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31 by 31 Challenge #18: IN THE TALL GRASS (2019)

@craiggors

It’s always tricky taking a short story or a novella and adapting the events into a longer narrative. Stephen King and Joe Hill’s In the Tall Grass is known for it’s shocking violence and gut-punch ending, a simple story told in a tight, brisk novella. In stretching that story out to feature-film length for Netflix, director Vincenzo Natali (Cube) expands on the surreal hints of the original pages, plunging the viewer into a weird fiction universe of ancient, ritualized evil aided by sinister, semi-sentient grass.

Pregnant Becky (Laysla De Oliveira) is traveling across the country with her brother Cal (Avery Whitted) to meet her unborn child’s potential adoptive parents in San Diego. Driving the empty back roads of the nation, the two are attempting to keep things as positive as possible given the heavy situation. On a particularly deserted country road, the siblings hear a cry for help coming from the tall, thick fields of grass stretching for miles on either side of the highway. Entering into the grass to help find the lost boy (Will Buie Jr.), Becky and Cal soon find themselves lost in a dizzying maze of grass that seems to defy logic. As dehydration and heat exhaustion set in and the siblings are separated, they soon come to realize that something else moves through the grass, something that has no intention of letting them go…

Though De Oliveira and Whitted are more than fine in their roles, along with Buie Jr. as the lost, innocent Tobin and Harrison Gilbertson as baby daddy Travis, the film really belongs to Patrick Wilson who plays Tobin’s father Ross. The shifty, shady nature of the character allows for Wilson to swing from his trademark charisma to being rivetingly unhinged at the drop of a pin. The rest of the characters are somewhat shallow, even given the expansion of the relationship between Becky and Travis, and the focus on the emotional and psychological weight of being in the grass as supposed to the in-your-face gore of the father/son novella. Not that the gore isn’t present, it’s just overshadowed by an invented mythology that thrusts the story into a bizarre Lynchian-esque world that, while visually stimulating, can be difficult to track in terms of story beats and character development.

Natali knows how to move the camera, play with light, and craft striking imagery. It just so happens that, in this particular instance, these artistic choices to favor a surrealist aesthetic over surface-level characterization prevent the viewer from ever really attaching themselves to the characters or feeling their peril. Given the narrative loops, it’s hard not to wonder if any of the danger that lurks behind the grass is even worth fretting about, thus lowering if not entirely negating the stakes, and you can’t have a horror movie without stakes (insert vampire joke here). Yet this has been sacrificed for a more idiosyncratic storytelling approach.

In The Tall Grass – Patrick Wilson, Harrison Gilbertson, Laysla De Oliveira, Avery Whitted – Photo Credit: Netflix

I think Natali was hoping to create a sense of disorientation for the viewer in an effort to mirror how the characters felt once they realized they were trapped within the tall grass. It’s a stylistic move worthy of attempting, and he doesn’t fail entirely, but he leaves his characters to fend for themselves too much and as a result they’re under-baked, leaving us with a film that’s heavy on atmosphere and stimulating to watch, but with little real heart. Wilson is able to pull layers from Ross and deliver an engaging performance, but you can feel that that’s his own doing. Everyone else’s characterization has been sacrificed in the name of tone and mood. Lost, as it were, in the weeds.

In the Tall Grass

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror

31 by 31 Challenge #17: ABSENTIA (2011)

@craiggors

Though he’s a horror darling these days, in 2011 Mike Flanagan was just getting started. His first feature, Absentia, was a critical hit on the festival circuit, and with good reason. Though it’s been somewhat overshadowed by his later efforts (Oculus, Hush, Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House), Flanagan’s debut film is a pleasantly freaky movie, squeezing an impressive amount of atmosphere and effective scares out of a meager $70,000 budget. Those looking for outlandish special effects and other studio-money embellishments should seek other fare, but fans of psychological terror and personal hauntings will find that this film has been crafted just for you.

