Thursday, December 31, 2020

Have A Dead Yapping New Year!: Steel Trap (2007)

Steel Trap (2007)
Rating: **
Starring: Georgia Mackenzie, Mark Wilson, Pascal Langdale

With a title like "Steel Trap", a video box art featuring a random woman caught in a buzzsaw-infested steel corridor, and a tag line promising Surviving Each Floor Is The Name Of The GameI ain't gonna blame you for expecting a low budget, Saw (2003)-inspired death game of a movie. Well, it has a game. And deaths. Not a lot of traps, though...

Set on New Year’s Eve, a party is held in a nearly-abandoned skyscraper and we see seven among the crowd receiving a rhyming text invite for what sounds like an exclusive event just a few floors down. Upon getting there, they all find a dinky kid's party set-up with cupcakes and streamers instead, as well as another rhyming clue; some of them find this odd, others wonder if they're in a scavenger hunt with a prize, one of them thinks they're being punk'd by a hidden camera show. 

But when one of them gets attacked and murdered by a man in a black mask and suit, it's soon clear to these yaps that they've been lured to a trap, with their cell signals blocked and all means of escaped rigged. As their number continues to snuff out one by one, they'll have no choice but to fight back or die trying figuring out why exactly they're being hunted.

As you can tell, Steel Trap (2007) is basically a run-in-a-mill slasher that sticks close to the classic stalk-and-stab formula, maybe a tad too much as its dose of mystery and elaborate survivalist thrills fail to make itself stand out more for how little effort went into them. It's more of the usual bodycount flair of unlikable and bland characters getting killed by a dime-a-dozen maniac, spending their time alive and in-between kills uttering horribly written dialogue, paired with awkward acting and disarrayed editing. It's a fact that undoubtedly unimpressed many expecting something in the spirit of Saw 2 (2005) or even Cube (1997) based on its misleading marketing, and perhaps those who like their slashers packing more punch as well. 

If the cornball characters and their equally corny lines and delivery weren't an odd enough clutter to sit through, the lackluster scares and murder scenes further question this movie's take on workable horror as they're presented with little sense of tension and exploit; they mostly go through a brooding cycle of capture, forget, exposition and then kill, repeating this plot flow like a bad mantra with hardly any bloodshed until the climactic reveal. In all fairness, though, I do love the manic, spoon-fed exposition-filled take of the climax, down to the final act with its very much expected twist and unexpectedly hammed up performance of our surprise mastermind, giving us some last minute worthwhile entertainment before the credits roll.

Perchance, if one is to see this just for the misplaced hilarity of it all, you could say that Steel Trap (2007) is still a fair run for a slasher, albeit very understandably forgettable. It has "they tried" written all over itself and the little effort they put in, the one that actually hits it right, could worth their while, at least as a single night's rental to poke and laugh at. Apart from that, we're really better off watching something else.

1 male knifed in the neck
1 female hanged on a noose
1 female gets a hatchet to her head
1 male brained to death against a floor
1 female had her heart cut out with a buzzsaw
1 male brained to death with a meat tenderizer
1 male had his throat cut with a knife
Total: 7

Friday, December 25, 2020

Festive Fears With The Family: Home For The Holidays (1972)

Home For The Holidays (1972)
Rating: ***1/2
Starring: Jessica Walter, Sally Field, Eleanor Parker 

On a stormy Christmas Eve, married Jo (Jill Haworth), alcoholic Freddie (Jessica Walter) and young Christine (Sally Field) are summoned back to their old country home by their sister Alex (Eleanor Parker) to help settle a disturbing family matter; their father (Walter Brennan) suspects that his current wife Elizabeth (Julie Harris) has been slowly poisoning him as she's rumored around town to have murdered her own husband the same way years ago. Paranoid and desperate to save himself, he orders his daughters to do the unspeakable: murder his wife!

With some of the sisters not being big fans of their patriarch and his condescending tongue, the women mostly scoff off his demands and see his ramblings as nothing more than senility finally getting to the old man. After one uneasy Christmas Eve dinner and an incident with Freddie getting suicidal-drunk, Jo decided to brave the storm and ride out to catch a flight back, only to be pitchforked dead by a figure in a yellow rainslicker and red gloves. It appears that there is indeed a murderer within the family, but could it be Elizabeth as their father suspected all along? Or perhaps another lunatic out to thin down the family?

