Z (2019)

Shudder served me up a more bog standard traditional horror this time, and I’m maybe a little disappointed by it? It’s not that I’m itching to become a giallo aficionado or anything. It’s just that horror in the ’70s is so good. If I were the kind of person who got paid for this, I might call it raw so that I could proceed to call it visceral as well, and be proud of myself for the pun. But what I really mean is, that was when the genre first spread its wings. You had a little blood and a lot of screaming and maybe some goofy eastern European accents, or maybe you had rubber-suited “monsters” or perspective shots and miniatures to make every day critters giant-sized. But the ’70s is where the technology improved and at the same time the censorship limits were removed, and the field just exploded in every direction. By 2019, horror movies are often a lot more polished, but they’re also more prudish and maybe a little dead inside, from that sweet sweet studio money.

Which is not to say Z was a bad movie. I was interested in where things were going. Lonely boy makes imaginary friend, only, just how imaginary is he? And that’s an okay premise, even if we’ve for certain sure seen it before. Will the boy turn out to be a bad seed type? Is it a ghost story? Demonic possession? Weird invisible monster?

The climax was pretty goofy, but the acting was fine and it had a jump scare from what I think may be a unique source in the annals of blah blah. Which ain’t nothing!

Lo strano vizio della signora Wardh

Unexpectedly, two movies in a row on my tragically massive Shudder watch list were giallos[1]. The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh tells the story of an American(?) diplomat’s wife, whose husband is on assignment in Europe[2], and her story’s intersection with a recent sex criminal in, uh, town. The best part is (and maybe this is a key component of giallos[1]; as I’ve stated elsewhere I’m not an expert on the genre), the first thing that happens is she is given an ironclad alibi for not being the sex criminal herself, due to arrival / murder timelines, just like what happened in Tenebrae.

Anyway, blah blah blah lots of murdered people who are either apparently evil and/or were topless at an earlier point in the film, about like you’d expect, but what I’m most interested in here is the title. Mrs. Wardh has vices, don’t get me wrong, the most obvious of which is that she sleeps around. But that’s hardly strange, as vices go? The only strangeness apparent is in a lot of flashbacks to a previous boyfriend who is a current stalker, and I can’t work it out.

Because the stalker ex testifies as to her strange vice, and flashback scenes confirm the bare bones of his testimony, but she seems detached at best and coerced at worst in these flashbacks, and never responds to any of the ex’s innuendos about her being the driving force behind said events.[3] On top of that, even if his vice testimony is accurate, it has zero percent bearing on anything else that happens in movie, for good or ill. Like, why are we even talking about this? If the goal was explaining why she deserved to be stalked and/or terrorized, well, maybe it worked better on 1971 audiences than it did on me, and that is the only goal I can even guess at.

In conclusion, giallos[1] are weird.

[1] gialli, properly, but who’s counting?
[2] I know what you’re thinking. “Chris,” you’re thinking, “diplomats are assigned to countries, and Europe isn’t a country.” And if this had been a newer movie, I wouldn’t even be able to defend myself. But here’s the stone cold truth of the matter. Every time, every time there’s a mention made about spending money or what something costs, they reference a different currency. Every. Time. All without any evidence of the amount of travel that would otherwise perhaps justify this.
[3] Why am I treating her vice as a spoiler? It’s a good question, and yet, it is the title of the film.

Reminiscence

It’s not really clear to me what Kevin Feige is going to do when he tries to introduce the X-Men into the MCU. Not only has Hugh Jackman refused to play Wolverine again, but he apparently got the mutton chops in the divorce with Fox. Seriously, bro looks within an approximation of no differently than he did in 1999.

Okay, dumb mutton chops joke out of the way. Moving on…

Reminiscence is not really the movie I expected it to be, but in a good way! See, what I expected was a riff on Inception but memory instead of dreams. What I got was future noir, every bit as dark and gritty[1] as the stuff from eighty or ninety years ago when the genre arose, wrapped up with a neat little sci-fi bow. Hugh Jackman is the detective, even though that’s not quite his actual job, it’s something more like memory tour guide? And he has a secretary (again, not really, she runs the memory machine in real life) and a femme fatale nightclub singer in a red dress walks through his front door as the first act opens. Someone knew what’s what.

