ABCs of Death 2.5 (2016)

*. OK, the idea here is that instead of taking us through the alphabet from A to Z the producers sent out a cattle call for people to send in short (3-minute) films riffing on the letter M. They got over 500 entries and these are the top 26. So it’s not really ABCs of Death 3, but in most ways it is since the alphabet was only the loosest of structures, frivolously adhered to, in the first place.
*. On the other hand, the .5 gives you some indication that this is a collection of shorts that weren’t quite ready for prime time. These are the B-sides, the ones that didn’t make the final cut. At least that’s the way it was widely received, and I think on the evidence fairly.
*. Here’s the line-up.
*. Magnetic Tape: an ’80s flashback, with a video store clerk turning into a VHS Toxic Avenger who pulls a bunch of Mortal Kombat moves on some bad guys who want to take over his store. Loopy gore, and it gets things off to a decent start.
*. Maieusiophobia: bet that’s a word you didn’t know. It means fear of childbirth. Claymation body horror, but doesn’t have much to say, even with the twist ending.
*. Mailbox: just a gag, with the significance of the title only being revealed in the final shot. I know some people don’t like the way this ABCs leads off with the title of the piece, instead of using it at the end as a kind of punchline (as is done in The ABCs of Death and ABCs of Death 2). I see where this is coming from, but the story here plays the other way. You spend most of it wondering what the hell it has to do with a mailbox until the reveal at the end.
*. Make Believe: a couple of little girls discover a dying man in the forest and their fairy dust does nothing to improve his condition.
*. Malnutrition: ironic zombie vignette. At least it looks professionally done.
*. Manure: decent little sketch with a downtrodden farm boy building a shit golem. Actually one of the better entries.
*. Marauder: Mad Max on tricycles. But not as much fun as that may sound.
*. Mariachi: a death metal band lives up to its name when a Mexican trio crashes their show. Robert Rodriguez made a lot more out of just as little. This one’s not even interesting.
*. Marriage: some counselling employing Dr. Ragland’s psychoplasmics therapy comes to a messy end. Might have been interesting but it’s just too short to amount to much.
*. Martyr: I thought this one might actually have had a point to it, but I’m not sure what it was. There’s an obvious connection to various folk-horror motifs in the man being serially sacrificed so that the villagers may “live forever,” but we’re left hanging.
*. Matador: crude and predictable.
*. Meat: another take on the horror trope of “are you eating it, or is it eating you?” An interesting look, with bonus points for throwing in Beethoven’s Seventh (a piece of music that gets around). As with a lot of these vignettes though it seems incomplete.
*. Mermaid: just seemed like a dumb joke. Or fish story. And one that’s not well delivered.
*. Merry Christmas: Krampus is feeling depressed. Terrible.
*. Mess: a man who shits through his navel finally finds a lover who appreciates him for his special qualities, so he kills himself. Hm. Not well done.
*. Messiah: a human sacrifice goes awry. Another worthless one. About this time I was feeling ready to give up.
*. Mind Meld: a guy being controlled by another guy in the next room is forced to mutilate and kill himself. Just an excuse to show a collection of gore effects, which are nothing special.
*. Miracle: at last a good one. I guess the Miracle Box contains both dreams and nightmares. Creepy and effective.
*. Mobile: another simple gag playing on the disjunction between childhood innocence and evil (the theme of several episodes). Hardly worth bothering with.
*. Mom: another good-looking zombie short. Not all that engaging though, as it’s pretty clear where things are going.
*. Moonstruck: animation by way of paper cut-outs. Crude, but it looks interesting and works surprisingly well. One of the better entries.
*. Mormon Missionaries: a gag. The gag shorts are among the weakest here. Three minutes seems too long to wait for a lame punchline.
*. Mother: some decent CGI of a giant spider. But . . . is that all there is?
*. Muff: yet another gag, but this time I thought it worked. Well done and grimly obscene in a way that’s more typical of the shorts in the other ABCs movies.
*. Munging: according to the Urban Dictionary, which is one’s only recourse in such situations, “munging” refers to going down on a corpse while one’s (living) partner pushes on the corpse’s abdomen, expelling embalming fluid (among other things) into the necrophiliac’s mouth and face. The film here is a very literal depiction of this. Gross-out humour. Or if not humour, just gross.
*. Mutant: might as well end with another take on the apocalypse, this one brought about by bat-like alien creatures that burst out of people’s faces. Silly and chaotic.
*. In sum, it’s not as good as the first two, at least as far as I remember them, and that wasn’t a high bar to clear. A few decent entries (my favourites would be Manure, Miracle, and Moonstruck) with the rest displaying very little in the way of thought, or art. At best a diversion.

