Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, September 19, 2021

Halloween 2021: September 19th

Or: Thou Shalt Not Kill

I always like to start my annual marathon of horror movies with a classic from the silent era. That's because I think it's fitting, before doing a deep dive into the genre, to go back to its roots. This year, I'm going really far back, to the earliest movie on my sprawling horror watch list. 107 years ago, and one year before making a disgustingly racist movie that happened to change cinema forever, D.W. Griffith directed “The Avenging Conscience: or 'Thou Shalt Not Kill.'” Though difficult to classify the film as horror exactly, since spooky movies hadn't really solidified into a recognizable genre yet, Griffith's film would still present my great-grandparents' generation with some groundbreaking macabre imagery.

An orphaned child is adopted by his uncle. The one-eyed man raises the boy into adulthood. The young man falls in love with a girl named Annabel Lee. He hopes to marry her but his uncle refuses to give him the money necessary for a wedding. Inspired by a reading of Poe's “The Tell-Tale Heart,” he strangles his uncle to death. Afterwards, he entombs the body behind the fireplace. The slaying is witnessed by an Italian day laborer, who attempts to blackmail the young man. This begins a spiral into madness and he's soon haunted by grotesque hallucinations. It's not much longer before the police begin to suspect him of the killing.

As I said, horror films as we think of them now weren't truly a thing back in D.W. Griffith's day. Instead, movies like this were better classified as mysteries or gothic melodramas. “The Avenging Conscience” is certainly awash with the histrionics you associated with early silent cinema. The Uncle – none of the characters are named, except for Annabel Lee – blocking his nephew's romance is never explained. There's a few neutered subplot, such as a young boy in a garden seemingly also being attracted to the protagonist's girlfriend. Quite a lot of the film is devoted to people standing around their homes and pining. There's even some of the less-than-sensitive politics you expect for the 1910s here. One character is named only as “The Italian” is depicted as untrustworthy and conniving. Stuff like this just comes with the territory, when you're discussing movies as old as this one.

“The Avenging Conscience” really kicks in around the hour mark – which is admittedly only twenty-four minutes before the end – when our protagonist begins to be haunted by visions of his guilt. The shadows of his bedroom become a cloudy black sky, before the illuminated images of Christ, staring down at him disapprovingly, fades into view. The ticking of a clock and a pen being tapped on the desk triggers a “Tell-Tale Heart”-like flight of paranoia. This is when the young man sees bizarre demons, with pig heads and horns and exaggerated facial features, gyrating behind walls of smoke in a black void. Finally, he sees twitchy skeletons putting their arms around his shoulders. It's weird and creaky and strangely creepy in that way only silent movies can be. It's not as tense as “Dante's Inferno,” from three years earlier, but it was also produced on a much smaller budget.

Whether that solid five minutes of oddball horror imagery is worth sitting through a whole movie for is a matter of opinion. The romantic storyline of “The Avenging Conscience” is pretty routine. The performances range wildly. Henry B. Walthall, as the Nephew, gets hammier as his madness increases but generally gives a solid performance. Blanche Sweet, as Anabel, does little besides sigh and bat her eyelashes forlornly. The film's melodramatic streak causes it to veer in odd directions by the end, as there's a chase scene and a shoot-out. That's before a truly miscalculated twist ending. Here's a spoiler alert for a 107 year old movie: Turns out, most of the film's events were all a dream. One can only assume a hackneyed reveal like that was less groan-worthy back in 1914, when movies were still a relatively recent invention. 

Those who will get the most out of “The Avenging Conscience” are probably people interested in the early days of cinema. If you've watched a fair number of century old films, you can clearly see how talented D.W. Griffith was compared to many of his contemporaries. “The Avenging Conscience” is never that stagy or stiff. Aside from the nightmare scenes, images of lovers embracing under a rolling sky are also quite visually interesting. Yet the movie is still pretty slow and melodramatic through millennial eyes. As an early ancestor to the modern horror film, or even an extremely loose Poe adaptation, the movie only provides so much to chew on. Even if the hellish visions of a guilty conscience are still pretty neat. [6/10]

Last October, I watched and reviewed “I Was a Teenage Frankenstein” That was the final entry in A.I.P.'s famous Teenage Monster trilogy that began with “I Was a Teenage Werewolf,” one of the studio's biggest hits and one of the fifties' most iconic B-movies. (Or, at least, one of the decade's most iconic B-movie titles.) The middle chapter of this unconnected series, which played on a double-bill with “Teenage Frankenstein,” is “Blood of Dracula.” The film is presumably not as famous as the other two because it ditched the naming convention. I guess Sam Z. Arkoff and James Nicholson were worried putting out “I Was a Teenage Vampire” as well would saturate the market or something. 

Nancy Perkins' father is concerned she's on the path towards teenage delinquency. The girl is acting out more often, especially after her dad re-married so shortly after her mother's death. In hopes of putting her back on the right path, Nancy is shipped off to an all-girls prep academy. There, Nancy struggles with bullying, cliques, and strict teachers. She also meets Miss Branding, a chemistry teacher with some unique ideas about science. She hypnotizes Nancy with an amulet from the Carpathian Mountains. This unleashes Nancy's animal nature and turns her into a blood-thirsty vampire.

While “I Was a Teenage Frankenstein” basically just attached the teenager gimmick to a typical Frankenstein story, “Blood for Dracula” is a direct retread of “I Was a Teenage Werewolf.” As in that film, it follows a teenage delinquent who is hypnotized by a mad scientist into becoming a monster. (All three share a writer in Aben Kandel, so at least he was just ripping off himself.) Despite its blatantly derivative nature, the film does have a few things in its favor. First off, it has that Halloween-y black-and-white mood I crave from my fifties creature features. Shadowy scenery, devoted to a mysterious monster stalking necking teenagers in a darkened park, scratches that specific itch for me. While we only get some brief glimpses at our teenage vampire, she's pretty novel looking. The thick eyebrows invoke Nosferatu more than Bela Lugosi.

Adding to this mood of antiquated silliness is a streak of camp too. Not long after the mean girl clique at the school invite their boyfriends to a party, one of the boys is invited to sing “Puppy Love.” This leads to an impromptu musical number, with fully choreographed accompanying dance moves, as a very corny pop number is sang. This is not the only goofball indicator of the era here. Miss Branding's motivation for turning Nancy into a vampire is her fear that nuclear war will destroy the world and that only the toughest will survive. How she thinks turning a teenager into a vampire will resolve this, or how hypnotism and giant pendants tie into her scientific thinking, remains a mystery. This still allows the movie to insert a preposterous “she meddle in things men were not meant to know” moral at the very end. 

