Triple Spooky Scoop Review: A Quiet Place Part II, The People Under the Stairs, and Escape Room: Tournament of Champions

Horror Bingo continues, but first! An important change to our Very Serious Ice Cream Rating System:

The Old System: I review three films and award them Chocolate (first place), Vanilla (second place), and Strawberry (third place), regardless of how silly it is to compare wildly different movies like this. Every Triple Scoop Review has one of each flavor.

The New System: I review three films and grade them individually with this totally objective and highly scientific ice cream rating system:

God-Tier – Chocolate Salted Caramel
Really Enjoyed This – Chocolate
Enjoyed This Okay – Vanilla
Technically Proficient, But Not My Thing – Strawberry
Well, I Liked SOME of It – Rocky Road
I Actively Disliked This Movie – Pistachio
I Could Not Finish This Movie – Mint Chocolate Chip

Each Triple Scoop Review will be any combo of these flavors. Chocolate Salted Caramel probably won’t get used very often (I suspect it will primarily be awarded to old sentimental favorites), and I honestly kinda doubt I’ll use Mint Chocolate Chip at all because I can’t even remember the last time I started a movie and didn’t finish it. Feel free to argue about how I’ve unfairly maligned mint chocolate chip (or any of the other ice cream flavors) in the comments below, of course, but just know that your opinions are wrong and wrong forever.

With that, let’s get back to our movies!

A Quiet Place Part II

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Year: 2020
Director: John Krasinski
First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Other – Paramount Plus
Spoilers: Yes, in paragraphs 3 and 4
Grade: Chocolate

A Quiet Place Part II is a very competently made sequel, and for the most part, I had a pretty great time watching it. It’s been a while since I’ve seen the first one, but I have the general sense that AQPP II got the Aliens treatment, you know, a little louder than its predecessor, more action all around, a bit less claustrophobic in terms of both setting and scope. But like Aliens, that totally works here, and most of what  I really enjoyed about the first film (an active Deaf protagonist, creepy Demogorgon monsters, the close focus on the Abbott family) is still present in the sequel.

Many of the scenes in AQP II have serious video game energy: the opener (which would also make for one hell of a Disneyland ride), the destroyed train scene, any of the moments when someone has to stay perfectly silent and still. (It’d be like in Until Dawn, where periodically you can’t shake the controller or INSTANT DEATH FOR YOU.) It’s all very fun, tense and entertaining. I also enjoyed Cillian Murphy in this, less because Emmett is a particularly groundbreaking character and more because Murphy is just a fantastic actor who elevates the material. All the acting is really solid, actually, and I hope to see Millicent Simmonds in more stuff because once again she’s excellent.

My primary quibbles are these: A) JFC, stop casting Djimon Hounsou just to waste him like this, and B) the feral people don’t totally work for me, mostly cause they seem, like, weird fucked up instead of normal “we kill people for food and joy” fucked up? Like, their eyes are all weird and shit, I don’t know. Maybe they’re sick with some kind of radiation? Vague Zombie Disease? It’s not that I particularly wanted a detailed backstory for these ten-minute antagonists, but they also feel slightly out of place to me like this: a bit forced and unnecessarily distracting

That being said, I did enjoy how “dive” came back around. I also like that the island community isn’t some devious trap and how nobody in the family dies; even Cillian Murphy doesn’t get the obvious redemption death I’d initially predicted. Sometimes, going optimistic works in your favor because, in horror, optimism is often the more surprising and exciting choice. (Which is another reason Djimon Hounsou’s death here annoys me so much; it’s such a predictable, throwaway moment. If his character has to die, fine, but why like this?) I like the triumph in this ending, too, as the kids each literally step up to kill the monster and protect their respective adults. It feels a touch abrupt, since we don’t actually see our heroes meet up again, but I also kinda enjoy it.

The People Under the Stairs

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Year: 1991
Director: Wes Craven
First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Other – Peacock
Spoilers: Surprisingly, no, not really
Grade: Chocolate

You know, I really enjoyed this movie. I’d never gotten around to seeing it before and the very little I knew–basically, there are weird people, and they live under the stairs–had me expecting something a bit more Texas Chainsaw Massacre or The Hills Have Eyes. I wasn’t at all prepared for a satirical gothic horror criticizing conservatives, landlords, and gentrification, certainly not one with dark fairy tale sensibilities, deliciously over-the-top villains, cannibalism, bondage suits, and jokes, just like, all the jokes. This movie is a weird mishmash of a story that’s rocking at least four different tones, and I don’t exactly know why it works so well for me, but it really does.