The Land Unknown (1957)

*. Apparently there really had been reports of a warm body of water found in Antarctica, which gives this film its jumping-off point. A group of researchers, and one lady journalist for the Oceanic Press (OP), head south to investigate. Their helicopter is hit by a Pterosaur and they descend into a volcanic cavern where dinosaurs still roam.
*. If it sounds like The Lost World, or even King Kong, don’t think that’s a coincidence. This is a genre with a history, one which runs up to the present day.
*. As with most such creature features the plot is just an excuse for Clifford Stine to do his thing and show us a bunch of monsters. Real lizards are enlarged by way of process shots with tiny people in the foreground. There is also a model water beast (or Elasmosaurus) and a guy walking around in a rubber suit playing a Tyrannosaurus. Yes, I looked up the names of all these beasts. Best of all, however, is a giant carnivorous plant that is always just about to grab Shirley Patterson.
*. Jack Arnold was originally slated to direct and it was going to be in colour with a decent budget. But there was a change of plans and it became a B-picture, or sub-B even, with Virgil W. Vogel at the helm.
*. There’s nothing much to say. I don’t think it even has any historical or cultural interest or significance. It’s the kind of thing I enjoyed when I was 8 years old, along with the Godzilla movies and other stuff the local networks ran on weekend afternoons.

Trollhunter (2010)

*. The Internet has played havoc with orthography, most notably with its habit for jamming words into compounds. A result, originally, of web addresses being “all one word.” This has led to knock-on effects in other media. So, for example, is the title of this movie Trollhunter, TrollHunter, Troll Hunter, or The Troll Hunter? I believe it was released in English-language markets under all four.
*. That’s an aside. As for the movie itself, it’s a basic shaky-cam horror/mockumentary that has a trio of Norwegian students following Hans (the Troll Hunter) around as he does his thing. Along the way Hans lets us in on lots of troll mythology, or natural science since trolls are real.
*. On the continuum from horror to comedy the needle here is pointing to the funny side. It’s hard to take the trolls that seriously, what with their giant noses and general sense of being shaggy toys that have wandered off the set of Sesame Street. There’s nothing really scary about them either. Even when trapped in a troll cave the greatest risk the crew run is being farted to death. Apparently trolls really stink even at the best of times.
*. In the one scene where someone is killed it hardly even registers. What was the cameraman’s name? In any event, he’s soon replaced, like one of the drummers for Spinal Tap. If anything I felt a bit sorry for the trolls by the end. Do you want to be on the side of a guy who hunts an endangered species for a living, as part of a super-secretive government agency (the TSS, or Troll Security Service)?
*. I’m not just being facetious here. As I say, this is mostly meant as a mockumentary and the bottom line is that it just isn’t funny enough. Maybe something was being lost in translation, but I didn’t think any of the jokes were working. The trolls farting in the cave? Not really. And why did Hans rig his vehicle out as a Deathmobile when the armour and spikes never have any role to play?
*. So without any scares and very few laughs I spent most of my time just gazing at the beautiful scenery. Which is also what I did while watching The Wave. As I said in my notes on that film, I really should visit Norway some day.
*. Still, I guess it’s a decent little movie. There was talk of a Hollywood remake but I don’t think there was enough here for them to bother. Writer-director André Øvredal would go on to do The Autopsy of Jane Doe, which was also pretty good but not a breakout. It feels like there’s something there though.

