Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Memory Bank: Zombies (1983)

One of the greatest (and coolest) video games I ever played on my old Atari 800 in the 1980's was Mike Edwards' Zombies (BRAM Inc; 1983), later re-released by EA in 1984-1985 as Realm of Impossibility.

This game was available on both cassette (!) and floppy disk, but my memory is that I played the game on disk.  It was so long ago now, I'm not entirely certain about that detail, however.

Regardless, my father was vice principal at Mountain Lakes High School in New Jersey, and was close friends with a 1980's Atari guru, one who was outfitting the school with a number of computers as the PC era began in earnest.  One day, out of the blue, my Dad arrived home from school (on his motorcycle...) with a bundle of video games on disk and cassette.  I had never heard of any of these games, but it felt like Christmas morning.

They had titles like Blue Max, Trains, Murder on the Zinderneuf, Bruce Lee, Astro Chase, B.C.'s Quest for Tires, Caverns of Mars, and last -- and best -- Zombies!

In Zombies, the goal was to recover the "enchanted crowns of the middle kingdom" from an evil wizard named Wistrik.  The cleric had apparently stolen the crowns and stored them in a variety of hellish dungeons where they were protected by rampaging zombies, giant spiders and poisonous snakes.  The realms had ominous, mythological-based names such as "Cankaya Keep," "The Abyss," "The Stygian Crypts," "Tartarus" and "The Realm of Impossibility."

Designer Edwards was inspired in part by his love of TSR's Dungeons and Dragons, as he wrote in the marketing booklet for Zombies. But he also wanted to get away from simple shoot-em-up games of the era.  Thus he devised Zombies with a few diabolical and genius twists.  

Among these were the fact that as a player you were not awarded multiple lives.  When you died, and had to begin the game again.  

Secondly, there was no "elimination" of the supernatural enemies and vermin.  Instead, you had to drop crucifixes around yourself (while you ran...) as supernatural barriers to the surrounding threats.  Additionally, the player could acquire scrolls with spells such as "Freeze," "Protect" and "Confuse."  Believe me, these came in handy...

And thirdly, the game was two-player compatible, but the two players did not compete against one another.  Rather, they had to work together, in unison, to avoid the zombies and retrieve the crowns.  This made the game perfect for when my friends came over after school, or on Saturday afternoons, for surviving Zombies was an exercise in team work.

Zombies also featured, according to the promotional material: "3-D graphics, on-line instructions,"..."74 different screens, high-score save to disk, full sound and color, zombies, poisonous snakes, giant spiders, evil orbs, scrolls, talismans, magic spells, lost crowns and spectacular underground scenery."

On that last front, Zombies showcased unbelievable, M.C. Escher-inspired screens that, despite the young age of the form, were authentically mind-blowing in terms of viewer perspective.  I've written here before how I'd like to see a consistent set of aesthetic criteria applied to video games because I do consider them an art form. When I think about it, Zombies is likely the game that began me thinking along those terms, even as a teenager. The game was beautiful to behold, and completely immersing.  For instance, I remember (I hope correctly...) that when the zombies touched you during the game, your life energy would bleed away quickly, but also that the game screen would pop and crackle, like you had been struck by electricity.  If you ask me, I can still "feel" that shock, though of course, no such physical shock was actually delivered.  

I can't even begin to estimate how many hours I spent during my teenage years navigating Tartarus, the Stygian Crypts, or the Realm of Impossibility.  But it was a lot, I'm certain.  I have wonderful memories of playing this game with my best friends in high school.

The graphics may look primitive today, but the game play was absolutely incredible.

Makes me miss my Atari 800...

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

UFO: "The Sound of Silence"

In "The Sound of Silence," A UFO trails a NASA probe back to Earth, and puts down in a lake in the English countryside. Soon, an alien stalks the nearby grounds, tracking the movements of a local estate owner and famous equestrian show jumper, Russell Stone (Michael Jayston) and his sister, Anne (Susan Jameson).

After a local tramp, Ben Culley (Nigel Gregory) and his dog are found murdered, and Russell disappears, Commander Straker (Ed Bishop) sends Colonel Foster (Michael Billington) to investigate the situation.

There is a pitched battle on the lake, as SHADO Mobiles destroy the UFO. A strange tube is found among the wreckage, and brought back to HQ. Straker and Foster fear it is a bomb, set to detonate, but the truth is something stranger and more frightening. They have recovered Russell Stone, who is sealed inside the canister, having been prepared to be sent to the alien home world...

"The Sound of Silence" is another underachieving episode of this classic and generally high-quality series. This segment focuses on the Stone family, characters who the audience has no vested interest in. Worse, Russell Stone -- whose life is on the line in the drama's last act -- is a cold, unsympathetic person.  He nearly tramples Ben Culley, without sympathy, and is not at all a warm personality.  He seems as cold and distant as the aliens who capture him.  Yet the success of the episode's third act depends on audience identification with him, as an alien abductee.

