Friday, December 21, 2018

Worth Mentioning - Pain Is Part of the Puzzle

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.


Slashers, ghosts, demons, and trap-makers all get sequels.


SCREAM 4 (2011)

Scream 4 is a sequel that came along too late for me, which isn't to say I'm not glad that it exists. I always like to see popular slasher franchises return after being dormant for a while. And it's not to say I don't think it's a good movie; in fact, I think it's a really good sequel that is a substantial step up from Scream 3. It's just that... Scream was a franchise of my teenage years, and by the time Scream 4 arrived, I was no longer at a place in my life where it could have any lasting effect on me. I watched the hell out of the first three movies, even though I wasn't a fan of the third one. Scream 4 I have watched twice in the last seven years. Once in the theatre opening weekend, and once this year. If this same movie had come out when I was a teenager, I would have watched it a lot more times, because I would have totally loved it.

Except for maybe the ultra-meta opening sequence. Trying to live up to the unforgettable openings of the first two Screams while also reminding us that the events of the previous films have led to the creation of a slasher franchise called Stab, which now has even more entries than the Scream one, the movie starts out with two false starts that happen to be scenes from Stab 6 and Stab 7. Then it gets things started properly with the first real murders.


Scream 4 takes us back to the setting of the first film, Woodsboro, where Deputy Dewey Riley (David Arquette) has worked his way up to becoming Sheriff and is now married to reporter/true crime author Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox), who is struggling with small town life and dealing with writer's block as she tries to write fiction. Series heroine Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) is an author now herself, having written a book about how she found the strength to take control of her life after battling three films worth of masked murderers, and her book tour has brought her back to Woodsboro.

Unfortunately, Sidney's return coincides with a new killing spree that's carried out by a whole new Ghostface masked killer, and this time the killer is targeting the friends of Sidney's teenage cousin Jill (Emma Roberts). There is a clever angle wherein the characters talk about how the new killer seems to be following the pattern of the original murders, making their own real life remake/reboot of sorts.


The film has some groan-inducing dialogue and this series treats Sidney, Dewey, and Gale so delicately (even when they're being terribly injured) that it starts to come off as lame - the killer has ample opportunity to kill any one of them they choose, but can never quite pull it off - but it's a solid slasher movie that redeems the series. It reaches a whole new level when the killer's identity is revealed, as this person is a true maniac with a sadly realistic motivation, and the actor delivers a crazy performance that is a lot of fun to watch.


This sequel was directed by Wes Craven, as all of the previous Screams had been, and it turned out to be his final film. It reunited him with Scream and Scream 2 writer Kevin Williamson, who was planning for this to be the start of a new trilogy when they began working on the project. The producers derailed that idea when they decided to change the ending, killing off an important character who was meant to survive, and made the baffling decision to bring Scream 3 writer Ehren Kruger in to do on-set rewrites. Of all writers in the world... I'm going to assume he was to blame for any moment or line that felt off to me.



URBAN LEGENDS: BLOODY MARY (2005)

Actress Rooney Mara has said that starring in the 2010 remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street was a disheartening experience for her, because she didn't get into acting to work on dopey horror movies. But at least she was working on a high profile entry in a popular franchise. Imagine how her sister Kate must have felt when she was starring in Urban Legends: Bloody Mary, the third film in the Urban Legend franchise, a sequel that went direct-to-video and has all the production value of a low-rent TV movie.

Well, regardless of the quality of the finished film, I would hope Kate Mara primarily felt grateful to have a job, but it would be understandable if she was also looking down on the material at the same time. When shown footage from the film on a talk show a decade later, she said the situation was her "worst nightmare" and that she felt like she was in Hell.


Bloody Mary did sound somewhat promising when it was headed toward release, because it was directed by Pet Sematary's Mary Lambert and written by X2's Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris - yes, the same Michael Dougherty who would go on to direct Trick 'r Treat. The movie doesn't reflect well on any of them, though.

Ditching the slasher approach of Urban Legend and Urban Legends: Final Cut in favor of supernatural shenanigans,  Bloody Mary is like the Hello, Mary Lou: Prom Night II of the Urban Legend franchise. It's just not nearly as cool as Hello, Mary Lou, because that movie was made in the '80s and this was the mid-'00s.

