Monday, July 24, 2017

On the Big Screen :: Implied Horror and Wishing For Things that Weren't in John Leonetti's Wish Upon (2017)

Our film opens in a rundown neighborhood, with a twitchy mom seeing her young daughter off on her training-wheeled bike; destination, to check on a nest of baby birds up the street. Seems simple but between the out of kilter soundtrack and Mom’s mournful stare as she carefully secrets something in the trash, we’re clued-in that something is amiss as danger draws near for one or both. But which one? Well, we get our answer quick as the daughter makes it back to the house in one piece -- just in time to see her mother commit suicide by hanging herself in the attic.

Jump ahead about ten years and the daughter, Clare (King), is now a senior in high school. A social outcast except for her two bestest buds, Meredith and June (Park, Purser), a day in the life for Clare is nothing but heaps of embarrassment (-- her deadbeat father is a pathological dumpster diving hoarder), and abusive hazing (-- the popular sect pick on her constantly and spread the mortifying results on social media). But things start to change for Clare when her father unearths an old Chinese wish box of some antiquity and then passes it off as a birthday present for his daughter. Able to translate some of the writing carved into it, which promises to grant seven wishes, Clare, unfortunately, is unable to decipher the fine print as her wishes start coming true, which warns these kinds of bargains with the unknown always come at a deadly price...

John Leonetti served as the cinematographer for James Wan’s fright franchises du jour, Insidious (2010) and The Conjuring (2013), before branching out and slipping into the director’s chair for the spin-off, Annabelle (2014), a film which wasn’t that terrible, I thought, and found myself pleasantly surprised by how much I genuinely liked it despite the rock stupid premise (-- I mean, who the hell in their right mind would buy a doll which looked like THAT?!); and then followed that up with the Charles Manson inspired Wolves at the Door (2016), which was his take on the gruesome Tate-LaBianca murders,

Here, his efforts for Wish Upon (2017) produced a film I also didn’t hate -- but I didn’t really like it all that much because it failed to engage me on almost every level -- well, at least until the drive home, where there was a dry-fart of rumination. (More on this in a sec.) And while the overall plot is full of holes and leaking logic, I think the biggest mistake the film makes is not making Clare sympathetic enough. Joey King, another Wan veteran, does her best but Barbara Marshall’s script does her no favors as all Clare gets in terms of character development is that she’s lost her mom, her dad’s a hopeless yutz, she likes her dog (-- until it dies to grant her first wish and is summarily forgotten), she has the soul of a repressed artist, and she is the victim of bullying -- all told in the broadest of strokes. That’s it.

This is then compounded by the fact her wishes are totally self-serving as she conjures up some money, popularity, a cute boyfriend, and revenge on the bitchy classmate (Langford) who torments her the most. And what’s worse, even after Clare finds out there is a "blood price" to be paid for each wish, meaning someone close to her will die to make the box work, like some meth-head looking for her next fix, the girl will not give up her new found social and financial high and keeps on wishing, which only reinforces how big of a petulant brat she’s been all along.

The film is also not helped out by it’s PG-13 rating at all. And while I freely admit Wish Upon was essentially Final Destination (2000) and Wishmaster (1997) by way of W.W. Jacobs with the serial numbers filed off, the film lacks any kind of punch for the elaborate, Rube-Goldbergian nature of the “accidental” deaths they set-up, meaning no gruesome payoffs and a lot of jarring edits to keep things clean and sanitized enough for the tweeners, leaving us with the asinine plot and terrible characters and nothing else to helps us endure. Things got so turgid and somnolent I even lost track of the wish-to-kill ratio and who died for which wish.

