Thursday, August 16, 2018

Popcorn Frights, Night 6: The Dark (2018), The Ranger (2018), and Cursed Seat (2018)

Last night was probably the most uneven night of Popcorn Frights, with only one of the three films shown really impressing me all that much.

Let's start...

The Dark (2018)

Not rated

Score: 2 out of 5

The Dark is a movie that really wants to be Let the Right One In. A... well, dark thriller about a kidnapped boy and the girl (implied to be a zombie or a similar creature) who rescues and befriends him, it's clear that the people who made this film have genuine talent, and there are a plethora of good ideas within that could've made the basis for a great little movie. Unfortunately, all of those ideas jockey for attention and never really get fleshed out enough to keep me interested, the film feeling disjointed and narratively bare as a result, less like a story and more like a series of loosely-connected events. It's a film where the words "and then" would be the most common part of any fleshed-out plot synopsis, not "because" or "therefore".

We start the film with what we're initially led to believe is our main character, Josef Hoder, an older man with a European accent who's on the run from the law and willing to kill a convenience store clerk to stay one step ahead of it. He decides to lay low at an abandoned house in the woods called Devil's Den, only to find that it's still inhabited by Mina, a half-feral, half-dead teenage girl with a hoodie, a badly-scarred face, and an ax who swiftly takes Josef out and discovers why he's wanted by the police: he kidnapped a young boy named Alex. Mina rescues Alex, and then the two of them set out to stay one step ahead of the police searching for him, Alex having told Mina the bullshit story that Josef fed him about how there are other people like him who will go after his family if he escapes Josef's grasp. Given that Alex was blinded by his captor, he can't see just how visibly monstrous Mina is. Meanwhile, Mina starts to realize that there are strong parallels between Alex's backstory and her own.

This is a movie that reminded me most of all of The Farm from the second night of the festival, with its strengths and weaknesses being almost identical. Like The Farm, this is a very well-made film on a technical level. The leads Nadia Alexander and Toby Nichols both do very great work doing what they can to flesh out Mina and Alex as characters. Justin P. Lange's direction did a great job making the film's forest setting into a foreboding place, as did a haunting score. Mina kills numerous people over the course of the film, and the deaths are brutal and violent, ranging from an ax to the face to a severed arm to a slashed throat. The film works overtime to make up for the weaknesses in Lange's script, and there are moments when it almost pulls it off.

Unfortunately, it all came down to one glaring fault: I was never interested in Mina and Alex. I didn't buy into their bond, I didn't buy into the decisions they made, and I didn't buy them as realistic characters. The fact that Mina continued attacking and killing the people trying to rescue Alex left me with two possible interpretations, neither of them positive: that she believed the ridiculous story Alex was repeating about how Josef would come back and take revenge on his family (even though Mina personally killed Josef and partially cannibalized his body), in which case she's stupid, or she wanted to keep Alex all for herself. I actually would've liked to see the film go all-in on the latter, giving Mina an ulterior motive for keeping Alex "safe" not unlike how, in Let the Right One In, the end goal of Eli's relationship with Oskar was to make him into her new human servant. There is never any similar dramatic through line with Mina and Alex's relationship, however, and given how it is the focus of so much of the film and the driver of so much of the plot, this was a near-fatal blow. I was far more interested in Mina and Alex's backstories separately, be it Mina's troubled relationship with her mother's new boyfriend or how Alex was abused by Josef and clearly came to develop some kind of Stockholm syndrome. Unfortunately, these are only ever fleshed out in the service of building their bond with each other, even though the only thing that ever really connected them was that some of the things that happened to them in the past were pretty similar.

The Bottom Line

It was like watching If I Stay all over again. There's only one real problem with this film, but that problem is so big, and so central to everything, that it sinks the whole film. What could've been a meaty story instead just became dull.


The second film of the night, fortunately, was a bright spot.

The Ranger (2018)

Not rated

Score: 4 out of 5

Another entry in the growing ranks of '80s throwback slashers, The Ranger was a damn good example of such, not just for its production values, fun atmosphere, and punk-rock spin on the genre but also for a surprisingly fleshed-out heroine and a great villain. It's nothing that hasn't been done before in the slasher genre, but as a good-time splatter flick with a handful of great kills and bloody mayhem, it stands out from the pack just by accomplishing what it sets out to do.

The main characters here aren't your usual horny teenagers; rather, we get a group of five punk rockers who are on the run from the law after their leader Garth stabbed a police officer. They head up to -- you guessed it -- a cabin in the woods in upstate New York owned by one of their number, Chelsea, a girl whose uncle died in those woods when she was on a camping trip with him as a kid -- ostensibly due to a wolf attack, though it's implied that she's not telling them the whole story. Along the way, they encounter a park ranger, the same man who had helped and protected Chelsea after her uncle died and knows what really happened that day. The punks, ignoring Chelsea's warnings to not trash the forest around the cabin, soon attract the ranger's attention, and he begins hunting them one by one all while displaying a strange fascination with Chelsea.

The titular ranger is easily one of the best things about this film. A wiseass in the vein of early Freddy Krueger who jokes about his soon-to-be victims not respecting the rules of the national park they're in, he's given a ton of life and energy through a great performance by Jeremy Holm, played as an imposing authority figure gone bad who takes his love of nature and the giant stick he has up his ass with regards to such and turns that into justification for a murder spree, especially after we learn about his history with Chelsea. He makes use of axes, bear traps, the wolves stalking the forest, and even a hunting rifle (when's the last time you saw a slasher villain shoot people?) to bag his quarry, all with a mad smile on his face. If anybody in this film is a match for him, however, it's Chloe Levine as the film's unconventional final girl Chelsea. Not only do her punk fashion sense and drug use break from stereotype (though the badassery she displays at the end is fully in keeping), but between her own love of nature and the dark secret in her past, she has a lot more in common with Holm's park ranger than she might like to admit -- and the ranger knows it, and seemingly loves her for it. My only real problem with the film is that it didn't go further exploring the similarities between Chelsea and the ranger, feeling like it was willing to go about 75% of the way there but not willing to drive the comparisons to their logical conclusion. Even so, I loved these two characters and the interplay between them.

