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John’s Horror Corner: Byzantium (2012), bringing a fresh, intelligent perspective to the secret lives of vampires

April 16, 2014

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MY CALL: An intelligent, superbly acted vampire story, serenely-scored and with a more realistic, fresh perspective. MOVIES LIKE Byzantium: Interview with a Vampire (1994) provides a more classical, romantic approach whereas We Are the Night (2010) keeps things totally modern and Euro-sleek.  For gorgeously lethal movies, the beauty of Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006) and Hanna (2011) actually by far eclipse this film and are both highly recommended for the unique sensory-driven style.

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This finely shot film opens with an elegantly underspoken narration by Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan; Hanna, The Host), a young woman who reveals that her fate is bound to Clara (Gemma Arterton; Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, Clash of the Titans). As we are cautiously introduced to these strong characters our eyes traverse one scene to the next, and with each we swiftly approach an understanding of their desperate lifestyle spent drifting and suppressing secrets.

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The acting is superb. Like Anne Rice’s Lestat, Clara portrays the ruthless, manipulative, survivalist parent whereas Eleanor (much as the resistant Louis) resents her mother’s actions. Director Neil Jordan (The Borgias, In Dreams, The Crying Game, Interview with a Vampire , The Company of Wolves) has an impressive résumé including period piece drama, sexual thriller, classical vampirism and gory non-mainstream fairy tale horror, so we I read he was directing this film let’s just say “you have my attention.” This film moves at a generally slow pace, punctuated with occasionally eventful blood flow. It is far from exciting; more “interesting” really. For even the slow seasons curry my curiosity of what fate will befall Eleanor, Clara, their relationship, their lives.

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Through a series of flashbacks we discover a more mysterious vampire origin; one that neither matches folklore nor is completely explained .

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Blood waterfalls on mysterious islands.

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These vampires walk in daylight, cast reflections and have no fangs, but live forever, crave blood and require invitation. The vampirism is not exactly presented subtly, but the focus is placed on Clara and Eleanor’s struggle to survive and the growing strain on their relationship. To protect this secret Clara would do anything. But it seems Eleanor yearns to share her secret. When she meets a brooding love interest (Caleb Landry Jones; The Last Exorcism, Antiviral) her willingness to suppress her secret wanes.

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The score is serene, able to lull a beast to calm before putting it down. It complements the thought-provoking, moody atmosphere so well as we estimate the dubious future of these vampires. The gore is abundant in brevity, but not distasteful, and occasional scenes are brutal, but appropriate. One shot of bloodletting was actually quite beautiful.

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I was never swept away by an Anne Rice-esque violent vampiric passion. But I remained engrossed in this story, beautifully told by characters with depth.

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Bad Movie Tuesday: Paranormal Activity: The Cut and Paste Antics of The Marked Ones

April 15, 2014

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Same story different setting. The Marked Ones tells the story of several friends who have to battle that dang Paranormal Activity coven. The jerky witches are at it again and their never ending quest of standing around looking menacing has become boring. The world of white bread witches blending with Mexican mysticism could have added a new wrinkle to the battle of good vs. evil vs. static camera. However, it can’t avoid all of the same traps and returns to the well once again.

The best parts of the film are the naturalistic performances, change of scenery and usage of GoPros. Gone are the big houses and we are welcome into the world of apartment living in Oxnard, California. Our three heroes are recent high school grads who get entangled in witches, blood eggs, obligatory basements and mysticism.

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The kids have potential and are likable but the script fails them as the stock scares add up to laughable heights. You know the creators have stopped trying when there is a ten minute segment involving a scantily clad woman and a predictable scare. The scene does nothing to further the film and instead plays off every horror cliché in the history of the planet.

You hope naively that the freshness of the first film will return and a new menace will appear. Will the two forces battle? Will Toby the pesky demon meet his match? Nope. You get the same stuff with a different cast. People are marked, the camera goes everywhere and it ends exactly like the third and fourth film. Cut, paste and make millions in box office off of a tiny budget.

