Martial arts entertainer Pearl Chang (also credited as Ling Chang) was once the biggest TV star in Taiwan. She has since effectively disappeared. Chang has dozens of credits to her name as an actor at the fringes of the wuxia genre in the 70s & 80s, many of which are seemingly lost forever in the distribution & archival voids that vaporize most cheap-o schlock. Impressively, she even leveraged that notoriety into directing four martial arts films herself in the 1980s, a career path that proved much more turbulent & misogynistically policed than her initial designation as a television actress. When Chang tried her hand at being an auteur, she found her reputation shifting from “beloved TV star” to “difficult to work with,” a bullshit designation that’s routinely leveled at female creatives to protect the industry-control enjoyed by their male “colleagues.” Of her four completed features, only half were even credited to her name, the other two being filed under a male pseudonym. Despite how common this disgraceful undercutting of Pearl Chang’s potential as a genre auteur feels in the history of women in the film industry, it still stings harshly when you watch her work. She was exploding with creativity in her directorial period, limited only by her lack of funding and her lack of Industry support. She deserved so much better, and it’s hard not to get hung up on the potential art we lost because of that dismissal.
Wolf Devil Woman is the best-known of Pearl Chang’s directorial efforts, and even it’s mostly notorious as a “so-bad-it’s-good” exercise in high camp. Chang stars in the film herself as a feral woman who was raised by wolves after her parents were executed by a demonic Emperor. Narratively, it’s a straightforward revenge story in which the wolfen orphan exacts revenge on the Demon who ruined her life by using her animalistic hunting skills (and the supernatural abilities afforded to her by ingesting mystical “white ginseng”) in battle. Tonally, the movie is much harder to pinpoint. It can be absolutely brutal, as in the opening sequence where the wolf-girl’s parents bury their baby in snow and douse her with their own blood to keep the infant warm. It can be adorably cheap, especially in its costuming, which dresses Chang in a wolf plushie doll as if it were a pelt and achieves her Demon foe’s look with a rubber Party City mask. Overwhelmingly, though, I think of Wolf Devil Woman as being outright psychedelic – a disorienting Pure Cinema indulgence that makes for some very loopy late-night viewing despite its limited means as a cheap-o production. It can’t pretend to be as controlled or as accomplished in its far-out psychedelia as triumphs like King Hu’s A Touch of Zen, but its bootleg quality as a VHS-era indie knockoff from the fringes of the genre only make it feel stranger, like a found object that tumbled far outside the boundaries of a proper wuxia canon.
Some of the ways Chang achieves this Bootleg Psychedelia effect are recognizably rooted in tradition: 2D animation visuals bolstering the effects budget; vibrantly colored gel lights affording the Demon’s lair a Suspiria vibe; wire work uplifting the martial arts sequences with the fantasy of flight (a wuxia mainstay), etc. Where Chang really goes off the rails is in her deployment of quick, recurrent cuts that repeat the same action over & over again in rapid-fire delirium. It’s a deliberately dissociative effect, best evidenced by the insanely omnipresent imagery of the titular wolfwoman ripping a live rabbit in half with her bare hands to illustrate her animalistic nature. As a revenge tale, Wolf Devil Woman is too predictable & languidly paced to merit much enthusiasm. As a stylistic exercise, however, it’s overflowing with delirious creative choices that dazzle the eye after hypnotizing you into that false calm. I believe the instinct to laugh the entire movie off as a joke because of a few goofy (budgetary-based) costume choices is selling these artistic merits short, but I’m still glad that at least one of Chang’s few feature film earned some kind of cultural notoriety. I wonder what she might have been able to achieve with bigger & better chances to express her vision onscreen, but like with so many female auteurs in the history of the Industry, her opportunities were frustratingly limited.
We don’t get to know what a better-supported Pearl Chang career might have yielded, but at least we got one cult gem out of the limited resources she was afforded.
In the mad dash to gobble down as many potential Best of the Year List contenders as possible before we start making ranking our personal favorites films of 2019, only one last-minute title has jumped out at me as a worthy dark horse entry. The bewildering thing is that it’s a student film, the thesis project of first-time director Tilman Singer. A 70min genre exercise with a small cast and just a few sparse locations, Luz is maybe the most unassuming indie gem from 2019 to achieve such a sublime must-see cinematic effect. Its ability to hypnotize & disorient an audience into a state of total delirium in just an hour’s time is a commendable act of cinematic black magic, an effect unmatched by any other last-minute 2019 catch-ups I’ve flooded my brain with in recent weeks.