Absentia is a taught psychological foray into the mind of a woman, Tricia (Courtney Bell), who is about to declare her husband, vanished seven years past, legally dead, or, “death in absentia.” In order to face the moment when her husband will not exist in a legal sense, Tricia calls on her younger sister Callie (Katie Parker) to help her in the final steps of moving out and moving on. But when strange things start happening in a neighborhood where “things go missing,” old wounds are opened between the sisters and the tension skyrockets. And there’s something strange about the tunnel across the road.

At first it seems that Absentia will adhere to predictable horror beats, but then comes a wicked punch to the chin that follows with a few other revelations soaring in from left field. The story continues to work these interesting angles and relies on atmosphere and mystery rather than violence, shock value, or profound digital visuals. Flanagan plays on sinister, old folklore then turns it around to make it his own. There are times when the plot advances based only on conjecture, but the pacing is spot-on and makes even the weak moments work. Following a tried and true horror storytelling technique, the film shows as little as possible while spinning the mystery. As the climax crawls nearer and nearer, the audience knows that something is going on, can feel that something is lurking, but we can’t see the whole picture just yet. The imagination is flexed here, and that always makes a good horror story stand out.

The cast also elevates the film, despite their generally inexperienced nature, which is great considering Absentia is very much a character-driven story. Katie Parker plays the lead as comfortably charismatic, while Bell convincingly taps into the ideal image of the older, responsible put-upon sister.  Their relationship as sisters feels lived-in, each of the actors conscious to maintain a sense of realism even amidst the inexplicable.

A few plot points remain somewhat murky when the credits roll, and that may mean this film should be avoided by mainstream horror fans, but Absentia is still great in that it presents a fresh idea, a compelling story, and explores themes that have not been run into the ground by lesser works. It reminds us that capable storytellers and strong performers can always serve up creepy joyrides without the big bucks.

Absentia

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror

31 by 31 Challenge #16: RINGU (1998)

@craiggors

To this day, the enormously successful Ringu, which follows TV reporter Reiko Asakawa and her ex-husband on an investigation into the origins of a cursed videotape, holds the record for being Japan’s highest-grossing horror film of all time. It spearheaded a renaissance not only in American remakes and remarketings of J-horror, but in Japanese horror overall, affecting dozens of films that didn’t even get (yet?) American screw-ups. Sorry, I mean adaptations.

Whereas Gore Verbinski’s 2002 American version of the tale relies on mood and a slowburn and coherent narrative to induce dread and suspense, Ringu is more about inciting a kind of pervasive eeriness, something that feels much more invasive and sticky. Watching The Ring, you feel as though you might encounter Samara…one day. Watching the original, you feel as though Sadako is right there in the room with you, thinly veiled behind each and every reflective surface. In Ringu, the investigation unravels through a series of startling images, non-sequiturs, free association, and psychic intuition, all of which lead to some incredibly unsettling moments absent from the watered-down American version. Chief among these would be the far bleaker, more ambiguous ending.

The overall atmosphere in Ringu, crafted so expertly by director Hideo Nakata, is one of oppressiveness and claustrophobic gloom that comes off very personal. The loose ends are intentionally denied resolution in order to increase tension in a manner absent from the American film. Western audiences tend to like their stories wrapped up with neat little bows, and studios are hesitant to move away from that kind of closure, though this has hesitation has lessened somewhat in recent years.

In Japan, the release of the film was met with a level of hysteria akin to that of The Exorcist (1973) in the United States. There have been claims that the apartment used in the film for Reiko’s home is actually haunted.  Ringu themed tours took place in the building for years, and there is now a theme park based on the original movie, as well as two sequels, a prequel, tv series, two remakes (one American, one Korean), and a host of pan-Asian clones that are mostly formula pieces parading an endless succession of wraith-like girls in long black hair and pallid features. Of these knockoffs I’d say that One Missed Call (2003) might be the only one worth checking out for the awesome set piece during the exorcism scene.

