So after many, MANY technical difficulties with the recording and editing of the audio book version of my latest opus, The Faceless Villain, I finally got all the files uploaded and I’m now simply awaiting the quality control go-ahead from ACX. Which means, dear readers, that not only should the audio book be on sale soon, but it also means that a huge project that has been consuming most of my hours lately is finally out of my hair. And that means that I actually got to spend a relaxing Friday night watching a couple of horror movies on Netflix that I can now review for you good folks. Finally!
I’d been hearing a lot about this first one, both from various horror blog recommendations as well as an endorsement from one of my closest friends. As I’ve stated before, I try not to read too much about the movies I watch beforehand, because I don’t like my enjoyment to be polluted by other people’s useless opinions (hahaha), but I’m also old and I don’t have the time nor the patience to watch something that sucks. So I’m always trying to balance the knowledge of knowing a movie is going to at least be watchable on the one hand, with attempting to avoid finding out too much about it on the other.
All that said, I finally got around to watching 2012’s Would You Rather, on the strength of a handful of recommendations. I had never watched it before, incidentally, because the title graphic for it on Netflix made it look like a dumb teen slasher flick, which it really isn’t. And though I found out afterward that reviews of it were generally mixed and leaned heavily toward the negative, I ended up digging it a great deal. I tend to like these sort of parlor-game, one-location flicks, and though this one wasn’t nearly as good as, say, The Invitation (which I loved the shit out of and reviewed here), it was still a load of nasty fun, and was elevated significantly by the presence of the wonderfully understated weirdness of Jeffrey Combs.
The premise of the film is fairly contrived, a bit like Saw, admittedly, but a lot more believable than that. Main character Iris (Brittany Snow) returns to her hometown after the death of her parents to care for her teenage brother Raleigh (Logan Miller), who has leukemia and needs a bone marrow transplant, which of course she can’t afford. She gets word from Raleigh’s oncologist, Dr. Barden (played by Lawrence Gilliard, aka D’Angelo from The Wire and Bob from The Walking Dead) that maybe he has a way to help her out of her depressing financial straits. Said help involves introducing her to hinky one-percenter Shepard Lambrick, who runs a “philanthropic” foundation that seeks to help worthy “unfortunates.” The only catch is that she’ll have to compete in a game at a dinner party the following evening. If she wins, she gets all her bills taken care of forever. And what happens if she doesn’t win, she wants to know? “Then…you don’t win,” sleazes Lambrick. Yeah, we know where this is going.
At first Iris wisely brushes off the bizarre proposition, but after she fails to get the hostess job she was interviewing for at the beginning of the movie (which wouldn’t even pay the rent, much less the medical bills to treat her brother’s cancer…America!), she reluctantly agrees to attend the game, though she doesn’t tell her brother what she’s up to. She arrives at the spooky mansion and meets the other seven hopefuls, who include a suspicious former alcoholic played by John Heard, a paralyzed old woman in a wheelchair, a conniving quasi-goth chick played by former porn star Sasha Grey, a broke-ass gambler, a genuinely nice dude played by the guy who played the delightful Crabman on My Name Is Earl, and a couple others. Also present is Lambrick’s sketchy vulture of a son, played by the Penguin dude from Gotham, and also a bunch of servants who are apparently all ex-MI5.
Things start out, as they generally do, in a somewhat harmless fashion. A dinner of steak and foie gras commences, prompting Iris to admit that she’s a vegetarian. Lambrick jumps right on this tidbit of information with demented relish, offering her $5,000 if she’ll eat all the meat on her plate. At first she refuses, but after he ups the amount to ten large, she caves in and chows down. Everyone has a price, Lambrick believes, and he’s interested to see how much it will take to get people to compromise their principles. In like fashion, Lambrick also taunts John Heard’s character, a recovering alcoholic who has been off the sauce for sixteen years. The alkie initially refuses to drink a glass of wine for a proffered $10,000, but after Lambrick dangles fifty grand to drink an entire decanter of fine scotch, John Heard also buckles under the pressure and chugs it.
So far, so fairly inoffensive, but things start to go south pretty quickly. Lambrick lays out the actual rules of the game, a particularly unpleasant version of Would You Rather…? He gives all the guests the opportunity to leave before the game begins, but no one does, a decision they will all be regretting in pretty short order. The main butler, Bevans, wheels what looks like some kind of electroshock machine into the dining room, after which the now-drunk John Heard attempts to bounce the fuck out and is unceremoniously capped.