What makes “Blood of Dracula” a little less ridiculous than the fairly dull “I Was a Teenage Frankenstein” is an unexpected modern reading of the material. By focusing largely on female characters, the film is distinguished from its contemporaries. Nancy is bullied by other girls, who mock her boyfriend and mess up her room. In order to survive, she quickly realizes she'll have to fit in with these mean-spirited girls. Miss Branding, meanwhile, is a pseudo-feminist who does thing without the help of men. In the deeply patriarchal fifties society, these factors make Nancy – and all the other females around her – into monsters. I'm absolutely certain a feminist subtext was unintentional but you can't help but notice these things, watching in 2021.

Much like the other two entries in AIP's “I Was a Teenage Monster” trilogy, I think this one probably could prosper from a remake. “Blood of Dracula” definitely has the weakest ending of the three, as both of the lady villains are dispatched in underwhelming fashion. That ends a movie I otherwise enjoyed on a shrug. While the film definitely needed more bloodsucking and special effects, there's enough camp and vintage monster movie action here to satisfy me. And before you ask, no, the movie has nothing to do with Dracula. I can assume they stuck the Count's name in the title strictly for commercial reasons. (The U.K. title of “Blood is My Heritage” doesn't have much to do with the movie either but is at least more memorable.) [6/10]

I've made this point before but it bares repeating: Sometimes a catchy title, lurid poster art, and a ridiculous tagline is all a horror movie needed to become a cult classic. This was especially true in the eighties, when the market – the video market, specifically – was flooded with similarly themed gore-fests. “Blood Diner” definitely had all three of those. The title brings to mind images of bloody entrees at a roadside establishment. The poster featured a knife-wielding neon sign over the titular establishment, sometimes accompanied by a blue-faced ghoul in a Burger Chief hat picking his teeth with a dagger. And the tagline? “First they greet you, then they eat you!” All of the above was assuredly irresistible to burgeoning horror weirdos in 1987. 

In the early sixties, serial killer Anwar Namtut murdered and cannibalized a series of sorority girls in hopes of resurrecting ancient Lemurian goddess Sheetar. When he failed, by deflowering the virgin sacrifice, he cut off his dingus and committed suicide by cop. Twenty years later, the duty of reviving Sheetar falls to his two idiot nephews, Michael and George. The brothers run a “vegetarian” restaurant that is actually serving parts of the girls they've killed. Guided by Uncle Anwar, who survives as a disembodied brain in a jar, the boys go about re-assembling Sheetar and preparing for the first Lemurian feast in centuries. A pair of detective – a hyper-confident woman and her moronic partner – are on their trail. 

“Blood Diner” was originally intended to be a sequel to “Blood Feast” but, for presumably legal reasons, ultimately had to be satisfied with just being an extended homage to the Godfather of Gore. Herschel Gordon Lewis movies are far from the only example of vulgar, low culture this movie is paying homage too. “Blood Diner” is, in many ways, a distillation of dumb-ass garbage culture. One of the brothers is obsessed with pro-wrestling, eventually jumping into the ring himself to grapple with a Nazi-themed heel. At one point, a group of (topless) Aerobicizers are gunned down. The boys pick up victims in a fifties-themed nightclub. In fact, the entire movie has a twisted retro vibe to it. From the dinner setting, to the fashion and the bizarre rockabilly band that plays at the end, “Blood Diner” puts an aggressively perverse spin on boomer nostalgia. 

A movie that so gleefully celebrates garbage culture certainly brings the Troma aesthetic to mind. “Blood Diner” has the fat jokes, incredibly crude dialogue, over-the-top gore, and the piled-on female nudity you associate with that studio. One of this cartoonish film's most cartoonish moments involves a naked woman being covered in batter and having her head dunk in a deep-frier. She then runs around, her head resembling a giant hush-puppy, before being decapitated. What primarily separates “Blood Diner” from the other escapees from Tromaville, aside from its slightly higher production values, is a seriously surreal sense of humor. The owner of a rival diner drags a life-sized doll of a cowboy with him everywhere. Despite obviously being an unmoving dummy, it talks with a high-pitched voice and is treated like a regular person by all the other characters. The aforementioned guy, by the way, later has his hand chopped off and drives away while spurting blood, not being too distressed by this. While attacking a humping couple, the naked woman turns the tables on the brothers by performing karate. There's a lot of unexpected, or bizarre, gags like that among all the blood and fart gags.

Humor, no matter how sick, is clearly the intended goal here. The acting is knowingly ridiculous and often quite bad. Rick Burks and Carl Crew, as the nephews, rotate between ghoulish overacting and stiff delivery of lame lines. LaNette LaFrance is kind of flat as the no-nonsense detective investigating the murders and she gives one of the better performances in the film. Considering how many odd accents are in the movie, I suspect a lot of the actors weren't native English speakers. And the quality of the acting is almost besides the point, as obviously the outrageous gore effects are the start of the show. Intestines are tossed into waste bins, ass cheeks are sawed off, and a rock show audience transform into flesh-munching zombies. The finale features Sheetar biting off heads with the vagina dentata mouth in her belly and exploding heads by shooting lightning from her hands. It's nuts.

By the way, did I mention that “Blood Diner” was directed by a woman? Jackie Kong previously made low-budget monster movie “The Being,” so this was not a fluke in her career. Certainly not what you expect from a movie that so callously delights in displaying, and chopping up, female bodies. I can understand why the movie's tidal wave of tastelessness or constant self-aware winking might rub some viewers the wrong way. However, I found its balance of gross-out gore and dumb-ass humor mostly entertaining. I'm not alone, as “Blood Diner” has developed a decent-sized cult following over the years. When the movie was finally given a proper DVD release in 2016, it caused enough of a stir to make me realize the “Blood Diner's" devotees are more wide-spread than I realized. [7/10]

Much to my chagrin, enough time has passed that now the garbage horror movies of my teen years – which I think of as the nu metal equivalent to the genre – have developed defenders of their own. When released in 2002, while I was a freshman in high school, “Ghost Ship” was the first film from Robert Zemecksis/Joel Silver's Dark Castle Entertainment that wasn't a remake of an old William Castle movie. Like most of the company's work up to that point, it received a largely negative reaction from both mainstream critics and horror movie nerds. Now, almost twenty years later, “Ghost Ship” has found some fans defending the movie as an underrated gem of sorts. I've never seen the movie before so I decided this was the year I finally set sail with “Ghost Ship” and see for myself. 

The MS Antonia Graza is a luxury ocean liner in the 1960s. Following a horrible accident, everyone aboard is horribly killed except for a little girl named Katie. Forty years later, a salvage crew – led by Captain Murphy and first mate Maureen Epps – are told that the Graza, which has since passed into seafaring legend, has been spotted in the Barring Seat. The team soon comes upon the Graza and attempt to salvage it. They find wooden boxes full of gold bars inside its hold. The crew is also haunted by a series of increasingly bizarre images. Not long after that, people start to wind up dead. Greer soon deduces an evil force is behind the deaths.

