Revisiting a film I was a jerk about.
About a year ago I reviewed this film, and apparently the stars were perfectly aligned because I was a bit more of an asshole than normal. I was simply too insulting and too dismissive of a film. It is easy to berate films (hence, this blog), but there is an important line between jeering and just being a prick. I failed here. The writers of the movie actually reached out—they were not rude, but rather wanting to know why I had gone so far as to say they shouldn’t make movies anymore. I have toyed with what to do with this for a bit (those in the know now know how big the backlog is). A friend of mine suggested just editing the original review. I could do that, but doing so would almost be pretending it didn’t happen. A simple washing of a line crossed and feelings hurt. Is that enough? Maybe. However, I decided to actually review the film again.
As said, low-budget horror can be easy to make fun of. Yet, we tend to not think of the dozens (if not hundreds) of people who are trying to make a splash with something they have worked hard at. Further, I should direct my ire at big-budget studios that release cynical cash-grabs, not people still finding their creative voice. I suppose in some ways this works as an extended apology to the writers, but it is a bit more than that. I failed my general intention of loving films, but giving snarky reviews. My snark gave way to mean-spiritedness, and I am certain this has happened before as well. It is easy for me (or anyone) to simply backseat critique something without actually giving some analysis or pointers. Critics should critique, not just shit all over everything.
I always write this blog as a first impression. Sometimes my feelings on a film may change after publication, but the whole first-thought thing is how I have always done this. (For example, I think I like The Shape of Water less than an 8/10 now, but love The Blackcoat’s Daughter more than an 8/10). I don’t often provide a lot of analysis, and perhaps this is something I should correct. Followers might notice that the last film review didn’t have a score at the bottom. What is the point of them anyway? I assume you can tell by my prose whether I found something enjoyable or not.
So let’s actually give this film a fair analysis. I am going to be giving my ideas on what works, what doesn’t, and what could possibly be changed.
The film starts out with a bit of bite. We follow Collin (who is later just referred to as the Wicked One) who goes on a murder-spree against his family. I liked this sequence for a few reasons. First, the hazy and overcast setting lends this a sort of Children of the Corn feel. Second, and more important, it solves a major issue these micro-budget films tend to have—lighting. (I will revisit lighting later). The Wicked One is a psychopath, and there is little hesitation in his efforts to murder everyone around him. I liked this, but would have liked to see more. How did he get his family members on those crosses?
We then transition to a special asylum for the worst of the worst. We have a clear homage to films from the 80s, and this includes the setting, tone, style, and music. I don’t think there is anything wrong with a callback. Further, I don’t think this film being similar to Halloween is a negative aspect (something I disagree with other critics on). Let’s be honest, when was the last original horror film released? In the last few years, I have liked It (based on an older book), The Blackcoat’s Daughter (more of a drama), The Snare (you’ve pry seen similar things), The VVitch (arguable not a horror film), and It Follows (yeah, not nostalgic at all). My point is, I don’t think folks need something new, but want something fresh. If this film was released in 1987 we would see it as a low-budget grinder—and it would be seen as part of a larger catalogue.
The film tries to balance horror and humor. Full stop here: I tend to not like humor in my horror. I don’t want my sweet and savory mixed here. I think a reason for this is that making something scary and funny is substantially more difficult than making something scary or funny. Humor and horror have to be two of the hardest genres to write. We as an American audience are completely desensitized to fear. I laughed at points in The Nun that were meant to be terrifying. If you’re a horror fan, it is hard to feel yourself genuinely terrified. Further, humor is tough. Something funny in the first ten minutes might be annoying in the second half. Humor is also finicky—audiences find some stuff funny while others find it just loud. For example, I would probably watch a movie about Masturbating Martin (one of the other prisoners) and laugh too much. Others might try to boycott such a film.
The guards are complete idiots. At first I was a little annoyed by this, but there is also a part of me that can accept such a facility would probably only pay minimum wage. We have a good scenario for some mayhem. The payoff is a little lacking. The actual prison break features a good kill, but we tend to see things as an after-shot rather than as it occurs. (Of course most critiques can be linked to budget). Slowing down here and allowing these other lunatics who we have introduced (more than the guards and administrators) to have some room to breathe would be nice. Honestly, the entire film could have been a prolonged prison-break, and it might have worked. We have wacky villains, and almost no limit of creative kills.
On a technical level, the shots tend to work well, but it is clear there isn’t room for experimental or advanced shots. What this creates as a relatively uniform view of the action. While this doesn’t hurt the film (necessarily), it does give it a flatness that isn’t as engaging. I think editors are the most under-appreciated workers on the technical side. Here we have some good editing between shots, but also some odd delays. Particularly with call and response dialogue (tends to happen when the shot changes mid conversation). The slight delay in reaction to a statement or event gives this movie the almost standard jar that a lot of independent films have to deal with.
For the first chunk of the film, we have a team that has some cool ideas, but they seem hesitant to allow them to fully develop. More time here would have established the world and the villain a bit more.
We then have a hard transition to our group of future-slaughter-victims (I mean, isn’t that what all these travelling groups are in horror? See: every horror movie ever). We have met this group of folks before, and we will meet them again (probably in the new Halloween that comes out soon). Our travelers are heading to Wicked Fest, a major venue for celebrating all things Halloween.