I’ll save you some trouble and say that the story is almost entirely told from a linear perspective, even though the nature of delving into memories again and again makes it feel like that’s not the case, at times. So, call it linear with flashback digressions? And if you like the genre[2], this is a pretty fantastic example of it.

[1] Well, less grit, more water, but “dark and wet” isn’t going to work as a replacement catchphrase.
[2] I don’t actually know whether “future noir” is a genre, or something I made up just now, or what? But what I have in mind is traditional noir, but less sexist than that, set in a no more dystopic future than original noir was set in a dystopic version of its present; just a future that is predicated on the outcomes of our own moderately dystopic present.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

I’m not here for the idea of making links to a bunch of previous movies, but some quick and uncertain mental math tells me that Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings relies on four previous and mostly unconnected MCU movies[1] to explain its backstory. (Six if you care about the Blip.) None of these movies include Shang-Chi in a credited role, or even acknowledge his existence. And I mean… I’ve read within a small rounding error of 100% of 25 years’ worth of Marvel comics, so I’m obviously here for it, but that is noticeable weight of continuity to labor under, you know?

Anyway, the plot is the plot and yes I want to see it again, but nobody is interested in an MCU spoiler review, not even two weeks late like this one basically is. But between a pre-verbal child and Covid, it’s harder to get to the theater on time than it used to be, you know?

What I am interested in is the things that were cribbed from the comics, with which I have a more than passing familiarity[2]. Master of Kung Fu (as a comic) focused on two things. First, both in importance and chronology, a generation-later retelling of the old Fu Manchu stories with a lot of those characters still in play. Fu Manchu is as yellow-perily as ever, and the British spies who oppose him are likewise as clichedly British. Only, now he (Fu) has a daughter set up as his heir apparent[3], and a finely-honed, kung fu assassin trained son who has turned against him for being, y’know, evil and whatnot. And second, once the comic wasn’t all Fu all the time, it also focused on being a British spy agency story in which Shang-Chi traveled the world with James Bond’s nephew[4] doing superhero-adjacent spy stuff and living out a spy-girlfriend relationship with a Fleetwood Mac soundtrack.

The movie only focuses on the first of those, except obviously not using Fu Manchu and instead pulling in the so-called Mandarin and his ten rings, by way of the terrorist organization we’ve seen before, all the way back in the very first MCU movie. But then it also pulls in a lot of Iron Fist’s mythology, what with an extra-dimensional kung fu city that you can only get to every so many time intervals, unless you know secret ways; and also, their kung fu is magical wuxia kung fu. Sad to be the guy who played Danny Rand in the Netflix show, but zero percent sad to see the expert martial artist not be some random white dude.

My point, if indeed I had one, is that if you were going to cram a mildly problematic Iron Man villain named the Mandarin together with Marvel’s two martial arts characters, this is pretty much the best way to have done so. And furthermore, if you weren’t going to cram those together into one story but instead spread them out among three, well, probably you should cram them together instead.

[1] And a “Marvel One-Shot” that I’d seen before as a Blu-ray extra, which was released on Disney+ two weeks before Shang-Chi’s release date, to minimal fanfare.
[2] While that is a verified fresh statement, I honestly didn’t remember most of these things until the end of the movie. I spent like 2 hours saying to myself “I don’t remember Shang-Chi having a sister,” for example, until suddenly I was all “oh yeah” instead.
[3] Not that he intends to ever do anything so gauche or pedestrian as dying, but still: contingencies.
[4] Among others, but the more important point is that I’m serious about that.

Tenebre (1982)

I have just spent upwards of seven seconds contemplating why I would select horror as a tag after also selecting thriller, given that the main feature of both of these genres is that some murdering[1] happens. In the case of Tenebrae[2], the reason for the distinction is that many of the murders are over the top violent. …I mean, not by modern standards. They’re mostly pretty tame? But by 1982 standards, it’s easy to tell that something hardcore is happening. And hell, in at least one instance towards the end of the movie, it was modern standards hardcore, albeit without modern special effects to seal the deal.

Other things I learned while watching “Latin word for Darkness” include: a) there’s a very specific feel to movies in the ’70s and early ’80s, partially attributable to the lack of steadicam, where the credits will always feature the study of a skyline as some character traverses some city; b) you can apparently ride your bike on the highway to JFK airport, controlling for what decade it is; c) bras do not exist in Rome; and d) Dario Argento knows what’s up.

