Sunday, September 26, 2021

Deep In The Woods, A Woman Hunts: What Keeps You Alive (2018)

What Keeps You Alive (2018)
Rating: ***1/2
Starring: Hannah Emily Anderson, Brittany Allen and Martha MacIsaac

Celebrating their first anniversary, married lesbian couple Jackie (Hannah Emily Anderson) and Jules (Brittany Allen) head to a remote cabin in the woods to do all your typical backwoods fodder like hunting, fishing, and love-making near a warm, roaring fire. Their stay is far from honey glows and blissfulness, however, when Jackie's old friend suddenly stopped by one night and addresses her by a different name, much to Jules' confusion and now growing suspicions.

It isn't long before it dawns on Jules that the woman she married wasn't entirely open about her life and a long, painfully strenuous and deadly nightmare awaits her as Jackie pushed her off a cliff one day. A nightmare that will only gets worse the moment she survives the fall...

While it is evident the people behind What Keeps You Alive (2018) were aiming to do a modern-psycho thriller, the film does generously borrow a lot of tropes and elements from backwoods slashers for its more horror-oriented moments. The plentiful stalk-and-chase sequences all over the woods echo the likes of your classic forest-set bodycounter climax, building up tension and intrigue as the plot further marches onward to venomous betrayals and psychopathic twists while maintaining a very basic yet stylized survival story in its core.

What makes this all work for me is that once the reveal is made, the fact that the villainess here is simply bad because she is bad, detached from any feeling of compassion and is simply malicious, is all the reason the film needed to keep going. She is a threat that one needed to survive against and escape from and nothing else, a simplicity that feels genuinely terrifying and thankfully didn't resort to cheapening the dynamics between her and their wife being queer as a cause or a tool for the killer's evil, a trope you normally get as a mean to punish or be the cause of one to turn knife-stabbing mad in a horror story.  Everyone is simply a bear or a deer for her to hunt and this makes her the kind of driving force that keeps survival horror all that interesting, thrilling and fun.

Of course, What Keeps You Alive (2018) is far being flawless when one would consider the still numerous horror clichés thrown here and there, such as the number of times Jules could've escaped and not risk a deadly confrontation with her captor, or the real life inconsistencies and plot conveniences the writing suffers from. The quieter moments certainly have their shining moments of emotional baggage and development, but the horror side of the film is undoubtedly cheesed up on occasions, fortunately not enough to lessen the impact of its stronger, nerve-wrecking suspense scenes and the few yet brutal killings.

As it is for most backwoods horror films, What Keeps You Alive (2018) is simply gorgeous with its scenic mountainous backwoods and ever-going lake. The camerawork done for these shots greatly foreshadows how eminently isolated the whole place can get, thus the uselessness of getting any help soon or at all even, which adds to the strengths of the film's survival horror aspect. All in all, this is a solid survival thriller in its simplest and earnest, and sometimes that's all you need to have a fairly decent good time. A guaranteed watch!

1 male had his throat cut with a hunting knife
1 female stabbed to death with a hunting knife
1 female injected with tainted insulin, suffers a fatal stroke
Total: 3

Friday, September 24, 2021

Yuppie vs Hobo: The Vagrant (1992)

The Vagrant (1992)
Rating: ***
Starring: Bill Paxton, Michael Ironside and Marshall Bell

While the remnants of the 80s' Golden Age slashers do their darnest to breathe life unto their brand of cinematic carnage by end of its decade, the early 90s experimented with what can be done with the hack-and-slash formula and brought out a recognizable amount of horror thrillers that used an element or two from the stabby horror sub-genre. Yuppie horror (Or Yuppie-In-Peril as some would call it) is a fine example of a slasher aftershock that focuses on the comfortable existence of young urban professionals getting disrupted by often violent outside forces, from malicious family members and disgruntled officers to, well, as suggested by this film, random vagrants whose threat may or may not exists. 

Successful Arizona businessman Graham Krackowski (Bill Paxton) just wanted a quaint and tidy house to nests his perfect little life of paperwork, salaries and finances. He finds one eventually in the suburbs and it was quite a charming abode until, much to his horror, Graham discovers a very dirty vagrant dawdling in his new property. Unsettled but trying to be rational, he dismisses the bum as nothing more than a nuisance, but that proves to be easier said than done when the vagrant seemingly begins to stalk him both in real life and in his nightmares.

