Monday, October 31, 2022

Inside Man, on Netflix

Statistics indicate most murders are committed by close friends or family members. Jefferson Grieff agrees and he ought to know. The criminologist brutally murdered and decapitated his wife. However, he is still accepting cases on a special, limited-time-only basis, until his sentence is carried out. Perhaps the Nero-Wolfe-on-death-row can save a woman an ocean away in Steven Moffat’s four-part Inside Man, which premieres today on Netflix.

What does a proper English vicar like Harry Watling have to do with Grieff? They might just become fellow murderers, through an agonizingly torturous chain of events. Being truly charitable, Watling took Edgar, a disturbed young parolee, into his vicarage. Having too much sympathy, he agreed to hold Edgar’s flash drive full of adult material so his domineering mother would not find it. Not really thinking about, he took it home, where his son gave it to his math (or rather “maths” since they are British) tutor, Janice Fife. Disturbingly, the models depicted therein were decidedly not of age.

Fearing for his son’s reputation but mindful of his vows, Watling tries to explain, but the misunderstandings quickly escalate. Panic leads to further misinterpretations and before you know it, Watling has Fife locked in the cellar. So far, only journalist Lydia West suspects Fife might be missing, but they only just met in the prologue, so she can’t credibly report her missing to the police. However, she can ask the advice of her reluctant interview subject, Grieff.

The are two halves to inside man. One half features Grieff who is ruder than Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, but let’s face it, he does not have much left to lose. Since Grieff cannot have metal implements, he uses the photographic memory of fellow convicted murderer Dillon Kempton as his note-taking device. Their Holmes-and-Watson routine is jolly good fun to watch.

The other half is the incredibly manipulative and uncomfortable Job-like plague of troubles that rain down on the Watling family, who Moffat carefully establishes are good, decent folk, simply to make Grieff’s point anybody can become a murderer under the right circumstances. However, the succession of Rube Goldberg-like one-darned-things-after-another that befall the Watley family are wildly contrived, stretching believability past its breaking point. Witnessing their anguish and desperation is no fun whatsoever. Making him a vicar really feels like extra mean-spirited piling on, but admittedly, it adds further moral dimensions to dilemma.

Stanley Tucci chews the scenery marvelously as Grieff and his bantering chemistry with Atkins Estimond, as the brutish but often quite witty Kempton, is thoroughly entertaining. Dylan Baker is also terrific as Warden Casey, who is also rather droll and cleverer than you would expect for government employee.

David Tennant might be too good as Watling, because it is just painful watching him implode. On the other hand, something about both Dolly Wells as Fife and Lyndsey Marshal as Watling’s wife Mary seems off—like they constantly say and do things to raise the stakes, elevate the pressure, and further confuse the situation.

Quantum Leap: O Ye of Little Faith

Dr. Ben Song is a man of science, but he is about to leap into a man of faith: Father James Davenport, an exorcist, who failed to exorcise poor little Daisy Grey. At least that was what happened in the pre-Leap timeline. Fans will remember Dr. Sam Beckett maybe sort of had an encounter with Satan himself in the first classic Quantum Leap Halloween episode, “The Boogeyman—October 31, 1964.” Perhaps it will be Dr. Song turn in tonight’s episode of the Quantum Leap continuation series, “O Ye of Little Faith.”

As Dr. Song enters the Grey household, the nine in their address shifts, becoming an ominous “666,” which also happened at one point during “The Boogeyman.” Of course, Song does not believe in demons, so he is pretty darned shock to actually see the evil monster emerge from Daisy with his own eyes. Fortunately, he reads Latin, because he will have to navigate this leap almost entirely without the help of his fiancée and holographic guide, Addison Augustine, thanks to a mysterious “glitch” in the system.

Instead, Song (as Davenport) will rely on the assistance and counsel of Dr. Felix Watts. Naturally, the doctor scoffed at the notion of the supernatural—until he gets about fifteen minutes into this episode. However, he is rather impressed by the way Father Davenport tries to apply the scientific method.

“The Boogeyman” was a fan favorite episode, so it is cool to see the continuation series pay homage to it in little ways. However, it does not explore the same spiritual/metaphysical issues that episode raised. Of course, it has vastly superior special effects and it is still pretty creepy. It also leaves us with a bit of cliffhanger, but not one as significant as the one that ended “Salvationor Bust.”

Vintage Quantum Leap: The Boogeyman

Technically, Quantum Leaping is an act of possession. When you think about it, there should be all kinds of moral ramifications to Dr. Sam Beckett’s time-traveling do-gooding. Those were indeed addressed in the first Halloween episode of the original Quantum Leap series, “The Boogeyman—October 31, 1964,” which is visually referenced in tonight’s episode of the continuation series.

Before Stephen King, Joshua Rey, was Maine’s best-known horror author. He is a bit of a hack, but he is active in the community and a supporter of his local church. Every year, he turns his home into a haunted house. Frankly, it looks like he already owned most of the props and creepy trappings, but he shows them off to the public for the Coventry Presbyterian’s annual fundraiser.

According to Ziggy, Rey’s fiancée and research assistant, Mary Greely, will be killed that night. Rey was the only suspect, but there was never enough evidence to charge him. Sam assumes he is there to save her, but dead bodies keep piling up in the meantime. Al Calavicci starts to suspect Greely, but Beckett just doesn’t buy it. Red-headed Greeley, portrayed by Valerie Mahaffey of
Northern Exposure, just doesn’t strike him that way. In fact, something about this leap feels off, even beyond the high body-count.

Quantum Leap
is science fiction, but this episode totally embraces the horror genre, openly suggesting something might have notice of Beckett. The ending is certainly ambiguous, but it does not exactly walk back the supernatural implications of what viewer see. This is not a Scooby-Doo-style ending, which is maybe why it became a fan-favorite.

Sunday, October 30, 2022

It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown: Vince Guaraldi’s Original Soundtrack

This year, you can only watch It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown with an Apple TV+ subscription, but you can finally hear all of Vince Guaraldi’s classic music, in its entirety. For years, the audio masters were presumed lost, so the previous 2018 soundtrack release simply dubbed Guaraldi’s themes (along with accompanying sound effects) from the film print—which fans found unsatisfying. However, the heirs of producer Lee Mendelson finally unearthed the original music master tapes after their father’s death. Earlier this year, fans finally got to hear the full Guaraldi soundtrack in the manner it deserved to be heard. It is great jazz any day of the week, but you can’t beat the nostalgia of listening to the soundtrack of It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown during Halloween time.

