the excitement, or suspense, level it needs. Overall, Eli Roth shows he can direct with some restraint, but maybe it’s not that good an idea here, as the film is a bit too laid back to entertain more than just moderately.
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Holidays is a horror anthology that presents eight short stories, each based on a holiday and adding some kind of supernatural/horror twist. Each tale is written and directed by different filmmakers with somewhat mixed resluts.
The first is Valentines Day, written and directed by Dennis Widmyer and Kevin Kolsch (Starry Eyes) and tells the story of introverted high school girl Maxine (Madeleine Coghlan) who has a crush on her swimming coach (Rick Peters). When she misinterprets a sympathetic Valentine’s Day card from him, she decides to solve her bullying problem and present her object of affection with a special gift, all at the same time. It is an effective story with some very gruesome moments and has a bit of that offbeat, disturbing feel that made Starry Eyeswork so well.
Next up is St. Patrick’s Day written and directed by Gary Shore (Dracula Untold). This tells the story of a new little girl (Isolt McCaffrey) at school who gives her teacher (Ruth Bradley) a St. Patrick’s Day wish with disturbing results. This episodes starts out creepy enough, but gets progressively silly till it’s goofy ending.
Next up is Easter written and directed by Nicholas McCarthy (The Pact). This tells a really weird and disturbing tale of a little girl (Ava Acres) who accidentally catches the Easter Bunny (Mark Steger) in the act…but he’s not quite what she expected and there is a disturbing price for being the first child to ever see him. This is a weird episode that unsettlingly combines both the Christian doctrine and traditional bunny folklore of Easter. While not totally successful, it gets extra points for being daring enough to ‘go there’.
The next tale is written and directed by Sarah Adina Smith and is called Mother’s Day. It’s an odd story about a woman (Sophie Traub) who is ‘cursed’ by getting pregnant every time she has sex. She is sent to, of all places, a fertility clinic, to solve her problem, one which turns out to be more than it seems. This episode was really strange, yet a bit unsatisfying as it didn’t seem to go anywhere and had a predictable and cliché shock ending.
Father’s Day is one of the best tales. It is written and directed by FX man Anthony Scott Burns (FX for The Last Exorcism Part II). It tells of a young woman (House of the Devil’sJocelin Donahue) who receives a recorded message from her long dead father, asking her to meet him at a special place from her childhood. This is a very effective episode that is moody, creepy and heartbreaking, thanks in equal parts to good direction and a very strong performance by Donahue.
The biggest disappointment and worst episode is Kevin Smith’s Halloween. It takes place on Halloween, but has little to do with the holiday as it tells the story of Ian (Harley Mortenstein) the mean owner of a Sex Cam business who has a painful rebellion from three of his employees (Ashley Greene, Olivia Roush and Harley Quinn Smith). It forgoes any attempt at something spooky for more of Smith’s traditional adolescent vulgarity. Boring, crude and has nothing to do with the holiday it represents.
Anthology get’s back on track with Scott Stewart’s (Dark Skies) Christmas. This one tells the tale of a down-on-his-luck dad (Seth Green) who goes to disturbing lengths to get his kid the pair of virtual reality glasses he wants. These glasses, however, reveal a person’s true self and he and his wife (Clare Grant) learn some very unsettling things about each other. This is a fun and chilling episode and Green is entertaining to watch as the desperate dad and Clare Grant is good as the wife with a secret side to her.
Final episode is New Year’s and is is directed by Adam Egypt Mortimer (Some Kind Of Hate) from a script by Dennis Widmyer and Kevin Kolsch. It tells the story of a serial killer (Andrew Bowen) who has specific plans for his New Year’s Eve date (Lorenza Izzo) who turns out to have far more in common with him than he realizes. This is a twisted and fun episode with a really entertaining psycho turn by Izzo as Jean. Izzo is showning a talent for these roles, as she was one of the few fun parts of Knock Knock.
Overall, this was a mixed bag, but the good outweighed the bad. There were a few disappointments, especially from Kevin Smith who dropped the ball on delivering something in the Halloween spirit for his tale. We did gets some spooky and effective stories, with the standout being Burn’s Father’s Day which had a sympathetic and strong portrayal from Jocelin Donahue. Definitely worth a watch for the segments that did work and even a couple of the failures had an originality to their telling.
