Directed by: Natalia Leite
Run time: 95 minutes
The Lowdown: Genre cinema has never been one to shy away from painful and disturbing social issues. And right now, in October 2017, public acknowledgement, frank discussion and widespread condemnation of sexual assault and rape has resulted in a watershed moment in history.
In what can only be described as cosmic karma, M.F.A., the new thriller from Dark Sky Films by director Natalia Leite and writer/co-star Leah McKendrick, has been released on Video-on-Demand, along with a limited theatrical engagement, in the same week that a deluge of chilling accusations against Hollywood power producer Harvey Weinstein made international headlines.
Seriously, the timing could not be better.
Unlike countless exploitation films before it (I Spit on Your Grave, Avenged, Girls Against Boys), M.F.A. is not your typical rape-revenge fantasy.
Yes, it’s brutal and gory. Yes, it features a young woman – in this case, Noelle (Francesca Eastwood in a career-making turn), an aspiring art student seeking a graduate degree – who is betrayed by a seemingly nice guy later revealed as a predator. And, yes, many, many bad men pay a heavy price for their behavior at her hands.
But what elevates M.F.A. into the ranks of the best, most socially-conscious, genre thrillers of its kind, is McKendrick’s sharp script and Leite’s deft and unflinching camera eye.
M.F.A. dives deep into the psychological damage that rape causes, the way it fractures a woman’s psyche and makes her feel guilty and responsible for allowing the assault to occur. McKendrick, herself a victim of unwanted sexual harassment in Hollywood, doesn’t mince words or shy away from the uncomfortable reality of the world in which we live. She puts Noelle through the wringer, emotionally, galvanizing both the audience and her protagonist to a harsh acceptance of what must be done.
And, when Noelle does seek retribution, it’s warranted and cathartic for both parties -- her character and viewers.
M.F.A. isn’t the best atypical rape-revenge genre thriller ever made. For me, that honor would go to Descent, the harrowing tour-de-force of male comeuppance starring Rosario Dawson. And it’s not the most experimental and avant-garde deconstruction of the female as social avenger – my vote there would be Felt.
But M.F.A. is an important film and a timely exploration of female rage against the established male machine, that benefits as much from its release date as it does Eastwood’s raw, breathtaking and viciously jubilant performance.
This isn’t exploitation for the sake of entertainment. M.F.A. is something remarkable, something much more.
The Stuff You Care About:
Hot chicks – Yes.
Nudity – Yes.
Gore – Considerable.
Drug use – Yes.
Bad Guys/Killers – Male predators.
Buy/Rent – Buy it.
Wish Upon (Broad Green Pictures, 91 minutes, Unrated, Blu-Ray): Wish Upon is the kind of high-concept horror that fans consistently gripe is lacking in theaters, yet once it’s released, no one bothers to actually go see it.
And that’s a shame.
Made for $12 million by director John R. Leonetti (2014’s Annabelle) and writer Barbara Marshall (Terra Nova, Viral), Wish Upon – at least in its unrated version – is a gory blast despite weaving a patchwork pattern from a well-worn story. Seriously, this film has unexpectedly twisted kills reminiscent of the best of the Final Destination franchise. It’s got a fantastic soundtrack. And it wisely refuses to play nice and deliver a happy ending.
So, why the hell did it barely gross more than its budget?
The story goes like this: Clare Shannon (Joey King – a burgeoning scream queen) is a high school outcast. Her father Jonathan (Ryan Phillippe), a former professional musician, has lost his lust for life following the death of his wife, and now spends his days dumpster-diving for scrap metal and cast-off treasures that he brings home to the family’s already-cramped house.
Jonathan’s wife commits suicide in the film’s effective opening sequence, and her body, of course, is discovered by Clare as a young girl. No spoilers, but the reason for her suicide is a nice reveal that neatly ties all the events of the film back together.
One day, years later, while out salvaging, Jonathan discovers an ornate box with Chinese symbols along its locked lid. It’s cool, and he brings it home to give to Clare, who barely acknowledges the gift because, you know, she’s in high school and is busy contending with mean girls and longing after dreamy star athlete Paul. She’s also best friends with Barb from Stranger Things – OK, not really Barb, but actress Shannon Purser (who played Barb) as June.
One night, after a particularly malicious action by resident high school bitch Darcie Chapman, Clare sits with the box and makes a wish that blonde it-girl Darcie would rot.
The next morning, Darcie wakes up from a sleepover to find her flesh literally decaying down to the bone in a gloriously gross sequence that teases the mayhem to come.
You see where this is going?