I don’t know. Maybe if Clare’s wishes had started backfiring on her, hinted at by the new enthralled beau (Slaggert), who is so obsessed with her he essentially becomes an ersatz stalker who doesn’t understand the meaning of the word “No.” And when she grows tired of him and tries to “throw him back” he attempts suicide over this rejection. That kinda twist might’ve proved interesting if it had been expounded upon further. But instead the box just up and disappears, triggering more of that fine print, translated by Ryan (Lee), a friendly classmate with Chinese heritage, who reveals if you dump or lose the box before you make all seven wishes, all spent wishes will be undone. And so, Clare winds up back at square one, but seems content enough as she wasn’t really happy with all the ill-gotten stuff, either, truth told, but this, too, isn’t properly addressed. (Sensing a pattern here). At least she was content until finding out June stole the box from her; not to make her own wishes, but as an act of self-preservation so her selfish ass of a best friend would stop killing those around her -- like their friend Meredith, who was squashed to death in a runaway elevator.

And speaking of friend June, I want to make it perfectly clear that I am 100% Team Barb when it comes to Stranger Things (2016). And if you do not understand the Cult of Barb on your own, sorry, I cannot help you. You either get it, or you don’t. Anyhoo, it was kind of laughable how Leonetti framed certain shots and how several set-ups linger on Shannon Purser as if to say "Look! Lookie! Look! Look! Barb from Stranger Things is in our moooooovie." In fact, during one round of wishes, when Clare wants her dad (Phillippe) to get his crap together and be cool, he starts blowing hot jazz on the sax as the girls listen attentively, and then one of those lingering pans stops dead on June, then cuts to the dad, implying things are about to get weird between them. Again, that might’ve been an interesting twist on another backfiring wish if -- and stress on the “if” -- this was what the filmmaker had intended, which, of course, it was not.

As is, then, Wish Upon is a fairly dreadful movie for myriad reasons; and yet, it is also one of those horror films that gets infinitesimally better after you’ve left the theater and you start thinking about the ramifications of certain things they set-up but left to die on the vine so they could focus on something far less interesting. Like how when Clare almost kills June to get her two final wishes, she first asks to have her mom back. But during this otherwise cheery interlude (-- until her father is killed to pay the piper), we find out the mystery object mother Shannon (Röhm) was placing in the trash way back at the beginning of the movie was most likely the very same wish box, leaving the audience to extrapolate from the tales of woe and mass murder by the others who flagrantly possessed the wish box over the years, that her wishes also must’ve went awry. And so awry they did go, mommy-dearest wished for a do-over, but then chose to sacrifice herself to the demon in the box so it wouldn’t take her daughter as payment.

Thus and so, that whole incident with Shannon controlling the box was ret-conned out of existence, explaining why she wasn’t part of Ryan’s investigative recap. (But Jerry O’Connell was. Weird, I know. Long story.) And so, that is not the giant plot-hole some would have you believe it to be. How the box then got to where her dad found it, in the trash of a former victim, who died after making a seventh wish when the demon came for his due, well, you got me there -- and at this point, I’m getting tired of shoring up this scuttled script, because this also brings into question what are real memories and false memories of Clare’s past. 

Of course, the film doesn’t address any of this either and it’s left to the audience to interpret for themselves as the ultimate climax comes full circle. Seems Clare thinks she knows how to beat the cursed box at its own game by spending her last request wishing her father had never found it (-- just like her mom?), hoping to negate all the damage she has done. And this works, to a point. Alas, to grant this final wish the box must still be paid; but unlike her mother, staying within character, Clare’s final sacrifice is totally unwitting and yet seemed oddly fitting given the circumstances.

And that, I guess, is the biggest problem I had with Wish Upon -- that it’s only a horror movie, or even passable entertainment, through implication and what the audience manages to piece together after the fact. (Most of the pieces we are given are round, and the holes they need to fit through are square. I understand if you do not have the patience to make it fit.) And while that kind of conjecture can be fun, it does you little good while you’re stuck in the theater as this thing flails around, failing to find traction on anything, and kinda wishing you weren’t even there.