You Were Never Really Here (2017)

*. I’d read the Jonathan Ames novella You Were Never Really Here and so was looking forward to this one, especially given its critical reception. However, perhaps it’s because I had read the source material that I came away disappointed.
*. I liked the book, and director Lynne Ramsay starts off being faithful to its spare story of a depressed special operative. Ex-marine, ex-FBI, “Joe” is a violence machine whose specialty is retrieving girls who have been kidnapped and forced into prostitution. While I’m sure this sometimes happens, that there would be enough such work for Joe to support himself doing these kinds of jobs I took to be a bit of fantasy. I didn’t get the sense that Ames meant us to take it all too seriously, what with the stale business about the senator’s daughter and the infiltration of the big house at the end playing like a modern-day Chandler scenario.
*. What Ramsay does is make the story even sillier or more fantasy-like while at the same time taking it more seriously. Though I have to qualify that final judgment a bit. When Joe holds hands with the dying gangster and sings along with him on the floor (something not in the book) I’m sure it’s a joke. But the rest of it?
*. To take the most obvious difference, and one that relates to this question of how to read the movie, let’s look at the end. At the end of the book Votto is revealed to have sold his own daughter (named Lisa) out to the sadistic mob boss Novelli. Joe kills Votto, and is off to hunt down Novelli and Lisa at the end.
*. The movie throws this all to the wind in order to give us an absurd happy ending. Nina (the Lisa character) is now empowered, and kills her abductor herself by slitting his throat. Her father, meanwhile, is less culpable and kills himself. Joe arrives at the big house (the governor’s mansion now), but he no longer has anything to do so he just tears his shirt off and cries a bit before leaving with Nina.

*. You’ll recognize the resemblance to Taxi Driver, with the damaged anti-hero rescuing a waif from the clutches of prostitution. As announced in a pull quote stuck on the DVD box cover, this is “the Taxi Driver for a new century.” I wonder what century that would be. In Taxi Driver there’s no suggestion even for a minute that Travis and Iris are going to ride off together into the sunset. Does the dialogue and music at the end of this film indicate an ironic reading? Sure. But the fact remains that Joe rescues the girl (child model Ekaterina Samsonov) and they’re a couple now, an ending that forty years earlier would have been laughed at as ridiculous. Maybe you can get away with a thinly-disguised pedo-fantasy plot like this in France (think Léon: The Professional, and the standing ovation that this movie got at Cannes), or in a generic movie like The Equalizer (where I made the same observation with regard to the Taxi Driver resemblance), but not here.
*. And yet despite this sentimental transformation of an old story, You Were Never Really Here was praised for its gritty realism and toughness. I’m lost as to where this is coming from. I’ve nothing against Ramsay’s sense of style, but the choppy editing and discordant music (courtesy of the overrated Johnny Greenwood) don’t contribute to a vision of New York City that’s any grittier than that of Scorsese or Cassavetes. Indeed, it’s much less so. And the action sequences are presented as self-conscious set pieces, like the assault on the brothel done through security camera footage (which isn’t as clever as I think it wants us to think it is). You just feel scenes like this are meant to be admired without feeling their physicality.

