Netflix might just be the best pasture yet for brothers Joel and Ethan Coen. The Oscar-winning filmmakers were reportedly creating a Western series for the online streaming giant but that has turned into an anthology film, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. The Coens’ love of the beautiful, the bizarre, the bucolic and the brazen are on full display with their six-part anthology movie that serves as reminder of what wonderfully unique cinematic voices they are. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is uneven, as most anthology films tend to by design, but it reaches that vintage Coen sweet spot of absurdity and profundity.
The best segment is also the one that kicks things off, the titular adventures of Buster Scruggs, a singing Gene Autry-style cowboy who manages to get into all sorts of scrapes. The tonal balancing act on this one is pure Coen, at once inviting an audience to nostalgically recall the Westerns of old while kicking you in the teeth with dark, hilariously violent turns that veer into inspired slapstick. There is a delightful absurdity to the segment thanks to the cheerful sociopath nature of Buster Scruggs, the fastest gun in the West that’s eager to show off at a moment’s notice. He’s a typical Coen creation, a wicked wordsmith finding himself into heaps of trouble, but through his quick wits and sudden bursts of violence, he’s able to rouse an entire saloon full of witnesses to his murder into a swinging, carousing group following him in song. I laughed long and hard throughout much of this segment. I was hooked and wanted to see where it would go next and how depraved it might get. Tim Blake Nelson (O Bother Where Art Thou) is wonderful as Buster Scruggs and perfectly finds the exact wavelength needed for the Coen’s brand of funny and peculiar. He’s like a combo Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny breaking the fourth wall to let the audience in on his merry bravado. The segment ends in a fitting fashion, another song that manages to be hilarious and strangely poignant at the same time. The Coens allow the scene to linger into a full-on duet of metaphysical proportions. I could have watched an entire series following Buster Scruggs but it may have been wise to cut things short and not to overstay its novelty.
The other best segments take very different tonal destinations. “All Gold Canyon” is a slower and more leisurely segment, following Tom Waits as a prospector who systematically works the land in search of a hidden trove of gold he nicknames “Mr. Pocket.” The step-by-step process has a lyrical nature to it, and it reminded me of the opening of There Will Be Blood where we follow Daniel Plainview’s initial success at unearthing the beginning of his fortune. Waits is fantastic and truly deserving of Oscar consideration as the prospector. He’s hardscrabble and resilient, and there’s a late moment where he’s narrating a near escape from death where he’s tearfully thankful, possibly losing himself in the moment, and so grateful that it made me tear up myself. The segment ebbs and flows on the strength of the visual storytelling and Waits. It’s a lovely short with a few hidden punches, which is also another fine way to describe the other best segment, “The Gal Who Got Rattled.” It stars Zoe Kazan (The Big Sick) as a woman making her way to Oregon with a wagon train. She’s heading west for a new life, one she was not prepared for and only doing so at the urging of her pushy brother who dies shortly into the journey. Now she’s on her own and struggling to find her own place in the larger world. There’s a very sweet and hopeful romance between her and Billy Knapp (Bill Heck), one of the wagon train leaders who is thinking of settling down. It’s also a segment that slows down, accounting for the longest running time of the six. It goes to great care to establish the rhythms of life on the road, where many people walked the thousands of miles across the plains. The budding courtship is at a realistic simmer, something with more promise than heat. It’s such an involving story that its downturn of an ending almost feels criminal, albeit even if the tragic setups were well placed. Both of these segments take a break from the signature irony of the Coens and sincerely round out their characters and personal journeys and the dangers that await them.