The other guests are unsurprisingly put out by this sudden turn for the murderous, but Lambrick slickly explains to them that he gave them all a chance to leave before and no one did, so now they have to see the thing through to the end. They are all, he points out, there to ask for a handout from him, with the implication being that he can treat them however he likes, because he did give them some semblance of a choice, and they all chose to participate for a chance at the big jackpot.
The game proceeds in several rounds. In the first one, the guests have to choose whether they’ll give themselves a powerful electric shock or administer one to the person sitting next to them. They only have fifteen seconds to decide what they’re going to do; if they go over time, they will be shot. About half of the contestants, including Iris, choose to shock themselves, though the others still feel bad about their decision to shock their neighbor, all except for Sasha Grey (whose character is named Amy), who, in true reality-show-villain style, immediately twigs that the game is going to be won by the last person alive, and within one second, shocks the paraplegic old woman with sadistic glee.
During the break before the second round, one of the guests, a veteran of the Iraq War named Travis, gets into a heated argument with Lambrick’s horrible son Julian, and when the second round starts, the vet gets his comeuppance: each player has to decide whether they will stab their neighbor in the thigh with an icepick, or hit Travis three times in the back with a heavy leather whip. Most people reluctantly choose the whip, since stabbing people in the thigh could easily be fatal, and though war vet is initially stoic about taking the hits, after a while he can’t take it anymore and passes out, after which the next player is forced to stab the old woman (who can’t feel it because she’s paralyzed), after which she bleeds to death. End round two.
In the break, the remaining players begin to foment an insurrection, and all but the sociopathic Amy overpower the servants and attempt to escape. A bunch of them get shot, including Crabman, and the remaining guests are forced back into the game. Julian tries to rape Iris during the escape attempt, but she stabs his creepy ass (unfortunately not fatally), and Lambrick himself apologizes for his wayward son’s terribly gauche behavior (irony!).
In the third round, Lambrick is interested to see if people will choose the devil they know or the devil they don’t, so he gives them the option of choosing to have their heads forced underwater for two minutes, or doing whatever unknown thing is written on a card inside a sealed envelope in front of them. Since holding your breath for two minutes is fucking hard, most people pick the envelope, which results in one guy blowing his own hand off with a quarter stick of dynamite and subsequently dying of a heart attack, and another guy pulling an Un Chien Andalou on his own eyeball. Iris chooses the partial drowning and survives (which is good because if she had picked the card she would have had to pull out all her own teeth), and Amy chooses the envelope, which tells her she has to have her head underwater for four minutes, which of course kills her.
Iris and the last guy standing, the sliced eyeball guy, face off for the final round, and even though the movie has thus far portrayed Iris as a decent person, viewers will probably not be surprised by how the last round plays out, given the thematic thrust of the movie. Plus there’s a nasty, Twilight-Zone style coda that I also admit I saw coming from a mile away, though I have to say that the predictability didn’t really hamper my overall enjoyment of the film.
Despite all the negative reviews, I had a lot of fun with this flick. Jeffrey Combs was a hoot as the twisted and pitiless billionaire, and the tension really ramped up over the course of the game as you put yourself in the players’ shoes and wondered what you would do in the same situation. As I said, it’s a very contrived scenario, a bit like a low-budget bottle version of Saw but without the copious gore and torture porn elements, but it’s still a sickly entertaining ride. The only complaint I would make is that there was very, very little characterization; even the main protagonist, Iris, wasn’t given a hell of a lot of depth further than “desperately poor chick trying to get money for her sick brother.” Had the players of the game been rounded out a bit more, I think the stakes would have been much higher and the tension would have been greatly increased, as we would be rooting for all the characters and not just Iris. I also would have liked to get a bit more info on why Dr. Barden recommended Iris for the game in the first place and why he changed his mind halfway through, and what it was in Iris’s character that made her do what she did at the end. I also felt like the film’s themes — not only the lengths people will go to for money, but also how the upper class degrades the lower classes by treating them like shit and pitting them against each other to obtain a measly portion of the rich’s “generous” largess — could have been explored a little more deeply, though the message came through pretty clearly without too much heavy-handedness, so maybe it was fine the way it was.
Overall, recommended if you like dinner-party horror, movies like The Game with Michael Douglas, and just generally stuff with a game-style premise that isn’t necessarily all that realistic. Keep in mind that a lot of the really nasty gore in Would You Rather happens offscreen and is left to the imagination, so torture-porn aficionados should probably look elsewhere, but this is an entertaining, locked-room concept movie that’s equal parts horror and psychological thriller.
