Scare Package (2019)
★ / ★★★★
The horror anthology “Scare Package,” composed of seven shorts and a unifying narrative that takes place mostly in a video store, is for viewers who require only minimal brain power for it offers a relentless barrage of obvious and unfunny jokes that get tired—real tired—mere thirty minutes in. The point is to introduce and then subvert horror tropes (i.e.: the use of excessive gore, women being used as props to exploit or make a statement, the idea of “the final girl”), but the material seems content in pointing at familiar motifs without communicating why they exist and how they can be effective tools of storytelling—or function as limitations. The work is given purpose but not imagination, notes on a page without the music. It’s a bore.
Perhaps the best short, if I were to choose while under duress, is Chris McInroy’s “One Time in the Woods,” a gore-heavy creature/slasher flick that gets by somewhat with sheer energy. I enjoyed the practical effects surrounding a monster that had been stopped mid-transformation (the setup) while it is able to retain the ability to speak (the punchline). Everything else around it is uninspired; it involves doltish campers (actors in their thirties or forties playing teenagers—ha-ha) running away from a masked serial killer. Slicing, dicing, and tearing up limbs lead to the caricatures on screen being hosed down with red goo and such. It is meant to look cheap. And it does. It’s breezy fun and it ends just when it is starting to wear out its welcome.
That’s more than I can say about Courtney and Hillary Andujar’s “Girls’ Night Out of Body” which involves a haunted… lollipop that one of the women stole from an Asian convenience store. Prior to the start of the short, the VHS—the sole VHS—is shown under the “Post-Modern-Feminist-Slasher-Body-Horror” aisle. I got a chuckle out of that one. But that’s the best bit. In this day and age in which feminism—sometimes blind feminism—is celebrated, you might think the material would strive to make a statement about the female sex, traditional gender roles, and what is expected of a young woman in horror movies (taking off her clothes, screaming and moaning as if she were having sex when she is actually being pursued and tormented). But no. It simply features girlfriends hanging out in a motel room as they wait for a masked man to knock on their door. I think it is the worst of the bunch—quite a feat because nearly all of them are equally egregious. (Baron Vaughn’s body snatcher “So Much to Do” is a close second.)
I recognized potential in the wraparound narrative “Rad Chad’s Horror Emporium” directed by Aaron B. Koontz. Or maybe I just miss being inside video rental stores. In any case, I enjoyed watching enthusiastic performers (who clearly took inspiration from Mike Judge’s “Office Space”) Noah Segan (as the clerk who may or may not be what he seems…), Hawn Tran (as the new employee whom the clerk has dubbed to be his “little Pikachu”), and Byron Brown (as the customer who is desperate to get hired in a place he loves) wringing out every bit of smile, chuckle, and laughter from the audience. There is an awareness to their performances that comes across endearing for they embody familiar personalities you’re likely to bump into at Blockbuster or Family Video. I wished the entire movie is just hanging out with this trio.
It is a complete miscalculation to take these characters and jam into yet another short—which is supposed to be ironic, I guess, because the thirty-minute “short” called “Horror Hypothesis” (also directed by Koontz) is the longest. “Breakfast Club” archetypes running around a research facility as yet another serial killer aims to kill them off is just boring. By this point, the movie is out of steam and I was out of patience. Must we endure another set of cardboard cutouts attempting to flee from another towering assailant? Horror movies vary so wildly and yet this anthology is stuck doing the same thing. By the end of it, I was convinced the filmmakers should be forced to watch foreign horror cinema. Because what’s at offer here is child’s play.
★★★ / ★★★★
Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) does not mean for him, his future self, to get away, a momentary hesitation that allows Old Joe (Bruce Willis), sent from year 2074 by a criminal organization using a time machine to be executed and disposed of in 2044, to escape which prompts the boss (Jeff Daniels) to initiate a hunt to kill the two. It is the only way to minimize further changes in the future. The problem is Joe wishes to live a full life even though he already knows that being a looper, an assassin of the present assigned to murder people sent from the future, comes with an expiration date of age thirty. Meanwhile, Old Joe hopes to alter the past by killing a person called The Rainmaker in order to undo the death of his wife.
Written and directed by Rian Johnson, “Looper” explores a handful of interesting and intertwining ideas about the people affected by time travel, outlawed by the government upon its discovery, and avoids many details and technicalities of the concept itself. There is a difference and it is an important one because by focusing on the former, the writer-director constructs a story that we can, first and foremost, invest in or care about and, secondly, appreciate a fictionalized world of flying motorcycles and people with the ability to move objects using their minds due to a genetic mutation that affects ten percent of the population.
I enjoyed that the interactions between current and future Joe are kept to a minimum. Their one conversation set in a diner is imbued with an electric dialogue that is ironic and funny but serious and intelligent, too. This scene is not only a stand out because of the script. It is the point when we can observe how alike–or different–the actors are with respect to them playing, essentially, the same person. One is able to match the other not simply in terms of quirks but, for example, how one delivers a calculating gaze to a threatening or curious figure. The way in which they place stresses on particular words are also fun to pick up on.
Though it was easy for me to divorce between actor and makeup, I would have preferred that Gordon-Levitt was not given prosthetics so that he would look more like Willis. Since the picture functions on a relatively high level of imagination, it would have made sense for the filmmakers to assume that we had the initiative and the capacity to imagine the two actors, given that their performances complement each other well, playing a variation of one character.
