The Meg (2018)

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[To be read with Australian accent]

“That’s not a shark. (pause) Now that’s a shark!”

You win. The Meg stars the biggest shark in sea monster cinema history, so it’s got that going for it. There’s also oodles of action heroics by the reliably shirtless Jason Stathem, a laconic swab with the gumption to save a darling little Pekinese dog from a watery grave right before the end credits.

This is hardly a spoiler. The titular apex predator is indeed a massive beast, but it wreaks precious little carnage on the civilian population. The body count is supplied principally by members of an underwater research station bankrolled by slacker billionaire Morris, played by Rainn Wilson.

His gonzo turn is a standout among a cast that includes such standard plug-and-play characters as a sassy black scientist (Page Kennedy) who sure as hell can’t swim and never signed up for any of this shit.

Stathem is Jonas Taylor, a hard-drinking rescue diver still haunted by a few lives lost during a risky mission several years before. In need of redemption, Taylor returns to the briny deep when his ex-wife Lori (Jessica MacNamee), is marooned and besieged by a prehistoric killing machine at the most remote spot on the ocean floor.

Rather than rekindle with the ex, Taylor is more or less thrown into the arms of Suyin (Bingbing Li), a fetching single mom marine biologist whom he obligingly rescues on several subsequent occasions. For sheer volume of last-second escapes, The Meg is up there with Raiders of the Lost Ark.

But it’s an earlier Steven Spielberg blockbuster that fans still venerate as Lord of the Deep in the giant critter genre. At that point in his career (1975), young Spielberg hadn’t become commodified as the ultimate family friendly filmmaker.

In Jaws, the dog disappears. Remember the kid on the beach throwing the stick to a black lab named Pippet? You see the dog swimming and then the stick washes up on the shore. Spielberg’s movie is both bloodier and scarier, even 40 years later. Current audience research indicates a missing dog won’t cut it with a 21st century crowd.

There is certainly nothing as hair-raising as Ben Gardner’s floating head in The Meg. Instead, it’s a serviceable CGI popcorn flick content to elicit a few gasps—rather than a chorus of screams.

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The Endless (2017)

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I was introduced to the writer-director duo of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead by way of Spring, an audacious rom-mon-com reviewed right here on this very site. I was smitten by the look and feel of the movie, a charmingly low-budget love story with a monstrous subplot. So natch I was jazzed to check out the latest Benson-Moorhead joint, The Endless, a cult film starring the plucky filmmakers themselves!

Set in the roles of siblings Justin (Benson) and Aaron (Moorhead—kudos for easy to remember character names!) The Endless recounts the brothers’ quest to unravel the mystery surrounding the hippie-dippy UFO cult they escaped years before.

Elder brother Justin, the skeptic and the instigator of their earlier flight, insists that the eventual goal of the group was suicide. Aaron, the sensitive brother, wants to know more about Camp Arcadia, the commune where they grew up. Road trip!

Not only is the commune intact, it’s turning a profit as a craft brewery! Justin and Aaron are welcomed with open arms by humble guru Hal (Tate Ellington) and beguiling beauty Anna (Callie Hernandez), and invited to crash as long as they want.

Aaron is taken with the communal vibe, healthy food, clean air, and Anna (not necessarily in that order). Justin, on the other hand, can’t shake the feeling that there’s a rotten core to this paradisiacal apple. He is proved correct and the boys come face to face with dreadful evidence of an eldritch entity that rules the roost.

This is cosmic horror done right, where the story takes prominence over CGI buffoonery. Benson and Moorhead once again combine fearless camerawork with an outré narrative that is compelling and provocative throughout.

See, in Camp Arcadia, immortality exists—and it kinda sucks. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it’s not much different than being a self-aware character stuck replaying the same scene for eternity. On the positive tip, you have a long time to figure out an escape plan. And that, dear friends, is our life’s work.

 

 

Giant From The Unknown (1958)

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He’s husky, but I wouldn’t call him a giant.

It’s pretty obvious truth in advertising laws don’t apply to monster movies made in the 1950s. Former boxer Buddy Baer (uncle of Beverly Hillbillies‘ Jethro, Max Baer, Jr) stands about 6-7, and tips the scales at a solid 250, as the titular creature. Impressive measurements, but well short of beanstalk status.

Still, when he dons his conquistador clothes after waking up from a 500-year nap, the local citizens of a California mountain town wet their collective knickers.

Enter leading man geologist Wayne Brooks (Ed Kemmer), Professor Cleveland (Morris Ankrum), and Janet (Sally Fraser), the prof’s sassy daughter, who are soon on the case, at first searching for fossil evidence of a rogue band of Spanish soldiers that kicked around the vicinity centuries before, led by a large inarticulate fellow called Vargas.