Few films are better enjoyed on a windy October night than Ringu. It’s a psychologically chilling and spine-tingling movie that’s full of genuinely upsetting and unsettling moments and features an unmatched oppressive atmosphere that even the most jaded and seasoned horror fans will be hard pressed to deny is palpable. Happily, Ringu is far more accessible than it used to be, and the advent of the internet and online horror communities have allowed fans of the genre a chance to see what inspired the Naomi Watts remake. Throw it on when you’re in the mood for mood. You know, just give yourself about a week’s time to set things in order afterwards…

Ringu

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror

31 by 31 Challenge #15: SATANIC PANIC (2019)

@craiggors

Never let it be said that a minimal budget should be the death knoll of an otherwise successful film. Time and time again competent directors have proven that inventive film-making knows no monetary bounds. Satanic Panic, one of the buzzy gems from this year’s Fantasia Festival, is the latest in a long line of can-do films that defies its constraints to produce a film full of surprises, laughs, and gleefully demonic gore.

Aspiring musician Samantha (Hayley Griffith) has taken a job as a pizza delivery person. Her naive, upbeat attitude is mocked by her fellow co-workers, but she’s adamant that this first day on the new job will turn things around for her. Desperate for tips, Sam volunteers to deliver some pizzas on the far side of town in the affluent Mill Basin neighborhood, a gated community full of mansions, swimming pools, and well-manicured lawns the size of football fields. When she’s stiffed for a tip at the palatial address, Sam refuses to back down and storms into the manor looking for her just dues, only to find herself stumbling into the hands of a witches coven in the midst of preparing a Satanic ritual. Thus begins a night of mayhem, murder, and supernatural sheet-wrangling as Sam fights for her life against the cultic 1%.

Director Chelsea Stardust (Into the Dark: All That We Destroy) knows her 80’s. Though set in present day, the film very much evokes the feel of the decade in which the actual Satanic panic gripped the nation, and the tone of the film is clearly meant to mimic the days of grunge and widespread suburban paranoia of the occult. The screenplay, by horror staple Grady Hendrix (My Best Friend’s Exorcism) from a story by Hendrix and Ted Geoghegan (Mohawk, We Are Still Here) gives her a lot to play with, particularly the whipsmart dialogue that feels irreverent and sharp and throwback all at once, and must have been a blast for the cast to deliver. Rebecca Romijn is particularly delicious as cult leader Danica, an unhinged grand dame willing to do whatever it takes to maintain her wealth and status.

The pacing is also excellent. Stardust never lets up on the action while still interspersing perfectly well-timed moments of comedy that let us breathe, guffaw, and get to know our characters all at once. Even amidst the hijinks, the viewer truly comes to feel attached to Sam and Judi (Ruby Modine)– Danica’s once-virgin daughter whom Danica intended to sacrifice but who turns the tables and teams up with Sam instead–and fears for them as their run-ins with the cult became increasingly more disturbing. Though it’s not always clear how the cult’s magic works, it’s great fun to watch the spells play out since all the effects are practical and it’s never assured what’s going to happen next.

Satanic Panic is non-stop giggles and gore from cold open to closing credits. It’s packed with gags, creative effects, and even a surprising amount of heart. The story is silly but engaging, the message tired yet timely, and it exudes a bubbly charm that’s hard to deny even in the face of it’s minor faults. It’s the kind of movie that embraces the campy nature of it’s premise and runs full steam ahead with it, leaving the viewer sated and satisfied, like a god offered the most excellent of morsels at the altar.

Satanic Panic

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror

31 by 31 Challenge #14: BAD MOON (1996)

@craiggors

There’s a fascinating movement that’s been happening in the horror community in recent years wherein fright freaks are reevaluating movies from the early to mid-1990’s, long considered horror’s bleakest period in terms of quality film, and finding things to love in once universally panned films. Bad Moon is one such film for me, though I always loved it back in the day. I’m thrilled to see it find more cheerleaders now, not because it’s a game-changing revolutionary werewolf film, but because it’s heaps of fun and with the right audience, can be absolute viewing perfection.

Globe-trotting photographer Ted (Michael Pare) is romping around in the steeped forests of Nepal when he’s attacked by a werewolf. Upon returning home, Ted secludes himself in a trailer near the mountain home of his sister Janet (Mariel Hemingway) and nephew Brett (Mason Gamble). As Ted and Janet begin to reconnect, mutilated bodies begin appearing in the woods and Thor, the family dog, takes an instant dislike to Ted, attempting to warn the family that something is very, very wrong.

