The Ninjabot

The Netflix Horror Shuffle Experiment, Part 2

Posted on July 20, 2014 at 6:08 pm by Nathan Tolle

Netflix Horror Shuffle
Every now and then, when I look for a movie to stream instantly, I find myself scrolling up and down aimlessly for many minutes, wasting so much time while looking for the perfect movie that never appears. So for the second weekend, I have chosen to punish my indecisiveness by blindly choosing horror movies to watch on Netflix. Last time I was presented with a lot of mediocrity, but then rewarded with Dead End, one of the most impressive horror movies I’ve seen in years. I hoped that repeating this experiment would once again plunge me deep into the horror underground to find at least a few bits of gold beneath the mire. With my eyes closed and the mouse going crazy, here’s what I landed on and forced myself to sit through.

Screamtime (1986)

screamtimeI figured the horror gods were on my side tonight because the first mystery film of this cycle was a horror anthology. Whether it’s a big budget Hollywood picture like Creepshow, or a direct-to-video cheapo like Campfire Tales, I get so excited when I come across a film that’s separated among multiple morsels of terror. The wraparound narrative involves a couple of New York City hoodlums who steal a handful of tapes from a video store and then invite themselves over to a female friend’s apartment to watch them. In a better film, these characters would have demonstrated the George Costanza logic of choosing to watch movies at someone else’s place because then at least you’re out doing something and not watching TV lazily at home. But in Screamtime, it’s obvious this female friend exists only to give us a forced, desperate shower scene.

The first of the three tapes (all coincidentally under thirty minutes in length) contains a Punch and Judy tale involving an aged puppeteer who has married into a loathsome family that cannot stand the fact that he spends so much time in his workshop tending to his puppet family. His domineering wife and hateful stepson make his life a living hell, and when they come awfully close to taking away his only form of solace, the puppets go on a killing spree. Not bad, not bad. One of the thieves also seemed to be pretty satisfied with the first of the stolen tapes; he even commented that he could tell it was a British film because of the way they talked!

Next up is a standard haunted house tale involving a woman whose new home would be perfect if it weren’t for those meddling hallucinations. I suspected the problem was with the shockingly humongous eyeglasses this lovely lady insisted on wearing. It’s not the least bit scary, but at least it had a satisfying twist ending! I lost interest quickly with the third story, involving life-sized garden gnomes and fairies that take offense at the pilfering from an elderly couple’s home. Unlike the previous two stories, which tried earnestly to chill your bones, the filmmaker here seems fully aware of his budgetary limitations, and he doesn’t even attempt a gnome that can rival the tribal doll from Trilogy of Terror. Instead, he tries (and fails) to make us laugh. I can confidently predict that in a year from now, not a single frame or character from Screamtime will remain in my memory. Score: 3/10

The Unseeable (2006)

the unseeableNext up was a supernatural thriller from Thailand, and I hoped that whatever unseeable thing that was lurking within the estate would be as menacing and horrifying as Alyda Winthrop from The Unnamable. A pregnant girl from the village leaves her home to search for her missing fiancé, who disappeared a year ago. Desperate and in need of shelter, she persuades the cantankerous housekeeper of a compound for a room, but a host of undesirable amenities interrupt what would have been a night of uninterrupted sleep. She doesn’t have much free time to search for her missing fiancé after she giving birth, learning many unsettling things about the other people living there, and repeatedly having strange visions of a man digging at night and a little girl who has mastered the art of disappearing while playing Tag.

Repetition bogs down a long stretch of the film where the girl explores creepy areas she’s not allowed to go near, gets yelled at by the housekeeper, and discusses these peculiarities with the similarly-aged resident, Choy, before going to bed and doing it all over the next day. There’s also way too much reliance on the deafening audio explosion to signal every time something ominous has snuck into the frame—a cheap cliché that the movie shouldn’t be relying on so heavily given its intriguing story. The fiancé eventually shows up, and the self-absorbed owner of the property requires alone time with the newborn on a daily basis, arousing our curiosity as to whom our protagonist should fear the most. Finally, we begin to really feel some of her desperation and impending doom with a wildly explosive and satisfying third act that’s loaded with twists, insane visuals, and exciting cinematography, as if the director suddenly downed two pots of coffee and decided that the unseeable was worth showing off after all. Score: 7/10

