Friday, August 12, 2022

Just A Couple Of Dummies: The Dummy (1995) and The Dummy (2000) Double Bill Review

From the titular Devil Doll of 1964 to Slappy of R.L. Stine's Goosebumps franchise, ventriloquist dummies have been a minor staple of horror media, tapping into the pediophobic creepiness of the dolls' uncanny valley looks. Entrust this trope to capable hands and we'll get horror cult classics like Magic (1978) and Dead Silence (2007) treating us to a chilling good time. On the other side of the coin, the more clumsy low budget side, we'll unfortunately get messes such as these instead...

The Dummy (1995)
Rating: *
Starring: Lisa Cook, Todd Jason Cook and Sabrina Cook

Directed and starring Todd Jason Cook, who I'm sure a few of you reading this would know as the same guy who brought us underground cult films like Evil Night (1992), Death Metal Zombies (1995) and Zombiefied (2012), this shlock starts with a newlywed couple visiting a gypsy psychic for laughs and insulting her readings. This obviously enrages the woman, so she casts a death curse upon them and calls forth a demonic ventriloquist dummy to end the couple as well as basically anyone they come across. The rest of the story is practically a rinse-repeat cycle of the couple visiting, getting visited or receiving a phone call from friends and relatives, only for those folks to get attacked and slaughtered by the killer dummy while heavy metal plays in the background, up until only the newlyweds are left for the dummy to terrorize.

As one can expect from a shot on video Z-grade flick, The Dummy (1995) has the production quality of an aged moldy peanut with grainy and dull camera work, an uninspired repetitive direction and appalling audio quality. The characters are outrageously hammy and their dialogues are equally dim, unsurprisingly, and the killer dummy itself is practically just a dummy getting wiggled around while kitchenware is taped or glued on their hands. I will say at least that the hokey gore effects have a little sense of cheesy charm to them, coming fact that there's some effort made to make them as gruesome as possible, but there's only so much random people talking and doing crap on low budget standard that I could take before a boring movie absolutely shoots down any interest I have with it. 

If anything, the whole dreck is more of a collection of kill scenes held together by a very thin and unremarkable excuse of a story, trailing along the creepy killer doll fad that's ineptly and, dare I even say, hilariously executed here. Fans of extremely low-budget do-it-yourself horror flicks may have a fair time enjoying this, but for the rest of us, this one might be a difficult fling to sit through...

1 male stabbed in the eye with a dagger
1 female repeatedly slashed with a knife, stabbed in the mouth
1 male had his throat cut with a dagger
1 male whipped on the face with a length of chain
1 female stabbed in the gut with a dagger
1 male stabbed in the throat with a dagger
1 male shot on the head
1 male stabbed in the knife (dream)
1 female had her throat cut with a knife (dream)
1 male ran through with a fire poker
1 male stabbed in the back with a knife (dream)
1 female hacked on the neck with a machete 
Total: 12

The Dummy (2000)
Rating: *1/2
Starring: Keith Singleton, Irina Björklund and Jocelyne Lopez

Saw this one when I was just around a single-digit age and I can clearly say that, after seeing it recently, nostalgia isn't what it used to be with this title.

This little obscurity centers around a ventriloquist named Paul (Keith Singleton, who also happens to be its director, producer and writer!) coming back to his home town and making a career out of his talent at a comedy club after a lengthy 20 year stay at a mental hospital. Things were going as fine as a jittery puppet master could try make it to be, even bringing home a couple of women from the club to sleep with, but it all starts to unravel for the worse when Tommy, his ventriloquist dummy, seemingly comes to life and murders one of his coworkers at the club. The following morning comes and a local snarky entertainment critic bites the big one next with a poisoned blow dart after bashing Paul's performance.

Hearing about these recent deaths, Paul starts to freak out and reaches out to a few people he could trust for help, including a new lady friend who wanted to write a book about people with special conditions and a psychiatrist who treated him back at the ward. It seems this isn't the first time the man had some problems dealing with dead people and he believes all of this has something to do with a few blackouts he have been getting lately, as well as his own foul-mouthed homicidal ventriloquist dummy...

I'll give The Dummy (2000) this; it tries to mold itself as this low budget Hitchcockian stride of hero-antagonists struggling with their dark pasts, a "Jekyll and Hyde" premise coupled with some efforts to deliver genuine suspense and thrills as seen in some scenes such as Paul trying to dispose the body of one of Tommy's victims, and too the few kills that focus more on build-up rather than blood and gore. The whole strive has its potential to be effective but it mostly fails due to the fact that plentiful of the talents involved couldn't act to sell what the movie's offering and the plot itself is just as basic as they could come, very much predictable from the start to finish even with all the red herrings thrown in to try sway us away from figuring things out too soon. You could say it overstayed its implications to what's going on in our lead's head to the point that its little reveal in the end comes to no surprise, in turn leading to a letdown of a finale regardless of whether you see this film as a straight-to-video psychological thriller or a killer doll slasher flick.

