JIGSAW (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 31 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Sequences of Grisly Bloody Violence and Torture, and for Language

Directed by: Michael Spierig & Peter Spierig

Written by: Pete Goldfinger & Josh Stolberg

Starring: Matt Passmore, Callum Keith Rennie, Cle Bennett, Hannah Emily Anderson, Laura Vandervoort, Paul Braunstein, Mandela Van Peebles & Brittany Allen

I recently reviewed the entire SAW series to prepare myself for this final review of 31 Days of Horror 2017. Though I loved the SAW franchise as a horror-obsessed teenager who would gobble up anything genre related, I have since come to recognize the series’ many problems that stick out like severed thumbs. The first three SAWs are legitimately good horror flicks. They can be ridiculous and contain bad acting, but they’re very fun, gory, and suspenseful. SAW IV-VII range from mediocre to downright terrible. Seven years after the supposed FINAL CHAPTER, we have the eighth SAW film: JIGSAW. You know what? It’s not half bad. I even kind of, sort of had fun watching this film, which is more than I can say for about half of the crappy flicks in this series.

Years have passed since Jigsaw Killer John Kramer’s (Tobin Bell) bloody demise, but a recent string of bodies are popping up and they appear to be Jigsaw victims. Detectives Halloran (Callum Keith Rennie) and Hunt (Cle Bennett) are searching for the identity of this new killer, while forensic pathologists Logan (Matt Passmore) and Eleanor (Hannah Emily Anderson) aid in examining the gory remains. Meanwhile, a new Jigsaw game is progressing with five people being placed through a series of deadly scenarios. Is there a new Jigsaw killer or has John Kramer somehow come back from the dead? Will anybody survive these new “games” and what will be left of them?

Maybe it’s the seven-year gap between SAW films or maybe it’s 2000’s nostalgia, but I enjoyed JIGSAW more than I initially expected. In some ways, JIGSAW sticks to the conventions of the series in painfully faithful fashion. In others, it deviates a bit to bring us something that feels more cinematic and makes old clichés fresh enough to entertain. Whether it’s the clear visuals, a new setting, better acting, or the legitimately freak traps, JIGSAW is the fourth-best entry in the overlong torture-porn franchise and an added bonus is that you don’t need to sit through any of the other SAWs in order to latch onto this film’s entertainment factor.

One big benefit that separates JIGSAW from lesser SAWs is that the audience has no idea who the new Jigsaw is. Even though we saw John Kramer’s throat get slit open (in SAW III) and we witnessed his autopsy (in SAW IV), there is a sneaking suspicion that the film might go totally bonkers and bring him back into play…with some convoluted explanation, of course. However, there’s an equal (or slightly better) chance that a copycat serial killer is on the loose and picking more hapless victims who “don’t appreciate their lives.” The list of potential suspects is rather large and the script does its best to keep viewers on their toes. Even though the ending is packed with loads of convoluted twists and turns (choosing to reuse certain plot points from earlier in the series), I walked out of the theater relatively satisfied.

Another leg up that JIGSAW has above IV-VII is that these victims are legitimately horrible people. Laura Vandervoort, Paul Braunstein, Mandela Van Peebles, and Brittany Allen all deliver better performances than a majority of past SAW victims. That isn’t exactly high praise, but it is worth something. Each character is a scumbag for one reason or another. While Jigsaw’s reasoning in IV-VII was as ridiculous as a cop caring too much about saving other people’s lives or a chain smoker deserving to have his lungs crushed, the motives behind these people being “tested” are pretty sound as flashbacks gradually reveal their life-wrecking sins. Characters’ scumbag nature makes their trap scenes very fun to watch as dismembered limbs fly and blood flows freely.

Speaking of which, most of JIGSAW’s traps go back to the idea of “simpler is scarier.” There were scenes that had me on the edge of my seat as characters tried to navigate through these “games” in one piece. That reaction hasn’t occurred in this series since SAW II. One scene involving razor-sharp cord is especially intense and another moment with a flooded grain silo elicited a vocal reaction from me. Other traps don’t show their true nastiness until they’ve concluded. However, there are two ridiculous devices. The silliest trap involves skin-slicing lasers, but that scene’s fun execution distracted from its sheer stupidity. Also, the setting of a booby-trapped farmhouse is a nice change of pace from yet another booby-trapped warehouse (or a booby-trapped abandoned zoo/asylum that resembles a booby-trapped warehouse).

JIGSAW’s script simmers with plot holes. I had fun watching this film in a theater; but afterwards, it’s pretty easy to tear the story apart by punching holes into its flawed logic. Unlike SAW I-III, JIGSAW relies on the killer basically being omnipotent (impossibly knowing certain things about characters’ pasts and correctly predicting the future). There’s also an unbelievably egregious reuse of a twist ending that was cool the first time around, but got progressively lame as IV, VI, and VII reused it. At least, JIGSAW’s ridiculously convenient plot developments are executed in a fun way and ends things on a relatively high note. Also, JIGSAW has a refreshing sense of humor about itself and the cinematography appears better than any of the previous films. Both of those things greatly aided this film’s fun factor.