After about 35 minutes of zero action—other than Wayne and Janet’s awkward flirting—the trio deduces that Vargas (Baer), has shaken off the effects of suspended animation after being struck by lightning, and has slaughtered a bunch of nearby livestock (woke up hungry, I guess), sending area rubes into a panic.

The movie is over in 80 minutes, leading to thoughts that the whole thing might have been a diet-inspired hallucination. Highlights include Vargas throwing small rocks at his pursuers, a midnight make-out sash with Wayne and Janet, and doomed secondary characters named Charlie Brown and Injun Joe who fall victim to the massive Spaniard’s rampage.

Giant From The Unknown is an actual relic, a funny ol’ fly in amber from Tuesday afternoon matinees on Channel 12, when harried housewives had a moment to drain a fast pitcher of martinis before returning to domestic servitude.

Note to Joel: It’s also a prime candidate for Season 12 of Mystery Science Theater. Just sayin’.

 

 

Mohawk (2017)

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My tri-corner hat is off to Mohawk, a harrowing revenge tale rooted in a particularly dark corner of American history, that comes out with guns blazing and blood flowing.

This is one of those gutsy, low-budget efforts that should earn director and co-writer Ted Geoghegan (We Are Still Here) a long-term contract to do whatever the hell he wants. His filmic instincts consistently hit their marks, allowing him to create vivid, indelible tableaus out of the rawest materials.

During the waning days of the War of 1812, a trio of “outlaws” are pursued deep into the forest primeval of upstate New York by a vicious posse of American soldiers, seeking vengeance for the sneak-attack killing of several members of their company.

As Mohawk warriors Oak (Kaniehtiio Horn) and Calvin (Justin Rain), along with their friend, British agent Joshua Pinsmail (Eamon Farron), flee further into uncharted Mohawk territory, the pot really boils for both hunter and hunted, leading to a showdown best described as otherworldly.

Like Michael Winner’s Chato’s Land (1972), which also features a ruthless posse chasing an American Indian (Charles Bronson, no less), it’s the white guys in charge who prove to be the real savages, even as the reluctant grunts quake in fear at the thought of being captured and tortured by natives.

Led by the unbending Colonel Hezekiah Holt (Ezra Buzzington) and his froggy voiced scout Sherwood Beal (Robert Longstreet, wearing an outlandish set of Antiques Roadshow spectacles), the company, including massive WWE wrestler Luke Harper, inevitably shrinks down to the last man, as Oak becomes an avenger following a seemingly divine encounter.

The ironic subtext about the dangers of immigration is on-point timely, and shouldn’t be lost amongst the deft brutality and gripping vistas. These foreign invaders (a.k.a. Americans) are indeed a deplorable bunch, who think nothing of eradicating entire societies in its lust for land, money, and revenge.

 

The Bye Bye Man (2017)

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Oh bloody hell, it’s another one of those infernal boogeymen that insists on crashing the party whenever some poor slob mentions their moniker. This incarnation is so sensitive that he’ll turn your life to sewage if you so much as think it.

Elliott (Doug Smith), his girlfriend Sasha (Cressida Bonas), and John (Lucien Laviscount) are a trio of uninteresting Wisconsin college students who forgo the dorm experience in favor of renting a dilapidated old brick mansion that they restore to former grandeur in nothing flat. At the inaugural housewarming beer blast, a little girl finds an old coin in an upstairs bedroom, an impromptu seance occurs, and the next thing you know, Elliott yodels the name of the titular evil spirit, bringing ruination to one and all.

The Bye Bye Man has a few things going for it: Robert Kurtzman’s makeup effects are ghastly good, and name actors Faye Dunaway and Carrie-Ann Moss stop by for a cup of coffee. Sadly, a few touches of professional acting and groovy gore only serve to make the rest of the movie look rather anemic.

Director Stacy Title can’t summon any genuine frights out of Jonathan Penner’s screenplay (based on a story by Robert Damon Schneck), a hodgepodge of convoluted plot points and cookie-cutter cliches that amount to little more than a bargain-brand Candyman. Adequate genre entertainment, but just barely.

Editor’s Note: A game that requires participants to drink bourbon whenever the phrase “Don’t think it/don’t say it” appears, would help to pass the time.

 

Don’t Breathe (2016)

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There’s much to admire about Don’t Breathe, a nasty, audacious thriller directed and co-written by Fede Alvarez and released by Sam Raimi’s Ghost House Pictures. The technical finesse demonstrated throughout adds considerable impact and Raimi-esque style to the action, which unfortunately becomes increasingly preposterous under the weight of too many plot points.

