Friday, September 15, 2017

DOUBLE REVIEW: 'It' / 'Dark Night'

What better way to usher in the unofficial start of the Halloween movie season than watching lots and lots of preteens getting brutally murdered?

By: Jimbo X

I keep getting these emails from people askin' me what makes a good contemporary slasher movie. I have no idea why, except for the fact that I'm probably the only person in the world who's willing to review modern B-splatter movies in an unironic manner on a regular basis, or maybe it's 'cause my criticism ain't rooted in radical fanboy-ism like everywhere else on the Internet. Anyhoo, I'm sick of having to type up the same responses over and over, so I'm just going to spell it out for you people right here and now. You better bookmark this shit, because I ain't sayin' it again. 

If you want to make a great slasher movie in this, the almost 2020s, here are the ten rules you must follow at all times in the pre-production, production and post-production cycle:

Rule No. 1 - Don't try to be anything other than a slasher movie

If you're gonna' make a slasher movie, make a dadgum slasher movie, not a "supernatural thriller" or a "psychological drama" or - heaven help us - "a culturally cognizant social horror film." The recipe cooks itself: kids are introduced, the kids do stupid things, the psycho killer shows up, the kids get killed in progressively more outrageous ways and then the only kid in the movie that has any horse sense grabs something sharp and does in the murderer. This shit is a time-tested formula that's proved effective since the late 1960s and the further you get away from the central essence of the subgenre the greater the likelihood your movie's going to suck dick.

Rule No. 2 - Embrace the fact your movie is a product of the times

I hate it when modern slasher movies try to "pay homage" to all the stuff from the 1970s and 1980s. I'd venture to guess that a good 70 percent of all slasher movies made this century are nothing more than a bunch of nerds getting together and saying "golly gee, wouldn't it be plain peachy if we spent $500,000 to make a whole bunch of references to Elm Street and Evil Dead for 90 minutes and impress the heck outta' all our message board buddies?" Invariably, when you try to make a movie feel like something that came out 30 or 40 years ago, it sucks. Why? Because the films never recognize their own ephemeral value. Halloween worked because John Carpenter knew the shit was '70s as fuck and rolled with it. Shit, all of the Sleepaway Camp movies absolutely wallowed in their chronological trappings and they all turned out amazing, too. You've got to recognize your movie is going to feel dated in a few years anyway, so forget all about trying to do something "timeless" or imitating a different cinematic decade. Take advantage of all the kitschy idiosyncrasies of the day - the lingo, the fashion, the technology, etc. - and just make the best testament to/indictment of the times you can afford to.

Rule No. 3 - Take your script seriously

Nobody seems to remember how to make a straight slasher movie no more. Granted, horror-comedies have been around for a long time, but that's not what I'm talking about. What I'm talking about is all these "neo" slasher movies where the producers, directors and actors look like they're trying to make a shitty movie on purpose. The acting is stilted and stultified, the special effects are hokey, the plot keeps getting self reflexive and self-mocking and the whole flick just feels like it's trying to win the audience over by goading 'em into embracing just how strategically campy and corny everything is. Long story short, if you can't find the wherewithal to make a serious genre movie, you shouldn't be making a genre movie period. A sincerely bad slasher movie can still be entertaining, but an insincerely bad one is just flat out unwatchable.

Rule No. 4 - Hire some people who actually know how to act

While the acting in all those Friday the 13th and Night of the Demons movies were hardly Oscar-worthy, they at least came off as authentic and believable. I can't tell you how many damn neo-slashers I've seen where the actors and actresses sounded like monotone junior high schoolers dead-panning their way through A Midsummer Night's Dream dress rehearsal. Their deliveries always have that artificial intonation that dips and waves, like they're trying to express emotion through these slight changes in the modulation of their voice even though their faces remain stock-still. Again, nobody's expecting anybody in the cast to pull off a Daniel Day Lewis-caliber acting job, but they ought to be able to at least feign basic human emotion ... or at the absolute least, be able to scream like a motherfucker.

Rule No. 5 - Make your characters worthy of a gruesome death

This is a mistake way too many filmmakers make. In a slasher movie, you've got to kill off at least 95 percent of the cast, so there's not really a point in making the characters likable or relatable. In fact, the movie works even better if EVERYBODY in the film is an asshole so stupid you can't wait for them to get knocked off, so be sure to fill the script chock full of dope smoking retards, man-stealing whores, downright imbecilic jocks, one-dimensional goths, punk rockers and/or metal heads and at least one black dude who really, really likes to investigate mysterious noises. The only character in the movie who should have any sort of redeeming qualities, of course, is the final girl, but you can't make her too squeaky clean. Still, that's no excuse to not feature her prominently in at least one shower scene, though...

