Adventures in Streaming: The Final

* reviews of things i found on (mostly) netflix *
* now with spoilers *

* be aware: this is a synopsis review, so it is one big spoiler *

The Final (2010) tells the story of a group of high school outcasts who decide to exact revenge on their tormentors.

It begins in a restaurant, where a girl with a burn-scar over half her face experiences stares and whispers from the other patrons. She finally lashes out, saying that she didn’t ask to look that way.

The film then turns to the group of outcasts (Ravi, Emily, Jack, Dane, and Andy) and follows their fairly significant bullying by the “popular” students; we also see each outcast’s home life – none of them have pleasant home lives, their parents being either neglectful, chaotic, distant, or hostile. We meet Kurtis, an agreeable young man who seems to like everyone and to treat them all equally (and kindly). When he witnesses Ravi being bullied, he stands up for Ravi. The outcasts discuss Kurtis, in fact, deciding that he’s a “good guy” and that he should not be allowed to attend “the party”.

“The party” is the site of the outcasts’ revenge, where they get all of their tormentors into the same house in the woods, drug them, and then torture them. Kurtis has shown up after all, so Ravi allows him to escape before the torture begins, and points out that if everyone were like Kurtis, none of the film’s events would be happening.

Kurtis encounters a racist man – Parker – who ties Kurtis up and goes to see if his story about the “party” is true. Parker is ambushed by a trio of students on motorbikes, but he’s able to eliminate two of them; Kurtis frees himself and calls police. By the time the police get to the party-house, however, the outcasts have turned on one another (Dane is particularly touchy, having expressed intense suicidal ideation and deep anger throughout the film). Jack is the only outcast still alive, and kills himself after telling the police that there are “more of us” out there.

Kurtis returns to school, where he recognizes the third motorbike rider; we realize that one of the bullies is the girl from the beginning of the movie – Emily gave her those scars, at a party that several other students did not survive.

On the surface, the story is one we’ve seen quite a bit – the bullied kids, who are always really good people, get back at their aggressors, who are always really bad people, and the aggressors finally see the error of their ways. We see how dismal the bullied kids’ lives are, how unworthy their families are, how mean the meanies can be. We do feel sympathy for the outcasts; we do feel outrage at the bullies’ actions. For anyone who’s been bullied themselves, the notion of revenge can be quite appealing, and the graphic torture of the bullies in the film might even act as a cautionary tale for any real bullies who might be watching.

But Final goes a little deeper into the matter.

We see the outcasts’ negative home lives, but the outcasts themselves aren’t all squeaky clean. Dane especially has so much misdirected rage that it borders on psychopathy; by the end, he’s lashing out in all directions, even at his own friends and allies, in his attempt to stop the pain he feels. He stops caring about revenge or lessons and focuses instead on hurting others for hurting’s sake. Most of the others, too, are so consumed by their pain that they no longer see the bullies as human beings – even though being unable to have compassion is usually described as the problem bullies have.

We don’t necessarily get a deeper look at the bullies, but they are presented more as real people than as stereotypes – during the torture experience, they exhibit concern for their friends’ lives (well, some of them exhibit concern). And the school hasn’t been divided into “us” and “them”, with only bullies and good-guys – Kurtis, among others, is just a regular person, not hurting anyone, not hating anyone, just making his way through school without an agenda.

The bullies are pretty solidly the bad guys … but the other characters aren’t so clearly delineated and compartmentalized. The atmosphere is one of stark realism, so we feel the pain inflicted by the bullies. We don’t like them. But we also can’t quite get swept away on a wave of revenge-porn, because all of the characters are just kids, just people: there’s no particular struggle between good and evil, but rather a grey and protracted conflict between teenagers of all stripes and the many parts of being human that hurt or don’t make sense. Instead of being able to vicariously feel avenged by the actions of the characters, we’re struck by how gritty and pointless it all is, by how important high school feels when really it’s just a small interlude in life, by how much life can suck for even the best of us.

