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April 11, 2023

Spirit Animal Movie Review (2019)

 

I love being able to meet indie horror film makers at conventions. It’s usually because I’m set up next to or near them, and I end up staring at their DVDs and posters all weekend. My first Cinema Wasteland was no exception. I was set up across from Nekroshark Films and writer/director Madeline Deering. While the poster for another unfinished film got my attention, I was able to get my hands on a copy of this movie to review today.

Madeline was super cool to talk to and I really like the story idea for this flick. Is it perfect? No. Is it really good? Also no. But it’s not the worst film I’ve ever seen and I enjoyed quite a few bits of it. Let’s break it down.

The basic premise of Spirit Animal is simple – a serial killer murders people while wearing different animal masks and using different kill methods that are dependent on the victim. The killer is guided by a sentient tree in the forest that wants to destroy humanity because we’re fucking up the planet.

Makes sense.

The film opens with a couple ads, very much like the Atomic Swans films I’ve recently reviewed. Are they real places? Fuck if I know but I’ll tell you this, after seeing the ad for Dingo Pizza, I really REALLY wanted to eat pizza.

 

Cut to a ‘bartender’ slinging beers and telling us, the viewer/customer, about this weird VHS tape he found by the dumpsters. He then proceeds to break down the two tasks we must do: 1. Play the smell-o-vision scratch card game when certain numbers pop up on screen (I, unfortunately, did not get one); and 2. Play the Spirit Animal drinking game. Every time a shark is on screen, take a drink. Every time you see the plushy shark, take two drinks. 

If I’d actually played along, I would have died of alcohol poisoning before the 2nd half of the film.

THEN we get to the actual movie, which is a twenty year flashback to a camp, a bunch of kids, and a counselor who’s making them figure out which spirit animal they are – or will be after they die.

Nothing like a little bit of heavy existentialism right before bed, eh kids?

The remainder of the film takes places in the present and a bunch of people are going out to the woods to camp, hang out, and have some fun. Unfortunately for them, the killer, Aarav Niktomi, is about to pee in everyone’s proverbial personal pools.

 

As you can imagine, indie horror is a bit rough. Very low production value, skilled actors are few or non-existent, lame writing/dialogue, sound and lighting unbalanced, and cinematography who? While there are weak aspects in this film as well, it’s actually much better than I expected.

For once, the sound was well balanced. The sound effects didn’t make my ears bleed while the dialogue belonged in your local library. Most of the special effects were practical. I’ll take those any day over crap CGI. There were some digital effects but not enough to irritate.

I really enjoyed the kills, for the most part. Like I said, the practical effects were fun and probably ‘death by pizza cutter’ was my favorite. But each character was killed in a different way. Tim, who always used plastic straws and littered the ground with them, had his brain sucked out through one by the killer wearing a shark mask while he screamed about how straws ruin the ocean.

I told you...NO MORE PLASTIC STRAWS! EVAR!!!

While the acting is less than stellar, I really liked the character of Lisa. She was probably the most and best developed (she had a backstory with an abusive ex-boyfriend) and I think she was the only smart character of the bunch. Very sympathetic, likeable, and I wondered why she was friends with any of these fools.

I actually have several places in my notes where I typed out ‘haha’ in capital letters, just so I wouldn’t forget them. The humor does fall flat a lot but it hits the mark more often than not. Some basic silliness, sneaking in lines from other terrible films, but I probably laughed the most during the ending credits. Lots of little jokes and asides in there, especially what were obviously things said by the cast and crew about the director, Madeline.

And someone correct me if I’m wrong, but did Andrea sing the camping song from Sleepaway Camp 2 when she was drunk in front of the fire? I need a fact check!

I thought the story itself was very original. Allowed for a lot of creativity and humor while presenting real environmental horrors that happen every day. And while I don’t condone killing off humanity to save the planet, I do understand why it might seem like a viable option. Particularly to a sentient tree who bears the brunt of human’s destructive nature.

Now, with that said, there are a lot of faults in this flick, too.

Aside from Lisa, none of the characters matter. They’re either irritating or just…there. Even the killer couldn’t make me care about his cause, one-liners and quips not withstanding. I couldn’t be bothered when characters died. I just wanted them to shut the fuck up (except for the two chicks lost in the woods looking for a party – that actually cracked me up, though I remained untroubled at their deaths).

Would you like a taste of my banana?

The pacing dragged ass about halfway, which most films do. But while I understand hyperbolic humor, if there’s no action in a scene after about ten seconds, the viewer starts to tune out. Only Tom Hanks can pull off a peeing-for-thirty-seconds scene. And don’t get me started on the expo-dumps and ravings about how shitty humanity is. The killer’s mask-themed jokes were funny at first but by the third one, I just wanted it to end.

Postproduction sound is not good. The dialogue synching was mediocre at best and completely distracting; lighting is pretty bad for the night scenes; continuity lacked; some gaping plot holes. If this cleansing the world of humanity ritual can only happen every 1000 years, why did Aarav mention that it happened last time 20 years prior? Aarav says he’s not the only one (wanting the ritual) but we never circle back around to that idea. How does having a banana allergy make a victim of a banana attack melt into green goo?

