Halloweentown (1998)

Halloweentown. Directed by: Duwayne Dunham. Starring: Debbie Reynolds, Kimberly J. Brown, Judith Hoag. Runtime: 1h 24 min. Released: October 17, 1998.

Truly, Halloweentown is the classic Disney Channel Original Movie. It was the fourth to premiere on the network as a DCOM, but it feels like the one that started it all. I’d watch it every Halloween when I was a kid. Watching it now, I don’t know why I stopped that tradition.

The story’s simple. On her 13th Halloween, Marnie Cromwell (Kimberly J. Brown) learns from her grandmother Aggie Cromwell (Debbie Reynolds) that she’s a witch. Well, Aggie wants to tell her she’s a witch but Marnie’s mom, Gwen (Judith Hoag), wants her to live a normal human life.

Marnie really finds out she’s a witch by eavesdropping. In teen rebellion, Marnie and her brother Dylan (Joey Zimmerman) stow away on a flying bus when Aggie goes home to the titular Halloweentown. Their little sister Sophie (Emily Roeske) also tags along, unbeknownst to them. There, they help their grandmother against a dark force that’s threatening Halloweentown.

First of all, the settings are great. I hadn’t seen this film for… a while. The last time I watched this was at least before 2012. Anyway, the sets in this are great and revisiting Halloweentown is such a cool thing. The way they dress up the real town of St. Helens, Oregon, really makes it become Halloweentown. It’s believable they’re in another world where everyday is Halloween.

The monsters here also look pretty good. I know none of them are real, but it’s about convincing the audience, mostly kids, watching that they could be real. There are a couple costumes that look bizarre, like half-human, half-dog people in an aerobics class. There’s also a brief glimpse at a Cyclops character. It’s literally just a person with a papier-mâché head on with an eye painted on it. It’s great for the laugh, and all the Halloweentown characters look really good besides them. One notable one is a skeleton, Benny the Cab Driver. He’s just animatronic, but he looks good and he’s still funny.

The Mayor, Kalabar (Robin Thomas), is one of the more interesting human characters. He’s also trying to make sense of what dark force is threatening Halloweentown. Citizens become evil, like how monsters were perceived in the “Dark Times,” and then they disappear altogether. When we find out what’s doing this, it’s a shadowy figure who looks like a mix between a goblin and a scarecrow looking-thing.

By the way, the made-up history of why Halloweentown was made and why these monsters were essentially exiled to another world is interesting and well-written by Paul Bernbaum, Jon Cooksey and Ali Marie Matheson. Aggie explains that in the Dark Times, humans and monsters lived together but hated each other, as the humans tried to destroy the monsters and the monsters tried to make the humans’ lives miserable in response. Thus, they made Halloweentown. Aggie also explains that Halloween became a thing because the humans copied their traditions, and as she puts it, “Mortal see, mortal do.” Watching as a kid, that made-up history is so believable and really cool. Now, I’m an adult (well, arguable) and that history’s still cool to me, and the themes of classism is really interesting. The way that history works into the main conflict is also very smooth.

Speaking so much of Aggie, Debbie Reynolds is great as the character. She’s a legendary actress, but I really know her best as Agatha Cromwell. And revisiting this now, it’s nice to see that pretty much all of the acting is surprisingly good for a TV movie, and it’s so nice to see that the actors are actually passionate about this, especially Reynolds. Kimberly J. Brown is always great as Marnie, too. She’s the most excited one of the kids learning that she’s a witch because she’s always been interested in the occult and now it makes sense why. As much as this is just a Halloween story, it’s a coming-of-age story for Marnie.

Dylan and Sophie are good characters, too. It’s Marnie’s show, but Sophie’s there for the cuteness factor and Dylan has a few good moments, too. The story line is well-structured and moves at a quick pace. I usually have problems with these Disney Channel Original Movie endings, but this feels more eventful than most of them. The budgets just don’t allow for a big climactic battle with big effects.

Most of the effects look pretty good, actually, like Aggie floating down from the bus looking like a Halloween Mary Poppins, and the magic in general looks fine. Flying buses, on the other hand, don’t look as good but that’s expected for a TV movie. The make-up for the monsters look good. As for any horror here, there’s more of a focus on the comedy but the main villain looks pretty creepy. Also what’s happening to the characters when they disappear is eerie.

