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Tobe Hooper and the Aesthetics of Madness (Part I) by Jonny Numb

<img src="danceofthedead.jpg" alt="The Aesthetics of Madness Tobe Hooper’s Dance of the Dead">

The Aesthetics of Madness (Part 1): Tobe Hooper’s “Dance of the Dead.”

Madness and Cinema

Tobe Hooper’s career echoed that of many a seminal genre director from a particular, boundary-busting era. His struggles, his achievements, and his character iconography contributed to the horror canon. As with other directors who have passed on, his impact on cinema as a whole will continue to be felt.

George A. Romero gave us the black-and-white blood and guts of Night of the Living Dead in 1968, which also laid bare the genre’s potential to make social and political statements – in addition to subverting traditional notions of horror antagonism (“We have met the enemy, and he is us” indeed).

Wes Craven’s first feature, a take on Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, brought grit, grunge, color, and a documentary-style aesthetic to a tale of criminal scumbags who subject two flower children to a “coming of age” that hinges on defilement, humiliation, and death. Last House on the Left, despite its self-doubting segues into humor and a banjo-twangin’ theme song, nonetheless brought savagery to the suburbs, breaking the illusions of “security” afforded to the upper class.

For me, this trinity always embodied the humanizing ups and downs of filmmaking business madness. You can find many interviews and commentaries of the late Craven and Romero looking back on scraping together funding, dealing with censor-happy studio heads, and succumbing to compromise when all other avenues failed. These are sadly familiar tales, but their recollections are imbued with a self-deprecating honesty that makes their stories all the more endearing and instructive.

Yet, while Craven and Romero had at least several critically conceded masterpieces under their belts, Tobe Hooper only had one.

But I don’t want to talk about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The conversation about who did or didn’t direct Poltergeist is the type of gossipy crap that bores me. And I’ll let Billy Crash write the apologias for the cult-beloved Lifeforce.

What I’m proposing here, is: While Hooper was just as much a product of a studio system that treated horror as disposable content to turn a profit, his projects over the years maintained signatures of style, characterization, and tonal sensibility. His films were always messy (in the literal and figurative sense), but not due to a lack of skill or temperament.

Maybe someday I’ll do a piece on the virtues of Spontaneous Combustion – the film and the phenomenon – but I’d wager that Brad Dourif’s flamethrower finger was a none-too-subtle reflection of what Hooper wanted to do to the money men who frequently, ahem, “mangled” his work. (Too bad the flames weren’t shooting from Dourif’s middle finger.)

While Tobe Hooper’s output in the new millennium produced successful, off-the-wall remakes of The Toolbox Murders and Mortuary, those films still remain divisive, with support that only falls in line with “cult” status. Even when left to his own devices, Hooper created his own form of madness by drawing wildly opposing reactions.

Dance of the Dead

And his first-season Masters of Horror episode, “Dance of the Dead,” was no exception.

Before I ever had a chance to watch it, I had noticed numerous negative user reviews cropping up on the IMDb. Many claimed that, if it wasn’t the worst episode of that first season, it was one of the worst.

I think Masters of Horror was ahead of the curve – a general precursor to the type of harder-edged, content-unrestricted fare that had been spearheaded by HBO, and later came to dominate Netflix’s programming roster. As a result, though, the show’s ability to push boundaries (with some network-mandated cuts to Dario Argento’s “Jenifer” and the outright banning of Takashi Miike’s “Imprint”) sometimes came off as leaning on gore or nudity for its own sake.

“Dance of the Dead,” however, felt like the one episode that embraced its own crazed boundlessness. Its gore was as organic as its nudity and skeevy presentation of sexuality (which is telling, since the closest it gets to sex is practically necrophilia). Its aesthetic – a series of hammering edits, heavy-metal music (courtesy of Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan), and jittery “ghosting” effects – which most IMDb users decried, came across as perfectly fitting for the tale (an adaptation of Richard Matheson’s classic short story).

Consider some of Hooper’s previous works, and a pattern starts to appear: sets that resemble a claustrophobic notion of a hoarder’s lair. Characters with crazed motives, ranging from the external to the idiosyncratic. Action that storms its way into the frame with the recklessness of a wrecking ball through a brick wall.

Tobe Hooper’s detractors attributed the chaos of his films to a general lack of talent (“Texas Chainsaw was a fluke” being the laziest of article-starters), but less consideration was given to the possibility that Hooper’s brand of chaos was chaos by design.

To be continued…

(Photo of “Dance of the Dead” DVD cover via Undead Review.)

Crash Analysis Support Team:

<img src="jonnynumb.jpg" alt="Jonny Numb">Jonny Numb

(Aka Jonathan Weidler), he only plays favorites when it comes to review sites like Crash Palace Productions and Loud Green Bird. He co-hosts THE LAST KNOCK horror podcast on iTunes, and can also be found on Twitter and Letterboxd.

The Elevation of THE DARK TOWER (2017) by Jonny Numb

Idris Elba Matthew McConaughey[95 minutes. PG-13. Director: Nikolaj Arcel]

Adaptation is a funny thing.

Regardless of what route you take, you will take heat from fans of the source material.

Someone – online or elsewhere – will accuse you of “ruining the book(s) forever” (even though that’s total bullshit).

One example in particular that galled me – Christ, 17 years ago – occurred on a Yahoo! Club for author (and professional crank) Bret Easton Ellis. The forum was sparsely-populated, yet the conversation was always active. The long-gestating film version of American Psycho had finally seen release, and the consensus among the Club members was divided. I thought it was an excellent adaptation, but one of the other members took a different track, arguing that the excised extremes of sex and violence – which comprised the novel’s crude backbone – rendered it an unfaithful telling.

Making a 95-minute version of The Dark Tower is as counterintuitive as cracking a fortune cookie with a sledgehammer. It has no reason to work. King devoted seven novels of varying girth to this epic tale, and to capture its essence in such an abbreviated amount of time is madness.

Yet…if you’re looking for that essence, it works. Somehow.

“Good enough for Government work,” as the saying goes.

People who dig on the Harry Potter novels or Lord of the Rings are often vehemently unflagging in their enthusiasm: certain diehard fans will absolve a sacred series of any transgression, while some will raise issues that nonetheless don’t detract from the enjoyment of said series. In most cases, people who begin a book series finish it, and come to view the individual volumes as a cohesive whole, to the point where it’s just plain Harry Potter, not Harry Potter and Whatever Subtitle.

I’m in a unique position with The Dark Tower series because I’m not particularly fond of all its parts. The self-indulgence and running-on-fumes storytelling evident in Song of Susannah (book 6) and The Dark Tower (book 7) turned me off, and transformed something that had begun with great promise (not to mention storytelling economy – The Gunslinger (book 1) came in at well under 300 pages) into a disappointment by its end. With a devoted fanbase that would finish the series regardless, King’s kitchen-sink, “fuck it” mentality left a bitter aftertaste.

