Saturday, August 11, 2018

Popcorn Frights, Night 1: Havana Darkness (2018), Anna and the Apocalypse (2018), and Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich (2018)

Oh, we're going hard tonight. The Popcorn Frights Film Festival started on August 10, 2018, and they had three films all lined up.

For the first film of the night...

Havana Darkness (2018)

Not rated

Score: 3 out of 5

Havana Darkness is billed as the first English-language horror film shot in Cuba (at least since the end of the embargo), and it wants you to know it. The setup revolves around a lost Ernest Hemingway manuscript, the famed author well known for his many visits to Cuba. One of the protagonists, Carlos, is Cuban-American, and while the female lead Karen is written as white, she is played by a Colombian actress (Carolina Ravassa, best known as the voice of Sombra in the game Overwatch). The film is jam-packed with shots of the Havana waterfront and the many well-preserved classic cars rolling down its streets, while Cuban music making up a good chunk of the soundtrack. If not for the fact that it's a horror flick about tourists in Havana having a very bad time, this could easily have been mistaken for a Cuban tourism advertisement. Fortunately, there's more to it than that, as while it's a slow burn for the first half or so, after that it turns into a brutal, white-knuckle torture porn movie with outstanding gore effects, some creepy villains, and a depraved setup that it ruthlessly capitalizes on, enough to make up for some scattershot plotting and characterization for the leads.

The plot revolves around a group of Americans visiting Havana, a writer named Carlos who has roots in Cuba, his friend John, and John's longtime girlfriend (and soon-to-be fiance) Karen. Carlos went down to Havana to investigate a manuscript purportedly written by Ernest Hemingway, while John and Karen tagged along for the ride hoping to have a fun vacation. Unbeknownst to them, the man who gave Carlos the manuscript is setting them up, and is in fact part of a ring of wealthy criminals based in Havana that hunts humans for sport; while it's never outright stated, it's strongly implied that Hemingway himself (who was famously quoted as saying that "there is no hunting like the hunting of man") was once part of this group. Sure enough, after our protagonists investigate the wrong house, they are captured in the basement in order to play The Most Dangerous Game.

While I've seen this film billed as "Saw meets The Purge", its closest comparison is probably "Hostel in Cuba", albeit with somewhat more likable leads. The real mayhem doesn't kick in until over halfway into the movie, as before then, we get our protagonists exploring Havana, with Carlos on the trail of Hemingway's manuscript, John debating whether to pop the question to Karen, and Karen increasingly frustrated by the real reason Carlos brought them to the city. There are at least two scenes in unsubtitled Spanish where, despite not knowing what the characters were saying, I was able to quite easily figure it out and follow what was happening. The characters here weren't the greatest or deepest, but I still grew to care about them as the film wore on. I did, however, have one big problem with them, and it came during the violent second half of the film. Once the "action" starts, the character who had received the most development in the first half, Carlos, winds up playing the smallest role in the story even though he was the one who had been driving the plot before then. After spending so much time on the Hemingway manuscript, suddenly John and Karen's relationship is treated as the more important plotline, even though it had been only a subplot before then. All in all, it felt like the film was straining to fit itself into a more conventional "torture porn" mold, and it suffered for it.

It wasn't enough to keep me from being entertained, though. This is a torture porn film, after all, and it lives up to what it promises with graphic, unrated, unadulterated violence inflicted upon people's bodies. Both the protagonists and the killers hunting them (their masks probably being what earned this film comparisons to The Purge) take an enormous amount of abuse before going down, with flesh being cut and bashed in graphic detail that director Guillermo Iv├ín (who also plays Carlos) focuses quite heavily on, in between long, intense sequences where the characters are stalked through the bowels of the dark, dank mansion they're trapped in. On a visceral level, this movie looked and felt the part of a proper torture flick, and it passed with flying colors.

The Bottom Line

While the two halves of the film didn't have the most seamless transition between them, this is still an effective horror film that makes good use of its setting and brings the pain.


Next up, from Scotland...

