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CAPSULE: JACOB’S LADDER (2019)

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Beware

DIRECTED BY: David M. Rosenthal

STARRING: Michael Ealy, Jesse Williams, Nicole Beharie

PLOT: Returning home from a tour of duty in Afghanistan, army surgeon Jacob Singer begins to suspect that his brother Isaac, whom he saw die in the line of duty, may in fact still be alive.

Still from Jacob's Ladder (2019)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Jacob’s Ladder rarely ventures beyond the borders of a psychological thriller that occasionally dips its toe in horror-ish imagery. As a remake, there is, unsurprisingly, nothing about its occasional dabbles in weirdness that the original didn’t do better (and weirder).

COMMENTS: In an era where unneeded remakes are more common than ever, it’s easy to forget that films like ’s The Thing, ’s The Fly, and Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers have proven that celebrated stories, redone right, can become classics all over again. Of course, this is dependent upon the remake taking some creative new approach to old material, ironing out the flaws of the original, or, at the very least, retelling the tale in a fresh and intriguing manner. Sadly, none of these things are to be found in 2019’s iteration of Jacob’s Ladder.

Well, perhaps that’s a little unfair. It’s hardly as if this new version is a stale shot-for-shot reiteration of ’s original. Indeed, the film makes efforts to take a new approach to the original premise—rather than centering on the title character’s PTSD, for instance, it’s Jacob’s brother Isaac who takes on the role of the damaged and paranoid military veteran (at least at first). It could be an appealing angle—an opportunity to take the original’s central theme of accepting the finality of death, and approach it from the perspective of a grieving family member rather than the dying individual.

Unfortunately, while this remake takes the time to work in a few basic plot elements (and some recreated shots) from the original, it’s uninterested in engaging with the source film’s spirit. As a result, where the 1990 film was about the necessity of letting go and accepting death when the time comes—using chilling imagery and a thriller plot to communicate this point—the remake instead chooses to treat the surface-level plot as the film’s be-all and end-all. It expands upon—and, in many ways, builds itself on—the “conspiracy thriller/experimental drug” subplot, despite that being anything but the central point of the story (and arguably the script’s weakest element). Likewise, the cinematography and backdrops have a bland, Lifetime-movie feel to them, none evoking the original’s bleak and claustrophobic decay. And while grotesque imagery may not be inherently necessary to make an effective psychological horror, the fact that this film’s only attempt to evoke the sensation of fear and paranoia amidst a hellish urban landscape is to smear a little acne-like makeup on the occasional extra is very noticeable.

Like so many remakes before (and no doubt after) it, the main problem plaguing 2019’s Jacob’s Ladder is that it simply never convinces us that it needs to exist. Everything that made the first so intriguing—the mystery, the surreal horror, the underlying theme of accepting death—is dumbed down, for little discernible reason. Instead, we’re treated to a standard-issue TV movie that would have been just as unremarkable under a different name.

As its own stand-alone film, Jacob’s Ladder could have made for a decent, if ultimately forgettable, psychological thriller that included some cursory examinations of the effects of PTSD. As it is, however, by usurping the name of Lyne’s classic, 2019’s Jacob’s Ladder comes off as thinking far too highly of itself, riding the coattails of a far superior psychological drama despite sharing nothing but the most basic, shallowest elements with it.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The new ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ is less strange and scary, and more mindlessly action-packed. It doesn’t feel like a dream. It’s more like hearing a stranger describe a dream.”–Noel Murray, The Los Angeles Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: ODISSEA DELLA MORTE (2018)

AKA Valley of the Rats; Odyssey of Death

Beware

DIRECTED BY: Vince D’Amato

FEATURING: Jesse Onocalla, Momona Komagata, Lynne Lowry,  Tristan Risk

PLOT: A man has rented a limousine and travels around town talking with his associates as he tries to figure out who killed his girlfriend.

Still from Odissea Della Morte (2019)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Amidst all the random shots of walking around, limo-bound conversations, and pseudo-BDSM, there is a quiet aura of nothingness going on. As there is virtually nothing doing in this movie, there is virtually nothing weird about it.

COMMENTS: With money, generally, comes a modicum of competence when it comes to filmmaking. The middle-to-big-budget movie you watch may not be particularly entertaining, but it’s at least technically well done. But low budget films are odd beasts. Some cost as much as a used economy car, and are unceasingly entertaining. Others, costing as much as a higher-end mid-budget sedan, are unceasingly tedious. To what end do I type all this garbled verbiage? My reason is twofold. First, I am somewhat frantically trying to think of what to write about Vince D’Amato’s Odissea Della Morte (translation probably not needed). Second, having begun the review in this stylistic manner, it occurs to me that it’s a fairly decent textual translation of Odissea‘s cinematic style.