The remaining three segments aren’t bad by any stretch (I’d rate each from fine to mostly good) but they don’t get close to the entertainment and artistic majesty of the others. The second segment, “Near Algodones,” has some fun moments as James Franco is an inept bank robber who seems to go from bad situation to new bad situation, getting out through miraculous means until his luck runs out. The interaction with a kooky Stephen Root is a highlight but the segment feels more like a series of ideas than any sort of story. Even for an anthology movie, the segment feels too episodic for its own good. The third segment, “Meal Ticket,” is about a traveling sideshow in small dusty towns in the middle of winter. Liam Neeson plays the owner and the main act is a thespian (Henry Melling, best known as Dudley Dursely in the Harry Potter films) with no arms and no legs. The thespian character says nothing else but his prepared oratory. It makes him a bit harder to try and understand internally. I was also confused by their relationship. Are they father/son? Business partners? It’s also the most repetitious short, by nature, with the monologues and stops bleeding into one another, giving the impression of the thankless and hard life of a performer trying to eek out a living. It’s a bit too oblique. The final segment, “The Mortal Remains,” is like an Agatha Christie chamber play. We listen to five characters engage in a philosophical and contentious debate inside a speeding stagecoach that will not slow down. It’s an actors showcase with very specifically written characters, the Coens sharp ear for local color coming through. The conversation takes on a symbolism of passing over to judgment in the afterlife, or maybe it doesn’t and I’m trying to read more into things. You may start to tune out the incessant chatter as I did. It’s a perfunctory finish for the movie.
Being a Coen brothers’ film, the technical merits are mesmerizing. The cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel (Amelie, Inside Llewyn Davis) is sumptuous and often stunning. The use of light and color is a gorgeous tapestry, and some of the visual arrangements could be copied into ready-made scenic postcards, in particular “Meal Ticket” and “All Gold Canyon.” The isolation, hostility, warmth, majesty of the setting is expertly communicated to the viewer. The production design and costuming are consummate as well. The musical score by longtime collaborator Carter Burwell is classic in its use of melancholy strings and motifs. It’s a glorious looking movie made with master craft care.
Before its release, the Coens had talked about how hard it was to make their kind of movies within the traditional studio system, even with their 30 years of hits and classics. Netflix is desperately hungry for prestige content, so it looks like a suitable match. I’d happily welcome more Coen brothers’ movies like The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a goofy Western that’s equally heart wrenching as it is heart-warming, neither shying away from the cruelty and indifference of the harsh setting nor neglecting to take in its splendor. Just give them whatever money they need Netflix to keep these sort of movies a comin’.
Nate’s Grade: B+
XX is the first horror anthology comprised entirely of female writers and directors. That’s the most noteworthy thing for this relatively disappointing movie. None of the four main segments are that interesting and several don’t really have endings. The first segment has the most potential, “The Box,” about a child that stops eating after getting a peak inside a stranger’s wrapped gift. The family joins him one by one except for the mother. That’s it. There’s no resolution, one moment of shocking gore, and the rest is straightforward maternal ennui. The second is from musician St. Vincent (née Annie Clark) called “The Birthday Party” and it’s not really horror so much as it is dark comedy with a heaping helping of slapstick. Melanie Lynskey (Togetherness) is an overextended mother who discovers the dead body of her husband on the morning of their daughter’s birthday. She has to go to elaborate measures to hide the body while still juggling all the responsibilities others expect from her. It’s amusing in spurts but is often too obvious. The third segment “Don’t Fall” is the most professionally realized and has some nasty special effects, but it’s nothing more than another throwaway entry in the teens-meddle-with-forces-in-nature-and-are-swiftly-punished subgenre. It’s the shortest segment so that helps too. Finally, Karyn Kusama (Jennifer’s Body) writes and directs “Her Only Living Son” which intends to flip the script on the Rosemary’s Baby scenario. The segment reveals its secrets slowly, which makes it a more engaging short to digest. However, it too ends on a perfunctory note. I know there are many talented female filmmakers out there biding their time, waiting for their chance to show their mettle in genre filmmaking, an area that skews heavily male. That’s what makes XX so frustrating. There has to be better material and better filmmakers out there who would kill for this kind of showcase. Maybe next time (XX2?).