Rule No. 6 - Nobody wants a damn murder mystery

That shit went out with Prom Night and Terror Train, for Christ's sake. The absolute best slasher movies are the ones where either you know right from the beginning who the psycho murderer is (The Burning, Silent Night, Deadly Night) or the movie doesn't even bother telling you who's the one doing all the killing (Black Christmas.) People don't go to see slasher movies so they can play Clue or Guess Who? in the back of their noggins, they go to see slasher movies so they can watch nekkid women get carved up and stupid assholes named Chad have chainsaws shoved up their buttholes while they're taking a leak. If people want to watch a mystery, they'll go home and watch Monk or something on Netflix; and by golly, if they pay money to see a SLASHER movie, the last thing any of them want to see is a goddamn episode of Poirot.

Rule No. 7 - Knowing how to deliver the goods is far more important than building up suspense

Fuck serial actress-rapist Alfred Hitchcock, any motherfucker off the street can do suspense. I mean, fuck, how difficult is it to make people wait for things to happen, anyway? It's not too difficult to build up tension when there is a character being stalked who doesn't know they're being stalked, but like a bunch of delayed ejaculators, most neo-slasher movies have no idea how to off-ramp from the suspenseful stuff and make good when it comes time for the shit to get real. Invariably, what we wind up with is minutes and minutes of build-up and then a kill/scare that lasts maybe a second or two, if we're lucky. I mean, really, what's the point of making people just sit there for five minutes watching some dude or dudette getting chased only for their onscreen demise to last four or five seconds? If you want to make a successful 21st century slasher flick, you've got to tone down the cat and mouse nonsense and ratchet up the full-on violent impact. As a general rule, the grisly payoff should be at least half as long as the build-up, and the shorter the build-up, the better. I'd recommend the pursuit/stalking stuff never last more than two minutes at any juncture in the movie and that no kill be shorter than 30 seconds, from the initial point of contact to the part where the body stops twitching. And along those same lines, how about coming up with some more inventive ways of killing people, guys? I mean, you can only see people get their throats slit open so many times before it gets boring ...

Rule No. 8 - Once the deaths start rolling, keep 'em rolling

This is a time-tested slasher diktat that hardly anybody brings up - or even recognizes, for that matter. Most old school slasher movies took their sweet time setting everything up, and you'd usually have to wait until the movie was halfway over before people started getting chainsawed and shit. But what you'd notice about the truly great ones is that once the butcher knives started flying, they didn't take their foot off the gas for the remainder of the movie. Once the first major kill was registered, it was just accelerated mayhem from there on out, with people getting decapitated, disembowled and dismembered en masse every five to ten minutes - and the closer we got to the paint-the-room-red grand finale, the higher the kills-per-minute ratio got. Well, if that little formula worked for the old guard, it'll work just as dandy for your production, kiddos; once the shit goes down, you better find a way to keep the mayhem rolling along or else

Rule No. 9 - There must be tits

Slasher movies are the ultimate Freudian genre, combining the competing, diametric instincts of man - the urge to fuck and the urge to kill - into one big, fat goulash of sex and violence. Simply put, you can't make a movie about people getting stabbed and sliced up by some slow-moving, phantom-like figure without also filling it with people doing it and young women showing off their perky nips and areolas. For every kill in the movie there should be AT LEAST half as many exposed female breasts and preferably, one fuck scene per five onscreen kills (and one lesbian fuck sceneper every ten onscreen kills.) Again, this is a mathematically proven formula, and only stupid people would ever argue against math, wouldn't they?

Rule No. 10 - End on a high note, not a sequel hook

Look guys, it ain't 1985 anymore. Odds are, your movie won't even recoup half its production costs, so if you're thinking you're going to be able to finagle some producer into giving you an advance for another movie simply because the ending of your last flick left the door open for a sequel, you're S.O.L. Your shit ain't Saw or Elm Street and it certainly ins't the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so you better do what you can to make this one-and-done slasher flick as entertaining and memorable as possible, and if your movie doesn't have an especially well-down final five minutes, you might as well just say "fuck it" right now. All of the really good jump scare finales (i.e., the grand finale of Friday the 13th) have already been done and NOTHING is shittier than ending a slasher flick on a comedic non-sequitur (see: every fucking thing Eli Roth has ever done.) So my advice is either end the movie right after the big bad gets dispatched (preferably, in a manner that entails a bare minimum of 20 gallons of blood sprayed all over the set) or with a last-second swerve so out of left field, it royally fucks up everybody who watches it for life (i.e., Bay of Blood, Deranged and the first Sleepaway Camp movie.) Really, your whole movie is just an excuse to make it to the final five minutes - and if you don't have some truly awesome shit in store for the reservoir tip end of your movie, you might as well not even bother renting a camera, cabron.