The werewolf is one of the most complex and layered monsters in horror, yet the werewolf film has proven an elusive beast to tame. Bad Moon is by no means the gold standard for the sub-genre, but it understands that at their core, werewolf stories are about tragedy. This movie gives that tragedy an interesting spin in that Ted, the victim-turned-monster, isn’t our tragic figure–he embraces his newfound violent tendencies all too easy and eagerly–but the family unit threatened by forces supernatural and as close to home, or kennel, as could be. The inherent sadness of the film is not Ted’s transformation from man to beast, but that of a family just on the brink of reconciliation and happiness being torn apart and subjected to grief and trauma at the hands of one of their own.

The true standing power of Bad Moon is in the creature effects, however. Being that it was the 90’s, all the effects are practical, of course, and it’s truly stellar costuming and makeup, courtesy of Steve Johnson. The werewolf is hulking, feral, and gnarly. It’s a pure reflection of the earliest, most brutal werewolf myths that emphasized the savage nature of the monster. The werewolf is the ultimate killer, and each attack and mauling is appropriately gory, none more so than the opening scene, an in-your-face juxtaposition of sex and violence that was rare to see in 90’s horror flicks after the MPAA came down hard on that sort of the thing in the late 80’s. The film is all the better for it, however; a bold promise on what the rest of the movie has in store.

Bad Moon is not an everyman’s horror film, but just because it was overlooked and undervalued in 1996 doesn’t mean it’s a bad movie. There’s plenty to love here for those that appreciate top notch practical gore and creature effects, an assured sense of story, and gorgeous scenery all packed into a neat runtime. A victim of an era when werewolf and monster films, hell even horror in general, were struggling to find an audience, this onetime runt is perfectly primed to lead the pack.

Bad Moon

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror

31 by 31 Challenge #13: ORPHAN (2009)

@craiggors

Most of us remember the fanfare under which Orphan was first released in 2009, namely the shocking nature of the twist that had everyone all atwitter (no, that Twitter didn’t exist yet). It certainly left it’s mark on the box office, yet interestingly–especially for horror–wasn’t followed up by any sequels or obvious knock-offs either (although I’d guess that The Prodigy from earlier this year draws on a few elements from Orphan). It’s not a perfect film by any measure–it embraces too many tropes in a quest to subvert expectations–but it’s well-acted, unquestionably creepy, and surprisingly cold-blooded at times.

Kate (Vera Farmiga) and John (Peter Sarsgaard) have suffered a terrible tragedy and are wading through lives plagued with grief, mistrust, and guilt. To complete their family and bring hope back into their lives, they make the decision to adopt 9-year-old Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), a Russian orphan with a penchant for painting and Victorian dresses. She’s charming and talented and seemingly just what the Coleman family needs. But something is wrong with Esther, and as Kate begins to see a different side to her adopted daughter she questions what sort of child she’s brought into her home, leading to cracks in her marriage, dangerous situations, and the sinister reveal of Esther’s true identity.

Even knowing the infamous twist as so many of us do now, Orphan is masterful at eliciting righteous anger in the viewer in the form of Farmiga’s Kate, who we know is right about Esther, but must suffer watching as those that should support her refuse to believe her claims, leaving her the lone protector of her family. We’ve all been in situations where no one believed the truth we were screaming at the top of our lungs, and it’s a uniquely infuriating feeling of helplessness that this film captures with aplomb. Kate is flawed, as is her husband, and it makes their dynamic authentic and relatable. The viewer is left to cringe at the cruelty of what Esther inflicts on this already vulnerable and fractured family, complete with jealous son Daniel (Jimmy Bennett) and hearing-impaired daughter Max (Aryana Engineer), who’s seeking a role model in her new sister.