I enjoy all of the acting, especially Wendy Robie as Mommy (or the Woman, as she’s credited). Her performance is so energetic and creepy and hilarious, and she makes for a delightful villain. This Lack of Impressed face right here, as she looks at Daddy?

Home Alone Film GIF by Arrow Video - Find & Share on GIPHY

Oh, man. I felt that in my bones.

But the whole cast is pretty great. Fool is a funny, resourceful MC, and I think Brandon Quintin Adams does a great job with him, especially considering he’s all of, what? 10 or 11 here? I enjoyed A.J. Longer as Alice, too. Ving Rhames and Bill Cobbs were both a delightful surprise, and of course, this Twin Peaks fan was deeply amused to see Everett McGill here alongside Wendy Robie. I also really liked Sean Whalen, who I will always remember from Michael Bay’s “Got Milk” commercial. (Heh. I love that isn’t a joke.)

This is a story about a Black child living in a Black neighborhood trying to save his family from eviction, but it’s written and directed by a white man; as such, there are probably improvements that could be made here. If TPUtS ever does get a remake (and I know there’s been some talk), I’d really hope to see it in the hands of a Black filmmaker. But I don’t have a lot else that I wanna criticize. I thought the pacing was a bit off, maybe? But I also watched it with a couple of commercials (sacrilege, I know) and I had to take a couple additional pause breaks for my cat, so that easily could’ve been the problem. And yeah, there were a couple gags that were bit corny for my personal preference; mostly, though, I just laughed a lot. I adore pretty much the whole aesthetic: the costumes (particularly Mommy’s and Alice’s) and also the design of the house, with its multiple hidden passages and secret doors. I quite like the ending, too.

I kinda wish I’d seen this as a kid. I didn’t really get into horror until I was in junior high, but I wonder if this might’ve been the rare exception because in some ways, it kind of plays like a children’s movie–albeit a very, very dark, very, very weird children’s movie. I could absolutely marathon this with Return to Oz and The Witches.

Escape Room: Tournament of Champions

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Year: 2021
Director: Adam Robitel
First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Amazon
Spoilers: Only in the 4th paragraph (but spoilers throughout for the first film)
Grade: Vanilla

We watched the theatrical cut of this movie, and that’s important because the theatrical cut and the extended cut are apparently wildly different films, with completely different beginnings and endings and even different people pulling the Escape Room strings. That’s . . . weird, right? I feel like that’s weird.

Tournament of Champions is a decent sequel, though I did enjoy its predecessor more. (To be fair, my expectations for the first film were . . . not high.) I did have a good time watching this: I like death games and ridiculous horror, and obviously, yours truly was happy to see Holland Roden as one of the new players. Indya Moore was also a fun addition to the cast. I wish I found Zoey a more compelling protagonist, but I still don’t buy many of Taylor Russell’s line deliveries. I do enjoy Zoey and Ben together, though. Logan Miller is fun, and there’s something potentially interesting about a team who survived the first game entering a whole new one with a bunch of soul survivors.

The rooms and death traps are silly and enjoyable, but I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that Tournament of Champions was trying a little too hard to top the previous film. I did have fun (I definitely laughed when one one of the characters clowned on a dude for trying to be the Chosen One), but the sequel has basically the exact same formula as the first movie, only slightly more . . . rushed? Ludicrous? I just feel like something’s missing, and I’m not quite sure what. Maybe I just wish the puzzles themselves had been more interesting. There aren’t many surprising or exciting plot developments here except for a twist that’s telegraphed a bit too hard.

Regarding that twist, well. In the first movie, Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll), who was kinda awesome, fell to her death, only it turns out that she survived, and was forced to design this Escape Room, otherwise Evil Minos would kill her daughter. I was bummed when Amanda died, so I kinda like this, except . . . IDK, it almost feels weirdly more depressing, like Amanda was pretty badass in the first film, but now she’s just broken, and never really gets an arc or a standout moment or even much screen time; in fact, she’s basically dropped once they all “escape.” Mostly, it feels like she’s around to show that unlike Amanda, Zoey would never break. Which, meh. Frankly, I’d probably have traded Rachel and Brianna for Zoey in a heartbeat. Partially because I just like them more, but also because their deaths specifically feel predetermined by the game, like they never really had a shot at winning, and that’s kind of a bummer, too.