As a made-for-TV proto-slasher, Home For The Holidays plays less like your standardized bodycounter filled with murdered teens and masked hulks, and more like a cozy Sunday afternoon whodunnit thriller packed with a few familiar horror tropes. Little slasher set-ups like a bonafide chase through the dark, rainy woods and the killer skulking around ala point-of-view shots do occasionally pop up, but majority of the play doesn't abide by the typical slasher trappings completely, thus the twisty surprises in its direction often come genuine and enticing, even if the story bogs down into TV soap territories more often than it needs to. Thankfully, the film doesn't overstay its welcome and gets the intrigue rolling as soon as the women are made aware of their father's plight, squeezing in Gothic sensibilities, Hitchcockian flair (Psycho (1960) screenwriter Joseph Stefano did wrote this) and an impressive performance from its casts to keep this murder plot exciting albeit the minimal, bloodless bodycount.

Hardly a complicated film to sit through, Home For The Holidays (1972) is a simple holiday thriller in the vein of paperback mystery novels, or at least a longer episode of Murder, She Wrote. If you fancy yourself a fun whodunnit that doesn't go all-out exploitative, this is a fair title to indulge in and enjoy during the Winter holidays or whenever it's raining outside. 

1 female stabbed in the back with a pitchfork
1 female pulled into a bathtub, drowned
1 male murdered, method unknown
Total; 3

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Christmas, Stirred and Disturbed: Mrs. Claus (2018)

Mrs. Claus (2018) (AKA "Stirring")
Rating: **
Starring: Brinke Stevens, Helene Udy, Kaylee Williams

After being humiliated by a prank during a campus Christmas party, psychologically-troubled Angela knifed to death Amber, the sorority sister responsible for the stunt, before offing herself with a noose. Ten years later, Dani, Amber's younger sister, joins the same sorority and lives at the same sorority house as a form of self therapy to get over the loss. This is proven difficult when some people around campus appear to blame Amber for her own demise for hazing and pranking a sensitive girl, which does little to help with Dani's uneasiness being there.

When she's tied into celebrating Christmas at the sorority house with the girls who decided to stay, Dani's more than happy to support and entertain in hopes it'll keep her and everybody's festive spirits up. That is until she starts getting threatening emails from someone calling themselves Mrs. Claus and, soon enough, people starts disappearing at the party.

Not a lot to say about this indie holiday nightmare save that it follows your classic late 80s/early 90s barebone slasher that's low on budget but high on determination; it has your usual pitfalls of wooden deliveries and over-the-top acting, as well as pacing issues where characters are just lazing around talking about life dramas, weed, alcohol and podcasts for a dragging moment before our killer arrives to break the drawling momentum and awkward writing. The killer, unfortunately, also fails to be anything interesting appearance or personality-wise; their get-up basically looks like a dollar store ghoul mask over someone in a female Santa costume and, once unmasked, their motivation isn't anything new. From what I can tell, we got about twenty or so other slashers titles out there that share the same motive and despite this movie's attempts to shake this familiar footing a bit, the end result is a set of multiple twists that are just confusing and kinda random. 

And yet, I can't completely turn down Mrs. Claus (2018) all the way; again, it has goal to make something out of itself and I can see that from the impressive splatter on the gore and blood effects. The story's easily digestible enough with its okay characters, including an extended cameo role from scream queen Brinke Stevens, and its hammy B-grade feel thanks to its budget. Apart from this, the film is just forgettable on my end of the stick, a harmless yet admirable title in its attempts to be entertaining, so much so that it's worthwhile a peek and nothing much else.

1 female knifed to death while choking on a shoved dildo
1 female hanged on a noose
1 female garroted with Christmas lights
1 female stabbed in the gut with a machete
1 male gets a decorative candy cane shoved into his mouth, throat cut with a machete
1 male and 1 female impaled with a decorative post
1 female decapitated with a sickle
1 male gets a decorative post through his head
1 female stabbed in the eye with a Christmas tree topper
1 female hacked on the head with a machete
1 female gets a rod shoved through her mouth, impaled
1 female presumably killed, implied at end credits (?)
Total: 13 (?)

Monday, December 7, 2020

Slasher Switcheroo Friday!: Freaky (2020)

Freaky (2020)
Rating: ****
Starring: Vince Vaughn, Kathryn Newton, Celeste O'Connor

“You’re Black! I’m gay! We are so dead!”
- The last words of Joshua to his friend as the killer catches up on them.
...Or is it?

In the small town of Blissfield, four teenagers are just hanging around at a rich friend's mansion, boozing it up while chatting about a local boogeyman legend known as The Blissfield Butcher who's said to be infamous for slaughtering teens during the annual Homecoming. As you would've guessed, the legend turns out to be real when the Butcher (Vince Vaughn) suddenly arrives and makes easy pickings out these hapless teens, even finding the time to steal an ancient dagger out of the mansion's collection of strange artifacts. 

