Sunday, August 11, 2019

Popcorn Frights 2019, Day 3: Alive (2018), Itsy Bitsy (2019), Daniel Isn't Real (2019), Villains (2019), Porno (2019)

Buckle up. Day three of Popcorn Frights was the first of two gauntlets, and I had to scramble to and from my house between movies in order to care for the dogs while still squeezing everything in. The quality varied, but I still got two standouts.

First up, some icky medical horror.


Alive (2018)

Not yet rated

Score: 3 out of 5

I didn't really know what to expect from Alive going in. The trailer promised a torture porn asylum thriller, potentially carrying a twist. Nobody I was familiar with was involved. In short, the kind of indie horror film that's a staple of these kinds of festivals, including last year's, and this one was no exception. The film I got turned out to be a pretty welcome surprise, all things considered, showing me right off the bat that it wouldn't be going in the direction I feared it might and instead having other ideas in mind. All told, this is one I'd easily recommend.

While it's set in an abandoned hospital, this movie has nothing to do with mental illness. Rather, Alive is about two people, credited only as the Male and Female Patient, who wake up in an abandoned hospital with serious injuries and no knowledge of who they are or how they got there. All they have are brief flashes; the male patient apparently used to be a criminal, and the female patient the mother of a young girl. What's more important now, however, is that they are under the care of a... highly eccentric doctor who seeks to get them back on their feet again by any means necessary. Unfortunately, his bedside manner is more than a little lacking.

I was right that this film builds to a twist, but I will admit, the direction it ultimately went in surprised me. Without spoiling anything, it pays homage to one of the all-time great classic horror films, offering a creative perspective flip showing what it might be like to be in the shoes of another character in that film. It's a movie where the twist forces you to go back and look at everything that happened in a completely different light, elevating it above and beyond just the pretty good B-movie that it had been before then. Looking back, it ties the film together beautifully, not just in how they creatively covered up all the evidence of the twist but also in how the mad doctor's decisions suddenly make perfect sense in light of what turned out to really be going on. In fact, the twist almost convinced me to bump this film's score up a point to a 4 out of 5. The only hint I can possibly give is to think about this film's very title.

Even without the twist, however, this was still a pretty rattling film. I'm convinced that the filmmakers must have had a bad experience with physical therapy at some point in their lives, because this film is filled with all manner of medical horrors rooted in the things that doctors do to get people recovering from illness, injury, or surgery back on their feet after treatment. There isn't much actual gore, but a lot of the abuse that the patients suffer is psychological, whether it be the gruel they're forced to eat, getting submerged in a bathtub, or being confronted by the doctor's angry guard dog. The nameless doctor who administers all of this is easily my favorite character in the film, evoking classic mad doctors and scientists of old as he displays little concern for his "patients" except with regards to the checkmarks on their road to physical recovery. Angus Macfadyen may not be playing a particularly original type of character here, but he's still clearly relishing this kind of role.

I wish I could say the same about the actors playing the patients. While both of them were decent, neither of them went above and beyond and really made their characters interesting. In all honestly, though, I think part of it might come down to a failure in the writing. In light of the twist, I think that it was kind of justified for them to be fairly flat characters, but there were still some interesting places they could've gone with these characters. I would've liked to see them piecing together their memories in order to create pictures of who they were, only to find out just how completely wrong they were at the end. The existential crisis that the twist logically would've produced isn't really mined in much depth; instead, the clues we do get as to who they were turn out to be little more than red herrings.

The Bottom Line

All told, however, this is a solid movie that's elevated by a great twist that makes for a very fun homage, even if the film doesn't go all the way in exploring its implications. Not a very deep movie, but certainly a fun one that's more creative than it looks on the surface.


Next up, giant spiders. If you're reading this, hey, Mary!