The insult to horror lovers is the director/writer had a chance to bring back the innovation and make tons of money. However, unlike Final Destination 5 which felt fresh you get dumb villains and recycled plots points. The original Paranormal Activty featured a bad guy who was mysterious, dangerous and brutal. I remember the simple shot of footprints put me on edge because it was so minimal. Less is more in horror.

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The static camera and aura of evil scared the crap out of audiences and the movie made tons of money. However, nothing gold can stay and the series has been strip mined of everything that made it good (Read horror czars review of the series here). The evil has been explained and good villains have been replaced by stereotypical witches whom offer nothing in the way of excitement. The finale of Marked Ones is a groan fest that becomes unintentionally funny. I never thought I’d see a screaming witch get blown away by a shotgun toting gang member. The way in which the women sneak around in the beginning is betrayed in the finale as they scream and run while holding knives over their heads. All their mysterious work culminates in twenty feet of running and yelling? The whole thing felt lazy and it made me think of this scene from Austin Powers.

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You get to a point in your life when you tire of jerky witches and the evil things they do to people. You also grow tired of the same stock ending of creepy women surrounding a house whilst our heroes questionably lock themselves inside it. What brought me back to the dying series was the change of scenery and hope for something new. New = Money. The same = diminishing returns. The creators have ignored the newness and the box office has dropped. The films are profitable but imagine how much money they’d make if they were better.

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones is a simple cash grab that could have expanded upon its world via Mexican mysticism. However, it brings back those dang witches and the pesky Toby. Don’t watch it. Rent the original. Or check out Troll Hunter. It has nothing to do with witches but it is original and fun.

John’s Horror Corner: Under the Bed (2012), an utterly senseless yet fun slimy monster movie

April 14, 2014

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MY CALL: This monster movie makes no sense, is terribly inconsistent and felt like a scareless PG-13 movie for over 60 minutes. But it’s ending is so senselessly bonkers, gore-slathered and creature-tastic that it was all worth the end. MOVIES LIKE Under the Bed: I’ve got nothing. But staying in general theme I’d suggest Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark(2011) and The Boogeyman (2005). OTHER REVIEWS: Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #170.

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Novice director Steven C. Miller (Silent Night) takes a stab at an R-rated contemporized approach to the classic “monster under my bed” story. I was generally pleased with Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark(2011) and The Boogeyman (2005), so why not give this a shot?

After years apart following the death of his mother, disheveled and angsty teen Neal (Jonny Weston; John Dies at the End, Taken 3) returns home to live with his father (Peter Holden; Alien Abduction) and younger brother Paulie. He had been sent away two years ago to “get well” after he burned the house down with his mother in it, defending himself from the monster residing under his bed. Now that he has returned, he learns his little brother has been tormented by the same demon every night.

The notion that an otherworldly monster can magically cross into our dimension through the floor under one specific kid’s bed is pretty silly. Terrifying, in fact. That it only does so in the dark while you’re asleep…even scarier. There was so much potential for dark figures and painfully drawn-out tension. But for some reason I never saw or felt either. And what about the story…actually, what exactly is the story? What drives this monster and how did it get in their house? Why did it want these boys? Are there more of these monsters? Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark(2011) and The Boogeyman (2005) made at least some effort to explain their monsters, their motivations, their origins and their behavior. But here, it just seems that this monster came with the house and its abilities and weaknesses seem to change without explanation as the movie persists. That’s really all we get.

Not willing to tell their parents this ridiculous story (as they haven’t in years past), the two brothers unite to fight this monster. They arm themselves with flashlights, tape, wire, a power drill and duct tape. But is this monster really a threat? Neal was once psychologically tortured and sleep-deprived by this creature. But that creature had 365 opportunities a year to get the upper hand on a sleeping child and somehow never won! After Neal left, his younger brother made it 730 consecutive nights unscathed. If this monster was really in the business of eating children to survive, it clearly would have starved to death by now. It doesn’t seem that menacing. A clawed hand reaching out from under the bed is scary, YES! But if it never does anything else…what’s the big deal?

