Friday, October 5, 2018

The Halloween List: Mandy & Slice & Summer of '84

We started off October with A Quiet Place and Hereditary, two of the biggest Horror hits of the year. Today I'd like to talk about three of the smaller indie hits that barely got "Limited" theatrical releases. Instead they got their buzz on VOD, a space I'm overjoyed to see become a garden for off-beat Horror. Just because Netflix and SyFy don't want you doesn't mean you're doomed.

Mandy (2018)

Mandy is an exquisite train wreck. It is a movie that takes forever to do anything, then soaks the screen in torrents of gore. Just when you feel like you’re wasting your time, it provides a shot or a quote or a devastating smile that leaves you flailing. When my friends and I finished the movie, we were in shock not because of the chainsaw fight or the skull crushing, but because of the devastatingly silly final image.

Mandy is a retro Grindhouse movie, layered in effects to mimic the feel of trippy, ultraviolent revenge movies of the 70s. There’s a little Evil Dead, and a little Hellraiser-- actually there’s a lot of Hellraiser; the demonic biker gang look like they’re from Pinhead’s high school class. The fig leaf of a plot is that Nicholas Cage plays a lumberjack with a Metal-head girlfriend. The local cult leader decides he likes that girlfriend, and summons his cult and a local gang of demons to abduct her. Cage must go on a journey for gory revenge without ever once wiping his face.

The fights are either dimly lit or so intensely lit that you never get a good look at people, which lends to the atmosphere. Everything is soaked in yellow, orange, and red, because this movie thinks fire is badass. There’s an admiration for music above all else (the opening tune is a track by King Crimson), and a slavish devotion to style that would make Quentin Tarantino blush. There’s one conversation in particular over whether Galactus can be your favorite planet that seems particularly Tarantino-like – but that’s because both he and this director love a certain era of cheesy film.

You're here to anguish through meandering, needless scenes, sometimes that make no explicit sense, in a movie that does not offer any value in studying thematically. You're waiting because on the other side is a ridiculous axe-forging montage. So much effort is put into so little story. It's reminiscent of Drive, but even less is going on. The literal entire first hour of the movie is a slog of a lumberjack pillowtalking with his romantic partner, and a cult leader demanding his cult go kidnap that lover. Mandy is a blood-soaked revenge movie, and it doesn't care that you know. You're going to sit through multiple scenes of a lady with exquisite hair reading trashy novels, and the movie doesn't care if you like it.

I would’ve gotten more out of Mandy if I’d grown up with this sub-genre of films. As it is, I can’t understand why it doesn’t get to its meat sooner. It opens with a quote about listening to rock and roll when you’re dead, but it spends most of its runtime not rocking at all. In its downtime, it feels like a copy of a copy of someone making fun of their own self-indulgence.

Slice (2018)

My first instinct is to defend Slice. It’s a Horror Comedy of the silly variety that plays with heavy themes. It’s premised on the idea that ghosts are being forced off their land and forced into a ghetto. 40,000 haunted corpses still lie underneath the gentrified new city, while their ghosts aren’t allowed to go to where their bodies still lie. This is the material you’d expect a more “serious” comedy to handle. In the current climate you’re going to get more critical buzz for a SadCom (like Girls), Dark Comedy (like Death of Stalin), or skewering safe-to-digest tropes Genre Parody (like Cabin in the Woods). It’s a mark of how good Slice is that it makes the hardest avenue for humor look easy and flippant.

Because for all its politics, damn is this a cheesy B-movie. We’re following a mayor who cares more about painting naked ladies than making policy, and the dorks who work at a pizza parlor built on top of a mass grave, and a group of seemingly moral protestors trying to evict the New Poor who’ve replaced the ghosts just so the rich can swipe the land a second time. You can do your serious movies about this material. A24 easily could. This feels more like Adult Swim than A24.

Writer/Director Austin Vesely has made something utterly different. By treating these gross evils (and gross metaphors for evil) as quotidian, and focusing on small-minded and petty people, he’s normalized the struggle. The pizza delivery workers are just going through their lives in this unfair and haunted world, hoping they don’t also die and suffer the annoyance of becoming ghosts as well. That marginalization is treated as eye-rollingly frustrating rather than abject terror. That’s the ethos of this gonzo Horror Comedy.

Nobody does it better than Zazie Beatz, who nailed the role of Domino in Deadpool 2, and who now plays Astrid, the punk rebel pizza delivery person who steals the van to go investigating mystery murders. She plays it so earnestly, taking the goofy world at face value and trying to be tough on its own terms. Chance the Rapper and Paul Scheer also give dry and understated performances as people who are utterly bought in to how ridiculous all of this is, and who just want to get by, even if getting by means turning into a werewolf.

Slice is an absurd treat that makes the most out of the potential of B-Horror. It’s easily the most fun movie in its vein since Dead Snow.

Summer of '84 (2018)

Let’s open with a damning statement, shall we?

Summer of 84 is not worth talking about if you can’t spoil it.

It’s a retro-style movie with vintage product placement, synth music, and precocious kids trying to solve a murder mystery. A serial killer is abducting young boys, and they want to find him before he comes for them. In fact, they think he lives next door to them, which leads to junior espionage. It shares DNA with Stranger Things, without the supernatural elements, and without the depth.

For most of its runtime, Summer of 84 is merely passable. The acting is passable. The shots are passable. The friendships among the boys are shallow, but they’ll do. There are attempts at showing the home lives of the boys is less than idyllic, and all of these attempts are miles away from authentic. The movie is never fully fluffy, nor does it ever have teeth. It lives in a popcorn middle ground without ever reaching for greatness– except, possibly, its ending.

That ending is the only notable part of the movie. The ending is ruthless, even in contrast to the current craze of bleak Horror climaxes. It pivots hard from the expectations that the first ~80 minutes set up, creating something far more haunting than the kids simply triumphing or a bogeyman slaughtering them all. It fits the mystery they’ve been pursuing without relying on a hokey twist or simple resolution. It is unique and cruel.

But we can’t talk about it if you haven’t seen it. There’s nothing going on here, in premise or execution, that is notable outside of the one thing you absolutely shouldn’t spoil on a blog. So watch if you feel like another taste of the eighties, and afterward we can yell at each other about that ending.

Come back Monday for GIANT SHARK ACTION! The Meg, Pyewacket, and Hold the Dark.


  1. I'll keep my expectations low for Summer of 84.
    I did grow up with grindhouse style films. Even Tarantino's Death Proof in the recent Grindhouse was a very slow build. So I'm prepared for slow, different, and gory and will keep expectations low.

  2. Not for me. I thoroughly enjoy your reviews though.


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