Seriously on that last point. I have rarely seen a movie tip so far into “why does this scene even exist?” territory only to suddenly justify itself, much less multiple times in a row. Bravo, sir.

Also: seriously on that second to last point. …bravo, sir.

[1] Well, even that’s not an absolute. Sometimes the dying in a horror film is not attributable to murder.
[2] and maybe in the case of most giallo films? Here is where I will not pretend that I completely understand this (let’s say) rich and vibrant Italian subgenre.

Circle (2015)

Outside of it showing up on one of the random tabs of movies that Netflix wants me to endlessly scroll through, I have never heard of Circle. And yet, whatever the description said and / or the Netflixised movie poster looked like was sufficient for me to add it to my queue. And now, an unknown number of years later, here we are.

So, as to what it actually is? It’s a weird amalgam of 12 Angry Men[1] and Survivor[2], with lightning bolts. See, there are dozens of people who wake up standing on white circles in a black room, and also they themselves are arranged in a circle[3]. And then they start dying. And then they start realizing why they are dying, and start bargaining to live longer.

The movie proceeds in real time, and could have been a play or a single take, except for all the special effects involved making that seem like sheer misery for everyone involved. It has no payoff as to what is going on or why or what happens next, but if you are in it simply for the human drama of seeing who will do or say what, a microcosm of people trapped under glass like ants, going about their lives (if their lives were spent weighing morality versus survival), then it works pretty well!

I both liked it and would not especially recommend it. I semi-wonder if watching a second time knowing the outcomes would make me walk away with a different take, but that’s not going to happen.

[1] the 1957 movie, or take your pick as to a newer version or stage version instead.
[2] the reality show
[3] Imaginative Titles R Us

The Siren (2019)

Remember when Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was released as a book in America? You do not, of course, because some publisher decided we were collectively too stupid to understand the reference and/or to look it up, and gave us a made-up, dumbed down version instead.

The opening scenes of The Siren are text cards explaining how a rusalka is created. She is something something betrayed by a man maybe, drowns herself in grief for sure, and then haunts the waterways where she drowned, killing pretty much anyone she can get access to. You know, mostly if they go swimming.

You can see how this is pretty annoying.

Anyway, this mute guy goes on vacation at a lake house which is basically one room about the size of a firewatch tower, but the patio actually overhangs the lake, so, prime real estate I guess? He probably said why he was there, but I forget. (Or he didn’t, that would make sense in this context!) He makes two friends, one a beardy guy who shows him how to get the electricity running at his airbnb, the other a lady who is just always swimming. At his dock? Swimming. When he’s out on the lake for a canoe ride? Swimming. Teaching him how to swim? …well, that one makes sense I guess. On his patio for a lunch date? Foot trailing in the water. There’s maybe something fishy suspicious about the whole thing, if you read about rusalkas somewhere and/or are aware of the movie genre. You know?

Nevertheless, the chemistry is undeniable, and if he can learn how to swim plus she can learn how to not murder him, they may just be able to make a go of it! …well, and if the lakewide body count stops rising and nobody notices that she’s only ever swimming, never sunning or cooking in the kitchen of whatever lakehouse she lives in or sleeping there, just to name a few examples of other things people do when living near lakes.

Then again, that may all be too much to ask.

But getting back to my original point: there are like two characters with dialogue in the whole movie; the mute guy mostly gestures. And okay, under these circumstances, the “siren” does make a lot of the vocal noise in the movie, sure, but she never sings, she never lures anyone anywhere with her supernatural wiles. She just drowns people if she can get to them. The only crossover she has with being a siren is she’s in the water. …and hell, even the original sirens I think hung out on rocks, right?

Ugh. (But I liked the movie otherwise. It had a slow, dreamlike, haunting quality to it. And the rusalka’s nervousness about what to wear and how to impress her man were sweetly endearing, if you leave out how all her jewelry and clothing were stolen, mostly from the corpses of her victims.)

0.0 MHz

“Zero point zero megahertz is the frequency at which a person’s soul meets a ghost,” someone technobabbles in like the third scene of 0.0 MHz. I, uh… I to be honest did not understand this at all. Something about radios and/or brainwave scanning? Other than a few scenes in which the megahertz reader is inching downward towards zero to create tension, I don’t know that there was a reason for it. …or maybe it’s real ghost hunter technobabble, rather than made up? They did, after all, have a salt circle at one point.