So there you have it, aspiring filmmakers of tomorrow. Either adhere to blueprint I just laid out for 'ya and make a great neo-slasher or eschew 'em and spit out another turdy one. The choice is yours, kids - and don't you dare say I didn't do my part to help all ya'll jackoffs. Don't you even.

It kid hits head on road sign
It is a horror movie? Seriously, this is the most I've laughed at the movie theater all year round. 

Speaking of movies that could've benefited from following Jimbo's Ten Golden Rules of Slasher Flicks, the newfangled It movie nails about half of 'em despite most people thinkin' it's something more refined than just another psycho killer movie. Granted, it's a movie about a psycho killer with reality-warping metaphysical powers, but at heart, there's really nothing thematically different about it than Halloween or The Prowler. Hey, a movie about stupid kids getting killed off for not having manners and doing stupid shit is still a slasher movie, no matter how bad you want to church it up into something more ... sigh ... dignified.

In a lot of ways, this is the best Freddy Krueger movie that never got made. You've got a bunch of distressed and depressed kids whose daddies try to rape 'em and have overbearing mamas and have a lot of guilt about their dead brothers and there's this supernatural force that tries to kill 'em by turning into their worst fears, and it's always shape-shifting and making wisecracks and toyin' around with its victims before growing three thousand teeth and peeling the skin off their bones like an original recipe KFC drumstick. In fact, the big paint-the-walls-red finale might as well be a scene by scene remake of the denouement from Elm Street 3, right down to the monster getting a metal rod jammed down its esophagus and trying to trick one of the kids by turning into a dead family member. Hell, even the cast is similar: just like in the third and best Freddy movie, the protagonists include this wimpola nerd in glasses, this one take-no-shit tomboy, this scraggly haired dork who don't talk too much and even an angry black kid wearing a grey sweatshirt.

Now, for those of you that actually read Stephen King's 1,200-page cinder block of a novel, you prolly assumed a couple of things wouldn't have made it into this adaptation. We knew they weren't going to include the scene where a bunch of fifth graders run a train on a 12-year-old in the sewer. We knew they weren't going to include the scene where a bunch of sociopathic middle school bullies jerk each off in a junk yard and have their faces eaten off by flying leeches. And we knew they weren't going to include the scene where Pennywise the Clown pops up and starts doing a minstrel show performance and calling everybody the "n-word." But would they have the guts to include the scene where a first grader gets his arm bitten off, or the part where the mullet-headed juvenile delinquent psycho jabs a switchblade into his daddy's throat? Well, rest assured there's a lot more stuff from the novel that made into the movie than you'd probably imagined, and if you're wondering whether or not they pussed out on us, well, less than ten minutes into the movie we've already got kindergartners getting turned into bloody mud puddles and lambs having their brains blasted out with nail guns and a scene where a girl has a garbage bag of dookie dumped on her head. And for that, these filmmakers ought to be commended

By now we all know the gist of the story. It's a small New England town, circa 1989 (yeah, I know in the novel it was set in 1958, but get over it.) We've got this rag tag group of hypochondriacs and Jews and negro farmhands and fat kids that get tortured at school and have parents that abuse 'em and they all start having these weird hallucinations about this bucktoothed mime who sounds like a French Canadian turning into syphilitic hobos and Edward Munch paintings and trying to chew their faces off. So naturally, they all band together one day and start doing their town history research, and as it turns out every 27 years or so some really bad shit always goes down, and eventually they figger out it's all the doing of that Ronald McDonald lookalike in a frilly dress so they do they only thing that makes any sense: they decide to waltz on in to the monster's lair and kill him with bolt guns and broken beer bottles. After they all nearly get killed by the demon, though, they reckon they need to reconfigure their strategy heading into the final battle, and they definitely learned their lessons from last time; now they're bringing more sharp metal rods with 'em, and they know EXACTLY which intestine they need to puncture to make this grease-painted asshole go down for good.