Based on this, I was willing to give Nikolaj Arcel’s film adaptation the benefit of the doubt, and embrace the streamlined approach to the tale.

This could be a reflection of my own ongoing fatigue with Hollywood’s current daze of “blockbuster brain,” epitomized by this year’s shiny – yet awfully empty – Guardians of the Galaxy sequel. (And how long will Avengers: Infinity War be? Six hours with three bathroom-break intermissions? But I digress.) With studios operating under the notions of dwindling box-office receipts and dried-up physical-media sales, the last option, outside of 3D and IMAX, is, well, making movies longer.

Because more minutes equals more entertainment, amirite?

Yes, The Dark Tower does signify a mass condensing of King’s prose. Taking bits and pieces from up to the fifth book (The Wolves of the Calla – my personal favorite), it simplifies the plot, doesn’t take enough time to establish the quirks and rules of its interdimensional logic, and relegates some characters (such as Jackie Earle Haley’s Sayre) to cameo status.

But I didn’t mind too much.

The tale of Roland Deschain – aka Roland of Gilead, the last in a long line of Gunslingers – and his quest to defend the fabled Dark Tower (which keeps life across all dimensions in balance) from ageless sorcerer Walter (Matthew McConaughey), is engaging, old-fashioned fantasy-adventure stuff, told with a keen attention to aural and visual detail. The story begins, however, with Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), a boy “blessed” with psychic visions of the titular Tower. When he discovers an interdimensional portal in a crumbling New York City mansion, he enters another world, where he quickly meets Roland and becomes an unlikely sidekick on his quest to defeat Walter, whose ultimate goal is to bring the Tower down, thus raining chaos on humanity.

The performers convey an eclecticism that’s fitting to King’s text: as Roland, Idris Elba possesses the imposing physical frame and a Spaghetti-Western stoicism, but is also tender and vulnerable – it’s a brilliant bit of casting. McConaughey is also good, resisting the urge to mug or fall back on his looks; Walter plays to his smugness in a perfectly apt way – with an incantation or a wave of a hand, he murders people without hesitation, sometimes cracking an impish one-liner after. There’s a spectral quality to Walter that adds an element of unpredictability to the proceedings, and Arcel makes fine use of simple camera pans to spring surprising reveals. As Jake, Taylor is a standout presence – never veering into precocious or obnoxious territory, he’s wise and astute and a more-than-worthy sidekick to the grizzled Roland.

In addition to Earle Haley lurking in the margins, I also appreciated the inclusion of genre faces Abbey Lee (The Neon Demon) and Fran Kranz (The Cabin in the Woods) as the grunts working behind the scenes at Walter’s lair.

Arcel handles the action with efficiency, and even the quieter character moments never feel sentimental or indulgent. Ditto his reverent winks to characters, monsters, and places from throughout King’s oeuvre. As adaptations go, Tower doesn’t lean on exposition like, say, Tim Burton’s dreary adaptation of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. We are given enough detail to keep the plot cohesive, enough character development to keep us invested, and enough action to keep us anticipating what will happen next.

The Dark Tower is not a masterpiece; it’s just enough.

3 out of 5 stars

(Photo of Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey via Desktop Wallpapers.)

Crash Analysis Support Team:

unknownJonny Numb

(Aka Jonathan Weidler), he only plays favorites when it comes to review sites like Crash Palace Productions and loudgreenbird.com. He co-hosts THE LAST KNOCK horror podcast on iTunes, and can also be found on Twitter and Letterboxd.

TRUTH OR DARE (2013) by Jonny Numb

[84 minutes. Unrated. Director: Jessica Cameron]

I’ve only done one interview for THE LAST KNOCK podcast, but it was very special: back in early 2014, I spoke with Jessica Cameron, who was on a promotional kick for her directorial debut, Truth or Dare. I knew of her status as a prolific, hard-working actor and rabid adherent of the genre, but it wasn’t until I spent a fast-moving hour with her (via Skype) that I realized I was in the presence of a promising new horror filmmaker.

Truth or Dare is not without its flaws – which I’ll get to – but it also does a lot of things very well, considering the limited setting, cast, and resources. It’s hard to keep a feature-length movie confined to a single location interesting and exciting, but Cameron finds a way.

True to its title, the film doesn’t flinch from horrible things – it’s also so saturated with screams, shouting, and agony that my neighbors probably thought someone was being murdered in my apartment.

Other than some fleeting comedic asides and a satirical element that recalls the likes of Natural Born Killers and Funny Games, Truth or Dare takes its extremes seriously. The setup, however, is pure Saw territory that evolves, with mounting dread, into the no-(wo)man’s land found in the latter Human Centipede films.

The plot is simple: a group of friends gain online notoriety by staging “truth or dare” videos with simulated life-or-death consequences. During a local talk-show interview, the group is confronted by crazed fan Derek (Ryan Kizer), a screw-loose nutcase unable to discern fiction from reality. On the night of their latest recording session, the friends find themselves taken hostage by this obsessed fiend, who escalates the stakes by revealing everyone’s hidden secrets.

The script (by Jonathan Scott Higgins and Cameron) knows its audience, and aims squarely for the horror discomfort zone: while the initial “truth”-telling by the reluctant participants comes across as a string of contrived tabloid behaviors, fetishes, and misdeeds, the actors are committed to making these details pay off in ways both visceral and emotional. Late in the game, when a mutilated and brutalized (but still breathing) character is shocked into consciousness by a bucket of her friends’ blood, Cameron has reached a level of degradation that few horror filmmakers ever achieve. It ain’t pretty, but goddamn if it isn’t effective.

The flaws of Truth or Dare are mostly innate to the setup…and, in a weird way, could be subliminal strengths. When the reality of the game settles in, the performances take a little time to find their proper footing – sometimes the hysterical reactions are overdone, while others don’t resonate enough. There are also moments where characters, free from their constraints and armed, could conceivably get the drop on Derek, but do not (though by the time this happens, everyone is implicated and chugging along with the game’s twisted logic). And as the emcee of the festivities, Kizer (invoking a cross between Charles Manson and Brad Pitt’s character in 12 Monkeys) is charismatic, albeit the type of deranged fan we’ve seen in many films; he acquits himself well as someone you love to hate, but also whose presence outstays its welcome.

But if the intent was for the viewer’s experience to reflect to characters’, Cameron has succeeded in spades.

The consistent surprise, in addition to the character-based revelations, is the film’s unflinching embrace of bloodshed. Carrie Mercado’s practical effects in Truth or Dare are stunning in their in-your-face brutality, and the actors convey every wound with disquieting conviction – the violence here is not “cool,” but closer to the messy, handmade gore you’d experience in, say, a Jim VanBebber film. Throughout, I also found myself thinking the effects were a spiritual heir to the pioneering extremes of Herschell Gordon Lewis.

