(On Cable TV, December 2018) Ho boy, do I have mixed feelings about this Death Wish remake. For one thing, I’ve been watching a lot of urban-decay movies of the early 1970s lately, including the original Charles Bronson film. For another, well, I’m Canadian—my nearest metropolitan area is in the midst of an unprecedented murder wave and yet our yearly total barely exceeds what the city of Chicago alone experiences over two weeks (although Chicago’s own wave of violence seems to be receding after a particularly bad 2016). Seeing Death Wish isn’t just like seeing a very American nightmare given form, but one that seems to be coming back from the past. You already know the story, or at least can grasp it in a few words: A peaceful man turns vigilante after a brutal attack leaves his wife dead and his daughter in a coma. The rest is pure predictable plot mechanics to complete the cycle of revenge, making sure our hero develops the skills, evades the cops, tracks down the responsible parties and executes them in a way that leaves him in the clear. The first step in such a by-the-number reactionary thriller is to clearly establish that its world is a far more dangerous place than ours—and the film does have to lie quite a bit in order to get there, reaching for racial stereotypes and vilifying its targets. Poachers attack a farm just to make a convenient point, statistics are grossly inflated, and a Greek chorus of radio and social media voices is there to half-heartedly make and dismiss objections. Meanwhile, Bruce Willis broods his way through a role very much in-line with much of his indifferent 21st-century screen persona. Director Eli Roth may want to make a social statement (although I doubt it—his horror-movie instincts come up whenever there’s even a faint chance to put gratuitous gore on-screen) but Death Wish is, far more than its predecessor, an NRA-approved exploitation picture designed to make fearful people feel comfortable in their twisted version of the world. It would be a pretty reprehensible picture if it wasn’t for one thing: It’s actually executed decently. Roth has the budget to go for clean impressive cinematography, feature good actors even in thankless roles (Dean Norris once more takes on a familiar persona, but he’s sufficiently good at it that emerges intact from the deplorable results), and flex his directorial skills honed on much nastier pictures. He doesn’t stray that far from his roots—plot-wise the film hinges on convenient coincidences and at least one ridiculous Rube-Goldberg contrivance. But Death Wish, for all of its considerable problems, does actually work at what it intends to be: a gun-powered revenge fantasy, slickly made and updated to the current era.
(In French, On Cable TV, June 2018) Yuck. I mean, that’s what the filmmakers were after, right? When you make a movie about people being tortured for fun (for the torturer’s fun, not the victims), you’re aiming both for appreciation from gore-hound horror fans (of which I am not) and for condemnation from mainstream audiences, further reinforcing the appreciation from the fans. Hostel II picks up soon after the original Hostel, not forgetting to kill off the first film’s protagonist before getting down to business with three new victims. Despite writer/director Eli Roth’s avowed aim to squick the mundanes, it’s all very familiar and dull for much of the film. It really does itself no favour by horribly killing off Heather Matarazzo’s likable character—thus forever earning antipathy from the audience. If they hadn’t done that, I may have had a better appreciation for the film’s third-act twists and turns: the changing power dynamics between the two would-be torturers, or the way the final girl outwits the system through money and merciless violence. (Those who claim that Hostel II has deeper thematic value may not be wrong, but they’re clinging to intellectual scraps left by a filmmaker far more interested in the sight of exposed viscera.) All I’m left with is the basic yuck and the certitude that I don’t need to see Hostel II ever again.
(On Cable TV, April 2018) There are stories that men tell each other in order to keep themselves in line. Don’t crush on crazy; don’t crawl inside the bottle; don’t run with criminals; don’t stray outside your marriage; don’t neglect your kids. Elementary life lessons, but worth repeating, often with maximal effect, in order to feel better about an ordinary life. When those morals are handled through genre methods, they become high-impact morality tales. Think Fatal Attraction. And if you give the story to a horror director like Eli Roth … well, you end up with something like Knock Knock, in which a good husband/dad finds himself powerless to resist the advances of two women when they show up at his doorstep when his wife and kids are away. What follows is a pair of steamy sex scenes. But what follows what follows is a merciless takedown of the man’s life using video and social media. The moral of the story here is clear enough: Destroy Facebook. Japes aside, does it work? Well, yes and no. Famously stoic Keanu Reeves is a curious choice as a good husband/dad, given that his innate reserve doesn’t really help him reach the emotional extremes required by the script. On the other hand, Ana de Armas and Lorenza Izzo are good picks as the ruthless temptresses—fortunately enough, since much of the Knock Knock’s credibility (or what passes for it given that it’s a quick-and-dirty exploitation film) depends on them—de Armas is particularly good, which explains why her career has taken off since then. Otherwise, though, the film does feel as if it doesn’t have enough depth to sustain its straightforward warning. It ends limply, in perhaps the tritest possible way. As a horror-erotic take on the home invasion genre, it sits uncomfortably between two very different genre—I wouldn’t be surprised if there was one (or fifteen) XXX-rated parodies focusing on the eroticism, and we’ve already seen an entire pure-horror home invasion subgenre come and go and come again. For Roth, who straddles the line between mainstream and extreme filmmaker, this is curiously tepid stuff—he’s obviously daring enough to feature two very explicit sex scenes, but the rest of the picture goes nowhere. As a result, Knock Knock doesn’t unnerve as much as it annoys, and that’s a fatal flaw in the kind of moral lesson it almost tries to be.
(On DVD, December 2015) Given my reluctance to even acknowledge the existence of a sub-genre as noxious and nauseating as torture horror, I had deep misgivings about watching sub-genre exemplar Hostel. But there it was on my list of essential movies I’d missed, so I checked my expectations at the door and dared to enter. To my surprise, Hostel is a bit more interesting than I expected it to be. While the first half of the film certainly plays to expectations (three American tourists are tempted to visit an eastern European town, where they are abducted and used as raw bodies for sadistic rich men paying for the privilege of torturing and killing someone else), the second half of the film is a bit twistier, leading to a conclusion where we’re asked to re-evaluate our sympathies for the protagonist. I’m not a bit fan of writer/director Eli Roth, but he does well here, and it’s no accident if Hostel remains his best-known film. There’s nihilism and gore and torture aplenty, but there is also something else; a bit of suspense, a few good set-pieces and an effective sense of dread. It is torture horror in the grossest sense, but it’s also more than that, and it’s that extra bit more that distinguishes the film. I’m still not entirely pleased of having paid for the film (even at bargain-bin prices), but I’m not entirely embarrassed by it either, and that’s probably the best I could ask for given Hostel’s subject matter.