With each subsequent wish, Clare realizes that she might be in possession of an incredibly gift. What she doesn’t put together is the string of deaths that follow each wish – at least, not until it’s way too late.
So, Wish Upon is basically The Monkey’s Paw, only updated to present day and current trends. I’m OK with this because, like I said, the death scenes are, for the most part, highly creative, extremely bloody and successfully executed.
That, and the ending, which while expected, still delivered a solid jolt.
I really liked Wish Upon, and especially now, as October rolls to a close, it’s a solid rental to satisfy a dark and spooky pre-Halloween night.
The Poughkeepsie Tapes (Shout! Factory, 86 minutes, Unrated, Blu-Tay): Every generation has one – a lost film, either shelved or never released, that’s supposedly so terrifying, so disturbing, that it’s better left to legend than actual public consumption.
Conceived by filmmaking brothers John Erick and Drew Dowdle, and filmed in 2007, The Poughkeepsie Tapes began curating its mythology almost immediately. The film, which purports to show home video shot by a serial killer who was never captured, became a prized quarry on the black market with bootleg versions of the film being traded and passed around.
The Dowdle brothers got their break a year later with the release of Quarantine, the American remake of the Spanish zombie cult classic, [Rec]. It flopped, but the Dowdle’s kept working, working with M. Night Shyamalan on Devil (2010) before releasing another found-footage horror film, As Above, So Below, in 2014.
But their debut, The Poughkeepsie Tapes, never found distribution, and it seemed that it might remain a campfire tale – the best film you’ve never seen – for all time.
Now, finally, 10 years later, Shout! Factory is finally giving Poughkeepsie it’s long-overdue moment in the sun, and BVB can attest that the wait has definitely been worth it.
That The Poughkeepsie Tapes never received a full theatrical rollout is simply shocking, given the glut of piss-poor found footage films that sneak into the multiplex each year.
More so, it’s a damn slight to horror fans, and a huge disservice to the Dowdle brothers.
The Poughkeepsie Tapes is the best work they’ve ever done. It’s absolutely chilling in its effective use of found footage in a way that absolutely smacks of authenticity.
The set-up is simple: Local police investigators make an unexpected discovery hidden deep inside a family home – hundreds of VHS tapes, each one meticulously labeled – that appear to show an untold number of ritualistic killing by a single killer.
Shot documentary-style, and interspersed with interviews and faux news footage, The Poughkeepsie Tapes builds slowly, showing short snippets from some of the VHS tapes. Before long, the tapes take center stage, and boy howdy, you’ve never seen found footage like this. It’s unsettling to watch, honesty – almost as if you’ve stumbled across a genuine snuff film.
Then comes the doozy – the killer kidnaps a young woman named Cheryl Dempsey, and systematically breaks her spirit through torture and degradation, before making her an unwitting witness to his continued crimes.
The Poughkeepsie Tapes works so well because John Erick Dowdle, as director, takes his time with each new victim, allowing the grainy camcorder video to lull viewers to a point where they aren’t expecting something shocking to occur, but then when it happens, the impact is jolting. You believe you are watching something that was never meant to be seen. The excruciating nature of the torments inflicted on the victims are difficult to absorb, yet impossible to look away from.
Even though it took a decade to reach the masses, The Poughkeepsie Tapes more than earns its reputation as a highly sought-after, whatever-happened-to film.
It’s an instant cult classic, and one of the best found-footage-genre films ever filmed.
Open Water 3: Cage Dive (Lionsgate, 81 minutes, R, Blu-Ray): It’s funny to think about now, given that for years as a child I wanted to be an oceanographer, but being stranded at sea and treading water in a vast ocean, not knowing what was swimming beneath me, is one of my top three greatest fears.
The makers of the Open Water franchise likely know this, or at the least, that there are many more people like me.
How else to explain the arrival of yet another – the third – film in this series, which basically focuses on extremely unlucky people who get to bob in the water for more than an hour while we wait to watch them get devoured by a shark.
It’s like the Discovery Channel Shark Week edition of Faces of Death.
What exactly is the point of this franchise other than to ensure that a lot of viewers, myself included, never, ever, ever go out on a boat again.
Open Water 3: Cage Dive tries to be different than its predecessors. Whereas the original Open Water, which was critically hailed as a groundbreaking event for the found footage genre, focused on a married couple stranded at sea, and the first sequel showed what bad can happen when a group of partying young adults leaps off their luxury party yacht without letting down the ladder, Cage Dive has more of an actual story.
