Monkey see, monkey do: A critical review of “Phantom of the Rue Morgue” (1954)

There is a quick line in about the middle of “Phantom of the Rue Morgue” that hints at its shift in title, but there are still a lot more references to murder than ghosts. It’s even the first line of the film. So why did Warner Brothers change the name? Were they so afraid of a copystrike from Carl Laemmle? Or was it a desperate attempt at differentiation? If it was the latter, they probably shouldn’t have aped “King Kong.”

But we do start with something a lot more Edgar Allan Poe compared to the last film. From the get-go, as alluded to above, “Phantom” is about murders, with a decent body count just a few minutes into the film. Someone is savagely killing women in the Rue Morgue, a cheap part of Paris favored by artists, students, circus performers and college professors (I guess teacher salaries then were about what they are now). Inspector Bonnard (Claude Dauphin) suspects that psychology lecturer Paul Dupin (Steve Forrest) is to blame, but Dupin knows he’s much too handsome to be the killer. He thinks the killer is someone far less genteel, but is information best sought from waterfront tough One-Eyed Jacques (Anthony Caruso) or zoologist Dr. Marais (Karl Malden)? You probably have a guess, tonstant weader.

Filming “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is always odd because the original story’s twist – death by ape – is so well-known that it naturally becomes the high concept of any adaptation. But if the resolution to the mystery becomes the selling point, then what point is left?

“Phantom” actually makes its case pretty well. The first half of the film follows an investigation, which is pleasantly forensic and interspersed with murders for set pieces. At the halfway point the film outright states the twist, then the genre shifts from pure mystery to suspense of the audience-knows-what-the-detective-does-not variety. There’s even an extra twist, also established by the first half, which is a product of the film. As a whole, it’s a fair translation from page to screen, which probably shouldn’t be a surprise since Warner Brothers was famous for crime thrillers rather than outright horror (the script was by Harold Medford and James Webb; Medford mostly wrote melodramas and TV, but Webb worked on some interesting projects, like “Cape Fear” and “Cheyenne Autumn”).

Now that this blog has praised the film for something, you know what’s coming next. The characters in the film, to put it delicately, suck. Some of it is performance. The supporting actors are mostly pieces of cardboard or goofing around as broadly as possible. Or else they’re the Flying Zacchinis, an acrobatic act who are in this film because some producer probably saw them and thought that’s what the film-going public really needed to see.

Unfortunately, even when the actors are worthy, the script doesn’t know what to do with them. Real life Frenchman Claude Dauphin is a treat as the inspector. He fastidiously cleans his glasses, is witty and observant, makes mistakes but continues his investigation (this was a year before “Les Diaboliques,” but the character seems to predict that film’s police commissioner). Naturally enough, as soon as the film needs the mystery to be solved, he’s sidelined so that Prof. Dupin can start making all the right guesses, which he does by jumping through cognitive hoops rather than realistic reasoning or detective work. Dupin also has all the charisma of a garden hose, so there’s little victory in watching him take over.

The other suspects fare a little better. Paul Richards is fine as an early red herring, but he’s out of the picture pretty fast. Karl Malden as Dr. Marais is one of the best things the film has going for it, since Malden admirably pretends like his character has complexity, but he’s no Bela Lugosi. There is much less subtlety with Jacques. I don’t think it’s spoiling anything to say that he – who is seven feet tall, has an eyepatch with its own zip code, and carries boxes of rats for a living – is evil. Even that wouldn’t be so bad if the performance had some punch, but Anthony Caruso acts like he’s constantly recovering from a bad colonoscopy. When fellow sailor Maurice (a boisterous Henry Kulky) calls him over for a drink, you have to wonder why the friendly barfly would want to spend a minute with the perennially scowling Jacques. Then Jacques leads him outside, clubs him with a rock and dumps him in the Seine. All in public. What a guy.

The women are not terribly complex either. They’re mostly around for human drama, and since the film doesn’t do that well, it all falls flat. They’re also around to get killed, and there are a couple of solid scream queens in the mix. Leading lady Patricia Medina has a solid set of pipes. Victims with less screen time are dispatched with surprising violence for the mid-1950s. There’s a decent amount of blood, broken glass and bodies.

That’s all in the first half, of course. In the second, the investigation and murder gives way to a prolonged climax ripped out of “King Kong,” with a guy in a gorilla suit – Charles Gemora again, just like in 1932 – carrying a mannequin up a brick wall. There are bright spots though, like some iron bars that have a nice payoff and a direct reference to suicide. There was an edge here. Setting the climax in a zoo was a nice touch too, but this ain’t “Cat People.” Ah well.

The rest of the production is workmanlike. The music is stock. The photography is sometimes kind of clever in the way it shoots around the tiny Warner sets, but it’s mostly just fine. Roy Del Ruth’s direction was, in case you couldn’t tell, a mixed bag (he mostly had musical and show biz bio credits). It was shot in 3D, so there are some obligatory things-get-thrown-at-the-camera moments, but you’ll get used to them soon enough (cinematographer Peverell Marley had just come off the set of “House of Wax”). The use of Warnercolor is as washed out as ever, but black-and-white probably wouldn’t have helped this film. It’s best to be thankful for what we have.

As a total package, “Phantom of the Rue Morgue” is probably a better movie than its Universal predecessor, but it’s definitely a less interesting and imaginative experiment. Both are inadequate, but “Phantom” tried for much less so its failures cannot disappoint as much. It’s one half competent mystery and one half uneven thriller. Still, it’s not every film that can hard cut from a screaming woman being torn apart in an artist’s studio, complete with a gorilla-shaped hole in the skylight, to a guy grinning into the camera while bouncing on a trampoline. That’s got to count for something.

Monkey business: A critical review of “Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1932)

When it comes to Universal horror, the big names – Dracula, Frankenstein, Wolf Man, Mummy – are pretty cemented in cinematic consciousness, which is why it’s always fun to feel like one has uncovered something forgotten. One of this blog’s favorite Universal horror films is “The Old Dark House,” a thoughtful little thriller that’s almost never mentioned in the same sentence as the names I just rattled off. On the other hand, not every rediscovery is delightful. There’s a reason “The Invisible Agent” is not at the top of everyone’s cult horror list.

Where does 1932’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue” fall on that spectrum? It’s hardly the first Universal horror film on anyone’s mind, but given its association with Edgar Allan Poe, it’s not like it lacks a recognizable IP, to use the parlance of our times. Is our cinematic amnesia fair or unjustified?

“Murders” takes place in 1845 France, when the country was apparently populated with American character actors. Pierre Dupin (Leon Ames) and his galpal Camille (Sidney Fox) take a tour of a travelling carnival. There they see Dr. Mirakle (Bela Lugosi, sporting cinema’s greatest unibrow), pronounced mere-AH-kul, a mad scientist with a monkey named Erik. Little do they know that Mirakle is responsible for a number of bodies in the morgue, and that he and his ape have taken an unhealthy interest in Camille.

The opening credits of “Murders” state that it is based on “the immortal classic by Edgar Allan Poe.” That is a bold-faced lie. This story has as much in common with its namesake as it does with a guide to fireplace maintenance (the script has a couple names attached, but I bet it was mostly by Tom Reed, who had previously worked on “Phantom of the Opera”; certainly the climax seems to be drawing as much from Universal’s “Hunchback of Notre Dam” as anything else). There are scant elements taken from the Poe story, and even then, they are window dressing rather than something substantive. Dupin is present, but rather than literature’s first modern detective, he’s a medical student. There’s also the monkey and a bit with language and that’s it.