The story begins at Worthington High in 1969 Salt Lake City, Utah. High school student Mary Banner (Lillith Fields) was one of three unpopular girls who were invited to a school dance by a trio of football players, but it turned out this invitation was just a prank - with the help of a popular girl, the jocks ended the night by drugging their dates and abandoning them out in the countryside. Realizing what was going on, Mary tried to escape her date... but ended up being bashed in the head and stuffed into a trunk in a storage area in the school. There she remains for the next thirty-five years.


In present day, Mara plays Worthington student Samantha Owens, who has just written a negative piece on her school's football team for the school paper. On the same night Sam tells her friends about the "Bloody Mary" urban legend and says "Bloody Mary" out loud three times, the football team gets revenge by drugging her and two friends and abandoning them in the countryside. Experiencing déjà vu in the spirit world, Mary Banner decides to go on a bloody rampage, knocking off the football players and their popular girl cohort in ways inspired by urban legends.

On the plus side, Bloody Mary does to a slightly better job of bringing urban legends to deadly life than Final Cut did, with the supernatural twist allowing the creative team to pull off the legend about spiders crawling beneath a person's skin in a standout scene. On the negative side, this is a thoroughly mediocre film, an example of a poorly written script being awkwardly executed. The spirit of Mary is a laughable sight, matching the laughable dialogue and laughable performances.


It's somewhat surprising, but there are minor nods to the previous films in here, as there are references to urban legend-inspired murders having occurred at the Pendleton and Alpine colleges. That's the only connection there really is to what came before, unless you count that this movie also continues the tradition of mentioning Pam Grier.


If you're looking for good horror you won't find it here, but if you don't mind your horror being a bit lame or if you have nostalgia for the mid-'00s, you might get some enjoyment out of Bloody Mary. It's bad, but not painfully so.

And Rooney Mara is in here as well, earning her first screen credit as Classroom Girl #1. An appearance she has said she was embarrassed to make.



CHRISTMAS BLOOD (2017)

A mishandled franchise if there ever was one, Silent Night, Deadly Night gave viewers hope for a series built around a slasher dressed like Santa Claus and then failed to live up to its potential. Thankfully, plenty of filmmakers have proven quite willing to pick up the slack and make their own killer Santa movies over the years, the latest being writer/director Reinert Kiil with his slasher Christmas Blood (a.k.a. Juleblod in its native Norway).

The setting is Christmas, but the set-up Kiil crafted is very Halloween. After a 13 year spree that left 121 people dead in towns around Norway, a killer who liked to kill people on Christmas while dressed as Santa was apprehended (and nearly killed) by a detective named Thomas Rasch (Stig Henrik Hoff). For 5 years this killer sat in a mental institution, staring at a wall, waiting for the day when he could kill again. After all, there were still more than 200 names left on his "naughty list". Just in time for Christmas 2016, this killer - whose psychiatrist considers him to be "the manifestation of pure evil" - escapes, puts on a Santa costume, grabs an axe, and goes back to work.

As it turns out, the killer's next intended victim has committed suicide, but her college-age daughter Julia (Marte Saeteren) is still in the house, along with her school friends, who are visiting with the intention of bringing her some comfort and joy over the Christmas break. This bunch wasn't on his naughty list, but he can find plenty of reasons to kill them anyway.


Unfortunately, this slasher takes his sweet time getting to the killing. More than an hour of the film has passed by before anyone at this Christmas party gets knocked off, and the brief flashback that gives us a couple more kills between the opening sequence and the start of the party attack does little to save this stretch of the film from feeling tedious. Christmas Blood moves along at quite a slow pace, dragging itself through scenes, wasting minutes on extraneous moments, and forcing us to spend too much time with Julia and her awful friends.

I don't have high standards when it comes to slasher fodder characters, but Julia's friends are, for the most part, terrible people to spend time with. Kiil gives us little reason to like or care about any of them, aside from Julia and a girl who discovers her boyfriend has been cheating on her. The group gets even worse when the girls invite a couple creeps from Tinder to join them, but at least they liven things up for a while. Maybe the characters are unlikeable on purpose, so we'll understand why the Santa killer decides to target them, but that doesn't make it any easier to stomach their scenes.

While Julia's pals spend their last hours partying, a detective named Hansen (Sondre Krogtoft Larsen) is slowly... everything in this movie happens slowly... working on tracking the killer down and bringing him to justice. Again. To do this, he seeks the help of Rasch, who is now irreverent alcoholic. Rasch is a fun presence at times, but still not a character I could really connect with at any point.