Most of the notoriety that “Ghost Ship” has revolves around its opening sequence. The film begins with a group of glamorous party goers enjoying themselves on the deck of the ship. As they slow dance to a fancy song, a steel wire in the distance is unknowingly snapped. The wire slashes through the entire crowd in an instance, slicing everyone – except for the little girl, short enough to be under the cord's path – in half. Slowly, everyone falls to pieces, unaware of what even happened. It's an admittedly clever piece of gruesome carnage... And it's also the only trick “Ghost Ship” has that's any good. The rest of the movie is devoted to obnoxiously loud jump-scares and jittery camera work. The film also gets increasingly gory as it goes on, in a way that reeks of desperation on the filmmaker's behalf.

That filmmaker, by the way, is Steve Beck, who previously made Dark Castle's remake of “13 Ghosts.” (Or “Thir13en Ghosts,” if you insists we call it that.) Much like that movie, “Ghost Ship” has a story that bends in a number of convoluted directions to disguise the fact that it doesn't actually have much of a plot. Increasingly unlikely accident befall the salvage crew, such as their ship exploding mysterious after setting foot on the ocean liner. Through some gratuitous flashbacks, we learn that the Antonia Graza has a history of bloodshed and betrayal. This climaxes with an evil spirit appearing and explaining his entire motivation near the end. But before all this shit happens? Long stretches of the movie are devoted to people just wandering around the ship, encountering spooky shit. It's as if the writers had a cool setting and a decent premise but weren't allowed to expand any further upon their idea.

The worst thing about “Ghost Ship” is how it wastes a decent cast. Relatively accomplished actors appear in extremely one-note parts. Gabriel Byrne, recently voted one of the greatest Irish actors of all time, appears as Captain Murphy. Byrne barks exposition before catching a bad case of sea madness and getting the film's most unglamorous exit. Isaiah Washington very stupidly follows a naked ghost lady into an elevator shaft and Karl Urban gets crushed under a giant gear. The early scenes show a bit of a chummy side among the crew mates, suggesting these characters could've more fleshed-out. But “Ghost Ship” is nothing more than a big budget slasher movie and its characters exist only to be killed off in dumb ways. This is even more obvious when Julianna Margulies – mildly appealing if tough in an undefined way – emerges as the story's final girl.

By the way, my earlier comparison of this era of horror to nu metal was fitting, as “Ghost Ship” features some extremely loud songs from Mudvayne and Gabriel Mann. The former band are played early on before being reprised over the end credits, following a needlessly cruel and very dumb twist ending. Much like Beck's “Thirteen Ghosts,” this movie also has pretty cool sets that are lit in a mildly interesting way, suggesting this didn't have to be as bad as it is. Then again, also like “Thirteen Ghosts,” there's an extremely unearned sappy side that manifests as goofy-looking CGI. I can see why people praise “Ghost Ship's” opening barrage of gore. But don't let a decent first two minutes trick you into thinking this is a good movie. It's exactly the type of flashy but deeply lame trash Dark Castle specialized in. Like nu metal, it's an embarrassing relic of the past that deserves no reevaluation. [3/10]

In 1984, a homeless teenager, habitual drug user, occasional graverobber and wannabe Satanist named Ricky Kasso invited three of his friends into the woods outside their affluent Long Island suburb. There, they dropped acid and watched as Ricky slowly stabbed Gary Lauwers to death. Despite Kasso bragging to schoolmates that Satan commanded him to kill, the murder wasn't uncovered for another two weeks. The shocking crime was swept up in the eighties Satanic Panic – both boys were heavy metal fans, to boot – and became the topic of sensationalist books, documentaries, and Geraldo specials. Less than a year later, experimental artists David Wojnarowicz and Tommy Turner would create “Where Evil Dwells,” a thirty minute film loosely inspired by the horrific event.

“Where Evil Dwells” is not a film especially concerned with narrative. It depicts Ricky Kasso's juvenile delinquent and graverobbing activities before showing the fight breaking out around the campfire, that would lead to the stabbing of Lauwers. The murder is brutally depicted before the film grows increasingly abstract. Its second half is devoted entirely to some sort of Satanic ritual being performed in the woods. People in monster masks or wearing animal heads set fires and perform acts of torture and implied sexual violation and cannibalism. This is intercut with digressions of a Christ-like figure messily eating fried chicken, a Satan-like figure setting fireworks off inside his suit, handheld and shots of a roller coaster. There's also a couple of horror host-style segments with a gravelly-voiced demonic ventriloquist dummy . 

The blood may be corn syrup and the body parts may be from mannequins but “Where Evil Dwells” is still unnerving because of how it's presented. Recorded on exceptionally grainy 8mm black-and-white film, the images are dark and distorted. The sound design is truly demented. The dialogue can't really be heard. The soundtrack is composed of garbled recordings of heavy metal songs – including AC/DC, supposedly a fave of Kasso's – and chopped-up recordings of evangelists preaching. When combined with the frantic and violent visuals, the result is a Hellish nightmare captured on camera. It feels like Wojnarowicz and Turner somehow grabbed the sick and twisted things Kasso must've imagined and put it on film.

The filmmakers' purpose behind creating such a movie can only be guessed out. “Where Evil Dwells” falls squarely into the underground “Cinema of Transgression”  movement that arose out of the New York punk scene at this time. Yet I think, beyond a punk rock desire to freak out the squares, the movie also represents a round-about refutation of the Satanic Panic, of giving all the religious fundamentalists crowing about devil worshiping teens exactly what they want. It's not a film I'd want to revisit – nor would I be interested in seeing the feature length amount of future Wojnarowicz and Turner supposedly shot that was supposedly lost in a fire – but it has a certain power to unnerve, no matter how crude it is. [7/10]

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Halloween 2021: Preamble

The wedding went great.

As we head into the second Halloween Horror-Fest Blog-a-Thon were the world is all topsy-turvy I ask myself the question of how to open something as trivial as a six-week long horror movie marathon. Those two weeks were it felt like things were going to get back to normal, when vaccination rates were up (I got mine sometime in April) and infections were down, sure were nice… Before we were faced with how fundamentally selfish and uncritical many people still are and the grim realization that we won’t be out of this for quite a while longer. But you're not here to read about that. Nobody needs another diatribe on life in the time of COVID and how there's still no end in sight to the crisis. We're all stuck in this together. You know what it's like.  

So here's the truth: I am as apprehensive about the future as anyone else right now. But, ya know what? I am excited for Halloween. It does make me happy to see the leaves start to fall from the trees. I’ve been out there, hunting for the elusive Monster Mash cereal. I’ve been hitting craft stores since July, waiting for the inevitable barrage of new autumnal decorations and spooky knickknacks. I’m eagerly awaiting the day that big orange banner goes up outside a local abandoned K-Mart or Best Buy, signaling the arrival of Spirit Halloween. Masks and vaccination cards may be required for any outing now but Halloween escapades are far from canceled. We freaks, as with all things, have found ways to adapt. 