Once the credits rolled, I was convinced of Cameron’s skills in front of and behind the camera, and in watching the supplemental interview footage on the DVD, was reminded of her genuine affection for the genre. Truth or Dare is a very distinct calling card that bodes well for her future directorial outings (including the Tristan Risk-starring Mania) – I can’t wait to see what horrible things she brings us next.

What’s Jessica Cameron up to now? A lot! Get the details at her website.

(Truth or Dare is available on DVD from Invincible Pictures, and digitally via online retailers.)

(Photo of Jessica Cameron via Nerdly.)

Crash Analysis Support Team:

unknownJonny Numb (aka Jonathan Weidler) only plays favorites when it comes to review sites like Crash Palace Productions and loudgreenbird.com. He co-hosts THE LAST KNOCK horror podcast on iTunes, and can also be found on Twitter and Letterboxd.

Event Report: Monster Mania 36 by Jonny Numb

 

The long-running Monster-Mania Convention knows how to show horror fans a good time. For 3 days every March and August, genre stars and a wide variety of vendors descend upon Cherry Hill, New Jersey (just over the Ben Franklin Bridge) for a celebration of macabre delight.

Over the past decade, I’ve attended at least one MM con per year, and have never been disappointed. Between the guests (usually a mix of new blood and returning fan favorites) and the vendors spread across several rooms, this truly is a holiday for horror-hounds – a combination of celebrity wish-fulfillment and a cornucopia of dazzling material goodies awaiting discovery.

There are certain things that MM newbies should be cognizant of: Even if you get to the Crowne Plaza early, you may want to pack your walking shoes (or something that doesn’t lace up to the thigh). My best friend and I arrived at noon on Saturday, and were greeted by a mile-long backup of vehicles waiting to chance the packed parking lot. As veterans of the con, we had never seen MM this busy.

After an odd winter of wildly fluctuating temperatures (from balmy 60s to well below freezing), the day was a mix of sun and wind, the type of slap-you-in-the-face cold that Calvin’s dad would insist “builds character.” As we walked from our faraway parking spot, we speculated on the reason for the turnout (John Cusack being the headliner guest; our later arrival; the parking lot being taken up by out-of-towners in for the whole weekend) and stopped at a delicious* pit barbecue place for lunch.

Upon passing through the automatic lobby doors of the Crowne Plaza, we faced a scene of (mostly figurative) chaos: the extensive foyer/lounge area was packed with people. On first glance, it was overwhelming and obnoxious – a mass of bodies like something out of a Clive Barker novel – but my excitement over being there eventually trumped a sinking feeling of not enjoying the show on account of being unable to move.

The line for tickets moved with great efficiency (with at least 3 or 4 volunteers keeping on top of things), and good news for everyone whose favored ATMs were on the fritz prior to driving over (like me): the admission table does take credit cards. Following the acquisition of the much-coveted wristband, I progressed to the line for the lobby ATM. While a longer wait (maybe 15 minutes), those around me had a good sense of humor whenever somebody would sincerely ask, “Who are you in line for?”

Following my ATM adventure, I met my friend in the room where a majority of the celebrity guests were gathered. Forming a border along the wall, the center section was a swarm of fans looking to get up close and personal with stars as varied as Oscar winner Louise Fletcher, original “Buffy” Kristy Swanson, guys who played Jason Voorhees (Ted White and C.J. Graham), Lucas and “Toothless” from Stranger Things, and even con mainstay Doug “Pinhead” Bradley (whose line seemed permanently stretched halfway across the room).

We both had clear ideas of who we wanted to meet, and began with the lovely Ashley Bell (from Carnage Park and The Last Exorcism, among others), who possessed an energy and enthusiasm that was infectious. MM 36 was her first proper convention, and she was elated to meet her fans. She had nothing but glowing things to say about her collaboration with director Mickey Keating and co-star Pat Healy in Carnage Park, and told me of Psychopaths’ (another Keating project) April premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. After graciously posing for a picture, she suggested making a phone call to Billy Crash (proprietor of this fine site!) and concluded by pointing me in the direction of Love and Bananas – an elephant documentary she’s involved with (also her Twitter handle). Though I committed a faux pas that I will take to my grave, Miss Bell embodied everything a fan could want in a convention guest – down to earth, energetic, and clearly passionate about the genre.

Years ago, my friend had a great alternative poster from John Carpenter’s The Thing, which was unfortunately damaged beyond repair in a house fire. Needless to say, he acquired a reprint for MM, which hosted a mini-reunion of the men of Outpost 36 – Thomas Waites (Windows); Peter Maloney (Bennings); con newcomer Wilford Brimley (Blair); and a nearly-missed Richard Masur (Clark).

In addition to first-time convention guests Bell and Brimley, cinematographer Dean Cundey (who shot Carpenter’s most well-remembered films) was also on hand. Keeping within the same universe, synth wizard Alan Howarth was there with a diverse selection of scores, and also closed out Saturday night with a free concert.

At the end of the day, my friend accumulated five signatures for his The Thing poster – not too shabby.

Nestled within the same corner of the room was the wonderful Barbara Crampton, who has worked in (Re-Animator; From Beyond; Castle Freak) and out (various daytime soap operas) of the genre over the years, and has been enjoying a career renaissance as of late, with efforts like You’re Next, We Are Still Here, and Sun Choke expanding her fan base even further. A line of about a dozen waited patiently for her to return from lunch; when she did, she paused to address the fans: “Thank you so much for waiting! I had to get something to eat!” (I suspect that Mrs. Crampton was really visiting the Fountain of Youth – we should all hope to look so amazing at 58.) When it was my turn, my photo choice was a no-brainer – a still from 2015’s Sun Choke, which I told her was her best performance, “Better than Emma Stone in La La Land,” to which she gave a good-natured (yet doubtful) laugh. Mrs. Crampton asked me what I did for a living as we posed for a photo, and revealed that her sister in Vermont was also a civil servant, to which she recited the line that led me to state government: “It’s a steady paycheck, and you get benefits.” ** It was a very human moment that recalled my meeting with Ashley Bell, and another testament to how down-to-earth genre stars can be.

With our usual approach of getting autographs out of the way, we engaged with Phase Two of our MM experience: slowing our pace to a zombie shuffle to be dazzled and lured by the varied wares in the vendors’ area. Everything from horror-based fridge magnets, original art prints, vintage posters, enamel pins, DVDs and Blu-rays, and custom apparel – among many other tempting items – were available in this extensive section.

One of the things I enjoy most about MM is that many vendors are mainstays, so there is a predictability to the layout that is comforting. Troma Films, for instance, takes up permanent residence at a corner table, complete with an alcove for photo ops with Toxie, Sgt. Kabukiman, and the Troma Girls.