JIGSAW is surprisingly entertaining and more than serviceable for longtime SAW fans and newcomers alike. Even if (like myself) you aren’t fond of half of the series, you might wind up enjoying this one on its own merits. The humor, crisp visuals, and attempts to put fresh spins on the SAW formula make JIGSAW a decent time. I’m not going to lie and say that I think this film is on the same level as the first three SAWs, but it remains quite fun nonetheless. If you like gore, guts, convoluted plot revelations, and twisted traps, you’re likely to find something of value in the surprisingly decent JIGSAW. I just hope that they don’t try to milk more sequels out of this franchise because this torture-porn throwback was fun, but its conclusion doesn’t exactly leave much room to work with in future installments.

Grade: B-

CHANNEL ZERO: NO-END HOUSE (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 4 hours 17 minutes

Directed by: Steven Piet

Written by: Nick Antosca, Harley Peyton, Mallory Westfall, Don Mancini, Erica Saleh, Katie Gruel, Lisa Long & Angel Varak-Iglar

(based on the creepypasta THE NO-END HOUSE by Brian Russell)

Starring: Amy Forsyth, Aisha Dee, Jeff Ward, Seamus Patterson, Sebastian Pigott, Jess Salgueiro, Melanie Nicholls-King & John Carroll Lynch

Creepypasta (modern online horror stories/urban legends) and the Syfy Channel sounds like a disastrous combination. Fortunately, CHANNEL ZERO (Syfy’s creepypasta series) delivers small-screen chills in ways that few other horror shows have ever been able to accomplish. AMERICAN HORROR STORY wishes that it was this scary, clever, and imaginative. CHANNEL ZERO’s first season (CANDLE COVE) reminded me of something that Stephen King might have written in his heyday. CHANNEL ZERO’s second season (NO-END HOUSE) is even better than the already great first season. CHANNEL ZERO: NO-END HOUSE is creepypasta adapted into a genuinely scary visual thrill ride.

Margot Sleator (Amy Forsyth) is still coping with her father’s (John Carroll Lynch) tragic death. In an effort to cheer up and do something fun, Margot and her friends (Aisha Dee, Jeff Ward, and Seamus Patterson) decide to visit an internet-famous haunted house. The ooky spooky attraction has six rooms, each one is supposedly scarier than the last. However, this supposedly fun time transforms into a psychological nightmare as the No-End House’s scares quickly become personal and last far longer than originally expected. I’m being purposely vague, lest I spoil any of the nasty surprises that NO-END HOUSE’s ever-twisting narrative has up its sleeve.

Much like the first season’s plot, Brian Russell’s creepypasta is treated simply as a starting point for a more complicated tale. To be fair, I highly recommend that you check out (at least the first two parts of) Russell’s creepypasta because it’s easily my favorite creepypasta. I was pumped to watch CHANNEL ZERO’s second season and certainly wasn’t disappointed by the final product. This six-episode miniseries is messed up in plenty of ways…and almost none of them are violently gory. There are bits of nasty violence sprinkled throughout the six episodes, but NO-END HOUSE’s frights come from a combination of eerie suggestion, nightmarishly bizarre imagery, and a dark psychological horror story.

I was very impressed by the performances in NO-END HOUSE. Syfy Channel and good acting are two things that you never typically hear uttered in the same sentence, but NO-END HOUSE is the exception. Amy Forsyth is particularly great as the ultra-depressed Margot, who finds a form of twisted comfort in the titular haunted attraction…though her life may be at stake for it. John Carroll Lynch steals the show with genuinely emotional flashbacks and also becomes a terrifying presence as this miniseries progresses onwards. I won’t say too much, but Lynch’s later scenes paint him as a conflicted character and I loved his moral dilemma that the series also throws onto the viewer’s conscience.

Aisha Dee plays Margot’s best friend, Jules, to near-perfection. Dee’s character is deeply flawed, but has good intentions at heart and wants to do the right thing…while also trying to survive the No-End House. Jeff Ward’s character is believable for most of the miniseries, though he does get too hammy during the finale. Seamus Patterson has fun in dual roles and remained an interesting presence throughout. In having these different friends overcoming/succumbing to their horrific personal trials, NO-END HOUSE juggles multiple plotlines for most of its six episodes. This approach was wise as each character’s storyline may have served as fodder for its own season, but combining them all into one trippy scarefest insures that there’s never a dull moment.

NO-END HOUSE’s production values look great and this season’s concepts are huge. Even though NO-END HOUSE revolves around the horrors of a single haunted house, the scale and magnitude of the season far surpass anything in CANDLE COVE. The constant barrage of legitimately freaky imagery ranges from disturbing to just plain odd. An atmosphere of suffocating dread hangs over every episode and never really lets the viewer get comfortable (a great quality for a suspenseful horror story). I was constantly on edge and frequently wondered how in the hell this might end. The twists that NO-END HOUSE takes in its second half are especially unnerving and downright ballsy.

My only complaints with NO-END HOUSE stem from Jeff Ward’s hammy acting in the finale (that’s not aided by a few lines of clichéd, stupid dialogue) and one storyline that felt like it was cut too short for no real reason. Admittedly, this subplot’s conclusion was a shock. The more I think about it though, the more I feel like it might have ended early purely for the sake of focusing on other characters and not because it was a suitable/believable ending for that storyline. I hate being vague, but it’s really easy to spoil spooky surprises in NO-END HOUSE.