I think the filmmakers really thought this movie was scary…..it wasn’t. Despite their addition of loud music prefacing “SOMETHING SCARY” every time the camera zooms in on something (like, for example, the edge of a menacing bed skirt), I never felt convinced that anyone old enough to buy their own ticket for this movie could possibly be frightened by it. Sophomoric scare attempts include a shaking washing machine and load noises, loud noises by themselves for no apparent reason, and close-ups of Neal looking at the bed with loud noises. Noticing a trend here?

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LOUD NOISES!

THEN ALL THE SUDDEN EVERYTHING CHANGED!

For over an hour we sit back and wonder why this movie isn’t rated PG-13 or even just PG. Then, after years of going hungry under the bed, the monster suddenly decides to show Neal’s family and the audience that it is, in fact, not at all bound to the bed!

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Neal and Paulie are next door when the creature arrives and twists off the neighbor kid’s head in a gloriously gory display. There’s that R-rating we came for! When they run back home it follows them and tears their dad’s head apart like a food processor. You hear that? It just followed them! Why the Hell did it just stay under the bed all these years? We went from a lame movie starring a rubber claw under a bed with loud music and no scares to a gore-slathered, slimy creature romp.

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The monster itself is actually pretty damned cool looking and the special effects are up to snuff as well. It looks like an inbred, disfigured Moorlock covered in snot.

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Why on Earth the director waited so long to reveal this creature, the action and the gore is beyond me because all of the exposition leading up to this was completely empty and the other characters–the parents, the neighbors, some random love interest that never goes anywhere–really never offered anything to the story, which never made any sense to begin with beyond the simple fact that inexplicably there is a child-hungry monster under Paulie’s bed.

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Earlier in the movie it is established that the monster only comes out in the darkness and is bound to beds…yet here it is in this well-lit living room and no where near a bed.

If things weren’t random enough yet, the monster actually fashions a hunter’s rope snare, traps Paulie like an animal and drags him into the under-the-bed slimy Netherworld! So, just like in Poltergeist II(1986), Neal ties a rope around his waist and goes after him armed with a flashlight trident.

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Someone should tell this kid that the monster forgot that light was its weakness.

I can’t even believe what I’m writing right now! WTF is going on in this movie? Were the writers all high? When they come back to–ummmm…reality I guess–the monster now literally has the ability to teleport before our eyes like Nightcrawler in X-Men. H ooray consistency! Then Neal is about to lose a fight against our under-the-bed teleporting Netherworld snot monster when he discovers that his dead mother’s ashes are its one weakness. Yeah! He throws his mother’s ashes on the monster and that’s what kills it!

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After a slow, confusing start this film eventually catapults its audience into a tumultuous spin cycle of bonkers gore, creature effects and action which–despite making no sense whatsoever–make the whole experience worth the price of admission. In fact, the last 20 minutes were so off-the-wall entertaining that I don’t regret buying this at all. Yes it’s very dumb. But it’s the kind of dumb I want to share with friends with an improvised drinking game.

Enjoy the madness.

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John’s Horror Corner: Alien Abduction (2014), a found footage horror that uses all the tropes but packs none of the punch.

April 13, 2014

     alien-abduction-posterMY CALL: This movie captures a good idea, but does so very poorly. There are a couple good scenes here but they are largely outweighed by the bad and the very bad. I give this two disfigured alien thumbs down. MOVIES LIKE Alien Abduction: Some good and not so good alien abduction movies include Skinwalker Ranch (2014; TRAILER HERE), Dark Skies (2013), The Fourth Kind (2009), Fire in the Sky (1993) and Signs (2002). TRAILER: You can find the trailer for this movie in my Horror Trailer Talk.

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This found footage film opens with the following caption: “The following is actual leaked footage from the US Air Force.” It’s cute when obviously untrue stories masquerade as true stories just to add mood or generate buzz. The Fourth Kind (2009) had people rushing to Google to check stats of people disappearing and FBI investigations in Gnome, Alaska. They did it well. Although that was about all they did well.

“For centuries, people have been disappearing on and around Brown Mountain, North Carolina. Locals believe the disappearances are directly linked with sightings of THE BROWN MOUNTAIN LIGHTS.” News casts, accounts from locals and witnesses, and testimonials from paranormal experts follow. These segments represent one of few things that were done well in this movie.