Fittingly, the soundtrack album starts with the classic
Peanuts theme “Linus and Lucy.” This take sounds somewhat different than that heard on the A Charlie Brown Christmas record, because Ronnie Lang’s swinging flute is featured so prominently, but it is still easily recognizable in theme and tempo as the Charlie Brown music you know. The same is very much true of the “Charlie Brown Theme,” appearing in several arrangements throughout Great Pumpkin, but you won’t find that one on the Christmas record.

Ironically, “The Great Pumpkin Waltz” is on the Christmas record, where it weirdly fits in just fine, because it is such a lovely piece of music. “Graveyard Theme” might sound like an incidental mood piece from its title, but it serves up a really slinky groove with a cool bass line that stands alone quite nicely.

There are a few pieces that mostly help listeners relive Snoopy’s antics from the special, like Schroeder’s WWI medley. However, even Guaraldi’s “Red Baron Theme” sounds pretty hip and swinging. Even the moody “Breathless” has a strong rhythmic drive and Lang’s flute gives the second reprise a distinctive, exotic flavor.

“Linus and Lucy” “Great Pumpkin Waltz” “Charlie Brown Theme” and “Graveyard Theme” are each repeated several times throughout the soundtrack album, including several alternate takes. Yet, each rendition has sufficient variations to more than merit their inclusion in the program (even the alternates are surprisingly good, which is not always the case).

Admittedly, Christmas is more traditionally associated with seasonal music than Halloween, but it just seems like Fantasy Records left a lot money on the table not pursuing a soundtrack album after
It’s the Great Pumpkin premiered. Seriously, how many copies of the Christmas album have they sold over the years? It even features Monty Budwig on bass and Colin Bailey on drums (laying down a rock-solid beat), who also played on some of the Christmas tracks.

At least it is here now, but its not just nostalgia.
It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown is a great jazz album, from Guaraldi, who is still not fully appreciated as a jazz artist. (For Great Pumpkin, he also had some notable assistance from former big band lead John Scott Trotter orchestrating and conducting the score.) Highly recommended for jazz fans, Peanuts fans, and trick-or-treats, Guaraldi’s It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown soundtrack is now available on CD, LP, and digital.

Saturday, October 29, 2022

Unhuman: A Blumhouse Afterschool Special

Nothing was scarier than the “Afterschool” specials of the 1970’s and 1980’s. They were trying to terrify kids with the consequences of sniffing glue (and other assorted vices), but they really just creeped us out with their manipulation and corniness. This film is described, with tongue in cheek, as a “Blumhouse Afterschool” special, but happily it is not as lectury as some of their recent films (hello Black Christmas). Lessons will still be learned when Marcus Dunstan’s Unhuman will be available on Prime as a regular SVOD title on Halloween.

Poor Ever knows her newly-popular lifelong-bestie Tamra is slowly withdrawing from her and she will probably just let it happen. At least Tamra still sits with her on the bus for the PTA’s latest feel-good, tree-hugging field trip. This would be a heck of a time for a zombie apocalypse, wouldn’t it? It might be more like a viral break-out, but something like that sure seems to happen.

Suddenly, Ever and her surviving classmates are hiding in an abandoned institutional building that looks like it has become a frequent site for raves. To get through this crisis, she and Tamra will have to work with two role-playing geeks and some of the jocks that bullied them. Alas, that might be difficult, because their prejudices and resentments have become so ingrained and internalized.

Halfway through, Dunstan and co-screenwriter Patrick Melton pull a carpet-under-our-feet revelation that could have been an eye-roller, but they execute it quite cleverly. They also largely avoid woke virtue signaling. In fact, some of the snark coming from the field trip chaperone, phys ed teacher Mr. Lorenzo satirizes that kind of kneejerk rhetoric quite cuttingly.

Friday, October 28, 2022

Hong Sang-soo’s The Novelist’s Film

Novelists have a spotty track record directing films based on their own work. Michael Crichton and Clive Barker did pretty well for themselves, but Stephen King and Norman Mailer disappointed their admirers (but delighted fans of high camp). It is hard to say how Kim Jun-hee might fare, because her filmmaking goals and intentions are rather vague. That makes her a fitting protagonist for Hong Sang-soo’s latest lowkey binge-drinking gab-film, The Novelist’s Film, which opens today in New York.

Kim ventured out of Seoul to visit her old friend Se-won, who now owns the local independent bookstore. Their reunion catches Se-won by surprise. In fact, it is somewhat awkward, but rather mildly so, by Hong’s standard. Afterward, she visits the local scenic tower, where she coincidentally runs into Hyo-jin, a director who once attempted to adapt one of her novels, but the project fell-through. Again, it is awkward, but not outrageously so.

Strolling outside in the gardens, they just so happen to run into Kil-soo, a thesp Hyo-jin knows, who has put her career on hold, retreating to the peaceful calm of the provinces. Kim did not know her before, but they get on like a house on fire—so much so, Kil-soo agrees to appear in the yet to be conceived film the novelist suddenly decides to make.

In Hong’s previous films, coincidences were clever inventions that created their own meaning. Unfortunately, the coincidences in
Novelist’s Film simply come across as humdrum occurrences necessitated by the relatively small cast of characters. The wit is largely gone, but the neuroses remain.

The Devil’s Hour, on Prime

Perhaps Lucy Chambers should have opted for the security of a freelance writing career. That way she could go to bed at 4:00 AM. Instead, she wakes up each and every night at 3:33 AM precisely. The stress from her work at Child Protective Services probably does not help, but the phenomenon certainly seems to be sinister and uncanny in nature at the start of creator Tom Moran’s The Devil’s Hour, which premieres today on Prime Video.

“Gideon” gives off Hannibal Lecter vibes during the in medias res opening. It appears he is being held in-custody in a police interrogation room, where he has requested Chambers presence, to explain all the madness viewers are about to watch. Rewinding a little, we clearly understand how much stress Chambers is enduring.

