Saturday, August 10, 2019

Popcorn Frights 2019, Day 2: Bloodline (2018), The Dare (2019), and Bliss (2019)

Things really picked up on the second day of the festival. We got what will likely be one of my favorites so far, followed by what will likely be one of my least favorite, all wrapped up with an entertainingly trippy, gritty take on vampires at the end.

Bloodline (2018)

Not yet rated

Score: 5 out of 5

(Note: an uncut version was screened at the Popcorn Frights Film Festival. The theatrical cut will be rated R, and likely edited for content.)

This one caught my eye just from the lead actor. For those of my generation, Seann William Scott will perhaps always be known as Steve Stifler, the asshole jock from the American Pie films who suffered various comedic indignities over the course of the series, from getting peed on to getting mistaken for a zoophiliac to eating dog poop to watching his mom get banged by the nerd he bullied. He can play a great jerk, and he quickly turned into the series' breakout character. The question was, can he play a serial killer? He's gotten some acclaim in serious roles recently, so it wouldn't have been out of the question to see him pull it off.

And yeah, he did. As of this admittedly early point in the festival, Bloodline is my favorite film so far, and will likely be in the running for my personal best in show when it's all over. Scott's performance was great, and more importantly, the rest of the film pulls its weight too, crafting a twisted portrait of a serial killer with just enough subtext to be nasty without it turning lurid. The kills are brutal, and the characters are all three-dimensional and grabbed my attention and my interest even in the case of the smaller supporting parts. It's a vicious and complex serial killer movie that comes in and gets the job done.

Evan Cole is a seemingly ordinary suburban dad in Los Angeles. He drives a Camry hybrid, he works as a high school guidance counselor, and his wife Lauren just gave birth to a son, Andrew. He is also a serial killer, his M.O. being to target abusive fathers for reasons that become clear later in the film as we learn more about his bizarre relationship with his mother Marie. Evan is an instantly compelling character from the moment we're introduced to him, a man driven by a love for both his family in particular and a platonic ideal of what a good family should be in general. He's the archetypal pop culture image of what a serial killer is, a totally normal-looking dude who has a darkness within him, and yet if you were to ask him, he wouldn't see it as such. He believes that he is doing a favor to the world by ridding it of the people he kills, not least of all the teenage sons and daughters of those victims, through whom he often learns about his targets' crimes. Like Dexter Morgan, he sees himself as a silent avenger. Instead of the cool charisma of Michael C. Hall, Scott brings a quiet, badass stoicism that manages to mostly cover up what Evan is really thinking, but not quite enough that you can't tell from looking at him when he's actually panicking. He makes mistakes, whether he accidentally leaves murder evidence out in the open, lets slip to somebody something that he shouldn't know, or has to cut a "session" short after getting a call from Lauren, and scrambles to cover them up. Stifler he ain't; Scott is a genuinely terrifying "protagonist" here, a man who can be cold and calculating but is doing everything he does for some very human reasons -- and from what we see of his interactions with his victims, somebody who has more in common with them than he'd like to admit.

The supporting players too give Scott plenty of real characters around him to help develop his own. Mariela Garriga makes for a compelling female lead as Lauren, who wonders whether she's failing as a mother and grows increasingly conflicted as she starts to wonder why her husband likes to go out at night, eventually taking some twists and turns that I didn't see coming but which most certainly fit with the film's broader themes about family. Speaking of, Dale Dickey gave the phrase "Stifler's mom" a very dark new meaning as Marie, though I can't really go into detail as to why without giving away too much of her role in the story; suffice it to say, things get Norman Bates-y. In another version of this story, Raymond Alexander Cham Jr. would likely be the protagonist, the high school student Chris who starts to put together the pieces once his father goes missing shortly after he told "Mr. C" about how his father was a drug addict. Here, he's a foil for Evan as the guy who comes close to figuring out what he's up to, even moreso than Kevin Carroll's detective Overstreet, who serves less as a character and more as a human symbol of Evan's crimes catching up with him. Virtually everybody here was either fleshed-out enough to be an interesting character in his or her own right; even Evan's victims are given a bit of development as they're held captive, enough to make, if not Evan himself, then certainly the viewer question the morality of his actions.

And those actions are nasty. Evan has a specific procedure that he likes to follow: kidnap his victim, bring him to an abandoned and empty mansion, tie him up, interrogate him about the things he did to his kids, then stab him twice in the gut before opening up his throat. Virtually every step of this is depicted in graphic detail, with deviations from it occurring chiefly for plot-related reasons, often to show something not going according to plan but also, in one excellent case, to reveal something about a character in Evan's life. The kills may eventually become repetitive, but that's a big part of the point. Not only do they establish Evan as a cool and efficient operator, their brutality and gore also show that the film is not at all playing around, helping the film build its atmosphere of taking the viewer into this guy's twisted world of vigilante justice. It's not a film for the faint of heart, and I expect some of the most graphic scenes to be pared down once this film gets a proper release, but if you're a gorehound, this film will deliver and then some.