The morbid heart beats anew and, boy, do I have plans for it. Yes, my September/October watchlist is packed to the brim with creepy, spooky, gory titles. As always, I have a couple of specific series I hope to run through. Earlier this year, I purchased the latest Blu-Ray box set of the Friday the 13th movies. I’ve reviewed all those movies before but that was back in the early days of the blog. I am no longer satisfied with those ramblings and deem new ones necessary. Besides, I’ve given Freddy and Michael Myers their time during previous Blog-a-Thons, so I think I owe Jason the same treatment. 

Last Halloween, I reviewed all the Amityville Horror movies and promised that it was merely one of several bafflingly long-running, poorly regarded horror series I hoped to review. This year, because a new one came out back in February, I’ve decided it was time I get around to watching all the “Wrong Turn” sequels. (I reviewed the original back in 2016.) After all, it is the only long-running slasher franchise set entirely within my home state of West Virginia. It was only a matter of time before I had to check them all out. 

If that wasn’t niche enough for you, how about this group of obscurities? In 2001, creature effects legend Stan Winston partnered with Cinemax to produce a series of in-name-only remakes of old A.I.P. monster movies. The so-called Creature Features series was accompanied by highly detailed action figures, which is how I became interested in it. The five movies aired weekly on Cinemax, before being shipped off to DVD, and received mostly terrible reviews. But I’ve long been curious about them and decided it was time to give the movies a look. To add a little more variety to this journey, I’ll also be reviewing the five original A.I.P. movies as well, many of which I’ve never seen before. 

Of course, I’ve got countless other spooky movies on the docket too. As always, I hope to pack these six weeks with as many titles as possible. That includes TV and short films too. I'm continuing my watch through of Shudder’s “Creepshow” series. I’m also going to watch “Godzilla Singular Point,” an anime series that is not that spooky but I have to see because of my devotion to Toho’s kaiju king of the monsters. I also plan to continue my tradition of watching selected episodes from various anthology series. I might give the new “Chucky” TV show a look too. I have so much stuff planned that I’m not entirely sure where I’m going to put all of it! 

Liz's Hallowen Mood Table

This year has also seen a slow return to movie theaters and convention halls. Monster-Mania is back in Baltimore next weekend – with Christopher Lloyd and Joe Bob Briggs, among others, on the guest list – and JD has talked me into going. I'm pretty apprehensive about it but I heard, at their most recent New Jersey event, the show-runners were insisting on a mask mandate and proof of vaccination. Hopefully that'll help make the convention as safe and stress-free as possible. 

And audiences have slowly, cautiously been returning to movie theaters. This has allowed much-delayed, hotly anticipated titles like “The Forever Purge,” “The Night House,” “Candyman,” and “Malignant” to finally be released. We have a number of big titles coming soon as well: “Antlers,” “Last Night in Soho,” horror-bordering superhero rumble “Venom: Let There Be Carnage,” and “Halloween Kills,” which is likely to be the horror event of this humble season. There's some intriguing sounding indie productions popping up as well, such as the already-released genre hybrid “Prisoners of the Ghostland,” the Golden Palm-winning “Titane,” Netflix slasher “There's Someone Inside Your House,” and the A24 puzzler “Lamb.” I'm definitely going to be reviewing a few of these during the Six Weeks. 

Without further ado: Witches and werewolves, ghosts and goblins, every creepo and creature join hands. Pray to the dark lords. Chant the names of Samhain and Vertumnus and Coffin Joe and the Great Pumpkin. Of Jacks O’Lantern, Pumpkinhead, and Skellington. Invoke all the old gods. After a year of slumber, they are awake. Soon, you’ll feel the old chill in the air, that shiver down your spine. Howls and moans and ghoulish groans reach your ears but they’re all in joy. The Autumn Country throws open its doors and embraces you with a wreath of orange and brown, of treats sweet and tricks mischievous. It’s time to get spooky in here, baby. The Halloween Horror-Fest Blog-a-Thon lives again!

Friday, September 17, 2021

Director Report Card: Vincenzo Natali (2019)

Early in his career, Vincenzo Natali directed a few stray episodes of Canadian-produced TV shows like “PSI Factor,” “Earth: Final Conflict,” or “Space Cases.”  Around 2013, after “Haunter” came and went without making much of an impact, Natali started to work in television a lot more. He did a run of episodes of “Hannibal” and also worked on “Orphan Black,” “Wayward Pines,” “The Strain,” “Westworld,” and “American Gods.” He's also done some work for Netflix, the modern equivalent to low-budget Canadian television. He worked on “Hemlock Grove,” one of their earliest original series, and partnered with the streaming service again to make episodes of “Luke Cage” and the new “Lost in Space.” So it was really only a matter of time before Natali directed a movie for Netflix. That time would come in 2019, when he made “In the Tall Grass” for the streaming giant. 

Becky and her older brother Cal are driving across country. She is six months pregnant and they are traveling to meet the foster family she plans on giving the baby too. After stopping in an abandoned church parking lot, they notice the voice of a child calling to them from the field of tall grass across the street. They decide to head in and help the kid out. Soon, both Cal and Becky become lost in the grass. They soon observe that the field doesn't seem to follow any observable logic, their position in the grass shifting randomly. It's not long before it becomes clear that time works differently in the grass as well, events reoccurring and tracing back over each other. Cal and Becky – accompanied by the father of Becky's child as well as the family of the lost boy – uncover even more disturbing secrets in the tall grass. 

“In the Tall Grass” is adapted from a novella by Stephen King and Joe Hill, the eldest son of the beloved author and a successful horror writer in his own right. It's basically a running gag at this point that King will wrote a scary story about literally anything, no matter how ridiculous it may seem on its face. This is the man who wrote on topics like an evil laundry press, a creepy lawnmower, spooky corn, ominous cellphones, and two separate novels about demonic cars. And because King's name really is that profitable, a lot of those questionable premises were made into movies. When I heard that a Stephen King movie about grass was coming out, it sounded almost like a parody. Was the most successful horror author of our time truly trying to mine scares from the most commonplace of plant life?

As utterly absurd as a horror movie about grass may seem, “In the Tall Grass” actually has a premise with potential. The idea of tall grass blowing in the wind could produce a potentially spooky soundscape. (As evident in “Onibaba,” an obvious influence on this one.) Moreover, the idea of being lost in a maze that can never be escaped brings with it a degree of existential horror. There's a degree of cosmic horror here too, as the grass is seemingly a living organism with plans beyond the scope of human understanding. Some have suggested H.P. Lovecraft's “In the Walls of Eryx” was an influence on the story, which would make the degree of cosmic horror in the movie seem like an even more deliberate choice.