Nate’s Grade: C
Vince Offer is best known as the successful pitchman for infomercial products like the Sham Wow and the Slap Chop. He’s less known as an amateur comedian. In 1999, he co-wrote and directed The Underground Comedy Movie, pooling all the favors he must have accrued with celebrities and struggling L.A. comics. You’d think after one resounding dud people would know better, but alas Offer and his friends have funded another sketch comedy movie, InAPPropriate Comedy. You see the title refers to the joke delivery system, namely Offer’s finger hitting apps on a tablet to start sketches. And if that inept setup doesn’t seem like a insightful indicator for the misery that is to follow, then allow me to confirm that InAPPropriate Comedy may be the least funny comedy I’ve ever seen.
I’m not saying that ALL people who find some measurable level of enjoyment from InAPPropriate Comedy are racist, homophobic, and sexist, but chances are, if you are all three things, you’ll probably enjoy the comedic abyss that is InAPPropriate Comedy. For the purposes of truly showcasing how comically bankrupt this enterprise is, overdosing on witless shock value and groan-worthy stereotypes, I will quickly dictate exactly what you get in this movie, sketch-wise. It’s really only about four reoccurring segments.
-Before the meat of the comedy begins we’re treated to the lamest, more obvious 127 Hours parody and the sight of tough-guy bikers riding around on bicycles. Does that mental image automatically make you laugh? If so, you’re in luck.
-A parody of Dirty Harry called “Flirty Harry” where Oscar-winner Adrien Brody is a cop who speaks in nothing but overblown gay-centric double entendres (GAY JOKE #1). Is that half-assed twist on the name worth an entire ongoing series? It’s like you took one of the parody names from MAD magazine and then just called it a day. The second time around, Flirty Harry stops a robber and we see him in pink pants. He’s wearing pink pants. How could that not be hysterical? (GAY JOKE #2) The third segment doesn’t want to waste any time, so now Flirty Harry is getting his nails done at an Asian salon. You better believe these women are portrayed as nattering, horrendous, screeching caricatures (GAY JOKE #3, RACIST JOKE #1, SEXIST JOKE #1). Then Harry shoots a guy in the ass (GAY JOKE #4). Adrien Brody, why?
-The next ongoing sketch is a parody of MTV’s Jackass, and this one, with about as much wit as you’d expect, is called Blackass. It’s about a group of obnoxious, ignorant, lazy, foul-mouthed, angry black males engaging in rude and offensive behavior. These segments may be the most offensive in the whole movie because it is wall-to-wall negative stereotypes; the joke is that black men are not to be trusted and will harass white people, especially white women. The first time we see Blackass it has our characters running from the police. One of them even has a giant boombox over his shoulder because people still do that, right? (RACIST JOKE #2). These guys dress and behave exactly like the harmful misrepresentation your elderly grandmother has about black people. The sad part is that the festering stereotype of the black male up to no good can have serious and tragic consequences, coloring people’s judgments and assumptions.
Stepping down from the soapbox, the first segment involves the Blackass crew falling into a vat of raw sewage. The second segment involves them playing joust in shopping carts with lances made to resemble giant black penises (RACIST JOKE #3). The third involves the Blackass crew as the world’s worst babysitters, threatening a white woman in the process (RACIST JOKE #4). You see black people are terrible fathers, so this movie would argue. They talk about welfare checks and carry around 40s of malt liquor. The fourth segment has one of the Blackass guys and his white girlfriend antagonizing another couple in a hot tub before having anal sex (RACIST JOKE #5, SEXIST JOKE #2). The fifth segment has one of the Blackass guys in an abortion clinic waiting room. He harasses a young couple and offers to abort their pregnancy for cheap with a coat hanger (RACIST JOKE #6). The last segment involves the gang trying to lure a mouse by putting cheese on one of their penises. While it’s the closest in conception to an actual Jackass stunt, it’s still unfunny and much of the humor seems to rest on the enormous size of African-American phalluses (RACIST JOKE #7). Crap, I forgot about another segment where the guys blindfold a dude and have him get run over by a rhino. I don’t even get this one.