Amazingly, I don’t have a lot wrong with this and I’m trying not to be biased with all my nostalgic love for this film. There are some cheesy moments, and I think a character named Luke (Phillip Van Dyke) is the cheesiest thing about this. Also the main sub-plot of Marnie’s mom, Gwen really wanting her kids to be humans is murky. She’s caught between two worlds because she married a human, so the kids are half-human, half-witch/warlock, so in that way it’s a bit interesting. But the motivation for shoving it down their throats that they have to be human isn’t clear.

I think it just lends to a message of kids being able to make their own choices. Marnie puts it well. “If you want to give up your roots, that’s fine. I don’t and it’s not right for you to try and make me.”

Other than that, I honestly think it’s the best TV movie I’ve seen. The production value is great, the actors don’t phone it in, and everyone looks like they’re giving it their all. I just loved this as a kid and I think it’s really cool to know that I love this nearly as much watching as a 24-year-old. It’s time for me to start watching this every Halloween again.

Score: 80/100

Mom’s Got a Date with a Vampire (2000)

Mom’s Got a Date with a Vampire. Released: October 13, 2000. Directed by: Steve Boyum. Starring: Matt O’Leary, Laura Vandervoot, Caroline Rhea. Runtime: 1h 25 min.

I’ve watched two Disney Channel Original Movies lately (the other being Under Wraps) and they both open with a movie-within-a-movie. For this one, Mom’s Got a Date with a Vampire, it sets the tone for the film but it’s not a movie-within-a-movie you’d actually want to watch.

The real plot concerns the Hansen family. Children Adam (Matt O’Leary) and Chelsea (Laura Vandervoot) want to go out on Saturday night but they’re grounded. To escape their punishment, they set their mom Lynette (Caroline Rhea) up with a random guy named Wolfspane, which is really the first red flag.

They go to a supermarket to get their mom to meet “Wolfspane” and find a Pierce Brosnan look-a-like named Dimitri (Charles Shaughnessy), who is actually Wolfspane but doesn’t want to tell the kids that.

He invites her out on Saturday night, so Adam will be able to go to see the Headless Horsemen perform at the Harvest Festival and Chelsea will be able to go to her date. Problems arise when the youngest sibling, Taylor (Myles Jeffrey), notices that Dimitri is a vampire.

The first funny thing about this film is how dated it is when it’s watched in 2019. The kids don’t look online to find a date for their mom or even look on Tinder for vampires and their victims. They look in the classifieds of their local newspaper.

I know match.com was a thing in 2000, so it’s just a little funny to me. They look in the classifieds, find a guy named Wolfspane and don’t think it’s shady at all. “They’re all pre-checked by the newspaper,” Adam tells Chelsea. I think them all being screened by the newspaper is B.S. when a guy named Wolfspane slips through. He just sounds like a vampire. He likes long walks under the moonlight, hates Italian food (the garlic) and hates turtleneck sweaters (worse access to your neck).

The characters aren’t bad. Adam’s a vampire movie junkie, and the films he watches give him knowledge he uses throughout, like about how to get someone out of a vampire’s trance. Half of his tips make the film rather predictable. The brother-sister dynamic with him and Chelsea is fine, but some dramatic moments are cheesy. Caroline Rhea is good as Lynette, who’s scared to put herself out there after a divorce. Her eventually finding herself again and what she used to like to do is nice characterization for a TV movie.

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Charles Shaughnessy and Matt O’Leary in Mom’s Got a Date with a Vampire. (IMDb)

The worst character is the vampire, Dimitri. He’s simply boring and uninteresting. He’s a smooth talker and seemingly charming, but he’s dull. Without the vampire trance and British accent, most people will see right through it. He’s not scary, either.

There are some cheesy effects and editing when the film attempts something close to horror. It could spook kids, but no one else. There’s an effect where he walks up the side of a building, which doesn’t look bad. His transformation into a vampire bat is actually pretty good. However, they use like all the budget on the transformation so when he actually flaps away it looks really bad.

The concept of the kids having to save their mom from a vampire – a mess they got her in the first place – is fine. They don’t have to save her alone, either. They’re helped by a vampire hunter named Malachi Van Helsing (David Carradine). He has a history with Dimitri, so it’s funny that neither notice each other at the supermarket, even after Malachi walks every aisle.

The film wants to save the standoff for the end. I’ve found with these Disney Channel Original Movies the endings aren’t very exciting. This one stands out as one of the less exciting finales, as they just use a lot of slow-motion to make it look like something more is going on. I think this is one of the lesser DCOM’s anyway, but it’s still not bad. Admittedly, the fact that much of the story structure follows Adam’s fake vampire movies is kind-of clever, and those endings didn’t seem very good, either.