A trio of friends want to compete on an extreme reality show, so they decide to travel to Australia and film themselves cage diving with sharks to submit as an audition tape. Megan, the lone girl, is dating Jeff, but secretly screwing his brother Josh. What could possibly go wrong?
By the time they finally get in the water, in the cage, surrounded by chum and giant sharks, the answer to ‘what could possibly go wrong’ arrives in the form of a giant tsunami wave that capsizes their boat.
Cage Dive is the first of the Open Water films to offer any semblance of hope that one or all of the group might survive. It’s also the most callously cruel entry in the series so far. Cage Dive revels in the stupid ways that people can find to doom their chances, and it maximizes its found footage gimmick to show some of the most horrifying, wake-you-up-at-night underwater attack footage imaginable.
It’s not easy to watch, but obviously people are watching, which is why it’s a safe bet to say that Open Water 4 will probably arrive sooner than we expect.
The House (Warner Bros., 88 minutes, R, Blu-Ray): On the sliding scale of Will Ferrell movies, with Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy being a 10 and The Campaign holding office at 1, The House rolls the dice and lands squarely in the middle.
It’s not unfunny, but it’s not laugh-out-loud funny either.
It’s yet another high-concept comedy that yields limited returns because it strains credibility and forces its humor instead of focusing on its characters first and letting the funny happen organically.
Now on Video-on-Demand:
Better Watch Out (Well Go USA, 89 minutes, R, VOD): What if Kevin McCallister, the resourceful kid from Home Alone was actually a burgeoning serial killer?
That would explain how he was able to devise and execute such intricate booby traps to inflict maximum pain and punishment on the hapless burglars, Harry and Marv, who dared to break-in to his home while his parents were away.
Imagine if, instead of two feckless criminals, Kevin had instead set his sights on something more sinister than protecting his castle keep? What if the Home Alone kid decided he wanted to win the affection of a girl, at any cost, by concocting a brilliantly twisted plan to save her from a seeming home invasion? And what if that girl, sweet and innocent, though she may be, had zero interest in returning those romantic feelings? How would an evil version of Kevin McCallister respond then?
Boils and ghouls, I give you Better Watch Out, one of the best flip-the-script genre thrillers in quite some time.
Director/co-writer Chris Peckover gained notice in 2010 with his debut, Undocumented, a before-its-time Republican right-wing torture porn mash-up that imagined what might happen if a group of border-crossing illegals was rounded up by a bunch of gun-happy right-wing nutjobs.
But Better Watch Out, only his second feature-length film, is an incredible step up.
Peckover’s premise is simple: Hip and cool parents Deandra and Robert (the fantastic Virginia Madsen and Patrick Warburton) ask beautiful blonde high schooler Ashley (Olivia DeJonge, in a fearless turn) to babysit their middle-school-aged son Luke (Levi Miller, rocketing to the top of the Creepy Horror Kid list) while they attend a Christmas party.
Luke explains to his nerdy best friend Garrett (Ed Oxenbould) that this is his chance, finally, to win Ashley’s heart and prove he’s not just a kid anymore.
But Luke’s plans seem to get torpedoed when Ashley gets into a heated fight with her controlling boyfriend Jeremy once she arrives to babysit, and suddenly it appears as if Jeremy might be experiencing some Fatal Attraction tendencies instead of reveling in holiday cheer. Or, at least, that's what the brick with an ominous warning that crashes through Luke's window would suggest.
What follows is an expertly plotted, perfectly paced home invasion thriller with a killer twist. Peckover isn’t shy about piling on the carnage, but it’s his whip-smart script, combined with some great acting by his young cast, that really carries Better Watch Out into rarefied air.
Even if you think you know what's going to happen, you don't. Trust me. And that in itself is an awesome early Xmas gift for genre fans.
This one’s special, guys. You really need to seek it out.
House by the Lake (Random Media, 77 minutes, Unrated, VOD): Baltar alert!
James Callis of Battlestar Galactica fame heads up this paranormal creature feature from director Adam Gierasch (Autopsy, Night of the Demons, Tales of Halloween).
While Gierasch can be fitfully uneven, depending on the project, House by the Lake benefits from some serious atmosphere and an interesting twist on the typical imaginary friend genre.
Dreamgirls: Director’s Extended Edition
Frasier: Christmas Episodes
The Brady Bunch: A Very Brady Christmas
The Honeymooners: Christmas Laughter
Sabrina the Teenage Witch: Christmas Episodes
Everybody Hates Chris: The Complete Series
Planes, Trains and Automobiles: 30th Anniversary
Dudes: Collector’s Edition