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Direct To Video Picks For June 2012

Just the other day I was lamenting my apparent loss of passion for horror movies. When I was younger (middle school through college), I would gleefully watch any horror movie that landed on our video store's shelves. As I've gotten older, and the market more and move over saturated, I've started skipping the crap and desperately re-watching the horror I know is great.

I know this makes me a little, old, curmudgeon. I know this means I'm stagnating and my horror skills will begin to atrophy if I don't get the hell over myself and start watching more new horror.

On that note (plus a suggestion from a good friend) I've decided to embark on a new project: monthly direct-to-video horror suggestions (otherwise known as, "I didn't hate it.")

In order to make this work, I'm fairly certain I have to lower the bar on my expectations and dig deep within myself to find the gentle, compassionate, forgiving film critic I know I can be.

...what have I gotten myself into?...  

Direct to video picks for June

Medium Raw: Night of the Wolf (2010)

Side note: I may be taking a little liberty in picking this movie as it was "made for TV" but, I'm sure you'll forgive me, right?...

The skinny
Kid watches sister being murdered by serial killer. Kid grows up, becomes a cop, and catches said serial killer. Serial killer goes to asylum where cop and asylum staff become trapped and tormented by inmates.

The thing I find most amusing about this? The plot summary on Netfilx reads, "When a power failure shuts down the safeguards at a maximum-security sanitarium, the inmates spring into action and terrorize the civilians inside." but it takes about 45 minutes to actually get to that part of the story. The disconnect between what I expected to see and where the movie started was a little confusing and completely distracting.

Warning signs
Written and directed by the lead actor. Woah boy!

It's not at all uncommon to have a director write the screenplay. Those jobs are intimately related and being tackled by one person can mean a very, very strong film. But directing a movie is a demanding job. Trying to direct and act at the same time means that your commitment to either task is significantly reduced.
In the case of Medium Raw, it definitely shows. Andrew Cymek is nothing short of terrible in the lead role; stilted, awkward, and completely lacking in emotional range, I wish desperately that they had the funding to hire anyone else in the world to play the part.

And the writing. The writing is more, "amateurish" than straight up bad. Actually, it's not terrible for a low budget production and by that I mean, it's better than most Syfy channel movies. (Have you seen Scream of the Banshee?!) The thing I do want to give him credit for here are really non-standard and interesting inmates populating the asylum. A nearly proper southern lady who happens to be a cannibal, a lovable foot fetishist, and a short-tempered reject from a freak show. Even the mad doctor (which every asylum has!) was just this side of stereotypical. Believable? Who cares? These aren't your standard crazies and they successfully spiced up a predictable plot.

All of Cymek's short comings are unfortunate because his direction is actually pretty good, and I don't just mean that as, "pretty good for a low budget movie." It's actually good. (To be fair, this isn't his first movie and his experience shows.)

What it reminds me of
I kept feeling like someone took In Dreams, Silence of the Lambs, Seven, and 13 Ghosts, threw them in a blender and topped the whole mess off with a dab of Arkham Asylum.

On the surface, that doesn't sound like too terrible a mix but, Medium Raw suffers from a disjointed, wandering feeling. There are definitely two major stories going on with a handful of subplots tossed in. Had the writing been tightened up a bit, they might have been able to pull it all off. As it stands, the movie definitely runs too long and gets a bit lost in itself along the way.

I was really impressed with the production values: good sets, great 'monster' costume, good gore effects, etc. And while we're on the gore front here, it was rather subdued. I'd like to think they intentionally kept the use of blood to a subtle level but, I'm a cynic at heart and am more inclined to believe they simply didn't have the money to fuck anything up with cgi. Whatever the reason, the result is kind of refreshing and enjoyable.

Tangent time
If Cymek is a terrible actor, there are literally no words in the English language to describe Mercedes Mcnab's acting. If you're in my age bracket, you probably know her best as Wednesday Addam's nemesis in the Addam's Family movies. (You know, "is the lemonade made from real lemons? are the girl scout cookies made from real girl scouts?" That girl.)

She may have just topped my list of the worst actors on earth. Like, worse than Keanu Reeves. Worse than Rob Schneider. Worse than Megan Fox.

I was horrified to see some retard at USA Today gave her a shout out in an article about "scream queens." A scream queen? Really? Did you just put Mercedes Mcnab in the same category as Jamie Lee Curtis, Linnea Quigley, and Barbara Shelley?