Syfy Channel has done it again! They’ve managed to pump out another creepypasta miniseries that’s well-written, has great production values, and is one of the creepiest things I’ve seen on the small screen in quite some time. In a world where THE WALKING DEAD has become a zombie soap opera and AMERICAN HORROR STORY tries way too hard to be edgy, it’s great to have a legitimately freaky series like Syfy’s CHANNEL ZERO. Though it’s not without a couple of noticeable flaws, NO-END HOUSE is well worth a look for horror fans who enjoy creepypastas and want disturbing psychological frights (as opposed to pure gory shock value).

Grade: A-

THE EXORCIST (1973)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 12 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Language and Disturbing Images

Directed by: William Friedkin

Written by: William Peter Blatty

(based on the novel THE EXORCIST by William Peter Blatty)

Starring: Ellen Burstyn, Max Von Sydow, Jason Miller, Linda Blair, Lee J. Cobb, Kitty Winn & Jack MacGowran

Of all the genres to win Academy Awards and be critically acclaimed, horror seems to frequently get dealt a raw deal. The horror genre is often seen as a bit of a black sheep among other cinematic genres, lending itself more towards exploitation and ridicule than its competition. However, there exists a crowning achievement of a horror movie that gained wide critical acclaim, won prestigious awards, and is celebrated as one of the greatest films of all-time. This groundbreaking title is William Friedkin’s adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s THE EXORCIST.

After a strange artifact is unearthed at an Iraqi archeological dig, elderly Catholic priest Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow) braces himself for an inevitable supernatural struggle between the forces of good and evil. Meanwhile in Georgetown, actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) has become deeply concerned over her 12-year-old daughter Regan’s (Linda Blair) increasingly strange behavior. Little Regan has been doing all sorts of crazy things, like: violently cussing out random folks, spider-crawling down the stairs, and masturbating with a crucifix. It appears that Regan has been possessed by a demon…or she might just have a serious mental disorder…but it’s most likely a demon. All the while, boxer-turned-priest Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller) looks into the possibility of an exorcism for Regan.

Besides being scary as hell (I’ll get to that in a moment), THE EXORCIST is a very powerful film. The characters are fleshed out in ways that make the viewer feel connected to each of them for different reasons. The mother-daughter relationship between Ellen Burstyn’s Chris and Linda Blair’s Regan is believable and touching. This is the film’s heartfelt center, though it certainly isn’t the only big story arc. Jason Miller’s Karras receives a great storyline as a psychologist-turned-priest who finds his faith tested in big ways. Karras’s journey is a deeply emotional one and arguably has the greatest resolution in this film. Also, there are hints that Max Von Sydow’s briefly seen Father Merrin has encountered this demon before and his entire life has been leading up to his priest-vs-demon confrontation.

Another subplot that weaves its way in and out of the main storylines (Karras’s struggle with faith and Regan’s demonic possession) involves a curious detective looking into a strange death. I don’t want to reveal too much about this subplot because it unexpectedly arrives at a certain point in the film, but this storyline plays a major part in the proceedings as well. Lee J. Cobb (who I mainly know as ON THE WATERFRONT‘s scummy villain) plays Detective William Kinderman. Even though there’s a demon possessing a small child and plenty of horror comes from that alone, Cobb’s curious cop adds an extra layer of suspense to the already tense proceedings. The way he interacts with major characters is entertaining to watch and the stunned look on his face during his final scene is priceless.

THE EXORCIST is beautifully executed in its connected plotlines and complex characters, but this is also a horror film and it’s a very scary one at that. The film utilizes both subtle terror and effects-heavy frights. The more subtle moments come in bits of editing that occasionally flash demon Pazuzu’s pale face across small bits of the film. There’s also a moment involving a Ouija board that sure to creep viewers out, even though the scare is seemingly insignificant. The film’s bigger frights involving shaking furniture, Regan’s spinning head, and (arguably) the film’s scariest visual features a freaky message appearing on Regan’s skin. THE EXORCIST’s best sequence is one of the most famous horror scenes of all-time: a lengthy exorcism that dominates the film’s final third.

THE EXORCIST remains chilling to this day and practically birthed an entire subgenre (though the other films in that subgenre are of a much lower quality). This classic doesn’t simply function as a frightening scary movie though, because there’s plenty of genuine human drama thrown into the mix as well. Like all of the best horror films, THE EXORCIST gets the audience invested in its characters and storyline, and then proceeds to scare the living shit out of them. The film also has an undeniable entertainment factor as the foul-mouthed possessed Regan (overdubbed by radio actress Mercedes McCambridge) utters infinitely quotable, filthy lines of dialogue. With all of these phenomenal qualities taken into account, THE EXORCIST holds its place as a must-see cinematic masterpiece!

Grade: A+

THE THING (1982)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 49 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

Directed by: John Carpenter

Written by: Bill Lancaster

(based on the novella WHO GOES THERE? by John W. Campbell Jr.)

Starring: Kurt Russell, A. Wilford Brimley, T.K. Carter, David Clennon, Keith David, Richard Dysart, Charles Hallahan, Peter Maloney, Richard Masur, Donald Moffat, Joel Polis & Thomas Waites

Widely considered to be one of John Carpenter’s very best films and one of the best horror films of all-time, THE THING initially flopped at the 1982 box office as audiences clamored to watch a more family friendly extraterrestrial in Steven Spielberg’s E.T. Reviews weren’t exactly positive for THE THING in its original theatrical run as many critics wrote off this film as exploitative, cheesy, and overly gory as opposed to scary. Decades later, it’s baffling to look back on the mistreatment of THE THING and easy to see why this film has left a lasting legacy.