Score: 50/100

Sinkhole de mayo! Slaughterhouse Rulez (2019), The Hole in the Ground (2019)

Note: I wanted to post a couple shorter reviews today (well, the review of “The Hole in the Ground” is the usual length but “Slaughterhouse Rulez” is much shorter) because both of these horror films have sinkholes in them. So, there’s that!

Slaughterhouse Rulez. Released: May 17, 2019. Directed by: Crispian Mills. Starring: Finn Cole, Asa Butterfield, Simon Pegg. Runtime: 1h 44 min.

Note about this post. My reviews usually always have me talking a bit about the plot, so there are some (minor) spoilers, so you’ve been warned. 

This is one helluva forgettable horror comedy mashup. Honestly, I watched this in April so that’s a reason, but I’m convinced I forgot everything about this within a week.

Basically, there’s a guy named Don Wallace (Finn Cole) who’s accepted to a prestigious British boarding school called Slaughterhouse School. That’s the first red flag. A headmaster named The Bat (Michael Sheen) instructs that the forest near the school is a restricted area. If you needed a reason to make this feel like “Harry Potter,warning students not to go into a restricted forest is one of them.

It’s restricted because of the fracking going back on there. A fracking company has created a giant sinkhole. When they dig too deep, they release some horrors onto the academy. The big problem of “Slaughterhouse Rulez” is that it doesn’t get into any horror until an hour in besides foreshadowing like school rumours. The horror is mediocre at best when it arrives, but this holds little entertainment value.

It wastes a lot of time on a weird academy hierarchy that Willoughby Blake (Asa Butterfield) aptly explains to Wallace. The popular Clemsie Lawrence (Hermione Corfield) is the apple of Don’s eye, but a popular guy named Clegg (Tom Rhys Harries), who I think is dating Clemsie, won’t allow that. Again, if there’s anything you need to compare this to Harry Potter, it’s this Clegg jackass who is basically a more irritating version of Draco Malfoy.

The film also wastes a lot of time on professor Meredith Houseman (Simon Pegg). There’s nothing wrong, usually, with dedicating a lot of time to Simon Pegg, but when his character is mostly just trying to keep his relationship afloat with Audrey (Margot Robbie with little screen time), it just gets pointless. The film just wastes Pegg. Nick Frost has a couple of laughs in a bit role, but he’s still wasted. And wasting those talents is what is most unforgivable here.

Score: 40/100

The Hole in the Ground. Released: March 1, 2019. Directed by: Lee Cronin. Starring: Seána Kerslake, James Quinn Markey, Kati Outinen. Runtime: 1h 30 min.

“The Hole in the Ground” follows Sarah O’Neill (Seána Kerslake) who is just moving to the Irish countryside with her son, Chris (James Quinn Markey). Deep in the woods behind their home, they find a gigantic sinkhole with no real reason of being there.

Soon after finding it, Chris starts displaying bizarre behaviour and she thinks it has something to do with the sinkhole. Some of Chris’ bizarre behaviour, as seen in the trailer, is him crawling around on all fours and eating a spider. Bizarre, sure, but even more-so when you consider he’s terrified of spiders at the beginning of the film. You never know, he could just be getting over his fear in a unique way. Or something’s wrong with him.

It’s a Creepy Kid horror film, so it’s surely the latter. Even at 90 minutes, the film is very slow burn. I think that’s a given nowadays for the studio A24. Though, this was an A24 acquisition after production, but it just happens to suit its usual pacing for horror films well. It puts emphasis on a creepy atmosphere. This is one of the creepiest atmospheres for a Creepy Kid movie I’ve seen since “Home Alone.” I’m joking, Macaulay, though you’re hella creepy in “The Good Son.” Writer-director Lee Cronin, and co-writer Stephen Shields, do an admirable job with the atmosphere.

The Creepy Kid tropes are all here, but there aren’t a lot of friends for Sarah to confide in that this might not be Christopher. However, there’s an old kook in the woods the townsfolk have nicknamed Walkie Talkie, birthname Noreen Brady (Kati Outinen) who claims her late son James just changed and was convinced he was an imposter. Her husband Des (James Cosmo, “Game of Thrones”) has some great lines when he tells Sarah that it was something only a mother would notice. Her describes her noticing things as “pebbles until it becomes a landslide.”