Jack’s warning that there are “more of us” is no doubt true, but the effect isn’t one of chilling realization wherein we contemplate a world full of angry, disaffected outcasts who may finally snap. Instead, the thought that there are more people who feel such a deep pain is just kind of sad – the film has illustrated very well that people in pain, particularly those who don’t feel like anyone hears or cares, will eventually be overcome by those feelings. They’ll lash out at others or at themselves, they’ll feel more and more lost and broken, they’ll feel more and more helpless against the negative forces that seem to press in on them from all sides. Basically, the film shows that bullies and the bullied are all just acting out their anger, hopelessness, and confusion; that neither side has a corner on good or evil; and that so much of the “drama” grown-ups mock about adolescents is a fairly understandable response to a world that doesn’t seem as welcoming and warm as it did when we were small.

There were a few things that didn’t quite mesh with the rest: the families were all so uniformly unconcerned with their children’s well-being that it sort of felt like a ham-handed parade of dysfunctional stereotypes, and Parker’s random racism was out of place in a movie that dealt with a different kind of negative social experience. If the goal was to suggest that even Kurtis – whom everyone liked – had his own problems, then it fell a bit short because of its incongruity. Some of the torture scenes went for the gore-porn vibe, but most of the film went for realism, so there was some conflict there in how the audience was expected to receive the images. And of course, as with most teen-centered works, it’s a bit unlikely that absolutely zero parents were concerned about a teen party in the middle of nowhere.

But overall, the message and its delivery in this film far outweighed these flaws, and the feeling we’re left with at the end is one not so much of vindication or even enjoyment but of sadness and reflection.

 8 out of 10

Adventures in Streaming: Polaroid

* reviews of things i found on (mostly) netflix *

* now with spoilers *

Polaroid is a fairly standard horror film, with a haunted object that kills whoever interacts with it. We follow a group of friends as they try to figure out how to stop the murderous entity before they’re all killed.

Um … yeah, that’s a standard plot – no surprises there.

But Polaroid delivers well on an oft-used premise.

The acting isn’t bad at all, and in fact the characters react a little more realistically than in other films to the deaths of their friends and to the weirdness of what’s happening. In other examples of the genre, we’re usually given a peek into why the characters who die are deserving of their fate, but in this one they seem to be completely blameless; unlike other random-victim tales, though, like Grudge or Ring, the entity haunting the object (in this case a Polaroid camera) seems truly vengeful toward these particular teenagers. It creates a pretty good sense of mystery as we try to figure out how the deaths could be both undeserved and targeted.

The gimmick lends itself well to the solution – the ultimate method for stopping the entity is a believable outcome of stuff we’ve already seen. Technology featured in the attacks and the final boss-battle is ordinary and accessible; no one has to be an expert, and there are no futuristic requirements.

Some people die that we don’t expect, which is a thing that’s harder and harder to achieve as the genre gets more saturated. We also encounter a couple of twists that aren’t exactly unpredictable but also aren’t obvious or contrived.

The effects are solid. The final boss-battle is engaging and rewarding. The atmosphere throughout conveys the sense of urgency and impending doom. It’s not a particular deviation from the standards of the genre, but it tells its story well and delivers emotionally.

It’s worth watching.

popcorn icon 8 out of 10

Adventures in Streaming: Don’t Kill It

* reviews of things i found on (mostly) netflix *

* now with spoilers *

Don’t Kill It looked to be a reasonably entertaining Dolph Lundgren vehicle; I like him a great deal, and I like most genres of horror/comedy-horror. I wasn’t expecting a great deal, beyond a decent premise and tolerable acting.

It actually turned out to be pretty good.

The acting is tolerable and the premise is decent … but in a genre where demon possession and haunted objects, etc., are very commonplace, it’s hard to make it feel new or creepy or emotionally affecting. This succeeded in doing that, and in fact the initial scenes of the wandering demon in question were a little disturbing in their bluntness.

Dolph plays an interesting character who brings some humour to the situation as well as the coveted knowledge that the unsuspecting town-folk require to escape the peril. He almost seems to be a man out of time, although there’s no particular mention of it. He has a history with the demon.

The method of tracking down the demon and trying to stop it is a little different from anything else I’ve encountered; the action is presented almost in real-time, so that it feels immediate and engaging. The primary female character is presented in the same tone as the primary male character, and both play the hero.

Some of the tropes are a bit … trope-y: the demon hunter is not believed, and possibly drinks too much; the other main character is law enforcement, and only believes the demon hunter because of events in her own life rather than because of the evidence; the demon seems to hold all the cards, including an extra deck, but somehow is constrained by one thing that just happens to be available to anyone.