As was the case in "Destruction," the previous episode I reviewed here on the blog, UFO's large cast seems mostly like an afterthought here, far away from and only minimally involved in the action at hand. Straker is sidelined or the most part.

By contrast, the story might have worked effectively as a horror tale, with the alien creeping around the woods, abducting and killing people and animals, but the pacing is flaccid, and the episode has no sense of style beyond the freeze-frames during the opening credits.  The tramp, Culley, meanwhile, is referred to as a hippie, and the episode also features some-dated jokes about Native American people.

There are a few highlights in "The Sound of Silence,: although even they are marred, to some extent by other factors. The battle between the Mobiles on the shore and the UFO rising from the lake is incredibly impressive. It is literally a show-stopper.  The visual highlight of the story loses a bit, however, from Billington's disinterested performance.  Foster is ostensibly leading the Mobile attack, but is only seen in cutaway shots and doesn't respond with much urgency, even as explosions and laser beams dot his immediate area. In short, the live-action performance doesn't match the intensity level of the miniature work.

The final canister opening scene at Shado HQ is indeed tense, and well-orchestrated, by comparison, and yet still feels like a missed opportunity. We learn that Russell is "all packed up, ready for shipment," but beyond that tantalizing detail we learn little of why the aliens warehouse humans in this fashion. Is it so their organs survive long distances? Light speed travel? Does travel in this manner preserve life? This plot-strand seems like a tailor-made opportunity to provide a few more bread-crumbs of knowledge about the aliens, but then the episode doesn't really deliver.

Finally, again, there's a stalker-y aspect to Paul Foster's behavior in "The Sound of Silence." In "The Dalotek Affair," we saw him romance a scientist he mete on the moon. She then was administered the amnesia drug and forgot all about him.  Later, Paul found her on Earth, and began a romantic dalliance with her all over again. He does the same thing with Anne Stone in "The Sound of Silence." He returns to her estate after she has been dosed with amnesia, and hits her up for thinly veiled "riding lessons." 

Once, this kind of thing is forgivable, perhaps. But twice?  Does Paul make a habit of stalking women who have no previous knowledge of him, but whom he has met and interacted with?  It feels a bit creepy. I know he is the series' resident horn dog, and everything, but in these particular relationships the women are on unequal terrain. He knows all about them, and they know nothing about him. Why is he so insecure that he has dalliances with amnesiac women, where he always holds all the power?  It's weird.

Next week: "The Responsibility Seat."

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Guest Post: Toy Story 4 (2019)

Sympathy for the Spork

By Jonas Schwartz

Pixar animation has a ginormous gift. Their scripts lead audiences to invest in anthropomorphic creatures. In Toy Story 4, they push that to the limit by co-starring a plastic utensil with two googly eyes, pipe cleaner hands, and sticks for feet. 

Because of consistently strong writing and invested characterizations from some of the best actors in the business, this fourth film in the series feels as fresh and new as the other three films.

Now that Andy has grown up and granted his family of toys to little Molly, our gang of dinosaurs, cowboys, slinkies, and dolls continue to make their child's adolescence as happy as possible. Though Molly has gravitated towards the other dolls more than Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks), being a stand-up toy, Woody keeps Molly's needs in the forefront. During a traumatic day in Kindergarten, Molly creates a new toy, a personified spork she nicknames "Forky" (Tony Hale). Woody recognizes Forky's importance to Molly's happiness, so he sets out to keep Forky safe during a cross-country road trip. Both toys get lost and Woody recruits some friends, old and new, to make sure that Forky remains with fragile young Molly.

Toy Story 4 was obviously a labor of love for Pixar since many members of the team contributed to its fruition. Besides all the returning cast members (including the late Don Rickles, whose family helped the creators assemble dialogue for Mr. Potato-Head from Rickles outtakes), the film was directed by Inside Out writer Josh Cooley and co-written by Wall-E and Finding Nemo director Andrew Stanton, along with newcomer Stephany Folsom. Though a simple story and one with themes fostered in the earlier films, Toy Story 4 devotes energy into showing its characters evolving, while still staying true to themselves. The friendship between Woody and Buzz (Tim Allen) has been consistent for several films, instilling in children the value of backing up your friends. For that matter, the lessons learned here, that protecting your friends and family do not require you to receive rewards on your own to be worthwhile, are wisdoms our entire society needs to absorb.

The animators continue to shape the characters around the actors' personalities and vice versa, so that it’s a perfect synergy. Newcomers Jordan Peele, Keegan-Michael Key, and Keanu Reeves seamlessly become members of the posse while Annie Potts returns as Bo Peep to give a new spin on the concept of lost toys. Christina Hendricks voices a new character Gabby Gabby as a complex antagonist, Machiavellian but achingly sad.