That’s not really important right now, I suppose. The thing about this movie is, it is a nearly perfect Frankensteinian amalgamation of classic American slasher horror and Asian spooky ghost horror. It’s like, the entire first third is, hey, let’s get some teens (whether high school or in this case college, they are honorarily teens for these purposes) in a car and drive out somewhere bad, and even make sure that a crazy-eyed dude warns them not to go there. You know, the thing that’s gone from staple to signifier to self-parody over the course of my lifetime.

Then, gradual transition with significant overlap from that movie to the haunted ghost movie, complete with unwashed black hair and random double-jointed body horror. But somehow, it works? For a movie that feels like it was put together to fulfill the terms of a bet, it’s surprisingly effective. Of five cast members, I only knew for sure whether one of them was going to live or die, and that ain’t bad. (You’ll know too.)

Some Kind of Hate

Some Kind of Hate opens with a scene of high school bullying[1] that culminates in actions that could be categorized as self-defense or as fairly extreme escalation.I know what I think, but ultimately that’s not important. What the people behind the scenes in the movie thought (school officials, parents, the legal system, whoever) is that the bullied kid needed to go out into the desert for one of those homes for troubled teens, we’ll straighten you out, you’d think military academy but not in this particular instance kind of programs. I’m not sure on what timetable they stay out in the desert, but the part where there were 10-20 kids total makes me think it’s not more than a few months.

…not that even a few weeks would have been short enough to save anyone.

See, the kid starts getting bullied again at the straighten you out in the desert place, because of course he does. And then the body count starts rising, because of course it does. But what makes the movie interesting is the number of switchbacks the plot takes on its way to the blood-soaked conclusion, with dark secrets and unexpected turns galore along the way.

As I’ve said elsewhere, there are several spots where the premise doesn’t entirely hold up to close scrutiny, but if you accept every aspect of the premise, the movie that follows from it does a good job of presenting multiple angles of what is at first glance a pretty one-sided issue. More angles than I would (at that initial glance) have thought plausible.

[1] that was being recorded on cellphone camera no less, and I can tell you I have a lot of thoughts about whether that did or could or should have made a difference to the premise of the film

Extremity

A small but visible number of movies I’ve watched in the past few years are premised as “what if a haunted house attraction, but bad things are actually happening?” Which makes me wonder, mainly, if these extreme haunts are a thing that really exist. Like, I don’t want to do the thing in this movie where the goal is to probe your psyche and bring you the very worst experiences, because that will… help, somehow? I don’t even know. But someone is actually menacing you with a butcher knife or whatever, and they chase you and things, or… look, I can’t actually imagine any way these could work in real life, which ultimately is my point. But if I’m wrong, someone needs to tell me what is the deal with them, is what I’m saying.

But in the case of Extremity, the deal is that this chick who has meds to be off of and is arguably suicidal and who definitely has a concerned girlfriend and an uncooperative therapist and has a lot of flashbacks to a dark and troubled past has decided that the best thing she could do for herself is sign a bunch of waivers and give herself over to the fine people at Perdition, which as you may have guessed is an extreme haunt, for the purposes of confronting her fears or herself or something[1], and before you know it we’re off to the races.

On the whole, I liked everything except for the unnecessary subplot where a Japanese TV show’s camera crew is onsight today doing interviews with the owner of and b-roll footage of the haunt. It added nearly nothing, definitely nothing that couldn’t have been revealed elsewhere, and had as far as I could tell no payoff. Otherwise, there were twists I saw coming a mile away and twists that caught me entirely by surprise and at least one moment late in the movie that I’m still not sure whether I’m supposed to believe actually happened or not. It would make a lot more sense as a partial hallucination, but they seemed to play it inextricably straight.

Nevertheless, it’s a solid movie on the strength of the psychological studies of the two main characters and has very little to disrecommend it, if you can get through the first 15 minutes or so that are too busy being shocking for the sake of it to remember there should be a plot.

[1] She actually said what all at one point, I just don’t remember, probably because I was too busy being skeptical of the whole concept at the time.[2]
[2] This is not to say that the concept is meritless. It is to say that I imagined telling people for whom I had just signed an absolving waiver that I wanted their untrained asses to help me overcome my fear of spiders, and my brain basically shut down for a while, followed by acknowledging that no, I would never do that, nor can I imagine any sane person doing so.