The film’s unique for a Creepy Kid horror film and the atmosphere is strong, but it’s rather boring throughout because not a lot happens. A highlight during the first hour is an unsettling talent show. You have to get through about an hour of often boring creepiness for 20 minutes of action. The finale is unique and is the first time the film promises to be really scary because of a fear of the unknown. Some of the lore here is also rather interesting.

The last 20-plus minutes, atmosphere and the acting are really the only strong aspects here, and that’s not enough for me to ever re-visit this. One good thing can be said about the atmosphere, because if it were not so strong, I probably would have fell asleep halfway through. As for the acting, Seána Kerslake is good as Sarah who’s just really curious to know what the heck’s happened to her son. Her anxiety is strong and she holds a strong head through it all.

James Quinn Markey does a great job of being convincing enough that he could be Christopher. And I almost felt bad for him when Sarah literally runs away from him, even though he’s getting up to creepy shit the entire time. One plus for the acting is that I didn’t find him irritating, which is a big plus in my book for these films. Kudos, kid, you’re not annoying.

Score: 60/100

Crawl (2019)

Released: July 12, 2019. Directed by: Alexandre Aja. Starring: Kaya Scodelario, Barry Pepper, Ross Anderson. Runtime: 1h 27 min.

In Florida, a Category 5 hurricane has just hit. Haley (Kaya Scodelario) goes to check on the well-being of her estranged father, Dave (Barry Pepper). She finds him unconscious in the crawlspace of their childhood home but cannot get him out because she realizes they’re trapped in there with alligators, and the crawlspace is going to flood… Cue the thrills.

Tornadoes and sharks (“Sharknado”). Hurricanes and heists (“The Hurricane Heist”). Even clowns and tornadoes (“Clownado,” yes, it’s a real movie). It’s all the rage these days to mesh these things together in campy B-movies. “Crawl” is already one step ahead of the rest by not naming itself “Gatorcane.”

“Crawl” is a smarter title because I love dual meanings. I’d assumed it was called Crawl because gators crawl around. But when watching this, I realized it’s also called that because a lot of it takes place in a crawlspace. I smiled because dumb stuff like that makes me happy.

This film is unique is in the way that it doesn’t want to be a B-movie like “Sharknado.”. The film takes its stakes seriously, but it finds a way to be very fun. The premise also feels fresh. I wasn’t expecting a one-location thrill ride for most of the film. The threat of flooding adds stakes and claustrophobia, too.

Writing duo and brothers Michael and Shawn Rasmussen utilize the sets well for the characters. They know when to have some great, tense set pieces inside the house, and when to take scenes onto the streets, where we catch up with some looters. Alexandre Aja brings great direction to these scenes and the film in general.

The combination of a hurricane and alligators is plausible here. There’s a believable reason as to why the gators are in the crawlspace. The house has been left alone for awhile as it’s been in escrow and the gators found their way in from the swamp. When Dave comes back to the house, the gators are already there. This just happens to be during a hurricane.

Haley passes an alligator farm on the way to the house so if you would have told me the hurricane destroyed a gate and they escaped, I would have believed that, too. I’m pretty sure these gators join the party later, anyway. The gators themselves look very fine, by the way. They definitely look believable enough on the $13 million budget.

The film does a great job of balancing thrills of a disaster movie for fans of those films and it will also satisfy the fans looking for a fun summer season creature feature. I know you’re here for the gators or the hurricane, but we should talk about the humans. Scodelario and Pepper play their roles well and the estranged father/daughter dynamic is strong. Their chemistry also strengthens as the film moves along. There’s also a coach dynamic which offers standoffish tension in the relationship.

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Kaya Scodelario in “Crawl.” (IMDb)

Haley is a competitive swimmer and Dave’s coached her throughout her career. Her being a swimmer also gives her a very particular set of skills for this situation (skills that make her a nightmare for gators like them), and that’s the most convenient thing about the film. The idea of her out-swimming the gators isn’t super plausible, but it’s interesting. I mean if Michael Phelps, the fastest man in a pool, can almost beat a great white shark, surely this unknown competitive swimmer has a fighting chance at outrunning Florida’s meanest gator community, right? Right? Tune in Sunday at 8 p.m. on Gator Week to find out!

