The set up: After contracting a sexually transmitted curse from a new lover, college student Jay Height (Maika Monroe) is told she must pass it on to someone else unless an unnamed entity, which takes on ever-changing human guises, catches and kills her. The twist is that the being moves very slowly, but no matter how much she runs, it eventually catches up to her.
The breakdown: David Robert Mitchell’s intense yarn is the best horror film so far this year. Rather than summon a fast-moving ghost or zombie, he conjures a creeping death that portrays various stages of life, from a sinister grandmother to a scary child that resembles a boy who peeps at Jay in her pool. Mitchell exploits the STD angle as a way to explore fear of both intimacy and the daunting world of adulthood, the latter emphasized by the rare presence of adults viewed almost entirely in long shots. Disasterpeace’s unsettling score, often inspired by John Carpenter’s soundtrack work with an ambient industrial bent, ratchets up the terror further.
The set up: Five high school friends chatting collectively on Video Skype become harassed by an unknown person calling in and posting from the Facebook account of a classmate who committed suicide. As the quintet tries to figure out the unsettling mystery, nasty secrets are revealed about each member as the ghostly entity picks them off one by one.
The breakdown: Shown entirely on a laptop screen, the concept of this technological nightmare is interesting: Kids who humiliate an insecure bully online get their comeuppance, partially because of their inability to disconnect from their virtual lives. But like many teen slasher/stalker films, the main characters are generally whiny and unsympathetic. Unfriended has some decent scares, but the creators seemed to have pulled the plug creatively as it devolves into formula halfway through. Of course, its box office success has ensured an unnecessary sequel.
X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST The Rogue Cut (2015)
The set up: In the future, robotic, shapeshifting Sentinels are hunting down, enslaving, and killing mutants. The surviving X-Men, including Professor X, Kitty Pryde, Storm, Iceman, Colossus, and the formerly villainous Magneto—seek sanctuary in a Chinese monastery. Their master plan is to send Wolverine back in time to 1973 to unite the then-fractured team and stop a crucial event from happening—Mystique’s assassination of Sentinel creator Boliver Trask (Peter Dinklage)—that will lead up to the world’s current predicament. It’s a risky gamble, but an essential one. Plus we get a groovy ’70s throwback.
The breakdown: Director Bryan Singer returns to deliver another great entry in the enduring Marvel franchise. While some of the superhero movies out there pummel you with effects, this series grapples equally with weighty social topics and moral quagmires. “The Rogue Cut” adds in 17 extra minutes, but in all honesty half of them, including bringing in Rogue to aid them at the end, are superfluous. This new package—which offers both cuts of the film, new extras, and new commentary from Singer and composer/editor John Ottman—is great for hardcore fans and those who have yet to buy it on video.
The set up: The action-packed sequel to Divergent finds Tris (Shailene Woodley), Four (Theo James), and scattered Dauntless members in hiding and plotting to bring down the ruthless Jeanine (Kate Winslet), who is dividing and conquering the five factions of post-apocalyptic Chicago. Societal and familial secrets are uncovered as the power struggle begins to reach a fever pitch that threatens the lives of Dauntless members.
The breakdown: What is refreshing about the Divergent and Hunger Games franchises is how their young heroines are treated as equal fighters to the boys without being questioned. While this second installment in Veronica Roth’s book trilogy/movie quadrilogy is nearly as engaging as its predecessor, the sci-fi spectacle tends to overshadow the more intimate stories and character relationships, and the cliffhanger ending is a bit weak. Still, Tris and Theo remain a strong power couple who want to stick with each other to the bitter end, no matter how dark that ultimately may be.
THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS (1991)
The set up: Wes Craven’s tongue-in-cheek horror tale pits a young inner city boy nicknamed Fool (future Mighty Ducks cast member Brandon Adams) against the greedy, heartless slumlords the Robesons (Wendy Robie and Everett McGill), whose house he infiltrates with two adults in search of a hidden fortune that could lift their neighbors out of poverty. After their deaths, he needs the help of their imprisoned daughter (A.J. Langer) to escape their twisted prison of a home, which includes people trapped in the walls.
The breakdown: Known for his scare fare, Craven has occasionally delved into terror tales with humorous underpinnings (A Nightmare On Elm Street, Shocker, A Vampire In Brooklyn), and with The People Under The Stairs, he mocks the immorality and racism of the uptight, gun- toting villains while deftly interweaving social commentary with intense scares. This is one of his most acclaimed films and still a delight to watch. Scream Factory’s deluxe reissue includes a new interview with Robie, new audio commentaries from Craven and some of the stars, and more.
THE DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION COLLECTION (1980-1998)
Director Penelope Spheeris’ acclaimed and revered documentary trilogy finally returns to circulation on Blu-ray. For unfortunate business reasons, these films were out of print of years, and in fact, Part III, the best of the bunch, did not receive any post-film festival release back in 1998, which is a shame. Although known to the masses as the director of Wayne’s World, Spheeris truly loves documentary filmmaking.
The first and third Decline Of Western Civilization installments focus on the L.A. punk scene, first in 1979-80 and then again in 1996-7. The differences are striking. The original punk movement was more anarchic and violent, with some undercurrents of racism, but still with an anti-authoritarian spirit that one can understand despite many of them being miscreants. The gutterpunks profiled 20 years later are smarter and more politically enlightened (a few are obnoxious), but their lives on the street are haunted by past abuses and neglect and subsumed by alcoholism and drug use. Both films capture the anger and raw intensity of the social misfits who make up the punk movement, and many of the gutterpunks particularly elicit sympathy because of their tragic circumstances. In Part III, it’s also fun to see how members of activist punk rockers Naked Aggression showcase their classical training. By contrast in the first film, then-Germs and future Foo Fighters axeman Pat Smear looks bad discussing his cowardly fighting tactics and punching of girls.
The Decline Of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years (1988) is the one film in the set that I had seen back in the day. While I enjoyed it then, it’s disappointing now because a lot of the young bands profiled are poseur hair bands living a cartoon life. The more experienced, non-L.A. rockers in the film, including Ozzy Osbourne, Alice Cooper, Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, and Lemmy, have some great insights and wisdom to offer. But moments in the KISS, Chris Holmes, and Ozzy interviews feel (and were) staged. Still, the delusions, excess, and sexism of that time are accurately captured—they certainly helped bring down metal in America—and the film ends on a strong note with savvy thrashers Megadeth.
The box set includes plenty of extras, notably extended interviews with the musicians, vintage interviews with Spheeris, and various live performances. It would have been nice to see more of her on camera today. At least the booklet essay by Dominic Priore digs into past reviews of her work to contextualize how it was originally received. They are essential viewing for heavy rock fans.
9 TO 5 (1980)
About 12 years after the Women’s Lib movement first burst into mainstream consciousness, this crazy comedy tackled the issue of equal pay and treatment for women in the workplace head on and with plenty of humor. Three secretaries at Consolidated Companies—strong single mom Violet Newstead (Lily Tomlin), mousy divorcee and new employee Judy Bernly (Jane Fonda), and buxom, sassy secretary Doralee Rhodes (Dolly Parton)—are all exploited and fetishized by their boss Franklin Hart (Dabney Coleman), a “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot”. After a misunderstanding at work (okay, an accidental coffee poisoning), they keep him hostage in his own home lest he call the police. In his absence, they take over the office and try to do good while hoping to expose his shady business practices. Despite its unrealistic conceit, 9 To 5 tapped into the frustrations of working women at the time and had us root for these three strong ladies who needed no help from men. Even as a kid, I thought it was cool, and it remains a spirited film with an empowering message.