-The longest and most painful of the reoccurring sketches is a parody of The Amazing Race dubbed The Amazing Racist. You might expect it to have something to do with the popular reality TV competition, perhaps people competing to see who is the bigger racist, racism across color, or even forcing two racists of different ethnicity to team up in competitions. Nope. It’s just co-writer Ari Shaffir and his unending improvisation. The first segment has him rant in front of the U.S.-Mexico border, and then he harangues a gas station owner and assumes any Hispanic present is an illegal alien (RACIST JOKE #8). The next involves him as an insulting driving instructor for Asian drivers (RACIST JOKE #9). The next involves him wandering a predominantly Jewish supermarket trying to gather signatures to apologize for killing Jesus (RACIST JOKE #10). The next segment involves Shaffir entreating black passerbyes on a beach to take a boat ride back to Africa (RACIST JOKE #11). Finally, Shaffir is abandoned in a Middle Eastern territory with armed Arabs. I guess it’s supposed to count as comeuppance but it sure doesn’t feel it. There’s a post-credit sequence where Shaffir is trying to lure Jews into a box to ship to Hitler from the future (RACIST JOKE #12). I later learned that the hidden camera aspect of Shaffir’s bits is another fallacy. The people onscreen are all actors, which makes The Amazing Racist even less amazing. It feels like Offer and Shaffir watched Borat and thought they could replicate what they saw.
-The only other repeating segment is a pair of film critics that specialize in reviewing pornography. The idea on itself actually has the most potential out of everything Offer throws onscreen. It’s got recognizable faces; Michelle Rodriguez and Rob Schneider are the critics. Their reviews, however, are just another excuse to make more racist and gay jokes. A porn they review is called “Sushi Mama” and it features two Asians engaging in over-the-top, badly dubbed sex (RACIST JOKE #13). Another porn they review is weirdly a parody of Swan Lake, with guys dancing around in tutus and eventually humping and ejaculating on a helpless victim (GAY JOKE #5).
There are two other sketches that have the luxury of not being repeat offenders, so to speak. Lord knows what Offer and company saw in the others. One involves Schneider as a sleazy therapist aroused by his client’s vigorous sexual history (SEXIST JOKE #3). Another is called “Things You’ll Never See” and purports that hot ladies would never date someone poor because all good-looking women care about is money (SEXIST JOKE #4). I haven’t even mentioned how all of these sketches are supposed to take place, literally, inside Lindsay Lohan’s vagina (SEXIST JOKE #5). It’s a nonsensical framing device. We zoom out in the end, meaning that Lohan has a treasure trove of unfunny sketches stuffed in her special place. She should probably consult an OBGYN.
And that’s it! That’s the movie, all 75 wretched, horrendous, soul-draining minutes. Did any of that, on the surface, seem funny to you, or, like most people with active senses of humor, did it seem overwhelmingly lazy and poorly thought out? The biggest problem with InAPPropriate Comedy is that it’s trying to be more inappropriate than funny. It’s confused shock value for actual humor. Having a troika of irresponsible black males playing into demoralizing stereotypes and fears isn’t comedy. Having a guy make fun of Asian drivers isn’t a sketch. Having a gay cop make forced double entendres isn’t a sketch. There’s no development here, no escalation, no twisting of the premise, no nothing. All Offer and his motley crew of comedic imbeciles do is take a one-joke premise and pummel it into submission, making the laborious sketches feel even longer. It just so happens that most of their one-joke ideas aren’t even ideas so much as mean slights against minorities, women, and gay people. There is no ironic distance to the joke telling; they are merely just being crushingly racist, sexist, and homophobic.
