Wednesday, September 30, 2020

A Nightmare on Elm Street: The 80s Horror Fairy Tale That Never Was

(Every month, I choose a horror film to shine a spotlight on and dig into. For the month of September, I selected the iconic 1984 slasher A Nightmare on Elm Street.)

Once upon a time, there was a story about a young girl named Nancy. Nancy lived in the land of Springwood with her three little friends Glen, Rod and Tina. Little did the four know that they were about to come under siege by a tyrant. One that Nancy's guardians, Donald and Marge, tried and failed to shield her from. One by one, Nancy's friends fell: First Tina, then Rod, then finally Glen. It all came down to Nancy to fight against the tyrant and face her fears once and for all, especially after the tyrant's destruction of her guardian Marge. Something Nancy was able to accomplish, once she learned how to properly face her fears: By reclaiming all of the energy she had given to the tyrant, she would not only be able to defeat the tyrant but also revive her fallen friends and guardian. Once she did that, the tyrant was vanquished, the fallen were revived and Nancy lived happily ever after. The end.

Except, that's not how the story ended.

When Wes Craven initially wrote A Nightmare on Elm Street, he conceived of his story to stand alone. It was to end with a happy ending where protagonist Nancy would succeed in defeating antagonist Fred Krueger and awaken to find her mother and friends happy and healthy and decidedly alive. However, one of the film's producers, Robert Shaye, insisted on removing the intended ending and replacing it with a new twist ending in which not only was Nancy still stuck in her dreams, but that she ultimately failed in her efforts to defeat Fred. Something that would ensure Craven's property would become a franchise rather than the singular entity he desired. Shaye ultimately succeeded in accomplishing this, and transformed Elm Street into a successful franchise that spawned seven sequels, a remake, a television spin-off and countless merchandise. However, when one views the original film with Craven's intended ending in mind, they can see that Shaye's ending disrupts the intentions of Craven's vision for the film: For it to be a cinematic fairy tale. Something that can be clearly seen when analyzing the film's use of tropes commonly associated with fairy tales, Jungian archetypes and the moral lessons Craven embedded within the film's screenplay.

Fred Krueger (Robert Englund) welcomes you to this reading

Best in Class: Horror Youth Superlatives

If there's one thing that's no secret to people who know me, it's that I love well-done movies about youths. To the point where I've considered making a separate blog just to take a stab at writing some essays about my love for the likes of films such as Jawbreaker and Ferris Bueller's Day Off.  Whether it's about teenagers or young adults, just do it well and I'll be giving it a watch at some point. So, as a fun Buzzfeed-style post for my Back to School Month content, I thought it'd be fun to commemorate some of the best youths in horror films. Those who saved the day, gave the best attitude or simply went out in a blaze of glory. Hit the jump to see what superlatives these youths will receive:

Friday, September 18, 2020

On The Chopping Block: Spiral (2020)

The main characters of Spiral, in better times

Representation matters.

That's the old mantra, right? Meant to address the importance of minority groups wanting to see themselves reflected on the screen, both big and little. It's definitely on my mind, being a big ol' homo, and a large part of why I was really excited when I learned about Spiral late last year. Most of the time, queer men don't get to be in the spotlight in horror films. As I discussed back in June with my write-up on Into The Dark's "Midnight Kiss", the only other horror films I knew of with queer men as the main characters besides that one were Hellbent and Killer Unicorn. Otherwise, it's usually just relegated to subtext, reading between the lines, however you want to put it. So, I knew I had to seek out Spiral whenever it came out, which it finally did on Thursday on Shudder. Especially as I was happy to see that the main character and half of the gay couple would also be black, as queer men of color are seen even less on screen than their white counterparts. 

Now, I've seen many make the comparison to Jordan Peele's film Get Out. Certainly Get Out was an influence, what with both films revolving around an interracial couple going into suburbia and at least one part of said couple having to deal with prejudiced folks who have an insidious agenda. However, another piece of media stuck out more in my mind as perhaps a more apt comparison: American Horror Story: Cult. Both Spiral and Cult deal with a gay couple with a child becoming the target of their neighborhood's nefarious schemes, both even getting marked for doom (Spiral's Malik and Aaron with a, what else, spiral and Cult's Ally and Ivy with a smiley face). Malik, like Ally, is gaslit to the max by the other characters and the story largely revolves around him trying to figure out what is actually going on, much like Cult revolved around Ally learning the truth about the titular cult. Both also address homophobia, albeit Spiral does in more depth as its a singular eighty seven minute film versus an eleven episode limited series with more going on.