Growing paranoid from the homeless man's presence, Graham goes to the extreme to make his house safe from his perceived intruder, going as far as calling the cops multiple times on the man and even walling up his place with an elaborate, military-style security system. But things are about to hunker down for the worse when a string of suspicious murders starts happening around town and all the leads (as in, dismembered body parts) trail back to our growingly schizoid businessman. Has Graham completely lost it, walking and killing in his sleep? Or is there something else far more vile responsible for the gruesome bodycount?

One on end, The Vagrant (1992) is this cheeky satire on yuppie lifestyle doubling as a jab at prejudice mindset as the first third of the story appears to be working on the idea that Graham is an oblivious douche who couldn't wrap around his brain as to why no one would take his issue with the homeless man seriously, granted that said homeless man hadn't done anything overly vindictive despite his very dirty and manic appearance. The increasingly distressed approach Graham goes in order to resolve his problem is mostly played for laughs at how ridiculous they were getting, its direction oozing with surrealism and a good pinch of black humor, plus it kinda helps that our lead's pathetic, ass-kissing nature is played charmingly well by Bill Paxton, keeping his character from being too being unlikable albeit still being a one-note hack.

Once the bodycount starts, The Vagrant (1992) kinda goes all over with the strangeness as it shifts focus on victimizing Graham while still playing around the idea that he may not be, or is at least no longer right on the head. There are times where this works, with the added intrigue giving more substance to the story and it barely hinders the comedic satire of court dramas, popular psychology and media sensationalism around these parts, though there are moments where the resulting developments felt too random to vibe with the movie's sudden curveballs and do nothing more than be a hurdle on the pacing. (i.e. Graham's transition into a trailer park supervisor) A good bulk of the killings are also done offscreen, later to be revealed as bloody body parts in a probable ploy on the ambiguousness of the perpetrator, so those hoping to see a massacre may want to keep an open mind as the film aims for more creep factor and gooey absurdity than carnal violence for its kills. 

It all leads to a finale that certainly fits the slasher bill and the overall growing weirdness, complete with gnarly last minute deaths and a far-fetched explanation to everything that would either make you groan or just stare blankly because, of course, that's their explanation they'll go with. By the end of it, The Vagrant (1992) is a cult classic that earned its reputation for how bizarre it is, unsteadily teetering between being smart and outrageous. It definitely has a good set of talents to keep the performance watchable courtesy of Paxton in his lead role and Michael Ironside as a bumbling, trigger-happy detective, as well as a production value showing enough budget was used to keep the movie watchable, but the story undoubtedly could've used a lot of tweaking and maybe a better understanding on which satire to stick with to maintain a consistent sense of humor. A fun little timewaster and that's pretty much the gist of this movie.

1 elderly female seen murdered, fingers cut off
1 female found dismembered inside a fridge
1 elderly female suffers a heart seizure
1 dog found murdered with a meat cleaver
1 male dies from shock (?)
1 male impaled with a chair
1 male repeatedly shot, last seen dying from his wounds
Total: 7 (?)

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Say His Name: Candyman (2021)

Candyman (2021)
Rating: ***
Starring: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Teyonah Parris and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett

Personally, Bernard Rose's Candyman (1992) will forever remain as one of the many slasher masterpieces I have the good will and grace to experience; I love its gothic, modern fairy tale-esque direction, how it utilized the power of belief and legends to create a memorable, psuedo-romantic horror figure, as well as how it subtly uses the subtext of black oppression to create a level of depth and atmosphere to its approach in horror. This being said, I really wanted director Nia DaCosta's "spiritual sequel" to work, at least, all the way.

Struggling to find a spark of inspiration for his latest work, Chicago artist Anthony McCoy decided to wander around Cabrini-Green after hearing about an urban legend surrounding a graduate student who went on a killing spree back in the 1990s and was eventually stopped right before she was about to throw an infant into a bonfire outside the house projects. It is there where he meets William Burke, a laundromat owner who introduces him to yet another legend; the Candyman.