*. Meanwhile, the border between reality and fantasy is always threatening to dissolve, as when Joe dumps his mother’s body in the lake. It’s very lyrically rendered, and when he goes underwater with her it isn’t at all realistic. Nor is it meant to be. We’ve gone over into fantasyland (where can that single column of light be coming from?). In the book, by the way, he chucks her body off the Palisades into the Hudson (“It was the most beautiful funeral he could think to give her.”).
*. That difference between book and movie — the latter being a sanitized version of the former — is an old one. Mad Magazine parodied it back in the 1970s (a source I’ve had occasion to mention before). More recently, however, the gap has been closing. That it is made wider in this movie is something I have a hard time explaining.
*. Perhaps Ramsay was just a little too much in love with her movie precedents for this story. She saw Taxi Driver in it, so she made it more like Taxi Driver. She introduces a bunch of stuff between Joe and his mother that invokes Psycho (“Mother! Look at what you did to the bathroom!”) but for no good reason that I can see. Such joking seems out of character for Joe.
*. Years ago the critic Leslie Halliwell complained of the arrogance of Stanley Kubrick in leaving any explanation of where the title of A Clockwork Orange came from out of his adaptation of the novel. Ramsay is guilty on the same count here. In the book the words “You were never really here” are spoken by an inner voice, or it might be Death, and addressed to Joe, mocking the emptiness of his existence. He could kill himself but so what? He’s hardly alive as it is anyway.
*. Admittedly, it would have been hard to work an explanation of this into the script. But not impossible. Perhaps it might have been something his mother would say to Joe, or that he would imagine her saying to him. As it is, Joaquin Phoenix is good here (though looking terrible as a fat guy), but his personal demons are so generic (childhood abuse, workplace trauma) that it’s hard to feel all that connected to him. Add in the generic nature of the plot and you have a story that basically only exists as an exercise in style. This it has, but not enough to make me think it was anything special.

Death Laid an Egg (1968)

*. I like it. But is it giallo?
*. That’s the first label that critics have reached for, and it’s an obvious enough fit. From someone — is it a killer? — putting on some black gloves in the opening montage, to the strange style notes of zooms and fast cuts, the convoluted plot involving perverse psychological hang-ups, and even the weirdness of the title itself. We’re breathing the heady atmosphere of yellow trash here, all of it pushed to the limit.
*. But pushed too far? Take the title (in Italian: La morte ha fatto l’uovo). That’s not just weird on the order of A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, Don’t Torture a Duckling, The Black Belly of the Tarantula, or Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eye, but laughable. Surely it indicates that what’s to come is meant as a joke. Then there’s the score by Bruno Maderna. How to describe it? Psychedelic? And I already mentioned the camera tricks, which are so overworked they become ridiculous.
*. After that opening montage we’re whisked away to what looks to be a fashion shoot with the three leads. Marco (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is taking pictures of his beautiful wife Anna (Gina Lollabrigida) and Anna’s cousin Gabri (Ewa Aulin). But while it seems like a fashion shoot, it’s taking place inside a high-tech chicken farm. Anna even holds up a plucked chicken at one point. What the hell is going on? Is it part of an advertising campaign? For chickens? Eggs? Clothing?
*. It’s tempting to call it a giallo parody, though in 1968 that would be pretty early. But I’m sure some kind of satire is what was intended. “Satire” is a word that has etymological roots relating to a stew, and that’s the overall sense I had of Death Laid an Egg. It just skips along, tossing little bits and pieces of everything into the pot. It’s sexy, with girls in lingerie and bikinis (bras and panties, Gabri explains to Anna, are just as important as what’s underneath). It jumps from place to place without any apparent logic (where does that corn field come from?). There are strange story elements that don’t seem to have any function, like the breeding of the Frankenchickens or the displaced workers.
*. What it’s not, however, is gory or suspenseful. Which is why I hesitated at calling it giallo. In fact, the mystery here turns out to be quite pedestrian, neither interesting nor unexpected and with a crudely introduced visual clue. What director Giulio Questi seems more interested in is some kind of social commentary, whether with regard to the impact of technology on farming or about the loose morals in the upper-class party with its strange romance room. This latter makes us feel like we’re entering Buñuel territory, the Italian bourgeoisie being puppets to their perversities. Though Marco’s fetish, once it gets explained, seems kind of humdrum.
*. Well, like I said, I enjoyed it most of the way through. The ending has a cute little twist but overall the final act is a letdown. It’s a spirited good time for fans of the bizarre that avoids, just, slipping into total chaos.

