Friday, May 25, 2018

Urban Legend

I’ve heard the claim that the character of Denise Hemsfield from Scream Queens was in some way based on Reese Wilson (Loretta Devine) from this movie.  Rewatching Urban Legend, I was surprised to find it had some rather striking similarities in terms of plot and characters to the show.  That said, however, I don’t want to spoil Scream Queens for anyone, so I would just say watch it for yourselves.
This is a movie that does have the rotten luck of being defined primarily in terms of its relationship to other movies.  On its own, it’s not good enough to praise, and not bad enough to mock.  But, its status as the most overtly meta post-Scream movie kind of makes it relevant in discussion of horror history, so it can’t just be forgotten either.
The ending of the movie throws what was or wasn’t real largely into question, revealing the plot of the movie itself to be another Urban Legend based loosely on true events.  That said, however, I find it somewhat hard to believe that a retold urban legend would contain the level of detail in a 90-minute movie, so where “reality” ends and legend begins I’m not sure.
We open with the classic Killer in the Back Seat, setting up the plot with the murder of Michelle (Natasha Gregson Wagner), a murder which deeply shakes our protagonist Natalie (Alicia Witt).  Natalie finds herself in the midst of a series of murders based on urban legends, and is teamed up with school reporter Paul (Jared Leto), who suspects they’re related to a killing spree on campus from 1973, of which Professor Wexler (Robert Englund) was the only survivor.
I’ve heard people say that this movie is no longer relevant, as none of these Urban Legends are widely believed in the day of the internet.  I strongly disagree, however.  Even in the movie, it’s clear most of the characters know that these stories have never happened before, and even the killer acknowledges that she’s likely the first person to ever actually attempt a kidney heist.  If anything, Snopes has created a world where everyone has at least heard these stories, even if they know them only as debunked.  I imagine that there were large chunks of the audience in the 90s who were unfamiliar with at least some of the references stories.
Eventually, we learn that the previous massacre was all a red herring.  Rather, Natalie’s friend Brenda (Rebecca Gayheart) planned the entire thing as a revenge plot, with Wexler as the would-be patsy.  Natalie, as it turns out, had been in a car with Michelle when the latter attempted to scare some random stranger by reenacting the High Beams initiation myth, causing a crash and a death.  If the movie has one detail I suspect we were supposed to take as non-literal, it’s the suggestion that Natalie was the more innocent of the two, as the killer saved her for last, and she was apparently given the same sentence of probation as Michelle.
Rewatching this movie now, I think it’s imperfect, but deserves a watch.  This is a movie that has a sense of humor about itself, and I suspect everyone involved knew they were making a cut-rate Scream, and were okay with that fact.  The degree of character development is certainly less than Scream, but they weren’t really going for a deep character study.  You mostly get what you expect.
…oh, and Danielle Harris is in this…this is a good thing…because Danielle Harris is awesome.

Friday, May 18, 2018


This is a movie where I can’t really pretend that I take the premise seriously for a single second.  While I do have a personal belief in the afterlife, I do not think near-death experiences are evidence for it.  If such evidence existed it could only be presented by contact with spirits of those who are definitely dead, not the memories of those who were close.  Even if their experiences were completely valid, the afterlife might very well last five minutes rather than an eternity for all we can tell.
Beyond that, I’ll never understand what Medical Student Nelson Wright (Kiefer Sutherland) thinks he’s proving in this story.  The plan he forms with his fellow students is to stop their hearts, revive themselves, and record what they experience.  I don’t see anything about this experience that makes them especially different from the numerous other near-death experiences.
The closest the movie comes to scientific objectivity is when Dave Labraccio (Kevin Bacon) undergoes the experiment assuming that, as an atheist, he would experience nothing unless there was an afterlife.  This completely disregards the fact that he was raised in a culture of religion.  It also disregards the possibility he himself raised: the brain might release some hormone at the point of death to calm the dying individual
I don’t say all of this as a negative.  The fact that the movie isn’t scientific frames how I view it.  I approach this movie as pure 80s cheese not that far removed from Re-Animator (never mind that it was made in 1990).  From that perspective, this movie is pitch-perfect.  Kiefer Sutherland gives a stylized performance that’s brilliantly over-the-top in his utter narcissism.
Nelson is backed up in his insane endeavor by Rachel Manus (Julia Roberts), who doesn’t look like she’s missed a second of sleep through medical school, the aforementioned Dave Labraccio, and resident womanizer Joe Hurley (William Badlwin).  The group is rounded out by Oliver Platt as Randy Steckle, who takes very little part in the actual flatlining, but sticks around to tell the others that they’re insane, and provide some assistance with reviving them.
 Being a movie, of course, things must actually happen in response to this experiment.  Things that, for some reason, have never happened to anyone experiencing near death experiences before.  Rather than simply seeing glimpses of a supposed afterlife, the med students being to have visions of their past sins haunting them.  Dave, for example, begins seeing visions of a little girl he picked on when he was a child.  Joe sees visions of women he filmed without their knowledge.  Rachael’s “sin” was rewritten to avoid tarnishing Julia Robert’s image, so she still struggles with guilt concerning the suicide of her father.
Interestingly, the movie would be very different if it was limited to those three scenarios.  Both Dave and Joe are “haunted” by the “ghosts” of people who are clearly still alive, and Rachel did nothing wrong.  In and of itself, even as cheesy as the whole premise is, these three stories could be taken as purely psychological horror.  Near the point of death these three people faced their own demons.
But, naturally, the 80s couldn’t be that subtle.  So, Nelson finds himself face-to-face with the physical ghost of his childhood dog, and a kid (Joshua Rudoy) whose death he was accidentally responsible for.  This ghost child is able to physically beat up an adult Kiefer Sutherland, because of course he is.
In terms of horror, Nelson is almost in another movie.  Not to say that it isn’t cheesy throughout, but there’s a difference between being tormented by visions of past wrongs, and a cut 20-something being spat on by a small child who just overpowered him.  Furthermore, unlike the others who ultimately share emotional moments in which they deal with their sins, Nelson never calms down enough to really give a sense of closure.  While the movie does use one scene to establish the possibility that Nelson is engaging in self-harm and imagining a child doing it, I don’t think Nelson has a single scene in which he deals with his own wrongs in anything other than a blind panic.
Eventually, Nelson tries to reconcile with the demons of his past by flatlining with no one else present.  After apparent “death” he’s apparently forgiven by the ghost of his childhood enemy, and returns to the land of the living for a happy ending.  It’s exactly the blend of cheese this movie needed.
If you haven’t seen Flatliners, you’re missing out.  You won’t be scared, but it’s a fun movie.