ELECTRIC BOOGALOO: THE WILD, UNTOLD STORY OF CANNON FILMS! (2015)
Great documentary about schlockmeister Cannon Films that churned out so many delightfully bad…and very entertaining B-movies during the 80s. Mark Hartley’s documentary is told through the eyes of a number of talents who worked for Cannon during their existence from both behind and in front of the camera. We get a real good look at the inside of the studio founded by Israeli cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus and how they dreamed of taking America by storm. We hear from actors like Bo Derek, Molly Ringwald, Robert Forster and Cannon regulars Lucinda Dickey and Michael Dudikoff, who all have entertaining stories to tell about starring in some of the studios most infamous productions. We also hear what it was like to make films for them by the likes of Tobe Hooper, Sam Firstenberg and Franco Zeffirelli. We get a story of two men whose dream to be a major studio was derailed by churning out some of the shlocky-est productions during a decade renown for it’s excesses. They made a major action star out of Chuck Norris and reignited Charles Bronson’s career…although not completely in a good way. Documentary is almost as fun as some of the ‘so bad it’s good’ movies they produced under Golan and Globus between 1979 and 1985.
KNOCK KNOCK (2015)
Eli Roth’s flick is a reworking of a 1977 film called Death Game where two women (Sandra Locke and Collen Camp who are given producers credits here) terrorize a man (Seymour Cassel) over a two day period. In this update, we have architect and family man Evan Webber (Keanu Reeves) who is left home alone on Father’s Day weekend to finish some work while his wife and kids hit the beach. During a rainstorm, two beautiful young women (Ana de Armas and Lorenza Izzo) show up soaking wet at his door, claiming to be lost and wind up seducing Evan into a threesome. The following morning Evan finds his guests still there and acting quite out of control. He manages to evict them, but they return that night to take Evan hostage and begin to torment him as punishment for what he did to them, claiming they are only fifteen years-old. Viewing him as a pedophile, the psychotic women claim he must die at dawn unless he plays their twisted games.
Despite a familiar premise that could have been fun, this flick is just dull and silly as these two loonies torment Reeves’ unfaithful family man for over forty minutes. It’s not only never gripping, but really just amounts to a fairly bloodless and uninventive torture show as the two women claim that Webber needs to pay for taking advantage of underage girls like themselves. While the two actresses do have a good time going all over-the-top, neither is remotely believable for a minute at being that young, or is given any real meaty material to work with. As for Reeves, he seems very miscast here and does not seem comfortable at all with the material…and it goes beyond the character’s discomfort with being a married man in the company of two horny vixens turned psychopaths. Even had Reeves been less wooden, the film offers nothing new and doesn’t even make inventive use of the familiar tropes of this type of Fatal Attraction flick. Roth does clarify his ladies intentions in the DVD extras, but one shouldn’t need supplemental material to make things clearer. Dull and only worth watching for the generous nudity from Armas and Izzo (Mrs. Eli Roth) who are clearly having a fun time with their parts. Wish Reeves would have had more fun with his part and Roth stopped recycling his influences and gave us something more original.
Final Girl is an entertaining and stylish thriller about a girl named Veronica (Abigail Breslin) who lost her parents when she was eight and is taken in by a man named William (Wes Bentley). She’s trained for the next twelve years to be an efficient killing machine and then unleashed on her first assignment. There are four young men, led by the charismatic Jameson (Alexander Ludwig), who like to lure young women in the woods and then hunt them for sport, while wearing tuxedos. Veronica is to set herself up as their next victim and then find a way to take these serial killers out…but the odds are against her. Tyler Shields’ directorial debut is a bit too stylish for it’s own good at times, but overall this is a fun flick as we watch Veronica play a dangerous cat and mouse game deep in the woods with these four arrogant killers. There are some good fight scenes with petite Abigail Breslin holding her own quite well and making an impression once again. The rest of the cast are good with Ludwig being a detestable villain and Bentley making a mysterious figure as Veronica’s handler, William. A simple story and script written by four people that might have been a bit more fun had they kept us in the dark for awhile about Veronica’s origins, but it does entertain and still photographer Shields does give it an intriguing visual style. Not great, but fun and an interesting debut for Shields. Also stars Cameron Bright, Reece Thompson and Logan Huffman as Jameson’s fellow frat boy killers.
THE STRANGER (2015)
Written and directed by Guillermo Amoedo and produced by Eli Roth, this flick is a strange and somber take on the vampire genre. A stranger (Cristobal Tapia Montt) arrives in a small town and stops at the home of Peter (Nicolás Durán) and his mother (Aleesandra Guerzoni) inquiring about a woman, Ana (Lorenza Izzo) who died around the time Peter was born. An encounter with a group of thugs leads Peter to believe this stranger, Martin, is something more than an average man. Now as Peter becomes fixated wit this man, he begins to learn there is something very unnatural about him and his reason for being there and Peter may be involved closer than he would like. The film certainly has some very effective moments and there is some effectively gruesome violence, too, but the film was a bit too somber to really draw one in. Even with the subplot of a vicious thug (Ariel Levy) and his dirty cop father (Luis Gnecco), who complicate things for Peter and Martin, the film is a little dull at times and never rises about moderately intriguing. The vampire aspects are treated more like a disease than a curse and the reveals are seen coming miles away. Not really a bad movie, but nothing overly memorable or thrilling.