Jesse (Jesse Onocalla) rides around in a limo, much to his friends’ bemusement, going on a bender while interviewing various people who saw his girlfriend (I don’t remember her name, it doesn’t matter) before she was murdered. While chewing over various evils of modern society in this mobile backdrop, various nonentities enter and exit the vehicle and make various unimportant observations. Intercutting these vignettes are shots of largely naked, occasionally gothed-out women doing ambiguously sexy things and photographing each other until the whole movie becomes this weird (!) and tedious dream thing that culminates in what is perhaps a twist.

I hope my record of reviews can attest to the fact that I am generally a very patient viewer who is eager to give every movie the fairest shake possible. The closest I’ve ever gotten to “cheating” for this website is with this movie. I did watch it, all of it, and even have some notes to prove I paid attention for portions of it. However, when your film’s two highlights are a brief conversation with an affable limo driver and some blandly cryptic remarks from an actress most famous for a small part in a movie known mostly for its theme song by David Bowie, your film is probably doomed, and no amount of T&A, canted angles, and color-to-black-and-white shifts can obscure that.

Forgive me, there was a third highlight: an aura of menace, a tied up woman threatened with a knife, and some beardo shouting, “I AM THE CITY!” in a way that made Jack Skellington‘s declaration of pumpkin-kingship seem altogether Shakespearean by comparison. That gave me a chuckle.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a love letter to the works of David Cronenberg and Jess Franco set to [D’Amato’s] unique take on the giallo film.”–Film Bizarro

CAPSULE: AGAINST THE CLOCK (2019)

Beware

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING:  Mark Polish, Dianna Agron, Andy Garcia, Justin Bartha

PLOT: Chandler, a medically enhanced superspy on a mission,  falls into a coma and his wife Tess tries to bail him out.

Still from Against the Clock (2019)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This is art-house wannabe fodder for the hypothetical and stereotyped millennial audience who eat a bowl of sugar-frosted molly every morning for breakfast. It is strange by the measure of misguided and incompetent work, but true “weird” should be an intentional choice.

COMMENTS: I’ve gotten in trouble on this site for reviews like Breakfast of Champions and The God Inside My Ear, so I’m going to clearly ask up front: take Uncle Pete’s word for it and have faith in me this time. Against the Clock is not, again, not a movie. It is a tragically aborted fetus that came close to showing vital signs, but went wrong. What went wrong was a special effects team, fresh off an online Adobe Premier Pro course, who masturbated furiously all over the film with strobe-light-paced jump-cut CGI scored to literally every noise from a stock sound effect CD, followed by a director who subsequently fed the film stock through a wood-chipper until it was confetti and glued it back together with flypaper strips. With these chaotic monkeys turned loose on the production, the attempted movie has no room left for story, characters, dialogue, or a cubic centimeter of breathable oxygen in which to make clear its artistic statement. Picture Max Headroom on cocaine, turned loose with a camera for 100 minutes in the seedy side of The Matrix.

If you thought Oliver Stone’s style in Natural Born Killers wasn’t hyper enough, if Run, Lola, Run stressed your attention span, or if you felt The Wall just did not indulge itself in enough psychedelic show-offs, then get ready to put on your boogie pants and dance. Not to compare Against the Clock to those greater efforts; those works use trippy imagery and sugar-rush effects as tasteful seasonings on a competent recipe. Against the Clock unscrews the cap and dumps in the whole bottle.

Nevertheless, if you take the movie at its own terms and approach it with the right frame of mind, it does have some kind of artistic vision. But once you’ve become used to an experience that’s like viewing a pinball machine from inside the ball while the bumpers and flippers whack it around—and taken enough Dramamine not to barf—the movie’s novelty wears off. Rather than amping me up, the ADHD editing has the opposite effect: it lulls me into a relaxing daze, like watching a fireplace. This movie would make a pretty screensaver. It even held my cat’s attention for a record ten minutes before he wisely curled up in an adjacent chair for nap time, an option I envied as I contemplated running a Monster energy drink through my Continue reading CAPSULE: AGAINST THE CLOCK (2019)

CAPSULE: THE TEXTURE OF FALLING (2018)

Beware

DIRECTED BY: Maria Allred

FEATURING: Julie Webb, Patrick Green, Maria Allred, Benjamin Farmer

PLOT: Some millennials with plenty of time and money skirt around different affairs with each other before it’s revealed that we’re watching a movie about some millennials with plenty of time and money who skirt around having different affairs with each other.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It pitches itself as “unlike any film that you’ve ever seen”. That is true: never have I seen something so bold in its combination of earnest pretentiousness and skull-sagging tedium.