According to Burke, his Candyman was an eccentric hook-handed man named Sherman Fields, believed to be responsible for putting razor blades in sweets after a girl found one in her Halloween stash. It wasn't long before overzealous police corner and beat Sherman to death but, much to everyone's horror, the man was later revealed innocent when more razorblades were found in sweets after his murder. From then on, it is said that by saying "Candyman" five times in in front of a mirror, a now undead Sherman will come to murder those who called for him through this little ritual.

Now inspired to do a collection based on the Candyman legend and racial tension, Anthony paints and have his works set up for an exhibit with the help of his art gallery director girlfriend, Brianna Cartwright. The resulting showcase, unfortunately, wasn't the buzzing success he was hoping it would be, but Anthony will soon find out that he may have unleashed something powerful when those who tried calling out for Candyman start to get horribly murdered and he himself appears to be deteriorating physically after a bee stung him. Soon, Anthony learns the horrific truth about his past and what fate awaits him back at Cabrini-Green...

Let me just go on the record and say that I love the idea that Candyman here is, as described in the film, a hive. It just fits the killer's nature as an urban legend embodied, how there will never be only one version of the tale and that there's always be a varying take based on whoever's telling them, all the while the strongest key elements remain the same. The Candyman is no longer just a lone murderer from beyond the grave in this movie, but is now also a catalyst that leads to people like Sherman Fields and many other African American figures hinted later, all victims of prejudice and racial hate, to wear the cloak and wield the hook.

This is a wide and welcome move to expand the world behind the iconic supernatural slasher and I really wished Candyman (2021) found a way to make this work into the story to full effect but thanks to the writing's lack of cohesiveness and focus, and too its missed opportunities to be subtle and flair, this lore ended up something closer to a footnote that wouldn't come up again until the near end where it may have gone a little too on-the-nose with what it is implying. 

Until then, we're practically treated with a supernatural psychological mystery that hovers mostly on our main lead's ties to the Candyman legend and his declining state the further he delves into the rabbit hole, coupled with slasher murders and body horror nightmares. I will say that this attempt of a mystery is as predictable and basic as the characters involved (If you already saw The Midnight Meat Train (2008) and The Devil's Candy (2015), then you may have a clue or two what troubles our artist lead is heading to), even leaving some doors open and just hang them there without any form of resolution or point, but at least it is comfortable enough to sit through as your typical slasher story and the talents involved, particularly Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Teyonah Parris and Colman Domingo as Anthony, Brianna and William Burke respectively, did all their best to put out a fine performance despite the standard characterizations. 

Visually, Candyman (2021) is a real treat to the eyes at its best, probably the movie's strongest point with its stylized depictions of the Candyman murders, the history surrounding the figure and even the legend himself; when it needs to be bloody, it gets real bloody, but the film isn't shy on experimenting with what can be done without overly relying on anything graphic on screen. The result is a lot of striking compositions of shots and sounds, among the best being a massacre in a girl's bathroom wherein we can see just a glimpse of a floating Candyman through a bloodied compact mirror, as well as an eerily shot death of a critic who we see gets lifted and murdered above ground by an invisible force while the camera pans away.

Intriguing to note, too, how the Candyman is shown here as he barely appeared completely in the flesh whenever he kills and he's depicted instead as a shadow, a reflection in the background or, as mentioned prior, just an unseen force drags you away to be hooked from groin to gullet.  Whenever he does appear onscreen, he's more of a specter and an omen haunting Anthony, a sort of foreshadow of things to come doubled as your classic, creepy grinning spook straight out of your ghost stories. If there's anything more to praise, the last few shots of the Candyman are probably the most memorable for me; just a floating man in a coat, a hook for a hand and a swarm of bees for a head. That's Eldritch imagery at its best and I love it!

The use of shadow puppets is also a creative touch I come to really like from the film, perfectly bringing the folkloric feel out of the legends and stories about he who is the writing on the wall, the whisper in the classroom. Add the fact that the ending credits is also a short puppet show featuring all the previous variants of the Candyman just makes the overall film a little bit better despite the flaws.

