Thursday, May 15, 2014

Chastity Bites - Or, The Young Feminist's Guide to Losing Your Virginity

I am so digging the influx of retro-style posters these days.
What can I say about Chastity Bites? Well, first off: any movie that gives old horror tropes a satirical bent has my attention. But more importantly: any movie that has characters reciting Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex like it’s a Shakespeare sonnet has my heart. Chastity Bites is self-aware horror comedy at, if not its best, then its most fun.

The plot centers on Leah Ratliff, a teenager and aspiring investigative journalist looking for a big story that will land her a college scholarship. She finds her story when an abstinence educator named Liz Batho arrives at Leah’s high school and forms the “Virginity Action Group” – a.k.a. “V.A.G.” Unsurprisingly to anyone who knows their history, Liz Batho turns out to be Countess Elizabeth Bathory, the murderess who killed hundreds of girls in the 1600s, supposedly to bathe in virgin blood and retain her youthful good looks. Ms. Batho’s scheme is to get as many young girls as possible to join V.A.G., thus allowing her access to an endless supply of virgins to slaughter.

It’s a clever conceit, and it seems everyone involved had a lot of fun with it. While some of the side characters are a bit too hammy – the housewives and the clique of “mean girls” vacillate between on-point, acerbic irony and exaggerated caricature – the leads are a perfect mélange of charming, witty, and entertaining. Allison Scagliotti as Leah in particular is charismatic as the lead, an earnest feminist who is both amusingly self-serious and admirably tenacious. She doesn’t for a moment buy Ms. Batho’s act, and quickly pegs her club as a “rightwing nutjob cult.”

But Ms. Batho is confident and, more importantly, beautiful, and she quickly has most of the town firmly in her clutches. Leah’s best friend, Katherine, is Leah’s prime foil; sweet but cursed with low self-esteem, Katherine easily gives in to the allure of Ms. Batho and everything she appears to represent. Thus, Leah is forced to get involved not just for the sake of her story, but for the sake of her loved ones.

In traditional horror movies, the heroine has to save herself for marriage in order to save herself from death, but the opposite is the case in Chastity Bites. Sure, it’s not the first time we’ve seen that old saw turned on its head – Scream’s Sydney Prescott was the original unchaste final girl, and it’s happened more than once since – but never has it been so blatantly, hilariously spelled out for us. It’s that brazen grin, rather than a sly smile, that makes Chastity Bites such a pleasure to watch.

Final Rating:

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Sacrament - Or, I'll Gladly Join The Cult Of Ti West

I’ve loved Ti West ever since I stumbled upon The House of the Devil on Netflix one lonely night. I later saw The Innkeepers and loved it even more, and an obsession set in. So when I heard that West had a new movie coming out, and that it involved a cult, I was all in, ready for more of West’s signature slow-burn horror. What’s more, the film is populated with some of my favorite actors from You’re Next (in which West made a memorable appearance as well) – AJ Bowen, Joe Swanberg, and Amy Seimetz are all present. Basically, I would kill to be a part of that circle of collaborators.

The Sacrament involves three documentary filmmakers (yes, lord help us, it’s found footage… but more on that later) – Jake, Sam, and Patrick – who travel to an undisclosed location in search of the sister of one of the filmmakers, who has been living in a self-described “heaven on Earth” …known to most normal people as a cult. Maybe a commune if you’re being polite.

From the outset, the three main characters have their hackles raised, and with good reason. First of all, Patrick’s sister, Caroline, is a fresh-out-of-rehab recovering drug addict; she’s not exactly known for being a paragon of sound judgment. Second, when the three filmmakers arrive at the commune, known as “Eden Parish,” they’re met by several hostile men guarding the parish gates with machine guns – but why? The question is evaded by Caroline, who has an unwaveringly, if suspiciously defensive, sunny demeanor. She insists that everything is fine, and that the guns are merely a precaution – though against what, we don’t know.

Things only get weirder and more sinister from there, especially once the founder of Eden Parish, known only as “Father,” enters the picture. It’s clear early on where all of this is headed (but I won’t spoil it for those of you who don’t pick up on the clues right away), but that doesn’t make the sense of dread surrounding the characters any less palpable.