Her emotionally-frozen son Isaac is having very disturbing problems at school. For instance, he beats himself up, because other boys told him so. He also often exhibits spooky “shine”-like behavior, claiming to see people who aren’t there and the like, especially around the time Chambers wakes each night. Isaac has been a long-term issue in her life, but recently, Chambers has had premonitions of the grisly murders of an abused wife and daughter, whose cases she handles.

Somehow, those crimes that have not happened yet are related to the brutal case DI Ravi Dhillon is working. There might also be a connection to a notorious local unsolved murder that predates Dhillon. He is on the fast-track, but he still has difficulty stomaching blood. Fortunately, his gruff but understanding sergeant, DS Nick Holness, helps him cover as best he can.

Devil’s Hour is intended to be a mind-bending serial killer mystery involving time-travel, or some kind of time-warping, much like Apple TV+’s Shining Girls. However, creator Silka Luisa did a much better job establishing the ground rules in the early episodes. Based on the first two episodes provided for review, it is hard to really understand what is going on, particularly where Gideon fits into it all. Still, episode two, “The Velveteen Rabbit,” ends on a heck of a cliffhanger.

Given what we have seen so far, the procedural stuff is by far more compelling than the melodrama involving Chambers and creepy little Isaac. Both Nikesh Patel and Alex Ferns are terrific as Dhillon and Holness. If they survive season one, we would be willing to watch further
X-File-style investigations with their characters.

Thursday, October 27, 2022

Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues, on Apple TV+

Decades after his death, this jazz legend returned to the charts when his songs “What a Wonderful World” and “We Have All the Time in the World” were rediscovered. Both the modern conception of the jazz solo and scat singing come from him. For these and many more reasons, nobody is more iconic than Louis Armstrong, not even Elvis Presley or the Beatles. There have been Louis Armstrong documentaries before, but there is always room for another. Happily, director Sacha Jenkins does a nice job telling the jazz legend’s story throughout Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues, which premieres tomorrow on Apple TV+.

Black & Blues kicks-off with a performance of Armstrong’s “What Did I Do to Be so Black and Blue,” a hard-luck blues that is widely interpreted as a commentary on the racism Armstrong experienced. Jenkins definitely explores those themes, without over-emphasizing the metaphor, with respects to that particular tune.

The story of Armstrong’s life will be familiar to jazz fans, but Jenkins covers it well, giving viewers a vivid sense of his hardscrabble New Orleans upbringing, his apprenticeship under King Oliver, and his breakout fame in Chicago. Frankly,
Black & Blues is surprisingly restrained when addressing Armstrong’s relationship with his longtime manager, Joe Glaser, who has been widely criticized as an exploiter by modern jazz historians.

Arguably, Jenkins’ handling of Armstrong’s good will tours for the State Department and his bitter criticism of Eisenhauer’s handling of the Arkansas school integration riots is more nuanced than that found in the documentary
TheJazz Ambassadors, or the nonfiction book, Satchmo Blows Up the World that it was largely drawn from. Unlike previous sources, Jenkins suggests Eisenhauer was waiting for someone prominent to speak out against Faubus barricading schools, for some cover for Federal intervention (something I hadn’t heard suggested before). Armstrong was the only one who did, but he was criticized in the press by fellow celebrities, like Sammy Davis Jr.

Holy Spider, from Iran, by Way of Denmark

Saeed Hanaei was sort of like Iran’s version of Soviet serial killer Andrei Chikatilo (a.k.a. “Citizen X,” who continued to kill over decades, because the authorities deliberately ignored evidence linking his murders). Their prolific slayings exposed the corruption and incompetence of the respective regimes. In fact, the Islamist authorities were reluctant to stop the real-life Hanaei, for ideological reasons, because he only targeted “fallen” women working on the streets of Mashhad, the spiritual capitol of Shia Islam. Rather logically, it will be a woman journalist who exposes him in Ali Abbasi’s Holy Spider, which opens tomorrow in New York.

Just checking into a hotel in Mashhad is an ordeal for Rahimi, since she is a single woman, unaccompanied by a man. She has to pull her journalist credentials, threatening a scandal in the papers. Rahimi is here to investigate the “Spider Killer,” since the local authorities clearly lack a sense of urgency.

To make matters worse, Rahimi’s bad reputation (quite scandalously, she filed a sexual harassment complaint against her former boss) has followed her to Mashhad. Nevertheless, Sharifi, the cautious local reporter who has received boasted calls from the killer agrees to help her investigation. However, winning the trust of the city’s prostitutes will be very difficult. Yet, they keep coming home with the murderous Hanaei, because that is what their business requires.

Holy Spider
is Columbo-like in the sense that it reveals Hanaei’s identity as the killer right from the start. Abbasi also vividly depicts in his brutality, in stark, uncompromising terms. The misogyny of Iranian society also comes through loud and clear, especially during a scene in which Rahimi barely escapes an attempted sexual assault, at the hands of Mashhad’s police chief. For a so-called “holy city,” Mashhad looks like a pervasively predatory environment.

Yet, the investigation is only half the story. The rest of the film consists of the trial, wherein Hanaei tries to ride his public popularity to an acquittal, on the grounds his murders were theologically justified. Much to Rahimi’s concern and disgust, there is a very real chance Hanaei could pull it off.

For obvious reasons, it was Denmark that selected the Danish-based, Iranian-born Abbasi’s film as its International Oscar submission, rather than Iran. However, Abbasi filmed on location in Jordan, which doubles convincingly for the grim, dark streets of Mashhad (at least for viewers who have never visited, but have seen a number of Iranian films).

Holy Spider
is definitely a visceral indictment of institutionalized injustice, intolerance, and sexism in contemporary Iranian society. However, it is also a potent hybrid serial killer thriller and courtroom drama. Indeed, the uniquely perverse aspects of Iran’s justice system greatly complicate the prosecution and consequently generate greater suspense than an equivalent case ever could, in just about any other jurisdiction.

In a performance of great personal courage (considering the possibility of subsequent reprisals), established Persian thesp Mehdi Bajestani is frighteningly intense as Hanaei. It is not the physical violence that makes him such a monster. It is his absolutely conviction in the righteousness of his murders.