It's cinematography is shaky at its worse, lowered down further in quality thanks to this movie's inept editing and uninspired lighting. The only thing The Dummy (2000) would probably be best remembered for is its long gratuitous sex scene between Singleton and Irina Bjorklund, a Finnish Jussi Award winner in her first American movie role, basically handing this film its obligatory B-grade sleaze. Other than that, this film is a rather overly familiar walk down the psychodrama path paired with slasher film bodycounting and risqué business and, honestly, there isn't much you're missing here. In fact, it can get darn tiring if you don't have the patience for ludicrous bargain bin Hitchcockian thrills but should you find yourself curious about this little mess, a word of warning: Avoid the UK DVD release! They zoomed in the whole thing so much that it cropped heads and credits! The US VHS release does fair a tad better, but it is getting shorter in supply...

1 female knifed in the gut
1 male knifed in the neck
1 female knifed to death
1 male shot on the neck with a poison blow dart
1 female hacked to death with an axe
1 male ran through with a spear
Total: 6

Thursday, August 11, 2022

Conversion Camp Carnage: They/Them (2022)

They/Them (2022)
Rating: **1/2
Starring: Kevin Bacon, Theo Germaine and Anna Chlumsky

For a backwoods slasher, this one does very little slashing and more of a different kind of nightmarish horror. A missed opportunity perhaps, but not without its own merits.

Taking place in Whistler Camp, a gay conversion program straight out of a Friday The 13th or Sleepaway Camp set, a group of queer kids find themselves in an awkward yet intense stay as their families, friends and communities dump them there in hopes that the camp's curriculums would pray away their indiscretions. Led by Owen (Kevin Bacon), who welcomes the kids with a too-good-to-be-true speech about how the camp focuses on acceptance and that he himself is all okays with the gays, the place is mostly staffed with former residents turned straight (more on that bull later) acting as activity managers, Owen's own wife taking over therapist duties, a new recruit who would be the camp's nurse and one creepy groundskeeper who many of us are sure is just there for bodycount fodder.

It's made clear within the first few nights that something is off with the camp as our non-binary protagonist Jordan (Theo Germaine) quickly notices the lack of traditional Bible-thumping techniques and how Owen irately reacted when he found out one of the campers is a transwoman, completely in contrast to his compassionate welcome of being open to queer people. Slowly but surely, the staff starts rearing their true ugly colors as they force the kids to dire situations such as verbally abusing them in private, flirting with them so they can justify a punishment or even gun down a poor dog while spouting homophobic slurs. It isn't long before our troubled teens plan on leaving the camp to escape its increasingly dangerous staff, but it seems these people may not be the only thing they have to worry about as out there is a loon in a mask, stalking everyone and making their rounds of murdering folks all over camp.

The way I see it, They/Them (2022) (pronounced as "they-slash-them") only started and ended as a slasher flick, spending a major bulk of its nearly two hour run as a drama thriller centering on the nightmarish world of gay conversion practices. For a good part, it's a serviceable affair as director and writer John Logan pens the majority of its teen LGBTQ+ casts to be vulnerable yet admirable and sweet, breaking away from the traditionally cliched tropes of jocks, nerds and queen bees by exploring these teens thoughts and weaknesses as they ponder about their identities as a person to add a little bit of depth. With this, you get to care for these teens and fear for their safety once they're put in danger, which is always a good thing in a horror flick as it shows a good sense of writing and development.

Interestingly, the danger here is less in the form of the masked slasher and more around the camp staff who are soon revealed to be sadistic, manipulative and basically unhinged. Granted a lot of their scenes genuinely felt terrifying for their intensity, psychological torment and emotional abuse, one of which involving an "aversion therapy" with a slide show and a car battery, but there were some opportunities hinted and given that could've made the staff a little more layered, thus intriguing and even scarier; Kevin Bacon's character, for one, could've rode along their projected personality as a well-intentioned camp lead who just wanted what's best for the teens in a warped sense, but instead it's all thrown away as a red herring and basically lowered his character to a typical villain who just wanted to torture kids. Then there's one sex scene between staff members who were supposed to be straight, only to show one of them needing to look at spicy pics of their respective genders to get rock hard, pretty much revealing their hypocrisy and how the camp's approach doesn't always work. These would've been a great source of grey-area conflict among those running the camp and those staying in it, giving us an effectively challenging premise to sit through, but it's all treated in black and white instead and underwhelmingly simplified the clash to "troubled teens are good, conversion camps are bad".   

