NEW IN ACTION: OCTOBER 2021, AKA HAUNTED-HOUSE ROUND-UP

This month on the Round-Up we’re deviating a bit and taking a few liberties on what 1) constitutes “new” and 2) how much “action” might make an Action movie. But it’s October! We want to be SPOOOOOKY! We’re sure you don’t mind.

FROM ANDREW GIMETZCO!:

HOUSE II: THE SECOND STORY (1987) [STREAMING ON TUBI, SHUDDER, AND ARROW PLAYER]

In the late 1980s, a potential franchise was floundering, that had a somewhat strong start: The House franchise. The first installment was imaginative and strange and tackled themes of PTSD related to the Viet Nam conflict. It was an odd mix of things but found mild success. So, producer Sean S. Cunningham (of Friday the 13th fame) pushed forward with the sequel, House II: The Second Story (get it? it’s a pun!). Written and directed by Ethan Wiley, House II centers around Jessie (Ari Gross), who inherits an incredibly strange house. Jessie’s best pal, Charlie (Jonathan Stark), shows up, and they both explore the mysteries of the house. Easy. As. That. But not so fast! They unearth a “mummy” (Royal Dano)! The houses’ rooms serve as portals to alternate universes featuring creatures of all kinds (it’s called a “doggerpillar,” you ding dongs!)! And all this because of some crazy mystical Crystal Skull! So it’s up to Jessie and Charlie to keep the skull out of the wrong hands/mouths of anyone/thing that wants it. House II doesn’t exactly feature any ghosts – rather, alternate-dimension hopping creatures, and cursed undead from the Old West, as well as an Aztec cult hell-bent on virgin sacrifice! And all of it takes place on Halloween in a big weird house! It’s zany and madcap and of its time, with the action here being more of the adventure sort with swashbuckling sword fights and a few gunslinging scenes, and slapstick. House II is my favorite Halloween film, in part because the Halloween bit is so peripheral, allowing the story to do its thing without falling into the gimmick of being a holiday movie.

FROM BRIAN MILLER:

SCANNER COP (1993) & SCANNER COP 2 (1994) [RECENTLY REISSUED ON DOUBLE-FEATURE BLU-RAY FROM VINEGAR SYNDROME]

The premise of Scanner Cop sounds like an A24 film. A child, living in absolute poverty, shares the same life-threatening rare illness as his single father. Unable to afford medication for the both of them, the father loses his mind. The last thing the son witnesses his father ever do is attempt to kill a man, but at the last second, the father is shot dead by their landlord. The man who narrowly escaped death at the hands of his father adopts the boy and raises him lovingly and in comfort. That is until the boy grows up, becomes a man, and enters the police force to follow in the footsteps of his adopted father. That is when the adopted father tells his son to stop taking his medication and the son begins his descent into the madness that got his blood father killed in order to be a better employee of the police department. This does not play out like an A24 film though. Rather it is the goofy House II-style cousin of the Cronenberg body horror original, filled with plenty of people flying through walls and hemorrhaging blood vessels designed to make Middle Schoolers snicker. In other words, it is perfect.

Scanner Cop 2 moves into more of a Scanners III territory, as a pure action interpretation of the franchise, tossing aside most of the twisted psychology. The third act delivers some of the most gruesome gore of any of the five films. Most satisfactorily though, it finally gives the viewer versions of scanners fully in control of their powers. A very fitting end to the run of films.

Batman: The Long Halloween, Part 1 and Part 2 (2021)[Recently added to HBO Max]

A more dour entry into the Batman animated library of films, alongside Batman Year One (2011) and Mask of The Phantasm (1993). With Halloween built into the name, this was a no-brainer for HBO Max to make available in October. Mostly though, Halloween is just symbolic. This isn’t some sort of spooky vibes-only version of the Caped Crusader. The narrative is bookended by Halloweens though, and it does have a version of the villain The Scarecrow that is pure lawn decoration come to life. One could do better for a festive Batman viewing, perhaps with The Batman vs. Dracula (2005) or Batman Unlimited: Monster Mayhem (2015).  This film does bless the world with a touching visit of a single trick or treater to Wayne Manor, dressed as Batman, who Alfred rudely only gives two candy bars from his giant bucket of sugar, despite previously admitting that no kids ever come there.