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Neil Marshall’s The Lair

These American troops stationed in Afghanistan will find themselves in a tight spot. It is not as difficult a position as evacuating from Kabul airport after Biden shutdown the Bagram airfield, but it is still really bad. Along with a downed RAF officer, they find themselves stuck between Taliban insurgents and mutant monsters in Neil Marshall’s The Lair, which opens Friday in New York.

Lt. Kate Sinclair is a pilot, but she and her weapons systems officer fight like heck after their jet is shot down by the Taliban. Alas, he won’t back it, but somehow, she manages to take shelter in an old subterranean Soviet military installation. The Taliban were bad, but the monsters she sees down there really freak her out.

Sinclair is the widowed mother of little girl, so she finds a way to survive. However, the remote American outpost that takes her in is skeptical of all her monster talk, except maybe Major Roy Finch. It seems to ring a bell for him. Of course, when the creatures attack, they will ring a lot people’s bells.

Apparently, this all the result of some seriously evil Soviet military experiments. Easily the coolest idea Marshall and his co-screenwriter-lead thesp wife Charlotte Kirk come up with is the notion the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was really all about recovering and exploiting an alien UFO crash site.

The down side is the film’s cynical depiction of the American military. It is insulting to suggest a corporal would steal from a British officer in distress. Similarly, it is unlikely the most dysfunctional and disgraced officers and enlisted men serving in-theater would all be transferred to the same outpost, in the middle of insurgent territory.

Compared to
The Reckoning, Kirk’s previous film with Marshall, The Lair is a much better showcase for her. It certainly helps than she is more restrained and at least a little more glammed down as Sinclair. Most of the other soldiers are not given much by the way of personality, at least on the page, but Jonathan Howard and Leon Ockenden manage to invest some into Sgt. Tom Hook and Sgt. Oswald Jones, another lost Brit. Jamie Bramber is also entertainingly grizzled as hardnosed, hard-luck Maj. Finch.

Terror-Fi ’22: The Civil Dead

Neither your parents or your teachers probably ever taught you the etiquette of hauntings, either for the haunted or the haunter. Maybe the Church and horror movies gave us a clue, but that was only for really adversarial hauntings. It is therefore rather understandable that Clay would be confused when his old friend Whit starts haunting him in Clay Tatum & Whitmer Thomas’s The Civil Dead, which screens during this year’s Terror-Fi.

Clay is an under-achieving photographer, who fortunately lives with his gainfully employed wife. Whit was a struggling actor, who apparently will never make it, because he is now dead. Clay is rather surprised to run across him in the park, but Whit is even more surprised, because he had resigned him self to being a spectral ghost nobody can see.

It takes a little convincing, but eventually Clay concedes nobody else can see Whit, so it sures seems like he most be dead. It is a lot to process, but Whit still latches on hard, because his is so relieved to finally have company. Somewhat ironically, Whit had ghosted Clay during their senior year of high school and Clay had largely ghosted him back after they both moved to LA, where Whit was desperate for some sort of social support, so their relationship was already awkward. Death and haunting will start to realty make it weird.

Civil Dead
is the sort of hipster horror comedy some of Onur Tukel’s darned-near unwatchable films were supposed to be, but weren’t. The screenplay, co-written by Tatum & Thomas is intensely neurotic, but there are also some genuinely creepy moments.

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Blade of the 47 Ronin

It is pretty clear from this film, Samurai are far more skilled than ninjas. However, ninjas attack with superior numbers, like in the dozens or hundreds. Those ninjas hordes obey the commands of a witch who has targeted the descendants of the loyal samurai-turned-ronin, who avenged their lord back in the Edo era. It is about as loose as sequels get, but the hack-and-slash martial arts certainly entertains throughout Ron Yuan’s Blade of the 47 Ronin, which releases today on DVD and Netflix.

Supposedly, this is a sequel to the disastrous Keanu Reeves version of
The 47 Ronin, but feel free to pretend it is a sequel to the Kon Ichikawa or Kenji Mizoguchi adaptations, because the connection between films is tenuous, at best. In the present day, samurai clans operate in secret, based in Budapest, supposedly because it is a key juncture between East and West, but it also happens to be affordable to shoot there. The descendants of the 47 Ronin guard the magically divided half of a mythic sword that holds a fateful prophecy. The witches hold the other half, but Yurei, the most powerful warlock has gone rogue.

He thought he had killed all the Ronin’s descendants, but there was a secret progeny out there somewhere. Unfortunately, the punky, resentful Luna does not inspire much confidence. She has come to Budapest to sell her late, estranged father’s sword, which is obviously priceless. Luna is a pain, but virtuous Lord Shinshiro protects her anyway. That duty primarily falls to his Bugeisha (samurai warrior woman) Onami, who enlists help from her old confidant, Reo, a ronin, who was forced out of Shinshiro’s service due to a past disgrace.

Scholars of Japanese history and literature will probably be scandalized by the way
Blade trades on the names of the 47 Ronin, which is fair enough. However, if you accept the film as its own stand-alone entity, it is pretty fun, admittedly in a meathead kind of way. Ron Yuan (the actor, not appearing in-front of the camera this time around) clearly understands how to frame a fight scene and he is not intimidated by a little blood splatter. The swordplay is often brutal, but it looks great.

Yuan also has the benefit of two major action stars, who still clearly have their stuff. Mark Dacascos is cool and commanding as Lord Shinshiro, while Dustin Nguyen is all kinds of steely playing Lord Nikko. Stylistically, his clan is very different from Shinshiro’s but they are allied in honor. They both have plenty of highly cinematic fight scenes, but Teresa Ting and Michael Moh (Bruce Lee in
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) have even more. Their athleticism is impressive and they some appealing comrade-in-arms rapport going on.

The Invitation, on DVD (and Opening in Brazil)

Walter De Ville’s stately New Carfax Abbey does not look very new, but if you remember who in horror fiction owned the old Carfax Abbey, you can understand why he would make the distinction. The Stoker references will continue to pop-up in Jessica M. Thompson’s The Invitation, which releases today on DVD and also opens Thursday in Brazil (Brasil).