After collecting some new pins and magnets, I picked up an out-of-print copy of Ilsa: Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks (from a consistently reliable used-DVD & Blu-ray vendor), and dropped considerable coin at the Severin Films table (who were giving away free DVD copies of Richard Stanley’s Hardware with multi-disc purchases). My last stop was Vinegar Syndrome, where I complained about how abysmal Massage Parlor Murders is, and made humorous small talk with one of the slightly inebriated guys, who told me, “When the ATM runs out of money, it beams a signal to the guy who has to put money in the ATM” and – regarding his cell-phone’s cracked screen: “I threw it at a guy once, that’s why it’s cracked; you laugh – it’s true!” If the celebrities started my experience off on a high note, this encounter brought MM 36 to an entertaining close.

Some cons champion quantity over quality, but insofar as personality is concerned, MM has the consistent feeling of a curated exhibition – by fans, for fans. Despite the added stress of an overcrowded hotel this time around, even that tension was fleeting in the name of the wonderful community that descended on Cherry Hill for yet another horrifically satisfying weekend.

 

(* = Billy Crash can attest to this.)

(** = CC: Karen “Plate of Shrimp” Rice-Young)

(Photos of Barbara Crampton and Ashley Bell via Twitter.)

Crash Analysis Support Team:

unknownJonny Numb (aka Jonathan Weidler) only plays favorites when it comes to review sites like Crash Palace Productions and loudgreenbird.com. He co-hosts THE LAST KNOCK horror podcast on iTunes, and can also be found on Twitter and Letterboxd.

“I am serious…and don’t call me Shirley” – SPLIT (2017) from Jonny Numb

[118 minutes. PG-13. Director: M. Night Shyamalan]

***This review contains SPOILERS***

While obvious, it bears repeating: M. Night Shyamalan hit hard with the Oscar-nominated The Sixth Sense in 1999. With the auteur put on a high pedestal so early in his career, it’s easy to imagine his subsequent films getting tripped up in a game of matching – if not exceeding – what came before. I can’t speak to Shyamalan’s post-Signs output, but Split bears the hallmarks of a director making a desperate bid to recapture his former glory.

But maybe “desperate” isn’t the right word, as Split will have bypassed the $100-million mark (on a $10 million budget, no less) by the time this review is published.

In a role that a younger Johnny Depp might have jumped at, James McAvoy plays Kevin, a man with “23 distinct personalities,” who kidnaps a trio of teenage girls – Boss Mean Girl Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), Middle Manager Mean Girl Marcia (Jessica Sula), and Obligatory Basket Case Casey (The Witch’s Anya Taylor-Joy) – because…well, that would be giving it away.

But wait a second…is it possible to spoil something that’s already rotten? Now there’s a paradox for ya.

Considering how well-crafted The Sixth Sense was – lining up characters and events for unexpectedly touching plot crescendos – Split is a special kind of disaster to behold: from concept to execution to the seemingly endless wait for the third-act twist, it’s afflicted by a throw-shit-against-the-wall approach that not only drastically diminishes its thriller potential, but comes off as callous in its depiction of mental illness.

In the same year as The Sixth Sense, Fight Club garnered controversy not only for its “depiction of anti-social behavior” (per the MPAA content descriptor), but its use of a similar plot twist. Unlike Split, however, Fight Club justified its madness as a reflection of a greater cultural malaise, with a character who acknowledged his complicity in the twisted world he’d (semi-consciously) created. Director David Fincher didn’t make allowances or justifications for the behavior on display, and, by rejecting Hollywood convention, the film became a generational firebrand – infuriating complacent, middle-aged critics while appealing to youth on the cusp of adult responsibility.

As thrillers go, Split sets up a game with essential pieces missing…and a board that’s been cut in half. If there’s any subtext worthy of greater analysis, it’s for all the wrong reasons.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen a wide-release movie with such goggle-eyed, baffled performances (the teenage cast gets the worst of it, though Betty Buckley’s psychiatrist doesn’t fare much better). Adding insult to injury, Shyamalan ogles the partially-clad females in a manner that borders on the “windowless van” club.

There are moments where our girls, trapped in McAvoy’s subterranean house of horrors, suggest rushing their captor, but are more than willing to sit (again, goggle-eyed) while he does his Johnny Depp thing. Also not-good: how the two Mean Girls insist that Basket Case is “one of them” despite their ostracizing her at a birthday party. Sloppy.

For a film that includes plot points hinging on the one-two punch of child molestation and murder, Shyamalan seems oblivious to how tasteless this story really is, but goes about business in an inexplicably cavalier (and inexplicably PG-13) manner. As long as you don’t show the bad thing happening, it’s okay. Yeesh.

I never thought I’d see the day when Peter Jackson’s woefully misguided The Lovely Bones came off as a tasteful-by-comparison rendering of similar themes, but here we are.

Just as offensive is Shyamalan’s depiction of mental illness. The trailer for Split – leaning heavily on McAvoy’s persona­-swapping – put a bothersome twist in my guts, and what the film does with this, in addition to being incredibly confusing, also sends messages that are deadly mixed. I can’t in good conscience praise McAvoy’s performance, which amounts to an aimless string of vignettes (including – god help us – a hip-hop dance number) left untethered by a story that has no fucking clue what it wants to be. By the end, the only thing made clear is that McAvoy was cast for a purely commercial reason (tying in to his X-Men tenure). And the closing decree – that “damaged” people are the most “pure” of all – carries no consolation and even less truth, especially after McAvoy’s ultimate personality goes on a kill-crazy rampage. By that point, Shyamalan’s thoroughly wrongheaded approach has also equated the mentally ill with zoo animals – dangerous, and only suited to cages. Toxic.

Talk about a movie that would please the current Administration. Maybe that’s why Split is doing so well with audiences: its pervasive ineptitude and zero-tolerance policy against The Other is just what Trump’s cronies are seeking in their quest to “make America great again.”

1 out of 5 stars

Crash Analysis Support Team:

unknownJonny Numb (aka Jonathan Weidler) only plays favorites when it comes to review sites like Crash Palace Productions and loudgreenbird.com. He co-hosts THE LAST KNOCK horror podcast on iTunes, and can also be found on Twitter and Letterboxd.

(Split photo from PopSugar.)

THE LAST KNOCK presents: Interview with Greg Palko

The Last Knock

Greg Palko’s a graphic designer and art director with a different way of looking at the world – horror or otherwise. To learn why his movie posters, book covers, flyers, and more, stand out, listen in from his hidden horror homestead at an undisclosed New Jersey location – which is a horror museum for certain! And you’ll find out what it means to be “Palko-ed”!

Don’t forget to connect with Greg Palko whether you need some killer art or not. You’ll find him on Twitter and at his engaging website, Palko Designs.

This episode’s SCREAM OUTS from Twitter: 

@BleedingCritic @RonGizmo @DonRiemer @WTPGS @vitotrabucco @bloodybiblecamp @ScarecrowVideo @loneblockbuster @JohnKassir @RevChuckJarman and @THETomSavini

BONUS! Here’s one of Palko’s most recent pieces:

Sinners in the Hands of an Indifferent God – CARNAGE PARK (2016) by Jonny Numb

(Author’s Note: this article is not intended as an endorsement or condemnation of Christian belief. Mentions of God and Christ will defer to the pronoun “he.”)