The animation takes the different textures of the creatures, porcelain, glass, plastic, felt, and makes them all pop on the screen. The amusement park setting, with flashing lights and moving rides, is a master-class in action animation.  The villainous henchmen move like on springs, spasming a-rhythmically as they walk, which adds another dimension of creepiness to them.

A delightful continuation, Toy Story 4 is a heart-felt, earnest and hilarious summer feast for the entire family.

Jonas Schwartz is Vice President / Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle,  West Coast Critic for TheaterMania, Contributing Critic for Broadway World, and a Contributing Critic for ArtsInLA

Friday, June 14, 2019

Cult-Movie Review: The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972)

I post this review today as a shout-out to a beloved horror film celebrating a restoration and release today, in Texarkana: The Legend of Boggy Creek.

I suspect that I owe my long-standing love of the horror genre to two productions that I encountered as a youngster.

The first is the “Dragon’s Domain” episode of Space: 1999 (1975 – 1977), about a deadly monster luring astronaut victims to their death in a graveyard of lost spaceships. 

The second is this colorful ode to Arkansas’s variation on Big Foot, The Legend of Boggy Creek. (1972) from regional director Charlie B. Pierce. 

I saw this film at a drive-in when I was four or five years old, and memories of it have stayed with me ever since. 

My Mom and Dad took my sister Lara and me to a local drive-in theater in Essex County New Jersey to see a double-feature. The first film was some forgettable kid’s flick (probably a Herbie movie, or some such thing…). But after it ended, Lara and I were supposed to go to sleep in the back seat of the car for the duration of the second movie.

But the second movie happened to be The Legend of Boggy Creek, and I remember persistently peeking at the screen -- over my parents’ seats and shoulders -- watching in horror as the film’s events unfolded

I wondered not only what I would see on that giant screen, but what the movie would dare show me. As a kid, I was tantalized by the notion that I might really see Bigfoot, or discover convincing evidence that he existed.

Even as an adult, I can summon some moments from that drive-in viewing of The Legend of Boggy Creek quite vividly. I remember a little blond-haired boy running through a wide-open field, stopped suddenly in his tracks by the roars of the Sasquatch creature. 

And I recall the trademark scene in which the Fouke Monster attacks a man (sitting on a toilet) in a cabin bathroom. That description may sound laughable, but when I was four or five, there was nothing laughable at all about that attack. My attention was riveted to the screen.

The funny thing about “Dragon’s Domain” and the Legend of Boggy Creek is that the two productions actually share in common a good, scary idea: that there are things as yet unknown to modern, civilized man; things that we haven’t yet quantified, analyzed, processed, or thoroughly understood. 

That monster in Space: 1999 for instance, didn’t register on sensors or scanners, and so no one could prove it really lived…or, at story’s end, that it had really died.

And the Fouke Monster, despite his recurring appearances in and around Boggy Creek, has never been photographed or captured. Despite the best efforts of photographers, police, reporters and the like, he is still a myth, a shadow-figure existing outside the bounds of rational belief.

I suppose some very primal or basic part of my psychic gestalt loves horror films because they implicitly concern this idea that something magical and abnormal can yet exist in our technological, overpopulated, hyper-connected world. By nature, I am more a skeptic than a believer, yet I live in the hope that my skepticism will be proven wrong, not by some amorphous acceptance of blind faith, but through the auspices of science and technology.

In short, I want Nessie and Big Foot and the Mothman to be real. And I want science to find them.

Because if these quasi-mythical cryptids are proven to exist, then there is a chance that there are other things -- other beings -- out there that science hasn’t yet proved either, and the possibility, I suppose, that there is more to this human existence than readily meets the eye. 

Today, “Dragon’s Domain” actually holds up a hell of a lot better than does The Legend of Boggy Creek, but it is fair to note in any review of the film that I have a strong affection and fondness it, even if I can’t say with a straight face that it’s a particularly good film.

What the film gets right, and notes in a beautiful, even poetic way, is that there are areas of natural beauty on this Earth where man has not spoiled everything, and not seen everything. The moments in the film that track with that idea are, quite simply, beautiful and resonant.

But before long, The Legend of Boggy Creek gets lost in weird, unintentionally humorous folk songs about the monster, and travels down other narrative blind alleys too. The evidence of the monster’s existence, similarly, is so patently unpersuasive as to be hysterically funny.

In short, The Legend of Boggy Creek is a movie every fan of horror (and regional filmmaking, to boot), ought to see, but that doesn’t mean it’s a great work of art.  It is, however, an unforgettable one.

“…A right pleasant place to live…until the sun goes down.”

