As we continue to play catch-up here at The VHS Graveyard, I now present some capsule reviews for the first week of November. Observant readers will note the presence of non-horror-related offerings this time around, including the newest Coen Brothers and Christopher Guest offerings: while we’re still focusing on the horror end of things, vis a vis our goal to screen every 2016 horror film, it’s also time to focus on all the non-horror related things that we’ve been zooming by on the ol’ entertainment highway. To that end, I now present the films screened from Tuesday through Sunday, 11/1-11/6.
Morris From America
When it was finally time to kick off the horror dust, I wanted to make a clean break and writer-director Chad Hartigan’s Morris From America was just about as clean as I could go. This heartwarming (but funny-as-shit) coming-of-age story centers on 13-year-old Morris (future superstar Markees Christmas in a pitch-perfect performance), an aspiring rapper who’s just been uprooted from the U.S. of A. to Germany by his soccer star turned coach dad (Craig Robinson, proving that he does drama as effortlessly as he does comedy). This hits most of the traditional young fish-out-of water beats (Morris finds love, realizes the agony of youth, finds himself, figures out who is dad really is, yadda yadda…) but does everything with a genuine sweetness and sincerity that made this one of my favorites of the year. The film looks gorgeous (cinematographer Sean McElwee, who also shot Manson Family Vacation, gives this a really cool “indie prestige” look that goes over gangbusters) and the performances are spot on. Easily one of the year’s highlights.
In A Valley of Violence
Full disclosure: aside from House of the Devil, I’ve never met a Ti West film that I’ve fully liked. I really want to love this new star of the neo-horror era but, as far as I’m concerned, he can never fully close the deal, leaving me with films that are mostly good (sometimes very good) but never fully satisfying: he’s the equivalent of a delicious beverage with a nasty aftertaste. I’ll watch anything he offers, no questions asked, but I always kind of assume that it will let me down: call it “Westianiam.”
And then came In a Valley of Violence, West’s first non-horror film and the best film in his catalog by a country light-year. This had me hooked from the totally sweet opening spaghetti-Western credits all the way through to the equally sweet closing spaghetti-Western credits. Everything about this is Grade-A beef, from West’s Sergio Leone by way of Sam Raimi direction to the absolutely pitch-perfect performances (aside from the strange “Valley girl” thing that Taissa Farmiga and Karen Gillan were doing). This story of a drifter walking into a bad town and kicking its ass is manna from Heaven for anyone who grew up on The Man With No Name and, without a doubt, one of my very favorite films of the entire year. An absolute classic from start to finish and damn near perfect.
Den of Darkness
A young woman leads a Girl Scout troupe (composed of college-age young women) and stops, for a moment, to apply makeup…just long enough to allow one of her charges to wander too close to a ledge and fall over. After suffering psychologically-induced blindness, the woman moves into a sinister mansion with her over-protective husband and starts experiencing creepy doings. This was easily one of the year’s lowlights, a tedious, stupid and rather exhausting dive into terrible acting, a ridiculously melodramatic storyline and more forehead-slapping moments than a mosquito breeding convention. Nothing about this worked, as far as I’m concerned, although it does have a beginning, middle and end (sort of): hand them the “Participation” badge and get on with it.
Giving Den of Darkness a run for Shittiest Film of the Week has to be Voodoo Rising, the very dictionary definition of dull, terrible horror films. This aims to be a Texas Chainsaw Massacre ripoff but is really just a stupid House of 1000 Corpses ripoff (thanks, Rob) and manages to fulfill every horrible implication that this particular mental image implies. The camera can’t stay in focus, the voodoo angle is negligle (at best) and you’ll fight the Sandman harder than anyone here fights their telegraphed and tedious dooms. Clip your toenails, instead: I can guarantee that promises more thrills.
Paint-by-numbers (mostly) found-footage haunted house flick about newlyweds conducting spirit orb research in a typically creepy country house. This felt like a student film, to be honest, and was pretty much the definition of “middle of the road.” Despite a twist that managed to be as mundane as everything that came before, this was a flatline from the get-go and only served to remind of better films (the original Blair Witch and Paranormal Activity, for starters). The one bright spot was the acting, which managed to be much more understated and effective than expected. Trust me when I say that you have much better things to do with your time.
Rock the Kasbah
When last I left everyman-auteur Barry Levinson (whose resume includes everything from Diner to Good Morning Vietnam to Sphere), he had just dropped The Bay, a perfectly acceptable found-footage ecological horror flick which certainly didn’t reinvent the wheel but was perfectly acceptable for a guy in his seventies. This time around, I got a really tired Bill Murray mugging his way around Afghanastan in what should have been Lost in Kabul but really ended up being another tedious espisode of the Bill Show. The only thing in the whole film that actually worked was Zooey Deschanel’s extraordinarily endearing performance, which is pretty funny considering the fact that I normally find her to be the most tedious aspect of any given film: even funnier, of course, is the fact that her character gets very little screen time, leaving me with bupkis to care about. Easily one of the most tedious, obnoxious and disappointing films I screened all year.
In the span of only two films (the unbelievable Excision and the incredibly fun, if flawed, Suburban Gothic), writer-director Richard Bates, Jr. shot right to the top of my Must See list of exciting, new genre filmmakers, making his newest one of my most eagerly anticipated offerings of the year. As usual, this twisted auteur did not disappoint in the slightest.
Owen (Adrien Grenier) and Isabel (Angela Trimbur) are the dictionary-definition of “loving couple,” provided your copy defines the term as “fucked-up, awful, impossibly antagonistic, bullying and determined to destroy each other’s sense of self by any means necessary.” After deciding to give their doomed relationship the ol’ college try, Isabel convinces Owen to return to his long-hated grandmother (the always formidible Fionnula Flanagan) and come to terms with his terrible childhood. Big mistake.