If nothing else, it's easy to see why this idea appealed to this director. As in “Cube” and “Nothing” this is another Vincenzo Natali movie that takes place in a limited location. An inescapable field of grass is not that different from an endless void of white. Characters getting trapped in this situation isn't too different, in the abstract anyway, from being lost in a maze of interconnected cubes. Both the idea behind “In the Tall Grass” and “Cube” tap into similar threads of existential dread. You can also see how the story's eventual time-loop shenanigans and mind-bending twists would appeal to the director who made “Cypher” and “Haunter.” If Natali was going to adapt a King story, this one definitely has his vibe.

Despite that, I still found myself loosing patience with “In the Tall Grass” quickly. Getting lost in an inescapable field, that constantly shifts your location around so you can never gain your bearings? Sure, that's pretty scary. Once the idea of a time loop enters the story, it starts to feel like “In the Tall Grass” is grasping at straws for a way to expand its limited premise to feature length. This is furthered by the movie never once attempting to explain what the hell, exactly, is happening here. There's no logic inside the grass, time going back and forth in random ways. This might've made the idea scarier but, in execution, it just feels like nobody put much thought into the film's interior logic. Stuff just happens in the foreboding field for no reason. 

Eventually, some sort of half-assed explanation for these mysterious events is provided. A large, magical rock lies in the center of the grass. This seems connected to the church on the opposite end of the road. Those who touch the rock develop a cult-like obsession with it and the grass. There are implications that this is not the first batch of people to become enthralled to the rock and the grass. Again, this feels like a desperate attempt to expand a premise that might've made an okay ten-pager or a half-hour anthology episode but feels seriously stretched-out at novel/feature length. I don't mind suggestions or mystery – least of all in a Vincenzo Natali movie – but this stuff does not make the movie feel more intriguing. It just feels sweaty.

In hopes of stretching this idea out long enough to occupy an entire movie, “In the Tall Grass” has to indulge in one of my least favorite genre tropes. That would be characters, trapped in an isolated locations and a perilous situation, beginning to bicker and fight among themselves. You see this happen a lot in zombie movies and I hate it every single time. It's always just an excuse to add more tension to the scenario and it never feels natural. This is exactly how it plays out here. Cal and Becky's baby daddy get into a fight, arguing about who has purer intentions towards Becky, while standing around inside a bowling alley. Presumably, there's an abandoned bowling alley in the middle of the field specifically to set up this bit of meaningless drama. When we are preoccupied with the mystery of what the hell exactly is happening here, it's very difficult indeed to care about insignificant in-fights like this.

Maybe this wouldn't be the case if we were invested in “In the Tall Grass'” characters but, I'm sad to say, this is not the case. Becky is defined solely by her status as a pregnant woman. Cal is just her weird brother, who may or may not have inappropriate feelings towards her. We do learn that Travis, her boyfriend, has a band and that lack of a future is why Cal ostensibly dislikes him so much. That's still not enough to care about him. Tobin, the little boy, varies between being a creepy horror movie child and a na├»ve kid protagonist. And his mom is only in two scenes. None of the actors bring any particular depth to these roles, with Will Bule Jr. actually being quite tone-deaf as the little boy.

The only character in the movie that made much of an impression on me was Ross, the boy's father. He becomes a fanatical devotee to the rock and field a second after touching it. It's not long before he shifts into a dangerous psychopath who is murdering people on behalf of the strange power behind this eldritch location. On paper, this is another standard Stephen King villain type: The evil religious fanatic. (Ross even clarifies that he used to play in a Christian rock group, confirming he's trading one evil cult for another.) Thanks to star Patrick Wilson, Ross becomes an amusingly hammy bad guy. Despite his depraved acts, Wilson plays Ross as an incessantly upbeat man. He maintains this unhinged energy even when crushing heads in his bare hands or performing profane rituals before his new god.

“In the Tall Grass” continues to run out of ideas the longer it goes on. A grass field that looses people, a magical rock with uncertain purposes, and weirdo time travel malarkey was, I guess, not enough to sustain this story. In its second half, “In the Tall Grass” gets increasingly weird and goofy.  Humanoid creatures with faces made of grass appear. Becky's unborn child is seemingly absorbed by the grass. Screaming infants made out of tangled tree roots appear. There's even a suggestion of infanticide and cannibalism. Where the fuck any of this stuff fits into the film's weirdo cosmology, or what any of it even means, is left for the audience to interpret. Personally, I just think it all looks really silly. 

If I can pay “In the Tall Grass” no other compliment, it's that it looks really nice. Vincenzo Natali does create some cool looking images. Some of the weird grass rituals are depicted through a burst of visuals: Of a crow flying and cawing, of grass growing and tangling up into knots, of blood-like capillaries. In its final act, we even see red veins of light flowing through the field, recalling these body-like images from earlier. In the final, we get a peek at the inside of a church. The interior is very boxy – which feels like an intentional homage to “Cube” – and is accented all in green. It's good to know that, even when working with subpar material, Natali still makes sure things look nice.

“In the Tall Grass” was one of several Stephen King adaptations to debut in 2019. The same year also saw the release of “IT: Chapter Two,” “Doctor Sleep,” the remake of “Pet Semetary,” and the second season of “Castle Rock.” This isn't even the last King property Natali would be involved with, as he also directed two episodes of the new “The Stand” streaming series. While mediocre King stories have been turned into decent movies before, in this case it really feels like the material could not sustain a feature length run time. Despite the best efforts of its director and crew, “In the Tall Grass” is ultimately a meandering and goofy motion picture. [Grade: C]

It seems television is where most of Vincenzo Natali's future credits will be, for the time being. I guess this is the fate of many interesting indie filmmakers who had a few buzzy titles a while ago but never quite crossed over into the mainstream. Considering Natali has been attached to a number of high-profile TV shows, I guess there's certainly worst outcomes. Hopefully, he's able to make more features at some point in the future. And hopefully they are closer to the quality of “Cube” or 'Splice,” clever genre films that mixed deeper idea with effective shocks. I'll always like the guy.

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Director Report Card: Vincenzo Natali (2013)

“Splice” was actually intended to be Vincenzo Natali’s follow-up to “Cube.” He wrote the script back in the nineties but had neither the effects resources nor the budgets to bring it to life back then. After filming a script that had sat on the shelf for seventeen years, Natali was eager to get to work on his next project. That’s when he was offered a story by his “Cypher” writer, Brian King. The script was called "Haunter" and was ready to go. The movie still wouldn't be done and released until 2013 – October specifically, a good time to put out a spooky ghost story – but that's the realities of indie filmmaking for you.

Lisa wakes up every day to the sound of her little brother talking to her on his walkie talkie. Every day, her mom makes macaroni and cheese for lunch and meatloaf for dinner. Every evening, she practices her clarinet, goes to bed, wakes up, and starts the same day over again. That's because Lisa is a ghost, trapped in a repeating cycle of the day right before her death. Except, one day, something is different: The voice of another girl reaches out to her. Lisa soon realizes she's communicating with another girl, in another time, about to be pulled into the same cycle. That both girls are victims of the same man, who has been enacting this curse for five decades. 