There are some strong character beats and dialogue about her being an apex predator and needing to have a better mentality to win is fascinating. This aspect brings out some solid one-liners and the coach pep talks made me feel amped up. I really wanted to punch some gators. In one scene they talk about their relationship. It’s a surprisingly lovely character moment. Before it gets too sappy, Dave says, “We’re gonna beat these lizard-brained shits.”

I think that’s the right mentality for the film: Have enough character development that we care about these people and give us some nice moments, but then straighten out the priorities and get right back into kick-ass gator action. It’s in the character building that the film threatens to be boring when it gets too dialogue heavy. There aren’t many scenes like that, and the horror set pieces are diverse enough and the obstacles introduced entertaining enough to make up for it.

It’s also important that we don’t care too much about the stars because we want to see them get munched on. It wouldn’t be fun if they got out of this without looking like they just survived Hell in a Cell (Brawl-space in a Crawlspace?) with a bunch of gators. Don’t fret, though, because any audience appetites for bloody action will be satisfied with the poor expendable characters. More importantly, the gator’s appetites are satisfied, too. And that’s really what makes the world go ‘round.

Score: 75/100

eXistenZ (1999)

Directed by: David Cronenberg. Starring: Jude Law, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Ian Holm. Runtime: 1h 37 min. Released: April 23, 1999.

I’ll start off by saying I did not fully understand “eXistenZ.Basically, Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is premiering this virtual reality video game called eXistenZ (roll credits) that’s a huge deal but then the goth-looking guy (Kris Lemche) from “Final Destination 3” attempts to assassinate her and she goes on the run with Ted Pikul (Jude Law). He’s a marketing trainee but also her protection. Then, they must play her own game to make sure it’s not damaged.

I think my main problem with this film is the fact that the world’s rules aren’t well established. There aren’t rules to the game and it’s all so ambiguous. We’re not even given the premise of this new game, either, as it seems just the fact that Geller is releasing a new game is reason enough to buy it. She’s like a god in this world.

The world itself that David Cronenberg creates is just strange. The way they play Allegra’s virtual reality game is through these game pods that are made out of recycled animal and amphibian organs. They look like little stomach’s and they’re rather unsettling.

What’s stranger is where these little creepy pods have to be plugged in for the user to play the game. They’re plugged into a hole in your spinal cord called a bio-port (the film shows this can be an oddly erotic thing). No one’s born with this bio-port, it’s done surgically so these characters can play video games. And we’re supposed to believe people do this willingly. If that’s what it took to play video games in the real world, man. I’ll say goodbye to all video games and just stick with movies. That’s a hard pass.

That’s the kind-of the stance Ted Pikul takes as well, because he has a phobia of being penetrated surgically. Honestly, he’s the only normal one in this world because of that. Law and Jason Leigh carry the film well as their characters. Other supporting players like Ian Holm, Christopher Eccleston, Willem Dafoe and Don McKellar are good.

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Jude Law in “eXistenZ.” (IMDb)

The story itself and plot structure feels very fluid and moves at a fast pace. There’s a lot of action and it’s a really bizarre sci-fi thriller than anything horror in the traditional sense. The outline of important events feel compact in this admittedly thin plot, and there’s not a lot of dead space in the film. Some of it isn’t always interesting and some stuff doesn’t make a lot of sense, either.

I think that’s my problem. When I don’t understand something fully it hinders my enjoyment and I didn’t understand a lot of stuff here. It’s not that it’s a bad movie. It’s very well-made and well-directed by David Cronenberg, this just isn’t a world I’d want to immerse myself in again.

It’s a fine ride for one watch as it consistently keeps you guessing if they’re really in the real world or in the game world. And I was usually intrigued even if I didn’t love what was going on. The end of the film is the most memorable part in this. and there was a lot of stuff that I found interesting – especially the gun made out of flesh and bone that shoots human teeth. Just that sentence alone should tell you how creative “eXistenZ” truly is. I also never thought I’d see video game consoles that look like living, breathing organisms. Honestly, I wish I didn’t see them, because the noises they make and the way they look are hella creepy.

Score: 60/100

The Dead Don’t Die (2019)

The Dead Don’t Die. Directed by: Jim Jarmusch. Starring: Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Chloë Sevigny. Runtime: 1h 44 min. Released: June 14, 2019.

My reviews usually contain spoilers so you’ve been warned about that. However, here, I don’t really talk about a lot of the major plot points because nothing really happens. 

This is the first Jim Jarmusch film that I’ve seen and man, I should not have started with this one.