This barebones genre gem is a story of demonic possession. A visibly shaken, scraped-up cab driver is held for questioning at what appears to be a late-1970s police station. Apparently driven mad by an encounter with her last customer, the cabbie is subjected to hypnotism at the hands of a creepy doctor under the cops’ employ for further interrogation. Unbeknownst to anyone in the room, the doctor is possessed by a demon who is obsessed with our dazed cabbie, waiting for its most opportune moment to strike. We cut between the interrogation, the ill-fated cab ride, the dive bar where the doctor became possessed, and the Catholic school where the cabbie first encountered the demon in a disorienting kaleidoscope of narratives that only becomes creepier the more they shift & overlap.
On an aesthetic level, Luz is a thoroughly pleasant genre throwback indulgence in all the ways you’d expect: grimy celluloid grain, analog synth score, candlelit Satanic rituals, the full works. There are plenty of other movies that can deliver that exact brand of Euro-horror genre nostalgia, though. What really stands out here to me is the narrative ambitions that disorient time & place with an aggressive, deranged fervor. As the story’s various competing fractions combine into one sharp-edged mosaic, the film achieves a deranged, sweaty, deliriously horny nightmare that all demonic possession media strives for, but few titles ever achieve. The closest comparison point I have for its accomplishments are the supernatural horrors of giallo greats like Argento & Bava in titles like Suspiria & Kill Baby Kill. That’s an impressive echelon for a film school thesis project to sneak into, which alone makes Luz stand out as one of the year’s most unexpected treasures.
My eternal amusement with the Killer Internet gimmick in modern horror bows to no one else’s. A few brave souls will stick out their necks for the Skype horror gimmick of Unfriended, the chatroom horror gimmick of Cam, and the Pokémon Go horror gimmick of Nerve, but it takes an even sturdier love of the genre to appreciate the really trashy shit: the Snapchat horrors of Sickhouse & Truth or Dare?, the Facebook timeline horrors of Friend Request, the Candy Crush nightmare of #horror, etc. This is my cinematic junk food – my personal version of the straight-to-Netflix romcom or the Adam Sandler yuck-em-up. I do believe the Killer Internet genre has an inherent value as a cultural time capsule just as much as it does as mindless entrainment, though, especially when it’s at its least discerning. This genre is doing more to preserve what our daily lives online look & feel like than any respectable Prestige Drama would dare; its assumed frivolity as an instantly dated novelty will only prove more academically useful with time, as these films are essentially archiving our cultural experience with modern user interface tech. Enter the killer-smartphone-app thriller Countdown: another silly-ass technophobic horror specimen to add on top of this cursed data pile, and another excuse for me to go to bat for a genre no one else seems to value as much as we all should.
The online ghoul-du-jour in Countdown is a demon who haunts a free smartphone app. This titular app is a countdown clock that tells you exactly how long you have left to live, which could be 60 years or 60 hours, depending on your pre-determined fate. Unremarkable archetype characters download the app in groups at parties & workplace breakrooms, having a laugh at the arbitrary estimation of how much time they have left alive on Earth. Only, the countdown clock proves to be eerily accurate, which isn’t so funny for the unfortunate souls who happen to download it the very night they’re fated to die. Armed with this cosmically privileged information on their impending doom, they naturally attempt to avoid their fate in a myriad of futile schemes: changing their travel pans to avoid train wrecks & car crashes, hacking into the app’s code to add time to their ticking clocks, commissioning a priest to wage battle with the dark forces that haunt their phones, etc. Unfortunately, these half-cooked maneuvers only serve to summon an ancient demon who strikes them down at their exact predetermined time of death anyway. Bummer. Between the hospital setting & college campus environment its main “character” frequents and the inevitability of fated Death that haunts her, there’s nothing especially new to Countdown that you won’t find done better in the Happy Death Day or Final Destination franchises. Its only value is its novelty as an entry in the Evil Internet canon, then, which it contributes to in a few key ways.