The monkey is the selling point, but the language bit is puzzling. In the short story, the monkey being the murderer was a twist, and confusion regarding the language of the attacker was a vital clue to suggest the killer was literally inhuman. Since we know from the get-go there’s a monkey, the fun with foreign language serves no purpose other than to let some actors do stage European accents. In short, it doesn’t add much. In fact, the film is not very Poe at all. There’s some death and gloom, sure, but there isn’t a focus on investigation or psychology or reanimation or any of the writer’s comfortable themes, so the inclusion of some images from the story ends up off-putting. It’s odd to say, and this is a case where trying to adhere to the source material was not a good idea. Instead, the weird gorilla stuff is where the film gets interesting.

The script can be surprisingly literate, with musing about evolution, sin, rivers, stars and inner lives, and it’s mostly well handled because none of it lasts long enough to become glaringly inorganic or muddled by bad delivery. The script is less successful at making the mystery work, since events and discoveries happen for convenience’s sake, but as previously stated, this film isn’t really about the mystery. It’s about atmosphere.

It’s too bad the cast is not always up to the task. Most of the actors are pretty stiff, which I initially blamed on the film being so close to the silent era, but quite a few had little film experience period. Maybe it’s better to blame director Robert Florey, who had worked in both silents and talkies, and should have known better. Or maybe we can blame casting. Leon Ames as Dupin isn’t just stiff; he appears too mature and solidly built for the part. This is really a student? His romance with Camille feels pretty forced. And what’s up with his definitely heterosexual life partner Paul (Bert Roach)? He’s a fat White dude who seems to be in the film exclusively for comic relief, little of which lands. Was a movie about a mad scientist murdering prostitutes and caging apes really crying out for comic relief?

Concerning that mad scientist, and using a phrase that sounds pretty familiar, Bela Lugosi portrays easily the most compelling character on screen. Dr. Mirakle isn’t a deep character – despite a speech about human evolution and some brooding about sin, his motivation is never deeper than “wreck bitches with gorilla blood” – but Lugosi throws everything he can at the part. He’s over-the-top when the script and genre call for it, but measured enough to turn things off without holding anything back. This is prime Lugosi, when his mere presence was enough to elevate a junky thriller, and he’s a treat to observe.

There are a few other interesting performances. Betty Ross Clarke plays Camille’s mother; she was about 15 years older than Sidney Fox, and she looks pretty spry compared to her on-screen daughter. D’Arcy Corrigan is fun as the morgue attendant, and he neatly fits into the film’s Gothic moments. Charles Gemora plays Erik the ape (that is, when it wasn’t stock footage of a chimpanzee or clever shots of a cage), and that man deserves more recognition. He played half the gorillas in Hollywood, as well as the Martian in 1953 “The War of the Worlds.” Harrison Greene, who ended up in Three Stooges shorts, has 15 seconds of glory as a carnival barker. And that’s it.

About the only thing this blog can praise without restraint is the look of the film. It was photographed by Karl Freund, who is a bit of a legend for his work with director Fritz Lang, the Universal horror canon and early television. He notably brings a bit of German Expressionism to this production, and that’s where the vibe of the film really works. The camera movement is mature, the angles and framing are thoughtful, and the use of lighting and shadow is interesting. The set design too is sometimes quite compelling. Dupin’s apartment is built out of oddly slanted walls and lined with fat twisty pipes. Why is there a heavy-browed theater mask hanging over his door? I don’t know, but I like it. There are also a surprising number of cuts in the film, but the editing (by Milton Carruth, who has a ton of quality credits) is smartly paced. The film favors medium shots, tight tracking shots and close-ups, almost as if it was anticipating being seen on smaller screens. There’s a scene on a swing that’s downright experimental. It’s just good stuff.

It’s too bad it’s not attached to a more consistent or certain film. I’d like a movie that leaned more into the weird look and atmosphere, and made good on Dr. Mirakle’s musing on the slender dichotomy of human and ape. Have the final line – a reference to death by ape – make me wonder if it means chimps or men. In fact, give me more Mirakle, more murders, more anything thoughtful or thrilling, just get rid of the singing in the middle of the film. Was life in mid-19th century France just a big picnic? Didn’t these people work? Where did they get those donkeys? Is this why we fought the Revolution?

In case all that text does not make it clear, it’s difficult to answer whether the film is a forgotten treasure or just forgettable. It can almost function as a pre-Code curio, with its somewhat unclothed dancers, acknowledgement of the world’s oldest profession, suggestions of inappropriate man and lady behavior, and depictions of bound and gagged women, some of which were censored shortly after release. The audiences who will feel most rewarded by viewing it today are likely Bela Lugosi or Karl Freund fans. I happen to be both, so I feel my hour was well spent. However, anyone expecting a surprise gem of psychological horror will probably be disappointed.

The only other thing this blog can say about “Murders in the Rue Morgue” is that it’s a surprisingly loud film. It doesn’t have much in the way of a musical score, and it definitely has moments likely inspired by the quiet of silent movies, but also features a lot of just screaming, much more than I was expecting from a film of this era. Whether that makes it notable or not is up to you, but no one can say it didn’t try to forge its own strange identity.

Suddenly I see: A critical review of “The Pale Blue Eye” (2022)

Has it really been a decade since we did this? One would think the notion of “Edgar Allan Poe: detective” would be more popular in media, but the last time we had such an outing was, as I recall, 2012’s “The Raven,” with John Cusack in the authorial role (and I’m not counting the Big Fish Games Poe series, since you play as fictional sleuth Auguste Dupin – also, I would never reveal that I actually know about those).

Perhaps the gap is because the Cusack film was critically derided as a campy and apocalyptic mess, and it tanked at the box office (it’s likely worthy of its own review someday). But now we have a much cooler customer in writer-director Scott Cooper’s “The Pale Blue Eye,” this time with Christian Bale as…well, not as Poe, that honor falls to Harry Potter’s Harry Melling. Either way, this is a slower and more methodical experiment in cinematic detection, but is it any better than it’s been before?

Misanthropic ex-detective Augustus Landor (Bale) lives a close clip from West Point, America’s premier military academy. That turns out to be mighty handy when a missing student turns up dead, his corpse appallingly mutilated. When the school’s doctor (Toby Jones) fails to shed light on the matter, Landor turns to Edgar Allan Poe (Melling), a cadet who is awfully eager to prove his worth. Bodies stack up, and both students and faculty grow increasingly desperate for a solution. The detectives will have to determine whether the murders involve schoolyard rivalries, academy conspiracies, occult rituals or some sinister combination of all three.

“The Pale Blue Eye” is adapted from a novel, and it shows. The film is less of a mystery and more of a meditation on guilt – both culpability and remorse – and the themes are well teased from the narrative, expressed clearly but without a lot of hand holding. It’s smart, and it allows its audience to be smart. It’s also long, which is felt in some of the elements that are more scattered than succinct (I remember having similar feelings about “Hostiles,” the last effort by Cooper/Bale, which was an artful, thoughtful Western that could have been a few minutes shorter).

“Eye” might be less of a mystery than its logline would suggest, but it’s still something of a mystery. The film is wise to split the action by having Landor doing the thinking and interrogating, and Poe filling in gaps with legwork and improvising, and it’s rewarding to see the young author make some clumsy-but-clever moves during the investigation. However, the split hints at the balls the script will be juggling. Once the “investigation” box has been ticked, the film evolves into a melodrama, and then it tries to slide back into a thriller by tossing some more occult stuff at us. The transitions can be rough, and it culminates in a climax that feels goofy, rushed or both. Then there’s a final reveal that literally hinges on a coincidence. Then there’s the final shot – intelligent, subtle and beautifully staged, but a bit of trip to get there.