Which brings us to what I love talk about a lot on here: The acting. While Spiral actually has a good cast with no one actually turning in a bad performance, the film ultimately belongs to its star, Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman. I had Bowyer-Chapman in a couple things prior to this, 2012's The Skinny, a dramedy revolving around a group of black queer friends, and, funny enough, the eighth season of American Horror Story, subtitled Apocalypse. This is the first time I've seen Bowyer-Chapman in a true lead role and, what do you know, he actually does a pretty good job with it! The character of Malik requires an actor able to create a large sense of interiority, as Malik is traumatized over a hate crime from his adolescence in which bigots beat his then-boyfriend to death. As well as trying to work on a writing about a professor, all while dealing with the horrors that unfold as the movie carries on. Bowyer-Chapman does just that, often conveying Malik's inner thoughts with his expressive face. The role also requires Bowyer-Chapman to deliver a lot of extreme emotions, including fear for his and his family's lives throughout, as well as sorrow when Aaron refuses to believe him that something is going on as well as accusing him of cheating when he's presented with photographs of Malik cheating with neighbor Matthew. Bowyer-Chapman shows a skill that I hope allows him to play more meaty parts in the future.

Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman as Malik

I also think that the film is well shot by director Kurtis David Harder and cinematographer Bradley Stuckel. While I have not seen either of the men's previous credits, they give Spiral a mostly good visual style that's marked with numerous slow panning shots that often serve to highlight an item and create a sense of dread. I say mostly good, because there are certain scenes that are shot in the vein of a Saw sequel with lots of blurring and fast editing to convey the headspace of the character, in this case Malik as he realizes that his medication is being tampered with and he's being drugged. While I'm not a fan of this, I suppose the context allows for it. The rest of the cinematography is great though, with one particular shot that really stands out being from a scene early on: Shortly after dinner with Kayla, we see Malik and Aaron having a conversation about the move and their hopes for their new environment. The way the scene is framed, we see Malik's in the doorway, while Aaron is blocked off through a window framing. It's not too dramatic of a scene, but it's a great way to show the film's audience the dynamic of Malik and Aaron's relationship without having the characters say anything.

Where the film's weakest points come in is its screenplay: Written by Colin Minihan and John Poliquin, the screenplay is fine, but there are some shortcomings. These do not include the implications that there are more extensive components to the antagonists' plans, however, as I'm certain we don't see more of that due to budgetary limitations. What I'm referring to is the nature of the Aaron character: Throughout the film, it seems as if he's being set up as another villain and in on the ultimate plan that Malik is trying to decipher. However, nothing ever comes of that and he ultimately just comes off as a somewhat gullible asshole who we don't really get to know. The screenplay also breezes over certain plot points, such as the aforementioned discovery of photographs of Malik and Matthew. The photographs imply that Malik, who proclaims his innocence and we later learn is being drugged, was potentially sexually assaulted by Matthew. Yet the film never addresses this potential violation again, which leaves a bad taste in my mouth. It also doesn't do much to address the potential racism Malik would face, aside from one scene where neighbor Tiffany mistakes him for Aaron's gardener. While I understand the film wants to tackle homophobia, it should've done at least a little more to address the intersectionality that comes with Malik.

Overall, despite the screenplay lacking in certain areas, Spiral is still a good, bleak, queer thriller with style and a great starring turn from Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman, one that's worth seeking out on Shudder now.

Malik, making a most disturbing discovery...

Friday, September 11, 2020

Performance Piece: Billie Lourd, "Scream Queens: Sorority Row" (2015)

The performer: Billie Lourd

The performance: Playing Chanel #3 (A.K.A. Sadie Swenson) in the first season of Scream Queens, originally subtitled "Sorority Row" (2015)

Why her?

Ryan Murphy's Scream Queens came and went: Premiering in the fall of 2015 with much hype, then getting cancelled at the end of the following year after two brief seasons with little fanfare. However, almost four years after its conclusion, the series has managed to live on with a cult following including yours truly. Scream Queens connected with me in a way that I never expected, what with its surprisingly clever references to films both horror and not, humor and mystery that resonated with me, and a memorably offbeat set of characters that carried the show even through its weaker points. While there are several standouts in Scream Queens's first season ensemble, a surprising scene stealer turned out to be one of villain protagonist Chanel Oberlin's (Emma Roberts) minions: Chanel #3, played by up and comer Billie Lourd.