This review contains SPOILERS.

“The coin don’t have no say.” – Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald), No Country for Old Men

There’s a scene following a bank heist that’s ripped straight out of Reservoir Dogs.

There’s opening narration by loony loner Wyatt (Pat Healy) that waxes moral and existential, not unlike the opening narration by Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) in No Country for Old Men.

There’s an attention to production design and gritty staging that winks at the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes (the gore also shows a flair for traditional, in-camera FX over CGI).

With Carnage Park, Mickey Keating is going for his Tarantino homage (or, maybe more accurately, the films that Tarantino homages). Granted, the indie-movie landscape never really stopped being littered with posers trying – and almost always failing – to craft their own unique Reservoir Dogs (Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, anyone?). So to pay tribute to a film that’s a cornerstone of savvy-cool-ironic-iconic was bound to struggle against a wave of preexisting imitators and the challenge of extracting something unique from a well-worn premise.

For what it’s worth – and to give Carnage’s critics some credit – the film doesn’t touch its influences. It’s also a fair distance from the aesthetic and narrative complexity of Darling, Keating’s previous film.

That being said, it’s still a worthwhile ride…but not for the (visceral) reasons genre fans will expect.

The originality that emerges from all of Carnage’s borrowed parts is curiously existential (in the Cormac McCarthy, No Country vein): if there is an omniscient “God” monitoring creation, where and when is his role in intervention? Does he owe humankind anything? And how can he ignore a world in which awful things happen with disturbing regularity?

Keating is too tasteful a filmmaker to allow his concept to unravel into glorified sadism (see Rob Zombie’s similarly-themed 31), and there is a bizarre innocence at the heart of Carnage: when financially desperate farm girl Vivian (Ashley Bell – The Last Exorcism) is abducted by Scorpion Joe (James Landry Hebert – Gangster Squad) following a botched bank robbery, we are given the immediate impression that both characters are in over their heads. Vivian is resourceful and assertive, while Joe is all violent swagger; both are oblivious to their roles in the world outside of their immediate circumstances, which is perhaps why, once the violence of the situation relents, they are able to share in an eerily even-toned dialog.

From the initial panoramic montage of open hills and sky, Keating establishes a sense of the existential: yet for all the open space, Carnage Park never seems to wander beyond its tight, character-based intimacy. (Given the grandiose title, perhaps the biggest surprise is that the violence is doled out with erratically-paced deliberation.) Does this require a suspension of disbelief in that Wyatt could preside over miles and miles of desolate terrain? Sure. But it also brings some intriguing observations to the surface.

The skyline – seen mostly from a “puny mortal staring upward” POV – is punctuated by bright light pressing through clusters of clouds. Characters’ pleas for rescue fall on deaf ears, suggesting an omniscient sadism that correlates to the homicidal mischief perpetrated by Wyatt (who intones, right at the beginning: “Out here, God don’t play favorites”). One early scene in particular – of Vivian tumbling out of a car, handcuffed to a very dead Scorpion Joe – glares from an overhead POV as she cries for help (to no avail). Vivian is our conduit for empathy, but her efforts to assist random victims (played by Darby Stanchfield and Larry Fessenden) are either thwarted by an off-screen Wyatt, or left behind and forgotten in the name of her own survival. She can’t save the family farm, or anybody else; she’s in a no-win situation where self-preservation takes precedence over altruism.

Complementing the Alice in Wonderland tone Keating establishes early on, the film’s idiosyncrasies possess a randomness that still feels reflective of the real world. Instead of devolving into a Saw-styled funhouse of torture devices, the landscape of Carnage Park is a string of mournful monuments to death and decay (including a nod to Christ’s crucifixion). This is reflective of Wyatt’s opening narration about the government closing mental institutions and leaving veterans damaged from war (mentally and otherwise) to wither on the vine. As a “fuck you” to the bureaucracy, his dried-up chunk of the American Dream being used as the equivalent of General Zaroff’s playground isn’t off base.

Even the spray-painted “God’s Country” sign on the gate of Wyatt’s property is presented without irony, and establishes him as judge, jury, and executioner of this contained world. The fact that his sheriff brother, John (Alan Ruck – Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), is not only complicit in covering up his crimes, but also intimidated and emasculated in his homicidal brother’s presence, is a testament to their shared psychosis.

At the bridge between the second and third act, Vivian finds herself in a shack (adorned with macabre, homemade wind chimes and lawn ornaments – another Texas Chainsaw echo) that, for all intents and purposes, is Wyatt’s command center. She’s taunted via CB radio, and when she asks, “Who are you?” the straightness with which Wyatt answers, “Me? I’m nobody” delivers a chill on par with the everywhere-at-all-times presence he’s exhibited up to that point. Perhaps it’s a reach, but if Christ or Satan visited planet Earth today (in the most literal sense), it makes a certain amount of sense that they would walk among humanity incognito, rather than drawing excessive attention to themselves.

I’m not sure I can rationalize Wyatt as an analogue for Christ or Satan – Keating’s treatment of the character and Healy’s performance renders him almost innocuous –  but he judges his fellow humans based on his own perception (the film is light on explicit psychological insight). Does Scorpion Joe, with all his macho bluster, get a bullet to the head because of his lack of humility in the presence of someone – or something – greater than him? What of Wyatt’s absurd kindness (“HOW YA DOIN’?”) when he first meets Vivian? And what, especially, of Vivian getting the drop on Wyatt midway through, only for him to seemingly rise from the dead? “God’s Country,” indeed…

In an interesting aesthetic choice, Keating chooses to obscure Wyatt with a gasmask during the last half of the film, which raises the question: if John was covering up his actions, then who is to say that Wyatt also didn’t have other men prowling the hills? It seems unlikely that a solo sniper could orchestrate all of the sinister tableaus on display (including a camouflaged vehicle dumping-ground), given the area that would need to be covered. Also noteworthy: outside of the scene at the gate, there’s no definitive indicator as to where Wyatt’s land begins or ends; another subtle allusion to nature’s arbitrary boundaries, as well as the intangible, subjective spiritual boundaries that distance God from humankind.

An explanation that dances around the edges of Carnage Park is the possibility that Vivian, not unlike Sally Hardesty in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, has been so driven to madness that her POV is unreliable by the end. Unfortunately, this doesn’t hold much weight, as the film is initiated by Wyatt’s narration (and his murder of an unrelated victim). Nonetheless, I love Keating’s approach to the ending, which excises the deus ex machina of the Black Marina savior from Texas Chainsaw in favor of something as simple as a literal light at the end of a tunnel. While this may fluster some viewers, I found it perfect – in a place where God doesn’t play favorites, it’s up to us to find our way out of dire situations, whether self-imposed or foisted upon us.