In fact, the slasher elements (which comes in within the last twenty minutes of the movie) also reflect this lack of solid contention given that the killer have been targeting a specific set of people only despite the relatively large cast. This took away any sense of real danger and mystery towards the killer's identity, something that doesn't help the fact that the entire massacre feels rushed and mostly unsatisfying with overly basic murders. It all ends with the killer monologuing at how places like Whistler Camp needs to be taken down while our main lead points out the unnecessary need of violence to achieve that goal. Frankly, this last act completely snuffed out any sense of excitement I have for this finale, which is a shame as I wanted to like They/Them (2022) all the way. 

As a slasher fan, I cannot deny my disappointment at how messy the bodycounting ground of They/Them (2022) is executed, subverting very little and missing a lot of the marks. It's one of those cases that the title would have benefitted more as a something else other than a slasher flick, in this case a character study thriller, considering how much of the dead teenager movie tropes feel more of an afterthought comparing it to the brutal hub of psychological interactions. On that note, I will say that They/Them (2022) delivers on handling and establishing its teen casts well enough to make them endearing and worth rooting for, giving us an okay character driven horror within the accursed world of conversion groups. It's not gonna be for everyone, but an attempt was made and I can at least appreciate that.

1 female hacked to death with a hatchet
1 male repeatedly bashed against a computer monitor
1 male and 1 female hacked to death with a hatchet
1 male strapped to a car battery, electrocuted to death
1 female found with a throat cut
1 male pushed into a taxidermized rhinoceros head, throat cut with a hunting knife
Total: 7

Tuesday, August 9, 2022

TV Terror: Chucky (2021 TV Series)

Chucky (2021 Series)
Rating: ***1/2
Starring: Zackary Arthur, Bjorgvin Arnarson and Alyvia Alyn Lind

Over the years, the Child Play movies evolve from a creepily clever take on supernatural slashing to a splatstick horror comedy parodying the ups and downs of serial killer married life and parenthood, to a straight-to-video mish-mash of the old and new which we last seen ended with open doors all the way back at 2017. Now, it appears the iconic killer doll is hitting the small screen as a TV series and the result is, well, mostly good!

Taking place some time after Cult of Chucky (2017), we start the scene at a yard sale in Hackensack, New Jersey, where young artistic loner Jake Wheeler (Zackary Arthur) purchases a vintage Good Guy named for an art project made of doll parts. This more or less makes him the weird kid in school, a baggage he's struggling to carry along the usual coming-of-age teen angst, which so happens include dealing with his bullying cousin Junior (Teo Briones) and his cousin's queen bee girlfriend Lexy (Alyvia Alyn Lind), as well as handling his own insecurities as a gay boy secretly crushing on cute true crime podcaster Devon. (Björgvin Arnarson) 

Problem arises when Jake's depressed drunkard of a father hit the bottle too hard one night and goes physical on the boy, prompting the Good Guy to break away from Barbie-mode and do him real good with some handy dandy live wires and projectile vomiting. (No, I'm not kidding) The death is ruled as an accident (for now) and Jake moves in with his uncle's family, a living arrangement Junior isn't too happy about. But it seems our pint-sized slasher has some plans for Jake as he starts talking to the boy about the joys of murder and how he's really on his side, giving the loner a sense of warmth that just so happens to don a bloodied kitchen knife. We can tell this is all manipulation but why exactly is the doll so very keen on having Jake do away his own murders?

It all leads to some secrets revealed, pasts explored, unlikely partnerships made, the return of a few familiar faces and an increasing bodycount that'll leave the town of Hackensack doomed in the plastic hands of our infamous Lake Shore Strangler, Charles Lee Ray (And company), but not before Chucky plays the waiting game focusing itself with the story first, random bloodlust second. And for a good run, this works well enough as the tween actors do a remarkable job on their roles as little misfits and misunderstood troublemakers despite some predictability on their development (navigating young queer love and the typical bully-learns-humility arc, to name a few), a fact that makes up for how most of the adult characters here are written flimsily, lacking any real personality and with tongues pressed oh so firmly in the cheek that their incompetence and ham earn them deaths via rampaging killer doll.

Thankfully, it isn't a Chucky show without the man himself, Brad Dourif! And as always, along with the workably expressive puppetry and practical effects bringing the Good guy doll to life, he brings a lot to the table as our iconic late-80s killer doll, ranging from being funny and comforting, to dangerously menacing, sometimes in a single scene wherein he had to interact with whoever kid he's preying upon, Jake included. It's here where the series tackles an intriguing aspect that was never fully explored in depth in any of the movies, providing a more psychological stab at how Charles Lee Ray works as we see his not-so-humble beginnings as a psychopathic child growing up into a serial killer, developing philosophies throughout these years as life lessons and metaphors glorifying the need to do murder. It is these philosophies and a level of gentleness that put Chucky here in an unusual position as a mentor, hoping to influence his pupil's homicidal impulse for reasons only he'll benefit from given that it doesn't get challenged.  