I am by no means a comedy prude. I love a terrific vulgar joke as much as the next guy. I think when comedy is concerned that nothing is off limits. You can make anything, no matter how horrific and offensive, funny under the right circumstances, but it takes work and able skill. The problem with Offer’s movie is that there is no consideration to context, setup, developments, let alone surprise. You’ll see every dreadful joke coming before it arrives. That’s because all this movie does is trade in pained, outdated stereotypes. The scenes themselves feel like improv jags that just go on endlessly, like Offer was trying to replicate the process of a Judd Apatow comedy. His faulty reasoning may have been if people just say enough offensive things long enough, then something has to arrive at funny. Comedy doesn’t work like that, and as a comedy writer I find it personally insulting. This is just rampant and pointless vulgarity without any parameters, no point of view, nothing to mask the fact that it’s just cheap shock value. What are the jokes here? Asians are bad drivers? Black men are reckless? Women are superficial? Do these sound like jokes or merely groundless insults? If you removed all the ostensibly offensive elements, there would be nothing to this movie whatsoever.
As a longtime detractor of the duo Friedberg and Seltzer, the men responsible for cinematic crimes against humanity like Epic Movie (my worst film of 2007) and Meet the Spartans (my worst film of 2008), I’m torn. Friedberg/Seltzer don’t so much create jokes as they do lame pop-culture references with built-in expiration dates (go on, try and watch one of their past movies and see if you recall everything). Whatever jokes they do foster are mostly broad slapstick, but it could be classified, no matter how charitably, as a joke. After watching Offer’s InAPPropriate Comedy, I may have second thoughts about the intensity of my screeds against Friedberg and Seltzer. Their movies are still terrible, still the cannibalistic, cinematic watery discharge I dubbed them, but Offer’s comedy may even be worse. There’s no way any of InAPPropriate Comedy could ever be funny. It’s so obvious and desperate that it confuses offense for smashing taboos. This is a black hole of funny, where funny cannot escape and instead gets smashed down to an atomic level. How could anyone making this find it even remotely funny? If I see a worse movie in 2013 than InAPPropriate Comedy, it will make me reevaluate the existence of a loving God.
Nate’s Grade: F
The second entry in the found footage horror anthology (and less than a year after the first to boot) is not as clever as V/H/S but more polished, better paced, and full of enough ingenuity to recommend, especially for horror fans. In my review of the first film I championed a shorter format, giving an audience the thrills they crave faster rather than slogging through an hour of slow buildup. The results are still fairly hit or miss, though none of the four segments is a misfire per se. The weakest is probably the last, “”Slumber Party Alien Abduction,” where the poor camera quality makes it hard to tell what is actually going on. The best, by far, is The Raid director Gareth Evans’ “Safe Haven” about a team of journalists picking perhaps the worst day to tour a creepy cult’s compound, notably during the apocalypse the cult predicted. This one takes a bit to wind up but when all hell breaks loose it goes nuts with glory. The wraparound segment tying everything together is more palatable and points to a promising mythology around the collection of these haunted VHS tapes that people keep watching and then dying over. All together, this is a concept that just works for horror and I’ll welcome presumed sequels as they come off the assembly line. This is found footage done right, with faster payoffs, more variety, and greater focus and ingenuity. If you enjoyed the first film, or are a fan of horror anthologies in general, then pop in V/H/S/2.
Nate’s Grade: B
The found footage subgenre seems ripe for overexposure at this point. Just this year we’ve had a found footage party movie, a found footage superhero movie, a found footage cop movie, and this week will open Paranormal Activity 4, the latest in the popular found footage horror series. I understand the draw for Hollywood. The movies are cheap and the found footage motif plays into our culture’s endless compulsion for self-documentation. There are definite benefits to the genre, notably an immediate sense of empathy, a sense of being in the fray, and an added degree of realism. There are plenty of limitations too, notably the restrictive POV and the incredulous nature of how the footage was captured. With that being said, I think the people behind V/H/S finally found a smart use of this format. V/H/S is an indie horror anthology that offers more variety, cleverness, and payoffs, than your typical found footage flick.