In Centreville, seemingly the only crime reports are Hermit Bob (Tom Waits) causing trouble. But more trouble comes for the town, especially for Officer Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) and Chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) when the dead start raising from their graves.

Usually there’s no reason given for why the dead come back to life, and that probably would have worked better for this. Jarmusch uses it as a commentary on the environment, as there’s polar fracking that’s affecting the daylight and everyone comments on it and keeps commenting on it.

It’s a strange set-up, but what’s stranger is that the reason for the dead coming back to life is the polar fracking and because it’s throwing the Earth off its axis. This becomes such a big thing that we get about five or six hints about this before someone literally says the zombies are here because of the polar fracking.

That doesn’t make much sense to me, and just explaining it as they’re zombies, it’s what they do, come back to life is a more believable explanation. One unique thing it brings to zombies is that, since they’re coming back to life because the Earth axis being affected, when they’re killed, blood doesn’t come out. Dirt flows out.

That’s a bit of the on-the-nose commentary you can expect here, but in dialogue it’s usually brought up by Hermit Bob (“the ant colonies are all jacked up like it’s the end of the world.”) By the end of the film, Jarmusch also shoehorns commentary on capitalism as well, the usual staple of George A. Romero’s zombie films.

In this, it’s not subtle. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything as pretentious as Hermit Bob watching the carnage of the zombie horde from the woods and monologuing about the zombies just being hungry for more stuff and basically recapping the film (“remnants of the materialist people, zombies all along.”)

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Adam Driver in “The Dead Don’t Die.” (IMDb)

I don’t know enough about Jarmusch to know if this is always his level of subtlety, but it’s bizarre. His dry sense of humour is unique but I’m not a fan of it. I like dry humour just fine, but it should be funny. For the most part, the film isn’t funny for me. There are a couple of visual things I liked, like when Ronnie pulls up in a smart car. But there aren’t many laughs at all. The humour is more-so just annoying because it repeats so many jokes.

There’s a recurring thing when the film’s original song “The Dead Don’t Die” by Sturgill Simpson plays. It’s a great song and I thought the film was named after it, because it sounds like an old song, but it’s an original song. Everyone always comments “oh, I love this song.” It’s funny the first time it’s used but when the bit is used about six times, it gets old. Same with when Ronnie says “This isn’t going to end well.” He literally says it seven times by the end of it. It’s played for a pay-off joke near the end which might be amusing to people who like the film.

But it didn’t pay off for me because by that point, I was so bored by the film I didn’t care about anything happening on-screen. It’s just one of the most boring films I’ve ever seen. Nothing really happens. The comedy never worked for me and it’s the least scary zombie film I’ve seen. It’s an honest shame, too, because the cast is filled with a lot of funny people.

Adam Driver and Bill Murray play off each other well enough for what the dialogue allows them to do. Tilda Swinton’s a highlight as a samurai-wielding coroner who is just weird and gets weirder as the film progresses. Chloë Sevigny is totally fine for the first half but the character is just dull. Near the end, she’s whining so much and complaining at everything that happens that I honestly couldn’t wait for her to get eaten by the zombies. Am I a bad person? Probably, but if you’ve seen this, you’ll know what I mean.

Donald Glover and Caleb Landry Jones are fine as their characters who hole up in a hardware store when the zombies descend. The criminally underused include Steve Buscemi and especially Selena Gomez. Her arc isn’t even concluded well. There’s also an arc with three kids at a detention centre that you won’t give two shits about. That’s what “The Dead Don’t Die” is for me, a boring film that I didn’t give two shits about.

Score: 38/100

Gerald’s Game (2017)

 

Gerald’s Game. Directed by: Mike Flanagan. Starring: Carla Gugino, Bruce Greenwood, Henry Thomas. Runtime: 1h, 43 min. Released: September 29, 2017.

Spoiler warning! If you want to know as little as possible about the movie, come read this after you watch it. You’ve been politely warned.

“Gerald’s Game” is one of the few Stephen King novels that I don’t love. Some chapters are just super slow so I’m not big on the pacing, but it has good moments.

Me not loving the novel is one reason it’s taken me two years to watch this adaptation. But the bigger reason is I just forgot to add this to my Netflix queue. While the novel is sometimes boring, there’s almost always something interesting going on in the film. Director Mike Flanagan manages to make an unfilmable novel into something great.