Head scratching indeed.

So while this film isn’t really that great, as far as indie horror goes, I have to say I enjoyed it more than I thought possible. Maybe next time I’ll try the drinking game with a few friends and see if it’s any better. Perhaps at the next Cinema Wasteland…? I am excited to see if Bathtub Shark Attack, the movie poster that actually caught my attention, will screen at the fall CW show. I’d like to see what else Nekro Shark Films and Madeline Deering have to offer us in the future.

 

2.5 hatchets (out of 5)




 

 


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April 1, 2023

Static Age #24: The Mad Death (1983)

 

The Mad Death (1983) DVD box art

This Static Age’s spotlight goes to BBC’s miniseries The Mad Death (1983) which consists of three hour-long episodes (all of them directed by Robert Young, written by Sean Hignett, based on a novel by Nigel Slater), and is about an epidemic that plagues England after an infected cat gets smuggled into the country and spreads a rabies-like disease that turns humans into crazed maniacs. In the end it is the army against the infected animals, which is an interesting scenario, but unfortunately most actors here don’t look like soldiers, and most animals look too cute to be menacing. However, this is eerily relevant and well-made, as well as haunting horror television at its best.

 

And now, let’s switch our focus towards some recent series…

 

Wednesday - Season 1

The 1st season of Netflix’s Wednesday (2022 – present), ‘from the imagination of Tim Burton’ (who directed half of the episodes) and based on the Addams Family comic strips and cultural phenomenon, is focusing on that peculiar family’s titular daughter (played by an excellent Jenna Ortega) who is sent by her parents (Luis Guzman and Catherine Zeta-Jones) to a school she dislikes and where she will have to solve a murder conspiracy that involves monsters. This is the show all the cool kids should like and is done with affection and brilliance, not to mention gorgeous dark aesthetics, and if that’s not enough Ortega’s dance sequence (to a tune by The Cramps, no less) is the best in the history of the medium and was choreographed by her.

 

The 5th season of The Handmaid’s Tale (2017 – present) is about the trauma that plagues June Osborne (Elisabeth Moss) despite the great revenge she managed to tackle during the previous season’s finale, but with Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) still alive and back in Gilead, the Waterfords seem to not have said their final word. Deep, thoughtful, artistic, and well-made, this show is one of these rare occasions when the fact that it raises more philosophical questions than it can answer, works in its favor.

 

Irma Vep - Season 1 

The Irma Vep (2022) mini-series is about American actress Mira Harberg (Alicia Vikander) who goes to France in order to work with an acclaimed director on the remake of the legendary Les Vampires serial. Suffering from a lack of any sense of real plot of dramatic progress, and focusing on the daily lives of a cast and crew of disillusioned artists, this is more about tone and aesthetics rather than any kind of storytelling, and as such it outstays its welcome rather quickly even at a mere 8 episodes long. However, all the main actresses are gorgeous beyond belief in a European way that they make the end result bearable. The title cards’ song is completely out of place and ridiculous.

 

Based upon Stephen King’s same-titled classic horror novel, the limited series The Stand (2020) is about a plague that has wiped off almost the entire population of our planet and is focusing on a grand battle between survivors. Amazingly current and sadly relevant, this only loses points for involving the supernatural too much, whereas a straight approach grounded more in realism would be more sufficient. What’s also unfortunate is the lack of any sense of real threat, a bad sign when you’re watching a supposed thriller. It is not without its merits though, as the set design is a work of art the rocking soundtrack is well-chosen and well-placed, and even Amber Heard and Whoopi Goldberg are providing decent performances.

 

Directed by Bryan Singer, the sole episode of Mockingbird Lane (2012) brings back the beloved ‘Munsters’ family for a new generation, but it does so unremarkably as it is desperate to include gore gags that seem out place and is rounded by an inappropriate cast. The CGI are primitive as well, and overall I don’t understand why many people like this TV special.

 

Loki - Season 1

The 1st season of Marvel’s Loki (2021 – present) finds the titular god of mischief (the handsome Tom Hiddleston) without his powers and going through a much more human story, full of emotions. A great show, and at a mere 6 episodes long it’s a joy to watch.

 

The 1st season of Marvel’s I am Groot (2022 – present) consists of five episodes featuring stunning animation and fresh comedy delivered in short sketches. They are entertaining, but in at least a couple of them Groot (Vin Diesel) comes across as an asshole.

 

The sole season of Marvel’s WandaVision (2021) is a fresh take on the superhero genre as it takes the classic sitcom approach of filmmaking and it comes across as nostalgic and warming. The show is about the suburban life of superheroes Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany), but never mind the plot, you should focus on the charming aesthetics instead.

 

Set in the 1950s Kansas City, Missouri it is a scenario featuring African-American gangsters against Italian-American gangsters in the 4th season of Fargo (2014 – present), offering snow and crime in equal measures, as well as wide spaces and Western-like aesthetics and shootouts. Needless to say, it comes highly recommended.