Itsy Bitsy (2019)

Not yet rated

Score: 5 out of 5

Not many people like spiders. I'm one of the rare few, it seems, who isn't instantly creeped out by them, and rest assured I have gotten in at least one great prank involving them. (Again: hey, Mary!) They're icky, they have too many legs compared to garden-variety ants and beetles, they spin webs, they're venomous, and they're always hiding somewhere you don't want them. When an episode of the British children's cartoon Peppa Pig tried to challenge people's fear and mistrust of spiders, it wound up banned in Australia (a country whose spiders are very much not cuddly) lest it risk giving the wrong idea to children. So naturally, they've been fodder for a lot of great, and not-so-great, horror movies, going all the way back to the '50s. It doesn't take much convincing for audiences to see killer spiders as a threat.

Itsy Bitsy, fortunately, is one of the great ones. It's a simple story, but one told with a lot of heart that truly cares about its protagonists, establishing and building them as a family such that I was genuinely afraid for them once they started getting menaced by the film's eight-legged antagonist. At its heart, this is a movie about a single mother struggling to raise her kids and watching her family fall apart, in no small part thanks to her own mistakes, and her learning to overcome her flaws and become a better person in order to save her family. And it's also a scary-ass creature feature that takes the Jaws route with its boogeyman, hiding it in the background for long stretches but still frequently letting it come out to play against the unsuspecting in order to establish its threat, all done with some gnarly effects work and clever use of misdirection. This is one of two "best in show" candidates to reveal themselves on the third night of Popcorn Frights (I'll get into the second one soon), a terrifying and yet compassionate film that reminded me as much of The Babadook or Poltergeist with its mix of domestic drama and creepy monsters as it did, say, Tarantula or Eight Legged Freaks.

Kara is a single mother who's just moved from New York to the countryside with her two kids to work as a caretaker for Walter Clark, a wealthy old man who collects and deals in artifacts from remote tribes. Years ago, she survived a car accident that not only claimed the life of one of her children, but also caused her to develop an addiction to painkillers afterwards, one that got her fired from her last job as a nurse and has fractured her relationship with her two kids, the teenage son Jesse and the adolescent daughter Cambria. And at this house, she seems to be settling into old habits, with Walter catching her raiding his medicine cabinet for OxyContin and the local sheriff able to clearly tell that she's not well. All of this is happening at the worst possible time, as one of the latest artifacts brought to Walter's home is a ceramic egg from a jungle tribe that worshiped a spider goddess -- and as it turns out, the curse attached to it is no mere superstition. There is now an abnormally large, venomous spider loose in the house menacing Kara and her family.

First things first, yes, this is a movie about a killer giant spider, and once it gets to the halfway mark that point becomes unmistakable. The effects team that worked on this did an amazing job given the undoubtedly low budget they probably had, with great practical effects and only a small smattering of CGI used to create a very big spider that looks and feels like everything out of the worst nightmares of an arachnophobe. It's the size of a dog, and it's got very sharp fangs loaded with venom. We only get glimpses of it early on, the spider stalking the shadows and pouncing on, say, an unsuspecting stray cat, but it is a constant presence lurking in the background of this movie, constantly letting the viewer know that the protagonists are not alone in their house. The spider turns the home's attic into a lair, weaving a nest and laying mounds of eggs. And, when the spider does strike, it does some real damage to its victims, leaving bites filled with pus and flesh rotting from its venom that looked unbelievably painful. The spider here is no metaphor for anything; it's simply a big-ass, overgrown arachnid that wants to kill everything as part of an ancient curse. It was a credible, and incredible-looking, monster.

But the spider alone simply would've made this an entertaining B-movie, like the ones I mentioned or like a better version of a SyFy original movie. No, the family dynamic is what elevates this film to greatness. I bought into all three of the major players in this family, Elizabeth Roberts' Kara and her kids Jesse and Cambria, as people dealing with not only a traumatic event but also with the fallout from it, as it has sent Kara into a downward spiral of drug addiction that is fracturing her family. She tries to do right by her kids, but she is turning into an abrasive, selfish junkie who will cheat her employer for her next fix, and everybody around her can tell no matter how she denies it. The bulk of this movie, especially in the first half, isn't about the spider; it's about a family that's falling apart thanks to the mistakes that Kara has made, and the film offered a gripping portrait of such thanks to capable performances from Roberts, Bruce Davison as her ailing boss Walter, and both of the child actors playing her kids. And the film never forgets that even in the second half when the spider starts targeting the people in the house; instead, it uses the spider to bring Kara's dramatic arc full circle, learning from her mistakes, pulling herself back together, and becoming the mother that her kids deserve. There isn't much that's really all that surprising about the film's arc, but it's a simple story that's remarkably well-told and felt genuinely affecting, such that I did genuinely fear for the characters' lives -- of course, in between the moments when I was being creeped out by the spider.