Triple Spooky Scoop Review: Sinister, Ready or Not, and Happy Death Day

My friends! Finally, we are at the end! Of course, Marisa is the real winner of Horror Bingo, but the St. George household required its own champion before the game could be properly concluded. There could be only One–

–and it was ME! Two years running, I AM THE WINNER.

We’ll get to the official Horror Bingo 2020 Wrap-Up at the very end, but first, our last three movies.

Sinister

Year: 2012
Director: Scott Derrickson
First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Other – Amazon
Spoilers: YEP
Grade: Strawberry

You know when something is relatively well-crafted but just isn’t your thing? Yeah, that’s Sinister, for me.

Some stuff is genuinely creepy. Like, a few of those snuff films are pretty disturbing, and I fucking adore all the Netherworld Children and their perfect little outfits and their dead little faces. Is it wrong that I kinda want kids just so I can dress them up like this for Halloween? Probably. Anyway, the all-around acting is fine, although my favorite is James Ransone as Deputy So-and-So. (I love that this is his official name in the sequel, even when he’s apparently the main character.) That bit where So-and-So’s like “You kidding me, I believe in all that stuff. I wouldn’t spend one night in this place, are you nuts?” HA. I also like the ending quite a bit–except the last minute jump scare, which is cheap and worthless. Admittedly, it is pretty obvious what fate awaits Ethan Hawke and his fam, like, once you discover that the Hanged Family moved from one murder house to the next, it’s not exactly a big leap to realize that all the families did the same. Still, I enjoy a story where leaving the cursed house is actually what kills you.

The thing is, though . . . I’m just not very invested in anyone’s survival. Ellison is kind of a schmuck, and schmuck protagonists, by and large, just aren’t my thing. I really feel sorry for his wife because moving into the Murder House without telling her? I mean, wow. Wow. That being said, I don’t actually like this woman. It’s a lot of little things, like how she keeps referring to their kids as his kids whenever they do something wrong, which yeah, I do that with my cats all the time, but I don’t actually mean it, and also they’re cats and don’t give a shit? But Tracy, she seems to mean it. She feels like that Stereotypical Uptight Wife that you kinda know a dude wrote: even when we’re meant to sympathize with her, she still manages to come off as slightly nagging? It’s not so much acting as script; in fact, I quite like Juliet Rylance’s performance when Tracy finally discovers Ellison’s lie. But Tracy still has virtually nothing in the way of interiority or plot-relevance, and she and her son feel less like full characters than thinly drawn victims waiting around to die. None of it’s terrible; it’s just that this is exactly the kind of family dynamic I’m not interested in seeing, especially in horror.

Ready or Not

Year: 2019
Director: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett
First Watch or Rewatch: Rewatch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Other – HBO
Spoilers: Yup
Grade: Chocolate

Yep, I still love this movie. I really enjoyed Ready or Not when it first came out last year, and I love it even more now. The concept is just fun: Murder Hide-N-Seek, plus Homicidal In-Laws, Eat The Motherfucking Rich, etc. The script is witty and entertaining, and the whole cast is phenomenal, like, I adore so, so many of them. Henry Czerny and Andie MacDowell. Melanie Scrofano and Kristian Bruun. Nicky Guadagni, thank you; thank you for giving me so much joy with this perfect face. Obviously, obviously, Adam Brody. He really is such a perfect fit as Daniel. And then, of course, Samara Weaving, who is the true star of the show; she goddamn shines in this film: the big laughs, the small emotional beats, the badass action scenes–she owns them all. Plus, she just has some of the best reactions. I could watch this scene all day.

Honestly, I don’t have a lot of quibbles here; I vaguely remember having a few, the first time around, but they seem to have faded on a second watch. (Wishing that Daniel would live just because I like him so much is less of a quibble and more of a “thank God for fanfic” moment.) Thus, I’ll just give you a short list of some of my favorite things: the glorious cosplay potential, pretty much all of Daniel’s lines, Emilie’s continuous fuckups, Fitch trying to learn crossbow via Youtube, Grace punching one of the kids in the face, OnStar Employee Justin, Tony’s exquisite meltdowns, the Good Brother/Evil Brother reversal, this song, and of course, the literally explosive climax. It is the best.

The only thing I really wish we got from this movie? A montage of deleted scenes where we saw the people who married into the family playing, like, Midnight Checkers and Old Maid and shit. That would be the absolute best.

