Tag Archives: Halloween

Why MTV’s ‘Scream’ did and didn’t work

Familiar, but not the same.

Familiar, but not the same…

Writer’s note: This was initially, accidentally published before completion. So if some of this looks familiar, well, it might be. Also, there are going to be some spoilers, so you were warned.

Two reasons to like the Scream series on MTV …

  1. MTV pays due tribute. The disfigured, outcast madman from years before, the person who is not among our new Scream-ers but at the center of its mystery, is killed at a lake, an homage to Friday the 13th. That’s probably the least subtle nod, and there are tips of the hat to Halloween and Saw, as well. Hell, at one point I was sure I saw an exterior shot that had to be the old Buffy Summers’ residence. But what I thought was both fairly daring and a great change that set the show apart from the movies is the new mask. That’s precisely the sort of change that usually drives genre fans bugshit. But the mask wasn’t just changed for the sake of change. The change is tied to the new story, and it’s still true to the movie mask. It was a small but key change, and shows some of the thought that went into this endeavor.
  2. The ending. The creative team had me fooled, no doubt. I was convinced it was the sheriff and his son behind the murder. Then the killer was revealed, and it appeared that there was only one, which would have been a change from the original. But as the very end showed, there was at least one person who had regular contact with the killer prior to the murder spree. We don’t know the depths of said person’s involvement, but it’s a peek at what we might expect next season. It was a nice move that saved a somewhat anti-climactic season finale.
Yes, the dialogue was bad, but it wasn't that bad. ... OK, it was pretty horrifying.

Yes, the dialogue was bad, but it wasn’t that bad. … OK, it was pretty horrifying.

Three reasons not to like the Scream reboot.

  1. The dialogue. It’s bad. It’s awful. It’s atrocious. It’s … so bad we might need a new word to describe it. Part of what made the original Scream movie so fresh was that, unlike the many horror flicks that it was parodying, the kids were fairly smart, aware and funny instead of just attractive, dim-witted meat for the slasher grinder. MTV’s Scream often acts like it uses some random, genre-based, dude-bro/basic-bitch phrase generator to come up with dialogue. Among the adults, it’s hyper-serious and too spot-on. When some truly terrible phrase exits the mouth of one of the actors, it’s hard to stay in the moment within the drama. Noah, the series horror-movie fan stand-in for Jamie Kennedy’s Randy, is forced to spew half-assed, poorly set-up monologues far too frequently. The overall dialogue is so bad, even my 13-year-old daughter mocked it with regularity. Something to work on for Season 2.
  2. The cast and the characters they play. I thought, when it came to the adults, the casting was pretty well done. But with the teens … I think it can be summed up by Bella Thorne’s appearance in the pilot. The Disney star is the token big name who bites it in the opening scene, a good choice to relate to the target audience. However, unlike Drew Barrymore in the original Scream, we’re in no way sad to see Thorne’s Nina bite it. Drew’s character is a little catty and flirty, but also genuine and a fighter when the knives come out. Thorne is convincing as a bitchy teenager, but it’s a wasted performance because it isn’t what we need from the character. We need to have a rooting interest in Nina, but that’s not developed. It’s a poor match for Thorne, and it was the wrong way to go for the character. And that sums up plenty of the younger cast members in Scream. With the possible exception of Bex Taylor-Klaus’s outcast lesbian Audrey, there are too many poorly thought-out characters played by actors who don’t have the chops to elevate their roles.
  3. The ending. Yes, I know I just praised the ending. But the problem with the end is related to issue No. 2 above. Amelia Rose Blair, who plays podcast journalist Piper Shaw, is horrible. The wardrobe people put a pair of horn-rimmed glasses about two sizes two big on Shaw in an attempt to make her look like a Smart, Serious Journalist. She mostly looks like a kid who stole her dad’s eyewear. Plus, Blair can’t pull off acting concerned or intelligent, as if she’s never had the opportunity to witness or experience either. And when the big reveal comes that she’s our killer, she’s about as scary as a toddler dressed as a vampire heading out to trick-or-treat. I think the storyline could have worked much better had the Scream folks found an actress who could carry the weight. Blair was not the right woman for the job.