Within the first half of the season, Chucky explores the effectiveness of the Charles Lee Ray approach to being a slasher guru to the youth, culminating to some good drama and development from our young casts, as well as some decent murder sprees as Chucky eventually starts taking lives and harming others before fighting against an alliance between Jake, Lexy and Devon. When the second half of the season rolls in, though, it feels like the series shifted to another story as while most of the major tensions were resolved by this point, there is still the mystery behind Chucky's arrival in Hackensack and what his ultimate goal is. This is when the legacy Child’s Play actors enter the picture, with an adult Andy Barclay (Alex Vincent) and his foster sister Kyle (Christine Elise), former Chucky victims, arriving to hunt down all the possessed Good Guy dolls, while Chucky's equally psychotic partner Tiffany (Jennifer Tilly) tags along a possessed Nica Pierce (Fiona Dourif), Chucky's terrorized victim from Curse of Chucky (2013) and Cult of Chucky (2017), to Hackensack so the two can initiate a cross country murder plan involving a voodoo spell and an army of Chucky dolls.

As much as I want to fully enjoy these returning faces, their parts in the series were a bit uneven for me; for one, Andy Barclay and Kyle spend most of their time traveling to Hackensack, leaving very little of an impression as there's hardly anything for them to do once they finally got to town. Tiffany's very complex relationship with Chucky rears its ugly head again as we see her act out both her loving partner and tired girlfriend/wife routines once more, supposedly looked deeper here through a series of flashbacks but it personally felt dragging as it added very little to what we already established between her and Chucky from the movies. The only interesting bit thrown here is how Chucky's possession works on a human victim as seen through Nica Pierce, which is later taken advantage by Tiffany in a macabre kidnapping situation. The matter that Nica just couldn't catch a break makes me wonder what the series would've been like if it focused more on her plight, which would've left her fate by the end of this season all the more shocking.

On a positive note, I like that Chucky just took a little dip back to the horror-comedy bits of Bride (1998) and Seed of Chucky (2004) and not completely throwing away the semi-serious tone when this second half kicked in, dishing out enough cheesiness and pure B-grade chaos in the climax as Chucky paints a matinee red with blood while patrons watch Frankenstein (1931) for a charity event, all the while our trio of kids try to put a stop to the madness. I just wish there's a bit of consistency to how Chucky can be defeated; one end have him surviving getting decapitated with a knife, but then we see a few of the possessed dolls dying (or seemingly dying) away from multiple gunshot wounds, having their heads blown off or their throat crushed until their eyes and tongue popped off. It's a little dent that grinds my gears but, all in all, the show is still a real fun ride that sets itself as a competent enough production with strongly composed and expressive visuals, striking lighting and a barrage of creatively gruesome murder set-pieces within an engaging tween drama and slasher fanservice. 

To simply put it, Chucky is a solid piece of slasher entertainment. One that left its doors open again for another season of more mischief, macabre and massacres

1 male electrocuted on a soaked live wire (S1, E1 - Death By Misadventure)
1 female pushed head first into knives (S1, E2 - Give Me Something Good to Eat)
1 male knifed to death (S1, E3 - I Liked to be Hugged)
1 male stabbed to death with an ice pick (flashback) (S1, E3 - I Liked to be Hugged)
1 female found murdered with a knife (flashback) (S1, E3 - I Liked to be Hugged)
1 male found murdered, mutilated (flashback) (S1, E4 - Just Let Go)
1 male gets a thrown scalpel to the back, repeatedly stabbed with syringes (S1, E4 - Just Let Go)
1 female knifed to death (flashback) (S1, E5 - Little Little Lies)
1 male seen murdered (S1, E5 - Little Little Lies)
1 male had his throat slashed with a knife (S1, E5 - Little Little Lies)
1 female decapitated (S1, E5 - Little Little Lies)
1 male had his throat cut with a nail file (flashback) (S1, E6 - Cape Queer)
1 female crashed through a window with a rolling file cart, falls to her death (S1, E6 - Cape Queer)
1 female toppled down the stairs, neck broken (S1, E6 - Cape Queer)
1 male seen murdered (flashback) (S1, E7 - Twice the Grieving, Double the Loss)
1 female knifed to death (flashback) (S1, E7 - Twice the Grieving, Double the Loss)
1 male beaten to death with a doll (S1, E7 - Twice the Grieving, Double the Loss)
1 male killed offcamera with a knife (S1, E8 - An Affair to Dismember)
10 victims knifed from underneath their seats (S1, E8 - An Affair to Dismember)
1 male knifed in the chest (S1, E8 - An Affair to Dismember)
Total: 29