As per usual, Ti West does a good job of setting up a foreboding situation and carrying that feeling through until the very end. The film moved a little quickly for my taste – we’re seeing all of the events of Eden Parish unfold firmly from an outsiders’ perspective, and thus it doesn’t delve into the motives or mindsets of the parishioners themselves. Without that inside perspective, the events of the film seemed a bit confused and hurried. Or maybe I was just expecting the same creeping, gnawingly gradual buildup as West’s other films. It’s largely absent here, aside from having a good idea from the beginning that something terrible is coming, and relies on more typical horror tropes (such as an eerie mute girl whose intermittent appearances grow increasingly disturbing). Of course, the brisker pace of The Sacrament could very well appeal to those who found West’s earlier films boring or too slow.

Then there’s the found footage aspect. Argh. I’ve said it time and again, but I really wish this would stop being The Thing in horror. While the found footage format doesn’t necessarily hamper the storytelling of the movie, I think it would have been better off without it. You can still give a film a found footage “feel” without actually restricting yourself to one or two characters’ POV. Furthermore, The Sacrament lives in a land somewhere between the naturalism of found footage and the formalness of traditional cinema. There are moments when the characters’ lines seem entirely too scripted, and events that seem a little too stilted or contrived, and it doesn’t quite fit with the format. As always, I found myself questioning the motives of the man carrying the camera at the end of the movie. There’s also an unexplained few seconds where the movie is not in found footage, which bothers me, as it’s literally the only moment we don’t see from the characters’ cameras.

All that being said, the ending delivers a serious punch of restrained, mind-fuckingly real horror. It’s not my favorite Ti West film, but it’s a good movie nonetheless.

Final rating (out of 5):

Friday, May 9, 2014

Revisiting Sleepaway Camp, Angela, and That Scary Stare

Be warned: seeing as this movie is over thirty years old, spoilers abound in this post.

Oh, man, you guys. Sleepaway Camp. As far as schlocky old horror movies go, this is one of my favorites of all time. You can have Friday the 13th; Sleepaway Camp is my pick for best summer camp horror movie ever, because it goes beyond the run of the mill cheesy old slasher. It makes Friday the 13th look like The Exorcist in comparison. Frankly, it’s in a league all its own.

In case you’re unaware, Sleepaway Camp centers on Angela and her cousin Ricky as they head off to – you guessed it – summer camp. Angela’s only character trait is having a blank stare that is sometimes eerily vacant and sometimes just bad child-acting.

Ricky spends 90% of the time ignoring her, and 10% of the time yelling expletives at anyone who’s mean to Angela. He’s kind of a nice cousin, I guess. Anyway, they go to camp and Angela is immediately nearly molested by the camp cook. As it turns out, though, this is the most sexually liberal summer camp ever – another young girl is willingly dating the 70-year-old camp director, for example – so no one cares. Well, one person does… and that person starts killing the bejeezus out of everyone in the most ridiculous, not to mention logically non-fatal, ways possible.

I had the pleasure of watching this piece of cinema greatness the other day with my fiancé, Corey, who had never seen it before. It was brilliant – like watching it with virgin eyes again, reliving all the old questions. Questions like…

Why is Angela’s aunt played by a terrifying drag queen?

At what magical moment in time were crop tops and daisy dukes the go-to ensemble for cool guys and bullies?

Seriously, just soak it in…

The girl with an actual horse’s tail glued to her head is the hottest girl at camp?

Why did this counselor feel the need to spell the name “Meg”?

Why didn’t this guy just not grab the vat of boiling water as he fell the two feet to his not-at-all-inevitable death?
(You did this to yourself, Molesting Cook.)

And since when do bee stings do this, even to people with the most serious of bee allergies?

Is rape-by-lit-curling iron the worst way to die in all of history?
Yes. The answer is yes.

All of that being said, it did strike me that there are a few genuinely frightening moments in this movie – the aforementioned curling iron incident comes to mind. All the sexual subtext (even if it is so blatant that it barely qualifies as “sub”). The big reveal at the end, too (FYI, Angela is actually her brother Peter, who everyone thought was dead); even though it’s bizarre and ridiculous to see Angela’s head suddenly attached to a man’s body (where was she hiding all those muscles under her t-shirt and gym shorts?), her expression and animalistic grunting are unsettling, to say the least. Angela’s gender confusion is, at its root, a disturbing thing, and watching her attempt to navigate a “normal, boy-girl” relationship is compelling.

…But mostly it’s just hilarious. Especially everyone else's reaction, which is literally just, "She's a boy?" and not, "OMG she's a MURDERER holding a decapitated HEAD."