After her mother’s death, Evie Jackson is alone in the world, except for her tiger-mom-ish best friend Grace. Then she took a free genealogy test that surprisingly told her she had a bunch of very rich and very white relatives in England. Apparently, there was a scandal with a footman, way back when. Weirdly, the Alexanders are strangely psyched to meet her. Suspiciously friendly Oliver Alexander even offers to fly her out to an upcoming family wedding.

The ceremony will be at New Carfax, hosted by their long-time family friend, De Ville (do you hear what his name sounds like?). The exacting snobbery of De Ville’s butler, Field, rubs Jackson the wrong way, but the gracious lord of the manor smooths thing over. In fact, he launches a charm offensive that Jackson does not entirely discourage. It is all pretty overwhelming for the poor orphan, especially the elegant, bullying bridesmaid, so she does not notice how many temp-maids keep getting murdered.

Real genre fans should know they can get the killings with a little more violence with VOD and DVD releases, compared to the PG-13 theatrical release. Anyone with any pop culture literacy can guess De Ville’s deal. However, Thompson devotes so much time to his courtship of Jackson, it starts to feel more like a regency romance than a gothic supernatural yarn. Also, the concessions to class warfare and gender-politics are shallow distractions that will badly date
Invitation in the years to come—“vampire at-large, women and the working-poor hardest hit.”

Silent River

As society becomes increasingly cashless, dead folks no longer have coins to pay the ferryman to the other side. There are several symbolic references to that old myth in this mystical thriller—or is that gold coin more than merely emblematic? Elliot physically happens across it after checking into a strange dessert motel. The woman in the room next door looks a heck of a lot like his wife Julie, but she insists she isn’t. That is the kind of self-consciously Lynchian ride we’re in for during Chris Chan Lee’s Silent River, which releases today on VOD.

Elliot seems to have a lot of blood on him when he checks in. He also has a suit case full of his wife’s clothes. The woman in the connecting room looks a lot like Julie but she says she is Greta. She also claims Patrick is her husband. He is dead, at least for now, but she has his android-automaton ready for some kind of exchange. It is hard to say what is real and what is illusion, not even Elliot’s visions of a Minotaur roaming the halls of the motel.

Silent River is definitely that kind of film. It is always risking to lean so heavily into secret world-beyond-our-own spiritual mumbo jumbo—just look at Adam Sigal’s Chariot or, saints in Heaven protects us, Timothy Woodward Jr.’s Checkmate (but the ultra-micro-budgeted Mystery Spot largely pulled it off). Silent River is a bit more disciplined, but it is also much slower getting started. Viewers basically tour every inch of the motel during the sluggish initial half-hour.

Monday, October 24, 2022

The Murder Podcast: Horror-Comedy with Ramen

Chad Thadwick and his best stoner pal Eddie make the amateur podcaster-sleuths of Only Murders in the Building look like Sherlock Holmes, Nero Wolfe, and Miss Marple. The lads are a bit dim-witted, even when they haven’t been hitting the bong. Nevertheless, their ill-conceived attempt at true crime podcasting uncovers a sinister supernatural entity in director-screenwriter William Bagley’s The Murder Podcast, which releases Wednesday on VOD.

Thadwick’s current podcast, “Ramen Reviews with Chad Thadwick” is attracting about as many listeners as you would expect. (Keep in mind, his ramen is strictly the cheap store-bought kind, not fine dining ramen.) After his impatient brother-in-law raises his rent, Thadwick convinces his sidekick Eddie to switch formats to criminal investigation. Conveniently, his quiet suburban town just had its first suspicious death in years. Officer Stachburn assures the media the victim’s head simply popped off accidentally, as the result of a freak fall, but even an idiot like Thadwick can tell that’s bogus.

Viewers know from the prologue, the first victim brought the spirit of an angry witch home with him, after he stumbled across her grave during a hike. The moron took the coin off her tombstone, which had sealed her inside the tomb. Naturally, she starts bumping off victims, as that coin passes from hand to hand.

You can often see how hard Bagley is trying to entertain horror fans throughout
Podcast. As a result, many of the bits feel rather forced. However, some of the gags manage to connect, especially when ramen suddenly becomes relevant to the narrative again, thanks to its high sodium content. On the other hand, the lore surrounding the witch is better developed than the usual bogeymen of most horror-comedies. Weirdly, some of the “straight” material helps retain viewers, like the revelation Thadwick’s disgraced conspiracy-mongering father tried to expose the witch during her last killing spree, at the cost of his credibility.

Quantum Leap: What a Disaster

Apparently, Generation X is now just barely old enough for significant events from our teen years to appear in time travel shows. In fact, the Quantum Leap continuation series is appealing to those memories quite effectively. During the premiere episode, it was Live Aid. Now, Dr. Ben Song leaps right into the middle of the 1989 earthquake. We don’t have much nostalgia for that one, but the shock of how it disrupted the Bay Area World Series comes back vividly. Given the circumstances, Song has plenty of people to help in tonight’s Quantum Leap episode, “What a Disaster.”

If you missed “Salvation or Bust” last week, “Disaster” starts with the cliffhanger ending to the previous episode, which was a game-changer. Apparently, there is another leaper, who recognized Song and wasn’t too happy about it. Addison Augustine, Song’s holographic guide also saw him, so she will get Magic Williams’ team in the present-day working on an ID. Song has to concentrate on finishing his leap, presumably by saving John Harvey’s son. To do so, he and Harvey’s wife, Naomi Harvey, must travel from their current home in San Francisco to their old apartment building in Oakland, where their homesick son ran off to at the mother of inopportune times. Ironically, it is probably more dangerous to make this trip in broad daylight today than the night of the 1989 earthquake.

This episode clearly leans into family themes, in ways that stir memories of the amnesiac Song’s childhood that he never confided to Augustine before. “Disaster” does a nice job addressing the Harvey family’s issues, without glossing over messy complications. Song won’t fix everything, but maybe getting them back on a workable track.

“Disaster” also gives viewers an inkling of some of the mind-bending time-travel issues that might be coming down the road. Although it is not clear, there is reason to suspect the other leaper is from the future—relative to the present Williams and company operate in. As of now, “Leaper X” seems pretty cool and his record is faultless, so how and why is he leaping?

