Disclaimer: My reviews of media here do not mean that I lay any claim to the media in question. All reviews are entirely subjective. I may talk about how well the movie objectively works in my opinion, but it essentially all comes down to what I think of the movie. My liking a movie is not the same as thinking it's a great movie. If I trash a movie that you love, or love a movie you can’t stand, it’s not because I hate you. Also, all reviews are likely to contain SPOILERS. If you haven’t seen the movies in question and don’t want to know what happens, then you probably shouldn’t be reading about them here. Finally, a blanket trigger warning for people who don't want to read about common horror movie content such as sexism, racism, violence, etc.: I will likely discuss all of the above when they show up in the films I review, so please tread with caution. Check out this post for more on how my reviews are set up.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Horror Movie Quick Review: Shadow Puppets (2007)

Overall: C-

Directed by:
Michael Winnick

James Marsters
Tony Todd
Marc Winnick
Jolene Blalock

Shadow Puppets is the story of eight seemingly random people who wake up in an abandoned asylum, none of them with any memory of how they got there. As they meet up with each other, they begin to search for a way out. But there’s some kind of sentient shadow monster lurking, which is hunting them and picking them off. They find a machine apparently used in experiments on erasing memories, and they rightly figure that since the machine was used eight times, it must have been used on them. [Reasonably minor spoilers] But when they find a ninth stranger in a coma, they realize that one of them has not had their memories erased, and that person must be the one behind everything. And so the traitor in the group is discovered and begins trying to kill everyone. [End spoilers]

This movie suffered the most from having way too many characters introduced in way too short a period of time. And because they don’t learn their names until halfway or more through the film, I was just giving them insulting nicknames the entire film, because otherwise I had no way to tell who was who.
The story starts off somewhat intriguing, with the strangers in the asylum, wondering what their pasts hold and why the building seems abandoned… but as soon as the (poorly animated) Shadow shows up, it just gets somewhat… silly. Its presence is never really explained (or rather, the explanation makes no sense.) If the pseudo-monster had been removed in favor of focusing just on the idea of the science experiment on their memories, it would have been an improvement. And anyway, most of the characters get little individual screentime outside of our mains, so when they’re killed and in danger it didn’t resonate any with me.
There are also several small but silly inconsistencies (things as simple as the characters constantly complaining that they’re freezing, but never wrapping themselves in the sheets they all have from the beds they awoke in.)
The movie was okay, but it started far better than it finished, and had more than a few moments that were unintentionally funny out of sheer ridiculousness.

Horror Movie Review: The Tenement (2003)

Overall: D
Acting: D
Writing: D-
Story: D+
Technical aspects: D+
Effects: D

Directed by:
Glen Baisley

Joe Lauria
Michael Gingold
C. J. DiMarsico
John Studol
Mike Lane
Ed Shelinsky
Danielle Russo

Particular trigger warnings: sexual assault, animal cruelty, prostitution, hard drug use
Passes the Bechdel test? I don’t think so

I basically give a synopsis below, because it’s hard to pick apart otherwise. Beware of spoilers all the way through.

The Tenement is a series of four loosely related stories about different occupants of the same tenement house.
The movie starts with a man named Ethan (Pete Barker) speaking to the owner of the building (Jude Pucillo.) Ethan says that he used to live there forty years ago, and he wants to know if the new owner has seen the building do anything strange to the people living there. Ethan begins to reminisce about the time he lived there.
We suddenly cut to a scene of a girl being kidnapped and crucified as part of a cultic ritual, but we soon find out that this is just a crappy movie within our crappy movie, as this is part of Ethan’s memory. It’s 1980 and Ethan (Joe Lauria) lives in his apartment with his bedridden mother (Doreen Valdati) and spends his time either at work or at home watching horror films by director Winston Korman (Michael Gingold), whom he idolizes. Well, Korman is in town casting for a new film, and Ethan is paid to deliver black roses to him. He gets mistaken for a prospective actor, but when he can’t act and freezes up, Korman laughs at him and mocks him until he runs away. Ethan goes home, kills his cat, and then leaves his overbearing mother. He dresses all in black, and goes to Korman’s house. Korman is outside, doing all he possibly can to prove even further that he is a caricature of a douchebag and we Should Not Like Him. After an awkward chase scene, Ethan kills Korman with a shovel, dropping a black rose on the body, becoming the “black rose killer.”
            The second story happens in 1990, and focuses on a young mute girl (mute apparently due to something traumatic in her past, though this isn’t expanded on) named Sarah Weston (C.J. DiMarsico). She spends her time waltzing alone to music from her radio. A neighbor named Henry Wallace (John Studol) keeps watching her, prompting her parents to take her away on a vacation for a while. They leave her alone for a while, and Wallace breaks in and sexually assaults her. She fights back, but he keeps overpowering her. In the midst of the rape, he suddenly blacks out and appears to be hallucinating and recalling trauma from his own childhood. He wakes back up in the living room, with Sarah gone. He finds her in the bedroom, and approaches her, but she turns up her radio, he starts screaming and holding his head, and then he disappears. Later on, with the Weston family back at home, Sarah is seen dancing in her room, but the shadows and mirror show that she’s dancing with some sort of creature.
            The third story jumps forward nine years to 1999, and is about Jimmy (Mike Lane), who has begun attending a therapy group to help him deal with his relatively unspecified issues. He appears to mostly just be a shut-in. On his way home, he’s attacked by a wild animal (and by wild animal, I mean a husky that just kind of happily trotted behind him for about three seconds.) He’s bitten on the arm, and he slowly starts becoming convinced that he’s turning into a werewolf. He thinks the symptoms are obvious, though no one else sees the transformation. He kills his friendly neighbor who apparently had a thing for him, he kills a male prostitute, and then he kills a female dancer in a strip club. Here he’s apprehended, and sentenced to life in a mental hospital. But then he’s attacked by some apparently “real” werewolves, who want to kill him for bringing too much attention to them.
            The fourth story happens in 2000 and is about another serial killer (Ed Shelinsky) living in the tenement, who pretends to be a taxi driver to pick up women and then torture and murder them. We see him capture and kill a prostitute, and then go out “hunting” again. This time he picks up a girl (who I can’t remember being named, but I believe is being played by Danielle Russo.) She has him take her out to the place where Winston Korman, the horror director from before, used to film his movies. She has to give him directions, but she says she’ll just go in for a second to get money for the cab fare. When the taxi killer follows her in and attacks her, she says she “likes it rough” and attacks him back, saying it was obvious he wasn’t a real taxi driver because he didn’t know the place she wanted him to take her, and the two fight some more. Apparently they realize that they’re soul mates or something, and the two make out. Then we see that they’ve joined forces and are killing people together. Aww.
            The movie closes with the elderly Ethan and the owner discussing that they have seen the house do strange things to people. Ethan lays a black rose on a nearby bench. The owner (who by this point I was calling “goth Fabio”) confronts Simon (Chris Alo) the local pimp and drug dealer, telling him to stop hanging around and selling all he sells in front of the building. Simon pretty much blows him off before hallucinating madly about drug use and overdosing and what the fuck ever, while the owner stands nearby, leering at him, obviously the cause. The end.