Countdown’s central gimmick obviously exaggerates the uncertainty of downloading an untrustworthy app to your phone, not knowing what viruses may accompany it to threaten your data security (and, apparently, your life). It doesn’t help that the app somehow has a 3.6 approval rating despite literally murdering people, so you can’t event trust its user feedback. Worse yet, once downloaded it will not allow you to uninstall it from your device, nor can you mute its notifications. For an unsavvy luddite like myself, there’s a unique menace to not being able to mute the loud, horrific noises that come out of my evil, dumb phone – settings that seemingly revert back to their top-volume horror with every automatic app update. I’ve never seen such a relatable mundane horror from my daily life represented onscreen. Most importantly, Countdown hinges its demonic smartphone possession premise on the eerie unknown realm of User Agreement text – the Terms & Conditions scroll that no one ever reads, to the point where we’re giving strange malevolent forces free rein over our personal data so that we can share cutesy memes about Millennial ennui or whatever. Every single character who downloads the Countdown app is explicitly agreeing to being hunted down by the Countdown demon, which they do automatically without pause. If that’s not the most universally relatable shit that could be exploited in horror, it’s only because you’ve never added an unnecessary app to your smartphone. I commend you for that; you’re are much stronger willed than I am.
There’s a lot about this movie that feels half-cooked: a #metoo subplot that’s not taken seriously enough to justify its discomfort; a PG-13 level body count that’s not brutal enough to overpower the skeptical hurdle most audiences will have with this silly of a premise; the sub-gimmick of a car backup cam jumpscare, which really deserves its own feature lengthy movie (that apparently only I will enjoy). Still, as the only mainstream, over-the-plate horror move tossed into wide release the week of Halloween, I very much appreciate that Countdown found new ways to expand the boundaries of the Killer Internet genre by documenting & exploiting the most mundane annoyances of daily smartphone app use. Cinema is an excellent way for us to record & reflect the full spectrum of the human experience, and we’re very unlikely to ever see an Oscar Bait drama handle topics as pedestrian as unmutable app notifications, unreadable user agreement text, and untrustworthy app store review ratings. That work, documenting the real nitty gritty of daily life in the 2010s, is left to noble trash like Countdown.
There’s a tricky balance between patience & expectation in recommending the historical curio Viy (aka Spirit of Evil) to the uninitiated. This is a one-of-a-kind cinematic artifact that concludes with what has to be one of the most gorgeous scares in the history of its artform. I’m already getting ahead of myself in overhyping it, though, as that glorious delayed payoff is a mere five-minute stretch of the film’s (mercifully brief) 77min runtime. There’s an early sequence that promises witchcraft & devilry for audiences patient enough to await its arrival, but much of the film is a slow, lightly comedic build to that final spectacle. I can only report that the witchy, demonic climax is well worth the wait, and that the movie would still be worth your attention even if it weren’t – due to its cultural significance as an early Soviet horror.
Cited as the first horror film produced in the Soviet Union, Viy feels like it’s gleefully getting away with something even when it’s pretending to be well-behaved. In the same era when Serious Artists like Andrei Tarkovsky struggled to express their religious beliefs onscreen under Soviet censorship, Viy sidesteps those restrictions by passing itself off as “a folk tale.” Adapted from the eponymous Nikolai Gogol text (which also inspired Mario Bava’s cult classic Black Sunday), it follows the story of young priests in training who very much believe in God, witches, and The Devil – with forbidden Christian iconography often decorating the sets they occupy. The mood is kept exceedingly light, though, as the bumbling would-be priests are basically frat boy buffoons on Spring Break who meet their end at the hands of a powerful witch. Despite the severity of its political & religious transgressions, this is essentially a horror comedy – with a comedic score keeping the mood light throughout (except at it blissfully chaotic climax).
While drunkenly enjoying a rowdy break from his studies in town, a young priest-in-training catches the lustful eye of a horny old witch. Unamused by her sexual advances, he beats her to death with a stone – a grotesquely outsized reaction to her enchantment. As retribution, the witch poses as the beautiful corpse of a local townie, insisting before her “death” that the very priest who bludgeoned her be summoned to pray for her soul over three consecutive nights. In classic fairy tale fashion, her menacing revenge on the idiot priest gradually escalates over those three nights—eventually reaching an intense supernatural crescendo during the final prayer session. The priest continually tries to weasel his way out of his responsibility to pray over the corpse (and, more to the point, to pay for his crime of drunkenly assaulting a witch), but his doomed fate is sealed as soon as the request is made. He gets his just desserts on that third night in a spectacularly satisfying act of supernatural revenge.
Viy’s value as a Soviet Era artifact is not going to interest every horror nerd. It’s a niche territory that’s only made more challenging by its shoddy English vocal dub, which plays like a book-on-tape translation where a single performer voices every character. If its historical context interests you, though (and if you generally have the patience for delayed payoffs to moody, atmospheric builds) the film is well worth the effort to reach its delirious haunted-house climax. The five-minute stretch that makes good on its long-teased witchcraft & devilry—boosted by an importation of Silent Era special effects into a 1960s filmmaking aesthetic—will leave an intense impression on your psyche that overpowers any minor qualms with its build-up. This is a quick, oddly lighthearted folk-horror curio with a fascinating historical context and an eagerness to wow the audience in its tension-relieving climax. That’s more than enough to melt my own horror-hungry heart, but your own mileage may vary.
