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 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.


  1. This is not a movie I would ever watch from the sounds of it. However, the fact that you said it wouldn't pass the Bechdel test makes me almost want to give it a nod, but that's because I personally find that "test" one of the most pretentious and annoying things. This is probably because every time I've ever had anyone (women) telling me that I should or shouldn't watch something because it does/doesn't pass the Bechdel test, they do so in such a condescending and misandrist way that I usually want to smack the crap out of them. Instead, I just tell them, "Don't tell me what I should or shouldn't watch based on your gender/sexual orientation preferences."

    Still, I won't watch this movie because it sounds completely stupid and disjointed in a bad way.

    1. You can't stand the idea of there being more than one female character in a movie that may interact with each other? Or you hate the idea that those women might talk about something besides men? Because THAT seems pretty weird to me, honestly.

      The point of the Bechdel test isn't to say whether media is good or bad. (And people who use it as a test for such... well, they're welcome to use it as a measure for themselves, I guess, but there's a lot more to what makes a quality film than that.) Most of my favorite movies don't actually pass the test, and some that do are absolutely horrendous films.

      The reason the test is even talked about is that it's actually somewhat hard to find films that meet those criteria, and frankly, I don't think it should be. If you looked at a reverse style test, finding films that have two male characters that talk about something besides women... you're probably going to come up with a list consisting of... most movies. The point isn't omg male characters suck or omg women can't care about men. The point, for me, is that hey, as an actual flesh-and-blood woman, I occasionally interact with other women! And sometimes men aren't the only thing I think about! It'd be nice to have a female character that I can identify with as an actual human being, not as someone boy-crazed or some kind of special snowflake "token girl" role.

      Still, even if every character in this film was a woman, it would still have been a horrible movie that I wouldn't recommend anyone watch. Seriously. It's like... really bad.

      If my caring about whether films pass or not enough to include that single line on a review bothers you that much, I guess you don't have to read them, though I'd miss talking to you about the movies.

  2. No no. I dislike the women I've talked to in the past who use that "test" in order to tell me what movies I should or shouldn't watch. I have no problems at all with movies with two or more women who discuss things other than men. I have no problems with movies with strong female characters. I PREFER strong, independent female characters to the whiny damsels in distress, and I usually hate it when the damsels are put on pedestals and the independent women are criticized.

    You obviously use the "test" to determine whether or not the movie has two or more women who talk about things other than men, and that's cool. I appreciate YOUR usage of it, but in the past, every woman who've said, "That doesn't pass the Bechdel test," have immediately followed that with, "Therefore, it's obviously a shitty movie because ugh too many penises and YOU should HATE that movie because there are too many penises and not enough womyn." That has put me off to that particular test because of the way most "womyn" talk about it. Does that make sense? Similar roadblocks to me and video games and me and the Shrek movies. Presentation is everything, and the Bechdel "test" hasn't been presented very well, so when I see it, I initially have a knee-jerk reaction to it. Not you and I LOVE your reviews.

    I wouldn't stop reading your reviews. If you were the type of womAn who used the Bechdel test as a way to say, "Ugh too many penises, not enough vagina that didn't want to have anything to do with penises or had better things to do than talk about penises, so DON'T WANT THIS MOVIE," I would probably think, "Hmmm...I might need to check out this movie to see if it has merit beyond that. But you don't review that way. I think this is the first movie you've used Bechdel test on (or the first I've remembered), so my reaction was knee-jerk. But you've more than given enough other reasons as to why NOT to watch the movie beyond gender reasons, and that's why I said, " the fact that you said it wouldn't pass the Bechdel test makes me ALMOST want to give it a nod."

    I think you are the FIRST woman, in my experience, who hasn't used the Bechdel test in a pretentious manner.

    1. All right, this definitely clarifies your position. The first time it kind of read as "the fact this movie doesn't have women who talk to each other almost makes it sound worth watching!" which I realize wasn't what you actually meant. Sorry I misunderstood. (I was sort of confused because I know you'd prefer more stronger and well-rounded female characters than the usual "I exist as a love interest/attractive pair of boobs" token girls that a lot of movies have.)

      I can completely understand that presentation is a huge part of how an idea/topic/etc. will be received... I've been turned off of different shows, musical artists, websites, etc. just by the way they've been introduced to me. It's a shame, because it's not fair to the things in question, but it's just the way it works sometimes. I'm sorry so many things have been introduced in obnoxious ways to you.

      I'm glad you like my reviews. I always like getting to talk about the movies with you! This isn't the first one I've used the test on, but might be the first in a while that I mentioned it. (I think I did for 100 Feet, but not sure if I had for quite some time before that one.) I was originally planning on including it, but sometimes I just can't remember once I start writing the review. I don't want to incorrectly say that one doesn't pass because I forgot about a scene, so then I usually just leave it off.

      I'm glad it doesn't seem like I'm using it in a pretentious manner; I certainly don't want to.

      And I'd be super-sad if you ever quit reading my reviews, so I'm glad it doesn't put you off too much. Thanks for explaining a little more of what you said in the first comment, though.

  3. No no. Though honestly, I have and do like movies where there aren't women characters. It doesn't offend me when there aren't, especially when it seems appropriate to the story. I can't think of any off the top of my head, but I know that there are some. And I know that I've enjoyed them, and I didn't get to the end and suddenly go, "Well, that could have been the best movie in the world, but it had absolutely no women whatsoever, and by that fault, I think the movie is now complete shit, even though it was technically an excellent piece of cinema." No. I don't do that. I will also admit that I like love interests. That doesn't have to be the sole purpose for a character (male or female) -- I like them to be real. Or to at least seem real. But I'm a sucker for a good love story because let's face it, I'm never going to have a love story in my own life again, so I have to live vicariously through the lives and loves of fictional characters (it doesn't help that a Marvel writer just broke up one of the couples I was living vicariously through).

    That said, I DO like strong female characters who can hang out with each other and talk about a variety of things. It doesn't bother me if they still talk about men and relationships, though, because those are just a fact of life like shoes and underpants and jobs and kids and writing novels and being superheroes. Okay...maybe not so much the last part.

    You might have used that test for 100 Feet, but hell, I just love that movie anyway. I think that might be the main movie that made me like Famke Janssen and see her as something other than hideous Jean Grey. In 100 Feet, she was a woman who fought back and eventually won, but what I also really like is that even though she had abusive cop bastard husband, she didn't let it make her hate all men. And the writers/director didn't think she had to become a lesbian because of it either. Those are tropes I really, really hate. A woman character should be a lesbian because she's a lesbian and because she likes women, not because she was abused by a man/men. Nor should she hate all men because of one or two who happened to be douchebags. So I really loved her character in 100 Feet. She had to get over the skittishness at first, and she dealt with her dead husband's partner, who was a jackass at first, but he started to come around. The young guy she hooks up with was really cute, and I think I really loved that aspect of the movie (then again, as a fellow cougar, I think my rooting for her banging that boy is kind of obvious).

    And no, you don't use it in a pretentious manner. It probably wouldn't be a part of your reviews that would be the deciding factor of whether or not I watch something. How you describe the rest of the movie would decide for me if I gave it a go. This movie definitely sounds like horrible shit, so I wouldn't watch it. I'm sure you'd agree that there could be a movie that completely passed the Bechdel test and was still absolute shit because of other factors. So it's more those other factors I pay more attention to over anything else.