In the end, MTV did just enough to get me back for the second season. The first season was uneven but entertaining, and the set-up for the next round seems promising. Plus, my daughter and I had a lot of fun MST3K-ing from the cheap seats as the body count rose. Bonding over buckets of blood will keep us engaged for at least one more go ’round.

And now I’ll let my daughter’s words wrap this piece up. “She can’t carry everything she needs for school in that bag. My biology book wouldn’t even fit in there. … What kind of school is this?”

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Time to ‘Party’

Christopher jumps into the deep end of the Murder Party.

Christopher jumps into the deep end of the Murder Party.

I am fond of writer-director-cinematographer Jeremy Saulnier’s 2013 revenge flick Blue Ruin (Thoughts on Blue Ruin). The plot is dark, the violence merciless and the conclusion inevitable, but the quiet, deliberate pace, the performance by lead Macon Blair and the overall craftsmanship of Saulnier combined to create a powerful if somber film.

After seeing Blue Ruin, I was eager to see what else Saulnier had done. Most of his credits are for cinematography, but he did direct one other film, his debut, Murder Party.

Whoa.

Talk about film-viewing whiplash. On the one hand, Blue Ruin gains its power from the quiet and the contemplative. It is open, with space for the viewer to meditate on what’s happening. On the other hand, Murder Party has a guy wearing a werewolf Halloween costume who accidentally sets himself on fire while smoking a cigarette.

I really enjoyed Murder Party. Is it a great film? No, but watching a bunch of pretentious, dipshit art students completely fail in the simple task of murdering a man who practically volunteers to be the victim is a hoot. From the homages to other films – the art students are dressed as a zombie, the aforementioned werewolf, a vampire, a replicant from Blade Runner and member of the baseball gang from The Warriors – to the complete absurdity of the deaths of most of said artists, Murder Party builds relentlessly to a completely over-the-top ending. It’s also an example of great low-budget filmmaking, maximizing humor, personalities and the ridiculous elements of the unfolding events, and minimizing the lack of money available for FX.

If Army of Darkness and Shaun of the Dead are your kind of thing, check out Murder Party. Bask in its bloody foolishness.

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‘All Cheerleaders Die’: So close, so very, very close

Just your average, All-American girls. Certainly nothing to be afraid of.

Just your average, All-American girls. Certainly nothing to be afraid of.

(Spoilers ahead.)

All Cheerleaders Die has a simple premise that it executes fairly well. Maddy (Caitlin Stasey) is recording her childhood friend, cheerleader Alexis, on the last day of school of their junior year. The sassy Alexis is showing how the privileged, beautiful kids have it at their high school, from life in the hallways to cheer practice. When Maddy seems unimpressed in general and particularly unmoved by the squad’s moves, Alexis decides to up the ante, resulting in a horrifying accident that culminates in Alexis’s death.

Fast forward three months to the start of Maddy’s senior year. Maddy, in the wake of her friend’s death, decides to try out for the cheer squad, although apparently for her own, decidedly non-school spirit reasons. Despite their reservations, the cheerleaders welcome her as one of her own. The girls overcome their differences, do each others nails, share pizza and laughs, and everyone lives happily ever after.

OK, not so much. Maddy has a plan to avenge what she sees as the cheer squad’s (and others) betrayal of her dead friend. It doesn’t quite go as planned. There’s rape, murder, attempted murder, witchcraft, zombies, sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. And blood. Lots and lots of blood.

Sometimes a girl gets hungry. Who are you to judge?

Sometimes a girl gets hungry. Who are you to judge?

If it sounds like a hoot and half, it is … in parts. That’s the elephant in the room with All Cheerleaders Die. Co-writers and co-directors Lucky McPhee and Chris Sivertson craft a smarter film than it would initially appear to be. There’s plenty of laughs, a few surprises, a number of well-crafted scenes. The cast is exactly what they need to be and have the ability to carry out McPhee and Sivertson’s vision.