Sunday, October 23, 2022

A Game of Three Halves, on

The World Cup should have already happened this year, but because FIFA is hopelessly corrupt, they chose the inferno-like Qatar to host this year, during the still scalding hot month of December. To tide football fans over, Matthew Bate & Case Jernigan explore the social significance of the game and the super-fandom it inspires in their animated five-mini-episode A Game of Three Halves, which premieres Wednesday on

It is surprising how timely this mini-mini-series turns out to be. The second (and best) episode, addresses the Iranian regime policies prohibiting women fans from attending football matches, at a time when Iranians are taking to the streets to protest the suspicious death of Masha Amini. The fourth episode chronicles the cave rescue of the Thai school children’s Wild Boars FC soccer team and how the story captured the attention of the football world, during the 2018 World Cup, a story now familiar from a recent crush of films and documentaries.

Each episode is a mere five minutes in length, give or take, but they are all quite funny and rather perceptive. Journalist Max Rushden amusingly explains the trials and occasional triumphs of amateur weekend football warriors in the opening “Where the F%*ck is Hamish?,” titled in honor of the annoyingly irresponsible player every team has, who always gets away with his flakiness, because he is so good.

“Sara,” written by a real Iranian fan, under the eponymous pseudonym, is the best of the bunch. It forthrightly addresses the misogyny and inconsistency of the regime’s policies, but in a surprisingly light-hearted way that makes it a good companion piece to Jafar Panahi’s

Jonathan Wilson’s offers some rather clever observations on the neurotic nature of goalies in “Keepers.” It turns out both Nabokov and Camus played in goal, which definitely reinforces his point.

Joel Colby’s “All Hail the Wild Boars” is the shortest of the dozens of recent releases chronicling the Thai cave rescue. Its brevity is part of its charm, but it also has a fresh perspective.

Saturday, October 22, 2022

Sinphony: A Clubhouse Horror Anthology

According to this anthology, Tiktok is evil (which is definitely true), but Clubhouse is good. The evidence for the latter is inconsistent, based on the following tales, conceived and directed by community-members using the audio app. However, the song linking most of the stories together is rather catching, in a sinister kind of way. The “Fortress” theme repeatedly pops-up in Sinphony, which is now playing in theaters and on-demand, following its premiere at the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival.

Things start with a merciful brief birth gone-very-wrong that introduces the “Fortress” song and a rather malevolent healthcare worker, before the first proper constituent tale starts. Wisely,
Sinphony starts with the best of the lot (but that also means it is all downhill from here). Fittingly, Jason Ragosta’s “Mother Love” features a coven of witches using a Clubhouse like app. Unfortunately, one of them must protect her young son from a serial killer preying on her witchy kind, while her sisters listen in. It is a tight and tense combination of home invasion and witchcraft horror that puts fresh spins on both.

Steven Keller’s “Ear Worm” offers up some standard body horror, but the set-up is pretty good. The anthology rebounds with Haley Bishop’s “Forever Young,” which is probably the most zeitgeisty story in
Sinphony. Not thrilled to be turning thirty, a not-as-cool-as-she-used-to-be woman tries to prove her hipness with the latest Tiktok like dance video app. The ironic results are horrifying. They also reflect the fears that are now pervasive in society of the way social media and big tech censors, silences, corrupts, and manipulates us.

Unfortunately, “Forever Young” represents
Sinphony’s second and final notable peak. Kimberly Elizabeth’s “Do Us Part” is a somewhat successful depiction of a dead wife haunting her mourning husband, but it plays more like a darkly comic sketch. There is a lot of potentially interesting stuff in Mark Pritchard’s “Limited Edition,” but it does not have sufficient time to establish and explain its supernatural elements (including a mysterious text that reappears in later episodes). Frustratingly, it leaves the audience wondering: “huh, wha?” (Still, there is something intriguing about this installment that cries out for fuller feature-length treatment.)

Wes Driver’s “The Keeper” is anchored by such a nice performance from Ronnie Meek as the Innkeeper in question, it keeps viewers hooked, even though we can guess the secret the new family that checked-in is hiding. In contrast, there is not much suspense to Jason Wilkinson’s grim “Tabitha” chronicling a woman’s final moments after she was shot fleeing a crime, while she faces her real and metaphorical ghosts.

Friday, October 21, 2022

Brooklyn Horror ’22: Summoners

Jess Whitman and her high school friend Alana Wheeler were good witches, but not like anything you have seen in Bewitched or on the Hallmark Channel. Despite their power, life still dealt them some tough cards. When they dabble in some dangerous magic, the consequences are profoundly dangerous in Terence Krey’s Summoners, which premiered at this year’s Brooklyn Horror Film Festival.

Whitman rarely returns home after college, but for some reason she suddenly felt compelled to visit her widower father Doug. It will start to make sense when happens to run into Wheeler. They had practiced magic together in high school, until the death of Whitman’s mother left her disillusioned with witchcraft and the idea of the supernatural in general. Whitman has yet to properly deal with her mother’s passing, because she knows her mom had been unfaithful to her father at the time—but she never knew if he knew.

Wheeler more or less admits she “called” Wheeler home, hoping she would help with a serious ritual. She wants to summon a “sin-eating” spirit to give some relief to a friend. Of course, any tormented entity carrying that much pain and resentment is going to be angry and difficult to control.

builds on and surpasses the psychologically complex horror Krey developed with his partner and on-screen lead Christine Nyland in their first feature, An Unquiet Grave. Both films deal frankly with guilt and grief, with more sophistication and empathy than anything A24 has ever released. Viewers really feel for these three major characters, but Krey still takes care of the horror business. The film is largely built around several spell-casting rituals that are all highly atmospheric and increasingly ominous.

Voodoo MacBeth: Orson Welles’ First Big Hit

Today, nontraditional productions of Shakespeare are more traditional than stagings that maintain the original eras and settings of his plays. That was not true in 1936, when Orson Welles directed a Federal Theatre production of the “Scottish Play” in Harlem. Instead of Scotland, it shifted the action to Haiti, where voodoo substituted for Celtic witchery. A platoon of ten directors and eight screenwriters recreate the behind-the-scenes drama in Voodoo MacBeth, which opens today in New York.