The movie is in a slightly awkward place between being serious horror-drama and being a more comedic horror offering such as Tucker and Dale vs Evil, but it doesn’t handle it awkwardly. The pacing is good, the visuals are good, and the ending is satisfying.

Overall, pretty good, actually.

popcorn icon   8 out of 10

Adventures in Streaming: Veronica

* reviews of things i found on (mostly) netflix *

* now with spoilers *

Veronica is a horror film revolving around the possession of a young woman by a malevolent spirit or demon. It’s based loosely on the first case in Spain wherein the detective involved stated that he had witnessed paranormal activity.

It’s visually well-constructed, and the acting is fine, even from the younger kids. The story is solid, and, although nothing is particularly surprising (especially for those of us who have seen a bazillion movies in this genre), the ending wraps things up nicely. The kids who are the most vulnerable are also ultimately rescued, so the movie feels pretty good in the end on that level, but like a lot of horror, the “bad guy” does win on another level, demanding the ultimate sacrifice from the character who’s responsible for those children.

Some elements seem a little strange, like unusual teachers whose unusualness seems to be more for visual entertainment than for any plot point, and the cobbling together of different religious cosmologies for no meaningful purpose. But overall the visuals and tone are balanced, and the rapid buildup to the possession that Veronica experiences is presented with believable pacing.

The only problem with Veronica is that it presents itself – and is from more than one voice presented by others – as the scariest film … but it isn’t scary. It’s disturbing on the level of Veronica dealing with a possession while caring for her younger siblings; it’s not, I suppose, for the squeamish. But it has neither a strong tension (the jump-scare type of scary) or a lot of gore or even a creepiness about the possession. It’s almost as straightforward as a Forensic Files re-enactment, where the topic might be alarming but the audience doesn’t necessarily feel like they’re in it or that the horror might somehow leak out and get them too.

Looking at it as a story based somewhat on real events, this straightforward presentation is actually pretty effective. But it’s also not presented as a docu-style horror drama, so the audience isn’t given the extra “horror” of real investigators weighing in on a real situation. The movie gets stuck in the middle, where it’s good but it’s not that scary, and it’s based on real but it’s not that real.

Overall, it was pleasant to watch and an acceptable entry into the genre, but the people saying it’s the scariest thing ever? – I’m not sure if we watched the same film.

popcorn icon  6 out of 10.

Adventures in Streaming

* reviews of things i found on (mostly) netflix *

* now with spoilers *

Killing Ground

Killing Ground (2016) tells the story of Sam and Ian, a young couple who has just decided to get married. They’re on a camping vacation together, picking a campground that had been recommended to them by someone who seemed to know the area.

Once they’re settled into their campsite, they realize that the tent next to theirs seems to be abandoned; when they investigate, they find a baby whose family has apparently left him behind. They then encounter the people who only days before had murdered the baby’s family, and Sam and Ian are obliged to fight for their lives as well as protect the baby.

In the end, Ian leaves Sam behind to go get help “because [he] didn’t know what else to do”, and while Sam believes he left her because he was taking baby Ollie to safety, he in fact had left Ollie behind as well.

Unfortunately for the audience, Ollie’s fate – although we know he’s alive as of the final events of the film – remains a mystery.

On one hand, this movie offers a fairly progressive depiction of women – they’re all empowered to save themselves and to protect others, and, even though for two of them their efforts result in failure, none of the women ever give up the struggle to survive. Also, Sam is the one who suggests marriage to Ian, which is still considered unconventional, and when the crap hits the fan, Sam kicks in without waiting for rescue and does what she needs to do to save herself, Ian, and Ollie. She even kicks in after the constabulary finally arrive and are promptly shot by the bad guys – this setback motivates rather than discourages her.

There isn’t anything wrong with Ian going for help, since he clearly couldn’t overpower the bad guys on his own and he and Sam needed help. But given all that Sam had been expected – and able – to do to overpower the bad guys, and the risk she consistently took to help the others, Ian’s inability to be brave or productive becomes more egregious and disappointing. More than once he tries to grab a gun from his assailant or to fight that assailant, but gives up and runs away instead; if it had just been a matter of him versus the bad guys, this might not seem so bad, but when we know he’s not taking the actions that will protect his partner and the defenseless child, he seems particularly unhelpful and, frankly, cowardly.