There are two competing gimmicks at war with each other in the gleefully idiotic trash-horror Truth or Dare?. As suggested in the title, one gimmick involves a supernatural, deadly version of the schoolyard game truth-or-dare that drives the film both to explorations of contrived ethical dilemmas and to even more contrived novelty indulgences in demonic possession clichés. As delightfully silly as a haunted truth-or-dare game is for a horror movie premise, though, it’s not the gimmick that most endeared the film to me. It’s Truth or Dare?’s stylistic gimmick as The Snapchat Filter Horror Movie that really stole my trash-gobbling heart. Whenever demonically possessed participants prompt contestants in the titular game to answer “Truth or dare?” their faces are altered with cheap digital effects to display a sinister, impossible grin. It’s a design that unmistakably resembles a Snapchat filter, which is explicitly acknowledged in the dialogue when a character reports, “It looked like a messed-up Snapchat filter.” I’ve already exhaustively stressed in the past how important high-concept/low-budget horrors about the evils of the Internet are for being willing to document what modern life online looks & feels like in a way that classier productions would tend to avoid. Films like Unfriended, #horror, Afflicted, and so on are doing more to preserve the history of modern online communication than they’re given credit for, specifically because they’re willing to exploit pedestrian trash mediums like Skype, Candy Crush, and webcasting as foundational gimmicks for feature-length narratives. For its own part, Truth or Dare? has earned its place in cheap horror’s academic documentation of online discourse by exploiting Snapchat filter technology as a dirt-cheap scare delivery system. As silly as its titular gimmick can be, it wouldn’t have deserved camp cinema legacy without that secondary Snapchat filter gimmick backing it up.
It’s tempting to bail on enjoying Truth or Dare? in its initial setup & character introductions, which make for a very shaky first act. In an opening sequence so cliché it was parodied in The Cabin in the Woods a half-decade ago, a group of college age friends embark on their Last Spring Break Together and are met with a supernatural evil on the journey. Lured into a drunken, late-night round of truth-or-dare by a mysterious stranger in an even more mysterious abandoned Mexican church, the group is locked into a demonically-possessed version of the schoolyard game that follows them home and threatens their lives. Taking turns in several rounds, each character is challenged by hallucinations of the Snapchat Filter Demon into following through on truth-or-dare prompts or violently dying in refusal. Besides a closeted gay character and hilariously oblivious party bro (“I can’t say no to shots. Everybody knows that.”), none of these College Kid archetypes especially stand out as distinct individuals. They’re instead used as personality-free placeholders for the movie’s deployment in awkwardly staged moral dilemmas. The dares indicated by the film’s title are almost exclusively acts of lethal violence, but the real hook of the premise is in exposing the truth behind people’s desire to be seen as charitable & good. The demonic game of truth-or-dare forces characters to act out their unspoken desires and to confess their most shameful secrets in grand displays of public humiliation. The hidden selfishness of the self-righteous is a particular fixation of the game, as characters are challenged to back up statements like “I didn’t have a choice” or to prove claims that they’d sacrifice their own lives to save many strangers’. Honesty is the most highly valued virtue in Truth or Dare?’s worldview and it’s one the movie searches for in the most gleefully cruel ways possible.
Although the initial setup is a little labored (a probable side-effect of having five writers share one screenplay), Truth or Dare? gets exponentially more ludicrous (and, thus, fun) as its titular game escalates, ending on a surprisingly ambitious note with implications that are incredibly far-reaching & clever, considering the film’s lowly starting point. It’s possible to find more fully committed versions of the film’s central gimmicks in better works. The pitch-black exploitation comedy Cheap Thrills offers an even more cruel indulgence in depicting a series of violent dares gone out of hand. While Truth or Dare? verbally admits its Shapchat filter gimmick in the dialogue and adopts cell phone aspect ratios in its opening credits, it has nothing on the fully-committed Sickhouse, which is essentially a The Blair Witch Project remake staged through a series of Snapchat posts (and originally posted on the Snapchat app itself). Nerve might even be a better midpoint between the two gimmicks, where a series of escalating dares are filtered through the language of social media. The acting & character work in Truth or Dare? are aggressively bland. The music feels like faux-inspirational Chariots of Fire/allergy medicine commercial runoff. The PG-13 rating indicates both its potential for truly disturbing violence and its loyalty to genre cliché. On the Blumhouse scale, this film is more Happy Death Day than Get Out. On the Evil Internet horror scale, it’s more Friend Request than Unfriended. Still, its specificity as a Snapchat filter horror (as opposed to a Snapchat platform horror) distinguishes it from previous app-based schlock and its follow-through on the implications of its demonic truth-or-dare premise wholly makes up for its first act unease. If nothing else, I can report that the film’s ending is the most satisfying trash-horror resolution I’ve seen since the evil doll cheapie The Boy, a reference I intend as the highest of compliments (it did rank high on our collective Top Films of 2016 list, after all). Between leaving me on that high note and generating its terror through a disposable mode of online discourse, Truth or Dare? very easily endeared itself to me. I wish more people were having this much fun with it.