A mellifluous-voiced narrator named Jim (Vern Stierman), describes his home town of Fouke -- which borders on the Texas/Arkansas border and houses a population of less than four hundred. It’s the home to many simple, down-to-Earth folk, and also, alarmingly, a hairy man-beast, the “Fouke Monster.”

Jim recalls a time in his child-hood when he heard the monster’s roar and felt fear, and then launches into an on-screen examination of the creature’s history near Boggy Creek.

Several members of the Crabtree family have, for instance, reported seeing it. One man is certain he shot it.

Jim recounts for the audience the story of a night that the monster approached the house of Mary Beth Searcy (Judy Dalton), and the time a cabin fell under siege from the beast. 

Although hunting expeditions and dogs have searched out the monster, it has never been seen again.  

But Jim is satisfied that somewhere out in the night, the Fouke Monster still roams…

“He always travels the creeks. That’s one of the first things we learned about him.”

The Legend of Boggy Creek opens with some remarkable photography. The camera (ensconced on a slow-moving boat) prowls the Arkansas swamp, its eye falling on turtles, beavers, snakes, and other denizens of the wild.

These “nature” shots vividly capture the unspoiled beauty of the region, and set-up the film’s central conceit, that there’s “still a bit of wilderness” and still “some mysteries” to explore in the far corners of the world. 

Here, in this untamed, unexplored terrain, there be dragons.

The next scene, in order, is just as strong, for certain. Old Jimmy remembers back to his youth, and his one-time run across a giant field, when he first heard the cry of the monster.

I was seven years old when I first heard him scream,” says Jim.  “I was scared then, and I’m scared now.”  

This line is not only chilling, but the images that go alongside it are remarkably evocative of childhood, a time of discovery, freedom, and even sometimes fear.

Pierce’s camera follows little blond-haired Billy on his run through the woods and field, and times, the audience actually tracks right alongside him, from above, as if positioned from a low-flying helicopter. 

These well-crafted shots suggest the boy’s momentum, his isolation, and the size of the wide-open field.

Again, the feeling is that out there, beyond the horizon, possibilities and mysteries lurk. The shots of Jimmy running through the field, untended by parents, unprotected by society, remind me very much of feelings that many of us experienced children in the 1970s, when we first left the confines of home (and the eyes of Mom and Dad) to go play. 

For me, there were railroad tracks and a field near my suburban house in New Jersey, and my parents would often permit me and my friends to play there, under the bright blue sky, for hours at a spell. The path along those tracks became an opportunity for play and discovery, and the occasional jolt, for certain (hobos!). 

The opening moments of The Legend of Boggy Creek ably and artfully suggest both the liberty of childhood -- when your time was your own, and discovering the world was a constant adventure -- and the outer limits of that liberty: the fear of interfacing with something mysterious or truly scary.

I admire the first several sequences of The Legend of Boggy Creek for so ably, and with such stunning imagery, capturing these not easily-described notions  Many more expensive films fail to resonate so effectively, or capture these feelings of childhood so lyrically and memorably.

But before long, The Legend of Boggy Creek starts to fall apart.

Is it a coincidence that so many of the residents who have seen the creature are named Crabtree?  The film introduces us to Smoky, Fred, Travis and James Crabtree, who all have stories to tell us about the Fouke Monster.  The story doesn’t stand up, since so many witnesses come from one family.

Similarly, the monster’s activities -- stealing pigs, turning over flower pats, and causing a fatal heart attack in a family cat -- don’t exactly rise to the standard of “hair raising” encounters with the Fouke Monster.  These sequences don’t provide one-to-one evidence that the beast was responsible for the damage.  Is it the monster’s fault the cat died of fright?

And the folk songs, which elevate Travis Crabtree and the Monster to quasi-mythical status, undercut the film’s questing, even elegiac tone.  It’s difficult to take the search for the monster seriously when the soundtrack singer warbles “Here the sulfur river flows…this is where the creature goes…safe within the world he knows."

By the same token, descriptions of the monster’s “sour, pig-pen” stench tend to undercut the horror of the storytelling.

It seems apparent that The Legend of Boggy Creek owes both its remarkable strengths and its notable weaknesses to its nature as a low-budget, regional film. It is not an extruded-by-committee Hollywood product. Accordingly, there are moments of pure beauty and even poetry here that a Hollywood film might not stop to recognize or plumb.  But then there are also the described moments of bizarre, laughable narration and action that, similarly, would get re-shot if overseen by the movie industry.

To love The Legend of Boggy Creek -- as I do love it -- you must take the good with the bad, and understand how those qualities are all wrapped together in an inseparable, once-in-a-life-time cinematic package. 

The Legend of Boggy Creek is a time capsule of the 1970's, and yet it is more than that too. At its best, it is a reminder to all of us that there are more things on Heaven and Earth than is dreamed of by our science.