"Haunter" finds a kind of novel approach to the ghost movie premise. This is a ghost movie told from the perspective of the ghost. Like spirits frequently are said to be, Lisa repeats the actions from her life, unaware at first that she's even dead. From her perspective, it's still 1985 and her bedroom is still covered with posters for Siouxsie and the Banshee and David Bowie. One evening, she walks into her bedroom but the walls are different. There's a different girl in her bed. What we're seeing here is a classical ghost encounter but from the ghost's point-of-view. That's a neat idea. 

"Haunter" is also a movie about a curse, one that's been visiting itself on the families living in the same house since the fifties. This was the childhood home of the malevolent old man Lisa sometimes sees. Since his own death, he's been possessing the bodies of the fathers that live there and having them carry out the same mass murder: Killing themselves and their families through carbon-dioxide poisoning. The girl in 2013 Lisa is communicating with is experiencing the exact same thing Lisa did back in the eighties. The killer explains it himself as "history doesn't repeat itself, it rhymes." Showing a ghostly curse like this, from the inside out, is probably the coolest idea "Haunter" has.

In fact, while watching "Haunter," I couldn't help but think a movie about the girl in the modern day, slowly realizing her family is caught up in a curse far older than her, would probably be more interesting. That's because, for most of its runtime, "Haunter" is actually a time loop movie. Lisa is very used to the loop by this point, having experienced it many times. She knows exactly what her parents are going to say and when they're going to say it. That a family meeting about Lisa supposedly stealing clothes is going to come every night at the exact same time. "Haunter" tries to mine suspense from changes slowly working their way into this repeating cycle. Such as her dad suddenly smoking a cigarette after dinner or mom deciding to read a book, instead of watching "Murder, She Wrote," before bed. Yet it's hard to mine suspense from such a repetitive story. Like Lisa, the viewer feels kind of numb to the scenario very quickly. "Haunter" wants to be the horror version of "Groundhog Day" but can't quite pull it off. 

The movie tries really hard to make its premise work. On the technical side of things, "Haunter" is very well done. The interior of Lisa's home feels appropriately lived-in and realistic. It feels like a house from the eighties, one a family has been living in for quite some time. The cinematography – from Jon Joffin, best known for his work on the "The X-Files" – is fittingly spooky. The 1980s scenes have a sickly green tint to them, implying everyone there is already dead, while the modern sequences are far brighter. Lisa rooting around in a dark crawlspace filled with bones or the impenetrable wall of fog that constantly surrounds her home make for some creepy visuals. Alex Khaskin's piano-driven score also establishes a chilly mood.

As hard as "Haunter" is working to generate a creepy atmosphere, it just can't quite get there. Notably, the movie's attempts at scaring the audience fall hopelessly flat. Natali tries to replicate the forceful, shocking scares he created in "Splice." In scenes like Lisa stumbling across the furnace where the killer burns the bodies of his victims. Yet the loud sounds and bright visuals intruding in a dark space just feel like a cheap jump scare. This is especially apparent during the climax, when the screaming, distorted face of a young girl is thrust into the camera. That's the kind of cheesy horror theatrics that I would think would be above Vincenzo Natali. Other attempts at creating creepy visuals – like apparitions moving in a jittery, silent movie style fashion or a little boy speaking with a grown man's voice – come off as goofy. No matter how hard it tries, "Haunter" just can't create a foreboding feeling. 

Perhaps the reason "Haunter" can't deliver the scares it wants to is because the mystery at its center isn't very compelling. At the film's beginning, Lisa already knows that she's dead. That her entire family are already ghosts. Wouldn't watching her realize this be more compelling? It's hard for a creepy atmosphere, of the normal being disrupted, to be created when there is no normal to begin with. While the exact mechanics of the curse are interesting, we've already figured out that Lisa was simply one in a line of victims the minute she fishes the killer's scrapbook out from under the floorboards. Similarly, too much time is focused on the idea of Lisa jumping around timelines, a heady idea that feels out-of-place in a story that is otherwise more grounded. 

Another reason “Haunter” isn't as compelling as it could've been is simply because Lisa is not an especially lovable protagonist. We never learn anything about her backstory or life. Her personality remains largely vague. Except for her gothy fashion and music, her clarinet lessons, and a sarcastic commitment to vegetarianism, we never learn much about her likes or dislikes. That she spends most of the movie in a bitchy mood, owing to being fed-up with this time loop, it's hard to like her. She doesn't even seem that fond of her little brother or parents. Abigail Breslin is totally passable in the role. She invests emotion whenever she can but fails in making her a compelling heroine. It's only in the last act, when she has to fight for her life against an intimidating villain, that Lisa seems to really hook the viewer in.

Playing the killer – whose name is eventually revealed to be Edgar Mullins but is only known as the Pale Man for most of the movie – Stephen McHattie. McHattie, Canada's Lance Henriksen, is exceptionally well-cast here. For the majority of his few scenes on-screen, McHattie just has to glare ominously and whisper creepy things. He's really good at this. In many other moments, just his voice is enough to make “Haunter” feel spooky. McHattie's already distinctive appearance is emphasized with pale make-up, which makes him even more of a foreboding presence. The film is at its best when McHattie's disturbing presence is felt and the film falters anytime he's not on-screen.

Outside of its villain, few of the film's cast members make much of an impression. Michelle Nolden gives a sleepy performance as Lisa's mom, which was likely intentional considering the role the character has to play in the story. Peter Outerbridge has a little more energy as her dad, occasionally showing a threatening poise or welcoming aura. (He also resembles McHattie a little bit, which was also surely intentional.) Peter DaCunha is also very broad and flat as Lisa's little brother, one of those movie kids that seems defined solely by ham-fisted attempts to be adorable. Very few of the family members from the modern day sequence make an impression, though Natali naturally sneaks David Hewlett into the brief role of the modern father. 

Truthfully, “Haunter” is a departure for the director. None of his other horror movies, up to this point, revolved around supernatural elements. Honestly, the element that most connects this movie to the director's earlier ones is that most of the story is set in one location. It's not too far of the leap to see Lisa's house, trapped inside time and fog, as an evolution of “Nothing's” white void or “Cube's” identical rooms. A small conversation between Lisa and her mom, in which the woman comes clean about her feelings about the events leading up to this day, recalls the element parenthood played in “Splice.” Otherwise, there's little here that has that distinctive Vincenzo Natali feeling. 