Cut to the following morning, we see our protagonist Millie (Kathryn Newton) preparing for another day in high school while mending herself from your atypical teenage insecurities and drama; she just lost her father a year ago which had her older sister distracting herself with cop work, all the while their mother tries to dull the loss by drinking and being overly clingy with her kids. Fortunately for Millie, she has a pair of fantastic friends by her side, Joshua (Misha Osherovich) and Nyla (Celeste O’Connor), both very much as supportive as they are aware of their friend's need to let go of the grief.

Things get messed up further for our humble heroine, however, as apart from the usual bullying classmates and asshole teachers, she now finds herself targeted and hunted by the Blissfield Butcher later that evening after trying out as a school mascot. Soon, The Butcher catches up to Millie and stabs her with his new dagger, unaware to the both of them that the weapon does more than just look exotic; as it turns out, the ancient blade has the ability to exchange the consciousness (Or spirit. Or whatever you wanna call it) of the stabber and the stabbee with one another, basically switching bodies. With Millie now in The Butcher's body the morning after, she must find a way to convince her friends into helping, not draw attention to herself (Aaron Rodgers to the rescue!) and figure out how a 6-foot male body works, all in order to stop The Butcher in his continuing killing spree within 24 hours or else the change becomes permanent!

Curiously, this isn't the first time the slasher sub-genre stabbed at the body-swap approach; New Zealand's The Ferryman all the way back from 2007 has a tourist cruise en route to Fiji getting picked off by a murderous stranger with body-swapping abilities, and then in 2013 with Japan teaming up with the US of A to produce It's a Beautiful Day, where homicidal racists target a group of Asian vacationers, only for one of the killers and one of the victims to switch bodies for no apparent reason. While as interesting as these titles are in their attempts to do the slasher formula a tad differently through a fantastical premise, Freaky (2020) did its body-swap angle with a bit more heart and fun to it, embracing the silliness of the idea and just roll with it one messy kill and one hilarious line at a time. 

From filmmaker Christopher Landon, who gave us the amazing Happy Death Day (2017) and its equally awesome sequel Happy Death Day 2U (2019), Freaky (2020) is a simple, loving throwback to weird teen comedies, with a gruesome side of gory slasher mayhem seen as early as the opening massacre and its homages to Halloween (1978), Friday the 13th Part IV: The Final Chapter (1984) and even Sorority Row (2009). The central plot is basically hijinks upon hijinks of Millie, her friends and, eventually, her crush Booker (Uriah Shelton) trying to stop and capture The Butcher, as well as getting back the magical dagger that started the switch, all done with a satisfying range of comedy and commentary filled with sweet sharp writing, balanced hammy acting and subtle slapstick. With this, Vince Vaughn (who I hadn't seen in a slasher movie since Psycho (1998)) plays his young teen girl persona with much relaxed feminine wile that's cheesed up for the laughs, an enjoyable treat of a performance that would have completely stolen the show if it wasn't for Kathryn Newton doing her awesome take as an icy cold killing machine.

Apart from its wholesome slice of comedy, Landon and writer Michael Kennedy also took the time to slow down to develop its characters and aim for the feels, giving us a few warm moments where either Millie or her family express their insecurities and troubles either knowingly or unknowingly to one another. Of course, this doesn't stray Freaky (2020) away from its slasher nature too way off and we're definitely still treated with a pure NC-17 rating massacre that's untamed in its violence and relentless in its gore. Best among these kills include set-ups involving a nasty take on a wine bottle, a freezing death that could rival Jason X (2001)'s infamous "faceless Adrianne" kill and a table saw bisection in shop class, most of them satisfyingly committed upon hated characters that are begging to be dismembered, keeping the stakes predictable but aimed high on the splatter factor for how practical it all is. I also love the fact that we never really have a solid backstory behind the Butcher as even the characters are unsure what year he started his killings; he is simply just there to terrorize and be nasty to people, taking glee from taking lives.

All in all, one can easily overlook Freaky (2020)'s clichés and plot holes for its modest grade entertainment. As for any body-switch story to work, it depends to how much the swapped characters sell their personality despite being in the wrong body and this film achieves this in a way that doesn't deviate much from the note and wonderfully blends in the 80s slasher frame with a young adult coming-of-age fantasy comedy with elements of loss and reinventing. Again, the plot isn't anything new, but its feel-good vibe and dreadful karmic demises meant, more than anything else, Freaky (2020) is in it for the horror-comedy fun! See it and enjoy it!