A far cry from being the perfect companion piece to the original Candyman (well, for me at least), Candyman (2021) is still a commendable ole' "college try" to bring back and partially re-invent a horror icon for the modern audience. It has a good eye on style and atmosphere, plus an interesting take on a slasher heavyweight's mythos, just be prepared for some loose, unresolved and kinda undercooked ends.

1 male beaten to death (flashback)
1 female had her throat cut with a hook
1 male had his heel hooked, later found disemboweled
1 male jumps out of a window (flashback)
1 female had her head smashed and dragged across a window
1 female slaughtered offcamera with a hook
1 female slaughtered offcamera with a hook
1 female slaughtered offcamera with a hook
1 female slaughtered offcamera with a hook
1 girl slaughtered with a hook (flashback)
1 girl slaughtered with a hook (flashback)
1 male stabbed to death with a box cutter
1 male shot dead
1 male seen walking out with a gashed neck
1 male slashed across the gut with a hook
1 male had his throat slashed with a hook
1 male slashed across with a hook
1 male hacked on the back with a hatchet(animation)
1 boy executed via electric chair (animation)
1 male tied behind a truck, dragged to death (animation)
1 male hacked on the back with a hook (animation)
1 male hacked on the head with a hook (animation)
1 male ran through the back with a hook (animation)
1 male snared and murdered with a hook (animation)
Total: 24

Monday, September 13, 2021

Cut Out The Cancer: Malignant (2021)

Malignant (2021)
Rating: ****
Starring: Annabelle Wallis, Maddie Hasson and George Young

When it comes to James Wan, I like a lot of his horror films as I see the kind of fanfare I typically enjoy in my fright flicks: crazy B-grade goodness with creepy moments, fun jump scares and expressive camera work. Fortunately for us, Malignant, Wan's little supernatural love letter to giallo and slasher cinema (and then some), delivers all the goods you would expect in a great bodycounter with a little more extra for that positively insane movie experience!

Starting the scene in 1993, at the Simion Research Hospital, where a group of doctors go through a harrowing attack from an obscured patient named Gabriel who somehow has the ability to control electricity, broadcast thoughts through airwaves and overpower anyone twice their size. The staff eventually subdue the vile thing with a dart gun and, hoping to finally stop the patient's increasing threat, prepare Gabriel for surgery to "cut out the cancer".

Forwarding twenty-eight years later, a pregnant woman named Madison Lake gets the rough end of a strained and growingly abusive relationship when her husband Derek Mitchell beats her head against a wall, arguing at her about the futility of them having children since Madison appears to be prone to miscarriages. As night falls, something otherworldly invades the couple's residence and gruesomely murders Mitchell before going after Madison, knocking her unconscious during the attack. By the time she comes through, responding police has rescued her and she's taken to a nearby hospital, where she is informed by her sister Sydney that, devastatingly, her unborn baby didn't survive the ordeal. 

It wasn't until two weeks later though, when a recovering Madison returns to her home, that everything shifts for the far worse; she quickly learns that whatever has targeted her during that home invasion is far from done terrorizing her life as visions of savage murders and monstrously taunting phone calls start plaguing her days and nights. The more the bodycount rises, the more Madison and Sydney, as well as Kekoa Shaw and Regina Moss, a pair of detectives looking into the murders, start to piece together a grim puzzle and untangle a dark past involving medical horrors and a familiar violent entity that goes by "Gabriel".

Albeit the tone can be a bit (if not mostly) all over the place, it does befit the craziness Malignant wallows in and it is put to good use as Wan embraced the absurdity of the movie's premise to give us the outrageously energetic madness that is this hodge-podge of supernatural horror, brutal slashings, body horror, medical nightmare and, yes, even a little bit of creature feature. It isn't without its own rusty cogs and drawbacks, of course, such as the characters being a little dim, holes on the plot and the twist being anything but close to original (I can tell two other slashers that already did it, though I cannot say which as it'll spoil the fun. You might get it once you see it, though), but the manically stylized execution and wild, increasingly no-holds-barred direction undoubtedly make this film a real popcorn horror treat.