In a remote Antarctic research station, a group of rugged American scientists spot a Norwegian helicopter shooting at a dog. Being nice guys, the Americans welcome to the dog into their station with open arms and shoot the hostile Norwegian pilot. Something horrific happened at the neighboring Norwegian camp and a shape-shifting alien parasite has now infiltrated the American base. This evil extraterrestrial seems to ensure its survival by digesting animals and then imitating them with 100% accuracy. The Americans shouldn’t be worried about what this “thing” is. Instead, they become more concerned about who this “thing” has become.

Though its premise sounds like a simple creature feature on paper, THE THING is so much more than that. As the alien presence makes itself known, the film focuses on not just being a fantastic monster movie, but also weaving a paranoid mystery together. We know that at least two people have likely been infected by this mutating organism, but we don’t know their identities. The audience is aware that it’s only a matter of time before more people become infected as this monster seems hellbent on devouring/becoming anybody that comes near it. The film’s ever-growing suspense and extreme paranoia erupt from trying to figure out who is real and who is one of the “things.”

THE THING might seem like a vague movie title, but you’d be hard pressed to describe the monstrous forms that this “thing” takes on throughout this terrifying film. The tentacled, razor-toothed, and freakish shapes are brought to life through stellar practical effects that still hold up perfectly to this day. The frightening nature of these horrific “things” is amplified by tense build-ups to every reveal and the sense that one of these monsters might appear at any given moment. THE THING is riddled with classic scenes that have been lovingly referenced in plenty of other movies and TV shows. The blood test is easily one of the scariest moments, while rising paranoia between the researchers is just as dangerous as the monster itself.

The cast is made up of a few memorable faces and a lot of gruff beards. With so many grizzled guys in the same place, it might initially seem a little difficult to keep track of who is who. However, the film sets up certain characters early on and gives us a sense of who these people are. Kurt Russell is a big show-stealer as man’s man R.J. MacReady, while Keith David is intimidating as hot-tempered alpha-male Childs. The rest of the cast members stick out with individual characteristics, so we get an idea of when someone may have been changed into a “thing” and who seems totally normal. This character-building tactic puts the viewer in the same paranoid mental state as the film’s characters.

Though it runs at just under two hours long, John Carpenter makes each scene completely compelling, even during the slow-burn first third of the film in which we receive a few clues about the creature’s origin. Scientific explanations behind this monster don’t serve as mere exposition dumps either, because these informative moments amplify the viewer’s growing terror as we realize the magnitude of this hopeless situation. The film’s ambiguous ending leaves much to the viewer’s interpretation and concludes in an appropriately chilling fashion (pun fully intended).

THE THING is one of the greatest horror films of all-time! Its scares are very real. Its practical effects are nightmarish and hold up better than most modern effects. The monster designs look like something out of H.P. Lovecraft’s head, and Carpenter admitted that he was inspired by Lovecraft’s work. The acting is flawless, and thick suspense hovers over every single scene. THE THING is easily the best thing that John Carpenter ever directed. This movie isn’t just a masterpiece of horror, but it’s also a timeless classic that will keep scaring the hell out of people for decades to come.

Grade: A+

SCREAM (1996)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 51 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Graphic Horror Violence and Gore, and for Language

Directed by: Wes Craven

Written by: Kevin Williamson

Starring: Neve Campbell, David Arquette, Courtney Cox, Skeet Ulrich, Matthew Lillard, Rose McGowan, Jamie Kennedy, Drew Barrymore, Joseph Whipp, W. Earl Brown, Liev Schreiber & Henry Winkler

Wes Craven became one of the most well-known horror filmmakers with his imaginatively terrifying NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, but Freddy Krueger wasn’t the only iconic killer that Craven brought to the big screen. Working from a cleverly self-referential script from Kevin Williamson, Craven introduced Ghostface to horror fans in December 1996. Inspiring four total films and three seasons of an MTV horror series, SCREAM is one of the most important slasher films in cinema history and also holds up as a fantastic scary movie on its own merits.

As the first anniversary of her mother’s untimely death approaches, depressed high school student Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) braces for an inevitable wave of turbulent emotions to arrive…much to the dismay of her sex-starved boyfriend Billy (Skeet Ulrich). Hormones and angst aren’t the only things that Sidney, Billy, and their group of teenage friends (Matthew Lillard, Rose McGowan, and Jamie Kennedy) need to worry about though, because someone has taken their love for horror movies a bit too far. By “a bit too far,” I mean that someone is running around in a creepy costume and slicing/dicing teens. This masked psycho seems to have his eyes set on Sidney for some strange reason. Bodies pile up, laughs ensue, and this film parodies slasher films while simultaneously being a slasher film.

There are so many items to talk about with SCREAM, so I might as well start with a quality that usually makes or breaks 99% of slasher films: the kills. SCREAM is notably set in a more real-world environment than almost every other slasher movie in existence, because these characters have seen PROM NIGHT, HALLOWEEN, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, etc. They already know the dumb clichés and rules that they need to follow in order to successfully survive a horror movie. This more realistic meta-feeling bleeds over into the film’s kills. This is especially present during the film’s infamous prologue that packs in plenty of humor and scares, while also distinctly reminding horror fans of the disturbing phone calls in WHEN A STRANGER CALLS or BLACK CHRISTMAS.