And more so, the film reminds of a wondrous quality about children. Childhood represents a time in which people are, without reservation, open to the possibility of magic in their everyday lives. 

Kids can even find that magic right over there, down by Boggy Creek...

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Shark Week: 47 Meters Down (2017)

The surprise hit of the summer of 2017 was 47 Meters Down (2017), a shark film from director Johanne Roberts, apparently in the tradition of The Shallows (2016), and, of course, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975). The trailers and commercials suggested cheesy CGI sharks, and a minimum of nuance in the filmmakers’ approach.

Even the movie’s first scene, with red wine spilled in a tropical swimming pool -- symbolizing the red blood soon to be spilled in the ocean -- intimates a juvenile or superficial approach to the familiar sharp-toothed material.

But as the movie progresses, and the film’s central scenario looms --- two young women trapped in a diving cage at the sea floor, 47 meters down -- a commendably high-degree of tension and suspense suffuses the film.

And surprisingly, the sharks not only (mostly) appear real, but actually represent only one of many threats vexing the trapped duo. Rhe film also contends with shortages of air, trapped divers, abyssal trenches, and other jeopardy.

And, delightfully, the film’s cheesiest moment -- desperate fingers scratching out a great white shark’s eyeball -- is earned by a well-prepared-for third act twist. 

47 Meters Down wants to be both suspenseful (which it is), and gory (which it also is), and so the movie’s most outrageous woman-vs.-great white action is contextualized (without giving away the specifics) in a way that maintains the drama’s reality and sense of danger. Specifically, this twist concerns nitrogen narcosis.

In terms of subtext or social context, 47 Meters Down tangentially concerns the fact that 21st century America -- the home culture of our beleaguered protagonists -- has become, in the words of author John Locke, an “autistic” society; wherein people are at ease with technology, but not with emotions, or each other. 

The film concerns sisters, Lisa and Kate, who never really talk, but who are finally forced to talk…at the bottom of the ocean.

With suspense and shocks, and that nice grace note about how modern people relate in our technopol-istic culture, 47 Meters Down earns its gory stripes, and is worth a watch.

“The faster you breathe, the faster you use up your air.”

American sisters Lisa (Mandy Moore) and Kate (Claire Holt) vacation in Mexico, but Lisa has been keeping a secret. She recently broke up with her long-time boyfriend, Stuart, and is still reeling from the end of the relationship.

Kate and Lisa decide to drown her sorrows by clubbing and drinking, and meet up with two young men who not only have a romantic interest in the young women, but suggest an intriguing activity for the next day: a trip cage diving to see sharks.

Lisa is not at all interested in seeing sharks from a cage, but Kate reminds her that they can take remarkable photos that will make Stuart jealous, and thus cause him to re-assess his decision to leave her; since Lisa is not “boring” as he claimed.

Lisa acquiesces.  The next day, the two couples board Captain Taylor’s (Matthew Modine) rust-bucket of a boat, and prepare for the dive. The men go down first, without incident. 

However, when Lisa and Kate enter the cage, the winch breaks, and the cage and its occupants plunge 150 or so feet -- 47 meters -- down to the ocean floor.

There, Lisa and ate see their air supplies rapidly dwindle, and are unable to communicate with the surface. 

Meanwhile, great white sharks begin to circle the cage…

“I’m super uneasy about this.”

We live in an oddly narcissistic society, at present, and in some small way 47 Meters Down reflects that fact with the specifics of its narrative. A diffident young woman, Lisa, agrees to participate in an event she has no interest in (cage diving) solely because she will then have (social media) pics to make her ex-boyfriend jealous. 

Lisa overlooks her own feelings of “super-uneasiness" about the activity, and goes anyway.  The error of her ways are quickly pointed out, however.

Even before the action starts, the camera recording all these great social media pictures, is dropped from the cage, and lost in the sea.  

It falls into the open mouth of a great-white shark.

So much for the selfies.

I wrote a persuasive speech recently, about, of all things, how people adopt black cats at a low rate compared to other cats. You might think this is because of superstitions about black cats. That’s a piece of it, sure, but researchers have come up with another conclusion. They have determined that black cats don’t photograph as well as other cats, so those who use social media tend not to adopt black cats, or they bring them back to shelters, disappointed.  

I bring this up because 47 Meters Down offers oblique commentary on this notion of a narcissistic/selfie culture, both in Lisa’s ridiculous motive for participating in what is clearly a sketchy activity (given the rusted state of Taylor’s boat), and the final disposition of the camera.

But also, importantly, Lisa and Kate have -- previous to this trip -- grown apart. Lisa thinks Kate is the perfect person: attractive, confident, and successful. She feels like she can’t compete with her. All she had, she believes, is her stable relationship with Stuart. Now that too is gone.  When one gazes at research involving social media, reports suggest that frequent use tends to make people more competitive with their friends and family, and also, generally, less happy.