Anna and the Apocalypse (2018)

Rated R for zombie violence and gore, language, and some sexual material

Score: 5 out of 5

A "Scottish Christmas zombie musical" is how this one is described, and boy howdy, does it live up to the bonkers promise of that plot description. Anna and the Apocalypse is nothing short of a revelation, an uproarious horror-comedy that, beneath its "Glee meets Shaun of the Dead" exterior, packs an enormous amount of heart that was genuinely surprising, especially as the film started diving into genuine drama in its latter half. Furthermore, as mentioned earlier, it's also a musical, and on that note, it's got some damn good musical numbers and some great singers to perform them. This is easily one of my favorite zombie movies of the decade, an unapologetic slay ride made with a palatable appreciation for all of its many cheesy inspirations.

Our heroine is Anna, a teenage girl who dreams of getting out of her small town and exploring the world, much to the chagrin of her janitor father Tony who wants her to go to college straight away rather than "waste" a year backpacking in Australia. Her longtime friend John wants to move beyond "just friends" the way that their friends Lisa and Chris have, but Anna is still getting over a broken-off relationship with the bad boy Nick. Then, during the holiday talent show, the infection -- as if I need to explain which one -- reaches their small town during the holiday talent show. The following morning, Anna, John, Nick, and Steph, a punkish American whose parents sent her to school in Scotland while they ran off to vacation in Mexico, must find a way through the zombie hordes in order to reach the school and rescue Lisa, Chris, their families, and the other survivors trapped there, under the "leadership" of the school's increasingly unhinged headmaster Arthur Savage.

To call this a musical version of Shaun of the Dead wouldn't be too far off-base, starting with an early scene where Anna and John, with headphones in their ears, sing and dance obliviously through zombie-filled suburban streets that calls to mind Shaun's initial hungover apathy to the signs of the zombie apocalypse around him. The comparisons only grow throughout the film, especially with how it melds moments of lighthearted comedy, from gleefully gory zombie kills with creative weapons (these zombies are classic Romero shamblers, except seemingly made of plasticine) to awkward teen sexuality to some bombastic musical numbers (especially Nick's reintroduction with his friends as badass zombie slayers), and heartbreaking drama, from the surprisingly high body count within the central cast to the teenage characters' despondency at whether or not they'll see their loved ones again. Also much like Shaun of the Dead, this film skillfully avoids the mood-whiplash that has often ensnared lesser horror-comedies, with the funny moments going from laugh-out-loud hilarious in the beginning, punctuated by a few jolts that are still played for laughs themselves, to moments of sweetness and levity in the increasingly dark back half, especially once major characters start getting killed off.

Make no mistake, though, this is no ripoff; Anna and the Apocalypse stands firmly on its own two feet, and not just because of the music (though there is that, too). The focus of this film's satiric bite is teenage life in all its forms, its main characters portrayed as kids still growing up who don't know how to navigate life. Their addiction to technology becomes the subject of one of the film's sadder musical numbers once the cellular network goes down, juxtaposing the death of most of the people they know with the fact that they never really knew how to talk to one another without their phones. The appropriately-named Headmaster Savage is an exaggerated version of how every high school student sees their principal, serving as the film's villain and a psychopath worthy of the Dead Rising games as his loss of control causes him to finally snap in the form of an epic villain song that reminded me of a Queen anthem. I was pleasantly surprised with how the film handled the love triangle between Anna, John, and Nick, the three characters all growing in interesting ways that I didn't see coming. And finally, while there really wasn't much "Scottish" about this film beyond the accents, the British Christmastime setting is exploited to the fullest, from a zombie Santa, elves, and snowman to a scary sequence inside a Christmas tree grove to Anna wielding a giant, pointed novelty candy cane as her weapon of choice. The cast knocked it out of the park, most of all Ella Hunt as Anna, a phenomenal actress and singer both who gets plenty of moments to shine with both her singing and her zombie-killing abilities without coming across as a ripoff of Buffy Summers.

The Bottom Line

I don't want to spoil all the goodness this movie has to offer, so I'll leave you with this: when this hits video in December, I'm probably gonna watch it again right next to Krampus as a modern holiday horror classic.