1 male gets a wine bottle shoved and shattered into his throat
1 female had her head repeatedly crushed with a toilet seat lid
1 male gets a broken tennis racket stabbed into his temples
1 female impaled through a spear
1 female frozen solid inside a locked cryotherapy tank, shattered
1 male stabbed in the neck with a screwdriver, bisected through a table saw
1 male had his throat slashed with a broken vodka bottle
1 male eviscerated with a chainsaw
1 male found decapitated with a chainsaw
1 male hacked in an eye with a meat hook
1 male gets a broken table leg stabbed and kicked through his chest
Total: 11

Saturday, December 5, 2020

Merry Manic Maddening Holidays: Red Christmas (2016)

Red Christmas (Australia, 2016)
Rating: ***
Starring: Dee Wallace, Geoff Morrell, Sarah Bishop 

I'll be home for Christmas
You can fear it from me
With an axe and bear trap to throw
It'll be a bloody killing spree

Twenty years ago, an abortion clinic gets bombed by a radical pastor as a crowd of enraged Christians rally upfront. In the midst of the chaos, the pastor spots and saves a newly aborted fetus clinging to life, raising it over the years in a rather abusive and zealous manner.

Cut to the present and we now follow a somewhat estranged family celebrating Christmas in the remote countryside house they grew up in, only to be visited by a cloaked stranger with a speech impediment. Feeling homely for the holidays, matriarch Diane (Dee Wallace) welcomes the stranger into her home to celebrate with her understandably uncomfortable family, until that is he starts reading out loud a letter revealing a dark secret she's involved with some years ago. Outraged, Diane throws the stranger out with a threat, not knowing about the twisted retribution he will be unleashing against her and her unsuspecting family later that night.

Coming across something between an 80s throwback slasher and a family tragedy, Red Christmas (2016) strolls an effectively dark plot peppered with black comedy and splattery kills, as while you can very much bet that it goes outrageous with its horror scenario, adding in the weight of the resulting massacre is the dynamics and dysfunctions presented here within Diane's clan, cutting it close with some sense of realism to the clichés. 

There's a warm sense of belonging and comfort between Diane's children and their spouses despite portraying the characters engaged in your usual family arguments ranging from fickle to serious, as well as being in that awkward disposition that you have very little control of. It's a modern family dynamic we are all familiar with, thus acting as an underlying cathartic fuel once the killing starts. And true enough, as family members begin to get picked off one by one, it all devolves into this catastrophic nightmare that pushes everyone, particularly Wallace's character to a level of grief and loss that cuts so deep, we all can't help but root for them to defend and save as many remaining members as possible, even if the film may or may not have bleaker plans ahead. This said, I really have to commend cult fave horror and scifi actress Dee Wallace for really selling the movie for me, by bringing it all in her role as an anguished grandmother forced to face a past that's now threatening her and her family.

In spite of this (and too the suggested religious and moral politics here and there), Red Christmas (2016) still couldn't completely take itself too seriously. Not with it having one of the more pathetically polite and goofy killers in this sub-genre, whose unmasking, as cruel as this might sound, actually got me laughing at how exaggeratedly wrong it looked. If you think Gunther from Tobe Hooper's The Funhouse (1980) looked horrendously inhuman, our killer here, named Cletus, is so "impossible" in its deformity that the sheer mechanics of it are mind-boggling. Of course, he's also strong enough to split a body in half vertically with an axe, or somehow hurl a large bear trap over someone's head, dishing out kills that are delightfully brutal albeit his frame. I'm willing to suspend my disbelief, though, as these attacks and murders are delightfully gruesome with all its set-pieces, adequate practical effect works and serious overflow of blood. (And eye juice. And amniotic fluid.) Everything you could ask for in a good slasher movie!

Past the weird mix of straight-faced drama and absolutely crazy splatter, Red Christmas (2016) is an otherwise modest production that did what it can with its low budget to make the product as striking enough as possible; though a few editing could use some work, I love the shade of red-and-green tint during the massacre scenes as it hammer in the messed-up festive feel of the story, as well as the combination of canted camera angles, gross sound designs and a few latex gore to imply the brutality of some kills while keeping it within budget. The direction is simply stylistic and paced well for a slasher, keeping itself interesting enough during the slow moments to develop its characters and their position before hauling out the murders upon them.

Red Christmas (2016) may have its minor problems, but it is still a fun movie overall with a great cast, an interesting premise with a somewhat grim conclusion, and, yes, loads of cool deaths. I have a great time watching it and I'm as sure as heck you would too when you get a chance to see it. Just remember to switch off and enjoy the Christmassy carnage!

1 male had his groin torn off, later found with his face mutilated against a grindstone 
1 female split down in half with an axe
1 male had his head split with an axe
1 male strangled with a seat belt
1 male had his neck crushed with a bear trap
1 male had his head shredded through exposed blender blades
1 male shot with a shotgun
1 female stabbed through the head with an umbrella
1 female gutted with a knife
1 female hanged with an anchor chain
1 male hacked and bisected in half with a pulled anchor 
Total: 11