Crash Analysis Support Team:

unknownJonny Numb (aka Jonathan Weidler) only plays favorites when it comes to review sites like Crash Palace Productions and loudgreenbird.com.  He co-hosts THE LAST KNOCK horror podcast on iTunes, and can also be found on Twitter and Letterboxd.

(Carnage Park photo from AV Club.)

Highways of Horror – Day I

If there was a storm coming right now, a big storm, from behind those mountains, would it matter? Would it change anything?

Arash – A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

In the rearview there’s nothing. No horizon. No distinction between the road and the sky. Nothing but black on black.

This can easily indicate that the past is dead and gone, and that turning back is a ludicrous option. Though not well lit, looking out the windshield certainly delivers a sense of future possibilities. But the most important – the now – me in the driver’s seat fighting fatigue, isn’t very promising.

The morning had started well enough. Up at 7:20 I rushed to get a few things ready on Wednesday, December 28 because this was the day I’d finally begin my excursion to the west coast to reconnect with my wife, Ally Bishop in Seattle, Washington – our new home. Although I had only gained five hours sleep, meeting the great Bill Hartin at Tracy’s Café in Easton was well worth waking up for. Bill had co-created FIFO (Fade In, Fade Out), a film consortium in the Lehigh Valley, and without him as executive producer, my short film, Tigers In the Soup never would have been made. We enjoyed a good breakfast and better conversation before heading back to the house Ally and I shared at 827 Wilbur Street in the “poor side” of the College Hill section. Soon, the truck that would carry forty plus boxes, a chest of drawers, Ally’s hand-painted file cabinet, and other assorted items arrived. With that, great souls materialized to help Bill and I load the freighter: Angela Mozeko and John McPoyle, from FIFO as well, and the man with a smile that never fades, Ryan Kramer. And man, did Ryan rock me with an ultra-cool Billy Crash T-shirt in a Misfits font no less! Damn!

This special gang of four really saved me. Since Ally left with Patricia Eddy and our puppies for the west coast on the day after Thanksgiving, the silence of our now old homestead became so loud it hurt. I was left with George, the Beta fighting fish, and we bonded as I cleaned, repaired, painted, and packed, as I sorted through belongings to sell on eBay, to Craig’s List, and to friends, and as I stuffed bag after bag with Goodwill donations, and sent tons of material for recycling or the landfill. The work finally caught up with me on Christmas. I woke up tired, visited my sister Elissa, brother-in-law Pete, and their nearly seventeen-year-old puppy, Max, for a few hours, and fell asleep for a bit. By the time I got home in the late afternoon, I was exhausted – but I knew sleep would have to wait. I cleaned the entire basement, and left a mountain of garbage and recycling items for the morning, and made a final run to the Goodwill donation boxes. During this time, I almost fell asleep on my feet, and lost my footing on the top steps of the basement stairs. Thankfully, I caught myself in time.

That isn’t to get a “poor Bill” out of anyone, but juggling so much for so long takes its toll as it would on any person. I hadn’t felt that exhausted since boot camp, where my entire body just wanted to quit. Angela, Bill, John, and Ryan, saved me from moving everything myself, which allowed me to store some energy for the first leg of the drive to Washington state.

After the load was secure, Angela and Ryan stayed a little longer to help me clean up the house. And once I picked up a few things for the trip, I finally hit the road at about 5:30 PM – three-and-half-hours behind schedule. To be honest, I was scared. Everything was a blur, and I doubted I could drive an hour, if at all. I then remembered a documentary of a scientific study where they showed that drowsy drivers may be far more dangerous than drunk ones.

Chocolate snapped me out of it, but a moonless night and starless sky thanks to black clouds didn’t help. I drove through an abyss so thick, only my headlights could make out the trees on occasion along Interstate 80. I had taken this trek many times from 1993 to 1994 when I attended Slippery Rock University to earn my masters in English. I had joked that one viewed the same tree over and over on the highway, but I would have welcomed the sight of any tree, or the curved edges of the worn Appalachians.

Blasting Ramone’s Mania compilation helped as I sang along with Joey, and the psychedelic folk rock of Jesse Sykes and The Sweet Hereafter kept my head bobbing. But this wasn’t the five-hour drive Ally had planned. Unbeknownst to her and me, this would be a six-hour and forty-minute venture to the center of Ohio.

I rebounded by cranking Sisters of Mercy, “A Slight Case of Overbombing” of their first greatest hits. Here, the iconic Goth god, Andrew Eldritch remixed the originals, and when it came to mundane songs from his ill-fated “Vision Thing” recording, he enticed Terri Nunn of Berlin fame to totally rock some of that albums tracks. The music filled the Chevy Malibu, and stunned some deer outside the merlot ride, and kept me awake as I entered the Buckeye State.

I thought of Drew Carey, Chrissie Hynde, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base (where they supposedly keep an alien body from the Roswell incident, as well as the Kecksburg UFO), and my permanently snake-bitten Cleveland Browns. And then I saw the oddest thing, a truck with a light rack that sent out beams of green. What the Hell was that? Many know construction vehicles by their yellow flashing lights, but in Ohio, they mix it up with green and white.

Most important, and as I suspected, where I hadn’t noticed one Pennsylvania State Trooper from Easton to the border, Ohio’s finest was out in force. Just like the early 90s when I’d see suped up pursuit cruisers on the roadside. One even had “Interceptor” across the back trunk as if it had survived the original Mad Max film.

I did the speed limit as best I could, but with a half-hour remaining, I hit the gas a little harder even within a snow squall and amongst the pings of frozen rain. I passed two salt trucks, forgot about the Road Nazis, and watched the arrow on my Google Maps get closer to my destination.

When I got to La Quinta in Mansfield at roughly 1 AM, I contacted Ally to let her know I was safe, and walked across the street to a Steak and Shake and had dinner. My first meal since that breakfast with Bill. The waitress forgot to add my dark chocolate shake to the tab, and when I told her, she waved it off. Now, that’s one great Ohio welcome.

Back in my hotel room, the building weaved and bobbed as I stood in the shower. But it wasn’t an “erosion quake” as a lighter part of the Appalachian mountains rose a millimeter or two to meet the sky – it was me. I almost fell in the shower as brain and body begged for sleep. I stumbled to the bed and the last thing I remember is letting out an arena-sized sigh.

I awoke from a seven-hour slumber, far better than my normal five, ate a protein bar, and moved west towards Madison, Wisconsin before the next storm rolled in…

But in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Arash (Arash Marandi) knew. As he drove with the Girl (Sheila Vand) by his side in their attempt to escape Bad City, storms didn’t matter. No obstacle mattered. Whether the city represents purgatory or Hell in Lily Amirpour’s intriguing vampire horror, escaping such darkness is the point of the movie. However, the answer is simple: Of course they can. Where there is love, respect, admiration, and passion, as well as a desire to go beyond selfishness, what can’t be defeated? Both had paid their ways in full. The Girl, serving like one of Mother Nature’s wolves, cleaned the streets. However, she never preyed on the weak, the sick, or the wounded, but those who used and abused, and made life worse for others. Arash did what he could to rise above the apathy and negativity, and that desire was his ticket out of that colorless void.

