Friday, January 20, 2023

Guest Post: M3GAN (2023)

"M3GAN Is Humorous Horror but The Trailer Gives Away Many of The Tricks"


By Jonas Schwartz-Owen


The cops may think that the murderous doll is responsible for all the killings, but Universal’s marketing department has slaughtered many of M3GAN's best surprises. Though M3GAN — an almost-parody of killer doll movies — features many clever touches, the movie feels like a rerun, since many of the best sequences have already been captured and shown in coming attractions for months. 


On the one hand, M3GAN's twisted dance before eviscerating an enemy was one of the sequences that gave the film a cult following even before its release (and may have contributed to the rumored R rated version being edited down to a more teen friendly, bloodless PG-13 — at least according to On the other, the movie loses its mystery when the audience knows the entire plot.


Workaholic Robotics genius Gemma (Allison Williams) loses her sister to a tragic accident and finds herself taking in her despondent niece Cady (Violet McGraw). Parenting does not come naturally to the engineer, and she merges her career and family life by treating Cady as the test audience for her new product, an AI doll named M3GAN. The robot child is not only meant to substitute as a friend for lonely children, but to take up parenting duties as well. Cady bonds with the doll — who resembles an anime version of Mary Kate and/or Ashley Olsen — while the doll strives to keep Cady safe and happy, even if it means bludgeoning a few people to death.


M3GAN returns to the well originally excavated by Mary Shelley in the early 19th century. Like Dr Frankenstein, Gemma plays God, and due to her laziness and rush, she creates a dangerous being she can't control. Like the "good" doctor, Gemma is overly dependent on technology — in one scene she can't even comfort her niece with a book, because the reading app hasn’t updated yet. M3GAN's flaws are programming issues, caused by Gemma. The robot just does what she was written to, without parameters (or a soul, for that matter). 


Director Gerard Johnstone, who helmed the clever horror/comedy Housebound, plays with the horror conventions right away by quickly introducing us to a displaced child, teasing us with jump scares, and presenting the obvious future victim pool like a menu. He sprinkles in the clichés as if to tickle the audience. He continues that with visual homages to Terminator 2Child's PlayE.T.and Wes Craven's Deadly Friend. Johnston appears to be joshing the genre by making M3GAN so ridiculous — the dances before the deaths, the Freddy Krueger punchlines, the SINGING (not just any tune, but "Titanium" for God's sake) — that the audience knows this a lark, not a fright fest. 


The script by Akela Cooper (based on producer James Wan's story), hints at a storyline where the doll's rage comes from her connection to the despondent child, but never gets around to exploring that option. Though horror movies such as The Hand and Monkey Shines have used a killer monster as a surrogate, it would have been intriguing to explore the pain of a child being neglected. 


The cast is in fine form. Williams gives the audience someone preoccupied and unqualified for parenthood with an arc that shows her taking responsibility for her mistakes. McGraw is never cloying as the little child. Amie Donald (as the body) and Jenna Davis (as the voice) play M3GAN over the top, which works thanks to the film's already goofy tone. 


M3GAN's success at the box office has proven she's striking a chord with audiences. The killer is saucy and sassy, and her ambitions are pure. In this precarious world, there seems to be a hunger for a Barbie doll with a vengeance. 


Monday, January 16, 2023

50 Years Ago: The Night Strangler

The TV-movie sequel to the 1971 hit The Night Stalker finds our hero, downtrodden reporter Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) in Seattle, Washington -- still trying to sell his incredible story about vampires in Las Vegas.

In a dingy bar one night, his former editor Tony Vincenzo hears him making his case, and -- taking pity on the guy -- hires Kolchak as a reporter at Seattle's Daily Chronicle (run by John Carradine!) Of course, (and Vincenzo knows this...) he's just asking for trouble bringing Carl Kolchak aboard.

For before long, Carl has run smack into another bizarre, perhaps even supernatural case. Several beautiful belly dancers have been murdered (strangled...) in the Pioneer Square Area of the city. A little research reveals that women have been attacked there, in that very spot, every 21 years. There were crimes in 1952, 1931, 1910, 1889 and 1868. Interestingly, the murders in 1868 took place before a massive earthquake, in a portion of the town now underground.

Kolchak's quest to find the perpetrator of these horrid crimes leads to a scientist once interviewed by Mark Twain, named Richard Malcolm (Richard Anderson). It seems this man was a Union Soldier in the Civil War and has been keeping himself alive ever since with a home-made "elixir of life" consisting of milk, meat, hair...and blood extracted from the necks of healthy women! 

Karl ventures into the old underground city to confront this nearly immortal (and clearly psychotic...) man, and ends the reign of terror once and for all. Of course, Karl gets fired for interfering with the police; and this time his editor Vincenzo gets fired too. Together, the two bickering friends drive out of Seattle together, hoping for a better future in New York.