We’re not the most harshly critical bunch over here at Swampflix, especially when it comes to cheaply-produced genre pictures. If you’re looking for a brutal evisceration of a micro budget indie horror like Sacrilege, we just don’t have it in our hearts. Still, I cannot give the film a hearty recommendation either. This Louisiana-produced VOD cheapie is difficult to get behind, even for the most forgiving of schlock junkies, but it’s not without its merits either. The level of care that went into staging its various jump scares & haunted house-style set pieces, as well as its various homages to classic titles from horror’s past is admirable, though not enough to compensate for the lack of care paid to its characters & plotting. The recent smash hit IT proved that exact dichotomy can be successful in an above-average film, but Sacrilege doesn’t have the same resources (namely time & money) to pull that trick off. What’s left, then, are a few decent horror spooks & gags that work well enough in isolation, but do little to salvage the picture at large. It’s honestly impressive that productions this cheap ever manage to accomplish more than that.
A group of (very unconvincing) college freshmen in their early 20s (?) find themselves on the wrong end of a demonic possession when the purchase a haunted music box from a yard sale. The ghost of a little girl who “lives” in the box torments their humble rental home by forcing each too-old-for-this-shit roommate to commit suicide one by one until they’re all dead or the curse is lifted, whichever comes first. There’s also an Insidious/The Conjuring-style paranormal investigative team that invades their space in an attempt to save the day, with mixed results. There isn’t enough gore or camp in Sacrilege to cover up the blemishes of its limited production values. This is wholly sincere digital schlock, not the winking live action cartoon of a WolfCop or Zombeavers. Because of that tonal restraint and the blatant deficiencies in authentic dialogue, human behavior can come across as amusingly odd in the film. Characters vocally reminding each other that they are college students after all or angrily insulting the very notion of yard sales at top volume convey the feeling of a horror script produced by a computer algorithm or a space alien. Still, Sacrilege manages to pack a fairly thin demonic possession premise with plenty of genre-specific hallmarks you’re not used to seeing in a single picture: vampire bites, creepy children, forced suicide, paranormal investigation, Catholic iconography, ghosts, exorcism, found footage, jump scares, and so on. The craft doesn’t often match the enthusiasm, but there’s a genuine love of horror necessary to assemble that kind of hodgepodge, a sentiment I appreciate.
There are two major studio horror releases from 2017 Sacrilege happens to superficially resemble: Wish Upon & Polaroid. I can’t fault the film for suffering the lower financial rung of a parallel-thinking happenstance, so my impulse is to blame the more expensive flicks for not applying their resources to a more distinctive idea. I also can’t really attack Sacrilege for its misleading cover art that promises the monstrous threat of demonic nuns who never appear or the awkwardness of its sub-professional dramatic performances; most of its faults seem like circumstances of its budget. Instead, I’ll say this: the parts of the movie where the effort feels focused & concentrated (namely the set pieces & scare gags) can often forgive the shortcomings of the much less intensely crafted dramatic & character-based beats. Drone shots & time elapse montage build tension released in moments where a bloody, demonic hand will reach out from within the evil music box to hover at the back of a character’s neck. Images in the dark are misinterpreted & reconfigured to throw off the audience’s sense of reality in the quiet lull before a jump scare. I don’t have it in me to tear down Sacrilege as viciously as the reception I’ve seen elsewhere online, because its (demonically possessed) heart is in the right place in that way. It’s just a shame these scare gags couldn’t be applied to a better-written, better-funded screenplay.