I’d like to think Ally and I had earned the same right to pick up and move elsewhere. We just took separate cars.

Many thanks to Airworthy’s Don Riemer, a fellow member of the phenomenal New Jersey Screenwriter’s Group, for encouraging me to keep a travel blog, and for the incomparable Jonny Numb for exclaiming “Hell, yeah” when I asked if I should post it at Crash Palace.

(Billy Crash T-shirt photo from Billy Crash.)

Before You Buy the DVD: BLAIR WITCH (2016) by Jonny Numb

[89 minutes. R. Director: Adam Wingard]

Summer, 2016. I took my seat in the theater and furrowed my brow at a trailer that seemed familiar. Kids in the woods. Handheld POV. Oops, someone dropped the camera! Blurbs from high-profile horror sites superimposed over panoramic aerial views of dense forests. Ominous, droning music.

The title? The Woods. Hmmm.

The connection to The Blair Witch Project was so transparent that part of me wouldn’t have been surprised had it been the type of De Palma-style homage that’s been all the rage with the horror kids these days. When it turned out to be a “surprise” sequel to Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez’s 1999 original (under the more succinct Blair Witch), it somehow lacked the cleverness of the grassroots campaign those filmmakers committed themselves to in the early days of the Internet, fooling a good chunk of the public in the process.

So, is Blair Witch an actual sequel? As handled by director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett (whose erratic genre track record consists of A Horrible Way to Die, You’re Next, and The Guest), the seeds are there, but the setup is merely an excuse to poorly reconstruct the beats of the original.

But hey: at least the technology’s been upgraded (and will look outdated in 5 years)! And there’s plenty of unnatural-seeming shaky-cam! So, yay! By the way…bitchin’ drone, man!

I’ve said it before, but 2016 has been a year of films pushing the horror genre forward. Granted, even the best efforts have borrowed parts, but are smart in how they reconfigure them into fluid fear generators. Go figure that the critically adored Wingard and the reliable Rob Zombie have delivered two of the biggest disappointments of the year, for the express reason that they so cynically fall back on “what worked before” in the very wrongheaded assumption that horror fans won’t care.

Oh, we care. And we also hope your bid for mainstream success has a Plan B, since based on the evidence here, I would say fans of Asian cinema have valid reason to fear for your remakes of I Saw the Devil and Death Note.

So let’s go there: Blair Witch is the most blatantly cynical remake since that retread of The Omen (which seemed to exist solely for its stupid 6-6-06 release date). It truly is one of those films that does nothing but update technology and make explicit things that were scarier when implied, with predictably underwhelming results. There is nothing contained within its 89 taxing, all-too-familiar minutes that justifies its existence in the slightest.

Gone is the naturalistic feel of the 1999 film. Everything in this new version is calculated and staged within an inch of its life, and our unlikable campers – even the trailer-park yokels (one of whom you’ll recognize from TV’s The Following) – look like they’d rather be modeling underwear. Are they worth mentioning by name? As Wingard and Barrett give us no reason to care, the answer is a resounding NO.

The plot is a lot of “just because” nonsense. James (James Allen McCune), little brother to The Blair Witch Project’s Heather Donahue, decides to follow in his sister’s footsteps and make a film documenting his attempt to find her in the woods of Burkittsville. His friends go along because, duh, they’re his friends. As well as Lisa (Callie Hernandez), a cinematographer/producer/I-don’t-know whose primary function seems to be keeping people sane by acting as ineffectual as possible. There is potential here: what if Heather, had she survived, reverted to a feral state in the woods, and established an alternative, primitive existence for herself – or, maybe better, reappeared as a conduit for the witch? Such development would’ve increased the emotional stakes, strengthened the character arcs, and given Blair Witch a desperately needed sense of purpose.

But that would suggest a film interested in matters of innovation and artistic integrity. (Just because it’s a remake or sequel doesn’t mean it has to be shit, but that is of no concern to Wingard and Barrett.)

The duo’s worst film, A Horrible Way to Die, ironically shows the most interest in character and setup, because it’s a perpetual wind-up device in service to a disappointing climactic payoff. In You’re Next and The Guest, the characters are hastily introduced and given flimsy pretexts for their actions, ignoring logic and reason. (We’re expected to follow along for no reason other than the promise of something “badass” occurring later down the line.) Wingard and Barrett are enemies of subtlety, and outside of some throwaway moments, nobody stops to question James’s thinking, or the legitimacy of the yokels who guide them into the woods. Characters wander off alone and are separated and inexplicably reappear and eventually die; there is nothing new here.

But remember to get some footage as you’re walking away from the vehicles, because that might foreshadow something.

On the technical side, Blair Witch is a mess. Cameras shake and fall; cutting is abrupt during action scenes; and sound effects are amplified in the name of desperate jump-scares. In other words, it reverts to the same lame tricks most mainstream horror films utilize to make lots of money these days. What’s it saying that the original still holds up – despite the countless imitators produced in its wake – and Blair Witch feels like the type of processed, shat-out imitation that most will see right through? By the time we reach a familiar (Blum)house at the climax, it’s a CGI affair punctuated by a perfectly-timed rainstorm, complete with lightning flashing through windows.

Seriously?

There were a few things I appreciated in Blair Witch: first is a unique death that, while lacking any sort of narrative logic, provides an unexpected jolt. Second is a sequence wherein a character finds herself in a tunnel beneath the house, pushing her way through an increasingly narrow space; this thrives off a sense of claustrophobia and the terror of something unknown waiting on the other side, and the minimal lighting – reminiscent of The Descent – adds to the dread. And when the aforementioned drone initially takes flight, it’s a genuinely vertiginous, majestic moment; too bad the filmmakers felt the need to repeat it two more times.

But if the worthwhile moments total under 5 minutes, you’ve failed pretty badly. To the horror sites that kept the (rather lame) “secret” of the new Blair Witch while praising all the good it would do for the genre, I hope the bump in traffic helped compensate for that weak sauce you so willingly sucked down.

1 out of 5 stars

(Deaditor’s Note: Blair Witch release date from Lionsgate is January 3, 2017.)

Crash Analysis Support Team:

unknownJonny Numb (aka Jonathan Weidler) talks about horror movies at New Year’s parties and misses the countdown. His reviews also appear at loudgreenbird.com, and he judges other things via antisocial media @JonnyNumb (Twitter and Letterboxd), and co-hosts THE LAST KNOCK horror podcast with @crashpalace.

(Blair Witch photo from IndieWire.)