This movie was pretty bad. One of the reviews on the case says that it “certainly shows an affinity for the genre” and we remarked that that seemed like a backhanded compliment. And that really feels like the nicest thing I can say about it, too. It’s clear that the makers really like horror films, and it seems like they probably even really enjoyed making this movie, but I certainly can’t say that it was very good. According to something else I found online, the director, Glen Baisley, was a sexploitation film director in the 60s and 70s, and then filmed porn for a while, before coming back to horror films, and I guess I wouldn’t have a hard time believing it. (And the “Walter Korman” film we get to see a brief snippet of during the first story is a perfect sexploitation/horror, to the point I wonder if it was a clip from something the director did in the past.)
My problems with the movie are varied. The acting was generally really substandard. Some actors were fine, but some side characters delivered their lines so badly it sounded like they were reading them off for the first time, and at other times it was obvious they couldn’t remember their lines correctly.
The stories themselves just weren’t that well-told in my opinion either. The first one, it sounds like all the dialogue between Ethan and his mother was lifted from Willard (which is a much better film.) They refuse to show the mother for a while, and I wondered if it was going for the Psycho-style twist, though apparently that was just a deliberate allusion. It reminded me more of Willard, anyway, down to the tone and pitch of the mother’s voice. Plus there were the weird dangling plot threads like Ethan's hallucination-girlfriend. The fourth story just bored me more than anything else; it was too bloodless to really be shocking the way it seemed to be aiming for, and it just managed to leave no real impression. The second and third had at least glimmers of interest for me. I want to know more about Sarah and the thing she was dancing with. Does she have strange powers? Is she allied to some kind of demon that killed her attacker? Is the creature a personification of the “monster” she killed? And the third story, while (probably deliberately) ridiculously silly, at least has a twist that could be interesting in a better film; the idea that someone who pretends to be some kind of monster is killed by the real thing.
As far as the anthology goes, judging from the title and the prologue/epilogue frame story, we’re apparently supposed to think that the building is somehow compelling people to become violent or is giving them delusions and apparently occasionally psychic powers. But without the occasional exterior shots of the tenement house, there’s nothing that tells me that these people supposedly live in the same building; none of them meet each other, there aren’t any other ties between the characters or stories (aside from Gordon Korman being mentioned in two stories, and Ethan being a character in one story and the frame,) there aren’t any other clues to the setting. There’s also never any reason given for why the building would have this effect on people. It really comes off as just being the most tenuous possible way to connect four ideas that couldn’t quite be films on their own. And despite all the stories being relatively short, averaging in the 20-30 minute range each, the film drags.
The entire time we’re skipping around from the 80s onward never felt convincing to me either – there was never anything that made me believe we’d changed time periods. Hairstyles, clothing, technology, etc. all remained so constant that it was hard to feel that this was somewhere in the past, or that years were passing between the stories. And Ethan, supposedly our “tie” between the past and the present of the building, appears to have aged about fifty years since 1980, so either their math is bad, or the frame story is set in the future.
The effects are nothing great. Fights don’t look at all convincing, with it often being incredibly obvious that there’s no force behind any of the blows. The movie doesn’t overly rely on gore effects and the like, which to me is a point in its favor, since the blood effects they have aren’t that good. Some of the scenes ended up prompting laughter when it wasn’t intentionally funny.
Pretty much everything from the acting to the effects to the scenarios just feel completely unconvincing. And allegedly this is part one of a trilogy… I’m not sure how to justify continuing this through two more films.