The Bottom Line

The B-movie that the trailer promised is certainly here, but it goes hand-in-hand with a surprisingly warm and unflinching story about a family struggling. I give this my highest recommendation, and will tell you to see it the moment it comes out.


Third film of the day is a psychological thriller involving a not-so-imaginary friend that's loaded with mind screws.

Daniel Isn't Real (2019)

Not yet rated

Score: 5 out of 5

Once you get past the trippy look of this film, Daniel Isn't Real turns out to be a lot more straightforward than it looks at first glance, especially once it's revealed what's really going on. It's a stylish and frightening look at a man dealing with schizophrenia whose biggest twist is that it ultimately doesn't wind up seriously screwing with your mind; The Neon Demon this ain't, despite a similar aesthetic style. It uses its gloss to deliver what is actually a pretty conventional horror movie story, albeit one that still goes in some daring directions, all while offering a smorgasbord of creative visuals and great characters brought to life by a compelling cast. This was my other "best in show" for the night, and one that grew on me the more I thought about it.

The film starts out as, more or less, a version of Fight Club that's up-front about the twist. After witnessing the aftermath of a mass shooting, a young boy named Luke develops an imaginary friend named Daniel. His mother thinks nothing of it at first, but when Daniel causes Luke to give his mother a non-fatal overdose of her medication, she demands that Luke lock Daniel away in an old dollhouse to get rid of him. Now, a grown-up Luke is in college and suffering under the stress, and seems to be developing the same symptoms of schizophrenia that, at the start of the film, get his mother sent to a psychiatric hospital. In order to cope, Luke returns home and releases Daniel, the best friend he ever really had. Daniel has grown up with him, and is now everything that Luke wishes he was: cool, suave, hunky, well-dressed, but still a bit of a goofball who likes to have fun. Tyler Durden if he were played by '90s Jim Carrey, if you will. With Daniel's help, Luke strikes up a relationship with an artist named Cassie and starts excelling in his classes; freeing Daniel seems to have genuinely helped him. Unfortunately, not everything about Luke is to Daniel's liking, and he soon starts taking control of Luke's life in frightening ways, with terrible consequences for both him and the people around him.

This movie is ultimately building to a twist, one that paradoxically doesn't throw everything up into the air so much as it does make the film more conventional in its structure. That said, given how it played out, that wasn't necessarily a bad thing. And it all came down to the leads. Miles Robbins (son of Tim Robbins) and Patrick Schwarzenegger (son of Ahnold) have an excellent chemistry, Robbins' Luke as the troubled dweeb who doesn't fit in and Schwarzenegger's Daniel as, basically, a self-help guru/pick-up artist. Schwarzenegger specifically is the one who steals the show, as befitting the fact that Daniel is the one who's trying, or at least claiming, to make Luke into something better than he once was, though that's not to disparage Robbins as Luke, especially as Daniel's influence over him starts to take hold. After the twist especially, their relationship takes on some very interesting subtext -- not sexual, but in terms of metaphor for what society expects men to be like, especially given the nasty directions that the disciples of the pick-up artists ultimately went in. The Tyler Durden comparisons grow at once less apparent in Daniel's exact nature but also more apparent in what Daniel is supposed to represent for Luke. He's the corrupting influence trying to turn Luke into the kind of "ideal man" promoted throughout pop culture, even though Luke's relationship with Cassie was proceeding just fine without him and was actively hurt when he listened to Daniel's influence. Whereas Luke wants a steady relationship with Cassie, Daniel pushes him to become a suave ladies' man, picking up other women at parties and then getting into fights. Daniel is "toxic masculinity" personified, and the film is unequivocal about where that ends up. I don't think it was an accident that they cast the son of the '80s "man's man" action movie icon in the part of Daniel.