Next up was another horror-blog recommendation, and coincidentally, another bottle movie, filmed entirely on location at an abandoned police station in my current home town of Sanford, Florida. 2014’s Last Shift stars Juliana Harkavy in what is essentially a one-character piece, though other folks both living and dead pop in and out briefly as the film goes on.
Harkavy plays a rookie cop named Jessica Loren whose first assignment is to stand guard over the old police station until the hazmat team can come and collect all the remaining crap in the evidence room. All the other cops have moved to a new station in another part of town, and all 911 calls have been rerouted there, so Jessica expects that she will have an uneventful evening, but since this is a horror movie, you know that shit ain’t gonna happen.
Jessica’s dad was also a cop who was killed in the line of duty a year before, though the details of his death only come to light slowly as the film unfolds. Jessica is desperately trying to live up to her father’s memory and wants him to be proud of her, so when weird shit starts going down at the empty station, she is frightened but determined to stick out her first assignment. Said weird shit consists of the lights flashing on and off, strange noises like someone else is in the station, and eventually the arrival of a Hagrid-like homeless man who wanders into the building and pees on the floor before being subdued by Jessica and clapped in a holding cell.
As the night goes on, Jessica begins receiving phone calls from a girl who is ostensibly in dire need of help. She implies that she is being held captive someplace and that there are several dead girls there, but Jessica can’t get much information out of her. Jessica calls the new police station, and is informed that she should not be getting any 911 calls there because the emergency number has been rerouted; if this person exists, they say, then she must be calling the station’s direct line. Jessica insists that this girl needs help, but since she couldn’t get a name or location, the other cops kinda blow it off and simply tell her to tell the caller to dial 911 next time.
The creepy paranormal shit only gets worse the longer Jessica is there. She starts hearing voices and eerie singing, a bunch of chairs rearrange themselves in the blink of an eye, and a kindly officer who turns up to check on her turns out to be a ghost (in an effective, Sixth Sense-style reveal). Meanwhile, the mystery caller keeps phoning and seems to be getting ever more desperate, but as Jessica extracts more information from the girl it comes to light that the caller is also dead, the final victim of a Manson-family-type cult that murdered several girls and two police officers (including Jessica’s dad) the previous year.
Apparently, police had reported at the time that the cult members were killed during the raid, but Jessica finds out that in actuality, three of the cultists, including leader John Michael Paymon (played by Joshua Mikel, aka Jared from The Walking Dead) were brought to the station alive and placed in the holding cell, after which they did some sort of ritual to their nefarious deity, the pre-Satan King of Hell, and then hanged themselves, presumably to ensure that their spirits would remain on earth to torment humankind. Later on in the movie, a still-living follower of the cult also shows up at the station and shoots herself dead in order to join her dear leader in the demonic afterlife.
Jessica, during all the chaos, has started to lose her grip on reality, since evidently the cult members are controlling her perceptions and making her see what they want her to see. Her dead father calls her, she sees numerous and terrifying apparitions of the cult members and their victims, and in the end, she has gone so far over the edge that she essentially commits murder because she is seeing her targets as someone else, though the film was left slightly vague on how much of what happened was real and how much was a product of the cult mind control perpetrated on Jessica by the spirits of the cultists.
This was also a damn good flick, well-paced and tense, with some intensely creepy imagery. Though the film stays tightly focused on Jessica’s character the entire time, Juliana Harkavy is more than up to the task, infusing the role with depth, courage, totally believable fear, and even a touch of wry humor. The choice to set the movie entirely in a single location gives it an enjoyable claustrophobia, and it’s also great that every little detail of Jessica’s harrowing paranormal experience is not overly explained. I really liked the Manson-family angle as well, and the cult members were suitably unsettling. I also liked that the movie kept the premise simple and didn’t really fuck around or get bogged down with too much exposition; in the first scene of the movie, Jessica arrives for her “last shift,” and scary shit starts happening in the station within a few minutes, and doesn’t let up until the very end. The movie is essentially a straight-up horror version of Assault on Precinct 13, but ain’t nothing wrong with that. Although I would usually avoid films that had this much relentless supernatural shit going on, as I tend to prefer subtler, slower-burn fare, this one was exceedingly well-done, and that’s mostly due to the crack editing, the effectively frightening apparitions, and the tour-de-force performance of lead Juliana Harkavy. Definitely recommended.
Well, that’s all for another installment of Double Feature, so until next time, keep it creepy, my friends. Goddess out.