COMMENTS: Recent experience suggests that among today’s millennialist youth, the trend of making movies that end up being about making movies is growing. Perhaps the would-be artistes grew up watching them and thought, erroneously, “That looks easy. I bet I can make something that impressive.” Flustered as I am at this moment, I just had the horrible realization that I wish I had just re-watched Paris Is Us instead of this one—and trust you me, I am fully aware of the ramifications of that errant thought.

The drama begins in Portland, Oregon—definitely not Seattle, Washington. Louisa (Julie Webb) is an aspiring film-maker and “love-skeptic” who finds herself, against her will, falling for quiet-but-blandly-hot pianist-composer, Luke (Patrick Green). In a parallel story, not-so-happy-with-his-wife Mike (Benjamin Farmer), an architect, is beginning a bondage-lite affair with a woman whose character was so hard to pin down I can only confidently refer to her by the descriptor “Blondie” (Maria Allred). As love chatter goes back and forth and up and down, each of the leads makes various compromises (?) and claws blindly toward an actual plot.

On at least two occasions I wrote in my notebook, “Big question: is this going anywhere?” And this was twice during a movie lasting a blip of an hour and a quarter. While watching various characters I had absolutely no interest in putz around and make emotional and social idiots of themselves, I was nearly relieved to find that I was watching one of them there “movie” movies. Turns out Louisa is writing a script, and lifting her lines from her interactions with Luke. But wait! No, it turns out that she’s actually fallen for the moody pianist (who is married, with children) on whom she’s basing a character. But wait! Louisa is just the role played by a character who seems to be an assistant to the real driving force behind this mess.

Maria Allred: I understand that making a movie is a very difficult undertaking. Furthermore, that your credits list includes, but is not limited to, director, writer, editor, producer, costumes, casting, designer, and art department forces me, despite my complete dismissiveness, to give you some respect. But perhaps you should take on a lighter workload next time. The Texture of Falling is, technically, a well put-together movie. But it is, almost objectively, a boring mass of bad dialogue, superfluous meta-twists, and somnolent acting. If your next Kick-Starter1 campaign is for a movie with an actual plot, consider me on the hook for at least a one-hundred dollar donation.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“How are these people connected? What’s real and what’s fantasy? But again, I run the risk of giving the impression that The Texture of Falling is compelling, which it is not. It’s 74 minutes of mediocre actors giving meek, low-energy performances while reciting clumsily written, faux-philosophical dialogue.” –Eric D. Schneider, Portland Mercury (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: TERROR 5 (2016)

Beware

DIRECTED BY: Sebastian Rotstein, Federico Rotstein

FEATURING: Walter Cornás, Lu Grasso, Gastón Cocchiarale, Arias Alban

PLOT: An anthology of horror stories in an Argentinian town told over a single night, involving revenge, zombie-like creatures, and snuff films.

Still from Terror 5 (2016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: What strangeness is to be found here can mostly be credited to shoddy construction.

COMMENTS: If you’re looking for something nice to say about Terror 5, then the camerawork isn’t bad. There’s a nice shot of a blue neon cross, whose glow becomes reflected in the luminous eyes of the “zombies” who spontaneously appear when the local mayor is cleared of corruption in a construction tragedy. And there’s nothing wrong with the acting; the players do the best they can to inject some life into the dull scenarios.

But the script! Ay! It all plays out in one Argentinian town in a single night, and the five plot strands—each of which is supposedly inspired by an urban legend—connect, somewhat. But none of them are well thought out or interesting in themselves. Nor is the overall architecture sound. While the movie cuts between four of the stories, the worst, a tale of students who take revenge on their teachers at night, plays out in its entirety right up front. Since there isn’t much to it—the characters all buy into the absurd conceit with little resistance, with no explanation of why the teachers don’t fight back and no tension or internal conflict to be found in the new student seduced into the cabal—it lowers expectations for the rest of the tales. One of the remaining plotlines is basically an extended sex scene with a senselessly brutal finale. Another involves two men in their cars, waiting patiently for a plot that never arrives; it’s largely a conversation over walkie-talkies, with another grisly out-of-nowhere ending. It makes almost no sense at all. (At one point one of the men says “I’m super confused,” and that’s before his pal starts talking about “the shower game” and parallel universes.) The introductory and climactic story involves the aforementioned non-zombies and makes a weak stab at a generic satire about political corruption. That leaves one episode of some interest: a booze-and-pot costume party at which a jerk dressed in KISS makeup dares the assembly to watch a snuff film and bullies a heavyset kid until he snaps. Due to some reasonably convincing acting from the greasepainted lout and his victim, it’s the best segment, but it’s still a yawner.