The problem is said vision. All Cheerleaders Die never seems to decide if it wants to go dark and mean – think Saw, Hostel, Halloween, etc. – or play it for laughs – Army of Darkness, Shaun of the Dead, Kings of Badassdom, etc. When it plays it for laughs, All Cheerleaders Die delivers, such as when quarterback Terry (Tom Williamson) goes from your average evil teenage high school football player to superduperevil something more than human, starts ripping into some human flesh and offers up this gem, “Mmm. Tastes like jelly beans. I’m like the cookie monster up in this bitch. Oh, I hope that shit was gluten-free!” And there are some truly sinister moments, such as when the car filled with football players runs the cheerleaders’ car of the road into a river, and the ball players do nothing but watch the cheer squad drown.

Unfortunately, All Cheerleaders Die never manages to find that horror/humor tonal balance that pushes it from just another pretty good horror film to the pantheon of great ones. While it is reasonably satisfying viewing (if you can get past the Goosebumps-esque special effects, which sometimes get played up a little too much), it’s also frustrating to watch, waiting for the film to break through that storytelling ceiling.

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Struggling with ‘I Spit on Your Grave’

This wasn’t an easy film to watch.

Don’t get me wrong: I Spit on Your Grave is a deftly crafted thriller/horror flick. The build of suspense as we wonder if our heroine, novelist Jennifer, is going to escape the clutches of those who would do her harm, is handled effectively. Her subsequent revenge for the gang rape is chilling, brutal and spot-on. Sarah Butler is top-notch as Jennifer, and Jeff Branch is convincing but not over-the-top as the belittled redneck Johnny. Andrew Howard steals scenes as the sheriff, a solid family man and gleeful rapist. The portrayal of the rape as an act of power and degradation, rather than a sexual or titillating experience, is also well done, a credit to filmmaker Steven Morse’s handling of volatile material as well as the work by the cast.

Yet as I thought about it, I was ill at ease about recommending it, partly because there is an element of exploitation to the proceedings simply because of the nature of the subject matter. As I’ve said, that’s not intentional on the part of the filmmakers, who clearly sought to portray a horrible incident as honestly as possible. The more obvious exploitative elements come on the back end as Jennifer inflicts her fury and vengeance on the perpetrators.

After mulling it over for a few days, I think I’ve pinned down exactly what was causing my concern. When I think of exploitation flicks, the blaxploitation era is what comes to mind. Those films were generally low-budget and dealt with urban tales heavy on the violence, drugs and sex. However, you had large African-American casts, actors and actresses whom couldn’t find much work in what was, even compared to today, a much whiter Hollywood. You also had African-American filmmakers such as Melvin Van Peebles find work behind the camera. Plus, the sorts of themes of these black-centered tales weren’t receiving any real attention in the broader cinematic world. In other words, while the black experience in America was being exploited on screen, there were African-Americans who were able to benefit and expand their careers because of the opportunities offered in blaxploitation cinema. I’m not arguing that it was a perfect system or all sunshine and puppies, but there was an upside off-screen in the real world that came as a result of those films.

When it comes to I Spit on Your Grave, the same cannot be said. Only two of the 11 producers listed are women, and none are executive producers. There are only four women in the cast, two of whom are little seen side characters, and one who is solely used briefly for sex appeal (the audience sees more of her ass than we do her face). As you move further through the crew credits, outside of departments where you might traditionally expect to see women (makeup, costuming, etc.), there aren’t many females listed.

And are females watching a film like I Spit on Your Grave? Blaxploitation flicks drew African-American audiences. I have a hard time believing you can find a strong, core group of female fans who are going to flock to rape cinema. Those who have suffered a brutal sexual assault aren’t likely to want to live it over again on screen.

Plus, the skeevy profit motive starts to come into play when you see that I Spit on Your Grave 2 followed three years later, which, of course, could mean a ISOYG3 is just around the corner. It’s one thing to make a film about rape, an important if hot-button topic. It’s another thing to attempt to capitalize on rape by turning it into a franchise like Friday the 13th or Halloween.

To me, that naked greed, the idea that it’s OK to continue to earn money off of manufactured degradation of women, creates more of an ick factor than the jarring, disturbing, fictional images in I Spit on Your Grave. And, in the end, that’s why I feel I can’t recommend the movie, no matter the quality or the delicate handling of the subject matter.

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