Jessie Burlingame (Carla Gugino) and her husband Gerald Burlingame (Bruce Greenwood) go to their summer lake house before the summer season for some kinky sex games in order to spice up their marriage. Gerald handcuffs both Jessie’s hands to the bed frame, pops a couple Viagra and attempts to fulfill an off-putting fantasy… And then he has a heart attack.

Her husband dying on top of her is bad enough, but she’s cuffed to the bed with no way out. These aren’t novelty, porn shop cuffs, either. “These are the real deal. The others can just break if you get going too hard,” informs Gerald.

The setup itself is a horrifying situation. No neighbours for miles and no immediate way out… It’s a claustrophobic feeling, though the bedroom is huge. There are external terrors, too. One’s a starving dog that finds his way into the bedroom. A main one is the Moonlight Man, who I won’t spoil much about other than the name and say his introduction from the shadows is masterful. Director Mike Flanagan does a great job with the imagery like this, like the Moonlight Man and the solid red scenes during the solar eclipse.

Writer Mike Flanagan and co-writer Jeff Howard use foreshadowing so well in the screenplay and Flanagan’s direction is nothing short of brilliant. It’s brilliant in the tension he creates, as well as smaller moments of setting things up. An example, and only a miniscule spoiler, is when Gerald guides Jessie back into the house before sexcapades after Jessie puts a steak out for the dog (a $200 Kobe rib-eye, from Kobe, Gerald tells us). The dog watches from the comfortable distance of the edge of the woods as they go inside, and Jessie looks back at the open front door for a moment before going into the other hallway. Moments like these are smart. Even smarter is that Flanagan directs it with such ease and any little thing that happens appears to serve a purpose in the film now or it’s set up for later.

I often find one-location survival stories, usually like this, boring because the characters just talk to themselves and work through it – with some flashbacks sprinkled through. The structure works, but it’s not always enthralling, or entertaining, for that matter. That’s why I’m not huge on the novel – it’s just Jessie occasionally talking to herself, cuffed to the bed frame, thinking through the spot she’s in. It’s very internal and not always interesting. It also doesn’t come across as cinematic in the novel.

In the film, however, Flanagan and Howard make it feel completely unique and it gives a new meaning to talking to yourself. Gerald stays in the film because Jessie creates an Imagined Gerald that talks to her throughout. It’s a clever way to keep the great Bruce Greenwood involved, too. It does wonders for the pacing and adds depth to the characters. We don’t know a lot about the couple before they step into the bedroom because that all happens a little before the heart attack and through the exchanges with Imagined Gerald.

It appears to be the dynamic of their marriage in these exchanges. His belittling is like the self-doubt in her mind. It’s a fascinating dynamic because of that and lends itself to the themes of secrets and your past in the film, and just not knowing who you’re marrying. And boy, oh boy, does the story have secrets. These are revealed in Jessie’s past during a solar eclipse, featuring a good performance by Chiara Aurelia as a young Jessie and a memorable turn by Henry Thomas (also featured in Flanagan’s Netflix show “The Haunting of Hill House.”) The flashback aspect of the film is really the only story device that’s part of the survival film formula.

When Jessie’s trying to survive, in the present, there’s also another dynamic with a second version of Jessie, a stronger display of herself that helps her stay on track. I don’t mean to chuck out accolades to Carla Gugino last, because she does such a great job of carrying the weight of the film. She does a great job in horror scenes and is just as good in the dramatic ones, and she just sells the character of Jessie Burlingame. Everything she does on-screen you feel, especially when she’s anxious at the start of the sex game because of the handcuffs and his actions.

The horror itself is often creepy. It doesn’t rely on jump scares, which is refreshing, but often comes naturally from tense build-ups. It’s masterful and the expectation and things the film makes you imagine is very, very good. There’s also one scene that makes me insanely uncomfortable, and the film does its job because horror is good when it’s uncomfortable. Even besides the scares, some scenes are disturbing because of the subject matter.

Back to the character dynamic with herself for a second. The dynamic of Jessie, Second Jessie and Imagined Gerald is electric to watch on-screen. It honestly sounds like the set-up for a dumb joke, but a tableau of Jessie sleeping on the bed, Second Jessie and Imagined Gerald on either side of the bed, and the literally dead Gerald at the foot of the bed is one of my favourite shots in recent memory. It’s simple and makes the craziness of the situation settle in. It’s pictured below (from a screenshot I took on Netflix) and how cool is that?

Score: 80/100

 

 

Gerald's Game tableau