(In French, On Cable TV, February 2019) With a title like They Found Hell, you would be forgiven to think that it would be a metaphor for the horrors of war or genocide or something along those lines. But as a look at the film’s TV-Guide description shows, They Found Hell actually means what it says in its title. It’s about a few students who actually literally open a portal to hell, step in and have to find their way back. Of course, there’s a catch: This is low-budget SyFy filmmaking at its most prototypical, meaning that we’re going to spend a lot of time watching characters run through disaffected Bulgarian factories at night, being chased by a burly costumed six-foot-something guy. On the menu for our characters: Going to hell, spooky pursuits and predictable deaths. As a made-for-TV film, They Found Hell does what it can with its budget and very obvious commercial break fadeouts: Its vision of hell has to do with backlit forests, a colour filter, random fires, some CGI and a few hanging bodies for ambience. The structure of the film isn’t sophisticated: Once our so-called-brilliant students are in Hell, they quickly split up and are killed one after another. It does get really boring really quickly as we look, usually in vain, for anything that would rise up to the level of the film’s gonzo title and premise. Eventually, there’s a mad-scientist riff because, at that point, why not? The individual levels/sequences of the film usually bring to mind the much better movies that They Found Hell rips off incompetently. The ending seems cheap even in a cheap movie during which we’ve hungered for anything more interesting than obviousness. Still, despite the easy potshots that one can take at anything coming from SyFy (have they ever produced a good film?) and the obvious limitations of They Found Hell, I actually found myself watching the thing until the end, which is more than I can say about other efforts. It’s certainly not good, but it’s not that terrible either.
(On Cable TV, July 2013) I’m strangely conflicted about films that aim to be as ludicrously awful as possible. Shouldn’t there be a limit to the amount of intentionally-bad filmmaking we subject ourselves? Should we consider ourselves on holidays from conventional criticism when watching intended tripe? Are we sending the wrong message to producers by supporting such abominations? Suffice to say that in July 2013, SyFy-original TV movie Sharknado became a minor Internet phenomenon, celebrated as much for its insane premise (a tornado strikes Los Angeles… throwing sharks!) as for the cheapness of its execution. Twitter went wild for #sharknado and the intensity of the frenzy made it easy to focus on the film-as-summer-phenomenon rather than the film as itself. What many casual observers may not have known is that made-for-SyFy original movies are usually terrible, and just as often ludicrously high-concept (Sharktopus, anyone?) Compared to those low-budget geeksploitation films, Sharknado actually doesn’t fare too badly: It’s terribly made, incompetently scripted and insultingly paced, but it has some panache when it comes to insane set-pieces, features reasonably competent actors, and at least shows us something we haven’t seen before. (For truly dire and joyless films, look elsewhere in SyFy “catastrophe SF” roster) Still, it’s practically impossible to appreciate Sharknado with a straight face, leading anyone to wonder once again: What’s the point of this? At which point has anyone seen enough good movies to revel in bad ones? Grump, grump.