It’s a shame because technically the film is good. The photography, courtesy of cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi (who also worked on “Hostiles”), is crisp and professional. Pale winter is effectively evoked; this is nothing so brutal as a snowstorm, all the more of a blank canvas for human horrors. The lighting is solid, surprisingly so given how frequently it relies on the period lighting of candles and lamps. The film is rarely lost in darkness, and even when it is, it feels atmospheric rather than annoying.

The acting is superb, but that should come as no surprise to anyone who looked at the cast list. Add to the above names Timothy Spall, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Gillian Anderson and Robert Duvall, not to mention Lucy Boynton and Simon McBurney, most industry vets and few strangers to intelligent thrillers. If anyone missteps, it’s Melling as Poe. He occasionally gets locked in a clueless stare or chews the scenery while pacing back and forth, but it works as often as it doesn’t. To be fair, it seems like a lot of actors getting worked up when playing Poe (Melling is less fun than Cusack though). Regardless, dialogue is smart and smartly delivered. Characters are well costumed. It’s good stuff.

The only weak spot is the score, which is pretty forgettable, rarely a presence and occasionally cheap sounding. It’s by Howard Shore, a long-toothed composer who has an impressive track record but has never stood out to this blog’s ear. I guess he did those Hobbit movies, which I’ve never seen. No, I don’t want to talk about it.

In hindsight, while I see its merits, I continue to feel a little disappointed by “The Pale Blue Eye.” Its characters are a bit too inscrutable and their motives too rushed for it to feel as deep as it could; at the same time, its mystery isn’t polished enough, nor its occultism organic enough, for it to work as a weird fiction. It’s an admirable effort on both parts, and worth a watch for genre fans, but it’s more of a step in the right direction than a step across the finish line.

Keep watching the trees: A critical review of “From Hell It Came” (1957)

After much consideration, this blog has determined that “From Hell It Came” is not the worst thriller ever made. I recognize that labeling anything the worst of anything is tricky business, but given “From Hell It Came’s” reputation, denying it that label might honestly be controversial.

Don’t worry though. “From Hell It Came” is still a truly, truly awful movie, one that only became goofier the more I researched it, having masochistically decided to make a serious review of the film. It’s like someone took every terrible idea for how to approach making a film, the kind that normally appear in twos or threes in “lesser” works, and placed them all into the same cinematic structure, a Platonic ideal of terrible thriller. Whether it should have remained in the realm of ideals rather than brought down to Earth is something that will depend on how willing the audience is to put up with it, but it’s sure fascinating for those with an appreciation of Z-movie cinema.

Like all great works of art, “From Hell It Came” begins with a man tied to some stakes and surrounded by chickens. This is Kimo, but don’t get too attached. He’s about to be executed for some cooked up charge so a new chief and his witch doctor pal can step into command. Naturally he vows revenge from beyond the grave, although I’m not sure he’s entirely aware of what form that revenge – or he – would take. If he’d seen the poster for the film, he might have stayed dead.

Cut to an American research outpost, where science men are playing with test tubes and sip highballs. They’re awaiting the arrival of science lady Dr. Terry Mason – no relation to Perry Mason – who will be joining their team. They think their biggest problem will be dealing with the new island administration as they walk the fine line between mid-century scientific aid and cautious native superstition. The fact is, they can’t yet see the forest for the killer trees…

In case that awkward pun didn’t prime you, it is stunning how many bad movie cliches “From Hell It Came” hits: clunky dialogue, stiff performances, stereotypes for characters, poorly disguised locations. The movie might even invent one considering that the monster costume doesn’t just use a rubber mask – the whole thing is a giant rubber mask, from head to toe, so constraining that the actor playing it (former pro wrestler Chester Hayes) can barely shuffle toward his victims. A lot of them very conveniently back up into his branches or drown themselves extra hard after he chucks them into lakes, so you can’t accuse the islanders of not being generous.

I don’t have, I dunno, data on this or whatever, but I bet you the premise was passe even then. The South Seas thriller had been around for more than three decades (let’s use 1925’s “The House Without a Key,” the first Charlie Chan novel, as an arguable start date), so that’s plenty of time for Western audiences to get their fill of the niche genre. Furthermore, with American soldiers having seen the Pacific during World War II and Hawaiian statehood around the corner, a lot of the pure mystery of the region was drying up, and South Seas intrigue had more to do with tiki bars than exotic or esoteric thrills. None of this is mentioning the downturn of supernatural horror during the 1950s, where mythological monsters were typically ditched for extraterrestrial ones (this likely explains why there’s an element of atom age science in the film, to bolster the ancient gods).

Am I really doing a cultural analysis of “From Hell It Came”? Is this why I went to college?

This is probably not a film to watch if cultural sensitivity is your hill to die on. The main villain is alternately labelled a shaman (initially a north Asian term) and a witch doctor (an English then African descriptor). He also uses a voodoo doll (Central African/New World), because why not? I’m still trying to figure out his hat, the one composed of all the curved bones or small bananas. I’m not going to bother with the chickens that populate the execution scene, and neither should you. Some things are best left to the gods. Which reminds me, there is no clear parallel to the Tabanga in any South Seas mythology I could locate (the closest was a taniwha, a Maori reptilian critter, which could resemble a floating log). That’s OK though, because the film’s trailer calls it a “Maragan” instead, so it doesn’t even parallel itself.

The casual racism starts to infect the plot eventually, and I don’t just mean the overreliance on spear chuckin’ savage stereotypes. The natives initially hate the American scientists for bringing nuclear fallout to their island (the scientists can’t imagine why), and then one traditional tree monster later they’re begging Mighty Whitey to save them and willing to throw tribal beliefs into the sea. It’s insensitive, sure, but it’s also narratively inconsistent.

To jump to something else that hasn’t aged well, let’s talk about Dr. Terry Mason (film noir vet Tina Carver). The film’s treatment of her is pretty sexist, but it’s uniquely so. Some other films of the time would be barking at her for feeling rather than reasoning. This film does the opposite. “Will you stop being a doctor first and a woman second?” one fellow scientist begs her. “Let your emotions rule you, not your intellect.” It’s like the ideology of “women belong out of the lab and in the kitchen” was pushed so far in the opposite direction that it horseshoed around and met itself. It’s fascinating. I can’t think of another film with that exact approach, another bit of infamy to set “From Hell It Came” apart from the rest.

So now that I’ve decried the film for misogyny, let me tell you about its worst character: Mrs. Mae Kilgore. Good lord. Every minute she wasn’t being killed by a monster was a minute wasted. She was always either complaining about natives or drums or malaria – whodathink you’d find thems on an island? – or else she was trying to get into some scientist’s pants. I guess her priorities were in order. To top it off, her British accent is best described as “sporadic” (actress Linda Watkins was from Boston). Why was this necessary from a script perspective? Why was an Englishwoman a housekeeper on an American scientific expedition? Why did a scientific expedition get a housekeeper?

While we’re on this subject, what kind of scientists are these? I guess they’re there to cure a plague – the Black Plague, to be specific, which sounds pretty serious – but why? I guess there’s a link between nearby atomic tests and the plague; is this some kind of guilt aid? Is the island an important American holding? Why do they have that cage with the little monkeys or whatever? If they’re medical doctors that would explain their knowledge of human anatomy, but what about nuclear physics, anthropology, botany and munitions – because of course a bunch of nerds on an island would get rifles. And a gas oven. And a barware set.

Finally, if you want to get real picky, the tropical paradise does not look very tropical. After my research, I can’t guarantee that this film wasn’t shot in the tropics; I can only say the production company – Milner Brother Productions – only has one other film under its belt, which is 1955’s “The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues.” That was shot in Malibu. I can also say this South Sea island looks a lot like Griffith Park. It’s probably put best by the blog Cereal At Midnight: What are the odds Milner Brothers flew everyone to Hawaii to shoot this?

Am I being too harsh? I don’t think so. This ain’t “Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla.” Presumably “From Hell It Came” was attempting to be a serious horror flick. There’s a vision here, with the mashup of a child’s understanding of both atomic age science and South Pacific religion, which is admittedly somewhat charming in its effort (the script was by Richard Bernstein, who wrote/produced a bunch of quickie thrillers of the era; it’s based on a story by Jack Milner, who also edited, and was presumably the Milner Brother of Dan Milner, who directed).

The most positive thing about the film is its score, courtesy of Darrell Calker, which features heavy brass and a theremin. It’s not the most memorable or original, but it gets the job done from an atmospheric perspective, and is much less clumsy than the film it punctuates. If there’s a downside to it, it’s that it threatens to make the bad film look worse by comparison.

Calker also wrote the Woody Woodpecker theme. You can’t make this stuff up.

As I said, this film is really for connoisseurs of bad pulp cinema. I didn’t even get into the host of plot contrivances or continuity errors or the comically forced cat fight by the quicksand (I personally think it’s beat by the cat fight from “Manos: Hands of Fate,” but there’s an element of objectivity there). “From Hell It Came” is only about 70 minutes long. If you are amused by lumbering rubber creatures, square-jawed sexism, remarkably poor understandings of other cultures, theremins, scripts that can’t tell an atom bomb from a rangetop, performances that are more wooden than a tree monster, and South Pacific islands that more closely resemble the Pacific West Coast, then they will be 70 minutes hilariously spent.

Do you now?: A critical review of “I Know What You Did Last Summer” (2021)

The journalist Ernie Pyle, who was embedded with U. S. troops during World War II, noted a difference between combat in the European and South Pacific theaters. In Europe, where fighting took place in various towns across the continent, combat went house-to-house at a consistent clip. By contrast, in the South Pacific there were short, violent firefights spaced out by long lulls where soldiers would build fortifications on the islands, peel potatoes and simply wait. Pyle called the restlessness he saw in those troops “pineapple crazy,” so presumably they ate pineapples as well.

I think the pineapple crazies must impact a lot of things in the South Pacific, because there are a lot of dull moments in Amazon’s Hawaii-set reboot of “I Know What You Did Last Summer.” What was once a goofy and high concept slasher franchise has been transformed into a largely joyless teen drama that is occasionally punctuated by surprising bursts of gore. Does that sound like a good time to you?

Allison (Madison Iseman, who plays the part with clueless angst) returns to her Hawaiian hometown the summer after she and her friends accidentally killed one of their peers following a high school graduation party (she comes back exactly a year later because presumably she has never seen a horror movie before ever). She reconnects with her social circle, all of them trying to deal with the emotional fallout of that night. However, it’s not long before people close to them start getting killed. They’ll need to figure out who to trust, and cast out a few skeletons from their closets, if they want to survive.

Hawaiian thrillers aren’t particularly common, and I don’t think this incarnation of “I Know What You Did” is going to change that. Part of the reason is, for something based on an iconic slasher, there’s not a ton of slashing. The first episode attempts to set the scene with some sexy, druggy teen intrigue, but it’s not particularly intriguing. It’s also lit so poorly I can’t tell what’s going on half the time, but I know it ain’t a murder. Look, I don’t think I’m super demanding, but if I’m watching a murder thriller, I wanna see some thrilling murders.

It doesn’t help that the show isn’t entirely certain how to handle its horror. The teens have killed someone, and now someone is trying to kill them, they got that part right. But there isn’t a heavy focus on investigation, and the murders themselves aren’t often drawn out slasher kills or Saw-esque traps. There’s one scene at a high school gym in the second episode that’s kind of cool, at least for shock value, and is photographed kind of suspensefully, but the rest of the season can never live up to it. This show can’t even make death by Slurpee machine fun.

Outside of that, there are a curious number of horror elements that never come together. There’s a haunted house, and a basement people shouldn’t go into, and a hidden cave, and a cult, and a compound, and a secret Bitcoin trade, and everyone’s related, and there’s identical twins, but maybe we’re supposed to think the evil twin was killed and really it was the good twin? Like, honey, I get what you’re trying to do, but slow down. Develop at least one of these ideas before dashing into the next one.

So if there’s no particularly effective horror, we have to lean on the teen drama, which isn’t all that captivating either. It is petty and confusing though. It doesn’t help that the cast of characters all look basically the same to me – a bunch of underfed, underdressed zoomers – who all act in the same style: histrionics one second, dead emotionally the next. Is this a snide commentary on the lack of psychological stability among American youth? Lawd I feel old.

Their problems, when they materialize, are all somewhat cryptic for a person who is no longer in high school. You’d think they’d be interested in not getting murdered. Instead they’re interested in who’s sleeping with who, or who’s the new Adderall hookup, or who’s sending out my nudes, and how are all these pesky killings going impact our respective social media brands? Why are they unironically using the word “sus” in the face personal annihilation? These aren’t the traits that make humans interesting or, for that matter, human; they also aren’t over-the-top enough to be entertaining on camp value alone (Brianne Tju, as a seemingly outgoing social media butterfly, comes closest to that, but even she can only do so much).

There’s a vague theme of not knowing who people are – including ourselves (“I don’t think any of us know what we’re capable of,” says an interchangeable character about murder. “I guess you never really knew me,” another says elsewhere about not-murder), but this feels like an occasional bit of flavoring rather than anything substantive. There is some social commentary that is rather crudely forced into the third episode. You would think a murder thriller would be an organic place for some musing on police brutality, but the show can’t even pull that off smoothly. Everyone’s kinda gay though, so it’s got that going for it.

Also, maybe I’m just out of touch, but do kids in high school really have that many tattoos? I checked. Minors still need parental consent before getting inked in Hawaii. Are all these parents just that cool?

The adults fair better. For something approaching emotion, there’s Allison’s bargain-Luke-Perry dad (Bill Heck) and a sheriff who seems awfully sure of herself despite the murders (Fiona Rene) who share a perhaps-we-once-had-a-chance-but-now-we’re-just-friends-with-benefits-and-maybe-that’s-a-little-sad relationship. For quirk, there’s an awkward cop who uses words like “absconded” and “felonious” (Eric Morris). He is literally the only person doing any actual investigating during a murder mystery, which seems like kind of a big deal, so naturally the other characters tear him down to build themselves up and he gets killed. Good job script.

On the other hand, you’ve also got Cassie Beck as a mother who is just as irresponsible, emotionally unstable and blasé in the face of the murders, not to mention lacking in agency, as the kids. What a town.

I would probably be more forgiving if the show looked or sounded good, but nope. There are moments: establishing shots sporting moody black sand beaches, suggestive waves and palm trees swaying in worsening weather. But that’s it, and it only works so many times. There’s no interesting angles, no clever blocking to suggest tension or just hold some visual interest. There aren’t even any scary horror stings to force through a jump scare. There is, however, an unimaginative soundtrack, murky audio and occasionally confusing editing.