KNB Effects utilized 50 gallons of blood for various wounds and designed chest pieces for the many stabs and slices. Though SCREAM’s kills are mainly of the knife variety, there’s a certain grisliness to them that makes them pretty damn effective to watch and some of the gore effects are downright disturbing to look at. This more “realistic”-ish spin on slasher kills positively offsets the film’s light-hearted, comedic atmosphere into darker directions. It reminds the viewer that this slasher, as fun and funny as it may be, still has kids meeting their untimely demises and that’s a horrible thing.

As far as the teenage characters go, Kevin Williamson’s script feels refreshingly grounded in a subgenre that can range from ridiculously over-the-top to unbelievably stupid. Though there are a couple of dumb mistakes made by the teenage victims that lead to a rather high body count, the film remedies these “errors” by pointing them out and winking at the camera in a knowing fashion. Right before Sidney’s first encounter with Ghostface, she references a stupid mistake that she unwittingly commits in the heat of the moment during the very next scene. Little details like those seemingly correct annoying decisions that are all too commonplace in hundreds of slashers.

As far as the cast goes, the young actors and actresses make for convincing teens, while the adult performers seem fairly realistic. Every character is colorful and sticks out, making their absence (due to being butchered by a masked psycho killer) much more noticeable. Special mentions go out to: Neve Campbell as the film’s tragic final girl, Matthew Lillard as an obnoxious smartass, Jamie Kennedy as a diehard horror fanatic, David Arquette as the geekiest cop around, and Courtney Cox as a bitchy news reporter. The film’s two worst performances belong to: Skeet Ulrich as the obviously creepy boyfriend and Rose McGowan as Sidney’s airheaded gal pal.

It’s worth noting that SCREAM keeps its fast-paced storytelling up throughout the entire running time. Even though the film clocks in at slightly under two hours, nearly half of this time is dedicated to an incredibly funny, entertaining, and satisfying finale that takes place in/around a single house. Kevin Williamson was able to pack so much development into the smart first half of the film (including little pieces about Sidney’s past tragedy that don’t feel like forced exposition at all), and then Wes Craven let loose with his suspenseful and violent slasher fun during the film’s second half. My only complaint with Williamson’s script is that it’s fairly easy to identify the killer early on, even though the film throws a couple of half-assed red herrings into the mix. To his credit, a big twist during the final 15 minutes still remains remarkably effective and forces viewers to watch repeated viewings through a different lens.

SCREAM’s self-referential style may not be for everybody, but (at the very least) this film must be respected for what it did to the horror genre in the 90s. At the point when this film was originally released, horror was in a rut. Lots of crap was coming out, tons of films were bombing at the box office, and most folks thought that the horror genre was as good as dead. Then SCREAM came along and injected much-needed new blood into age-old clichés. Though it gave birth to a wave of mediocre 90s slashers (e.g. URBAN LEGEND, I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER, etc.), SCREAM is also the first installment in one of the most consistently entertaining slasher franchises in existence. If you haven’t seen SCREAM before, now is the perfect time to do so!

Grade: A

HAPPY DEATH DAY (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 36 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Violence/Terror, Crude Sexual Content, Language, some Drug Material and partial Nudity

Directed by: Christopher B. Landon

Written by: Scott Lobdell

Starring: Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Ruby Modine, Rachel Matthews, Charles Aitken, Rob Mello, Phi Vu, Caleb Spillyards, Jason Bayle, Laura Clifton & Cariella Smith

Color me shocked. Though the initial concept of GROUNDHOG DAY crossed with a slasher seemed interesting from the get-go, I didn’t have a whole lot of faith in HAPPY DEATH DAY. Part of that may have been from the PG-13 rating on a slasher, a concept that seems like an oxymoron and has never worked in the past ever (2008’s PROM NIGHT, anyone?). Another reason for my doubts may have come from the production company of Blumhouse, which produces great horror films alongside a whole lot of throwaway cinematic crap. Whatever my reasons for being skeptical were, I’ll shove them aside because HAPPY DEATH DAY is one of the best horror films of 2017!

Sorority sister Tree Gelbman’s (Jessica Rothe) birthday begins with her waking up horribly hungover in a strange dorm room, continues with her heading to class where she hits on her professor behind his wife’s back, and ends with her being brutally murdered at the hands of a masked killer…or does it? Because Tree wakes up again in the same dorm room, repeats her birthday with a serious case of Deja vu and gets brutally murdered in a different way by the masked killer…only to wake up in the dorm room again and relive the…well, you see where this is going. Tree is stuck in a time loop on her birthday, a day where someone plots to kill her and keeps succeeding. If Tree wishes to survive this agonizing experience and break the time loop, she’ll have to solve the mystery of the killer’s identity and prevent her own death from occurring.