Prom Night III: The Last Kiss (1990)

*. I don’t imagine there are a lot of people who miss, or for that matter even remember, the low-budget, free-wheeling horror comedies that played alongside all the slasher, dead-teenager flicks in the 1980s and ’90s. Though I suppose titles like Saturday the 14th (1981) and The Silence of the Hams (1994) were about as lasting in their own day as the Scary Movie franchise entries. And, like the Scary Movie movies, they mainly worked by sending up what had become horror clichés. But parody has a short shelf life, entangled as it is with the notoriety of whatever inspired it.
*. Which brings us to Prom Night III: The Last Kiss, another movie I think few people miss or remember or even were aware of at the time. It’s a bit different than the usual horror parody though in having its own story to tell, which does follow, loosely if more-or-less directly, from the end of Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II. It’s both part of the Prom Night franchise and a parody of the same.
*. I had very mixed feelings watching this one. This may in part be because I watched half of it before giving up, then went back and watched the rest of it months later. I started out not thinking much of it at all — aside from the terrific opening, which has Mary Lou Maloney (Courtney Taylor) doing some lingerie line-dancing in hell before cutting through her ankle shackles with a nail file — but when I finished watching it I wound up liking it, just a bit. Maybe I was in a better mood. Or at least a different mood. You really have to be in the right mood to enjoy a movie like this.
*. Taking a step back and trying to be fair minded, it’s an enjoyably creative romp. With little in the way of resources they have to make do with imagination. After Mary Lou slips her chains in hell she returns to Hamilton High and hooks up with a Ferris Bueller type named Alex (Tim Conlon), for whom she can do certain favours. Alex already has a girlfriend, Sarah (Cynthia Preston), and basically the movie comes down to these two having to fight it out over who’s going to get their man. As Mary Lou says, it’s not who you take to the prom, it’s who you go home with.
*. The kills aren’t particularly well done, but at least they’re different. A janitor is electrocuted by a jukebox. Canadian boxing legend (this was a Canadian production) George Chuvalo is stabbed to death with ice cream cones. A guidance counselor is dissolved in battery acid. A jock is speared by a football that turns into a drill. It’s all good. And the final vision of a demonic Hamilton High when Alex and Sarah go down the rabbit hole is actually pretty neat.
*. I’ve often thought that a real sign of a director’s ability is how easy they can make something difficult look, so that a display of real skill may not even be noticed. (This is something, by the way, that holds true across the arts in general.) With that said, here’s a bit from director Ron Oliver as quoted in Caelum Vatnsdal’s They Came from Within, when asked about a shot that takes us across an auditorium to a close-up of the principal cutting his own finger off: “All in one shot . . . It was my Dario Argento homage because I wanted the audience to be shocked by it — no cutaways, nothing. It just happens. But nobody ever mentioned it! Kinda makes a director feel like a putz for even bothering!”
*. I’ll confess I didn’t catch the homage to Argento either. So a belated hats off. Oliver didn’t need to make the effort of doing that in one shot, but he did anyway.
*. I began by talking about how few, if any, of these horror comedies from the period have lasted. Prom Night III has disappeared into near oblivion along with most of its peers, but I think judged alongside them it’s a bit above average. With more money it might even have been ahead of its time. I’d certainly rather watch it again than the awful 2008 franchise reset.