Wish Upon (2017) Broad Green Pictures :: Busted Shark Productions :: Orion Pictures / EP: Daniel Hammond, Gabriel Hammond, Lauren McCarthy / P: Sherryl Clark, Brian Johnston / AP: Robert Leader, Ashley Peatross, Emily LaRene Roberts / LP: Victor Ho, Tracey Landon / D: John R. Leonetti / W: Barbara Marshall / C: Michael Galbraith / E: Peck Prior / M: tomandandy / S: Joey King, Ryan Phillippe, Ki Hong Lee, Shannon Purser, Sydney Park, Mitchell Slaggert, Josephine Langford, Elisabeth Röhm

Sunday, July 16, 2017

In Memoriam :: He's Dead. We're All Messed Up :: R.I.P. George A. Romero.

The word just broke that George Romero has passed away. And as a way to commemorate everything he has done, I will echo back to some words I wrote about the passing of Bill Hinzman and the effect Night of the Living Dead (1968) had on me -- hell, on all of us:

"Sure, the out of the blue, opening assault on Barbara and Johnny in the graveyard, which ultimately led to her brother's death, is the opening salvo in the seminal, ground-breaking and still scary as hell Night of the Living Dead.

"But it isn't until after Barbara reaches the apparent safety of the car when the collective Image-10 punched their fists into our brains and then seized and squeezed the crap out of our respective amygdalas because -- call it subliminally or subconsciously, or breaking the plane, whatever you prefer -- it's here, when the silent ghoul chucks the notion of leaving a stainless steel hook in the door latch, picks up a rock, and goes to town, we, as an audience, realize he's no longer coming to get Barbara, but, instead, he's breaking through the screen and, therefore, irrevocably, coming to get us!

"And so for that, Mr. Romero, I say this in all sincerity: thanks for scaring the hell out of me and for the permanent case of the drizzles whenever I watch this movie, and for making the simple act of sitting in a theater / living room to watch a movie no longer a safe and secure inevitability."

George A. Romero

Friday, July 14, 2017

A Whaler, A Gunslinger and The Blacklist Walk Into a Saloon :: A Beer-Gut Reaction to Joseph H. Lewis' Terror in a Texas Town (1958)

OK. Stop me if you’ve heard of this kinda well-worn oater before: Somewhere in east Texas sometime around the late 1800s lies the town of Prairie City, currently under the thumb of a swindling robber baron by the name of McNeil (Cabot). Well, it’s almost under his thumb as the few homesteaders he hasn’t managed to bribe or burn out refuse to leave. About six in total. And so, the corpulent McNeil, with the law tucked safely in his pocket, hires notorious gunslinger, Johnny Crale (Young), to make a post-mortem example of one of these holdouts to scare the others off for good.

Now, the homesteader who draws the short straw is a Swedish immigrant named Sven Hansen (Stanhope), who, along with his Hispanic neighbor, Jose Mirada (Millan), discover why McNeil is so hot and bothered to gobble up their land titles through dubious means when Mirada’s efforts to dig a new well uncovers an oil deposit. This discovery comes too late for Sven, though, as Crale guns him down rather brutally when he refuses to sign over his land. Mirada and his son, Pepe (Mazolla), witness this execution. And while he wants to seek out the Texas Rangers to get justice for his friend his fearful and terminally pregnant wife (Varela), fearing he will get himself killed next, makes him swear to dummy-up and insists he and the boy saw nothing. He reluctantly agrees.

Meanwhile, Sven’s son has picked this inopportune time to return home after some 20 years. Ready to give up his life as a whaler to take up farming with his father, George Hansen (Hayden, with his on again off again on again accent) makes his way to the saloon, looking for transport to his family home. Here, strangely enough, Crale and his been there, done that, girl, Molly (Kelly), cryptically inform Hansen his father is dead; murdered, and someone is responsible. A visit with the Sheriff (McVey) gives the younger Hansen no answers or suspects, and also introduces him to the current land dispute when he is informed the farm is no longer his -- even though he insists there a papers filed at the State Capitol in Austin that say different.