Each of the stories are ridiculous and poorly motivated, but they aren’t executed in a dreamlike or absurd fashion that might engage our interest. Instead, they’re played straight, as if they were really horror shorts. Although there is a mildly surreal aesthetic at work here in the unreal scenarios, what weirdness results is largely by accident rather than design.

The idea of making a hypertext horror is not a bad one, and the filmmakers don’t do anything especially obnoxious, but Terror 5 just plain fails on a storytelling level. With ruthless cutting, they might have salvaged a (still relatively lame) 30 minute short from this material. For sleaze film fans, it offers a smidgen of sex and nudity and a modicum of violence and gore. There’s very little terror, though, and even less sense.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

Terror 5 is a movie that will turn viewers on and probably trip them out once they realize the almost certainly ominous object of their salacious contemplations…”–Misty Wallace, Cryptic Rock (DVD)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: FRANKENSTEIN ISLAND (1981)

Beware

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Steve Brodie, Cameron Mitchell, Katherine Victor, (?)

PLOT: A crew of hot air balloon travelers land on a remote desert island and encounter the great-grand-daughter of Dr. Frankenstein presiding over an assortment of natives and other random people.

Still from Frankenstein Island (1981)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: An extreme low-budget B-movie director of legendarily bad productions, Jerry Warren is no stranger to our pages here. Frankenstein Island stands out as his only color film, a movie he made after a 15-year hiatus, and his final film. In spite of all that, it manages to out-crazy everything else he ever done, not to mention being the most deranged film with the name “Frankenstein” in its title, a major feat in itself.

COMMENTS: Move over, Plan 9 From Outer Space, Manos: The Hands Of Fate, and even The Room:  we have a new contender for “so bad it’s hilarious!” If Frankenstein Island (1981) isn’t a candidate for “worst movie ever made,” that’s only because it’s too crammed full of jaw-droppingly bonkers scenes to be not-entertaining. As is typical for a Jerry Warren experience, count on muddled story structure, random stock footage inserted into the plot, extreme budget sets, abrupt day-night transitions, wooden acting, and new lows in filmmaking incompetence all around. What follows is a stalwart attempt to convey what’s going on, to the best of my ability; please be advised that in-movie continuity errors and contradictions make some details hard to pin down.

Four men and a dog fly in a pair of hot air balloons on a little-explained recon errand (later said to be a balloon race). They end up on a desert island because they ran out of stock balloon footage, and start exploring on a quest to build a raft to escape—despite leaning on a rubber dingy while discussing this plan. In due order, they encounter (1) a tribe of Amazon natives in leopard-print bikinis, (2) a cult of zombie-like/robot-like men in black shirts, who kidnap natives and get up to other mischief, (3) a mad prisoner in a cell who raves in Edgar Allan Poe references, (4) a jolly drunk in an eye-patch who can not stop laughing and acts as the men’s guide, while guffawing “HAR HAR HAR HAAAAAR,” and finally (5) a woman, Sheila (previously referred to as “Xira”), wearing a pile of wigs, who claims to be the great-grand-daughter of the original Dr. Frankenstein. Her invalid husband Dr. Von Helsing is there too. Sheila Frankenstein carries on some kind of mad science research in a suspiciously modern and well-furnished mansion and laboratory on an island where everybody else lives in shanties. The black-shirt thugs are her minions, the natives were there when she got there, she’s on a quest to cure Continue reading APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: FRANKENSTEIN ISLAND (1981)

CAPSULE: TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: THE NEXT GENERATION (1994)

Beware

DIRECTED BY: Kim Henkel

FEATURING: Renee Zellweger, Matthew McConaughey, Robert Jacks

PLOT: Teenagers leave prom, get in accident, get lost, meet cannibal slaughter family. 1

Still from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (1994)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: There are many ways to get onto the List of 366 Weirdest Movies Ever Made. Stir-frying the original movie in your franchise with some sprinklings from Robert Anton Wilson’s spice rack, alas, is not a sufficiently potent recipe.