It helps that all of the performers are committed and watchable. Scream Queen Farmiga brings her signature style to frazzled Kate, while Fuhrman transcends as Esther, the linchpin performance of the film. She makes each of Esther’s increasingly dramatic turns believable, skyrocketing to the ranks of Linda Blair, Harvey Stephens, and Patty McCormack when it comes to exalted child actors in horror. These rock solid performances make it easier to forgive the frequent jump scares and the less swallow-able plot points. Add in the fact that the film can be downright brutal, as when Esther dispatches CCH Pounder’s Sister Abigail, and Orphan more than makes up for its deficiencies and earns it’s place amongst the psycho child horror film hall of fame.

Despite the bumps and bruises, Orphan holds up a decade on, and the bizarre premise has become less outlandish in the wake of the recent news story out of Indiana concerning the Barnett family and their adopted daughter Natalia Grace. For more information on that developing story, check out Episode 70 of the podcast. In the meantime, look closely at the children in your lives. Are you sure they’re really in the third grade? Better go over those dental records one more time…

Orphan

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror

31 by 31 Challenge #12: BODY BAGS (1993)

@craiggors

When compiling a list of great horror anthologies, Body Bags is an oft yet criminally overlooked contender, which is mind boggling if you’ve ever seen it, or even if you just glance at the film’s roster. Directed by John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper for Showtime, and featuring a veritable who’s who of early 90’s celebrities and horror icons–including cameos by Wes Craven, Sam Raimi, and Tom Arnold–the film was meant to be a creepy-story-of-the-week TV show to compete with HBO’s massively successful Tales From the Crypt (1989-1996). After filming only three episodes, however, the show was canceled, and the segments were compiled into Body Bags, leaving us all to pine for what might have been.

John Carpenter plays The Coroner, a wise-cracking cross between the Crypt Keeper and Beetlejuice, who welcomes the viewer to the county morgue and introduces each of the three tales while drinking formaldehyde and searching for the most grisly and mangled bodies he can find. Despite only popping up between segments, Carpenter absolutely steals the show as The Coroner, and framing the stories as explanations for how these bodies ended up in the morgue is clever and fresh. Carpenter’s clearly having a blast in the role, and his energy translates well, making it just an absolute blast to kick back and enjoy Body Bags.

Carpenter directs the first two segments, “The Gas Station,” and “Hair.” In the first–which is set in Haddonfield, Illinois–a young woman (Alex Datcher) working the late shift at an isolated gas station/mechanics is plagued by strange visitors and unnerved by news of an active serial killer in the area. David Naughton, Wes Craven, and Robert Carradine all drop by at one point or another and the whole thing makes for a wonderfully tight and tense mini-Halloween. “Hair” is equally fun though more goofy; a body horror morality play featuring Stacy Keach as a middle-aged man obsessed with making sure he doesn’t go bald and willing to go to great lengths to keep a full head of hair. David Warner and Sheena Easton round out the players in this icky yet charming little terror fable.

Then there’s the fantastically nutso performance of Mark Hamill in “Eye,” the third and final segment directed by Tobe Hooper. As a baseball player that loses an eye and has it replaced with the eye of a deceased serial killer, Hamill goes all in and brings a few moments of genuine dread to the otherwise campy piece. There’s a twisted sense of glee in watching Luke Skywalker descend into madness in such an unsettling fashion, and the ending is appropriately bloody for a serial killer story.

Carpenter has stated that he never thought of himself as a talented actor, and so ceased casting himself in roles. Watching Body Bags, it’s a shame to think of what might have been if he had at least stuck with this particular character, and if Showtime had more faith in their Crypt-copycat. As with many things in life, and in the horror genre, fans must wonder what-if, but at the very least we have this taste of what should have been, a solid entry in the body of work of not one but two horror legends. Now, bag that up and take it with you.

Body Bags

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror

31 by 31 Challenge #11: THRILLER (2018)

@craiggors

Earlier this year, Netflix surprise-dropped several low profile horror films from Blumhouse. Such a strategy is always a gamble, but it can occasionally pay off, as in the case of Mercy Black, which dropped at midnight and hooked viewers with its eerie, Slender Man-esque story and glossy visuals. Less successful was Thriller, a standard slasher that gets caught up in it’s own mechanics and forgets to actually slash until it’s too late.