The Lone Ranger (2013)

*. What a mess. Perhaps not as bad as it was made out to be at the time, but still a terrible mess.
*. When I say it’s not as bad as it was made out to be I’m referring to all the bad press it got. It was way over budget, didn’t perform well at the box office, and even caught flack for the casting of Johnny Depp as a Native American. For the most part it was panned by critics. But despite all this, it’s not a disaster or a terribly bad movie. Just a mess.
*. Let’s start with the good stuff: the big action sequences, usually involving trains, are actually pretty good and probably played very well in theatres (where I didn’t see it). This is a really big movie, with an expansive vision of the West that looks awesome.
*. Another thing I liked is Depp’s performance as Tonto. Maybe not politically correct, but enjoyable enough.
*. But moving on to what I mean by a mess.
*. In the first place the tone is all over the place. At times it’s a broad, slapstick farce, with the somewhat thick Lone Ranger (Armie Hammer) blessed with indestructibility and being bailed out time and again not just by Tonto but by his magical horse Silver as well. Then at other times things take a turn for the dark, with the evil Butch Cavendish even cutting out his victims’ hearts and eating them. I just didn’t know what they were going for here.
*. Related to this problem with tone is whether they were looking to mythologize or demythologize a particular vision of the West. At different times they seem to be going for both, but the two are irresolvably in conflict.
*. Another big drawback was the lack of a romantic interest. Normally I wouldn’t care about this either way, but the thing here is that they sort of introduce it, with John Reid being in love with his brother’s widow, but then they can’t really do anything with it. Compare, as I think you must, Pirates of the Caribbean and the relationship between Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley. Since this movie was clearly designed to be a similar sort of production (the same studio, director, star, and writer) I thought they were crazy just to insinuate something here and not do more.
*. Finally, it’s too much. The run time is 2 hours and 30 minutes, which is a haul. It’s wrapped up in an irritating frame which has an aged Tonto telling the story to a super-cute kid at a fair years later. Why bother with this? And as impressed as I was by the big action scenes I thought they all tended to go on a bit too long. They look spectacular, but like the rest of the plot they play out in predictable ways. Reid having to struggle with his law-and-order scruples, for example, just gets tedious after a while.
*. As with a lot of movies that flop in a spectacular way there has been a swing of the pendulum back. And, as also often happens in these cases, it has swung back too far. The Lone Ranger, as I’ve said, isn’t a bad movie. But for all the time and effort lavished on it, it seems very unsure of what it was all about. I found it loud but not very engaging.

The Social Dilemma (2020)