A family goes on a camping trip in the Brown Mountains. The parents and kids are somewhat likable, normal people and their trip is filmed by their youngest son. On their first night, the kids see lights in the sky moving in a way no star possibly could.

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The acting is far from top notch. When the father gets them lost and loses his temper his behavior is totally unfounded. When they run out of gas (which I don’t see happening on a family road trip into the mountains) the family tension escalates and the father becomes rage-y, again unconvincingly. Then again, even if they nailed their lines, the writing wasn’t great either. They come by several abandoned minivans and SUVs…as if some camping family Rapture had taken them all, leaving their cars and camping gear behind like a scene from The Walking Dead but without the walkers or corpses.

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We come across all the standard alien invasion film tropes. Birds becomes disoriented and fly into things creating jump scares, obscured film of extra terrestrial figures in the darkness, lights in the sky, satellite interference, alien mind control telepathy attacks a la Independence Day (1996), aliens examining humans, tractor beams, monstrous alien sounds…you name it, these filmmakers borrowed it.

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Almost none of this is executed well. But there is one really cool, brief scene in the entire movie when a tractor beam gets someone, cracking and contorting their body while being levitated.

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The aliens follow the most simple of paradigms. They’re tall, lanky, grey-skinned, big-eyed, four-fingered extra terrestrials that sound, at times, like the Predator (1987) mating with a velociraptor while slitting a pig’s throat. Later we hear them communicate with the bubbly blip sounds from Signs (2002).

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First-time director Matty Beckerman does a hardly serviceable job delivering an entertaining movie. The biggest faults are clearly found in the writing (also done by a first-time writer) and acting, especially the loner mountain man the family encounters–worst performance in the movie by far. There are some pacing issues as well, with some seriously dull lulls between periods of action. This movie actually goes from okay, to bad as we transition from the first act. It just seems to get worse and worse and the film wears on.

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Maybe I’d take a chance at whatever this director does next, but I won’t get my hopes up. At one point in the movie the mother describes Brown Mountain saying “It’s like Deliverance, minus the anal rape.” As far as my enjoyment of this movie goes…well… it’s like Deliverance, with the anal rape. There were short segments of this film that were done well, but too much was poorly for me to recommend this to anyone.

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Almost any movie may find both haters and lovers.  For a more favorable second opinion of Alien Abduction 2014, check out the review by Parlor of HorrorThey don’t suck at movie reviews.  I promise.

John’s Horror Corner: Possession (1981), This film is one of the strangest, most disturbing story-driven things ever filmed, examining the psychosis of obsession, sexuality and the monsters within us

April 12, 2014

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MY CALL: This film is one of the strangest, most disturbing story-driven things ever filmed. Surreal, symbolic, creepy and imaginative…this is a deep investigation into fixation, manipulation, obsession and acceptance. There is nothing like it. HOW YOU CAN WATCH THIS RARE MOVIE: You can find several versions of the entire movie on YouTube and, though typically with few copies at a time, it can be purchased on Amazon–but you may need to purchase a foreign import.

Zulawski’s Possession has slowly acquired a cult following of mythical proportions. Those who have seen it surely understand why. Those who haven’t probably just read synopses and have no clue what they’re missing. This is the one horror movie you could ever see in your life that has neither borrowed ideas or been borrowed itself. It’s perhaps far too cavalier and it comes as no shock that no one else would dare approach the themes of this film.

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Mark (Sam Neill; Event Horizon, Daybreakers) and his wife Anna (Isabelle Adjani; Nosferatu the Vampyre) are having difficulty after he learns that she wants a divorce. Mark becomes generally obsessive about learning why Anna, who he still loves, wants the divorce; whereas Anna becomes generally increasingly histrionic in her attempts to escape him and his attention. These characters are severely neurotic, seemingly thriving on each other’s bizarre behavior–yet, for all their apparently extreme behavior, they are somehow all too human.