In South Central LA, a group of middle schoolers lures a shy outcast into an abandoned home in order to play a cruel prank. Chauncey, the loner, is sweet and crushing on Lisa, the only vaguely nice girl out of the group of popular kids. She’s reluctant to punk Chauncey, but is pressured to go along with the gag anyway. When the prank goes awry and results in someone’s death, the group bands together and pins the accident on Chauncey, who is sent to a juvenile detention center. Four years later, Chauncey is released and the pranksters, now seniors about to enjoy their Homecoming weekend, find themselves getting sliced and diced by a masked killer.

There’s a lot of time spent establishing who’s who in this film. It’s made especially challenging because the group of kids that pull the prank is unnecessarily large, and they’re all recast with older actors after the opening time jump. Many of the characters fit into slasher stereotypes as well and could easily have been combined for digestibility, but this may be because Thriller quickly pushes the horror to the background in favor of a social study on what it means to grow up in a neighborhood like Compton and how that affects young residents. For almost an hour, we explore how some characters seek to escape their home streets, and their various plans for doing so, while others have decided to embrace the roughness and the hard life as a means to either survive or thrive. These are interesting ideas to explore, and getting to spend time with our characters helps break down some of those tropes and make them more human so that when the killing does start happening, the audience feels each death.

The trouble is that most of the kills happen off screen, and a bloodless slasher is a boring slasher. Combine that with a group of unseasoned actors who can’t sell their characters and the result is a watered down fright flick that leaves little to be desired. Final Girl Lisa (Jessica Alain) is bland, receiving the least amount of development despite being our focal character. Chauncey (Jason Woods) is all brute and no brain, a revenge-fueled monster without layers, and Kim (Pepi Sonuga) is a sweet party girl chasing a local rapper that only has a personality disorder in which she speaks in the distorted voice of her dead sister. Huh? It’s all too strange, or familiar, to have any real impact, and genre fans will be able to call every expected turn before it happens, all the way up to the final, lackluster finale.

Unfortunately, Thriller‘s uninspired title is an accurate reflection of it’s uninspired plot. What could have been a nuanced, updated, urban version of Prom Night (1980) instead fizzles as a generic “seen it before” slasher. I have to wonder if first-time director Dallas Jackson originally envisioned an entirely different type of movie, given how much time is spent exploring the daily lives of these characters, and if the horror element was shoehorned in during later stages of writing/development. I’m not sure what the story there might be, but I have to assume that it’s far more thrilling than the result.

Thriller

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror

31 by 31 Challenge #10: CHOPPING MALL (1986)

@craiggors

I think the moniker “cult film” gets thrown around a bit too much these days, but when it comes to Jim Wynorski’s Chopping Mall there is no more fitting description. The fandom surrounding the movie alone puts the majority of other cult films to shame, and you’ll struggle to find a more ridiculous yet oddly charming premise than than of a state-of-the-art mall security system featuring three robots that go berserk thanks to a freak lightning accident on the night a group of teens are trespassing. I mean, come on.

In order to cut down on rime and deter thieves, Park Plaza Mall has installed a new, high tech security system featuring alarms, steel doors, barred windows, lock-down procedures, and three pudgy black robots equipped with lasers and tasers. On the night they’re installed, four teenage couples plan to hide out in a furniture store until the coast is clear and then wild out in all the ways you’d expect 80’s teens to get down. The trouble is, the robots’ safety functions have been rewired by a lightning storm and now instead of patrolling to protect, they’re hunting to kill.

As much as Chopping Mall is a cult film–which it certainly is–it is also something else that contemporary audiences don’t see too much of being made these days: a party film. It’s the ideal movie to watch with a group of friends, yummy snacks, and your chosen libation as you revel in the absurdity and embrace the B-movie brilliance. And there truly is lots to embrace, unironically. Kelli Maroney and Barbra Crampton lead a pack of game actors and they’re both fantastic. Maroney in particular had an underrated, under-the-radar career and it’s nice to see her get a moment in the spotlight in this film as the nerdy, prim new face turned badass final girl.