Normally, found footage movies consist of 80 minutes of drawn out nothing for five minutes of something in the end. Usually, the payoff is not worth the ensuing drudgery of waiting for anything to happen. Watching the Paranormal Activity movies has become akin to viewing a “Where’s Waldo?” book, scrutinizing the screen in wait. V/H/S has improved upon the formula by the very nature of being an anthology movie. Rather than wait 80 minutes for minimal payoff, now we only have to wait 15 minutes at most. I call that progress. I haven’t seen too many found footage films that play around with the narrative structure inherit with a pre-recorded canvas. I recall Cloverfield smartly squeezing in backstory, earlier pre-recorded segments being taped over. With V/H/S, this technique is utilized once and it’s just to shoehorn in some gratuitous T & A. Plus, the anthology structure allows for a greater variety. If you don’t like some stories, and chances are you won’t, you know another one’s just around the corner.
For my tastes, the stories got better as the film continued. I was not a fan of the first few stories. The wraparound segment (“Tape 51”) involves a band of delinquents who are hired to retrieve one VHS tape in a creepy home. The guys are annoying jackasses, and our opening image involves them sexually assaulting a woman and recording it to sell later, so we’re pretty agreeable to them being killed off one by one inside the creepy home. I just don’t know why anyone would record themselves watching a movie. It’s not like it’s Two Girls One Cup we’re talking about here. I found the wraparound segment to be too chaotic and annoying, much like the band of idiots. It ends up becoming your standard boogeyman type of story and relies on characters making stupid decision after stupid decision. Why do these idiots stay in the house and watch movies? Why do these people not turn on the lights?
The first actual segment (“Amateur Night”) has a solid premise: a bunch of drunken frat boys plan to make their own porn with a pair of spy glasses. They bring the wrong girl back to their motel room and get more than they bargained for. Despite some interesting commentary on the male libido (interpreting a woman’s spooky actions as being sexually aroused), this segment suffers from a protracted setup. There’s a solid ten minutes of boys being boys, getting drunk, that sort of thing. And when the tables are turned, the spyglasses lead to shakier recording, which is odd considering they are pinned on the guy’s nose. The horror of the ending is also diminished because it’s hard to make sense of what is literally happening. The weakest segment is the second one (“Second Honeymoon”), which is surprising considering it’s written and directed by Ti West, a hot name in indie horror after The Innkeepers. West’s segment is your standard black widow tale, following a couple on their vacation to the Southwest and their home movies. However, a stalker is secretly videotaping them while they sleep. Borrowing from Cache, this is a genuinely creepy prospect, and the sense of helplessness and dread are palpable. It’s surprising then that West concludes his segment so abruptly, without further developing the stalker aspect, and tacks on a rather lame twist ending that doesn’t feel well thought out. “You deleted that, right?” says one guilty character on camera washing away blood. Whoops.
The second half of V/H/S is what really impressed me, finding clever ways to play upon the found footage motif and still be suspenseful. The third segment (“Tuesday the 17th”) begins like your regular kids-in-the-woods slasher film. The very specific types of characters (Jock, Nerd, Cheerleader) are set for some frolicking when they come across a deranged killer. However, the slasher monster is a Predator-style invisible creature that can only be seen via the video camera. When recorded, the monster creates a glitch on screen. I think this is a genius way to cover the biggest head-scratcher in found footage horror: why are you still recording? With this segment, the video camera is the savior, the protector, the only engine with which they can see the monster. The fourth segment (“The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger”) is shot entirely through Skype conversations on laptops. Emily is convinced her apartment is haunted and seeks support from her boyfriend, away on business. This segment’s co-writer and director, Joe Swanberg, is more known for being the mumblecore king than a horror aficionado, but the man makes scary good use of the limitations of his setup. The story might be a bit hard to follow, especially its ending, but there are some great jolts and boo-moments. There’s even a fantastic gross-out surprise as Emily shares her own elective surgery/exploration.