Look, I’m not above it all. I’m not allergic to high school slashers on TV. I liked the first seasons of Fox’s “Scream Queens” and MTV’s “Scream.” I am easy to satisfy with eye-rollingly goofy murders, and over-the-top and back-stabbing teen sleuths, but you have to give me something.

When some of the more major members of the cast in “I Know What You Did” were killed toward the end of the first season, I was genuinely satisfied, even if it probably wasn’t for the reason the creators intended. At least something was finally going on.

A dog’s life: A critical review of “Resident Evil” (2022)

There is a review of Netflix’s “Resident Evil” on IMDb that describes the show as the “biggest disappointment” of the reviewer’s life. Buddy, if your biggest disappointment in life is the wobbly launch of a new streaming series, then the odds are you’ve had it pretty good so far.

That being said…

“Resident Evil” starts in the sort of past, where inexplicable twin high school girls – brash Jade and quiet Billie – have relocated to New Racoon City so their father, Albert Wesker, can handle R&D for the Umbrella Corporation. They aren’t getting along at school, which is hard on Billie in particular because she’s both had mental health issues in the past and has recently been bitten by a mutant, undead dog. In the meantime, which is actually the future, adult Jade is scouring the landscape after some never quite defined disaster, dodging Mad Max-style denizens and Umbrella drones while she…gathers research? It’s not super clear. Can high school Jade figure out what’s up with the new psychiatric drug her dad is working on at work? Can future Jade get out of zombie-infested England? Can Umbrella be trusted in either timeline? Does that really need to be answered?

A more pressing question: What is it with people trying to reboot Resident Evil in a somewhat cinematic setting right now? Last year we had “Resident Evil: Welcome to Racoon City,” and this year we have “Resident Evil,” with the first episode called “Welcome to New Racoon City.” The film was a thematic mess, caught between games and unsure of how it wanted to express its genre. The streaming series sees that dilemma and raises it by a few.

The Netflix series too is caught between genres, which it handles with varying degrees of success and little sense of cohesion. On the one hand, the series has cartoonish action-horror, with ridiculous critters, over-the-top punching and gunplay, and nonsensical conspiracies. It also has post-apocalyptic zombie wandering. Also shades of hallucinatory psychological horror. Also occasional gross out body horror. Also teenage melodrama, complete with cute boys, skateboard parties and can’t-we-just-get-along high school angst.

Of the various sub-genres, the show seems to handle the cartoonish action-horror best. Those critters are pretty wacky. There’s the boilerplate bloated zombies and, straight from the games, dogs and lickers; those are joined by monstrous crocodiles and skyscraper-sized caterpillars. The human villains help things too. Paola Nunez as an unapologetically evil Umbrella executive is fun to watch, as she shrugs off human rights violations with her “yeah, well, we’re pretty fucked up” attitude. Turlough Convery as Baxter is likewise a joyful surprise. He starts off as a bumbling evil-because-he’s-fat evil henchman, but then he becomes so stupidly “kewl” partway through the season that it becomes tragic to become attached to him. Does any of it make sense? No. But a “so awesome it’s awesome” approach might work for a limited series, especially if it didn’t pretend to be any more than it was. Alas, such is not the case.

Perhaps that all sounded a bit too much like a less stylish version of the Milla Jovovich/Paul Anderson movies, and so this series had to have something else to define it. That’s probably where those other genres come in. Much of the cutaways to the future – whose boundaries are poorly defined and, therefore, frustrating in their frequency – involve a zombie-blasted post apocalypse. I get the series is seeking the survivor slow burn of “The Walking Dead” or “The Last of Us,” but there’s no logic to its attempt. There’s a group of resistance fighters with dirt on Umbrella they threaten to release, but who are they going to release it to? They’re already kind of suspicious of Umbrella, so will they release it to themselves? There’s a religious group that thinks the virus is the work of God and doesn’t like Umbrella, but no one takes them seriously; at least, when resistance and Umbrella operatives have been captured by them, both are illogically dismissive of their situation, like there aren’t chainsaws at their necks. In fact, if human life is so scarce and precious in this dismal future, why is everyone so willing to kill everyone? That seems counterproductive. Finally, how does that boat have fuel? None of these questions are answered, which would be fine in an action-horror cartoon, but much less forgivable in a gritty, realistic zombie drama.

The body horror stuff seems to take a kitchen sink approach, hitting everything from people being torn in half by giant spiders to people vomiting snot into a sink. Your mileage will vary, although there is a pretty fun scene that utilizes a marriage, a bathtub, cats and a lot of dark comedy. I’d rather focus on the psychological horror aspect of the series, or rather the possibility of it, because it never comes to fruition. The first episode bushwhacked me with a cool sequence – my favorite in the series – where an unnamed assailant dons a raccoon mask and slugs a bully in the face. It looks straight out of a slasher movie, and it got me thinking there might be some element of mystery here. No such luck, as the atmosphere of the sequence is never replicated. It is a shame because the opportunity is there.

Given Billie’s unspecified history with mental health and the fact that the early stages of zombie infection cause red-tinted hallucinations and paranoid outbursts, it seems like a perfect chance for asking questions about illness or responsibility. Or what about greed and foresight, which seem an easy win considering the bad guy is the Umbrella Corporation? Nope. Billie’s infection is absent for much of the show, unless it’s narratively convenient; the leads take zero responsibility for their increasingly stupid actions; and the corporate types are so eye-rollingly evil you’ll be questioning their mental health rather than the person with the sporadic hallucinations.

I’ve saved the best for last. If you want proof that the series lacks a genre identity, just consider the teenage and/or family drama it tries to shove down audience throats from time to time. Past tense Jade defends her sister by shouting at people – unless, said sister believes, she’s going after cute boys. Future tense Jade is frequently losing members of her future family, and she attempts to compensate by shouting at people too. Neither is particularly compelling because neither Jade nor her loved ones are well defined outside of this vague teenage angst, and so any time it feels like there’s a drama scene coming on, that’s a cue for the audience to check out until someone starts shooting or punching someone again. I’m not saying melodrama is inherently bad, but it has to be attached to characters that feel like characters. These don’t. Or rather, if anything defines them – Jade in particular – it is a kind of unrepentant selfishness and/or stupidity. There’s a moment toward the end of the series where one character calls her out, and it is easily the most cathartic speech in the show. There’s also some goofy, slow motion bullet action. It almost made me think things were OK.

There are a couple of things more genuinely like bright spots. Other than the aforementioned villains, there are some good performances. Lance Reddick gives a, shall we say, multilayered performance as Wesker, which understandably won over a lot of viewers. Also, Anthony Oseyemi is also not bad as a no nonsense security chief.

The soundtrack provides a pretty decent playlist, if you’re into pop and electronica. The cinematography is…well, it’s mixed. Mostly it’s average, and sometimes it looks like the camera was being controlled by a drunken leprechaun. The photography around the high school is pretty tasteful though, in a realty office sort of way. Set decoration is minimalist and corporate chic, which particularly works at the high school – again – since it gives everything an artificial, even uncanny, feel. Sorry. I keep bringing up the high school. That’s where the slasher sequence took place. Hmm…

The fix for “Resident Evil” would be a tightening of the screws. It should drop a lot – like, a whole lot – of the teen drama and rethink the zombie post apocalypse (or at least make the jumps to and from the future more distinct; remarkably, the second season of “Helix” did it better). The remainder of energy should be spent leaning into either trippy psychological horror or goofy action-horror; although psychological horror would better distance the Netflix series from the Jovovich/Anderson movie series, I feel the writing team’s flair for nuance and subtlety would be better suited for action-horror camp. That’s just this blog’s opinion, but given how poorly this “Resident Evil” has been received, it’s an opinion that likely won’t have a second season to not influence.

Marking time: A critical review of “The Sandman” (2022)

A caveat, tonstant weader: This blog is a fan of the Sandman comics, which I discovered in later graphic novel form. They were not quite a formative experience for me, as I think they were for some readers, but they did introduce me to the writing of Neil Gaiman, which is an intellectual space I’ve been happy to inhabit since. However, given that this series meant so much to some people, it was natural that there were fans who felt a little defensive when it was announced, particularly some casting decisions. Neil Gaiman too went on defense, saying he supported said casting decisions. It would have been a bigger story if it wasn’t overshadowed by a couple of other casting controversies in 2022 and their various responses. Ah, modern media.

I’m not trying to act as an apologist for anyone, but these characters have looked on paper and sounded in people’s heads a certain way for decades, and it’s always tricky to bring that to a screen, even without race and gender swapping. That’s a reminder that stories are a psychological conversation with an audience. However, Gaiman’s support (and even direction) should be a reminder that the story-conversations inhabit involve their creators, as well as culture and time itself. They can sometimes be difficult conversations to have is all. So it is with a profound combination of relief and disappointment that I can say, using my limited authority as a fan of the comics, that the Netflix series is unequivocally fine. It’s just OK, and no better or worse than that.

Let me explain.

Morpheus, Dream, the so-called Sandman, is missing from his cosmic post. It seems he’s been detained by a middling human sorcerer around the turn of the last century, one who managed to nab the personification of dreams and seal him into a great glass globe. In the ensuing years, the subtle fabric of human reality is increasingly fractured – and increasingly in danger. When Morpheus finally escapes, he has a lot to clean up, in the mystic world of dreams, vulgar reality, fiery hell and realms beyond.

Since the cast of “The Sandman” is its the most controversial feature, we might as well get it out of the way first. It’s a big cast; I’ll be some time: Tom Sturridge in the titular role usually looks right, but he lacks a certain gravitas, which would maybe be impossible to pull off anyway. Kirby Howell-Baptiste is fine as Death, managing that world weary but still whimsical vibe. Mason Alexander Park is effective but underutilized as Desire.

David Thewlis is an odd choice for John Dee, since he looks like a normal guy, but he pulls it off with some laid back acting chops. Jenna Colemann is equally odd for Johanna (formerly John) Constantine, and she fares less well, given how a haunted, chain smoking, trench coat detective type has become a petite detective type whose acid bubbles rather than bites. Charles Dance is a natural as Roderick Burgess. Gwendoline Christie turns sexy naked man Lucifer into doughy clothed lady Lucifer, which feels like its missing the point.

Boyd Holbrook is inspired as the Corinthian, easily my MVP for the series. I never heard the character with a Southern drawl before, but it seems inescapable now. Vivienne Acheampoong is nothing special as Lucienne (formerly Lucien), inoffensive but I’ll never get over the ears.

I don’t want to keep playing this game. A couple of nitpicks with implications beyond casting: Patton Oswalt is acceptable as Matthew, I guess, but I dislike the character intruding as a narrative cheerleader on a previously quiet plot. I suppose his presence is to give Morpheus a running external dialogue rather than an un-cinematic internal monologue. Mark Hammill is a little used treat as Mervyn Pumpkinhead, although the CGI never looks comfortable in meatspace.

Everyone else is pretty much OK in their roles. It feels very BBC – professional but not necessarily special. Maybe other notables would be Sarah Niles as someone who gives John Dee a lift, a brief but emotionally complex part played well; John Cameron Mitchell having fun as a drag queen landlord; Stephen Fry as a name and a G. K. Chesterton cosplayer. What do you want me to say?

Let’s talk about anything else. The show looks good. The set and costumes are lovely, with an early standout being the Burgess estate, a Victorian-and-worse mansion crumbling its way through the early 20th century. The photography is handsome and complimentary. Even smaller and less technically impressive spaces, like a diner or a temporally shifting pub, are pleasantly presented. It’s restrained and tasteful.

Unfortunately, that restrained quality also trickles into some of the more fantastic images – the dreamscape, hell, pocket dimensions – to their detriment. The show never looks as big or impressive as one might expect it to. That brings in the whole movie vs. TV question. Would this story have benefited from the increased visual scale (and budget) but necessary narrative quickness of a film format? Or was it better off in the more visually restrictive but narratively slow-burning setting of an episodic drama? I would not have minded a product more focused on the first arc of the series rather than squeezing it into a space with two or three others, but I have already established myself as a fan, whose desires are one of many and best ignored by anyone trying to actually get something done.

There does, however, seem to be a degree to which the show wants to remove itself from its comic book backing by shedding certain characters and expectations. The Martian Manhunter is absent, and the Etrigan the Demon is recast as a genero demon; both characters have been in DC animation for years. Constantine – who already had a film and a TV show – is Constantina. Netflix Lucifer is not the comic booky Fox TV Lucifer, which I guess I’m not going to let go. There seems to be an atmosphere of disgruntledness for the source material, but for all I know, that disgrunt was there to begin with.

There might be another option. The final episode is built out of vignettes rather than an on-going story. One half is an impressionistic animation about cats, which sports an impressive voice cast (Sandra Oh, James McAvoy, David and Georgia Tennant); the second half is a similarly well-populated piece about muses (there’s Derek Jacobi), and could have had serious horror vibes if it weren’t trying to play things so nice. Either way, the show finally leans hard and fast into speed, budget and restriction, and it suggests how things could have been. Again, I’m only spitballing here, but if you’re not going give one cycle all the attention, why not lean into something that experiments more with form, with each story presented in a novel way to reflect the limitations you have set? An entire series like that would be more daring, and it might have provided a more compelling excuse for tweaks to cast and story. As it stands, this is pleasant but safe, and not exactly screaming for continution. Only time will tell.

Rerunning with it: A critical review of “Stranger Things” season four (2022)

In the realm of thriller, perhaps the biggest thing this summer was the fourth season of “Stranger Things,” which was actually so big it maybe kinda saved Netflix’s hemorrhaging subscriber base (for the moment). So now that everyone’s already seen it and talked about it, it’s the perfect time for this blog to discuss it. Let no one ever say we just chase trends.

I enjoyed the first season of “Stranger Things,” which was soaked in slick 80s style, as well as keenly acted, atmospheric and surprisingly violent. It was everything I wanted in retro horror: not original, but original enough in the way it evoked an era with things like monster design and soundtrack. Then the second season rolled around, which I barely remember except for a bizarre loose end involving a rogue tribe of psychic children. If I strain myself, I can remember some cute affectations like a diseased pumpkin patch, but that’s about it. I didn’t really bother with the third season, which looked pretty goofy and disposable.

Imagine my surprise when the fourth season was reportedly a return to form, emphasizing horror over comedy, and narrative tightness over bloat. I took a gamble, watched it and left quite satisfied. For the most part. We’ll get there.