As I watched I began to wonder if Anna truly was this crazy, or if the film is depicting Mark’s “perception” of Anna. Are they really this violent? Or are these reflections of how Mark feels, what Mark “wishes” he could do, how Mark “wants” to slap the crazy out of her?

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Mark discovers that Anna has a lover named Heinrich. But fear not, this is no spoiler as it produces more questions than answers when he learns that she lies about being with Heinrich when really she is…with someone else. Anna’s true obsession has a somewhat gruesome process and nothing will stop her from reaching her strange end goal.

In case you find yourself doubting the psychological undertones of this film, their son’s teacher Helen (also played by Isabelle Adjani) looks exactly like Anna, but is her polar opposite in temperament. And starting a relationship with Helen lessens Mark’s obsession with Anna.  At the insane end of the spectrum this film features the most disturbing miscarriage scene and the most bizarre sex scene I’ve ever seen!  I have intentionally not mentioned many aspects of this film and it may sound like more a psychological thriller than anything, but I assure you it’s also a bizarre horror movie with supernatural components.

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These images should help convince you that this isn’t just some sick relationship drama.

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This film is neither easy to find (for purchase or rental) nor understand, and I expect it was likewise difficult to write and film. It shifts from an intense drama, to a dark mysterious horror, to something of a Euro-action… And all the while we are left to wonder which events truly transpire, and which are entirely products of Anna’s fragile psyche (e.g., the famous subway miscarriage scene) or, perhaps, what Mark’s rage perceives as her fragility and desperation.

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The ending is unsettling and unclear. But the use of doppelganger characters and perspective reveal the dark and distorted nature of intense relationship conflicts, often resulting in perceiving our resistors as mirroring our own mania.

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This film is CLEARLY one of the strangest, most disturbing story-driven things ever filmed. Surreal, symbolic, creepy and imaginative…this is a deep investigation into fixation, manipulation, obsession and acceptance. There is nothing like it.

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Captain America: The Winter Soldier

April 11, 2014

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Captain America: The Winter Soldier is proof that Marvel is still in the meticulously planned market of mixing it up. After billions of dollars of grosses they aren’t afraid to push a film about a bunch of “A-holes “or release a movie where an American hero questions the government. Their commitment to remaining fresh (Sans Thor 2) has been thrilling to watch and their gambling has paid off massively.

The Winter Soldier is devoid of drive-in WWII nostalgia and in its place is a timely exploration of a post-911 world. Subtle is ain’t and the dialogue sometimes jack hammers the point but Cap 2 has enough smarts and likable characters to make it a stand out amongst Marvel standouts.

The movie opens with an out-of-place Steve Rogers getting used to his new reality. He has a notebook for things he should catch up on and spends his days running and visiting the bedridden Peggie Carter. He has developed a fun working relationship with Black Widow (Scarlet Johansson), made friends with a fellow soldier (Anthony Mackie) and occasionally flirts with neighbors (Emily Van Camp). However, he is a 95-year-old man who is catching up with a completely different world. His morals don’t mesh with his employer S.H.E.I.L.D. and he constantly argues with his boss Nick Fury.

The reason all of this works is because of the excellent performances. Chris Evans (watch Sunshine already), Scarlett Johansson, Frank Grillo, Robert Redford, Samuel L. Jackson and Anthony Mackie are all given three-dimensional characters to work with and you buy into them as they are surrounded by super computers, serums and tight outfits. The friendships formed between Cap, Black Widow and Falcon are dealt with organically and add laughs and emotion to the proceedings. I dug how the polar opposite personalities of Widow and Cap form a nice counter balance of shady and earnest. Also, Cap finally finds a like-minded “soldier” in Mackie with whom he can punch faces with.

Eventually, things go boom, people are wrongfully condemned and a dude with long greasy hair puts a hurting on many things. The highlights of the film are the fist/foot/knee/elbow to face violence that takes place in between the CGI blobs. Cap can’t smash like Hulk or whack villains with a mythical hammer. He has to get up close and that is why he is my favorite character. His battles with George St. Pierre, Frank Grillo and Sebastian Stan are marvels of close quarter mayhem that make the character more relatable. He isn’t a genius or god. He is a good man who loves his country and uses his powers to hurt bad people.