But it’s the last segment that takes the cake, ending V/H/S on a fever pitch of action. The wraparound segment isn’t even that, since it ends before the final segment, “10/31/1998.” It’s a haunted house story about a group of guys who stumble into the wrong house on the wrong night. Initially they think the human sacrifice in the attic is part of the show, but then weird things start happening like arms coming through walls and door knobs vanishing. This segment is a great example of how effective atmosphere can be aided by smart and selective special effects. When the madness hits the home, it feels just like that, and the rush to exit the house is fueled with adrenaline. You don’t exactly know what will be around the next corner. The CGI effects are very effective and the lo-fi visual sensibilities give them even more punch. The frenzied chaos that ends “10/31/1998” would be apt for a feature-length found footage movie, let alone a 15-minute short. It’s a satisfying climax to a film that got better as it went.
With all found footage movies, there’s the central leap of logic concerning who assembled this footage, for what purposes, and how they got it. With movies like the abysmal Apollo 18, I stop and think, “Why do these people assembling the footage leave so much filler?” V/H/S doesn’t commit a sin worthy of ripping you out of the movie, but when it’s concluded you’ll stop and ponder parts of its reality that don’t add up. The very idea of people still recording onto VHS tapes in the age of digital and DVD seems curious, but I’ll go with it. Several segments obviously had to be recorded onto a hard drive; the Skype conversations would have to be recorded onto two perhaps. So somebody transferred digital records… onto a VHS tape? And it just so happens that this tape then got lost.
While inherently hit-or-miss, V/H/S succeeds as an anthology film and generates new life into the found footage concept. Not all of the segments are scary or clever, but even during its duller moments the film has a sense of fun. There’s always something new just around the corner to keep you entertained, and the various anthology segments give a range of horror scenarios. The lo-fi visual verisimilitude can be overdone at times, but the indie filmmakers tackle horror with DIY ingenuity. I don’t know if anything on screen will give people nightmares, but it’s plenty entertaining, in spots. V/H/S is an enjoyable, efficient, and entertaining little horror movie just in time for Halloween. If you’re going to do a found footage movie, this is the way to do it.
Nate’s Grade: B
Chillerama is the latest ode to the drive-in B-movies of old. Like the higher profile 2007 Grindhouse, this movie is a series of short films from four different filmmakers celebrating the exploitation spirit of schlock cinema. Cecil B. Kaufman (Richard Riehle) is closing his drive-in theater, and for the final night of operation he’s showing four movies never before seen: the killer sperm movie “Wadzilla,” the unexpected lycanthropy romance “I Was a Teenage Werebear,” the black-and-white monster movie “The Diary of Ann Frankenstein,” and a final fecal-filled adventure into the abyss, “Deathication.” However, during this final night the drive-in is also ground zero for a new zombie outbreak, a disease spread through sexual fluids. Tobe (Corey Jones) has to navigate through the sex-crazed corpses to save his crush, Mayna (Kaili Thorne), and escape the drive-in- of death and maybe lose his pesky virginity.