In "real" life, Lisa has never confronted Kate about these emotions. These feelings did not come up . They did not come up over drinks, at a bar, or pool-side, but rather 47 meters down, while the sisters are trapped. The same “autistic” society is to blame. Up above sea level, there are too many distractions, and the sisters are not able to communicate except in cheesy post-card ways (a hug on the beach at sunset!)  Under the surface, all the technology is gone, and the sisters actually begin listening to one another, and also fighting for one another.

This idea isn’t heavy-handed, but horror movies universally reflect the way that we live "now." They tell us something about ourselves, and the things that we are scared of, as a people.  Maybe we are scared, at this point, of connecting only to the “black mirror” of technology, and not our loved ones.  I note this commentary because I think it adds to the value of the film, and makes 47 Meters Down more than the “shark attack of the week” movie.

Impressively, the director of the film creates suspense here mostly from the air supply issue, not the sharks.  There are a couple of (good) jump scares involving the great whites, but from the first point that Taylor instructs Lisa in how to breathe to the very last scene of the movie, 47 Meters Down is really about trying to catch your breath.

The women must acquire back-up tanks, and replace them, all underwater, while sharks swoop into view, lunging out from the opaque depths.  Between Taylor’s instructions, and the constant checking of the air supplies (which get down to a reading of “01” at one point), the movie wrings the maximum amount of tension from the limited availability of resources.

And just when the film threatens to go superficial -- wandering into Hollywood happy ending crap -- the makers of 47 Meters Down pull the carpet out from under viewers, and give their film a climax with all that more punch.

Without spoiling it, you’ll be tempted to groan as one of the women is found miraculously alive (after a close encounter with a shark), and together with her sister, swims to the surface, decompresses in the water for five minutes, and successfully combats a shark.

If played for real, this scene would pretty much ruin any sense of verisimilitude the movie constructs.  

Fortunately, the movie provides an explanation for this pie-in-the-sky “happy ending,” and proceeds to a coda that is dark and disturbing.

The sharks are kept hidden, or off-screen, for a good portion of the film’s running time, and yet the director makes the most of small moments in 47 Meters Down. There’s an absolutely unnerving sequence early on in which Kate must remove her mask so she can squeeze between the bars of the cage.  Then, once out -- while she is exposed -- she must put it back on. By this point, we are all too 
conscious of what’s waiting for her outer there, in the dark water.

Another scene of surprising power finds Lisa swimming towards a dropped flash-light when the ocean floor literally falls out from under her.  She must swim out over an abyss, and again, the hungry sharks could be anywhere.  The moment will give you a queasy stomach if you openly engage with the material and the characters.

47 Meters Down starts out superficial and dopey, but like its characters, gets “deeper” and “deeper.” 

One might even choose to view the Nitrogen Narcosis sequence as another example of technology separating people from reality; from the connections around them. Lisa's cries, at the end of the movie “we made it!” are haunting for two reasons.

One, they are fake news.

And two: she completely believes them.

Shark Week: Shark Night (2012)

If you recall (the criminally underrated) Back to the Future II (1990), you may remember a “future” scene set in 2015, wherein hero Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) sees the holographic shark for Jaws 19 and declares that it the creature still “looks fake.”

Well, here we are in 2014, and the sharks of Shark Night (2011) still look fake. 

The mechanical shark called “Bruce” who starred in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws way back in 1975 may not have been wholly convincing – which is why the director often kept it hidden or cut to P.O.V. shots  – but when viewers did see the great white beast, he at least operated by the same laws of physics as we do.  When Bruce broke the surface, water would run off his back.  When Bruce bit a victim, blood would run down between his very sharp teeth.  We might not have always believed Bruce was 100% real, but we believed that he showed up for work, at least.

In Shark Night, the sharks phone it in.

They exist in abundant special effects shots that diminish their size and sense of scale.  Seen in the clear light of day, these “animals” look like under-detailed cartoons.  They can’t scare anyone because they actually bear no connection to the environment forces which purportedly work upon them; forces such as gravity

In fact, the sharks of Shark Night not only look incredibly fake – just a step or two up from Jabber Jaw -- they also act in most un-shark-like fashion throughout much of the film, often leaping high out of the water (like…twenty feet out of the water…) to swallow their cowering human prey.  In one of the movie’s least effective kill scenes, a shark intercepts a racing jet-ski …from the front, no less…and leaps several feet out of the water to do so.  On this occasion and several others, director David Ellis lets the shark hold center frame as it leaps towards the screen (for 3-D impact), thereby offering extreme evidence of the animal’s incredible phoniness.