And while the plot ultimately wound up fairly conventional, the visuals used to tell that story weren't. For much of the film, we're constantly led to second-guess what Luke is actually seeing, not knowing whether Daniel is all in his head or if there's something more malevolent going on here. An atmosphere of unease boils throughout the film, as Daniel accompanies Luke wherever he goes and never leaves him alone, always hanging over him as something he can't escape. The '80s retro look is there, and while it doesn't dominate the film the way it did, say, Bliss last night, it still lends a lot of creative visuals to the film, especially when it starts getting into all manner of grotesque body-horror. One scene in particular, in which Daniel takes control of Luke's body, is represented with amazing practical effects work that looked like something straight out of the Cenobites in Hellraiser. The supporting cast also did very good work, especially Sasha Lane in what could've been a pretty thankless "girlfriend" part but which she gives some added life, realizing the problem that her boyfriend is facing and being forced to confront what Daniel is doing to him.

The Bottom Line

I really don't want to give away the game here, so I'll just stop and tell you to see this when it comes out. It's not the kind of incomprehensibly "artsy" movie that it's being sold as, but it's still got plenty more on its mind than just a creepshow. And on that level, too, it's an effective film that works well at what it sets out to do.


Next up, a bunch of actors I love in a genre I love, horror-comedy.

Villains (2019)

Not yet rated

Score: 4 out of 5

Villains is a simple comedic thriller in the vein of the Coen Brothers that doesn't quite live up to its inspirations, but is certainly elevated by a great cast giving it their all. It's a story about four unlikable people, all of them criminals in some way, who wind up on two opposing sides as they try to outwit each other and get out alive -- not an easy task given that two of them are dumb as rocks and the other two are crazy. The film recognizes that it'd be really hard to sincerely root for any of these people, even the protagonists, so instead, everything is played as the ridiculous joke that it is. And in the process, it manages to find a genuine heart. It's a pretty lightweight movie, all around, but I'll be damned if I didn't have a good time and laugh my ass off with it.

Our protagonists are Mickey and Jules, a pair of very stupid criminals and lovebirds who, in the course of robbing a gas station, forgot to actually fill their car's tank. When the inevitable happens, they ditch their car and hide out in the home of a wealthy suburban couple, hoping to steal their car so they can keep going. Inside, they discover three things. First, the owners of this home, George and Gloria, have some extremely tacky taste in home decoration; the inside of the place looks like it came out of the '70s. Second, they have a little girl chained up in their basement. And third, they've just returned home and found two people ransacking their place. Nothing good is going to happen to any of them.

There really isn't much to say here, except that this is a very good time at the movies. Above all else, it's an actors' showcase for the four leads, the film confined to a single home with them, save for the one girl in the basement who doesn't speak, as the only characters of any importance. Bill Skarsgård is a world away from Pennywise as Mickey, a guy with perhaps bigger ideas than his tiny brain can really process. He wants to run away with his girlfriend to Florida to live on the beach, but doesn't really have a plan beyond "rob some stores to pay for it". He's a guy with charisma, but not a whole lot else to back it up, leading him to constantly dig himself deeper. As for Maika Monroe, I've been a fan of hers ever since It Follows, finding her to liven up most of the movies she's in, and she's no different here. In a world where Margot Robbie was never cast as Harley Quinn, I could easily see her in the part going by her performance as Jules here, playing a flirty blonde who loves her partner in crime and is just as ditzy as he is, but proves herself surprisingly capable of getting out of a jam. Jeffrey Donovan and Kyra Sedgwick played George and Gloria, and while I think they both went a little overboard on the "crazy" aspect of their characters, when it came down to business they both proved to be threatening presences, mixing cornball with malicious to great effect. So much of the film's joy comes from watching the four of them play against one another, trying to stay one step ahead and get out in one piece, either alive in the case of Mickey and Jules or without getting arrested over the girl in their basement in the case of George and Gloria. Donovan especially was remarkable as a guy who maintains his cool no matter what kinds of crazy shenanigans happen around him.