There’s also the nostalgic appeal of mall culture, which was at its heyday at the time the movie was made; a culture that has drastically diminished if not altogether vanished in the age of Amazon. If you ate up the third season of Stranger Things and wanted more, Chopping Mall will scratch that itch. Gone are the days where shopping was an experience, an outing that was combined with the plink-plunk of the arcade, free samples at the food court, and bizarre, brightly colored stage shows in the middle of everything. If you miss such times, or at least remember them fondly, Chopping Mall is the goofy portal back to that era you’ve been missing.

Look, no one out there is grumbling that Platoon unjustly stole the Best Picture Oscar from Chopping Mall in 1986 (although you could make a case for Children of a Lesser God, but I digress). It’s a fun, silly movie that the filmmakers, cast, and fans are all completely aware is absolute nonsense. But that’s the joy of Chopping Mall. Much like the mall culture the movie itself so perfectly encapsulates, the film is a relic of a bygone age, but one that still has champions and new converts in our modern era. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a better popcorn movie for your Halloween get-together, so give it a watch. You’ll really just have the nicest day.

Chopping Mall

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror

31 by 31 Challenge #9: THE MANGLER (1995)

@craiggors

Adapting a Stephen King story is a tricky business. Despite the number of King’s tales that have been shifted from page to screen, Hollywood hasn’t quite pinned down a formula for how to make a successful King film. By and large, the general rule seems to be that if you want to tilt the scales in your favor, it’s best to stack the deck with horror royalty. Think Romero taking on Creepshow (1982) and The Dark Half (1993), or Carpenter with Christine (1983). Following that logic, a film directed by Tobe Hooper and starring Robert Englund and Ted Levine should be a complete blockbuster. But logic has failed us here.

The prize machine of the Blue Ribbon Laundry service is a monstrous device known as the mangler. It’s a dangerous press, but safety regulations seem to be the least concern of factory owner Bill Gartley (Englund). When an accident involving Gartley’s niece Sherry (Vanessa Pike) splashes blood onto the mangler, the sinister clunker appears to come to life, and it’s out for blood. Officer John Hunton (Levine) gets involved in the case when another worker dies, and he turns to his demonologist brother-in-law Mark (Daniel Matmor) when events at Blue Ribbon begin to defy earthly explanation.

There’s a decent amount to work with when it comes to The Mangler. As in the original short story, collected in Night Shift, there’s a commentary on American capitalism and gluttonous consumerism, specifically in how the working class is sacrificed in the name of dollar signs, and how the bodies of young women are exploited and abused with ease and encouragement in a patriarchal society. And then of course, a demonic laundry press comes to life and literally chases our heroes through an M.C. Escher hellscape because of some blood and a few antacids. It’s two completely different films. One half, the horror comedy headed by Englund in his droopy prosthetics and half-man/half-machine ensemble, is fun and goofy. The other half is a strange neo-noir tale with Levine moaning and groaning and carrying the weight of the cruel, unjust working world on his ever-so-broad shoulders.

What The Mangler gets wrong is trying to give equal weight to these two different stories being told. The safer bet would have been to embrace the inherent ridiculousness of the plot and go all in on the black comedy angle, much in the way that Carpenter does with Christine. In attempting to balance the humor with melodrama, Hooper creates a film that just doesn’t gel. It looks great–the sets are full of grime and slick muck and lazy steam and you can feel the woe and corruption practically pulsating in the walls–but visuals aren’t enough to save a disjointed narrative.

Short stories don’t always work when told in longer format, but there’s enough in The Mangler that could have made for an interesting feature. Small town elites sacrificing their virginal daughters could have been played up, as well as the more serious themes of corruption, greed, and misogyny. Perhaps Hooper didn’t want to strike out too far from King’s original work. The direction is often hesitant, as though he knew he had to choose between black comedy and melodrama but couldn’t commit. Unfortunately for him, and the viewer, neither half is strong enough to stand on its own and instead we’re left with something a bit more, well…mangled.

The Mangler

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror