Friday, 25 November 2016

Horror by the Numbers

The summer of 2016 saw a "resurgence" in horror, meaning a handful of studio horror films managed to garner positive reviews from critics. Whenever this happens, the mainstream media reports on mainstream horror like it's surprising or new. The fact of the matter is, horror always makes money (generally speaking), but it is unusual for mainstream horror to perform well both critically and financially.

I took a look at some of the horror releases of 2016 to see if there was anything else worth reporting.

At first glace, we can see that my Y-axes aren't properly formatted. That minor error aside, it's still obvious that horror movies make money. What might surprise some folks is that the smaller-budget films out-perform their more expensive counterparts. And while critics and audiences tend to agree on the films' merit, a movie's budget and box office aren't good indicators of critical reception. Crimson Peak, which cost more money than it earned, wasn't well liked, whereas The Witch completely outdid itself--and had a limited release.

More often than not, a film's budget is not a good indicator of how well it will perform. Crimson Peak, the most expensive film in the sample, did not meet expectations, pulling in $31m--that's a little over half its budget. On the flip side, Unfriended, which was in theatres for the same amount of time, made its budget 32 times over. Having seen both, it is my opinion that Crimson Peak is a better movie than Unfriended, but the latter is more likely to cater to younger audience members, even if most people who saw it don't appear to have liked it very much.

How important are the audience and critical response, and what impact do they have on a film's gross? That's a hard question to answer. As was mentioned above, there appears to be some correlation between reception and box office (better-reviewed films earn more money), but The Gallows, which wasn't well liked by critics or audience members, was still a financial success.

Movies with a longer theatrical run have the potential to rake in a higher gross than films with a short run or a limited release, but The Conjuring 2, The Visit, and Poltergeist, all of which were in theatres for 77 days, performed very differently. The Conjuring 2 earned 2.5 times more than its budget, The Visit a whopping 13 times more, and Poltergeist only made an embarrassing 1.3. Looking at the films' reviews, we see that Poltergeist--which performed the worst of the three--also had the lowest ratings at 31 and 22 from critics and audience members respectively, whereas The Conjuring 2, which didn't have the highest turn-around on its budget, had the highest ratings, scoring in the 80s.

Budget is in millions of dollars, US. Gross is domestic only. Critic and audience ratings are out of 100.
Data collected from The Numbers.

So what does it all mean? Disregarding the fact that we don't know how much of each film's budget is allocated to marketing and promotion, which will influence audience turn out, predicting which movies will and won't succeed is kind of impossible. It Follows came out of nowhere, cost very little to make, and did very well for itself, whereas both The Green Inferno and The Neon Demon were trading on the past successes of their makers (Eli Roth and Nicolas Winding Refn), neither movie appears to have lived up to expectations.

Looking at the top five movies from the summer, two were sequels, one was a sort-of sequel, and two were stand alone films. Sequels and remakes can always be counted on to do relatively well, and The Purge: Election Year, which suffered middling reviews, proves this point. The successes of Don't Breathe and Lights Out suggest that low-concept horror is more likely to appeal to a wider audience. Also of note is the absence of zombie movies, which might mean filmmakers and audiences alike are finally moving on from zombies*.

Horror's mainstream popularity ebbs and flows, and there's no real way to guess when the genre will see an uptick in mainstream media coverage. But when our preferred media outlets do turn their attention to horror, they would do well to dig just a little bit deeper to uncover how weird the genre truly is.

*Train to Busan is a notable exception. Everyone who's seen it loves it, me included.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Toronto After Dark Film Festival 2016

It's baaack! The Toronto After Dark Film Festival returns for its 11th year. The fun begins tonight and kicks off with Under the Shadow and Trash Fire. As to what I'm most looking forward to this year:

Under the Shadow
Because I can't resist any movie that's billed as "the scariest film ever." We'll see about that.

The Lure
A Polish horror musical about a man-eating mermaid? Come on.

Train to Busan
Normally, I don't get excited about zombie movies, but this one got rave reviews and I've enjoyed past zombie nights at TADFF.

The Stakelander
Although I'm usually wary of sequels, I'm curious to see how this one turns out. I really liked Stakeland, so here's hoping for more of the same. There's no trailer, so here's a short video announcing the sequel.

The Void
I backed this one on Kickstarter so of course I'm super keen to see it!

Bed of the Dead
In truth, I'm not looking forward to it in the sense that I'm excited to see it. Rather, I mentioned this film on TheAvod when discussing upcoming horror movies, and thought it sounded kind of, well, dumb. It reminded me a bit of Death Bed, The Bed that Eats, which is a famously terrible film, but the synopsis on the TADFF website paints a different picture. Still might be dumb.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Trailer Review: Ouija: Origin of Evil

For starters, I've now seen every scare in the movie. For seconders, I've now seen the whole movie.

Capitalizing on the success of other horror movies set in the 1960s and 70s, the good people behind 2014's paint-by-numbers teen horror romp Ouija have made good on their threat to spoon feed us more PG-13 tripe.

Set forty years too late, a family of spiritualists use a Ouija board to scam their clients. Upset by the family's perfidy, a cadre of ghosts take it upon themselves to teach the deceitful women a lesson they won't soon forget. Taking a page from Poltergeist, the ghosts possess the youngest daughter, but no one notices because she was already evil to begin with. Calling in a priest to help with the situation only makes things worse, and introduces an Exorcist vibe to the proceedings. Also, someone on the production really likes the film Skeleton Crew (not the Stephen King one), and has seen one too many films about a funeral parlor-cum-family home. In the end the evil is defeated, sort of, and everyone lives happily ever after. Except for the debilitating emotional trauma of having survived a ghost attack.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Suicide Squad

To  Amanda Waller
Subject  Re: Task Force X Review and Assessment


Ms Waller proposed to organize a "team of very bad people who could do some good." Founded upon the supposed future threat of a metahuman whose ideologies run counter to our own, it is Ms. Waller's opinion that a task force of villains could be assembled to counter such a threat. (See Note 1)

After Ms Waller and her colleague, Sgt. Rick Flag, failed to maintain command and control of Enchantress, a metahuman who inhabits the body of Dr. June Moone, Ms. Waller proceeded with her plans to assemble and dispatch Task Force X. The task force's sole purpose was to extract a High Value Target (See Note 2) within Midway City; it was not to engage with Enchantress nor eliminate her. (See Note 3)

Task Force X did successfully locate Ms. Waller but their extraction plan was co-opted by Joker. This review board does not believe Ms. Waller had any reason to expect or anticipate Joker's actions, but is dissatisfied with her handling of the situation. This board sees no benefit in ordering the execution of Harley Quinn, and believes it to be a tactical error. Ms. Quinn's death would only raise the ire of Joker, and would have likely resulted in a second assault on Ms. Waller and Task Force X. The fact that Joker's helicopter was shot down does not forgive Ms Waller her error in judgement. (See Note 4)

No longer able to complete their mission, Task Force X took it upon themselves to engage Enchantress. Both Enchantress and her brother were destroyed, and Dr. Moone was returned to her original state. Although Task Force X proved victorious, it was due largely to luck and circumstance than to any strategic advantage the task force may have possessed. (See Note 5)

Final Assessment

This review board believes Ms. Waller acted in her own best interests when she deployed Task Force X. In addition, the board finds Ms. Waller put Sgt. Flag and his team in danger when she 1) failed to gather vital intel related to Enchantress' defenses, and 2) failed to act on new intel gathered in the field.

It is the board's recommendation that in the future a direct and specific need for Task Force X be established before the task force is assembled. This is to ensure the team members possess the proper skills and abilities to see their mission through.

Note 1

At no point does Ms. Waller address the issue of weather a group of villainous metahumans could, in fact, win a fight against an "evil" Superman. Superman is not human, and his strength and abilities are far superior to any known superhero or supervillain.

Note 2

Ms. Waller herself was the HVT that needed extraction.

Note 3

Ms. Waller specifically stated Task Force X would be created in order to deal with metahuman/superhuman threats to the United States' (and by extension, the world's) peace and security and/or to support the United States' efforts to combat terrorism. Ms. Waller provided an example of the proposed task force's benefit by using Enchantress to retrieve highly classified military documents from a foreign adversary.

The committee was impressed with Enchantress' abilities, but was dismayed by her unwillingness to withdraw and allow Dr. Moone to regain control of her body. Ms Waller displayed her ability to control Enchantress by stabbing her in her heart, which she keeps in a secure briefcase.

Note 4

Ms. Waller showed further errors in judgment when she called for a second helicopter. This review board believes that, after having witnessed the attack on Joker's helicopter, Ms Waller should have ordered a ground retreat. Such action would have, at the very least, forestalled Enchantress' attempts to capture Ms. Waller. By not ordering a ground retreat, Ms. Waller put herself, the United States, and the world in danger.

Note 5

The full extent of Enchantress' and her brother's powers were, and still are unknown. It is only happenstance that El Diablo was both present and able to fight the brother. Since Task Force X was assembled to counter metahuman threats in the abstract, there was no guarantee the members of the task force would be able to surmount any threats in reality. Harley Quinn and Captain Boomerang provide no tactical advantage. Killer Croc proved to be a valuable team member, but Ms. Waller had no intention of attaching him to the underwater unit; Killer Croc took it upon himself to assist the underwater unit in their retrieval and detonation of an explosive device.

El Diablo proved to be, far and away, the most important member of Task Force X, but it was nothing short of pure luck that his special abilities were essential in securing a positive outcome. Since Ms. Waller did not know Enchantress' brother was a fire god, and she had no way of knowing El Diablo's pyrokinesis could manifest to such an extent that he would also become like a god, El Diablo's appointment to Task Force X and his subsequent victorious battle with Enchantress' brother is fortunate indeed.

It is of further note that El Diablo had outright refused to join the task force when asked, and that, while on mission, he continually refused to assist his team members. Despite his success, this board finds his appointment to Task Force X was an unnecessary risk which put the entire mission in danger.

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Unpopular Opinion: Zack Snyder is a Whiner

Not too long ago, this article appeared in The Atlantic. In it, the author explains how the upcoming Justice League movie will be much lighter than Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. I never saw BvS, but I (as is my right, being a wag on the Internet) still have an opinion about it and its maker, Zack Snyder. The Atlantic article states that Snyder will endeavour to make Justice League more fun:
...Snyder seems to be directly responding to cricism by promising audiences more fun... [T]he Snyders are trying to sell the sense that Justice League will learn from its predecessors' mistakes, tapping more into the joyful spirit of the hugely successful Marvel movies.
That's all well and good, but let's take a moment to read a bit deeper into the narrative. On the surface, we see a man forced to come to terms with the fact that no one likes his version of the DC universe.
[I]n interviews about Batman v Superman, [Snynder] described that film's summary execution of its Jimmy Olsen character as the movie "having fun," which sums up both the film's oppressive bleakness and its creator's total misread of its audience. [...] "When [Batman v Superman] came out, it was like, 'Wow, off.' It did catch me off guard." Of the film's sequel, he told Vulture, "I have had to, in my mind, make an adjustment. I do think the tone of Justice League has changed because of what the fans have said."
This is a perfect example of how powerful are the meek. DC's fanbase was so outraged by BvS and the critical reviews were so overwhelmingly negative, that Snyder is now forced to do something about it. But are his efforts sincere? Does he even understand why his movie failed? Reading between the lines, it almost seems like Snyder is whining about having to cowtow to fan (and studio) pressure.

And if it's true, if Snyder is little more than a whiny brat, can we really blame him for getting upset about people getting upset at his movie? Of course we can. But he's in the unenviable position of having to account for his mistakes--no one likes to hear they've done a bad job--and it's largely Hollywood's fault that he's in this mess to begin with.

Zack Snyder is, more or less, an auteur. He's the primary (or only) creative force driving the movie, calling the shots on the film's look and feel and theme so that his movie reflects his personal creative vision. But here's the thing, Hollywood doesn't really like auteurs, not anymore. It wasn't always this way, of course. In the 1970s, the "new" Hollywood courted auteurs and these filmmakers were a driving force behind the Hollywood Renaissance. The love affair with auteurs petered out toward the end of the decade, although guys who'd made their bones in the latter half of the '70s were still doted upon in the '80s. The turn away from auteurship resulted in a new "theory" of collaboration, that film is a product of cooperative teamwork, the unspoken truth being that studios were getting ever more involved in different parts of the process.

There's an inherent hypocrisy in the way Hollywood today deals name brand filmmakers. On the one hand, studios rally against auteurs by meddling, manipulating, or micromanaging their projects, while on the other hand, they court certain directors specifically because their movies have a particular stylistic appeal.

In an interview with Movieline, John Woo spoke about the challenge of working in the American studio system:
In Hollywood it takes a much longer time [than in China] to set up a project. You have to take so many notes and so many meetings! But in China, they all want to make a good movie. I just walk into their offices and let them know I want to make a movie [...] I never need to take new meetings or notes from anyone. I just do what I want. So that's a little more simple. That's a big difference from Hollywood.
Of course, John Woo might experience more creative freedom than others, but his words nevertheless describe a system that's obsessed with control and in which everyone wants a piece of the pie. And still Hollywood pursues directors who've made a name for themselves as auteurs, hoping to strike gold. When they produce successful films, these auteurs are celebrated. When their movie flops, they're reigned in and locked down. There's no middle ground.

Snyder was hired on to "set the tone" for DC's new franchise and Man of Steel was reasonably well received, so he kept at it with, it appears, little oversight from Warner Bros or DC. What everyone failed to realize is that Snyder's "visionary" director status was meant to be taken literally. Look at Sucker Punch and 300: all spectacle with just enough story to tie all those dazzling set-pieces together. BvS is what happens when you hire a guy who doesn't fully understand narrative to make you a movie that relies heavily on story in order to drive the action that appears on screen. Never mind the fact that one of the writers, David Goyer, once dismissed the idea of a Batman vs Superman movie as "where you go when you admit to yourself you've exhausted all possibilities."

DC is chasing after Marvel, desperate to create its own cinematic juggernaut, but they just can't seem to get that ship to sail. What they don't understand--and what appears perfectly clear to everyone else--is that the MCU isn't unified through visuals or even tone. What holds the MCU together are the characters who populate that vast universe, and the b and c plots that run through the films. Put another way, Marvel's producing a serial while DC's making bottle episodes.

Christopher Nolan's Batman proved that audiences are open to a gritty and bleak re-imagining of the comic book superhero, but Batman lends himself well to that kind of thing, thanks in large part to the darkly sophisticated Batman; The Animated Series (itself inspired by Tim Burton's Batman). Superman, by contrast, is a godlike alien who's taken guardianship of Earth, and WB's Superman cartoon was brighter and shinier than BTAS, although it still dealt with some heavy issues (including one episode in which they hold a funeral for a supporting character). As such, a new Superman for a new millennium would do better if he were built upon the strong foundation laid by WB's DC cartoon, rather than trying to appropriate the look and feel of an entirely different character.

Snyder's complaints about having "to make an adjustment" and "change the tone" because the audience didn't like his movie are more than him whining. It speaks to a fundamental aspect of his character: he can't take criticism. It's one thing to make changes because you're being told to do so, it's quite another to understand why, and I don't believe Snyder fully appreciates what's happening. He's making his adjustments and changing the tone but without any self-conscious effort to learn from his mistakes and better himself because he doesn't believe that he's erred. 

Will Justice League be a better movie all-round than BvS? Probably, but only because Snyder's auteurship is now under scrutiny. Still, WB would probably do better to just keep making animated features and one-offs for now, giving other filmmakers a chance to breathe new life into their heroes.

Monday, 13 June 2016

Hitman: Agent 47

Some of the thoughts that flitted through my brain while watching Hitman: Agent 47:

Ha! This prologue makes no sense. "Man can only wage war. So we built super assassins." For what purpose? To stop war or to be the best at it?

Wait, I thought the Agents worked for the Syndicate.

I guess they're free agents? And Diana is Agent 47's agent?

Who puts out these contracts?

Is 47 the good guy or the bad guy? I feel like he's supposed to be the good guy but everything he's done so far makes him seem like the bad guy.

Zachary Quinto is the good guy.

Zachary Quinto is the bad guy. 

This movie has structure problems.

Biogenetics. Not to be confused with non-biological genetics.

Where have I seen Dominic Friend before? This is driving me nuts.

Omigod, is everyone in this movie a hitman?

Yes. Yes, they are.

You know, the whole "you're locked in here with me" thing loses its punch when it's repeated back and forth like that.

Now Diana's talking to someone else? Is she also a free agent? A freelance free Agent agent?

You know what this movie needs? A training montage.

If all the hitmen are so smart, how come no one's been able to figure out where this dude is? They can track a woman through CCTV based on her earlobe, but they can't find an old white man in Singapore?

Holy crap, I hope that garden is a real place is real because I need to go there.

I don't really see the point of having a video phone in your desk. That's got to be the least flattering angle there is.

Where the hell is the other Agent? I'm sitting here, waiting for the mysterious other hitman to show up and he refuses to appear. Did the movie forget about him? I feel like the movie forgot about him. I really hope it's Timothy Olyphant.

Oh, don't give me that "you are what you do" bullshit. What he does is kill people. Ergo, he's a hitman.

I'm mildly impressed by this fight.

I'm less impressed by this denouement. Who called in this hit, exactly?

And who the fuck is that??

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Terrible Moments in Taglining

"Putting the tea back in terror."

If this movie is putting the tea back, that would suggest there was a time when tea was ubiquitous in horror movies, as some kind of fixture or genre trope. Then filmmakers turned away from tea, perhaps dabbling in coffee or even pop. But now these guys are going back to horror's roots, and infusing their nazi zombie movie with a strong peppermint.