The direction further enhances the film's "live-action cartoon" feeling. Everything is presented as heightened, like this isn't quite reality that the characters are operating in. They get into big, loud shouting matches with each other, they threaten each other's personal belongings, and George and Mickey both make "sales pitches" to each other outlining why they should let the other do as they please. The house is done up in a fantastically kitschy style that's bright and inviting, yet also very old-fashioned, indicative of the kind of people who live in it and enabling the film's lighthearted tone. This is a film driven by a sort of manic energy that never lets up, as these four characters continue to play their games with each other.

The Bottom Line

It's not a very smart movie, but it's the kind of "dumb" movie that takes smart people to make, one that constantly entertained me with great performances and a ton of flair. It's one I'd happily seek out again.


And finally, a throwback to some old-fashioned Satanic Panic mayhem. (Not to be confused with the film lined up tomorrow night that's actually titled Satanic Panic.)

Porno (2019)

Not yet rated

Score: 2 out of 5

You know, for a movie called Porno with the poster seen above, I was expecting something way gnarlier than what I got. I was expecting kinky sex, brutal gore, the corruption of the innocent, and all manner of demonic depravity, the kind of film that would cross every line of good taste. Maybe I'm just desensitized, but while this film does have some of that, it never felt nearly as edgy as it seemed to think it was, and without much else to it beyond that, it suffered for it. It wasn't a truly bad movie like The Dare was, but it still didn't really leave much of an impact either way.

Set in 1992, the film takes place at a movie theater in a small, Christian town where they're showing Encino Man and A League of Their Own. Closing up for the night, the employees, the ushers Ricky, Chastity, Abe, and Todd and the straight-edge, uber-Christian projectionist Jeff decide to watch one last movie themselves. Not wanting to watch Encino Man again (I don't blame them), they're interrupted by a weirdo, likely high on drugs, who starts running around the place, in the process revealing an area of the theater that had been abandoned and boarded up. There, they find an old film reel containing what they can only describe as a weird European art film, filled with naked women and Satanic rituals. As it turns out, that boarded-up area was once a porno theater, and the movie they watched just released a succubus, who starts preying on the sexuality of these horny, repressed teenagers.

The big problem here is that the film didn't do anything with the possibilities it brought up. From the moment these kids watch the porn flick they found, we're promised all the nasty shit we saw in that movie plus some stuff that only the characters did, and the film never delivers. We do see the succubus, a drop-dead-gorgeous woman who spends most of the movie completely butt naked, but all she really does is kill and hurt people. The deaths are gruesome, particularly her favorite trick of exploding men's balls (we see the aftermath in graphic detail), but none of it has any weight to it. If you're making a movie about a sex demon, you should probably have her prey on the main characters' sexual insecurities. We're told that the theater's owner, while a devout Christian on the surface, is actually a pervert who films women through a peephole in the ladies' restroom. Ricky, one of the main characters, is gay and had been sent to a conversion therapy camp over the summer when his parents found out. We learn all this, yet it never really has much of an impact on the story. As such, while the film did offer some surface-level violence and T&A that would probably merit an NC-17, it still felt oddly toothless, like it was afraid to really subject its characters to anything truly Satanic and disgusting.

The film was well-made enough that I altogether didn't have a bad time watching it. While the plot felt mostly hollow, it still held together on a structural level, and the protagonists were a fairly charming bunch whose actors all turned in good work, even if their character development didn't amount to much in the end. On a technical level, the scares did more or less work, particularly the aforementioned exploding balls gag and another bit where a character's peep show goes horribly wrong for him, which hinted at the kind of awesome direction that this movie could've gone in. The actual porn film at the center of the story was filled with all manner of Satanic creepiness that I wish would've made it into the rest of the film. There were flashes of a better movie here, which made me wish that the filmmakers had been willing to go the extra mile into the kind of truly balls-out territory promised.

The Bottom Line

It thinks it's more daring than it really is, and while it's competent, it didn't really impress me otherwise. It wasn't even the most depraved film at the festival, not by a long shot.

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