Billie Lourd as Chanel #3 in Scream Queens

Thursday, September 10, 2020

On The Chopping Block: The Babysitter: Killer Queen (2020)

Let me give a quick preface: I discovered the original Babysitter pretty late in the game: Over a year after its original release on Netflix, in fact, via a recommendation from someone I met through social media. After watching the film, I instantly fell in love with it. It's not a perfect movie, but its Scream-esque mixture of horror tropes with meta humor and pop cultures, along with its choice of the charismatic Samara Weaving to play the titular role of antagonist babysitter Bee, won me over instantly. I even followed Bee and babysittee Cole's (Judah Lewis) lead and made my own "intergalactic dream team" of six Sci Fi characters I'd want to fight evil alongside, which I posted in my original Letterboxd review of the first movie here. So, obviously, when a sequel was announced with everybody coming back sans Weaving, I was intrigued, albeit cautiously. Would The Babysitter 2, or The Babysitter: Killer Queen as it's now titled, succeed?

Luckily, it actually does a fine job of living up to the original and my expectations. Taking place two years after the original, we follow an older Cole as he struggles to deal with the aftermath of what went down in the first film: His parents and school, minus his friend/crush from the original Melanie (Emily Alyn Lind), all think he's unhinged, and Bee and her followers have imprinted on him to the point where he's formed a friend group that's a subtle mirror of Bee and her group. Determined to get out of his comfort zone, Cole tags along with Melanie and their new friends Jimmy (Maximilian Acevedo), Diego (Juliocesar Chavez) and Boom Boom (Jennifer Foster) for a party on Jimmy's uncle's boat. After a round of two minutes in Heaven with Melanie, Cole is prodded by the others for details on what happened in the closet with Melanie. Then for details on what happened two years ago with Bee and her cult and then, well...

Shit hits the fan.

They're back: Andrew Bachelor, Bella Thorne & Robbie Amell as John, Allison and Max

Killer Queen takes what was laid out in its predecessor and escalates it: The scope is bigger and badder than the original, and director McG boosts the blood and gore and the pop culture references to new highs. In fact, one could make quite the drinking game out of how many times the sequel refers to its status as such via references to Terminator 2, both through the dialogue and through plot points. The returns of original cast members Robbie Amell, Andrew Bachelor, Hana Mae Lee and Bella Thorne as Bee's former followers are repeatedly likened to T2's antagonist T-1000, and Cole's new ally Phoebe (Jenna Ortega) is compared Sarah Connor more than once. The film also calls back to several jokes from the original and surges them, including the stupidity of Thorne's Alison, the clueless nature of Cole's parents (Ken Marino & Leslie Bibb), and the objectification of Amell's Max. A lot of this actually works and results in some memorable scenes, with examples being Max being shown so perpetually shirtless that a flashback shows him getting chewed out by a Karen for working at a fast food joint without a shirt on and Bachelor's John celebrating his surviving more of the sequel than the original as "some progressive Jordan Peele shit."  

However, not everything about Killer Queen works: Too much time is devoted to an ultimately useless subplot revolving around Cole's father and Melanie's father (Chris Wylde) trying to track down their kids to the point where I suspect the crew just wanted to give Marino more to do than in the original. The subplot of Cole and Phoebe's burgeoning romance also doesn't work as well as it should: While Lewis and Ortega have chemistry, the film seems to think that the multiple scenes of the two dancing and making time to Sugarhill Gang's "Jump On It" is a lot funnier than it actually is. In addition to this, the twist of Melanie as the new Big Bad and Bee's replacement falls flat for me, especially since her explanation of her motivation is reduced to a single line about wanting to be an influencer that doesn't land (as do a lot of the 2020-specific pop culture jokes, including a Tiger King namedropping from Cole's mom that made me cringe). While I do enjoy Lind as an actor, Melanie ultimately fails to live up to Weaving's Bee, and, along with the other new villains, gets overshadowed by those returning from the original (Especially Amell, whose character I could legitimately watch an entire movie about.)

In the end, though, The Babysitter: Killer Queen is a fine sequel and worth a watch, especially if you were a fan of the original 2017 film. Despite its flaws, there's still lots of laughs to be had, violent and bloody deaths and fights to be witnessed and, if the ending is anything to go by, potentially more story on the horizon.

The stars of The Babysitter: Killer Queen

Oh, and one more thing: For the tl;dr crowd who just wants to know if Weaving really doesn't return: She does indeed make a return, and with more time on screen than I anticipated.

Friday, September 4, 2020

New Flesh: Detention (2011)

The Film: Detention (2011)

What Is It About?