 

Gomorrah - Season 5

The 5th, final, and best season of Gomorrah (2014 – 2021) finds Don Genaro (Salvatore Esposito) lower in the annals of Neapolitan organized crime, following a series of events that made him a wanted man both by the authorities and competitive gangs. Will he rise as a phoenix in the series finale? His biggest obstacle will be the return of ‘The Immortal’, or Ciro di Marzio (Marco D’Amore, who also directed several episodes) who will form his own clan and swears to revenge his once-brother. Possibly the best series to ever come out of Italy, this is well-made, authentic, and enjoyable for fans of the gangster genre.

 

And now, please allow me a word on some recent mainstream film releases…

 

Glass Onion: A Knives Out...

Written and directed by Rian Johnson, Netflix’s Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (2022) was shot in Greece on a gigantic budget of $40 million and it is such a lavish production that manages to look even bigger on screen (the set and costume design are stunning). Benefiting from a stunning cast that includes Daniel Craig, Edward Norton, Kate Hudson, Dave Bautista, and Ethan Hawke, this murder mystery has plot twists that you’ll never see coming, and just enough comedic elements to sweeten the proceedings. When it comes to ‘whodunit’ films we prefer gialli in these shores, but if you’re looking for something in the Hollywood vein this will do the trick.

 

Based on the book by Louis Bayard, adapted by Scott Cooper (who also directed), Netflix’s The Pale Blue Eye (2022) is a murder mystery that Augustus Landor (a mustached and bearded Christian Bale) attempts to solve, and later on claims the help of Cadet Edgar Allan Poe (Harry Melling). Slow burn and tonally dark – both elements work in the film’s favor – this also benefits from a great cast (Toby Jones and Gillian Anderson are also on board), but is let down by its mildness (the story definitely allowed and asked for more grittiness and an edgier approach).

 

Lady Chatterley's Lover (2022) frame

Netflix’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (2022) directed by Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, is about Connie (the gorgeous Emma Corrin) and the relationship she forms with handyman Oliver (Jack O’Connell) upon feeling neglected by her terrible husband (Matthew Duckett). Based on the classic and then-controversial book D.H. Lawrence, this adaptation is obviously not aimed for the target group the original material or the former cinematic adaptations were, but takes the ‘housewife’ approach, as the end result is focusing more on the love story and less on the strong eroticism, or its commentary on classicism. Still it is a very enjoyable film and rather beautifully shot, as the exteriors and the love scenes are really well-done.

 

Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio (2022), now streaming on Netflix, tells the classic story of carpenter Geppetto (David Bradley) who upon losing his only son, crafts a the titular wooden child (Gregory Mann) that upon coming to life, helps him with grief and the overall Italian 1930s fascism surroundings. With expertly crafted stop-motion animation and voiced by a great cast (other than the aforementioned players we also get Ewan McGregor, Ron Perlman, John Torturro, Cate Blanchett, Christoph Waltz, and Tilda Swinton), this may be a very sad tale for younger audiences (talcling strong subjects such as loneliness and loss), but it is a work of art nonetheless.

 

Not to be confused with John Carl Buechler’s 1986 classic – how could it be, anyway? – Netflix’s big budget extravaganza Troll (2022), directed by Roar Uthaug (who also wrote the story, which was turned into screenplay by Espen Aukan) is about the titular monster that was recently and accidentally (not to mention, irresponsibly) awaken in the Dovre mountain, and is now on a destroying rampage that is about to have its crescendo in the city of Oslo. This Norwegian film is as simplistic as these monster movie blockbusters can get, but it is so well-done, engaging, and entertaining, that you’ll forgive its flaws. Surprisingly for such a thing, the women in the film are really strong, and on another plus note we also get a Ramones reference.

 

Written and directed by Rob Zombie, The Munsters (2022) may be aesthetically perfect and rich when it comes to popular horror references, but it lacks drive and storytelling as the plot – about Lily (Sheri Moon Zombie) falling in love with rock-star Herman (Jeff Daniel Phillips), much to her father’s (Daniel Roebuck) objection – is much too think to keep you interested. Rob Zombie has proven he’s capable of helming some pretty important films within the horror genre, but he’s also responsible for some serious duds, and this falls in the latter category.

 

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022)

Marvel’s Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022), directed by Ryan Coogler (who also penned the screenplay, with Joe Robert Cole), finds the people of Wakanda mourning the death of their king, and their desperate search for a replacement upon the threat of an invading enemy army. Featuring stunning production design (the costumes and sets are a breathtaking combination of African tradition and technological evolution), but suffering from superhero clich├ęs (predictable CGI and battles, as well as terrible soundtrack choices), this is still one the studio’s better works from the last few years and therefore comes recommended.

 

And also, as unlikely it might be for me, I read some fiction books: Franz Kafka’s Die Verwandlung (1915), Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), John Grisham’s The Appeal (2008), Paul Garrison’s Robert Ludlum’s The Janson Command (2012), Alberto Garlini’s La Legge dell’odio (2012), Fernanda Melchor’s Temporada de Huracanes (2017), Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments (2019), Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2021), and Ashley Flowers’ All Good People Here (2022).


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