Movie night (which is, like, three nights a week) in the Boomer/Boomer’s Roommate household can be a chore sometimes. We are very decisive people when it comes to where and what we want to eat, who is and is not welcome in our apartment, and which Simpsons seasons are worth a damn. Of late, however, we’ve had to make a hard and fast rule: if we want to watch a movie, we have 10 minutes to browse Netflix (et al) and make a decision; if we can’t choose by the end of that time period, we give up and watch either one of our staple programs (The Simpsons, The Soup, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, or Next Gen) or whatever TV show we’re currently working our way through (it’s Caprica at the moment, for those of you who are curious, since we binged Battlestar after the election for obvious reasons and needed a break afterward). His particular idiosyncratic desires also make it a challenge, albeit a fun one. Case in point: last night, I wanted to watch a horror comedy along the lines of Housebound (which we both found delightful), but he wanted something that specifically had the twitchy horror effects from The Ring or The Grudge, but not an actual J Horror flick. That’s an impossible thing to search for, but our interest in The Grudge did prompt Netflix to suggest The Chosen, which was more impressive and interesting (and funny, much to my delight) than expected, especially given its nondescript name.
The film follows nineteen year old Cameron, played by distractingly good-looking uberbabe Kian Lawley, who is apparently a YouTube star of some kind, although I’ve never heard of him before (maybe I’m just out of touch)*. He has an odd family situation: he and his mother Eliza (Elizabeth Keener, sister of Catherine) live with her parents. Grandpa is in a persistent vegetative state, and Nanny is in a persistent state of pettiness. Also living in the house are Eliza’s brother Uncle Joey (Chris Gann) and Angie (Mykayla Sohn), Cameron’s niece and Eliza’s granddaughter. Angie’s mother Caitlin (Angelica Chitwood) has been exiled from the house by Eliza while she tries (with mixed success) to break free of her heroin habit, an echo of Eliza’s own alcoholism, although the older woman is twelve years sober.
While Eliza is out of town on a work retreat, Cameron sneaks Angie out of the house for a visit to her mother’s apartment. When he hears thrashing, the cries of a baby, and screaming next door, he investigates over Caitlin’s protests. He discovers that Caitlin’s next-door neighbor Sabrina (Melissa Navia) is in the process of attempting to kill her ex-husband, who escapes, only for the crying baby to be nowhere in sight and Angie to now suddenly appear to be physically ill and behaving strangely. As apparently supernatural evil seems to begin swirling around Angie, Cameron has to try and figure out how to stop the monster that is coming for Angie before it’s too late.
The critical consensus surrounding this film is overwhelmingly negative; there’s not a single review on IMDb that passes the five (out of ten) star mark, and it’s sitting at a 30% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes (there are no professional critic reviews, until this one, I guess, for a certain definition of “professional”). I can admit that I certainly see why the masses would be turned off by the film; it’s not very good from a lot of objective viewpoints. I remarked to my roommate during the film that I found Lawley to be a surprisingly good actor for an “unknown” his age (his YouTube stardom was only revealed to me when I looked up the Wikipedia article for the movie after our viewing), and he carries a lot of the film with his performance. Knowledge of his rise as an internet celebrity(?) may have colored the perception of his acting ability for others, but I don’t feel the need to rescind or attenuate or revise my praise for him after the fact.
Non-subjective negatives do abound, however. The special effects vary wildly in quality, from creepy subtlety in smoke and shadow to terrible-looking CGI demons that would look more at home in an Asylum/Syfy original co-production. There’s even a sequence in which Caitlin looks at a picture of infant twins that turn out to be Angie and her now-dead brother Jordan; the CGI on the photograph itself is terrible, and it only gets worse when Caitlin sheds a tear on the image and smudges it while trying to wipe the photo off. Maybe the assumption is that the target audience doesn’t know how physical photographs work (God help us all), but regardless of whether it does (or doesn’t) make sense logically, it’s still just awful to look at.
Other than that, the film’s first big narrative problem comes when Cameron has to revisit Sabrina once Angie starts acting strangely. She reveals all of the details about the movie’s supernatural antagonist, Lilith (yeah, that Lilith). There’s a right way and a wrong way to do exposition scenes, and this one is definitely on the far end of the scale from Raiders or Chinatown, erring very close to poor Frances Conroy’s infodump scene from Catwoman. At the very least, it serves its purpose and then moves along from there, if you can get past the cringe. Cameron’s final scene is also undercut by some notably bad acting, especially in comparison to the impressive subtlety he brought to other scenes; given that he’s supposed to be delivering a badass one-liner to the aforementioned bad CGI monster, it makes sense that a first-time actor would have some trouble pulling it off.