The Bottom Line

This is a violent, dark, twisted, and rock-solid thriller that doesn't change the game, but still provides a hell of an experience in every sense of the word, all anchored by a great performance from Seann William Scott. I can't wait for it to get a proper release.


Next up, we've got some good old-fashioned torture porn...

The Dare (2019)

Rated R for sadistic violence throughout, bloody images, and for language

Score: 2 out of 5

I wasn't expecting much with this one. The poster, trailers, and plot description -- a group of people are chained up in a dark, abandoned building and are forced to torture each other to survive -- sounded like a ripoff of Saw that was made over ten years too late. And the finished film pretty much lived up to my expectations. If Bloodline will likely wind up a candidate for "best in show", then The Dare will likely wind up on the other list, a bargain-basement torture porn flick that's held together purely by its solid production values, which are unfortunately squandered on a wretchedly boring and convoluted script that falls into plot holes the moment it starts getting into the twists. I'm gonna have to spoil one of the big reveals that this movie has to offer in order to get into why it doesn't work, so skip to the Bottom Line if you want to avoid them, but if you want an honest opinion, read on.

The film starts with a family man named Jay getting abducted from his home late at night and waking up chained to a wall in a dark, dingy room in an abandoned meat processing plant. Jay is accompanied by three other victims: a security guard named Adam, a punkish-looking woman named Kat, and a badly mutilated man with his mouth sewn shut who Kat has taken to calling Paul (after her cat). And I'm just gonna stop right now and say that this movie should've gone very differently from the moment the main characters learn each other's names, because halfway into the film, we're treated to the big reveal that they were friends as kids and were involved in the disappearance of a boy named Dominic, who they dared to enter a creepy farmhouse only to watch him get kidnapped by its very much still alive owner. This man proceeded to kill Dominic's parents by burning down their house in order to stop them from searching for him, then proceeded to raise him as his own son, telling him that the outside world never wanted him. When Dominic learns the truth twenty years later, he takes his revenge on his captor, then plans to do the same to the people who, as kids, got him into this predicament and vowed never to tell anyone.

None of the three protagonists gives a good first impression. Jay's lines and attitude give off the impression of a snobbish rich guy, and Adam and Kat in turn feel like abrasive assholes. I wasn't rooting for any of them, especially once the big reveal made me call their intelligence into question. If these kids were truly responsible for doing something so heinous as kids, enough that they then vowed never to speak of it, then that would weigh heavily on them, enough to at least recognize immediately that it might be the common denominator in why they were kidnapped, like an I Know What You Did Last Summer situation. This is especially so given that the information that leads Jay to recognize what's happening indicates that he does remember. Instead, the reveal of this information is treated like a twist, which opens up massive questions that it never answers in a satisfactory manner, only a paper-thin hand-wave about how these friends "drifted apart" afterwards that doesn't hold up to scrutiny. Each subsequent twist provides only more questions and plot holes, leaving a film where I could scarcely understand the motivations of anybody other than Dominic himself, who was the most interesting character in the film virtually by default. When I'm rooting for a psychotic manchild to murder our main characters in a film that isn't an '80s franchise slasher, the movie has done something very, very wrong.

At least the actual thrills were decent. Dominic himself is an imposing and very jacked figure, establishing quickly why the main characters don't try to fight back against him once he no-sells getting stabbed by Jay. His mask, made of human flesh carved off from what are implied to be prior victims (including Paul), looks appropriately grotesque. While the film clearly had to cut away from the worst stuff in order to bring this down to an R rating, the things that he forces Jay, Adam, and Kat to do to each other and Paul are sufficiently brutal and disgusting to hold the attention of any fan of these kinds of movies. And at the climax, we do get a solid chase scene as Jay fights to make his escape, both he and Dominic growing increasingly battered and worn down as they fight each other. As much as I fault Giles Anderson and Jonny Grant's screenplay, I don't really have much to fault with Anderson's direction. There's nothing here that isn't torture porn boilerplate, but much of it is pretty well-done, at times almost overcoming the screenplay to give off the impression of a good movie.

The Bottom Line

This film only works on a purely technical level, and its best qualities are wasted on a story, characters, and writing that handles its big twist in a manner reminiscent of the worst of M. Night Shyamalan. After the movie, I overheard from a producer in attendance that Blumhouse was trying to dump this, and I totally get why: as it is, this is the kind of movie that a studio would call "unreleaseable". Skip it.


And we close the night off with...