COMMENTS: Nothing says “October viewing” like a TCM sequel! Let’s check the IMDB rating for this one: 3.2. The box office was $141K, on a $600K budget. Oh, this is gonna hurt. I might even have to use my safe word.

But for real, the Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise was started by Tobe Hooper as a budget student project, a loose parody of the six o’ clock news circa 1974, which was—quote—“showing brains spilled all over the road.” Don’t expect Shakespeare. Ah, but twenty years later, an environment where a studio says “we don’t care what you do, as long as we release a TCM movie” is just the kind of liberating atmosphere that could allow weirdness to flourish, with the right strands of DNA.

How strange, then, that in 1994 original TCM co-scripter Kim Henkel decided to rewind through almost exactly the same story. Four random teenagers ditch a high school prom to drive off at night and get lost in the “extra foggy” woods, get betrayed by a seemingly helpful roadside flunkie who actually delivers them into the lap of danger, are pursued and menaced and even plugged onto a meathook by a family of deranged cannibals, and attend a gruesome dinner scene where many human fixtures are flaunted as home decorations by Martha Stewart’s evil counterpart. One final girl escapes, but the guy with the funny mask and power tool breathes free still. Why are we even doing this? The TCM franchise set one of the lowest bars in cinema history, just a couple steps above watching a tropical fish tank with a few predatory species mixed in. It takes a deliberate effort to screw it up, which is what this movie does.

The point here, it turns out, was to inject a note of conspiracy theory into the Leatherface mythos, by invoking the Illuminati, JFK, and other random nouns grabbed from some thumbed-over copy of “The Anarchist’s Cookbook.” It’s a justification for why the cannibal clan flourishes: there’s a global conspiracy looking out for them. The filmmakers dub in some NSA watchlist words and add a couple characters who barge in and hastily retcon the series, tying it into conspiracy theories. That’s it, you’re done. Oh, but remove any attempt at characterization. The hillbillies use the same vocabulary as anybody else. Wait, castrate the series, too, because the first member of the cannibal clan we meet is Matthew McConaughey. This man could suck the testosterone out of a monster truck rally just by attending it, changing all the trucks into Daimler-Benz Fortwos. Here, his tow-truck driver persona is a serial killer so apathetic that he offs his victims with a shrug after giving them every opportunity to get away.

To its credit, the movie seems to have been made with a laissez faire attitude that makes it more of a TCM parody, with the usual tropes of the genre turned into exaggerated cliches and stereotypes. It’s mildly stupid/humorous, like a Scary Movie installment. A few off-kilter moments happen (picking up pizza takeout for dinner when you have a struggling victim in the trunk, huh), but it doesn’t go far enough to make it into “weird”;  barely “interesting.” If anything, your sympathy lies with the cast and crew at large; the whole movie is one big middle finger to itself, commiserating with the audience in a tone that says “We can’t believe you wasted money on this, and we can’t believe we’re getting paid for it either.” This style of franchising is most associated with The Brady Bunch Movie, released a year later. To have a TCM installment remind you of the Brady Bunch tells you all you need know about how scary or even gory it is.

TCM:TNG is a movie that begs you to hate it, so vilely does it hate itself. Instead, as is the case when reacting to any self-loathing moody snowflake, the only sensible reaction is indifference. There are hundreds of movies just like this one lurking behind long Roman numerals in horror franchise sequel hell. One might as well churn the bins at Dollar General’s DVD section with a pitchfork, because these horror franchise sequels are as indistinguishable from each other as straws of hay. The fact that one of them knows this and cynically reminds you of it doesn’t make it any better. It only depresses us for the lost opportunity as the movie gives up on itself in a peeved tantrum. Just look at Halloween III: Season of the Witch. It found itself in the same trash bin, but it seized the day and shot for the heavens and now we remember it, don’t we? That’s what you can do with the right strands of DNA.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Henkel resorts to the infamously gonzo subplots that have made the film memorable despite itself. No longer content to let a crazy group of cannibals be a crazy group of cannibals, Henkel went and turned the Sawyer clan into agents for some ancient Illuminati that may or may not be space aliens in what is truly the most off-the-wall reveal in any of the major horror franchises. Such wackiness might be commendable if it were accompanied by any true thoughtfulness, but it just stands as a random, mystifying element that feels like a joke nobody could ever get… One of the truly horrific franchise misfires of all-time, The Next Generation has to be seen to be believed; I’d like to say that it lives up (down?) to its infamy, but that still doesn’t quite capture the breadth of its inanity.”–Brett Gallman, Oh, the Horror! (DVD)