This review probably came off as a little harsher than I intended. “Haunter” isn't a bad movie, by any means. It has some intriguing ideas, a threatening villain, and enough professionalism behind its look and feel to occasionally scratch an itch for a certain kind of cinematic spookiness. Yet the movie is never as involving as it feels like it should be. It's a film whose potential feels misspent, where some intriguing concepts were put to the side and less compelling elements took center stage. Most reactions to the film seem to be similar to mine, that it just doesn't quite get there. And because the movie was released by IFC Midnight, it wasn't widely seen outside of the horror fandom and general film obsessives. By no means terrible, “Haunter” still ranks among the filmmaker's more forgettable works. [Grade: C+]

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Director Report Card: Vincenzo Natali (2009)

Five years between movies is not a ridiculously long amount of time. Yet, by the time “Splice” came out in 2009, it sure seemed like we hadn't seen a Vincenzo Natali movie in a while. This is probably because “Cypher” and “Nothing” were not widely released and didn't become cult phenomena on the level of “Cube.” Another reason it felt this way is because “Splice” was the first of Natali's films to get a truly wide release. (I saw it at my local shitty Regal.) It was distributed by Hollywood studios like Dark Castle and Warner Brothers. The film was executive produced by Guillermo del Toro, who it's easy to imagine what a big fan of Natali's work, and had a budget of 30 million dollars. In other words, it was easily the biggest movie of the filmmaker's career up to this point.

Elsa and Clive, two genetic engineers and a married couple, work to create life at N.E.R.D. (Nucleic Exchange Research and Development) Their latest creations are Fred and Ginger, male and female lifeforms made by splicing different genes together. Elsa hopes to splice human and animal DNA next but are forbidden from doing it by their bosses... But the two decide to do it anyway, under the radar and off the books. Their experiment unexpectedly comes to term, birthing a bizarre female creature. It survives longer than expect, growing at a fast rate, and eventually begins to display human-like behavior. Elsa names her Dren and begins to treat her like a daughter. Yet, as Dren grows and matures, her inhuman side shows more. And so does the flaws of her “parents.”

“Splice” is, knowingly, Vincenzo Natali doing his riff on the “Frankenstein” story. He nods towards this in several direct ways: Elsa and Clive are named after Elsa Lancester and Colin Clive. Shortly following Dren's birth, Elsa even shouts “she's alive.” The narrative veers towards the idea of man meddling in God's domain. However, the filmmaker attempts to update “the mad scientist creates monster” premise in his own clever way. Instead of stitching together dead bodies, Dren is made through near-future genetic engineering technology. At one point, the characters discuss the legality of cloning a human, before Elsa responds that their creation won't be human. This shows how “Splice” follows in “Frankenstein's” footsteps, expressing modern anxieties about advances like CRISPR the same way Mary Shelley was voicing fears about the science of her time. 

And like Mary Shelly's original novel, “Splice” is also about parenthood. The film is rift with pregnancy imagery. The artificial womb Dren is born from is subjected to ultrasounds, just like a regular pregnancy. Her arrival brings with it anticipation and anxiety, over the countless things that could go wrong. Elsa and Clive even openly discuss having a child before deciding to create life at their lab. The tank the semi-aquatic adult Dren frequently sleeps in invokes a womb-like feeling. Dren screeches in an ear-splitting fashion and keeps the parents up at all hours of the night, the same way a newborn does. The arrival of Dren also means an interruption of Elsa and Clive's sex life, as often happens with new parents. The movie bakes a number of deliberate parallels into its story.

Moreover, the movie is about how men and women approach child rearing. Clive is frightened by Dren at first. He frequently asks Elsa to kill the monsters they've made, bringing the idea of an uncertain father-to-be considering paying for an abortion to mind. Before Dren's unexpected birth, he even outright announces he's going to “kill it.” Elsa, meanwhile, is immediately attached to this small, vulnerable life form. It's not long before Elsa is dressing her little monster up in girly clothing and trying to teach it to read. Clive, meanwhile, remains resistant. When Dren has a panic attack following a move, Clive shoves the female creature under water... Ostensibly to activate the gills Dren has but also, it's suggested, to end the thing's life. While Elsa's maternal instincts kick in immediately, Clive is far more concerned about the consequences of what they've done. 

Of course, parenting skills don't appear in a vacuum. We learn how to raise children from our own parents. The legacy left to us by our own mothers visits itself on Elsa as “Splice” goes on. We learn more and more about her abusive childhood. How her mother forbid her from wearing make-up, how she made her sleep on a naked mattress on the floor. How she wouldn't let her have dolls. At first, Elsa is trying not to repeat the mistakes of the past on Dren, her symbolic child. As Dren grows older and tests the authority of her parents, like any teenager, Elsa quickly backslides towards her own abusive past. Clive says it himself: As long as Dren was something cute and small that Elsa could control, she loved her. The minute the monster becomes independent, Elsa exerts control in horribly abusive ways. This cycle of abuse is something many adult children struggle to escape and “Splice” puts a very interesting, personal riff on that idea.

Part of why teenagers start acting out against their parents, start demanding more freedom, is because they're starting to develop a sex drive. The way “Splice” handles that particular idea is probably the plot point people have the most trouble with. The only male Dren has ever been exposed to is Clive, her “father.” She draws crayon sketches of him, the same way a growing girl might express a childish crush... Yet Dren is also a half-human entity without the built-in societal taboos or conditioning people have. This is probably why Dren attempts to seduce Clive. What I think rubs a lot of the viewers the wrong way about this is how easily Clive gives in. Maybe it does come a bit out of nowhere but I sort of love the movie taking this wild swing, designing a strangely erotic monster and allowing the story to explore that. 

“Splice” does contribute an interesting addition to the cinematic legacy of monsters. Dren begins life as a squirming tadpole creature, before something that resembles a hairless rat with kangaroo legs jumps out. She grows more human-like but retains those springy-legs, with feet that resemble a second pair of hands. She has that unnervingly fleshy tail, outfitted with a deadly stinger. The way Dren evolves as a creature, sprouting wings in a nice moment, is one of “Splice's” best surprises. Delphine Chaneac, her face and eyes made more uncanny with clever CGI, makes Dren a real character to with personality quirks. The way she becomes excited at dancing is honestly cute. 

As interested as it is in science and parenthood, “Splice” is still a horror movie. Natali knows it too. The scare sequences are often filmed with shotgun intensity. Dren's birth, with Elsa's arm being caught in the artificial womb by something, is fittingly tense. The best shock in the movie concerns Fred and Ginger suddenly, violently turning against each other. The weird little critters, resembling both worms and organs, suddenly stabbing one another – splattering blood all over their cage – is pretty shocking. The shocks are piled on, with the scene growing even more outrageous from that point. 

That moment foreshadows “Splice's” last act, which is when the film most resembles a tradition “monster on the loose” narrative. Dren's revenge on their parents certainly contains some moments that shock or disgust. Yet “Splice,” which was so exciting and clever up to this point, also because pretty predictable after this twist. As a horror director, Natali does his best work when catching the audience off-guard. That's why Fred and Giner's blood-splattered demises earlier works so well. And why Dren's last act rampage feels like a foregone conclusion, like the film limply cycling towards its cynical denouncement.