HOLIDAYS (2016) – Seasonal Anthology Affective Disorder by Jonny Numb

[105 minutes. Unrated. Director: Various.]

Today’s horror anthologies have an enthusiasm in approach, but a laziness in execution. A common notion among fiction-writers is that short stories are more difficult than novels because of the compressed format. The same applies to short films; the fact that expectations are tempered to 10 – 15 minutes requires the beats of character, story, and impact to be achieved not only in a shorter timeframe, but with as few tonal and narrative missteps as possible.

Watching something like The ABCs of Death, with 26 different directors given 26 opportunities for greatness, is an exercise in frustration, with few consecutive segments maintaining the same quality standard, leading to a schizophrenic experience as frustrating as watching an uneven narrative film.

Holidays follows the same format as ABCs: a collection of tales highlighting various celebratory times of year (or, at the very least, excuses for Hallmark to bleed a few bucks from the American consumer). With no wraparound story, it lives and dies on the strength of its individual parts, which are not created equal.

Outside of blatantly paying homage to some iconic images, I was hard-pressed to derive any sort of point from the Excision– and Carrie-lite “Give Me Your Heart” (directed by Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer, the duo behind for Starry Eyes). With exposition-laden dialog and a lack of continuity (Creepy Girl doesn’t want to jump into pool; has daydream about gym coach; all of a sudden, Pretty Girl is shoving her off the diving board…huh?!), this recalls the aforementioned teen-angst films, only the payoff is flat and predictable.

Elsewhere, the goofy Ben Wheatley wannabe “St. Patrick’s Day” (written and directed by Gary Shore) blends comedy, irony, pregnancy, and cults so badly it’s like the Wicker Man remake without the laughs. It tosses out flip nods to Rosemary’s Baby and even The Beyond (impish little red-haired girl) but has no idea how to synthesize them into something beyond a lame visual punchline of cultists carrying a ginormous snake around the countryside.

I will give “Easter” credit for distilling the holiday lore into an odd hybrid: writer-director Nicholas McCarthy seems properly baffled at how an anthropomorphic rabbit and Jesus correlate. Despite clunky opening dialogue between a mother and her inquisitive daughter, which muddies the seas of confusion, and an ending that’s disappointingly anticlimactic, the midsection delivers some intriguing, Clive Barker-esque imagery and some existential food for thought.

Holidays gains momentum once it delves into the days that recognize parents and their influence, with “Mother’s Day” (written and directed by Sarah Adina Smith) an appropriately female-centric take on one young woman’s desperate attempt to cease her overt fertility (“I get pregnant every time I have sex”), though her decision to seek help via a New Age cult proves questionable. Smith creates an uneasy atmosphere, and a sense of isolation pervades, even if the ending is a disappointing bundle of “what the fuck.” Anthony Scott Brown’s “Father’s Day” is the highlight of the film, generating drama and suspense through a simple premise: a woman (House of the Devil’s Jocelin Donahue), transitioning to a new locale, finds a tape player and cassette in a box of paternal mementoes; the contents of the recording – a message from her estranged father (voiced by Michael Gross) – leads her on an unpredictable (and unexpectedly moving) pathway to reunion. Working better as a drama told in pale shades of gray and green, the segment is anchored by Donahue’s performance, which exudes skepticism and vulnerability; while the final reveal may be something of a letdown, the minimalist power of this tale (including clever attention to how a grownup’s words can take on a different meaning when a child listens to them many years later) makes it especially insightful and mature amid Holidays’ more underwhelming offerings.

At this juncture, what can be said of Kevin Smith? The most well-known directorial inclusion in Holidays may have shifted genre gears when he swapped endearingly vulgar rom-coms for the provocative protest of Red State and the creature-feature horror of Tusk. His segment, “Halloween,” would seem a continuation of these thematic sensibilities, and it crackles with his nattering, hypercaffeinated dialog. It’s a low-rent affair, wherein a trio of Internet cam-girls turn the tables on their abusive boss. While a supernatural element is floated, “Halloween” is essentially Smith’s entry into the torture-porn ring, replete with dark humor and an over-the-top feminist slant (though one might argue that the women come across just as unfavorably as the men here). As with Tusk, the filmmaker dashes the potential impact of his premise with a frustrating, cheap-joke ending.

Of all the segments, Scott Stewart’s “Christmas” comes closest to the darkly jovial tone that informed the more lighthearted episodes of “The Twilight Zone” (unfortunately, it isn’t polished enough to approach their quality). After a faux promotion for a Strange Days-styled headset (“your imagination come to life!” the ad proclaims), it settles into the story of an emasculated father (Seth Green) who gets the high-tech toy for his kid…under unscrupulous circumstances. Its clichés are legion (the unsympathetic bitch of a wife; on-the-nose S&M fantasies), and the conclusion is an unfortunate muddle. Green, however, uses all of his comedic strength to make it at least watchable.

In a weird sort of ellipsis, “New Year’s” returns to the predictability of “Give Me Your Heart,” with a serial killer (Andrew Bowen) desperately trying to connect with someone via online dating. He seems to have found his match in Jean (Lorenza Izzo), but she has other ideas. While this segment (directed by Some Kind of Hate’s Adam Egypt Mortimer, and written by the Starry Eyes guys) breaks no new ground in terms of premise, the attention to character detail is good, and the use of the ten-second countdown to frame the climax is moderately exciting.

Overall, though, Holidays does little to raise the profile of the millennial horror anthology. With few exceptions (especially “Father’s Day”), it is only slightly better overall than the subgenre’s most underwhelming offerings (The ABCs of Death 2; V/H/S). Maybe the biggest flaw is the premise itself: while using holidays as backdrops for tales of terror could open this film up to franchise potential, most of these already have pretty definitive feature-length counterparts – My Bloody Valentine (1981; 2009); Mother’s Day (1980; 2010); Astron-6’s Father’s Day (2011); New Year’s Evil (1980); and any number of Christmas-set horrors.

 

Segment Ratings

“Give Me Your Heart”: 1.5 out of 5 stars

“St. Patrick’s Day”: 1 out of 5 stars

“Happy Easter”: 2.5 out of 5 stars

“Mother’s Day”: 2.5 out of 5 stars

“Father’s Day”: 3.5 out of 5 stars

“Halloween”: 2.5 out of 5 stars

“Christmas”: 2 out of 5 stars

“New Year’s”: 2.5 out of 5 stars

 

Overall Rating

2 out of 5 stars

 

Crash Analysis Support Team:

unknownJonny Numb (aka Jonathan Weidler) is a cheap bastard, which is why he gives the gift of movie reviews instead of physical items. Ho, ho, ho! His reviews also appear at loudgreenbird.com. He judges other things via antisocial media @JonnyNumb (Twitter and Letterboxd), and co-hosts THE LAST KNOCK horror podcast with @crashpalace.

(Holidays photo from Horror Freak News.)