Christmas Blood has a very moody atmosphere and feels deadly serious, but there is some evidence that Kiil intended the film to be somewhat humorous. It's tough to tell, because everything is presented with a straight face. For example, there's one of those scenes where the detective discovers that the killer's pattern of murder forms an image on a map if you draw lines between them. I can't imagine that the scene where Rasch realizes this killer's pattern forms a Christmas tree on a map of Norway wasn't put in here as a joke, but it's not played like the viewer was meant to laugh. Is Hansen's weak stomach meant to be funny? I'd guess so, especially when he pukes on one of the slasher's dying victims. But then again, maybe that was just supposed to be disgusting. The same could be said for the huge splashes of blood that come out of the victims, and the scene where Kiil takes the "coroner eats food while dealing with a corpse" cliché to ridiculous extremes. I don't know if the comedic elements felt awkward to me because of a language barrier or if the tone Kiil captured was just too heavy for the comedy he tried to drop into it.

Slow, off-putting, and odd, Christmas Blood was not a great viewing experience for me. The pace stretches the film out to an overly long 105 minutes, and there's a chance I would have liked this movie a lot more if the filler was trimmed out and Kiil had a better handle on the comedic moments. If this were 15 to 20 minutes shorter it could have been a bit more entertaining to watch - but then again, the characters would still have to be written differently for me to really enjoy the movie, so it would likely be getting a middle-of-the-road score anyway. There are some things to like in here, a couple nice kills, but overall I was disappointed.

The Christmas Blood review originally appeared on ArrowintheHead.com



SAW III (2006)

I thought director James Wan's 2004 film Saw had been a great serial killer thriller, and even though I wasn't sure a sequel should be made at first, director Darren Lynn Bousman's Saw II, which came out just one year after its predecessor, quickly won me over. I found that film to be highly entertaining. One year later, I was there to see Saw III on opening weekend... And unfortunately, this is where the Saw franchise lost me. The movie hadn't been on for very long at all before I was asking myself, "Why am I watching this?"

Directed again by Bousman, working from a story he crafted with returning writer Leigh Whannell, Saw III is much more mean-spirited than the previous two, and I could tell very early on that this was going to be a dark, hateful film. As I watched actor J. LaRose ripping chain links out of his flesh within the first 10 minutes, one of those links attached to him through his mouth / lower jaw, I realized I was done enjoying the sight of gruesome traps created by the Jigsaw killer. The traps in this one just get worse from there, and online trivia tells me that Whannell was sickened by watching the filming of some of these.


The rest of the traps include a woman having to reach for a key in a jar of acid in hopes of unlocking a device that will tear out her ribcage, a man being stuck in a device that twists his limbs one by one, a person being drowned in the guts of ground-up rotten pigs, a naked woman being frozen to death, and a couple traps involving shotgun shells. There's no fun to be had with any of these... Even the color grading of the film and the green lighting in scenes is enough to make me feel sick.

The story follows Jeff (Angus Macfadyen), who is hurting after his son was killed in a drunk driving accident but still isn't likeable. Jigsaw has captured him to send him through a series of rooms in which he'll have to decide whether or not to save the people he's angry with in the aftermath of the accident: the witness who refused to testify, the judge who gave the drunk driver a lenient sentence, and the drunk driver himself.

At the same time, Jigsaw's apprentice Amanda Young (Shawnee Smith) has abducted surgeon Lynn Denlon (Bahar Soomekh) and fitted the woman with an explosive collar, forcing her help Jigsaw himself (Tobin Bell). Jigsaw is dying of cancer and needs to stay alive long enough for Jeff to complete his test. If Jigsaw flatlines, Lynn's head will be blown off... and to save him, she's going to have to perform brain surgery. If you like the gross, Saw III is full of it.


Five Saw movies have been made since this one, but I got so little enjoyment out of seeing this in the theatre that I never went back to see another Saw on the big screen. Saw III is still watchable to some degree, and I do like the concept of Lynn having perform a brain surgery in less-than-ideal circumstances with her own fate hanging in the balance, but it is a very ugly movie.

Maybe the most irritating thing about it all is the fact that Jigsaw still feels well enough to deliver his usual pompous speeches even after getting his head cut open, and even has the audacity to say "I don't condone murder and I despise murderers." I can't take him and his delusions of grandeur. I hate to break it to you, Jigsaw, but you are a serial killer. Just because people have a remote chance of escaping the traps you put them in doesn't mean you're not a murderer when they're killed by the trap you created. This guy is the most annoying horror icon ever.

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