Considering the movie's already made more than $200 million after just one week - in tandem with the surprising financial success of stuff like Split and Get Out - we can only hope that this spells the end of Hollywood's infatuation with super heroes and the beginning of a new golden era of big-budget splatter and slasher movies. Watching God-men save millions of people from CGI explosions is such an outdated holdover from the Obama years; this is Trump's America now, and by golly, the masses don't want to see people getting saved, they want to see 'em getting their guts scrambled on the pavement - and the younger and whiter the victims, the better

We've got 24 dead bodies. No breasts (and if you're looking for 'em in a movie like this, it's only a matter of time 'til somebody puts you on a government watch list.) Heads roll. Arms roll. Knife to the jugular. Fireplace poker through the skull. Stomach carving. Face eating. One bathroom blood explosion (which I'm pretty sure is meant to be a metaphor for having a period, but I'll let those hippie-dippy media studies grads at UCLA do their own goddamn term papers.) One rock fight, set to Anthrax's "Antisocial." Zombie children. One leper. One reanimated headless corpse. Gratuitous New Kids on the Block. One blood ritual, with preteen palm slicing. Cattle gun fu. Abstract art fu. And the thing more or less responsible for the movie existing in the first place ... some serious coulrophobia fu.

Starring Bill Skarsgard as Pennywise the Clown, who doesn't blink once and sometimes trails off into Swedish for no real reason whatsoever but because it sounds so damned creepy they decided to keep it in the movie; Jaeden Lieberher as the stuttering kid who can't quite get over his brother being chewed to death by a subterranean jester; Finn Wolfhard as the practical joker who has the movie's best line - "he's leaking motherfucking Hamburger Helper!"; Sophia Lillis as the redheaded girl who chops her mane off so her dad will stop molestin' her; Chosen Jacobs as the black kid who has to murder barnyard animals on his grandpa's farm because his parents got firebombed by the Klan; Wyatt Oleff as the Jewish kid who's always kvetching because he can't remember passages from the Torah; Jack Dylan Grazer as the asthmatic kid who's afraid of catching AIDS with an overprotective mom I'd like to call a helicopter parent, if it wasn't for the fact she was closer in size to a jumbo jet; Jeremy Ray Taylor as the fat kid (and you can tell it's the late 1980s because there's only one fat person in the whole movie); and Nicholas Hamilton as preteen psychopath Henry Bowers, who decides to go on a mass-stabbing spree because Lamb Chop's Play-Along told him to.

Writing credits are split between Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga (whose original draft had a scene where a kid jacks off on a birthday cake, among other NC-17-caliber larfs), and horror movie re-writer extraordinaire Gary Dauberman, who also wrote all those damn Annabelle movies. Directed by Andy Muschitetti,  whose only major film credit before this one was that 2013 Jessica Chastain snoozer Mama.

Anyhoo, I'm giving this one three stars out of four. It's a hoot from start-to-finish, even if there's a bit too much syrupy bonding going on - boy, you PizzaGaters are going to have a field day with the sequence where all the kids go swimming in their tighty whities - and just not enough per capita slaughter to truly excel as a post-Charlottesville, neo-neo-neo-slasher flick. That, and I don't think it was necessarily all that frightening, neither; even compared to Tim by-God Curry, this newfangled killer clown is such a pantywaist he makes Marcel Marceau look like John Wayne Gacy. 

People getting massacred during a Batman movie? Geez, where do these filmmakers come up with such wacky ideas!

If you're looking for a way scarier outing at the local cineplex, though, I'd advise you to scour the local arthouse theaters and see if they're playing Dark Night in your neck of the woods. It's a movie that technically was released last year, but it didn't pick up any decent distribution until a couple of months back (and since I live in the pop cultural arsehole of the United States, naturally, the flick is just now getting around to us.)

Basically, it's a thinly veiled dramatization of the 2012 Aurora movie theater shooting, even though there's a scene early in on the movie that actually shows James Holmes on trial on CNN, so canonically, I guess you really can't call it a re-enactment. Taking their cues from Gus Van Sant's outstanding Columbine-influenced Elephant, it's not so much a movie about the massacre as it is a day in the life of a whole bunch of disparate characters just hours before they all get gunned down in a hail of autism-powered gunfire. But Dark Night differs from that movie in at least two major respects; number one, the movie doesn't actually show the massacre take place ... we see the guy walk into the theater with a garbage bag filled with ammunition and then it's time for the end credits. While that'll probably piss off some of your morbid motherfuckers, in a way that actually benefits the movie because it's basically an old-school, early 1980s-style whodunit slasher movie (albeit, one without any actual slashing.) Whereas in similar mass shooting pseudo-documentaries like Elephant and the absolutely amazing Zero Day you know who the killers are going to be from the get-go, in Dark Night pretty much anybody in the cast could be the guy who FINALLY goes off the deep end and starts filling preteens full of hot lead.