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It’s been a while since Eli Roth has sat in the director’s chair and his latest film, though it’s waited two years for distribution, pays homage to the Italian cannibal films of the 70s and 80s, even acknowledging them by name in the credits (A nice touch!). The story focuses on college freshman Justine (Lorenza Izzo) who falls under the charms of social and environmental activist Alejandro (Ariel Levy). So much so, that she agrees to join him and his fellow activists on a trip to the Peruvian jungle where a ruthless corporation is planning to tear down a portion of the rainforest inhabited by a primitive tribe, who will be slaughtered in the process. While their protest is a success and the destruction halted, their plane crashes in the jungle on the way home and the survivors, including Justine, are taken prisoner by the very tribe they set out to save…a tribe of cannibalistic headhunters who have a very frightening way of showing their gratitude.
Roth…who co-wrote with Guillermo Amoedo…definitely shows some growth as a filmmaker here, despite a six year period between flicks, as this film, for the most part, curbs his impulses towards the sophomoric, frat-boy humor that marred his earlier efforts. There still are some unnecessary sequences featuring diarrhea and masterbation that we could have done without, but, otherwise this is a straightforward horror/thriller and a very gruesome and disturbing one at that. Roth can be overindulgent but, despite the frequent blood spattering here, it is just enough to get under your skin without bludgeoning you over the head. We are treated to eye-gouging, dismemberment and witnessing someone being eaten alive and while it is quite the gore-fest, Roth knows when to give us a break, so we don’t become numb. Fans of his will be happy to know that his more devious sense of humor is still intact, such as a scene where the tribe becomes stoned on a stash of pot hidden in one of the bodies and get the ‘munchies’ in a truly bloodcurdling manner. So, he certainly won’t disappoint his fans despite some maturing as a director. What really works about the film, though, is we get some very likable characters here, especially Justine, so, we care about them and are horrified when they are hurt…and some get hurt in awful ways. Roth also manages some suspenseful and very intense sequences that don’t require devoured limbs and the film looks far bigger than his modest budget might suggest. It’s not perfect. There are those unnecessary sequences involving bodily fluids mentioned earlier and there are two bits that don’t quite work. One bit is a ‘dream sequence’ during the climactic scenes that only exists to add one last shock and it’s cliché, the other a mid-credits, scene, that undermines the ironic strength of his conclusion, somewhat, basically to set up a sequel. Otherwise this is a disturbing and intense horror flick and one that respectfully and quite gruesomely honors the films it pays homage to. The cinematography by Antonio Quercia is quite lush, the score by Manuel Riveiro is quite effective and the abundant gore excellently rendered and mostly, with what appear to be live effects.
Roth also has a good cast and avoids too many unlikable characters which hurt his first Hostel flick. Chilean actress Lorenza Izzo is quite a strong leading lady and is extremely likable and easy to get behind. She is obviously frightened out of her mind but, finds strength when she needs to and we rally to the character when she is able to overcome her fear and act. Not to mention, some of the sequences must have been very uncomfortable for Izzo and she handles them well. Ariel Levy is good as activist leader Alejandro. He appears noble at first, if not a bit smug, but, a plot twist finds him just another self-serving douchebag and then he becomes more of an outright villain than the cannibals. At least their motivation is simply hunger and survival with little malice…though the extras portraying them, seem to really enjoy their work. We also have Daryl Sabara as the stereotypical stoner Lars and Adam Burns as Jonah, a lovable teddy bear who has a crush on Justine…we may like him the most, which usually spells bad news in a horror flick. The rest of the cast are very likable and obviously, we don’t want to see them hurt and feel their fear through their performances as captured Roth’s lens.
So, I did like this flick. It’s not perfect but, I think it’s Roth’s best film so far and he treated us to not only a highly disturbing and gruesome film…even a horror vet like me felt some of the scenes were very uncomfortable to watch…but, gave us some real intensity and suspense as we watched horrible things befall a group who, mostly, doesn’t deserve it. One of the film’s tag lines is “No good deed goes unpunished” and the film is a shining example of the horrible irony when do-gooders are down-in by those they’re trying to help. Certainly not for everyone but, a tense and blood-soaked horror/adventure that gives us some likable characters to fear for and some legitimate suspense, when not spattering the screen with body parts. A worthy tribute to a long gone genre and era of films from a filmmaker who has an obvious appreciation for grind house style movies…which under the professional gloss, this is.