That epilogue is especially important and ends “Splice” on a chilling note. Throughout the film, Elsa and Clive's corporate backers have demanded they abandon their research into human/animal splicing. Instead, they want them to get to work growing DNA strands that can be used in protein and food production. The idea of corporation's disregarding the people behind the things they own, and focused only on the profits they can make from them, continues the thread of anti-corporate themes we've seen in Natali's past films. It's also makes for a hell of an “Or is it?” ending, which also connects back to the kind of classic monster movies “Splice” pays homage too.

Really holding “Splice” together is a strong set of lead performances. Sarah Polly as Elsa and Adrien Brody as Clive were, apparently, the director's only choices for the roles. Both are really good. Even if the script bends her character in some unexpected directions, Polly maintains Elsa's humanity. She is ultimately a tragic person, trying to escape her destiny as another child abuser but hopelessly drawn back towards it anyway. Brody, meanwhile, somehow keeps Clive from coming off as an impulsive, insensitive asshole. Despite the obviously morally objectionable things he does, he still seems like someone the audience can like and root for. Like a guy caught up in something he really can't control. (And just in case you forgot this was a Vincenzo Natali movie, he finds a small supporting role for David Hewlett too.)

“Splice” would be the first Dark Castle production to actually be well received by critics. It would also, funny enough, be one of the few outright flops the company would make, grossing only 27 million at the box office. I guess this goes to show you that audiences and critics have very different expectations for monster movies. This is also apparent in the reactions to “Splice” I've seen, which tend to be wildly mixed. Yet the film has found more than a fair share of defenders. It's an extremely interesting riff on the monster movie premise, exploring deeper ideas among a number of decent shocks and surprise plot twists. [Grade: B+]

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

RECENT WATCHES: Cube Zero (2005)

Whether it made sense or not, the release of “Hypercube” officially changed “Cube” from one clever sci-fi/horror indie into a franchise. Though nearly everyone agreed that the sequel was of lackluster quality, “Cube 2” must have sold pretty well on DVD. Three years later, Lionsgate would produce a third installment in the series. Perhaps deciding the gimmick of one giant cube filled with traps and secrets had played itself out, the next installment would go back in time. “Cube Zero” is a prequel, seeking to answer some of the mysteries established in Vincenzo Natali's original. Ernie Barbarash, who produced the previous sequel, would make his directorial debut with the prequel. 

Once again, we open with a man in a prison jumpsuit awaking inside a mysterious cube-shaped room, with no idea how he got there. He soon activates a trap and is gruesomely killed... The camera then pulls back and reveals two men, math genius Wynn and mechanic Dodd, observing the scenes on a monitor. Wynn and Dodd are technicians tasked with observing the activity within the cube. As a new batch of people awaken inside, Wynn becomes attached to one of the new test subjects. The two workers soon begin to question the motives of their mysterious employers and wonder if even they are safe from their traps. 

Part of what made the original “Cube” so intriguing was the mysteries its premise hinted at. We didn't know who built the cube, what its purpose was, or where or why the people inside were there. Where the original only left the viewer with ideas, “Cube 2” at least suggested some answers. “Cube Zero” gives us our most defined peek at the movies' universe yet. It reveals that the Cube program is happening in some sort of futuristic dystopia, where soldiers are implanted with microchips, dreams can be recorded to CD-ROM, and some sort of authoritarian government rules the world. The people trapped inside the cube are revealed to be political prisoners, their memories wiped before being dropped into this nightmarish scenario. And there's no actual escape from it, as “Cube Zero” reveals that anyone who makes it out of the cube is simply killed afterwards anyway. 

“Cube Zero” at least attempts to maintain some of the original's ambiguity by leaving many questions, such as the exact purpose of the cube experiments or the government running it, to the imagination. Yet the answers the prequel provides are certainly a lot less interesting than the implications the first movie left us with. Yet even this is not the real reason “Cube Zero” pales in comparison to the original. Vincenzo Natali generated suspense in “Cube” because, no matter how simple the characters were, you cared about them. The people inside the maze in “Cube Zero” are not even given enough personality to classify as archetypes. They are vague outlines at best. This extends to Wynn and Dodd, who never come to life in any compelling ways. You simply don't care about any of the characters in “Cube Zero,” which makes it hard to care about anything that happens to them.

The reveal that the "Cube" series is set in some sort of sci-fi future is probably my least favorite here. I much prefer the suggestion that all of this nefarious shit was going on, right now, just under our noses. Setting the story in the future, or at least an alternate universe, removes the immediacy... It also opens things up to a seriously goofy streak. The film's heroine is introduced being pursued by soldiers with glowing green eyes and cube symbols tattooed on their foreheads. After Wynn goes into the cube himself to help save the people inside, the technician's boss enters the story. That would be a character named Jax, who has a screw stud for a left eye, and is played in a hideously campy fashion by Michael Riley. In its final act, “Cube Zero” has one of the prisoners taken over by the villains and becoming a super-strong zombie. That's the point any degree of subtly or seriousness the prequel had goes right out the window. We are in the land of cheesy bullshit now.

With so little to recommend about it, is there anything in “Cube Zero's” favor? Well, the movie does feature some pretty clever kill scenes. The opening scene has a prisoner stepping into a room where he's sprayed with a liquid. At first, he assumes it's simply water but soon realizes it's a corrosive acid of some sort. His skin slowly peeling off and his body reduced to a bloody pile of giblets is creatively gruesome. Other kills include a graphic burning sequence, a man cut apart by an intertwining series of garrotes, a flesh eating virus injected into the body, and a sound wave cannon that makes people explode. Eventually, even the traps get silly, as there's later a bunch of CGI lasers crackling through the air. It says a lot about “Cube Zero's” overall quality that gory death scenes is the only real interesting element it has, compared to the suspense and intrigue of the original. But it's something, I guess.

“Cube Zero” features a few shout-outs to the original and proves its prequel status by eventually connecting directly with the first film. Not in a way that's especially satisfying. And pretending this movie is a prologue to Natali's “Cube” would do nothing but cheapen the superior film. “Cube Zero” is, at the very, less insultingly dumb and pretentious than “Hypercube.” Ernie Barbarash would go on to make another direct-to-video sequel to a horror cult classic before directing some movies with Jean-Claude Van Damme. Good for him, I guess. As for the “Cube” franchise, Vincenzo Natali himself has attempted to get a sequel/remake called “Cubed” off the ground for several years. Meanwhile, out of the blue, a trailer for a Japanese remake – which looks almost like a shot-for-shot redo of the original – was released this year. So it seems the “Cube” legacy isn't over, even if the immediate follow-ups lacked much of what made the original special. As for “Cube Zero,” it's pretty much a dud. [5/10]