Shark Night earned pretty terrible reviews, and studying these special effects sharks, one can detect why.  That established, I must reluctantly admit I didn’t hate this nearly as much as I thought I might, and that’s because the film unexpectedly plays around in the terrain one of my favorite sub-genres: the savage cinema.  In keeping with that form, the film acknowledges human ugliness as the overriding source of real evil in the world.  In other words, we might escape sharks, but we can’t escape human nature.

In Shark Night, Sara (Sara Paxton) returns to her home on Lake Crosby in Louisiana for the first time in three years along with a group of co-ed friends, including shy Nick (Dustin Milligan), a med-student.  Sara has been away so long because of an accident involving her former boyfriend, local diving expert Dennis (Chris Carmack). 

Back when they were going steady, Sara began to drown on a dive and Dennis wouldn’t share his air with her.  Panicky, she made it back to the surface alive, but when she piloted the boat for home, she accidentally struck Dennis’s face with the boat propeller, permanently scarring him. 

Dennis – who looks no less handsome or buff with that facial scar, by the way -- has never forgotten this traumatic incident, and with the help of a dumb redneck, Red (Joshua Leonard) and the town’s heavy-metal loving sheriff, Sabin (Donal Logue), plans to release several captured sharks upon Sara and her buddies while they frolic on the lake…

You can just tell from the first attack in Shark Night that you’re in a different league here than in Jaws.  Remember that film’s classic prologue, and how a beautiful blonde went for a tranquil midnight swim only to be attacked and killed by a shark?   This introduction to the film remains creepy, unsettling and highly effective, even today.  By point of comparison, Shark Night opens with a blond in a white bikini swimming in the lake and getting attacked almost instantly by a shark.  It’s all thrashing and splashing, and there’s no sense of suspense or even surprise during the attack.  People inclined to use the phrase “they don’t make ‘em like they used to” regarding Hollywood will be sorely tempted to employ it here.

Lacking suspense, Shark Night is abundantly predictable.  If you’ve ever seen a horror movie, you can predict -- down to the last person (and animal) -- the characters destined to survive the film’s bloody events. Also, Joshua Leonard’s character Red is a walking talking cliche, right down to his bad teeth and bad Southern accent.  He’s supposed to be the movie’s comic relief, but again, we’re in cartoon territory here.

And yet, as I wrote above, I didn’t entirely hate Shark Night.  I don’t generally prefer horror movies this dumb and vapid, but they can occasionally be fun if you’re in the mood for something trashy and light. Plus, Sara Paxton is the star here. She was terrific in The Innkeepers (2012) and is very good here too, despite the thinness of her character.

And Shark Night boasts at least one legitimate inspiration.  It turns men into the film’s villains, and gets at the notion that the sharks – while obviously the tools of mass destruction here – aren’t really the ones with the evil intent.  Instead, Dennis and his mates are the ones to blame.  Interestingly, they view themselves as victims.  They’re victims of women (Sara), victims of a bad economy, and victims of class warfare.  Their plan is to make it rich by creating a shark snuff film for fans of cable television’s “Shark Week.”   In other words, they have something to sell, and they’ve had to put their humanity aside to sell it.  

When one of the would-be victims notes that such a money-making enterprise is sick, the evil conspirator notes, importantly “There’s no such thing as sick anymore.  There’s only moral relativism.”  It’s a biting, caustic commentary on our culture, but one entirely of the times.  If you remember Governor Rick Perry’s comment about “vulture capitalists” who go in and eat up companies for profit, you might also see how the metaphor works with sharks.  These animals (like some capitalists) must keep moving forward -- devouring things, resources and people to live -- and the rest of us are, well…merely chum.

I don’t mean any of this commentary to suggest that Shark Night is deep or especially thoughtful, only that it is “of the moment.”  It’s unique that unlike Jaws (1975), the film portrays man as the real terror in the water, one eager to destroy his fellow man for a leg up the economic ladder of success.

The special effects in Shark Night are bad, the characters are mostly barely two-dimensional appetizers, and there’s precious little in terms of interesting narrative.  Yet to his credit, director Ellis seems to know all this is the case, and at times (like during the road trip to Lake Crosby), literally fast-forwards the film so he can get to the meat of the drama – the shark attacks – quicker.

Some may see this photographic trick as an admission of creative bankruptcy.  But contrarily, it may just be an example of efficiently cutting to the chase.  Who wants to see shallow characters talking and relating to one another when we can watch them getting chewed up and spit out instead?

Shark Night isn’t a good film and it isn’t a scary horror movie.  But it is amusingly trashy and lowbrow.  It features moments of interest, especially whenever Donal Logue is on-screen playing-up the resentment angle of his blue-collar economic climber.  I didn’t hate the movie that much, in part because Shark Night was clearly made in a spirit of dumb fun.

However, if I had been the maker of Shark Night I would have gone one step further with the movie, and offered up as its ad-line the very joke from Jaws 19 in Back to the Future 2.