And finally, courtesy of Charles Band's Full Moon Features...

Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich (2018)

Not rated

Score: 2 out of 5

Well... two out of three ain't bad. But first, some background. Charles Band has a bit of a... reputation among horror fans. The owner of Full Moon Features, Band is (in)famous for his large number of quickly-made franchise horror films, the most famous of them being the Puppet Master series that started in 1989 and has gone on, uninterrupted, for what is now thirteen films and counting (a fourteenth has already been announced). This film, subtitled The Littlest Reich, is a full-fledged reboot of the series, and honestly, with this being my introduction to Band and Full Moon in general, I can't speak to the somewhat mixed reception it's gotten among longtime fans of the series owing to the fairly major changes it made to the backstory.

What it will knock it for, however, is the fact that it doesn't really have much going for it beyond its production values and its tastelessness. I will happily praise it for some of its technical qualities, like its soundtrack and its abundant and well-done kills, but I can't overlook some dire acting (even by the standards of low-budget horror), direction that doesn't do much to excite beyond letting the effects do all the heavy lifting, and a script that feels like it was written by a teenager with its attempts to shock that were either too ridiculous to take seriously, or just had me scratching my head as to what I was supposed to be offended by. It did awe me with its violence and make me laugh with its crude humor on multiple occasions, but on the whole, it just never came together, not even as a "so bad it's good" movie like the Puppet Master series is often said to be.

The setup is that, during World War II, a French toymaker named Andre Toulon collaborated with the Nazis and built evil magical puppets that could be used to infiltrate houses and root out "undesirables" hiding in attics and the like. After the war, he fled to Postville, Texas, where he lived until 1989 when police brought him down after the murder of a lesbian couple (actually the work of his puppets). Now, upon the thirty-year anniversary of the murders, a convention is held in Postville dedicated to the man, and collectors of his puppets have gathered to auction them off, not knowing that a) they're murder machines, and b) that Toulon is actually still alive. Before Toulon can raise a stiff-arm salute, the murder machines are back in action and wreaking havoc at the hotel/conference center where the convention is taking place.

With one obvious exception, this is a pretty basic B-grade horror movie. The acting is uniformly wooden across the board, including from our leads, with some of the most apathetic death sequences ever put to film. Only veteran actors Udo Kier as Toulon and Barbara Crampton as a police officer don't completely embarrass themselves, though it's not like they had much competition. The leads Ashley and Edgar are out of their clothes and humping within minutes of their introduction, and their horniness is even the subject of jokes. There are multiple scenes that repeat information we already know, presumably to pad for time and show off the special effects once again. The only place where it seems that real care went into the film is in those effects, as the grue flies all over in the form of slashed throats, decapitations, and even a puppet crawling into one of his victims and controlling him like a human puppet. The kills were so numerous that I lost count, and nearly every one of them was vile, brutal, and graphic. My main thrills watching this came from watching all the horrifying ways they found to damage the human body, and then wondering what they were going to do next.

That said, the sense of humor was a double-edged sword, one that felt, way too often, like the film was just trying to be edgy for the sake of it. It's explained that the puppets, created and controlled by a former Nazi, are targeting the ethnic and sexual minorities and other assorted untermenschen that got sent to the camps, but this is never really capitalized upon in any meaningful way outside of one scene, where a Jewish couple talks about the paradox of them collecting what is basically Nazi memorabilia. It felt like a cheap way to get us to hate the villains, and given that this is apparently a pretty big shift from prior films where Toulon was one of the heroes (the Nazis having stolen the secret to his creations), a puzzling one at that. The amount of violence explicitly targeted at people, for the reasons they are targeted, came off as disquieting, especially given that, while the puppets are the villains, they and the gore they cause are clearly meant to be the real star attractions.

The Bottom Line

This was just a very mean, ugly, and (worst of all) poorly-made film, its main redeeming qualities being its campiness and excellent practical effects work that, in context and looking back, I feel kind of weird about having enjoyed so much. I imagine that, if I'd been a Puppet Master fan, I'd have hated this movie.

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