After an extended introduction to Grizzly Lake High's resident B.I.T.C.H. (That's Beauty, Intelligence, Talent, Charisma, Hoobastank, F.Y.I.!) Taylor Fisher (Alison Woods), and her subsequent murder at the hands of masked killer Cinderhella (who is also the killer at the center of a slasher franchise within a slasher), we are introduced to the rest of Grizzly Lake High's student body. This includes the sullen vegetarian Riley (Shanley Caswell), slacker skater boy Clapton (Josh Hutcherson), clueless dork Sander (Aaron David Johnson), vapid Ione (Spencer Locke) and asshole jock Billy (Parker Bagley) among others. As these teenagers deal with the drama that comes with their senior year of high school, they must also contend with not only Cinderhella trying to kill them all, but also with escalating incidents involving aliens and UFOs, time travel, time loops, body swapping, and, worst of all, the school principal (Dane Cook) locking them in Saturday detention the night of the school's senior prom to try to weasel out the killer himself.

Why Do I Recommend it?

Two months in a row writing recommendations for lesser known teen slasher films? It's more likely than you think!

Fortunately, Detention is more than just another teen slasher film. It has to be, since it throws just about everything it can think of at you over the course of its ninety minute runtime. Something that surprisingly works in the movie's favor, as it ensures that there's something for everybody within the film: Are you a slasher fan? The film provides you with Cinderhella, the killer that's copying the popular slasher within a slasher Cinderhella 2: Beauty Scream. More into sci fi horror? As the film progresses, the film leans into those elements harder, evolving from mere UFO jokes to including Elliot Fink (Walter Perez), a character who has been stuck in a detention-based time loop since 1992, a taxidermied bear that doubles as a time machine and a Freaky Friday homage to explain why exactly Ione has distanced herself from former best friend Riley and keeps making 90's references. Want some teen drama to help the horror be palatable? There's the love square plot consisting of Sander's determination to win over Riley, who's pining for Clapton, who's dating Ione, in addition to the side romance between Toshiba (Jonathan Park) and Mimi (Tiffany Boone). And if you want some comedy, well, if the descriptions already provided didn't clue in, this movie is absolutely insane and is full of comedy.

Detention is also full of a surprisingly slick style, courtesy of director/co-writer Joseph Kahn. Kahn is primarily known for his extensive catalog of music videos, having directed them since the beginning of the 90's. He's worked with some of the most popular current musicians, including Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, Maroon 5 and Kelly Clarkson. Here is one of many examples of his work:

Kahn uses his extensive experience with music video to create several sections of the film that could essentially be more music videos. Compare the section of Detention that reveals Elliot's time loop below to the Britney Spears example above and you will see how his experience allows for Detention to express major plot developments with just a montage set to music.

It's also easy to see that, despite the fact that Detention isn't a super well-known film to the general public, the film and Kahn's style specifically have made their mark and influenced other parts of horror media. Compare the film's opening sequence introducing (and killing) Taylor to this scene from Ryan Murphy's 2015 horror comedy series Scream Queens that introduces the series's resident mean girls, the Chanels:

In addition to what Kahn brings to the table with his direction and the script he wrote with screenwriter Mark Palmero, it would be remiss of me to not mention the capable cast that brings it all to life. Caswell and Hutcherson, as Riley and Clapton, make for capable and likable leads. Hutcherson, especially, brings a lot of his natural charm to a role that could otherwise be kind of annoying in another actor's hands, as he makes Clapton's languid attitude and subplot involving a feud with Billy humorous and even endearing. However, it's co-star Locke whom ends up stealing the show as both Ione as well as the younger version of Ione's mother Sloan. Like Hutcherson, Locke takes a role that could be annoying, what with Ione's constant 90's references including claiming Cinderhella 2 is the "best movie since Volcano!" and her antagonism of Riley that includes insisting she would be a final girl instead of Riley due to the latter's lack of money, and makes her extremely entertaining. Something that's only enhanced when Ione somehow switches bodies with the younger version of her mother in an alien-aided ritual that the movie comically brushes aside and Locke gets to sink her teeth into two roles.

Overall, Detention is a fast-paced, stylized, and insane(ly hilarious) film that exceeds expectations and is deserving of more attention. Between Joseph Kahn's slick directing, Kahn and Mark Palmero's great script and the wonderful ensemble cast bringing it all to life, Detention is just the right choice for anybody wanting to seek out a great teen slasher film.

Available on: Amazon & iTunes