This time, it’s really, really personal.

Shark Week: Bait (2012)

Bait (2012) is an absolutely absurd horror movie about sharks, and yet, it is also joyously absurd.  Lensed in 3-D, the film is, alas, a wash visually.

The director, Kimball Rendall, stages some truly dynamic shots here. He often comes up with great, scary (and funny) compositions.  But he is undone in his efforts by weak special effects at points. 

To put this another way: sometimes the sharks look real, and sometimes they look like bad CGI. There’s no consistency whatsoever.  I was amazed how well some shots hold up to real scrutiny.  And shocked that other shots could be tagged instantly as phony as hell.

In terms of narrative structure -- Bait, somewhat like Jaws 3-D (1983) -- attempts a blend of disaster movie tropes with Jaws franchise ones.  The great Russell Mulcahy contributes a script with co-writer, John Kim, and the film is set on the coast of Australia when a devastating tsunami hits. 

The tsunami floods several coastal blocks, and brings with it a handful of hungry great white sharks and other sea life.  A group of people -- including two robbers, a life-guard, a police officer and his daughter --are trapped inside a grocery store, Oceania Food Mart, when the tidal wave hits.  

Before long, the terrified survivors are climbing to the top of the aisles, while the sharks prowl the same aisles, just feet below them.  In short order, the sharks have realized they like the taste of live human beings, and won’t settle for the mart’s meat, stored in the freezer.

The diverse nature of the random survivors makes for interpersonal frisson, and our lead character -- the young life-guard, Josh (Xavier Samuel) -- is recovering from an earlier tragedy involving his best friend and a great white shark.  As you might guess, he must finally put the past behind him, and battle the sharks for the sakes not only of the trapped shoppers, but his ex-fiance, Tina (Sharni Vinson), who also happened to be shopping at Oceania when the crisis started.

Periodically, Bait also cuts to the submerged parking deck below the mart, where two entitled rich kids (and their dog) are trapped in a car, and heroic stock-boy, Ryan (Alex Russell of Chronicle [2012]) attempts to rescue them.  The scenes involving the dog and the great white shark manage to build up quite a bit of suspense, at least if you’re an animal lover.

The film also feature some good jump scares. At one point, Oceania’s obnoxious and loud-mouthed manager attempts to climb out of the store. He is hoisted up by a rope over a low-hanging vent pipe.  He removes the grill, and is set to climb in and escape from the danger.  Instead, he is confronted with another aquatic life-form…right at face level. 

For me, this was actually the most effective and disgusting scare in the film.

The one thing that periodically deflects suspense and terror -- and sends Bait into Sharknado territory -- is a focus on action movie tropes, particularly larger-than-life heroics.  At one point, Josh takes a rifle in hand, and -- like John McClane in Die Hard (1987) -- goes underwater to battle a great white shark.  

As he does so, he dives into the water brandishing the gun in perfect athletic form.  Another scene is equally far-fetched in terms of staging, involving the capture of a great white by meat hook.  Finally, in the film’s most absurd sequence, a shark is tasered by Josh. Again, this act requires Josh to perform as the equivalent of a gymnast.

These moments are good fun, and incredibly silly, but they effectively put Bait in another genre all-together from Jaws.

This isn’t a scary, intense shark movie grounded in reality.  It’s a roller-coaster ride instead, as eager to garner a laugh as a scream.  Certainly, I can get into that approach, and I had a lot of fun with Bait.  It may enter the so-bad-it’s-good category, but however you parse it, Bait ceaselessly entertains.

Director Kendall, assisted by a knowing script, keeps three or four plot-lines going at once, and provides some key surprises that involve human nature.  At one point, a shopper dons a make-shift cage suit and goes underwater to turn off the store’s power. This scene is so powerful because of the risks the character takes, and the fate he ultimately meets.  It’s not what you expect, but it goes a long way towards exploring the different ways that various individuals respond to a crisis. 

For every heroic character, like this one, however, there’s another -- like the “secret” robber lodged within the group -- who is the exact opposite.  Kendall makes the most of moments involving these life-and-death choices, and there are times in Bait when you will absolutely be on the edge of your seat.

Goofy as could be, but oddly charming, Bait is no critic’s idea of a great movie, or a horror classic for that matter.  But for a night of terror and laughs – cheap thrills, I guess -- it can’t be beat.  I almost never use the word “cheesy” -- I just don’t like to describe movies with that word -- but this movie is legitimately and knowingly cheesy.

My wife is terrified of sharks and couldn’t stand to be in the room with me while I watched The Reef (2010).  However, she emerged from Bait totally unscathed, if that helps you decide whether or not to screen the film.

Memory Bank: Zombies (1983)

One of the greatest (and coolest) video games I ever played on my old Atari 800 in the 1980's was Mike Edwards' Zombies (BRAM ...