Rocky (Jane Levy) is a hardworking single-mom burglar with dreams of relocating to sunny California from her blighted hometown of Detroit (actually filmed in Hungary—way to save money, team!). She and her coworkers Alex (Dylan Minnette) and Money (Daniel Zovatto) tumble onto a caper that looks like a piece of cake: bust into a blind man’s pad and steal a pile of cash that is supposedly on the premises, the result of a huge settlement he reached after a rich girl killed his daughter in a car accident.

The little old blind man (a superb Stephen Lang) turns out to be a chiseled combat veteran with a Rottweiller and a labyrinthine basement full of dangerous secrets, and the bad-ass burglars are soon trapped in a dark house with an even badder-ass “victim.”

The twists and turns that ensue range from deft and effective to downright ludicrous. If Alvarez didn’t feel the need to pad the script with unnecessary dramatic tropes (dead daughter, bad mother memories, male suitor rivalry, pregnancy), he might have had a lean, mean survival flick in the tradition of John Carpenter or Wes Craven. To his credit, he almost pulls it off.

The contrast between the lithe tracking shots of abandoned neighborhoods being slowly retaken by nature, to the tightly focused and creeping claustrophobia of the blind man’s lair is skillfully rendered, and Alvarez earns bonus points for keeping tensions taut.

What really detracts from those tensions is the director’s penchant for telegraphing every development well before it happens with a barrage of cutaways to objects that will play a significant role further down the line.

It’s an annoyingly condescending move designed to eliminate any obligation on the viewer’s part to pay attention. Alvarez cheerfully introduces us to a hammer, a piece of glass, a crowbar, a remote, a couple pairs of shoes, and a pistol hidden under a mattress just so we aren’t surprised when they reappear later. Raimi can get away with this chicanery in his own movies, but here it falls flat and goes splat.

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Man Vs (2015)

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Back in the days before cable television released the kraken, the three major networks made their own budget-minded movies that were broadcast on different nights. “The ABC Friday Movie of the Week” or “The CBS Tuesday Movie” and such like.

Usually these were formulaic dramas for aging network stars like Rock Hudson and George Peppard, but occasionally something supernaturally cool would come down the pipe. Who can forget Kim Darby fighting off vicious pygmy horrors in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, or Bo Svenson on the trail of an abominable yeti at a ski resort in Snow Beast (recently remade)?

While they weren’t cinematic jewels, these small-screen frighteners succeeded in leaving a mark on impressional minds (like mine) that were allowed to stay up past bedtime  “just this once.” Filmmaker Adam Massey’s talents were honed by his work in television, and in this case, his instincts for tension and pace are solid as cement.

Massey (A Lobster Tale) has directed over 200 commercials, and he brings that lean efficiency to Man Vs, a harrowing sci-fi/horror/reality show hybrid that scores a lot of points from all over the court. There are some obvious flaws to be found, but the watchability here is very high, as we witness the disintegration of an arrogant TV show host who slowly tumbles to the fact that he’s not alone in the remote wilderness of Northern Ontario.

Leading man Chris Diamantopoulos is spot-on as Doug Woods, a sort-of Bear Grylls Lite forced into mortal combat with an extra-terrestrial predator while trying to film his own Mickey Mouse survival  series. His transition from control freak to just plain freaked-out is expertly rendered—the supposedly self-reliant Woods nearly wets his Patagonia rain pants when he realizes he’s the one being stalked for s’mores by a largely unseen enemy. “Why couldn’t we have picked the Bahamas or Santa Barbara?” he laments to his camera. 

Perhaps the enemy should have remained unseen. Among the previously mentioned flaws are the anticlimactic appearance of a nondescript CGI alien predator (complete with that familiar chittering) at around the one-hour mark. Also, the idea that a guy camping for five days could be the basis of a TV show simply isn’t credible. Dude! Haven’t you seen Alone or Naked & Afraid? The bar has been raised.

In spite of its shortcomings, Man Vs delivers an action-packed happy meal without unnecessary plot contrivances, not to mention a first-rate reluctant hero. Diamantopoulos plays Woods as a gutty, resourceful protagonist despite being obviously scared shitless by the severing of contact with civilization. 

Sidebar: I was entertaining a story idea about a survival show that turns supernatural after seeing a recent episode of Naked & Afraid that had the contestants cowering in their shelter because they thought they’d glimpsed a man in a ceremonial mask watching their camp. It was a genuinely unnerving moment, and the incident was never explained. It’s a juicy concept, and Massey got their first.   

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