Season four of “Stranger Things” splits its time between Hawkins – where a seemingly supernatural killer is slaying high schoolers like its 1989 – California – where erstwhile psychic Eleven struggles to engage with the normie world while laying low from government authorities – and Russia – where Sheriff Hopper (he was dead but he got better) mopes in a Soviet prison that might be running occult experiments. As our various heroes try to respectively survive, they gradually realize a single and sinister intelligence could be taking advantage of, if not icompletely behind, everything that’s been wrong in the series so far.

As a whole, season four is worth the watch. All the retro charm is there in the follicles and fashion, as well as a few more significant spots. There are references to films like “Carrie” and “Aliens,” and the show actually manages to refer to itself at one point, which I guess indicates a kind of maturity. The music is eclectic and on point, whether its period (Beach Boys, Kiss, Phillip Glass, Metallica), remixed (Kate Bush) or not period but somehow appropriate (Moby).

There’s also the throwback violence, which is bloody and bone snapping. The main antagonist sports cool horror flick imagery and a mysterious agenda, which both intrigues and ramps up the suspense. The protagonists actually seemed threatened by forces without and within, and the audience gets a chance to feel it too.

The dialogue is often smart, and the major characters are reasonably complex. It helps that performances across the board are solid. It’s the same talented cast it’s always been and then some. The kids are all fine, and adult standouts include David Harbor as the brooding Hopper and Tom Wlaschilha as a chilly but curiously helpful prison guard; Winona Ryder is still largely playing “confused and concerned,” but at least she gets to be more subtle this time around; also Yuri.

My favorite dynamic is that between Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven, Paul Reiser as Dr. Owens and Matthew Modine as Dr. Brenner (he was also dead but got better, I guess). Their distinct styles allow a kind of nuclear family to emerge, with Eleven as daughter to the cautiously collaborative researchers (one character quips to a distraught Owens: “Did mommy and daddy get in a fight?”). Alternatively, Owens and Brenner could represent disparate aspects of, or even destinies, for Eleven: individually immature yet compassionate on one end, inquisitive and self-actualizing yet destructive on the other.

Also, if I had to award some underrated performances, I’d give them to Mason Dye, as a villainous and towheaded jock, and Rob Morgan, who looks effectively frustrated as a sheriff trying to fill the extra-wide shoes of Hopper in the face of a town that is rapidly falling outside of anyone’s control.

So there is clearly a lot of positive. The negative can be summed up in one word, which is unfortunately a big one: length. Sorry, I mean L-E-N-G-T-H. Each episode of the season takes its time, and I’m not just talking about a slow burning script or introspective atmosphere. I’m talking about how no episode is less than an hour, and all of them feel it. The season finale is about two-and-a-half hours long, a span that would put many films to shame. I’ll admit, the Duffer Brothers have the courage to take the time and tell the story they want to tell, but to do it nine times in a row is a courage that occasionally crosses into stupidity, or at least tedium.

There are a lot of plotlines scattered among those nine episodes, and while they’re all decent individually or bouncing off each other two at a time, as a whole one cannot help seeking favorites. When the California plot mutates into both a conspiracy lab plot and a stoner roadtrip plot, I will start looking forward to the lab and tuning out the trip.

“Stranger Things” season four is ambitious in its scope and scale, but it’s an unnecessary ambition sometimes. This is nowhere clearer than that final episode, where a Stephen King-ish battle between representatives of good and evil takes place simultaneously in Hawkins, the Upsidedown and good oldfashioned psychic space. All the various plotlines – their characters, images and motivations – converge in a way that is satisfying, or at least, narratively impressive given the previous sprawl (that everything is connected, down to events from previous seasons that were fine where they were, struck this blog as being a bit twee; if you find it enlightening, more power to you). The good guys achieve a costly and questionable victory, while the world burns around them…

Then the phrase “two days later” flashes across the screen, and we’re treated to about 40 more minutes of who cares. If the point was to set up the next season, which it obviously does, that could have done in two minutes without all this fluff. It’s not even logical fluff. There are some dangling threads that feel weird (why is everyone so blase about the world ending? Also, what happened to that general man? Did he just quit?) and genuinely unsatisfying (I liked those Russian dudes; what happened to them?). Were they clipped to save time? It didn’t work. I would have much rather spent a couple minutes in a helicopter than half an hour watching people hug, pick weeds and make peanut butter sandwiches.

In case the outsize attention I paid to all that didn’t make it clear, this is frustrating precisely because the rest of the season was so entertaining. Excellent pacing, crisp photography and good use of period music (see the first episode); the signature lighting, intense set pieces and surprising emotional payoffs (see the fourth episode); a cameo by Freddy Kreuger as Hannibal Lector. What more could you want?

I’m going to watch a fifth season, natch, but somewhere in the back of my brain, I will likely feel a little wary. I was neatly impressed by the first season of “Stranger Things,” then disappointed by the second. The fourth season felt like a rerun of the first and then some; let’s hope the fifth doesn’t feel like a repeat of the second.

What’s (not) on TV? News August 2022

Have you been having a good summer, tonstant weader? I have. Not. To various degrees. Let’s talk about being busy.

I have a couple of announcements. A short story I wrote ran at the online zine Primeval Monster (in the spring? Lawd I’m slow). It’s called “Agnosia,” and it’s about a young woman weekending at her uncle’s farm in the country. It’s a thriller, of course, with hopefully a hint of Rod Serling and a little Southwest mythos tossed in for good measure. Either way, with any luck you’ll never look at sunflowers the same way again.

As usual, I’m pretty bad at self-promotion. Which brings me to my other bit of news: This blog has a recently launched a Buy Me a Coffee page. In case you don’t know, Buy Me a Coffee platform is one of the lowest key ways to support content creators.

Have I really been doing this since 2015?

Basically, if you like what we do, you can throw us enough money to make a down payment on a cup of coffee at insert your-favorite-overpriced-coffee-house here. Whatever you give is much appreciated, and it helps to offset some of the time and energy I place toward posting. There are a couple of other ways you can support us though, which I’ve tried to outline at the creatively named Support This Blog page. So read the content, share the links, tell your friends – and do it soon, before I start attaching an obnoxious boilerplate to the bottom of every news post…

Either way, as far as the weeks ahead, there will be a couple of reviews of streaming shows. After that, I’m feeling like veering into film. Maybe games for a minute too. Everything will be a little retro and, hopefully, a little weird. Clock in accordingly.

Utterly disarmed: A critical review of “EX-ARM” (2021)

On the flip side, Tonstant Weader, there are also some pretty awful anime from 2021 this blog didn’t see either. “Tesla Note” took some heat. I never did finish “Redo of Healer,” partly because tracking down individual episodes became tricky for… some reason.

However, the first anime to catch my attention last year was actually “EX-ARM.” And, in case the above paragraph did not clue you in, it was for all the wrong reasons. The trailer proudly declared it was “declaring war against all of the SF series around the world!!” If by “SF series” they meant “narrative common sense and visual consistency,” then it was a war that was won, as those traditional notions of quality have been buried under a mountain of bodies.

Like many good tales, “EX-ARM” begins at the ending, specifically of main character Akira Natsume’s analogue life. After a delightfully embarrassing death, Akira reawakens some 16 years later as the digital brain of a superweapon: the EX-ARM. Said weapon is picked up by a future policewoman/skater girl poser Minami Uezono and her pants-less gynoid partner Alma. From there on, Akira’s intelligence and personality lives on as a naked dude in a squawking box that can occasionally take control of Alma when duty calls (and when Minami maybe makes out with Alma in a fairly awkward flash of not-so-special effects, but more on that later). While the gang fights future crimes involving other superweapons, a conspiracy bubbles in the background, but… we already said more on that later, didn’t we? But that’s the nature of this series. It always seems like there’s something more, but you’ll need all the later you can get to wade through it.