The Night Strangler, written by the incomparable Richard Matheson, is not quite in the class of The Night Stalker, perhaps because at times it feels like a note-for-note repetition of the original TV movie, with Kolchak running up against bull-headed, CYA-type authorities (mayors, policemen, bureaucrats...) while he works to solve a supernatural case. 

What's so interesting this time is Matheson's decision to feature a scientific, rather than supernatural explanation for the crimes. The monster is still a vampire (one who strangles his victims), but one who operates via science, not biology. Seen as bookends, the two tele-movies make interesting sides of the same coin, even if the original isn't quite as good as the original.

I also love the idea of a forgotten, subterranean existing beneath a modern one. It's sort of a perfect reflection of Kolchak's world. There's the surface world which appears normal, and the night-time world of monsters.

Watching The Night Strangler, I began to crystallize the reasons I love Darren McGavin's portrayal of Kolchak so much. This reporter wears white sneakers, you may notice if you watch the telefilms and TV episodes. Not much is said about this, but these are running shoes, worn because Kolchak is always running after a story. I just love that small, little detail; that Kolchak wears the same suit and hat, but also the very shoes that help him track down interviewees during an investigation.

The Night Strangler also makes clear just what an influence Kolchak was on The X-Files

The story of an immortal killer, needing infusions of new life (by murder...) every twenty one years, reminded me instantly of a first season episode called "Squeeze," the first part of the Tooms saga wherein a strange serial killer needs to eat the livers of healthy humans. The idea of elongating life; of a killer coming out of shadows every few decades; and the skepticism of the police are common features between The Night Strangler and the adventures of Mulder and Scully.

I also got a real kick out of The Night Strangler's humorous finale, with Vincenzo and Kolchak hollering at each other over every little detail. Despite all the yelling, it's clear that they are best buddies. And that, quite nicely, is an element continued in the TV series.

Friday, January 13, 2023

Happy Friday the 13th! Ranking Jason's Adventures Worst to Best

Ranking the Friday the 13th Movies: Worst to Best.

To celebrate Friday the 13th, let's take look back at the movie slasher saga,  which has been too long absent from our screens 

12. Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning (1985): This movie totally bungles the second movement of the Tommy Jarvis trilogy (IV, V, VI), and gives us not a reappearance by Jason, but rather a Jason impostor.  That sounds like it could be a reasonable narrative if handled correctly, but it is never explained how the impostor manages his Jason-like survival rate. He gets hit by a bull-dozer, and then stands back-up to continue fighting.  How this possible for a mere mortal man?  A sub-standard, really terribly movie in the canon. 

11. Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (1989): So, Toronto substitutes for Manhattan here, and Jason only reaches it in the last act…for a few minutes. Adding an insult to that injury, the movie seems to `believe that New York City utility companies flush toxic waste through the sewers every night. At the film’s conclusion, Jason gets caught in the toxic flood and is reverted to the form of a child.  WTF? The death scenes are ludicrous, including one set in a disco aboard a cruise ship, where a female victim dies, literally, because she has no attention span. If she just kept her eyes on Jason, she might have survived. Instead, she can’t manage that feat, and he just appears in front of her and kills her. This character suffers from a serious movie malady: no peripheral vision.

10. Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (1993): The fun of a Friday the 13th movie is seeing a big, hulking slasher in a hockey mask hack people up with a machete. So what does this movie do? It eliminates Jason’s body and turns the slasher into a body-hopping ghoul. What is this, The Hidden 2?  And then there’s some serious and lame retconning of the overall story. For example: the Voorhees house.  Jason and his mom had a house that everybody knew about?  That still exists?  That is well-furnished? That has a mail box?  Are people sending mail there? If so, then why was Jason living in a shack in the woods in Friday the 13th Part II?

9. Freddy vs. Jason (2003). Jason is Freddy’s patsy for the first part of this film, and then reveals, oddly, that his mortal fear (and Kryptonite, essentially…) is water. This revelation occurs even though we have seen in Jason in functioning ably in water attacking people -- without fear -- in virtually every Friday the 13th movie since 1980. Whatever.

8. Friday the 13th Part III in 3-D (1982): Folks my age have a lot of nostalgia for this particular movie, but it doesn’t hold up well outside that context. The stoner characters (who look like Cheech and Chong) are cringe-inducing, and the 3-D effects (with everything flying at the screen) look low-rent and ridiculous.  All the characters are dumb clichés, so the third time’s not the charm for the series. Now Jason moves and acts more like Michael Myers than an original character.

7. Friday the 13th (2009): The reboot plays like a Friday the 13th “Greatest Hits” mix tape, taking good ideas from many of the individual entries and working them into one intriguing narrative. That’s not a bad approach -- hitting all the visceral hot spots of the saga -- but the film somehow comes across as shallow and lacking in any real sense of fun.