*. A blog is a form of social media, so I guess I’m as guilty as anyone in the triumph of our new digital overlords since I’ve been doing this for over twenty years. Still, I take some comfort and pride in not being on Facebook, and not having LinkedIn or Instagram accounts. I’ve also railed enough, in print and online, on the ill effects of the digital revolution. So a documentary like The Social Dilemma was both preaching to a convert as well as covering a lot of ground I was already familiar with. Still, I’m glad it’s here, as I don’t think we can have enough warnings about what’s going on.
*. What’s going on is something more than just data mining, or the selling of users’ identity to advertisers as the real “product” of social media. I think we all know about that. Instead, as tech guru Jaron Lanier puts it in what I thought the film’s most insightful comment, the endgame is the transformation of the individual through the manipulation of their fears and anxieties, wants and needs. Big Tech (or Big Data) don’t just want to know more about us, they want to remake us into better (that is better conditioned, more submissive and reliable) consumers.
*. This transformation is achieved through social media tapping into our need for connection, the product of millions of years of evolution, and providing dopamine hits that addict us to their ceaseless tide of highs (likes and shares and up-votes). One can instantly relate to the dramatic vignette here of the teenage girl breaking into the lockbox that her mother has put her cell phone into. I’ve seen fathers have to wrestle their daughters to the floor to pry phones from their grasp. The addiction is real.
*. I should say something more about these dramatized scenes as they’re the main way The Social Dilemma differentiates itself from the usual sort of talking-head documentary. I’ve heard some people complain about the way the experiences of one family with cell phones is used to illustrate the ideas expressed by the various experts being interviewed, but I didn’t mind the change of gears. I thought they were well integrated with the rest of the movie, and helped to break things up a bit.
*. My only complaint was that having Vincent Kartheiser play the different aspects of the AI puppetmaster was misleading. There really isn’t a human face behind the AI of the tech giants, only the operation of various algorithms that are now mostly beyond human understanding and perhaps even human control. Not that making money is some absolute end that the directors of big tech didn’t always have in mind. It’s not like the money mill is some experiment that got out of hand, which is how it’s sometimes presented.
*. As the talking heads (mostly former executives from the big tech companies) point out, it’s not that the technology is evil but that it has its own agenda (making money) that is independent of, and indeed indifferent to, human welfare. A Fitbit watch isn’t designed to improve health, but to monitor us. Whether we get healthier by using it, or drop dead, doesn’t really matter to Google. In much the same way, if lies and disinformation move faster on the Internet, and thus drive more traffic and make more money, then that’s what the platforms are going to provide more of. They’re not interested in spreading lies per se, they just don’t care about the truth.
*. Put another way, the main interviewee here is Tristan Harris, ex-Google ethicist and co-founder of a group called the Center for Humane Society. But is it even possible to imagine a humane Internet now? That seems almost like an oxymoron.
*. I’m freestyling here, but that’s what a movie like this is meant to encourage. It helps that I’m in broad agreement with the points being made. My own take is that the Internet hasn’t created any of the problems itemized here — depression, anxiety, addiction, political polarization — but only made them worse by amplifying and exacerbating them.
*. I also don’t see the process being reversed. As is often the case in such documentaries the producers try to end things on an optimistic note, but here it seems particularly forced. Everyone is aware that in a fight between a divided and often oblivious citizenry on one side and ever more powerful AIs collecting ever larger troves of data, all backed by the world’s largest and most profitable corporations on the other, humanity has a huge handicap.
*. In many ways I think the situation is even bleaker than represented here. With the focus mainly on social media, things like online gaming, gambling, and pornography aren’t even mentioned, for example. And too much emphasis is put on Facebook, which is just one player, albeit a big one. Also, the domestic drama suggests, I think misleadingly, that the impact is greatest with young people. While that’s the demographic I feel sorriest for — their brains are being fried, and they’re never going to get them back — my own experience is that the parental (and even grandparental) generations are in this mess just as deep. It’s just that we can still remember a better time.
*. A dilemma? I guess there are trade-offs. Harris mentions Uber as being one of the blessings of the new world order. And someone else mentions the old line about how grandparents are getting to chat with their grandchildren on Facetime now. The price of all this, however, may be incalculable.

The Deadly Mantis (1957)

*. Say you’re a moviegoer with simple, even childish tastes. You know what you like and what you like is a good giant-bug movie. So you’re all in when you see an ad for The Deadly Mantis.
*. I think you’d still be likely to be disappointed. The problem here is not the story, which is as disposable as always in such films. Apparently a volcano in the southern hemisphere causes some ice to thaw at the North Pole, releasing the giant mantis. The army and the scientific establishment are called in. You know the drill.
*. And the appearance of the mantis isn’t all that bad. Clifford Stine was in charge of the effects and he does well enough with what he had to work with. They actually built a 200-foot long papier-mâché mantis for some of the shots. It’s not that impressive because it doesn’t move very much and looks ridiculous when flying, but it’s passable. In the final battle in the Manhattan Tunnel it’s even a bit impressive.
*. The real problem here is with the huge amount of footage they’ve shoehorned in from other sources. Some of it is stock footage but a lot of it also comes from other movies. Most of it consists of scenes of the U.S. military in action, but there’s also an Inuit village that is presumably being attacked by the mantis. There’s so much of this material that you start to feel that the movie is a collage put together in the editing room. It also underlines the fact that there’s virtually no real story here to follow. All you’re really doing is following the mantis, which seems to be buzzing all over the place geographically. Originally he’s supposed to be going due south, but he winds up in Washington and then heads back up to New York City.
*. About the only thing I found interesting was the treatment of the “female woman,” as the lovestruck airmen at the DEW base call Marge Blaine (Alix Talton). She’s the obligatory babe appearing in all these movies, whose main purpose is to scream and be rescued. But, and this is a quality she shares with most of her B-movie, creature-feature peers, she’s also a genuine professional woman. In this case a journalist. She doesn’t like being swept off her feet at the end, but, what the hell, she’d like to marry that nice Col. Parkman anyway. You can have your cake and eat it too. Or at least it seemed that way in the ’50s.