What works less effectively is that the script does not give enough details about the organization led by Abe (Daniels). Is its goal more related to business like running a drug cartel and strip joints or is its objective more concerned about the bodies that come from the future? Furthermore, while Abe is nicely played by Daniels because he tends to choose quiet over hyperbolic menace, we do not see the character do much other than give orders. For someone who is supposed to be the leader, he does an awful lot of waiting for everyone else to do their jobs right. Ultimately, watching him does not feel like we are being engaged with a character who has much purpose underneath the archetype of a mob boss of some sort.
“Looper” may be and is faulted for its irregular pacing particularly when the story takes a detour on a farm. I respected this change of pace because it ties in to the idea that the picture is not just a sci-fi action film padded by chases and bullets flying. It takes a risk worth noting. It gives itself a chance to turn its attention toward one or two moral questions by setting aside almost half of its entertainment value. This approach is not common but it sure is admirable.
Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever (2009)
★ / ★★★★
When water from a lake infected with rapid flesh-eating bacteria was introduced into an unsuspecting high school’s prom, the government locked the students inside and left them to die. There was John (Noah Segan), a future doctor who was in love with Cassie (Alexi Wasser) but whenever the two got close, her boyfriend with serious anger issues (Marc Senter) left John cowering in his shoes. Alex (Rusty Kelley), John’s best friend, had sex in the brain and was willing to get it from just about anybody. What “Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever,” directed by Ti West, needed was a spark of creativity and a bit of vision. All the high school students portrayed in the movie were one-dimensional. They were like zombies as they walked in the halls and their conversations left no lasting impact. They were at Point X and they wanted to get to Point Y. Their one and only path was Trajectory XY. So when the flesh-eating bacteria began its bloody horror, while we were left horrified and disgusted, mostly the latter, we just didn’t care for the characters. Given that John wanted to be a doctor some day, I expected a lot from him. The writers, Ti West, Randy Pearlstein and Joshua Malkin, should have given John a scientific approach in terms of dealing with the bacteria. The picture could have benefited from several scenes when John was able to take a sample of the bacteria in the blood and looked at its processes under a microscope. Given that chemistry class, naturally equipped with microscopes and slides especially since, from what it seemed, the students were in a private school, was only a couple of doors away, not learning about the disease was a missed opportunity. The majority of the first film took place in a remote cabin by the lake. They couldn’t possibly learn anything about the disease because they didn’t have any equipment. Here was a vastly different setting but it was uninspired. It was more concerned about delivering the blood, the pus, and the sexual escapades of the doomed teenagers. And what about Deputy Winston (Giuseppe Andrews), the idiotic cop who was lucky enough to survive from the first movie? He was left running around but we had no idea what he was up to. He was a cowardly clown and when the film cut to his scenes, the tension that accumulated from the scene prior decreased at an exponential rate. With a stronger writing and if the film had focused only on the prom and the infected students inside, it could have passed as slightly mediocre. But with the extended scenes involving a high school stripper, I was left very confused.
★ / ★★★★
High school students Rickie (Shiloh Fernandez) and JT (Noah Segan) decided to go to an abandoned mental hospital, drink a couple of beers, and throw some chairs around like most troubled teens do. But when they stumbled upon the lower levels of the building, they discovered a naked woman (Jenny Spain) covered in plastic and tied up in chains. They presumed her to be dead until she started moving. JT had a stupid idea: keep her there and use her as their sex slave. Rickie, the more sensitive of the two, softly disagreed. He would rather call the police. Later, JT, possessed by rage, accidentally snapped the girl’s neck. She didn’t die. He killed her two more times just to test his sick hypothesis. She was incapable of dying. The concept of “Deadgirl,” written by Trent Haaga, impressed me. There was something about hormonal teenagers dealing with a really complicated moral and ethical situation that fascinated me. However, the execution lacked focus and power. There were far too many scenes of Rickie pining over Joann (Candice Accola) from afar. It was creepy, not melancholy enough. They shared one kiss when they were twelve, presumably his first kiss, and he became desperately and hopelessly in love with her. Those scenes, designed to hammer in our heads the fact that he was a romantic, didn’t lead anywhere other than to buy time until the next cruel scene when the girl in chains was raped by JT and Wheeler (Eric Podnar), a fellow schoolmate and local druggie. His intense stares caught the attention of Joann’s boyfriend (Andrew DiPalma), a possible repressed homosexual, and took great pleasure, along with baseball star Dwyer (Nolan Gerard Funk) in beating Rickie to a pulp in the school parking lot. What bothered me most was no one asked the most obvious questions. Who left the girl in that basement and why? Was there some sicko who installed cameras around the room to watch what someone would do to the girl? How long had she been there? Did she have some kind of disease? The last question was especially important. The guys were more concerned about penetrating the same hole and sharing the same “pool” than the possible ramifications of their actions. Talk about thinking with their rods and not with their brains. Rickie, the one who we were supposed to root for, was too much of a wimp to stand up against his friends. I wished there was a character who had a stronger sense of self. I certainly wouldn’t have made the same choices Rickie did. The boys treated her like an object just because she wouldn’t die. They were blind to the fact that she was able to move, bleed, and react to the most rudimentary sensations. “Deadgirl,” directed by Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Harel, had a daring subject matter but it failed in exploring the deeper questions about torture. What could have been great felt exploitative and cheap.