Regardless, Hansen claims he is here to stay. And when word of this gets back to McNeil, fearing another killing will bring the Rangers sniffing around, he won’t let Crale do it his way and insists they just get Hansen on the next train by any means necessary with a permanent ticket out of town. And when that doesn’t work, like in all good westerns, this sets up the climatic final, and fatal, showdown -- a showdown like no other you have ever seen before. Trust me...

And how do I know all of this already, you ask? Because director Joseph Lewis kinda gives this oddball quirk of a pistolero vs. a harpooner away from the get-go as Terror in a Texas Town (1958) begins at the end, with a determined Hansen marching down the street, cradling his father’s harpoon on his shoulder; the other townsfolk following a fair distance behind. Approaching the saloon he is met in the street by Crale. And as these two stand-off for the climactic showdown, Crale goads Hansen to move in a little closer. Here, Hansen hesitates, the wheels spinning in his head, triggering the story proper, which is told as one long flashback. Now, despite the non-linear plot and odd weapon of choice this film is still a fairly standard good vs. evil western; well, at least it is on the surface. But this film becomes far less run of the mill and far more fascinating when you start digging into the production of it, which tends to give a massive new spin on what you just witnessed, kicking it up several notches in my book.

See, by 1958, the Hollywood Blacklist was starting to fray but was still the law of the land. And Terror in a Texas Town marked the return of actor / screenwriter Nedrick Young, who was on the Blacklist at the time -- explaining why his name is noticeably absent from all promotional materials, which is odd since he is the second lead in this thing -- and the film actually works better when you consider Crale as the main character. (I mean, he does kinda make the plot go.) Also on the Blacklist was uncredited screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo, one of the original Hollywood 10, who was fronted by Ben Perry here. Sterling Hayden wasn’t officially on the Blacklist but his career took a definite hit for admitting to his past Communist affiliations and naming names during the HUAC hearings.

Director Joseph H. Lewis, meantime, was set to retire when his friend Young approached him with Trumbo’s script for this offbeat oater and took the job as favor, figuring Hollywood couldn’t punish him because it would be his last film anyway. And while mostly known for his no-budget film noir like the seminal Gun Crazy (1950) and The Big Combo (1955), Lewis was no stranger to the western genre with films like A Lawless Street (1955) and The Halliday Brand (1957) notched on his director’s chair. And like his contemporaries, Anthony Mann and Budd Boetticher, Lewis brought a hard-boiled, noirish flavor to his B-westerns, elevating the mundane scripts and couch-cushion budgets with his usual flare for action and visuals, earning himself the nickname, “Wagon Wheel Joe.” As the man explained, “I carried a box filled with different wagon wheels. Whenever I’d come to a scene which was just disgraceful in dialogue and all, I’d place a wagon wheel in one portion of the frame, and make an artistic shot out of it, so by the time the scene was over you only saw the artistic value and couldn’t analyze what the scene was about."

As you watch it, you may notice there are a lot of shots like this in Terror in a Texas Town, whether it be a wagon wheel, a strategic post, a window, or Crale’s pistol and rear-end blocking half the screen, making one wonder what Lewis really thought of Trumbo’s script -- which wears the noted Lefty’s leanings on its sleeve; from the film’s overall anti-capitalistic slant; to the backbone of the immigrants, who are constantly harassed by those who would pervert the law to their own end; to bringing the few women in the story to the forefront and treating them as equals and with respect no matter the occupation. Trumbo had already won two uncredited Academy Awards while on the Blacklist for Roman Holiday (1953) and The Brave One (1956) and would officially destroy the Blacklist two years later with an onscreen credit for Spartacus (1960). Young would pen The Defiant Ones (1958) for Stanley Kramer the very same year this film was released and would earn his own Academy Award nomination two years later for Inherit the Wind (1960). And this whole film could be read as a thinly disguised, last dying gasp of those who bullied their way to power in the 1950s, and how it was less the hero rallying the others to unite and take them down and more about the bad guys destroying themselves from the inside out.