FROM ELBEE:

VENOM: LET THERE BE CARNAGE (2021) [NEW IN THEATERS]

The Sony-made MCU movies have seemed far more interesting than most of the Cookie-cutter Committee schlock Marvel Studios continues to sput out, including this second entry in what is looking to be a fruitful Venom franchise. What sets these Sony movies apart is Venom and the animated masterpiece Into the Spider-verse aren’t afraid to get weird (Venom especially deserves its own entry into our own “Weird Boners” column, but we’ll save that for another day). Venom: Let There Be Carnage is also unafraid to get spooky. Much of the early action takes place in the eerily named Ravencroft Institute (elements of haunted houses and mad science and government overreach there), and later in a brutal prison escape with the evil alien parasite Carnage throwing prison guards around with such disregard he might as well have hashtagged it “ACAB” on his Instagram. The only thing really holding this film back is its PG-13 rating, which leaves it in that annoying area of “we don’t want to frighten children too much,” but forgets that Venom in any incarnation is kind of an adult story to begin with. However, director Andy Serkis does a pretty exceptional job at building atmosphere and tension, not to mention balancing a love story with all the action and fighting – and keeping it to a swift 97 minutes! Marvel Studios should be so lucky.

HALLOWEEN KILLS (2021) [NEW IN THEATERS AND STREAMING ON PEACOCK]

There’s almost nothing to like more about a movie than when it doesn’t care whether or not you like it. In the Halloween franchise, that happened once before with Halloween III: Season of the Witch. In that case, though, we can perhaps consider the “not caring” a happy accident, so it’s pretty cool to see another entry in the franchise throw its middle finger to hardcore fans (and cool to see references to its punky ancestor H3 peppered here and there throughout it). And that’s what helps Halloween Kills along in the action sphere – that the townspeople of Haddonfield also don’t really care if you like them. Tommy Doyle leading a blind mob to bully an innocent man to a violent and shocking suicide (although, if this man did actually escape from the same hospital for the criminally insane that also housed Michael Myers, exactly how innocent might he be?) is perhaps a pivotal moment in “which of our heroes are actually villains” discourse (Tommy’s mob can represent anything from QAnon to “cancel culture” to just plain ol’ Twitter tomfoolery). I actually don’t like how spoonfed we are with HK‘s social commentary, but I’m not trying to hold this film to the highest of standards. In fact, I very much like this film for lowering those standards some, and for putting Laurie Strode’s personal trauma/drama on the backburner in favor of more of a “22 Short Films About Springfield” approach. The horror beats are there, punctuated at first by some puny attempts at action violence (“Why aren’t those firefighters even trying to fend off Michael?” I said), but by the end of the picture, we’ve got that mob again delivering some pretty chilling blows to that man in the Shatner mask. By the way, does William Shatner even exist in this universe? Eh, the movies don’t care, so neither should we.

THE TRIP (I ONDE DAGER) (2021) [NEW ON NETFLIX]

If you’ve kept up with Norwegian filmmaker Tommy Wirkola’s career, you know when he does horror it’s going to be a big, fun, bloody mess. Whether as a writer or director, his style of horror (the Dead Snow movies, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters) is typically fantasy-based, accented by some superb action sequences, but for The Trip, he’s turned to a story a little more grounded in reality. Of course, that’s not to say this film isn’t hyper-reality. An unhappily married couple both plan to use a weekend excursion to the family’s remote cabin as a means to kill one another for insurance money (the Norwegian title is the “for worse” in the phrase “for better or for worse”). But, when they get there, they learn there’s a far greater danger they have to face. The rest of the film is full of smartly edited, relentlessly violent action while the couple fights for their lives and puts their marriage into perspective. We might expect the film to go full nihilist, but refreshingly, it does not; not often does such a violent movie with such actually quite disturbing scenes (humiliation warning) also have so much charm, but I guess that’s the Norwegians for ya.