As the director himself put it, Malignant is a horror film made for horror fans, so it doesn't come as any surprise that it has genre homages in every nook and cranny; there are giallo influences pretty much present within the movie's cinematography as well as the villain's get-up and the home invasion around the first act even has its little slice of ghostly scares for that supernatural creepiness. But what really brought home the fun factor for me is the ridiculous levels of campy creative choices and hammy dialogue that certainly place this movie around the same plate as cheesed-up 80s slashers and monster movies, especially with its Eyes of Laura Mars (1978)-inspired victim/killer shared visions and a bodycount going monumental by the second half courtesy of a police station massacre that rivals The Terminator (1984) or Maniac Cop 2 (1990), committed through the hands of a maniac with a rather interesting concept and design focused on limberness and flexibility in all the wrong way. (Oh, and random electricity-based powers. That's a thing you get for being that, apparently) It's crazy, without a doubt, but as everything is done with a straight face and a semi-serious banter, the half-and-half subtle tongue-in-cheek is just made twice the better!

This being said, those looking to see sober scares may want to look elsewhere as the movie's clearly made with the intention to be darkly playful and littered with dismembered body parts. What else is there to say but James Wan really let it all loose in Malignant and I am happy to say that the resulting gory, campy and thrilling little devil is destined to be a bonafide cult classic!

1 female smashed against a door, killed
1 female found murdered
1 female found murdered
1 male had his head internally decapitated
1 female beaten to death with a trophy
1 male stabbed and carved to death with a weaponized trophy
1 male found slaughtered to death with a weaponized trophy
1 female had her neck torn open
1 female clawed through the gut
1 female had her head stomped
1 female had her neck broken
10 females slaughtered offcamera
1 female had her eyes thumbed, used as a human shield and shot dead
1 male repeatedly beaten against iron cell bars
1 female found murdered
1 male found murdered
1 male found murdered
1 male stabbed through the back with a weaponized trophy
1 male had his throat slashed with a weaponized trophy
1 male stabbed through the gut with a weaponized trophy
1 male shot with a shotgun
1 male used as a human shield, shot dead
1 male stabbed through the neck with a weaponized trophy
1 female stabbed through the head with a weaponized trophy
4 victims seen murdered
1 male stabbed in the gut with a weaponized trophy
1 male stabbed through the neck with a weaponized trophy
1 male slashed across the neck with a weaponized trophy
1 male stabbed with a weaponized trophy
1 male stabbed with a weaponized trophy
1 male slashed across the throat with a weaponized trophy
2 males seen murdered
1 male had his pacemaker supernaturally cooked, explodes out of his chest
Total: 46

Also, "Cocky-Knockers"

Monday, September 6, 2021

Short Shear Terror: Trapped At Boarding School (1983)

Trapped At Boarding School (Denmark, 1983 Short) (AKA "Attrap 1980")
Rating: **1/2
Starring: Michael Andersen, Søren Børgesen and Erik Jensen

One of the things I enjoy about reviewing slasher films is that, at times, I get to find and watch little rusty gems like this whenever I search for movies to try. 

Made in the early 80s by a younger Heini Grünbaum who some of us would remember directed the straight-to-video 2000 Danish slasher Flænset (AKA "Shredded"), Trapped At Boarding School tells a simple, dialogue-less story of a teen enduring his stay at a boarding school as a trio of nasty bullies abuse him whenever they get the chance. One day, the teen had enough, dons a mask and starts stalking them down one by one.

Not gonna sugar coat the low and gritty quality of the movie as this is an obscure 1980s 8MM short edited from a 49 minute original footage, but Trapped At Boarding School does feel a little genuine in its approach of being an easy-to-digest slasher short. Looking past the sun-bleached picture quality, patchy acting and pacing, as well as its cheap editing with John Carpenter's Halloween theme ripped for that extra frugal feel, the short is still a fairly fun watch as an 80s time capsule of do-it-yourself horror effort; the story is quick and easy, the kills are fairly bloody and the direction has a style and vision that at least aim to be creepy and messed up despite the lack of any spoken lines.

It might be a far cry from being a great short, Trapped At Boarding School is at least an enjoyable little slice of foreign vintage slasher goodness that delivers enough bodycounting goodies for a casual horror fan. See it if you like!

1 male hacked on the back with a hatchet
1 male hacked on the gut with a hatchet
1 male repeatedly hacked on the chest with a hatchet
Total: 3