To be bluntly honest, HAPPY DEATH DAY shouldn’t work nearly as well as it does, but this film is fantastic. This is a hugely entertaining mixture of slasher fun, a time-warping mystery thriller, and MEAN GIRLS-esque laughs. If that combination sounds up your alley in any way, shape or form, then consider yourself sold on this movie because its just as entertaining as it sounds. Part of the reason that HAPPY DEATH DAY works greatly is because the director and screenwriter keep finding interesting new alterations to put on the same scenes that might otherwise get boring as we’re watching the same moments repeat themselves over and over…alongside the increasingly frustrated Tree.

Actress Jessica Rothe hasn’t been in many big films (mainly a supporting role in last year’s overrated LA LA LAND), but I hope that changes in the near future. Rothe plays a final girl and makes an at-first totally unsympathetic protagonist into someone worth caring about and rooting for. Part of the reason that this time warp slasher works as well as it does is because this character goes through a personal transformation alongside the horror hijinks of trying to solve/prevent her own repeated murder. Like everybody and their dog has already pointed out prior to this film’s release, this is the slasher version of GROUNDHOG DAY and the film even lovingly references its inspiration during one hilarious scene.

Speaking of which, some horror fanatics who are strictly hoping for frights might find themselves slightly put off by the HAPPY DEATH DAY’s stretches into other genres. There are many very funny moments and a couple of oddly effective dramatic bits. This is a film that’s mainly a horror movie (at the end of the day, it’s a slasher film on repeat), but it also works to please crowds with laughs and feelings. This combination worked perfectly for me and made the entire experience that much more enjoyable. HAPPY DEATH DAY opened big at the box office and (judging from the packed theater that I saw this in on its second weekend) will likely continue to bank. I’m so happy for its success, because this film deserves it. It’s a blast from beginning to end.

On slasher merits, HAPPY DEATH DAY is given the unique position of having a body count that mainly consists of one victim over and over and over again. Tree’s many demises range in quality, murder weapons, and scenarios. Someone clearly wants this sorority sister dead and will go to any length to ensure that she doesn’t live past her birthday. Because this does sport a PG-13 rating, the film is noticeably absent of hardcore gore. It does pack fairly violent/creative deaths into its running time, but some of these are played for comic effect and others merely suggest the final outcome of Jess’s murder. It would have been nice to see the gore in this slasher movie, but HAPPY DEATH DAY doesn’t make that an essential component of its plot. I never thought I’d be praising a PG-13 slasher flick and yet, here I am doing just that!

HAPPY DEATH DAY plays with its time-looping slasher concept in ways that make the viewer laugh, sympathize with Tree, and occasionally sends chills down the viewer’s spine. At some points, the time-loop itself becomes scarier than the masked killer, because that entire scenario is nightmarish and the film milks it for everything that it’s worth. Though some more savvy viewers have stated that they correctly guessed the killer’s identity in advance, I found myself strung along by the film’s many red herrings and clever misdirections. The conclusion had me shocked in the best way imaginable and I walked out completely satisfied. When I watch this film a second time around, I’m positive that I’ll spot small clues scattered throughout. HAPPY DEATH DAY is one of the best surprises I’ve had all year. This is easily one of the very best horror films of 2017 and I plan on rewatching it many times in the future.

Grade: A-

THE SNOWMAN (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 59 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Grisly Images, Violence, some Language, Sexuality and brief Nudity

Directed by: Tomas Alfredson

Written by: Hossein Amini, Peter Straughan & Soren Sveistrup

(based on the novel THE SNOWMAN by Jo Nesbo)

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Rebecca Ferguson, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Val Kilmer, J.K. Simmons, Toby Jones, David Dencik, Ronan Vibert, Chloe Sevigny & James D’Arcy

There were plenty of reasons to look forward to THE SNOWMAN. Martin Scorsese produced it. Tomas Alfredson (who directed one of the best vampire films ever in LET THE RIGHT ONE IN) directed it. This movie was based on an acclaimed novel that tons of people love and it’s regarded as a very scary book. Also, look at that cast! Just look at that cast! This should have been a great movie. The key phrase there being “should have been,” because THE SNOWMAN is one of the biggest disappointments in quite some time. Everything you’ve heard is true. This film is terrible.

Detective Harry Hole (Michael Fassbender) is on the trail of a mysterious serial killer, known as “The Snowman Killer.” This psycho gained this rather goofy nickname because he builds snowmen of his victims. He also cuts his victims up into little pieces with razor-sharp cord, but he also builds snowmen. So, the snow-related quality just stuck out more than his graphic dismemberment, I guess? With the help of newbie recruit Kathrine Bratt (Rebecca Ferguson), Harry Hole must stop the Snowman Killer before the murderer strikes somewhere personal. All the while, there are flashbacks to seemingly unrelated events and a conspiracy theory about Norway trying to host the Winter Sports World Cup.

THE SNOWMAN is a trainwreck in nearly every aspect, but I’ll get the positives out of the way and state what qualities I enjoyed upfront. The cinematography is great. The Norwegian locations are cool to look at (pun fully intended). Also, there are brief effective scenes scattered throughout this film too, but these are mostly small bits that are unconnected in the grand scheme of things. I really liked a moment when the Snowman Killer was right in front of Harry’s face and he didn’t even know it, but the audience knew it and the director still managed to keep the murderer’s identity a secret in that scene. This was a truly great moment in an otherwise crappy film.