The public did not recognize Welles as a golden boy yet, but producer John Houseman had an inkling of his talents. However, Welles was first somewhat reluctant to tackle
MacBeth with an all-black cast, but his first wife Virginia convinced him of its potential. Of course, he was already Orson Welles, by temperament, so he frequently clashed with Rose McClendon, the founder of the Federal Theatre’s Harlem division, who had originally cast herself as Lady MacBeth.

Casting the rest of the roles was tricky, but Welles saw a spark in former boxing champ Cuba Johnson, who is transparently based on the production’s real-life Banquo, Canada Lee—but the twice-married welterweight might well be surprised by Johnson’s cautious coming-out and tentative gay relationship with another cast-member. Meanwhile, Houseman must battle Rep. Martin Dies, the first chair of the House Un-American Affairs Committee for founding of their radical production.

The caucus of directors and screenwriters eagerly positions Dies as the film’s villain, but it conveniently forgets the local Communist Party violently picketed the production. Welles would have sliced and diced by an attacker, were it not for Lee’s timely intercession. Nevertheless, their
Voodoo MacBeth film will inevitably be panned for giving Welles and Houseman prominent “white savior” roles, because cultural criticism has collectively lost its mind. Seriously, this would never have been picked up for distribution without Welles’ central role—and I probably wouldn’t be reviewing it.

Jewell Wilson Bridges and Daniel Kuhlman are both reasonably solid as Welles and Houseman, but they lack the flair and physical resemblances Christian McKay and Eddie Marsan brought to the famous collaborators in Richard Linklater’s unfairly overlooked Me and 
Orson Welles. Frankly, Bridges just lacks that Wellesian charm.

The Peripheral, on Prime

Flynne Fisher neither lives nor travels into the Matrix. She is in the real world when she puts on an experimental headset and she still is when it digitally transmits her nearly seventy years into the future. When she gets there, she is not remotely controlling an avatar. She has a physically constructed peripheral. She thought she was testing a game, but the story she is playing will actually happen IRL. It will also reach back into the past (from the future’s perspective, or the very-near future to us) to target her and her family in creator Scott B. Smith’s The Peripheral, based on William Gibson’s novel, which premieres today on Prime Video.

Fisher is a gifted gamer, but she is too grounded in her day-to-day reality to retreat into cyberspace. However, she often ghost-games on her brother Burton’s behalf, when he has high-paying gigs. Technically, he was the one hired by a mysterious start-up to test-drive what the Burtons assume is a new VR headset, but she is the one who ventures into the “game.”

It feels really real in this somewhat-far future London, because it is. Initially, she enjoys the intrigue instigated by her in-world guide, Aelita West, but it takes a dark turn during her second visit—very dark. Fisher vows never to return, until she starts getting ominous warnings from Wilf Netherton, who claims to be from the future London she visited. It is a lot to swallow, but the hit squad that comes after her is pretty convincing. Fortunately, Burton and his veteran drinking buddies can protect her and their ailing mother in the short term, but she will have to work with Netherton in her future peripheral to figure out who is trying to kill them and why.

The broad strokes of
Peripheral might sound like cyberpunk in a familiar Matrix/World on a Wire kind of vein, but the details are very different. For one thing, there is sort of a time travel element. It is also weirdly timely, because the Russian oligarchs (“the Klept”) are one of the major factions vying for dominance in future London. That might be somewhat less likely now, after they were targeted with sanctions for supporting Putin’s war in Ukraine, but it was pretty darned insightful when Gibson’s novel was published in 2014.

The future London Fisher visits also looks really cool, in a way that is not a carbon copy of previous
Blade Runner-esque dystopian mega-cities. Smith and the rest of the writing staff also depict Burton Fisher and his fellow veterans with unusual sensitivity and empathy, particularly Conner Penske, a triple amputee, who is still a formidable foe to fight. Understandably, the potential of peripherals will hold interest for him.

Still, the foundation of the series is the central sibling relationship, which Chloe Grace Moretz and Jack Reynor develop quite compellingly. They truly could pass for siblings and both convincingly sound and carry themselves like natives of border state hill country. Neither is a dumb hillbilly—quite the contrary, but they are definitely the products of their hardscrabble environment.

Moretz has immediate sibling rapport with Reynor, but she develops some intriguingly ambiguous, potentially romantic chemistry with Gary Carr’s Netherton over the course of the first six episodes (out of eight) provided for review. Carr definitely follows in the tradition of hardboiled dystopian anti-heroes (starting with Lemme Caution in
Alphaville), but his Dickensian backstory adds a lot of complexity to the character, while illuminating the social divisions of future London.

Thursday, October 20, 2022

Terror Train (2022), on Tubi

More people were killed in Roger Spottiswoode’s 1980 train-bound slasher movie than during Runaway Train, Silver Streak, or Murder on the Orient Express (but probably not Train to Busan). It was supposed to be a party train, but a mystery man in a Halloween mask crashed it hard. There will be another killer party in Philippe Gagnon’s remake of Terror Train, which premieres tomorrow on Tubi (following its screening at this year’s Brooklyn Horror Film Festival).

Alana reluctantly agreed to participate in a really mean hazing prank, but she had no idea “Doc,” the fraternity president, would use a real cadaver. The shock sent the poor-pledge victim to the mental ward. She was appalled, but he blackmailed her to keep silent. Awkwardly, her boyfriend Mo remained in the frat, so there she is, rubbing shoulders with Doc at the first party hosted by more sensitive successor.

You can kind of understand why she accepted the invitation, since it will be a costume party, with a hip, “edgy” magician performing. Unfortunately, there will be an uninvited guest, wielding a sharp knife. This time, our killer passes unnoticed wearing an evil clown disguise, instead of the original’s Groucho Marx mask (which a lot of Millennials presumably wouldn’t recognize). Soon, the psychopath is carving up partiers, but everyone is too busy drinking or watching the entertainment to notice.

Screenwriters Ian Carpenter and Aaron Martin ditched the original’s shocking twist, which comes as no surprise, if you remember what happened. Arguably, the remake might also be somewhat gorier. However, in many other respects, it remains surprisingly faithful to the 1980 film. Most importantly, the enigmatic magician still plays an important role keeping viewers off balance. To this day, it remains David Copperfield’s only true dramatic role, but he was amazingly weird and he had real deal magic chops.