The truly awful part about his article? He quotes Lloyd Kaufman's take on what makes a good scream queen (the gist being a pretty face and a wide range of emotion) and still, somehow, thinks to include Mcnab, a girl with a face that shows but one thing, vacancy.

Wrap up
The plot wanders, the acting is bad, and the movie is way too long. But I didn't hate it.


The Signal (2007)

Side note: there are definitely going to be spoilers in this one. You've been warned.

The skinny
Media communications are blocked, replaced by a mysterious "signal" that turns most people into brutal killing machines.

What it reminds me of
If that synopsis doesn't automatically make you start thinking about They Live, Videodrome, and possibly even TerrorVision, you're not watching enough movies.

I actually went into The Signal fearing yet another lame zombie movie and happily came away with something much more akin to They Live. Or even The Manchurian Candidate. The idea that we can be brainwashed into doing terrible things will forever haunt our freedom-centric culture. And the idea that you never know who to trust, even in your closest circle of friends, because evil (or sickness or aliens or whatever) can hide within them is hardly a new fear.
To this end, I have to give The Signal credit for working with relatable, always applicable, truly frightening concepts.

Why it's a tricky beast to write about
One movie told in three parts, each directed by a different person. It would actually be easier if we were talking about an anthology movie (think Creepshow) where each segment of the movie was a stand alone story. In the case of The Signal, we're actually talking about one story shown in different installments. It's difficult to discuss the "big picture" as there are so many cooks in the kitchen. 

For the record, three directors made for a really uneven movie. Somehow, it kind of worked though.

Part One:"Wait. Is she tied up with Christmas lights?"
Opening on a movie within a movie and not letting me know it right away is a great little mind-fuck that sets the movie's tone of, "don't trust anything you see."

There's no slow boil on the tension; we accelerate pretty rapidly from, "hey man, everything's cool." to, "holy shit what the fuck is happening?!" If you hadn't read the movie synopsis, it would actually be a bit of a fun puzzler trying to figure out why people are going crazy in this movie thanks, primarily, to the fact that the "signal" responsible for the madness doesn't appear to effect everyone.

Nicely played. 

That sets us up with that classic Monsters are Due on Maple Street feeling of paranoia: who is responsible? Who can I trust? Etc.

The acting is great: basic, natural, and convincing. Mya (Anessa Ramsey) may just rank among my favorite "final girls." She never "runs up the stairs" when she should "go out the front door." She's constantly thinking even in the most difficult emotional moments. Unlike most women in horror movies who weaken to pleas for help, she stoically refuses to put her life on the line for any random weirdo reaching out their hand. And when she realizes she can't trust the people she thought she could, she makes the hard yet rational decision to kill them. 

Bloody, intense, and fast-paced, I was completely engaged for the full "transmission."

Part Two: "It was a laugh riot."
Part two doesn't exactly pick up where part one ended. That's disconcerting and I kind of appreciate it. And thanks to the severity of part one, you're left with a lingering sense of paranoia that makes the immediate, noticeable difference in tone of part two a suspicious change. (Where the first part was gritty and terrifying, part two is softer with a generous helping of awkward humor.)

But the violence doesn't let up to make space for the humor. In fact, quite the opposite: I think part two is actually more graphic than part one. (Think here Hot Fuzz or American Werewolf in London.)

Every character seems to be trapped in their own little bubble despite interacting with one another. Every emotional response seems to be an "inappropriate" one but no one seems to notice. Lewis (AJ Bowen) is a murderous genius with exceptional comic timing despite his delusional, obsessive, violent state. Anna (Cheri Christian) is hilarious as a clueless, 50's-esque housewife serving cocktails in the midst of total social collapse.

Nicely Played.

Now, not only do I know that within the movie nothing is to be trusted but, I can't even trust my own senses to tell me what's going on. Should I be laughing? Is this funny? Wait. What the... Surreal, unexpected, and disturbing, the second "transmission" was fascinating.

Part Three: "Where everything falls apart."
By far the sloppiest and (unfortunately) the weakest part of the movie. The "tent pole" of the final part is Ben (Justin Welborn) who isn't just our trustworthy and dedicated hero but a mere mortal like everyone else struggling to resist the "signal." 

The ending is fairly ambiguos: there's no explanation of where the "signal" comes from or what it's purpose is. It's not clear if Mya is "infected" or not. It's not clear if Clark (Scott Poythress) is dead or unconscious. It's not clear if Ben and Mya escape together. It's not explained if the "signal" ever stops or what happens to the remaining people.

Wrap up
A bit uneven, well acted, and plenty gory. I mostly enjoyed it.

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