Given its vignette nature, not all of the segments will be equal in quality. The absolute highpoint is indisputably “The Diary of Ann Frankenstein.” I laughed long and hard during this clever, cock-eyed satire. The absurdity of its premise and the assured demented sense of comedy of its creator, writer/director Adam Green (Frozen, Hatchet), had me laughing until I was in physical pain. The Frank family (formerly Frankenstein) is found by none other than Hitler (Joel David Moore, embracing the silliness with gusto) who dispatches them and steals the family journal. In one of the movie’s funniest lines, Hitler tosses a journal to a Nazi cohort and instructs: “Here, write some depressing stuff in this. We’ll say the girl wrote it and make millions after the war.” Hitler creates his own Jewish Frankenstein-like creature, though a missing film reel reveals his true motivation for reanimating this corpse (and he sings!). Green’s sense of comedy is evident in the pacing, construction of layered jokes, and genre spoofing. There’s one point where the monster is locked in the laboratory and just walks around the set, breaking down the fourth wall. Green even has the entire segment subtitled, though if you listen closely you’ll notice only about 10 percent is German. At one point Moore is screaming “No!” for a solid minute but he says a different word or phrase every time, including “Goldie Hawn!” at one point. The segment is so good that you may not even notice that joke at first glance. “The Diary of Ann Frankenstein” is wickedly hilarious and too tacky to be taken as a serious offense.
The other vignettes falls somewhere in the middle. “Zom-B-Movie” is the slickest looking movie, set in the present, and is a lot of fun. It adds a twist to the crowded zombie genre by adding in a sexual element, making the zombies a sex-crazed orgy (expect nudity that makes you feel funny). There are plenty of solid gross-out effects, and several sequences of penile endangerment, and there are some ingenious camera angles to match the segment’s electric energy. It’s the most self-aware segment, as characters openly discuss horror movie conventions and their own place in the movie Scream-style (“I’m the Final Girl,” one guy declares). A good percentage of the dialogue is comprised of movie quotes and catch-phrases brilliantly placed in this incongruous setting. During the climax, Riehle (Office Space) shoots round after round into the bands of zombies, ripping off like 20 anachronistic movie quotes as if they were action movie quips (“Nobody puts baby in a corner!” he yells and then shoots a zombie in the crotch). I was flabbergasted that the segment actually quoted Billy Madison, and well. The self-aware humor and the overall feverish energy, plus some characters we’ve been investing with in between the earlier segments, makes for a fun and satisfying sendoff for the whole trashy enterprise.
The first two segments rely more on base humor and seem to run out of gas midway through. “Wadzilla” is a one-joke segment about a man whose single sperm grows to monstrous, man-eating size. The cartoonish tone and low-rent visuals feel like a Joe Dante (Gremlins) homage. The segment does feature one truly inspired, wacked-out image: the giant sperm fantasizes the Statue of Liberty stripping out of her cloak and shaking her green goods (I think this segment just gave birth to a brand new fetish). But the overall concept is weak and the segment relies far more on shock value than wit. It’s more like a rejected Troma flick, though helped immensely by the presence of Ray Wise (TV’s Reaper). “I Was a Teenage Werebear” takes the 1950s beach blanket bingo teen films and gives it a gay twist, and to boot it’s a musical (territory covered well in Psycho Beach Party). The storyline of guy-meets-werebear doesn’t provide enough material to hold together the segment. Many of the actors cannot sing either, which adds to the joke but also makes the film more punishing to watch. The pacing is poor and the gags feel like they were the first things conceived. There’s not enough thought on display; the segment just peters out and becomes tiresome. The fact that Chillerama opens with “Wadzilla” and then “I Was a Teenage Werebear” makes it harder to appreciate the finished product.
Chillerama is certainly going to have a restricted audience interested in campy homages celebrating the trashy nature of cheesy low-budget, exploitative B-movies. Unlike Grindhouse, this collection lacks big names but it makes up for it with a cracked sense of humor. The segments all run about 25 minutes in length, which means even if you dislike one it’ll be over soon enough. The four segments vary in quality, though each has its moments. “The Diary of Ann Frankenstein” is easily the standout of the bunch, elevated by droll, absurdist, demented humor that’s skillfully constructed and deconstructed. “Zom-B-Movie,” the culmination of the film’s connecting characters, is a fun blast to conclude with. Chillerama is a messy, uneven, crude, occasionally brilliant, but most of all it’s a great way to spend a Saturday night with some friends and a supply of popcorn. Just watch out what’s in that butter topping.
Nate’s Grade: B