This blog frequently likes to start with something good when critiquing the bad, and it’s pretty easy to get it out of the way with this series. The opening and closing songs are well produced pop punk tracks, and, if you like that sorta thing, they both get the job done in a rousing “I too listened to Hoobastank/Lifehouse/The Ataris back in the day” way. In fact, there is something rather charming about the straightforward unselfconsciousness of the ceaseless power chord guitars in the ED (“Diamonds Shine” by Dizzy Sunfist). The song is accompanied by a poster-ready manga-style image of the cast, which looks like a different anime that I’d rather be watching instead. So, yes, this blog’s favorite part of “EX-ARM” was its ending.

After that, there is so much that is “not good” to list it’s hard even to qualify how much of it is bad and how much is just unintentionally bizarre. In fact, reviewing my notes was like trying to remember the details of a half-baked acid trip. Was all of this true? Is any of this exaggeration or misunderstanding? Where even to begin? Most people start with the animation, so let’s follow suit.

Still, if you were paying attention to any sort of anime news at the top of 2021, you don’t need me to tell you how messed up this show looked. “EX-ARM” rapidly became notorious for its ugly and awkward CGI. The character design looks as if everyone’s limbs are made of rolling pins. The painfully stiff animation comes across at best goofy at best, and at worst like an insult to organic life. Everyone’s face seems to be locked into a single expression, a shell-shocked grimace, forcing each character to react to every bit of news with the same overblown-yet-disinterested melodrama.

As a side not, the design of Minami reminds me of a more kawaii attempt at Captain’s Daughter from “The Drinky Crow Show,” except I’m pretty sure that one was supposed to look like a jerky marionette. Y’know. Irony and the like.

Everything tries to come together during the fight scenes, which one would think are important in an action sci fi anime, but the choreography is beyond basic and the fight physics show a lack of understanding of what it means to be a human being. You’d get more realistic combat effects out of smashing your fingers with a hammer.

The awkwardness of “EX-ARM” is further aided by the fact that, while all the main characters are CGI, the background characters are 2D for some reason. Why? That’s just bad faith. Initially this feels like another goofball element, but once viewers are numb to that sort of thing, a slow realization creeps in: While the 2D characters are still pretty stiff, they are also kind of decently designed, distinct and pleasantly retro, and why the hell wasn’t everything animated this way? Or at least why were the background characters the ones relegated to the tolerable, even interesting, designs? I liked the tiny 2D trench coat cop. I would have gladly watched a poorly animated show about him instead, but I guess we already had “Cop Craft.”

Some media tried to pin the poor quality of the show on it being made by a studio that had only handled live action before and didn’t bother to tap any experienced animators, but that wouldn’t excuse the laughable attempt at narrative elements. There are some elements of narrative that transcend medium. For example, I can see how “characters should not float over other characters” could be a problem for the art department, but it seems like “characters should not vanish from shot to continuous shot” is an issue for common sense to correct.

But even if there is some quirk that I – not being an animator – do no grasp, I still fail to see why having a staff experienced in live action versus CGI or animation or anything else would be a reasonable excuse for the script. Blame bad translation all you want, likely fictional defender of “EX-ARM,” but those words had to come from somewhere.

The series starter is such a bizarre mash of cliches and non sequiturs. There’s a bit of suspiciously-similar-to-“Neon Genesis Evangelion” prophecy, but then we get to present day Akri, who is down on phones and chicks, but CGI stunned at his own ability to cook noodles. His inexplicably 2D brother comes in and gives him some motivational lecture. He leaves the apartment, immediately sees a woman about to be assaulted, decides to save her, and is conveniently hit by a truck, which is how he comes future Akira. So did the woman get assaulted? Did the show clear that up? I don’t remember.

What was your favorite episode? This blog sort of liked the second episode, where a cartoonishly evil priest is trying to blow up future Tokyo with his poorly defined cult that uses pillowcases for masks. I guess religion is on the table, because at one point, while scouring the city for remote control suicide bombers, one of the doll-faced CGI cops asks another out of the blue about the nature of heaven. Likely not the spot for theological discussion.

Later episodes have such original ideas as casino tournaments and combat robot French maids. Was “EX-ARM” taking cues from “Cowboy Bebop” as well as “Eva”? How about “Ghost in the Shell: SAC _2045”? Was it all coincidence? Or, more troubling, is “2045” starting to look good by comparison?

None of this is mentioning the childish scene transitions, the reliance on stock footage and reused assets during brainless expositions, the comically impractical sci fi tech, or the fact that the “Japanese police” – which presumably patrols the entire country – has to get permission to shoot at, uh, UN soldiers. And while they’re waiting for that permission to come in, tension is allegedly mounting. Man, the future’s rough. And whose idea was it to have the leading ladies kiss to activate Akira’s EX-ARM powers when they couldn’t even animate lips? Why wasn’t that swapped at some point? The studio used a glaring ball of light to mask the uncanny valley of it all, leaving the Internet to wonder whether it was homophobia or more crappy animation.

I haven’t haven’t even mentioned the high school episode yet. That’s where protagonist Akira’s consciousness is pulled back to high school like this is… was it “Bananas”? Is that the Woody Allen film where he regresses to awkward adolescence, and Diane Keaton does a killer Marlon Brando impersonation? Why am I bringing up Diane Keaton in an “EX-ARM” review? Anyway, he’s there and the CGI future cops have to pretend to be students to get him through it. It’s doesn’t make sense. It’s not thoughtful. It’s not even full of school uniform fan service since, honestly, the fan service in this show wouldn’t shock or intrigue anyone who wasn’t born on an Amish homestead.

You may say, but didn’t “Neon Genesis Evangelion” have a what-if style high school moment? It did. But it was only a moment, and it managed to be more lucid and thoughtful in that moment than this entire episode. “EX-ARM” not only fails to use its tropes to do something interesting; it fails to understand them. As previously said, the show takes a few cues from “Eva.” But while it’s not hard to find shows that have some “Eva” inspiration, it is odd to find their interpretation so clueless. It would almost be weirder if the creators said they weren’t influenced by “Eva,” that this all came about accidentally, but no weirder than anything else about this show’s production.

What’s left? The voice acting could be better. It’s at least energetic, which typically beats disinterested at faking engagement for the first few minutes, but that can only hold so long. Akira screams a lot. The sound sometimes mixes poorly. There’s a moment in episode seven where all the spoken voice and audio effects (intentionally) cut out, and the show had the unfiltered guts – or just lack of budget – to not play music either. Episode nine is called “Fallen Messiah.” Who is this messiah? From whence did they fall? I’m still not sure. There is a moment – I forget which episode – where a character confronts his mirror image, and the mouth animation is so poor it becomes frustrating to figure out which “him” is talking.

The final message of “EX-ARM” is to – I kid you not – live your best life. Which isn’t quite how things work out for Akira, as I recall. You too must decide if it is in your best interest to sink six or seven hours of your life into this thing. There is an undeniable fascination to how many things it fails to do. And there are moments when, if one is in the right mindset, it can be highly entertaining.

There are a handful of series this blog has considered giving the episode-by-episode analysis we gave to “Serial Experiments Lain” and “Boogiepop Phantom.” However, while we have typically considered them for their philosophical depth or artist merit, this show has recently entered the intellectual running for those sorts of metrics.

Don’t tempt me, tonstant weader. I might just do it.