Will the mass killer wind up being the skinhead Counterstrike addict who wears Freddy Krueger sweaters and has hallucinations about the paparazzi following him around and beats his pet turtle to death for no real reason? Or will it be the mop-headed guy who drives a rusted out Volvo who pops pills like Sweet Tarts and has to count the exact number of steps from the mall parking lot to the food court every time he visits Hot Topics? Or maybe it's the jarheaded Iraq War vet who doesn't say a single line of dialogue throughout the movie, even when he's got Operation: Enduring Freedom vets crying on his shoulder and pulling off suspiciously accurate head shots on the paper targets down at the shooting range? And hey, don't sleep on those skateboarding teens who color their hair the same hue as V-8 and vape like the world's supply of douche is gonna' run out tomorrow - especially that one that likes to look somberly off a bridge for some peculiar reason.

So basically, we've got your classic dead teenager movie a'la Massacre at Central High where pretty much anybody in the cast can get killed or start killing everybody else at any minute, and you wait the whole movie for the shit to go down because come on - it's a movie about a real life mass shooting - except it never happens. But it's kinda' like Waiting For Godot in a sense that the fact nothing happens is kinda' the whole point of the movie. It's all about tension and building-up suspense, and a good goddamn, will this movie have you on edge all the way up until the very last scene. As a matter of fact, this movie has what I consider to be the single greatest jump scare since the "nurse scene" in The Exorcist III ... and the whole thing happens in broad daylight. If you want to see minimalism par excellence, the guys who made this movie deserve a fucking medal for it. 

Of course, it's not a perfect movie. This is one of those flicks were the director is really big on symbolism and masking narrative red herrings as social commentary (and vice versa.) The problem is, the imagery is just way too blunt. We've got kids playing shoot-em-up video games in the lobby of the theater before the massacre begins and the victims showing up for the screening literally dressed as skeletons. And then there's this one part where a girl is walking through the woods and she sees a traffic sign obfuscated by a tree limb that kinda sorta resembles a heart. Even now I have trouble figuring out what that has to do with the rest of movie, so I'm just guessing the director literally spotted it out of the blue and said "well, might as well add this one for artistic effect while we're here" and nobody had the gall to tell him the whole sequence didn't make a lick of sense. And while some of the red herring bits are pretty good - all of those passages where wayward youths take selfies over and over again and and describe how their only voluntary human interaction comes in the form of World of Warcraft dialogue boxes makes for some rye commentary on how digital communications is making Gen Z more antisocial in real life - some of them are just bamboozling. I mean, why is there an entire sequence where a girl goes to a cancer survivor support group, or the scene where an overweight Hispanic Costco employee wades back and forth in a swimming pool to sad-sack indie acoustic rock for five minutes? 

But by and large, this is a really, really good movie, and probably the most nerve-wracking I've seen all year. Your tolerance for pretentious art-house snobbery will determine how much you enjoy it, but as a connoisseur of esoteric, no-budget cinema, I can soundly say this one is WAY above par for its ilk ... and the fact it doesn't wedge any gun politics drivel into it (nor try to blame mass shootings on homophobia, as does Gus Van Sant) is prolly reason enough to check it out.

We've got no dead bodies. No breasts. Two exposed female buttocks. Gratuitous juicing. Gratuitous vaping. Gratuitous hair dyeing. Gratuitous hair styling. Gratuitous "You Are My Sunshine." Gratuitous selfie-taking. Gratuitous gun-polishing. Gratuitous turtle fondling. Gratuitous slo-mo skateboarding. Gratuitous twerking. Gratuitous unrequited love sketching. Google map fu. And the thing more or less responsible for the movie existing in the first place - subplot overdose fu.

Starring Robert Jumper as the bushy headed guy who screams the names of random people while driving and periodically has to pull his car over so he can puke for no discernible reason; Eddie Cacciola as the veteran guy who stares vacantly into space a lot and spends his free time waxing up his collection of AR-15s; Aaron Purvis as the bald-headed social isolate who says "when people die for real, they don't respawn" and likes to point his finger like a gun at random pedestrians; and Anna Rose Hopkins as that one girl who wears really bright red lipstick and is supposed to be playing a teenager even though I'm pretty sure she's in her late 30s.

Written and directed by Tim Sutton, who is basically a poor man's Gus Van Sant - except his movies are better than anything Gus Van Sant has crapped out over the last 15 years, so I'm not really sure if it even constitutes a back-handed compliment anymore.

I give it three and a half stars out of four. Jimbo says check it out, 'cause I guarantee it'll be the tensest experience you'll have in a movie theater all year round. Well, unless a dude really does go into the theater and start shooting at 'ya for real. And in that case - well, I hope they at least give you a refund, or extra butter on your go-home box of popcorn.


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