The supporting cast, despite all being dressed similarly, likewise had enough to flesh them out that I could tell them apart. We get the leader Garth, his girlfriend Amber, and the gay couple Jerk and Abe, and while none of them were as interesting as Chelsea was, they were still pretty fun as far as cannon fodder went, especially with how the gap between Chelsea and the rest of the group was explored in such a way that only furthered the comparisons between her and the ranger. Again, this was something that probably could've been explored in greater depth, with Garth especially seeing Chelsea as too respectful towards authority, but the ambiguous ending ended the film on a high note and wrapped up Chelsea's arc in a fairly satisfying way. The fact that all the main characters are punks also means we get a great soundtrack of energetic hardcore punk rock, emphasizing the fact that these characters have stepped into a place where they don't belong, especially when it's juxtaposed with the country and folk music that the ranger listens to in his Jeep.

The Bottom Line

The Ranger is a film that probably could've taken some of the ideas it had under the surface a bit further in order to reach into true greatness, but it's still an entertaining throwback slasher that remembers what made those sorts of films enjoyable while avoiding many of their pitfalls.


Finally, we come to four words that I never thought I'd be using in the same sentence: Russian teen horror flick. Shame it wasn't better...

Cursed Seat (2018)

Not rated

Score: 2 out of 5

In these troubled times, it's worth putting aside our differences with the Russian people and exploring a place where we can all come together in perfect harmony. Namely, their teen horror movies can be just as corny as ours! Cursed Seat, or The Lost Seat (as the film's subtitles billed it), is a beef stroganoff version of any number of cheesy American teen slashers from the '90s; sure, the characters may be named Katia, Roma, and Artem instead of Katie, Ryan, and Adam, and they may talk about moving to Moscow instead of New York after graduation, but they still hang around the campfire and tell creepy urban legends that soon come to life and start killing them. Unfortunately, it falls into the category of many the lesser examples of that genre, taking itself far too seriously without earning the right to be taken seriously by those watching it. The characters are unlikable and often deserve what they have coming, the plot is a mess, it ends on a bizarre non-sequitur that comes out of nowhere, and worst of all, it lacks any real sense of suspense.

The film starts with our main characters telling, and hearing, a story about how one of the seats at the local movie theater is haunted, and you will die if you sit down in it. The next day, they decide to cut class and head to the movies, and sure enough, one of them winds up dead in a freak accident on the way home. What is going on? Is the seat genuinely haunted? Is a classmate of theirs who they viciously bullied getting his revenge? Or could it be something else entirely? All the while, a pair of police officers seek to keep the kids safe while preventing panic from gripping the town as the body count rises.

To start, we have the main characters. Let's just say that the bullying incident that happens in the beginning did not leave me with the best first impressions of the main characters, especially as none of them seem apologetic for it afterwards. Sonya is probably the worst of the bunch not just due to her central role in said bullying, but because she is portrayed as a walking stereotype of Instagram-addled teenagers who spends most of her screentime with her nose buried in her phone, especially when she takes a selfie with Yura's dead body at his wake that even her friends think is uncalled for. These were people whose deaths were, by and large, a welcome relief, the Russians having perhaps learned the lessons of our movies a little too well. Unfortunately, when you're making me actively hate the characters, you're not making me fear for their lives. Only Katia and Roma managed to avoid this pitfall, and fortunately, the film made them into the protagonists, at least giving me somebody to root for as people died around them.

Furthermore, the plot and pacing are simply all wrong. A character who we'd been following for most of the movie is revealed to be the villain without any prior buildup, their backstory and motivation only laid out as they're trying to kill our protagonists. A smarter move would've been to reveal that this character has some sort of attachment to or history with the cursed seat at the theater well before the reveal, thus adding to the potential list of suspects both human and supernatural as we, the audience, are left guessing as to who or what is killing these people. As for the actual horror, while the kills are nice and bloody, most notably a wire decapitating an unsuspecting motorcyclist, the buildup to them was lacking much in the way of real tension. The deaths always came out of nowhere, and the parts of the film in between didn't do a whole lot in creating an atmosphere of impending doom for these characters. A big part of it has to do with the basic premise of the film: the deaths are all linked to a cursed seat at the local theater, and it's established that the only people who die are those who sit in that seat -- and since a long stretch of the movie goes without anybody visiting the theater, the atmosphere is sucked out of the room as we know that the characters are safe for now. I've seen teen horror flicks with really silly premises, but in this case, it actively detracts from the film on a structural level. And finally, while the final showdown between the villain and the protagonists Katia and Roma was well-done and had me fearing for these kids' lives, the ending afterwards just came out of nowhere and left me wondering what the hell I just watched, and not in a good way. It was like the film transformed into a completely different one at the very end, ending on a note that had practically nothing to do with the rest of the movie.

The Bottom Line

It has its moments and isn't a complete waste of time, but it felt like somebody making a horror movie using a poorly-translated copy of Urban Legend as their only guide to doing so, and it works about as well as you might expect. At times, it almost veers into so-bad-it's-good territory, but for the most part it was just a bore.

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