Now that I’ve given my minor praise, it’s time to dig into why this film doesn’t work. The first reason for why THE SNOWMAN doesn’t work actually comes from a troubled production that recently concluded with the film’s director stating that there are about 15 minutes of major script pages that were never even filmed. This means that there are scenes literally missing from this movie, which consequently results in baffling character decisions and last-minute plot revelations that don’t make a lick of sense. I know that the source material is widely acclaimed and I cannot even imagine what pain the novel’s fanbase will endure when they sit down to watch this clichéd, confused mess of a movie.

The second reason for why THE SNOWMAN doesn’t work is heavily tied to the first reason: a talented cast of A-list performers are trying their best and, yet, this incoherent jumbled film doesn’t make any of their characters worth remembering. It’s also a juvenile comment to make, but Harry Hole is an incredibly stupid name for the protagonist of a serious serial killer thriller. Was Hugh Jass already taken? What about I.P. Freely? Okay, I’ll stop harping on this one. Many of Michael Fassbender’s decisions don’t make a lick of sense and he makes big revelations that just sort of pop out of nowhere with no rhyme or reason. Also, J.K. Simmons is completely wasted in the role of a useless would-be important character. Val Kilmer also shows up for five minutes of embarrassingly bad flashbacks as a seemingly unrelated detective who was also after the Snowman Killer in the past. The only cast member who seems somewhat believable is Rebecca Ferguson.

As far as the film’s suspense goes, there isn’t much to be found at all. There are a couple of effective moments (ala scenes in which we see how close the Snowman Killer is to Fassbender’s Harry Hole), but everything else is a tedious slog to get through. The film can’t even nail its gory, graphic violence. A shaky-cam fight scene is filmed in such an incoherent fashion that it took me a full minute to realize who suffered a life-altering injury and how the hell that even happened. A shotgun blast and a half-blown-off head is rendered with godawful CGI that looks like it belongs in a Syfy Channel original movie. There are also long stretches where no bodies pile up because Fassbender’s Harry Hole is on the trail of a Winter Sports conspiracy…because that’s what we came to this serial killer thriller to watch, right?

THE SNOWMAN is the kind of cinematic disaster that one can pick apart scene by scene, analyzing what’s wrong with nearly every moment and observing what could be done to improve the overall film. I’m sure that the 15 minutes of unfilmed scenes also had a distinct factor to play in THE SNOWMAN’s shockingly shoddy quality. While the cinematography and locations are pretty to look at and there are a couple of effective bits, THE SNOWMAN is mostly a long bore to get through. Instead of being on the edge of their seats, viewers will likely be checking their watches to see how much more time is left in this endurance test of a grisly thriller. Don’t be fooled by the trailers, the cast, the premise, or the praise for the (undoubtedly) superior source material, THE SNOWMAN isn’t worth your time or money.

Grade: D

THE BABYSITTER (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 25 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Directed by: McG

Written by: Brian Duffield

Starring: Samara Weaving, Judah Lewis, Hana Mae Lee, Robbie Amell, Bella Thorne, Andrew Bachelor & Emily Alyn Lind

McG (real name: Joseph McGinty Nichol) isn’t exactly known for making great movies. Though I thought 3 DAYS TO KILL was a decent actioner, this man also gave us a subpar TERMINATOR movie, directed the lame action-rom-com THIS MEANS WAR, and helmed the “masterpieces” known as WE ARE MARSHALL and both CHARLIE’S ANGELS films. Like I said, McG isn’t known for making quality cinema. If THE BABYSITTER is any indication though, McG seems to have a solid knack for crafting fun horror comedy. Working from a stylish script and featuring a charismatic cast of characters, THE BABYSITTER is a bloody blast from beginning to end.

Innocent 12-year-old Cole Johnson (Judah Lewis) is constantly picked on by bullies and has a fear for seemingly everything around him. One thing that Cole has going for him is his friendship with hot babysitter Bee (Samara Weaving). Despite their obvious age difference, the babysitter-babysat pair get along fabulously and Cole is head-over-heels for Bee. One night, Cole decides to stay up past his bedtime to see what his babysitter and her friends do while he’s usually fast asleep. It turns out that Bee and her group of high school pals are actually Satanists who enjoy human sacrifice. Now that Cole has glimpsed their bloody hobby, he’s next on the chopping block. A life-or-death battle between a wimpy 12-year-old and a group of violent teens ensues…and it’s fun as hell!

THE BABYSITTER kicks itself off in the right fashion, beginning as a possible coming-of-age tale crossed with a teenage sex comedy. Judah Lewis and Samara Weaving sell their characters’ friendship as authentic, which makes the progressively crazy events a bit more affecting than I initially expected. THE BABYSITTER has a John Hughes vibe to its writing and characters. This Hughes-esque feeling isn’t simply reserved for the main relationship between the protagonist and antagonist. The rest of the teenage Satan-worshipping psychos (a cheerleader, a goth, a jock, and the token black guy) are more believable than you’d expect from a goofy, gory horror-comedy.

Speaking of which, THE BABYSITTER has a lot of wild kills and a fairly high body count. Many of these demises feel like ultra-violent versions of HOME ALONE scenes. No two kills are alike as each of the various victims receives a noteworthy death. You know that a slasher flick is doing something right when you are actually upset to see a few characters bite it early on because their on-screen presence will be missed. The blood flows freely and outright gushes in over-the-top fashion, though pretty much every death receives a punchline that ranges from chuckle-worthy to hysterically funny. A two-part explosion had me cracking up and sticks out as one of the major highlights in this film.