Bliss (2019)

Not yet rated

Score: 4 out of 5

The trailer for this promised a fucked-up vampire movie, and I got a fucked-up vampire movie. Normally, a protagonist as abrasive as the one that this film offers up would be a mortal sin, but here, she just pulled me into its grimy world that much more effectively. This is a movie about a bunch of drugged-out lowlifes in Los Angeles, and it feels like it at every step of the way, dripping with sex, neon, and strobe lights even before it starts literally dripping with blood. It felt like a long, drug-fueled haze of chaos, pulling the viewers down with its protagonist into her downward spiral in such a way that I could not take my eyes off the screen. Add in a truly daring lead performance by Dora Madison Burge, and you've got a film that, despite not really having much of a narrative structure, will likely wind up a good-sized cult classic among fans of both vampires and splatter films.

The main character Dezzy Donahue is not a likable person. She's a struggling painter who's behind on her rent, having trouble coming up with ideas for her next painting, and is surrounded by terrible people, in no small part because she isn't much better. She regularly uses cocaine and gets into fights and shouting matches with the people around her, and is in many ways an asshole who is in no small part to blame for her predicament. Things are about to get a whole lot worse for her, however, when a her friend Courtney introduces her to a drug called "bliss". Long story short, it turns her into a vampire -- or maybe it was Courtney who did that when the two had sex. Either way, she now has a craving for human blood, one that seems to break her creative block and give her the inspiration to work on her masterpiece after she feeds.

Vampirism as a metaphor for addiction isn't a new idea, but it's one that this film takes all the way, making the audience not merely watch somebody's life fall apart but putting them in her shoes. She gets antsy when she hasn't drank any blood recently, snorting bliss sends her into a frenzy where she rips people's throats out, and she doesn't remember any of what she did afterwards. Dora Madison Burge (of Friday Night Lights and Chicago Fire fame, credited here as simply Dora Madison) is a commanding presence as Dezzy, looking and feeling like somebody living on the edge of normal society and being an utterly captivating presence on screen even when she's being a complete jerk to everyone around her. She's a party girl at heart whose life is spiraling out of control even before she takes bliss, and during her blackouts, she transforms into an utter animal, a whirlwind of emotion and instinct who rips apart everything around her, not least of all herself -- in other words, somebody on the drug bender from hell. She spends large chunks of the movie naked, but it doesn't feel gratuitous; rather, it effectively conveys her transformation, especially by the end when she looks more like a demon than a person, and adds to the "what the hell did I do last night?" feel she has when she finally comes to. The progress of her macabre painting, which sees new elements added with each "trip" that she takes, always had me captivated, feeling like it was building up to something horrifying as the pile of bodies that she was putting up there climbed higher and higher. Dezzy's vampirism doesn't just reflect addiction, it also reflects the reasons why people might use drugs in the first place; in her case, she thought it would help her creative process, instead twisting it into something that gets nastier as the film progresses.

The feel is only built upon by capable direction courtesy of Joe Begos. When I watched Dezzy tear people apart, I thought, "so this is what it must feel like to be utterly high as balls on Bolivian marching powder", and it was in no small part thanks to how Begos framed everything. The Los Angeles that this film is set in is that of Skid Row and the Sunset Strip, the wrong side of the tracks where everything is lit up in neon -- in other words, a perfect fit for the '80s retro-inspired aesthetic that this film runs on. Aesthetics alone can't make a movie good, but they can make a good movie better, and here, I felt like I was watching an obscure punk-rock horror film from 1986 made by somebody with a chip on his shoulder concerning the rest of society. It's a hard thing to put into words, but the poster above pretty well encapsulates at least some of how this film looks -- minus, of course, the gore that inevitably flies everywhere when Dezzy releases the beast.

You may notice I haven't spoken much about the supporting cast, and for good reason: they're in this to die. Courtney is the only really important figure among them, serving as the vampire who turned Dezzy and who she's seeking out in order to get some semblance of an explanation for what the hell is going on; Dezzy being a strung-out asshole, of course, she just digs herself deeper. This movie is gritty, but it isn't particularly grounded in reality; rather, it's rooted in Dezzy's increasingly outlandish "blood trips", and so the people around her increasingly start to exist as abstractions in her warped mind rather than real people. To her, and to the audience, they're unwelcome intrusions who need to go, and when she dispatches them, it is with all the gore you'd expect from a good modern vampire movie. There's nothing classy about it; Dezzy rips people's heads off, tears off their flesh, bites off their fingers, and sends geysers of blood flowing everywhere. The "rules" of vampirism state that people who get bit turn into vampires and can only be killed by stabbing them in the heart, and what results is a gloriously disgusting mess that rivals the eruptions of gore seen when vampires die on True Blood. By the time the violence kicks in you'll already know if you're grooving to this movie or not, but rest assured, it is very much a treat if you're into amazing practical effects.

The Bottom Line

While the narrative structure may be wobbly and the characters may be abrasive, this is still a movie that grew on me the more I thought about it. Things that would be flaws in other films wound up working here in the context of this film's dive into the deep end, altogether making for an outstanding vampire movie.

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