Tim Rozon is shockingly great assuming his role and his cape. Once again, his unnamed magician character really elevates the remake above standard slasher fare. Of course, he is flamboyantly over-the-top when chewing the scenery and performing his illusions. That is the whole point.

Hunted (Yet More People Hunting People)

If the UK hadn’t banned fox hunting, it might have saved these working-class thieves a lot of trouble. Naturally, these upper crust hunters turn to hunting people as a way to keep their traditions alive. That might sound extreme, but the Manhattan DA wouldn’t even prosecute them for it, as long as they kept their hunt to the subway platform, forcing them down to the level of tacky proletariat killers. Indeed, the hunters find there is a lot of fight in their prey during the course of Tommy Boulding’s Hunted (a.k.a. Hounded, a more descriptive title), which opens tomorrow in Los Angeles.

Leon thought he was done burgling high-class estates after raising enough money for his brother Chaz’s uni tuition, but he agrees to one more job. They were supposed to pilfer a ceremonial hunting knife, but it was a set-up. Suddenly, they wake up in a field with a pack of hounds baying after them. Katherine Redwick, her distinguished father Remington, and her hot-blooded brother Hugo intend to introduce her twit nephew Mallory to the hunt, using them as a substitute for the fox.

It seems like just illegally hunting foxes would be easier and cheaper to cover-up than hunting people, but apparently this is a long-standing Redwick tradition. It keeps the uppity lower classes in their place, as the loaded, class-conscious dialogue makes ridiculously obvious. Listening to the Redwicks will make any reasonably grounded viewer roll their eyes, but the rest of the film is competently executed. It just lacks style, originality, and inspiration. Frankly, it deserves a non-descript title like

Brooklyn Horror ’22: Slash/Back

There is no question Captain Pat Hendry and his fellow Air Force officers did a much better job defending Earth in the original Thing from Another World than Kurt Russell did in John Carpenter’s remake. These young Inuit girls are cut more from Hendry’s cloth, because they are hunters. Unfortunately, so is the alien parasite threatening their community in Nyla Innuksuk’s Slash/Back, which screened at the 2022 Brooklyn Horror Film Festival.

Maika and her friends either resent their depressed Nunavut community (like her) or they are resigned to it (like her best friend Uki). Fortunately, it is the sort of town that hardly notices a teen like her carrying a hunting rifle down the street, because she is going to need it.

The first victim was an American scientist, but the “thing” had to possess and consume polar bears, until the girls stumbled across it path. Maika manages to save her tag-along sister from a hive-mind-controlled bear, but the aliens will follow the scent of its blood back to the community.

For everyone who thought the ulu was under-utilized in the fight against alien invaders, Innuksuk and co-screenwriter Ryan Cavan finally come through with the goods. In this case, the invaded bodies are not the insidious pod people infiltrating home and hearth, as in
Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Instead, the parasite turns their blood black and their skin starts to sag and get generally nasty looking. One possessed host even resembles Leatherface.

The makeup and practical effects are entertainingly gory, in the right kind of way. Admittedly, the initial rampaging polar bear looks kind of weird and unnatural, but that makes sense in the full context of the film. It takes a bit of time for it to get going, but
Slash/Back turns into a satisfying alien-hunting movie.

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

Brooklyn Horror ‘22/Shudder: V/H/S/99

VHS won its format war in 1980 and it remained the dominant media until DVDs finally started outselling tapes in 2002. Frankly, it probably had a better run than DVDs, which have already become an old fogey medium. That means people were definitely still using VHS in 1999, right around the time of Y2K. It is a fitting time for horror, but the found footage is a bit spotty this time around in V/H/S/99, which premieres tomorrow on Shudder, after screening at the 2022 Brooklyn Horror Film Festival.

Sometimes the punk rock attitude is its own worst enemy, as is true for the awful teen garage band, in “Shredding,” written and directed by Maggie Levin. They hatch a scheme to jam and essentially desecrate the site where a promising punk band (sort of like the Go-Go’s before they went pop) was trampled to death by their own fans. This is a bad idea for the characters and nothing new in terms of film.

Johannes Roberts’ “Suicide Bid” is a vast improvement. The title refers to freshmen who only apply to a single Greek house. In this case, the sisters of a particularly nasty sorority haze poor Lily by forcing her to spend the night sealed in a coffin. You would think they had learned their lesson, since there is a creepy campus legend about the vengeful spirit of a pledge the sisters hazed to death several years ago. Regardless, Roberts quite cleverly combines the confined-space horror of
Buried with good old fashioned supernatural horror.

Sadly, it is followed by the nearly unwatchable “Ozzy’s Dungeon,” from Flying Lotus, who previously helmed visual assault that was
Kuso. This mean-spirited segment drags on interminably, even turning sympathetic characters into creepy psychopaths. Weirdly (and unintentionally) the sleazy host of a rigged Nickelodeon-style game show for kids becomes the most interesting character, as the “victim” of the deranged mother, whose daughter was permanently disfigured while appearing on the show. This is just a complete misfire.

Given how bad “Dungeon” is, Tyler McIntyre’s “The Gawkers” inevitably represents a big step up in quality. It is a fairly straightforward yarn wherein voyeurism is violently punished. It is very similar in tone to the “Amateur Night” segment in the original
V/H/S, but the girl the teen boys lust after is never fleshed out to any extent, unlike “Lily the Demon,” who got her own movie, SiREN.

By far, Vanessa & Joseph Winter’s “To Hell and Back” is the best of the ’99 edition. The Millennium is about to turn, which makes it the perfect time for a satanic cult to summon its patron demon. Nate and Troy are there to record it for reality TV, because that kind of thing seemed like a good idea in 1999. However, when a minor demon crashes the party, they are both inadvertently swept up in its banishment back to Hell.

This might just be the most convincing depiction of Hell (or whatever) since
Jigoku. Yet, the Winters also milk the situation for [pitch-black] humor. Archelaus Crisanto and Joseph Winter are terrific bickering and freaking out as the reality TV sad sacks. Plus, Melanie Stone is a showstopper as the demon Mabel.