But enough about the negatives! It’s understandable that a film that turns its protagonists into, essentially serial killers (don’t overthink it; it’s not Psycho) wouldn’t have able to land every joke, but the roommate and I were both taken aback and cracked up when some out-of-context characters found their way into the film to stir up even more chaos. We also got a kick out of a slapstick scene of Cameron and his sister dragging a body and hitting every piece of furniture in the house with it, which was a refreshing moment of levity in a pretty dark flick. We also quite enjoyed some of the surprise twists; it’s rare that a movie manages to fool both of us, but this one did more than once.
It’s not going to be every viewer’s cup of tea, and I’d go so far as to say that it may deserve its poor critical score from an objective standpoint. But there’s too much that works in this film for me to give it a poor score. The film dives in immediately and throws the viewer into the unusual family situation with no belabored exposition, it contains too many interesting and funny characters to ignore, and it has surprises galore, including a very realistic depiction of addict behavior, surprises about bloodlines, and a likable lead that you find yourself rooting for even as his behavior becomes more erratic and unhinged. You take the good, you take the bad, you take them both, and there you have this movie. Give it a chance.
*I did check out Lawley’s YouTube channel after watching the movie. It’s terrible; it’s one of those “my buddy and I have a bajillion viewers for no discernible reason, we answer questions and laugh and such” channels. If you want a recommendation for what to watch instead, my favorite channels to which I subscribe are Red Letter Media (love me some Plinkett and Wheel of the Worst), Alison Pregler’s Movie Nights (Baywatching is a delight to me in these dark times), Every Frame a Painting for your film language critical needs, Pop Culture Detective, and Nerd Writer (even though I hate that “tired but overly emotionally invested adjunct” voice that he sometimes uses at the end of his video essays). Of course, the be-all end-all of YouTube brilliance is Lindsay Ellis, who has been an influence on me for years now and who never ceases to be brilliant. She’s basically doing a free class on the different disciplines of film theory through the lens of Michael Bay’s oeuvre right now, and it is a gift.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond
The first ten minutes of Don’t Kill It promise a wonderfully executed modern B-picture: a return to form from former action star Dolph Lundgren and a pointedly satirical takedown of modern Southern Conservativism by way of gory supernatural violence. Unfortunately, that film never arrives. Director Mike Mendez, who was also responsible for the moderately entertaining but gloriously titled Big Ass Spider!, seems to be far too comfortable with settling into an easy groove of direct-to-VOD schlock. Don’t Kill It distinguishes itself from made-for-SyFy dreck only through the R-rating freedom of its gore, tits, and cusses. Mendez directs Lundgren as a world-weary demon hunter who has to save a small Mississippi town from a demon that hops from body to body as its human hosts are destroyed (hence the title). Along the way, he stumbles into what’s very nearly a brilliant social satire on a Get Out-level of gleeful transgression, seemingly entirely on accident. That’s why it’s a huge letdown, then, that any and all satirical elements fade into distant memories and the movie plays like It Follows by way of Walker Texas Ranger (yet not nearly as fun as that combination sounds).
Don’t Kill It opens with its best ideas on its sleeve. A camo-wearing white man hunts deer in the Mississippi woods where he’s possessed by a mysterious demonic force. With pitch black eyes and a hellish scream he returns from his hunting trip to murder his entire family with a shotgun. When he’s eventually taken down the demon that possesses him jumps to the body of another white man, who in turn kills a black family that lives nearby. Mendez establishes a modern nightmare in this way, one where Southern Conservative White Men are literal demons who must be stopped at all costs. The man tasked with stopping them, the hilariously named Jebediah Woodley (Lundgren) is introduced pounding liquor in a dive bar where a nearby bro won’t take “No.” for an answer from a young woman. Woodley kicks the jerk’s ass, teaches him the meaning of the word “consent,” and then follows the girl home himself for a sexual rendezvous. She rides him like a mechanical bull in a Refn-like, neon-lit bedroom until he hallucinates that their encounter was a demonic, evil exchange and the whole ordeal devolves into a nightmare. It’s quite an opening.