Friday, May 11, 2018


And so, Shyamalan returns to form.  For anyone who hasn’t yet found out yet, Split is the sequel to Unbreakable.  While I was initially a little skeptical of the movie due to the portrayal of mental illness, this aspect really fixed the problem for me.  Kevin (James McAvoy) isn’t a mental patient, he’s a super villain.
The premise of this movie, that a man with multiple personalities has been taken over by three malevolent personalities intent on creating a super-human amalgam, sounds utterly silly on paper.  It works largely because McAvoy is a brilliant performer, who can signal with his body language exactly who he’s supposed to be at any given moment.
We largely see the story of Kevin from the outside looking in, as we follow two subplots.  Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), Kevin’s psychiatrist, who begins to realize that his malevolent personalities have taken over, and Casey Cooke (Anna Taylor-Joy), a victim kidnapped by “Dennis” as a sacrifice for “The Beast.”  While Casey is one of three victims (the other two being played by Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula), the others largely exist as foils to her.  Over the course of the film we realize that this is not her first time in the role of a victim, and she alone realizes that no empowerment mantra can fix the situation easily.
The leader of the three personalities is Patricia.  While she’s both female and terrifying, I feel the movie largely avoids transphobia.  She induces fear mainly from the disconnect between her calm demeanor, and her brutal plans to literally feed the girls to The Beast.
Her recruit, Dennis, really could have been split into two characters.  One who was a sympathetic protector of Kevin, the first alternate personality, and another who was a sexual predator.  These traits make it frequently unclear whether or not we’re supposed to sympathize with Dennis as misguided, or view him as irredeemably evil.
The final “evil” personality is Hedwig, a childlike being who has the power to take “the light” from any of the personalities, and give it to any other.  Hedwig is a very difficult character to nail down.  His nature creates the impression that he was manipulated by Patricia, but there are times in which he takes actions that seem to serve no purpose other than personal malice.
The trailer made it quite clear that, yes, the Beast was real and did come.  If there’s a real shocker to the ending, however, it’s in The Beast’s decision to let Casey go.  Through a series of flashbacks we find out that Casey has been living for years with her sexually abusive uncle, following the death of her family.  The Beast, upon realizing that Casey has been abused, tells her to “rejoice” that she is “pure” because of her brokenness, and by extension is worthy to live.  There’s arguably a strong implication that she will kill her uncle in the near future.
The movie closes with Patricia, Dennis, and Hedwig reflecting on how amazing The Beast is, as we look on and wonder what will happen next.  The ending reminded me of Edward Norton’s The Incredible Hulk, leaving us with some uncertainty whether the “monster” was a purely malevolent entity.  I do kind of wonder what Shyamalan is thinking presenting a character who literally cannibalized multiple people as morally grey.
The movie isn’t shocking or sickening, but it is intense.  It’s a film that I certainly wouldn’t show to a child.  With the sequel, Glass, on the horizon, I’m very eager to see what else M. Night has up his sleeve.