A problem I have with this set-up is we have a split-exposition introduction. We also have a long lull in the mania promised by the kinetic introduction. I think a lot of this comes from the push to make all movies 90 minutes. Movies don’t need to be 90 minutes to be good, and the push for this (from distributors) is stupid. We have a fairly long closing credits sequence here as well, and this is my guess as to why. A cut down version of this film would stream a lot better. I believe the moviegoers would be fine with paying for a 60-minute film if it was tight, fast, and entertaining. However, I doubt we will see this embraced outside of art house studios.
Last time I made fun of the character of Trevor (who also is one of the writers). He is a pain-in-the-ass character, but I have an inkling this guy is also based on someone the writers now—perhaps a real brother? We have some family drama thrown into the mix, and this isn’t necessarily a bad idea. Adding in additional genre elements is something that horror has done to sometimes great success recently. However, I think we are introduced to too many characters too fast. I want to see the wicked one running around eating people and finding chainsaws! We are thrown a couple kill-bones, and this does keep things moving, but it isn’t clear how these two groups are going to intersect. A similar problem plagued Rob Zombie’s 31. We as an audience don’t have enough breadcrumbs to really see all of this tie together.
I think the family drama stuff tends to be tough to pull off. It didn’t work in the new Evil Dead (this kind of reminds me of the dynamic), and it doesn’t really come together here. I don’t know how I would pull this together—family drama is tough because audiences are either indifferent or have an aggravated “ah I know that dick!” reaction. I think it can be done, but I think we need to know a little more about the characters meant to be likable to side with them more directly.
We are given the tie-together over an interesting, but roughly lit, campfire scene. Trevor goes from problematic brother to perhaps unstable individual. The volatile episode is dramatic, but I would ask what is the central purpose of it is here. There seems to be an idea present to tie this sort of trauma-anger relationship together, but the film needed more time (or perhaps to spell it out more directly).
Transitioning back to the killer. We do get some pretty good kill shots for such a small project. They don’t let us see the impact, but keep it kinetic enough to keep the audience’s interest. I honestly enjoyed the film more watching it with a purposeful eye. If this were a student’s paper, I would say we have good ideas, but there should be some rearranging.
We get to see more of humanized Trevor, but it comes a little late—particularly after the previous nights’ episode. The daylight shots work better. The lighting isn’t rough on the eyes, and it feels more natural. A horror film in the daylight would be an interesting idea—and this might be the type of thing to consider when night shoots are going to be inherently problematic.
I do have to agree with Trevor that Halloween parties do seem lame, haha. I know this is a major staple of the horror genre, but do these scenes push the narrative? It seems to move the characters around to set up kills more than anything else, which I guess works, but it is easy to see through the purpose. Once the couple goes into the barn we know they are toast. At least some of the folks choose to stick together, which is a nice change of pace.
I remember complaining about the dialogue, but it isn’t bad. The writers are going for pure realism, which is in style right now, but it also creates potentially problematic scenes (see above with family stuff). It also makes exposition have to trickle in.
The film plays like a low-budget slasher. Sometimes I feel like I have watched too many of these films, but I do find them enjoyable. As noted above, if this film came out in the 80s it would have a cult following. Audiences are weird in 2018 (well, 2017 here) in that we want nostalgia, but shiny new nostalgia. The fact that this film plays like something right out of the slasher golden era is its best and worst feature. It has all the trappings of a low budget film, including the inherent limitations, but it also doesn’t have the binding of big budget production. When was the last time a major release horror film had a truly fucked up scenario? Sure, folks live here, but the kill count is impressive (better than the entire Conjuring universe, for example) and seeing something that isn’t sanitized is nice.
This review isn’t meant to only praise the film, but rather to actually try to unpack it. It has some strong ideas, but I think it fails to commit to a central thesis. Take a look at something like Mickey Keating’s Psychopaths as a film that chooses to stay with the killer(s) the whole time. That one isn’t perfect, but it commits early on to the tone. Here, I would have rather just hung out with the killer, or started with the friends and weave the killer in. The way information is trickled here doesn’t always work. The needed information comes, but it would help if it came earlier.
Cheyenne Gordon (one of the writers) had asked me to give pointers in my reviews (a nicer way of asking me not to be a total dick). Unfortunately, I don’t know where the horror genre is headed. I love horror, but each year it seems like we get a few good ones, a lot of mass-market crap, and a lot of struggling indie films of varying quality. Given a better budget, could this team make a good movie? Yeah, I think so. This film is competent, albeit familiar, but it certainly isn’t the worst film I have seen, and my desire to be ruthless in a review led me to ignore or overlook the better moments.
So, what would be my suggestion? Find your niche. To the team and everyone. You are straddling a couple genres here at points—if this is what you want to do keep perfecting it. Honestly, it could work, but refining the characters as much as possible will help. We have an off-kilter scene in a prison followed by a grounded example of family trauma. These two don’t mesh together perfectly. Either idea alone could work. As of now, I don’t know if they can be unified—but prove me (and every other critic) wrong if that is your goal.
It is impossible to tell what will be the next thing in horror. I personally think Blackcoat’s Daughter and Darling are two of the best horror films to come out in years, but are they horror? Or are they something else? Note: I am not arguing all films need to be meta or avant-garde, but knowing your objectives will help the audience see them as well. If your goal is mainstream, embrace the jump scare and drop any and all meaningful discussions. If you’re more comfortable in the independent world, stretch the idea of familial trauma. Trevor is a real character, albeit not very likable, but real—as is the entire group. However, do they seem real in the world that is set up?
Does this film have its problems? Yes. Those interested in watching an independent horror could find better, but they could also find worse. I do think this one is for slasher fans more or less exclusively. A sequel is in the works, and I am curious to see how the team behind this has grown, specialized, and advanced.