Almost lost in all of that politicking, Trumbo does bring some other, out of the box tweaks to the characters. As I said before this film is really more about Crale than Hansen -- to its betterment, I think. Here, Crale is a man out of time both literally and metaphorically. There’s no place in this world for a gunslinger like him anymore as Law and Order settle the west for good and his bloody past is destined to catch up with him eventually. (Crale, I think, would welcome this.) But this life is all Crale knows, and so it continues, even going so far as to retrain himself to shoot left-handed after his right is blown off in some earlier confrontation, replaced with a steel effigy that he uses like a club. This schism bleeds over to Molly as well; a woman trapped in this no-possible-good-end relationship, but she lacks the self-esteem to do anything about it as she sees herself as only one notch above Crale on the lowest end of the human spectrum, which provides her only salve, knowing there is at least one person worse than she is. Still, there is some remnants of love there (-- I don’t think these two are actually married and felt their malignant relationship was more akin to Doc Holiday and Big Nose Kate Horony), or at least some sentimentality, as she begs Crale to give up the life of a hired assassin, to forget McNeil’s money and move on before it's too late.

But while Crale doesn’t necessarily disagree with her, he’s starting to get his own ideas for bringing an end to their nomadic lifestyle. Seems this gunsel is ready to settle down and intends to strong-arm his way into a partnership with McNeil whether he likes it or not. Molly, meanwhile, is at the bar being fed drinks by Hansen, who is trying to coax some information out of her. Seems he’s sussed out through a suddenly forthcoming Jose that Crale most likely killed his father at McNeil’s bidding. But this interrogation is cut short when Crale’s goon squad (-- one of them an uncredited Sheb Wooley), interrupt and beat the hell out of Hansen and then dump his unconscious body on the departing train.

But when he wakes up, Hansen jumps off and makes a beeline back for Prairie City on foot. Passing the Miranda farm along the way, he finds out Jose has also been murdered by Crale as part of his efforts to shoehorn into McNeil’s oil boom. This blatant disregard for orders brings Crale and McNeil into direct conflict; and so Crale, extremely rattled over Mirada’s courage in the face of his impending death, loses it and shoots McNeil dead. And then, seeing he’s cracked up for good, Molly finally summons the courage to leave him, seeks out the other townspeople and bares witness to Crale’s two counts of murder at McNeil’s bidding. This gets everyone’s blood up and the mob forms just in time to see Hansen marching down the street with that harpoon, which is where we all came in.

Despite Lewis’ best efforts Terror in a Texas Town cannot quite shake it’s low-budget origins. (It really brought to mind those cheap-o westerns Roger Corman kicked off his career with.) It also cannot shake one of thee most obnoxious, horn-heavy soundtracks ever to disgrace a film. I swear, Gerald Fried’s trumpet section’s constant blaring and bleating brought to mind the cacophony of the advancing Chinese army in Sam Fuller’s Fixed Bayonets (1951). *yeesh* And frankly, despite Trumbo's ambitious script scratching at a few different notions it didn't quite fix the itch -- if that makes any sense at all.

Still, it’s an oddly endearing and eccentric film that definitely deserves a closer look and a more thorough investigation. And luckily for all that is now possible thanks to the fine folks at Arrow Video, who’ve just released the film on Bluray this week, which includes a couple of featurettes hosted by western film aficionado, Peter Stanfield, who digs into the history of the production in the first, then focuses on Lewis’ visual style in the second. Also included is an illustrated collector's booklet featuring new insights by Glenn Kenny on the film. Nice package as always, throwing a clear spotlight on what would indeed be Lewis’ last feature film. 

Terror in a Texas Town (1958) Seltzer Films :: United Artists / P: Frank N. Seltzer / AP: Carrol Sax / D: Joseph H. Lewis / W: Dalton Trumbo, Ben Perry (Front) / C: Ray Rennahan / E: Stefan Arnsten, Frank Sullivan / M: Gerald Fried / S: Sterling Hayden, Nedrick Young, Sebastian Cabot, Carol Kelly, Victor Millan, Eugene Mazzola, Ann Varela, Tyler McVey, Ted Stanhope
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