And that's why this is my favorite summer camp movie.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Review: Mr. Jones

Sometimes I wander the aisles of Target, just searching for a random horror DVD with an intriguing cover that costs under $10 to buy blind. Most of the time, this turns out to be a huge waste of money (I’m looking at you, Bereavement; also all of those 8-movies-for-the-price-of-one packs, but that’s my own fault because obviously, right?). Every now and then, though, I end up with a movie that doesn’t make me completely regret my lack of impulse control. Mr. Jones is one such movie.

Note, however, that I said it doesn’t make me completely regret my lack of impulse control. That’s not to say Mr. Jones is a rousing success, nor is it to say that I wouldn’t buy it again if I had it to do over. But let me explain.

Mr. Jones is (mostly) found footage, which is a horror trend that I would dearly love to die right about now, yet continues to limp along year after year. I appreciate that the found footage format allows indie filmmakers on small budgets to get into the horror game – The Blair Witch Project was innovative in its time, and the first Paranormal Activity was, after all, pretty good. Once the big studios caught on, however, the slow and painful deterioration of the style had already begun. Now we have absolute trash like Devil’s Due, and a fifth (or is it sixth?) entry into the Paranormal Activity series in the works – movies that do nothing to advance or improve the genre, but merely follow the same exact path we’ve tread over and over again.

Ranting aside, though, I think it still can be an okay format for smaller budget movies. (Though maybe try to be a little creative and come up with something new, folks. Indie artists, this is your call to action!) So yeah. Mr. Jones doesn’t do a terrible job of utilizing the style, mostly because the premise is so neat. A photographer and a documentarian both suffering from artistic malaise, rent a cabin in the woods for a year in order to work on revitalizing their art. (Though it must be said that heading out to the middle of nowhere in order to make a documentary, when you have no idea what said doc is about, seems like kind of a dumb idea.) Scott is the documentarian who suffers from depression, and Penny is his photographer girlfriend.

Luckily, the movie doesn’t linger on the setup for too long, and within the first few minutes the really interesting bit of the story crops up: while Scott is filming a rambling segment of himself talking about weaning himself off his pills (great idea), a cloaked figure walks into the background and steals Scott’s camera bag. Scott and Penny follow the figure back to a house, where they discover a bunch of sinister-looking (and very cool) sculptures. Penny immediately recognizes the pieces as the work of an enigmatic and reclusive artist known only as “Mr. Jones.” In fact, the identity of the artist has never been discovered by anyone, until right now. Suddenly, Scott has the perfect documentary subject… and Penny plans on making a coffee table book or something.

The plot moves along swiftly from there, and although the characters are constantly doing borderline idiotic things, it stays interesting. We learn more about Mr. Jones as Scott interviews sources in the art world and Penny stays at the cabin to do a bit more firsthand exploring. It all has a very Lovecraftian vibe that I completely dug, and I found myself enthralled by the fictional Mr. Jones and wishing he were real (I mean, sort of).

I couldn't choose just one poster... so I picked both.
Unfortunately, the movie completely falls apart in the last third. Completely. Reality begins to blur with a sort of dream world, which I suppose the filmmakers tried to make ambiguous with that whole bit about Scott weaning himself off pills for an undisclosed mental illness. It just doesn’t work, though. It seems pretty clear what’s happening, but sadly, it’s all so choppy and dull that it’s impossible to care. Scott wanders aimlessly in this alternate reality for far too long, while clichéd “scary” imagery pops up every now and then. There’s nothing below the surface, nothing the imagery represents, and so it comes off as hackneyed and pointless.

Strangely, the point of view also shifts out of found footage during the entire dream/alternate reality sequence. Normally I wouldn’t be opposed, as I think found footage films tend to be far too rigid in attempting to maintain “realism,” and almost always end up ultimately sacrificing it in the inevitable third act question, “Why is he still holding that stupid camera?” But in this case, it’s just one more jarring thing that takes you out of the story.

The ending manages to not be entirely unsatisfying. The film does its best to wrap everything up, and the goodwill the story built with me in the first act was enough not to write Mr. Jones off as a failure. I’m willing to give the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt and say that perhaps this was their first experimental attempt at a few different methods of storytelling, even while another part of me believes they just didn’t think this whole story through. I wish Mr. Jones had the follow-through to be as good as its premise, but I still appreciate the rather daring effort.

Final Rating (out of 5):