The only complaints that I have about THE BABYSITTER come from the film’s style occasionally trying too hard to sell its humor. During a few scenes, on-screen text outright interrupts the action. We see that a character has a pocket knife, but McG feels the need to add large text that reads something along the lines of “A pocket knife…bitches!” There’s an entire scene with the pocket knife that’s funny on its own merits, but this text doesn’t add anything to the proceedings and instead comes off as annoying. It’s like a discounted attempt at a SCOTT PILGRIM joke, but this film doesn’t maintain that style the whole way through. Also, the on-screen text straight up disappears after the halfway point, so it makes the viewer wonder why it was even included for the first half.

Aside from that damn on-screen text and a few punchlines that fall flat, THE BABYSITTER is frequently hilarious, ridiculously gory, always entertaining, and (at points) oddly heartfelt. If you want a great horror-comedy or a gory slasher in the vein of John Hughes’ coming-of-age comedies (a mixture that hasn’t really been executed in this way before), THE BABYSITTER is a safe bet for this Halloween season or any time of the year that you feel like indulging in a really cool (if slightly flawed) slasher comedy.

Grade: B+

1922 (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 41 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Directed by: Zak Hilditch

Written by: Zak Hilditch

(based on the novella 1922 by Stephen King)

Starring: Thomas Jane, Molly Parker, Dylan Schmid, Kaitlyn Bernard, Brian D’Arcy James, Neal McDonough, Bob Frazer & Patrick Keating

Going into 31 Days of Horror 2017, 1922 was easily one of my most anticipated films to watch this month. Netflix has been killing it with their original content lately and the trailer for this adaptation of a Stephen King novella looked to be eerily effective. It’s also worth mentioning that this year’s Stephen King adaptations have already delivered in IT: Chapter One and GERALD’S GAME (another Netflix original film). I was hoping that 1922 might live up to those already high standards. While the film is undeniably flawed and about 20 minutes too long, 1922 mostly satisfies as a creepy ghost story with loads of atmosphere and a great performance from Thomas Jane as one mean son-of-a-bitch.

The year is 1922 (bet you couldn’t have guessed that from the film’s title) and gruff farmer Wilfred James (Thomas Jane) is hitting a rough patch in life. His unhappy wife Arlette (Molly Parker) is attempting to sell her 100 acres of property and kick Wilfred’s annoying ass to the curb, along with taking custody of their teenage son Henry (Dylan Schmid). In an effort to hold onto his property and his wife’s property, Wilfred convinces his overly gullible son to help him do away with the ol’ ball and chain. Unfortunately for Wilfred, the deceased Arlette doesn’t seem willing to let him live in peace. It appears that a curse now has its hooks around Wilfred and everything he loves. Rats start biting cows and people, things go to shit in all sorts of ways, and Wilfred suspects that Arlette’s decaying specter is coming for him.

Thomas Jane has previously starred in two other Stephen King adaptations (the well-received MIST and the not-so-well-received DREAMCATCHER). In both of those films, he played a good guy protagonist. In 1922, Thomas Jane plays a complete and utter asshole. Jane doesn’t succumb to the idea that a crackerjack farmer would automatically be an idiot too. Though he talks with a thick accent and doesn’t seem like the wisest man around, the character of Wilfred James is a scummy, conniving man who we have the unfortunate (or fortunate) view of following. Because Wilfred is such an irredeemable piece of human garbage, watching his well-deserved downward spiral is pretty damn fun and satisfying.

Therein, 1922 encounters a few flaws. This script was based on a novella (which inherently seems like it’s more suited to being a feature film than an elongated short story), but at the end of the day this story feels like an episode of TALES FROM THE CRYPT that’s been stretched to fill 101 minutes. That’s not to say that 1922 is bad, because it is a rather entertaining and occasionally impressive flick. The first half is especially interesting as we see how far Wilfred goes to cover up his wife’s bloody murder as a simple easily explained disappearance. This main character is diabolically clever in his evil deeds. However, the film does noticeably overstay its welcome during the second half, when events should have arguably been reaching the height of their terror.

On the positive side of things, 1922 packs loads of spooky atmosphere and freaky images. This film has the scariest rat scenes since WILLARD and Arlette’s ghostly apparition is present throughout various shots. There are certain scenes where you catch her out-of-focus form or shadowy outline in the background, which smartly places the viewer in the same uneasy mental state as the increasingly paranoid Wilfred. The more over-the-top scenes with Arlette’s bloody spirit placed front-and-center are a bit much, especially when one of these scenes arrives in a spot when there’s still a remaining 30 minutes to go. I also felt that the ending concluded this film in the best way possible, though the novella ended in a more ambiguous manner (evoking something like Edgar Allan Poe’s TELL-TALE HEART).

If you’re a fan of Stephen King and enjoy ghost stories, then I’d imagine that you’d probably enjoy 1922. This film has lots of great visuals, a spooky atmosphere, and Thomas Jane delivering a stellar performance. There is debatably not enough content in the source material to fill the entirety of the running time, but at least the film is entertaining. While there are undeniable problems that I have with 1922 and it’s easily the weakest of 2017’s three King horror adaptations (DARK TOWER doesn’t count), 1922 is worth a look.

Grade: B-

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