Endlessly inventive, thoroughly nasty and written in a way that would make Mamet blush, Trash Fire is a wholly unique experience. Even if the film falters a bit in the second half, when it become more familiar and less feral, this is still astonishing filmmaking, anchored by a trio of perfect performances and some of the most unpleasant scenes of the calendar year. In a year full of exceptional films, Trash Fire stands tall with the very best of them. You might not feel great when it’s over but you owe it to yourself to experience the flames at least once.
Cheap-jack, shoddy, cliched and with 100% more in-camera fuckery than any film could reasonably stand, Demon Tongue took the express elevator down in a big way. The only thing that this yawn-inducing possession fest has going for it is an emphasis on Eastern mysticism over more traditional Western exorcismaloozas but that’s one grain of sand in a really bland beach. Save yourself the headache and watch one of those Yule log videos instead.
This takes place in a snowy setting, which is pretty rare for an indie horror film: check plus. Moving on to the other column, we also need to put check marks in the “tedious,” “dumb” and “confusing” boxes. Carrying the four and adding stuff up in the margins, we can come to the natural conclusion that this tired tale of friends heading into the wilderness to find strife, possession and murder in yet another isolated cabin is a complete crap-fest with very few redeeming qualities. I think they were shooting for a Lucio Fulci-esque Itallo-horror vibe but managed to undershoot into complete and styleless absurdity. Less fun than sticking your tongue to a frozen lamppost.
I’m always going to have a huge soft-spot in my heart for writer-director Christopher Guest: after all, that dude wrote This is Spinal Tap, one of the single greatest films in the history of the medium, and played Nigel Tufnel, one of cinema’s great creations. As a director, he’s been responsible for a handful of great-to-decent satires, from Waiting For Guffman and Best in Show to A Mighty Wind and For Your Consideration. Nothing has ever approached the heady heights of the mighty Tap, of course, but what could?
Certainly not Guest’s newest film, Mascots, which takes a very gently withering glance at the world of sports mascots, big and small. Despite a pretty amazing cast and some clever moments, the film never catches fire until the climatic final competition and, even then, the flame amounts to a spark more than a blaze. Despite looking grear and being consistently smart, I found myself smiling frequently but rarely laughing. Pleasant enough but thoroughly disposable and forgettable, despite a pretty amazing cast.
Hands down, one of my favorite horror films of this year or any other. A busload of tourists heads to a picturesque windmill in the Dutch wilds and manages to run afoul of a Medieval miller who traded his soul to Satan and ground up the bones of the locals to, literally, make his bread. The Miller guards one of the Gates to Hell (aka his windmill) and he’s more than happy to harvest a few more souls for his infernal boss, much to the consternation of said hapless tourists.
The Satanic Miller is a thoroughly kickass creation, sort of a cross between the unstoppable juggernaut from the Resident Evil series and Jason Vorhees and the destruction he wrecks is massively entertaining, to say the least. The characters are all fun (if a little cliched, as per this type of thing) and the film looks simply smashing, with eye-popping vibrancy and some genuinely epic shots: that windmill is just too goddamn cool and it never gets old watching it loom into the frame. Add in some of the goriest, most impressive kills of the year and you have, without a doubt, one of the best “pure” horror films that 2016 has to offer: no metaphor, no subtlety, just pure pedal-to-the-metal horror. Outstanding.
My previous experience with Australia’s Cairnes’ brothers (writing-directing duo Cameron and Colin) was their supremely wicked 100 Bloody Acres, a pitchblack “comedy” that featured some particularly nasty business with an industrial shredding machine and loads of sly insight into the plight of farmers and ranchers in the Land Down Under. This time around, the Cairnes have set their sights on the twin modern trends of reality shows and elaborate pranking: the crew of struggling reality show Scare Campaign decide to take their pranking to the next level when they target a potentially unbalanced individual and film his inevitable breakdown. Suffice to say that things do not go as planned in any way, shape or form. The results, as expected, are deliciously gory, supremely smart and constantly inventive, as befits these fearless filmmakers. Some of the best genre films from the past 20 years have come out of Australia and the Cairnes continue that proud tradition with flying colors.
I’ll be honest: I haven’t really and truly loved a Coen film since 1998’s The Big Lebowski, which still holds a place in my heart as one of my all-time favorite films. I’ve appreciated and enjoyed what’s followed, for the most part: No Country For Old Men, Oh Brother, Where Art Thou and Inside Llewyn Davis are all great films. I just haven’t loved them in the same way that I loved Lebowski, Barton Fink, Fargo and Blood Simple.
This is all by way of saying that I really loved Hail, Caesar!, the Coens’ adorable love letter to Golden Era Hollywood and easily their most evervescent and bubbly film since The Ladykillers. Everything about this goofy gem worked for me and I lost track of the times where I just sat there with a giddy grin on my face. The nods to various classic film genres are always well-done and clever (Channing Tatum’s Gene Kelly nod was absolutely one of the year’s highlights) and the whole zany affair reminded me of nothing less than my beloved Lebowski and Fink.
More than anything, Hail, Caesar! is the Coens having fun again: there’s a sense of joy and zany glee that fills every single frame, none of which manages to detract from the exquisitely smart and Byzantine plot. The performances are all memorable, the film is impossibly kinetic and veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins makes it all look like a billion bucks. I’ll undoubtedly write more about the film, in the future, but I’ll leave you all with the Cliff Notes version: Hail, Caesar! is one of the very best films I screened in 2016. Period.
Stay tuned for the second week of November, coming soon!