NIGHT TEETH (2021) [NEW ON NETFLIX]

To be skeptical about this picture is fair: the marketing put forth by Netflix makes it look more like an attempt by Freeform to make an edgy vampire thriller. But, when you give it the benefit of the doubt and sit down to watch it, you find out that…it is indeed more like an attempt by Freeform to make an edgy vampire thriller.

Night Teeth could have been a cool “survive the night” action horror. Instead, what little action it has is disappointing, replaced by an uncompelling “cute meet” that amounts to little more than a platonic friend-zoning. Not only is this movie unimaginative and boring, it debases us by half-assedly jumping in on the neon-noir game and padding itself with a feeble attempt at social commentary via some kind of centuries-old vampire/human turf war. Vampire lore has such a lush history, and tryhard movies like this that rest on an aesthetic are, frankly, insulting to all of it.

FROM JAY ALARY:

freddy vs. jason (2003) [streaming on hbo max]

Like Quentin Tarantino, I was disappointed that a line in the trailer, “Freddy vs. Jason—place your bets!” wasn’t in the theatrical version of Freddy vs. Jason. The line seemed apropos for a cinematic slugfest between two of the ‘80s most iconic horror characters. They’ve certainly come a long way since their origins: Jason Voorhees was only featured in flashbacks as a drowned child while his mom did all the heaving lifting, er, killing, in Friday the 13th (1980), and Freddy was better known as “Fred Krueger” in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), seldom seen and definitely not delivering witty bon mots like he would in subsequent sequels. When New Line Cinema acquired the rights to Jason (but not the “Friday the 13th” brand) from Paramount, plans were underway to feature the twin titans of terror in a film together. It took over a decade, but New Line delivered on its promise: Freddy vs. Jason would become a brief box-office smash in the Fall of 2003, as horror fans piled into multiplexes on opening weekend while the rest of the world shrugged with indifference.

Freddy vs. Jason isn’t a cinematic masterpiece, but a cinematic confection that’s entertaining and quickly forgotten. Director Ronny Yu, already acclaimed in Hong Kong for making genre-bending martial arts films like The Bride with White Hair (1993) and resurrecting the dormant Child’s Play franchise with Bride of Chucky (1998), strives to keep the action, quips, and gore flowing in the film’s brisk 98-minute running time. Robert Englund returns as everybody’s favorite child killer and he clearly relishes the opportunity to strut about and deliver some cringe-inducing dialogue (Kelly Rowland’s character’s homophobic slur notwithstanding), as Freddy manipulates lumbering zombie Jason into providing fresh teens for him to terrorize. Undeclared’s Monica Keena is suitably bland as the Final Girl–nobody watches slashers for the acting–but Yu has assembled a solid mix of familiar Canadian and American actors, especially Ginger Snaps’ Katharine Isabelle in a small, standout role before she’s dispatched expeditiously. Even better news: Vancouver doesn’t try to pass itself off as the Big Apple, just the sleepy Midwest town of Springwood, Ohio and Camp Crystal Lake. The climactic battle between Freddy and Jason is shrouded in smoke, mist, and crimson lighting, as industrial equipment is hurled about and CGI blood flows plentifully, but it’s a bit pedestrian (Yu has no opportunity to flex his wuxia muscles with cadaverous, lumbering Jason and middle-aged Freddy) and a retconned plot point about Jason being afraid of water is used inexplicably. Fans of each horror franchise should be satisfied with Freddy vs. Jason, as long as they don’t think too hard and awash themselves in fake blood.

★★★

Can’t get enough Action? Take a look at last month’s Round-house Round-Up for more!