6. Friday the 13th Part IV: The Final Chapter (1984): Not a great entry in the saga, but a fun and generally quite popular one. The film demonstrates a love for the horror genre by making young Tommy Jarvis (Corey Feldman) a make-up artist.  He uses that skill to good effect to decapitate Jason in the last act (while pretending to be a young Jason).  An eminently watchable entry, although nothing fresh or exciting in terms of storyline or effects, really.

5. Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood (1988): This impossible-to-resist entry is basically Jason vs. Stephen King’s Carrie. Accordingly, Jason falls victim to a slew of telekinetic trickery, well-orchestrated.  The first two acts aren’t great, but the last act is a hell of a lot of fun as a monster of the physical realm, Jason, does pitched battle with a heroine of the psychic realm.  Much more entertaining than it has any right to be.  My favorite murder also occurs in this film: the sleeping bag death.

4. Jason X (2002). Are you surprised that this one made it so high on the list?  Well, can you think of another Friday the 13th movie that is so relentlessly inventive, and which plays so wittily on the tropes of the series? Sure the movie’s premise is ridiculous, but it knows it is ridiculous.  The scene with Jason encountering nubile hologram characters who just “love” premarital sex is absolutely priceless and alone worth the price of admission.

3. Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986): This entry turns Jason the slasher into a full-blooded supernatural monster (revived from the dead by lightning) to good and often funny impact. The James Bond-style opener, Jason’s encounter with survivalists, and a cameo appearance by Sartre’s No Exit are just few of the moments worth treasuring.  

2. Friday the 13th Part II (1981): This film pits a smart, resourceful child psychologist, Ginny (Amy Steel) against Jason’s developmentally-arrested “retard” (to quote the film; not my words). Lean and efficient, the film also introduces Jason’s mom fixation

1. Friday the 13th (1980): Still the best of the bunch, thanks to a smart screenplay, and some stand-out scares (including the final sting-in-the-tail/tale). Here (as in all Jason films), it is suggested (through the presence of a storm) that the killer is a force of nature. Similarly, there’s a Garden of Eden/Snake in the Garden metaphor at work at Crystal Lake.

Friday, January 06, 2023

50 Years Ago: Schoolhouse Rock!

Today, I credit three diverse and valuable sources with my ability to write well.

The first is my study of Latin. I minored in the subject at the University of Richmond and have never regretted it. Vēnī, vīdī, vīcī.

The second source is a deep stable of wonderful and inspiring English professors; stretching from my grade school experience through the university years.

And, last but never least, is...Schoolhouse Rock, the ABC animated musical series (1973-1986) that demonstrated -- in superbly entertaining fashion -- how to accurately utilize conjunctions ("Conjunction Junction"), adverbs ("Lolly, Lolly, Lolly Get Your Adverbs Here,") interjections ("Interjections!") and more. 

Yep, these "lessons" were all facets of the series' memorable class on "Grammar Rock."

Schoolhouse Rock premiered on the ABC Network in early January of 1973 -- fifty years ago -- the brainchild of ad man David McCall, musician Bob Dorough and artist Tom Yohe. 

Network executive Michael Eisner approved the project for broadcast during ABC's Saturday morning schedule, and accordingly three minutes "bits" were cut (over producer protests!) from the entertainment programming (such as Scooby Doo) to make "elbow room" for these educational and amusing shorts.

The series' mission: "to link math [and other subjects] with contemporary music...[so] kids will breeze through school on a song."

Over roughly a dozen years, Schoolhouse Rock accomplished that task in spades. It offered a deep, amusing, highly-addictive and toe-tapping TV curriculum in a variety of academic subjects.

Celebrating the bicentennial in 1976, Schoolhouse Rock's "America Rock" featured such shorts as "I'm Just a Bill," (following a bill's progress from idea to committee to law or veto...), "Elbow Room" (about the American expansion West after the Louisiana Purchase..."), "Mother Necessity" (about American ingenuity and inventions...), and "The Preamble," which concerned the specific words and meanings of the U.S. Constitution.

In the subject of math, audiences were offered "Multiplication Rock," with shorts called "My Hero, Zero," "Three is a Magic Number" (a personal favorite that I used to sing to my son, Joel, when he was a baby) and "Figure Eight."

In "Science Rock," youngsters learned about "Electricity, "Electricity" and "Interplanet Janet" (a ditty about the heavenly bodies of our solar system.)

For Generation X (my generation) specifically, these shorts (particularly the catchy tunes) are nothing less than indelible. 

Here's to half a century of Schoolhouse Rock!

National Twilight Zone Day: "Come Wander with Me"

There are, perhaps, several episodes of Rod Serling's classic   The Twilight Zone  (1959-1964) more sharply-written, more morally-valuab...