The movie immediately tanks from there. A grotesquely macho punchline about sex work cheapens the “consent” exchange from the previous sequence. Woodley then gets wrapped up in convincing an FBI investigator that demons have been behind the recent string of small town murders and, because she’s a woman in a for-the-boys action horror, eventually seduces her with his old man masculinity (between commands to shut up and wait in the car). Similarly, the film itself gets wrapped up in its own mythology and largely forgets what initially made it interesting. The rules of the demon’s body-hopping antics as well as unnecessary details about angels & alternate dimensions dilute the initial impact of the film’s political satire. The idea of scary white men snapping and going on killing sprees is somewhat echoed in later sequences, like when a Tea Party-type town hall meeting devolves into a chaotic bloodbath or when a man is impaled on taxidermy deer antlers. The movie just never calcifies or weaponizes that mode of satire in any significant way. It seems much more concerned with making Dolph Lundgren: Demon Hunter appear to be a late-in-life badass. I know the actor has his dedicated fans, but his persona is never big enough here to justify that loss of interest in the initial conceit. It’s a letdown.
If you’re only looking to Don’t Kill It for a light mood and moments of over the top violence, it delivers in a lot of ways VOD cheapies tend not to. Bodies are slashed, shot, exploded, and boiled as the It Follows-style demon hops from host to host. The problem is that the stretches between those bursts of violence are painfully dull when they really don’t have to be. Don’t Kill It sets itself up with a brilliant central metaphor and sense of purpose in its first few scenes, only to immediately drop them to make room for more Dolph Lundgren hero worship and unnecessary world-building. It’s an okay, goofy-enough film that feels like it was one or two rewrites away from being something truly great.
I’m not sure it’s always necessary for a horror film to justify the surface pleasures of its scares & thrills by linking them to a dramatic metaphor. However, it can be frustrating when one comes close to achieving that dynamic without fully following through. The recent British ghost story Don’t Knock Twice enters into the modern tradition of horror flicks with clear metaphors specifically centering on the anxieties of motherhood: The Babadook, Goodnight Mommy, most of XX, We Need to Talk About Kevin, etc. The frustrating thing is that it nearly succeeds in joining those incredible ranks with an entirely new angle on motherhood terror its peers had not yet represented, but falls just short of hitting that target. Ultimately, its demonic scares & familial drama hang separately in the spooky air, never joining forces to drive home its significance as an individual work. That kind if strength in metaphor is not entirely necessary for a modern horror film to feel worthwhile, but without it Don’t Knock Twice struggles to feel substantial in any memorable way.
The always welcome Katee Sackhoff (Oculus, Battlestar Galactica) stars as an American sculptor and recovering drug addict who struggles to reconnect with her teenage daughter (Sing Street‘s Lucy “Riddle of the Model” Boynton) who she gave up for adoption in the British foster system. The daughter is reluctant for obvious reasons to welcome her mother, now essentially a stranger, back into her life, but finds herself in dire need of shelter from a supernatural threat. She & a fellow teen disturb a small, haunted shack near an interstate overpass where a witch’s ghost was rumored to live, knocking on the door twice (hence the title) after being told there would be urban legend-style consequences. The legend turns out to be exactly true and the teen girl finds herself haunted by a demonic witch that follows her from home to home to avenge the transgression. The monster itself (an aged, lanky, inhuman variation on the little girl from The Ring) and the film’s flashy over the top camera work make for plenty of effectively creepy moments: the witch climbing out of a kitchen sink, s ghost slitting its own throat, an Unfriended-style murder witnessed on Skype. The question of what the monster represents and how its terror communicates with the ex-addict mother’s suddenly possessive love for her estranged daughter, however, is much less effective.
There’s a distinct, nightmarish terror in this film’s teen victim being told that her parent, who has hurt her before, is now completely rehabilitated & worthy of trusting forgiveness. The vulnerability of welcoming that parent back into her life and not having her reservations for that forgiveness being taken seriously is not unlike being haunted by a literal ghost from the past that no one but she believes exists. If the demonic witch ghost that causes havoc in the film is supposed to somehow represent the mother’s past as an addict, however, Don’t Knock Twice doesn’t do much to help the metaphor along. A couple major plot twists that bring in murder mystery dynamics outside that central mother-daughter relationship suggest a mixed metaphor where the ghost also represents some kind of abusive evil in the foster system or, more likely yet, represents nothing specific at all. It’s not at all fair to burden Don’t Knock Twice with the expectation of a strong metaphor to support the presence of its demon witch antagonist, but the film comes too close to saying something freshly insightful about parental anxiety & the cycles of addiction not often depicted in horror cinema for the frustration in the shortcomings of its metaphorical potential to be ignored. When that aspect of its story doesn’t land, there’s not much left of its familial drama to hold onto and the film ultimately plays like a more visually striking version of mainstream horror titles like Lights Out & The Darkness. There’s nothing especially wrong with that distinction, but Don’t Knock Twice comes very close to being much greater than that limited ambition suggests.