Children of the Corn: Genesis (2011)

childrenofthecornI knew it was just a matter of time before my mouse landed on one of the sequels to the inexplicably crowded Children of the Corn franchise. Not even the 1984 original garners much respect in the horror community, and its many sequels receive even less recognition, so I have no idea how these things keep getting churned out. To my surprise, while the latest entry contained few children and even less corn, it ended up being quite watchable. Ignoring the salient qualities of the series, like religious mumbo jumbo and sickle sacrifices, Genesis makes good use of its minimal budget and confines itself to a claustrophobic, crucifix-filled farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. Not exactly the ideal location for a young couple on vacation to Hollywood.

After experiencing car trouble in the worst possible place, the couple is taken in by a creepy preacher and his mail-order-bride while awaiting a tow truck. As if the inside of the home didn’t offer enough warning signs for our clueless protagonists, the pregnant woman (whose appearance and voice kept reminding me of Mila Kunis) can’t help but go exploring, finding a blood-soaked chapel in the barn and a child kept in a cage. At this point, I was fully expecting our young couple to be restrained and taken to the cornfields, but instead the film throws a real curveball by introducing a creative telekinesis element that gives the decrepit farmhouse a Room 1408 makeover. Because this felt much more like a Twilight Zone episode than Children of the Corn Part 9, I wish I could give it an enthusiastic recommendation. However, I just became too frustrated with the characters doing one idiotic thing after another all the way to the very disappointing ending. Score: 6/10

House of Whipcord (1974)

houseofwhipcordThis British film opens with a delirious young woman hitching a ride with a truck driver in the midst of a ferocious thunderstorm. Bloodied and bruised, her ordeal has been so traumatic that she’s unable to explain who she is and what has happened to her. In a flashback that encompasses most of the running time, she’s a French model attending a lavish party and celebrating the success of a sensational photo in which she exposed her breasts for a good cause. A tall, brooding stranger approaches her there, and before she knows it, she’s in his car preparing to meet his mother in the countryside. I was quite intrigued during this car ride because the film’s X-rating led me to believe this was going to be a gruesome splatterfest in which every attractive woman ends up in several pieces, yet our main character clearly survives the ordeal, given the opening. Therefore, where exactly is she going, and who are the real victims going to be?

Soon after bonding over her beau’s adoration of Marquis de Sade, she’s taken inside a large building where she finds out that his mother is a warden in a private prison off the grid from the British courts. This institution runs exclusively to punish young women whose vanity contradicts Christ’s message and who were given leniency in their prior sentencing. Not only does this hellhole enforce mandatory life sentences for supposed blasphemy (such as posing topless for a photograph), but it also honors the “three strikes, you’re out” law by hanging any prisoner who disobeys the rules three times.

Considering the severity of the situation, the most frustrating aspect of House of Whipcord is how little effort the women make to free themselves. The judge is blind as a bat, and the guards are all late-middle aged women who appear to be unarmed most of the time. As grumpy and demanding as they are, it couldn’t possible be that difficult to escape them. There are whippings, hangings, and a little nudity, but Salo or Hostel this is not. At the same time, I was actually grateful for the film’s tameness because I was in no mood to be overly disturbed, upset, and traumatized that night. Even though I can’t say I was ever bored, it was still a pretty dreary experience that doesn’t merit repeat viewings. If only the protagonists were as interesting and dynamic as their captors, then the stakes would be so much higher and the story all the more gripping. Instead, it feels like watching the evil grandmother from Flowers in the Attic pick on defenseless girls for 90 minutes until finally encountering one that refuses to be a victim. On a side note: Sheila Keith as the guard who dishes out the punishment with a gleam in her eye easily gives the standout performance, foreshadowing her many more powerful contributions in the horror genre throughout her long career. Score: 6/10

Not a terrible batch of films, but I can’t imagine returning to any of these titles in the future for a second look. I’ll try this experiment again soon, and hopefully find one of the best or worst movies I’ll see all year.

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