Blair Witch (2016)

*. Maybe there really was a Blair Witch. The franchise, if we can call it that, does seem to have been cursed. The Blair Witch Project was a phenomenal success, but the creators Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez didn’t go onto anything. The star Heather Donahue is out of movies. The sequel Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 bombed. Another sequel, this film, was stuck in development hell for years and had a disappointing reception when released.
*. Is there a lesson here? It seems to me that the idea itself was a one-off, but I guess there was a lot of “mythology” to develop around the figure of the witch, whoever or whatever she was. And other franchises had a lot of success with less (Paranormal Activity, for example). So maybe something else went wrong. Or, in the case of the original film, went right, like catching lightning in a bottle.
*. The team of director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett weren’t novices. They’d done You’re Next and worked on V/H/S and V/H/S/2 (with Barrett contributing some of the more interesting episodes to the latter anthologies). And they’d certainly had time to come up with something good. But still this Blair Witch is a letdown.
*. Most director’s or cast and crew commentaries are recorded before the film is released in theatres. There are probably good reasons for this, though it means we miss something. That “something” being any reaction to initial critical and audience response. On the DVD commentary for Blair Witch Wingard and Barrett make light of the critical drubbing and tepid box office the film initially received, though it’s worth noting that the reviews weren’t all bad and the movie did make money. So the commentary gives them a chance to answer some of their critics.
*. Perhaps the biggest complaint against the film was that it was just a rehash of the original, to which it is a direct sequel. There was a reason for this though, as they felt the need to get the franchise “back on the rails” after Book of Shadows. Still, it’s a charge that sticks. There are small variations played on the formula, but mostly it’s the same plot as The Blair Witch Project. A group of young people with cameras enter the Blair Woods, trying to find out what happened to the original trio. They hear scary sounds at night. There are twig ornaments arranged around their tent. They wind up in the same spooky house where the final camera is knocked from the last girl’s hand. And so, curtain.
*. The small variations aren’t enough. The kids have a drone and GPS, neither of which work very well. Aside from that, all the running around in the woods at night with flashlights (and it’s always night, due to some strange warping of time) got tiresome. Especially so for me, because, while I like hiking, I hate camping. The small group dynamics, meanwhile, seem forced. It’s not that, or not just that, there’s no Heather Donahue here to carry things. The thing is, the cast here isn’t allowed to do any acting. They just pant and scream and run and jump and look scared.
*. Even the appearance of what I thought was the Witch comes as no surprise. Is that Javier Botet? No, but it might as well be. I mentioned in my notes on The Other Side of the Door (also 2016) how he’d established a very popular look (he played a similar figure in The Conjuring 2 the same year). That look is here again with the emaciated hag we only catch glimpses of.
*. I say I thought this was the Witch but according to Barrett it’s actually meant to be one of her victims and was never meant to represent the Witch herself. Whatever. How is that a distinction that’s supposed to mean anything to the audience? Or, for that matter, the people in the cabin?
*. I guess they did about as well as expected given the limitations they put on themselves. It’s a lot more chaotic and fiercely edited than the first movie but that may just be the result of audience attention deflation. The Blair Witch Project gave people headaches, but by this time it probably seemed pedestrian. As a result, I felt left behind, and it was only on a second viewing that I could really tell what was going on. I’m getting old.
*. To be honest, by 2016 found footage as a genre was pretty much played out. It may have hit its market (not creative) peak with the big-budget Cloverfield, which had been eight years before this movie. What else new was there to do with the form? On the evidence of Blair Witch, not much. And so a walk in the woods turns into a frantic run, screaming, with flashlights, down memory lane.