When Sam realizes that Ian had left her and Ollie behind, she is understandably surprised – she seems not to know how to process the information, and can’t even be dejected about it. After she and Ian are transported to the hospital, she makes her way to his room and watches him, her expression one of disappointed thoughtfulness.

The acting in the film is pretty good; the events are depicted in a way that creates significant tension as well as ambiguity about the timeline between the earlier family being butchered and Sam and Ian being attacked. We’re worried about the baby, who’s been on his own for some time now – we’re watching his family be butchered without knowing for sure how long ago that was. We’re hoping some of Ollie’s family survive, but we don’t find out until more than half-way through. We’re watching the bad guys catch up with Sam and Ian, and the urgency feels pretty real throughout. The bad guys aren’t painted particularly creatively: they’re just your run-of-the-mill woods-based psychopaths. But they do a good job of presenting that, and they seem genuinely unpredictable and pretty ruthless, so the stakes feel high.

What at first seemed like a gender-swap – reversing stereotypical roles like rescue or marriage proposals – ultimately becomes much more. It isn’t that Ian doesn’t act “like a man should”. It’s that Ian doesn’t act at all. “Well, that’s how women are often depicted,” you might say. But with few exceptions, women are presented as nurturers, protecting children at all costs. If they aren’t nurturers, then they aren’t considered to be good women … and Ian demonstrates a few times that his nurturing skills are not up to par either with his partner or with what the audience expects. The thought of staying to find the baby doesn’t even occur to him, and when he leaves to get help he doesn’t even take the time to see which way Sam had been taken. He doesn’t stay, he doesn’t fight, he doesn’t try. Whether he’s male or female, his actions – or lack thereof – cause a lot of trouble for those who thought they could depend on him at least to be there.

In a world where gender-norms are being rewritten consistently, the one standard that pervades is that two people of whatever gender need to be good partners for one another, and Ian has given a lot for Sam to think of in that regard.

The movie is a good mix of tension, action, and deeper themes. The audience is occasionally disappointed with some events – the killing of the family, the ultimate disappearance of Ollie, Ian’s whatever-he’s-doing – but not with the storytelling. It’s got some gory stuff, some gritty stuff, some it’s-right-behind-me stuff, and some heroic stuff. Overall, it’s pretty good.

popcorn icon    8 out of 10

The Thing I Like About …

… That “Hell No” trailer for the film-that’s-unfortunately-not-real:  that it sends the same message actual horror films are sending.

In the trailer, sensible people make sensible decisions: cops wait for back-up, college kids don’t enter the spooky cabin in the woods, guys don’t follow cheerleaders into insane asylums to play with Ouija boards … and everyone lives.  In actual horror films, college kids do a host of stupid things, like going into haunted houses, cabins in the woods, insane asylums, dark tunnels, spooky attics, poorly lit basements … and so on.  They follow blood trails instead of calling the police.  They follow the strange sounds as though they actually want to know what’s making them.  Walk down a creepy forest trail in the middle of the night? – how else can they be attacked by serial killers, chainsaw maniacs, vengeful spirits, zombies, cannibals, lunatics, werewolves, aliens, or hordes of irradiated spiders!

But they do these stupid things for the same reason the “Hell No” crowd was not doing them: they’re demonstrating how actions become consequences.  Crazed mountain men? – they’re chasing you because you took a wrong turn.  Ghosts possessing your children? – that happened because you insulted the ghosts, or stole their house, or used their belongings, or any number of things that you did.  Demons eating your girlfriend? – well, you shouldn’t have bought that Ouija board.  It’s not the bad guys’ fault … it’s yours.

In the “Hell No” trailer, no bad things happened because everyone made good decisions.  The characters’ survival was their own doing.  In real horror films, horrible things happen because everyone makes bad decisions.  The characters’ demise is their own doing.  Either way, the message is the same – these events can be controlled… by YOU!

People who don’t like horror films don’t always appreciate what the films are doing – they’re letting the audience live in a world where unhappy events, evil that occurs, and bad guys that exist are entities that can be predicted or outwitted or understood.  If we behave a certain way, then we can guarantee what will happen.  If we don’t behave like the dopes in horror movies, then we can guarantee our own safety.  Horror movies – and the “Hell No” trailer – allow people to forget that real evil pretty much does whatever it likes, no matter what we do, with no guarantees, no safety, and no warning.

Suddenly a monster-filled cabin in the woods seems like a comfort, doesn’t it?