The best part of Cap 2 is that our heroes actually have solid villains to battle with.  I’ve written ad nauseam about how superheroes need super villains. Batman had The Joker and Scarecrow in The Dark Knight. The Avengers battled Loki. The X-Men had Magneto. However, films like Iron Man 2, Hulk, Wolverine and Thor 2 had villains who never felt like a threat and thus never allowed the material to be elevated. To say who the bad guys are in Cap 2 is a bit of a spoiler. I will say that the violence they bring is threatening and the way in which they are dispatched is pretty great.

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The Winter Soldier throws the Marvel universe in flux and it will be fun to see where it takes our heroes. Marvel didn’t play it safe as they swung for the fences, ignored sequel rules and hired the Russo brothers to direct (I love their work on Community and Happy Endings) Marvel has succeeded once again and they’ve refreshed a comic book genre that could easily become over-saturated and stale. Bring on Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant Man!

 

John’s Horror Corner: Wishmaster 2: Evil Never Dies (1999), a worthy, less gory evil genie sequel with half the budget

April 10, 2014

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MY CALL: A flimsier story and a little less gore than the original, but still this is a worthy sequel with a smaller budget that was stretched as far as possible for our entertainment. MORE MOVIES LIKE Wishmaster 2: Wishmaster (1997).

Our story beings with a robbery in the very museum where Wishmaster (1997) ends. During a shootout between museum security and some hooded bandits, the statue which entombed our favorite wish-twisting Djinn’s ruby prison is shot, loosening a chunk of stone and revealing the artifact.

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Honoring the Djinn’s gorily memorable emergence in the franchise opener, part two follows suit by having the museum wall apparently “give gory birth” to our horribly misshapen genie (Andrew Divoff; Lost, Wishmaster) from a gore-slathered stain turned bubbly mess. He’s slimy and distorted and he wastes no time before soliciting wishes to a dying thief…which apparently results in the Djinn’s resumption of his normal, tentacle-headed form.

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Now things get a little weird. So the Djinn goes to prison after admitting to being a museum robber and Morgana (Holly Fields; Communion, Seed People), the thief who unearthed the Djinn’s ruby, gets away. As the Djinn (in Andrew Divoff’s form) engages in his Monkey Paw shenanigans while serving time, Morgana has sweaty dreams in her underwear as if they share some sort of psychic link.

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But why does the Djinn feel content to remain in prison? His powers are limited to granting wishes, I suppose, so maybe he can’t leave…I’m really not sure. Is it really easier to dupe people out of their souls in prison? He should go to an elementary school. He should have no problem getting kids to wish away their souls for no homework, ponies, cookies for dinner and the like.

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Despite how painfully slow and ineffective dial-up internet was in the 90s, Morgana somehow sleuths out what the Djinn is and what he wants. She realizes that she has to stop him! But why she’d want to stop him from killing a bunch of incarcerated felons is beyond me. He needs 1001 souls before he comes for Morgana’s. I say let him take a few more criminals out first.

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This sequel is helmed by the slightly more established director Jack Sholder (A Nightmare on Elm Street 2, The Hidden). With an uninspired plot, this sequel’s story is just as flimsy if not more so than the original and we enjoy a little less of the gore and the wide variety of effects presented in part one–perhaps a function of a lower budget (which was half that of the original and this is especially obvious in the final act). But you can tell they tried to do a lot with what little they had. I can appreciate that.

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Replacing some of the gore is more acting…specifically, Andrew Divoff’s menacing performance. He’s awkward yet appropriate and over-the-top yet spot on given his supernatural, riddling role. He gets more screen time in this sequel, as well as more “horror humor” a la Freddy Krueger. Andrew Divoff is great in this. But make no mistake, he is no Robin Williams or Barbara Eden; this is not your mother’s genie movie.

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Somehow this wildly out-of-place, inappropriate imagery makes its way into the movie.  Don’t ask.

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Despite having a flimsier story and a little less gore than the original, this is a worthy sequel with a smaller budget that was stretched as far as possible for our entertainment.

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