Technically, I won Horror Bingo when I drew Ready or Not, but we decided to watch one last horror movie, anyway, mostly because of my frankly ridiculous reviewing system. Which brings us to . . .

Happy Death Day

Year: 2017
Director: Christopher Landon
First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Amazon
Spoilers: Mildly? Nothing that should ruin the movie for anyone.
Grade: Vanilla

It’s ridiculous I waited so long to see this movie. I’m obsessed with both slashers and time loop stories, and I’d planned to see this one in theater, you know, back when going to the movies was a thing you could do. Maybe I was worried I’d be letdown and thus sought to avoid the inevitable disappointment? If so, my procrastination was unnecessary, because I thought Happy Death Day was cute and probably one of the more successful PG-13 horror films, in that I didn’t find myself constantly thinking about how hard they were working to avoid that R rating.

I will say the movie isn’t . . . hm, I’m not sure how to say this without sounding like a total snot. Happy Death Day has an incredibly fun concept, but it doesn’t really do anything terribly ambitious with it. It doesn’t need to, necessarily; I meant it when I said I enjoyed the movie. I liked searching for all the clues and little details. There are tons of suspects because everyone hates our protagonist, and this is one of the rare films where a thoroughly unlikable MC (at least, initially) actually works for me. It’s also just funny. I laughed several times, and I’m sure I’ll watch the sequel at some point.

But when I talk about ambition . . . look, the time loop is a time-honored trope in SF/F TV, and I’ve seen shows do some really exciting things with it in terms of meaningful plot development, character development, etc. The Librarians, Agents of SHIELD, Person of Interest, Dark Matter, Supernatural, Legends of Tomorrow, the entire series of Russian Doll, etc. These shows have both delighted and surprised me with how they’ve played with time loops; Happy Death Day is absolutely enjoyable, but I don’t know if it did anything to surprise me, that’s all. The most original element, I think, is that Tree can’t continue endlessly through these loops without suffering eventual physical consequences, which is genuinely interesting; unfortunately, that’s mostly dropped in the final loop or two, and as such, doesn’t do a particularly good job adding a plot clock or raising the stakes. It’s not a huge problem, though.

I’ll tell you what is a huge problem: my brain, all twitching around inside my skull, trying to force me into beginning a new story when I have 87 other projects to finish. There’s just so many ways you can go, exploring time loops in horror. Ugh. STOP IT, BRAIN.

THE GREAT HORROR BINGO 2020 WRAP UP

Of the films I’d never seen before, my favorites were probably Hausu, Becky, Deep Red, Midsommar, and Tragedy Girls.

My least favorites, on the other hand, were easily Mandy and Dream Home.

Movies I’m most disappointed we didn’t get to: One Cut of the Dead, A Bay of Blood (Twitch of the Death Nerve), and Lake Mungo.

Movies I’m most likely to add to next year’s Horror Bingo list, assuming I don’t watch them before then: Mayhem, Anna and the Apocalypse, Hereditary, and maybe a rewatch of Cube. (It’s been a long, long time.)

Triple Scoop Reviews: The Call, Event Horizon, and Ready Or Not

The Call

First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Crap, I don’t even remember. Amazon, maybe?
Spoilers: Yes
Grade: Strawberry

So, I actually watched this with my folks shortly before I went on vacation, and initially, I was surprised by how much I was actually enjoying it. Like, some silly things, sure, but for the first, say, 2/3 of the film, I found it to be a surprisingly claustrophobic little thriller starring two female leads I was rooting for. Both Halle Berry and Abigail Breslin give strong performances here; I specifically like watching Berry balance her character’s ultra-competence with her semi-recent trauma. And the relationship between these two characters is interesting: Casey (Breslin) is fighting to survive and sees Jordan (Berry) as her only lifeline, while Jordan quickly gets over-invested, determined not to lose another caller. It’s actually a pretty interesting dynamic.

Unfortunately, things rapidly fall apart in the last, maybe, 15 or 20 minutes of the movie. For starters, we get a lot more of the serial killer’s backstory, which besides trying way too hard to be creepy–he’s scalping blondes that remind him of his dead sister (COD: cancer), who he had skeevy and presumably unrequited Lannister love for–it’s just not really what this movie’s about, like I don’t give a shit about Bobo the Serial Killer* and his bullshit psychology. Then, after she loses contact with Casey, Jordan takes it upon herself to go looking for her, which–while predictable–is both incredibly unrealistic and just kinda dumb. In its defense, I will say that if Jordan had been a dude, I suspect a lot less people would’ve complained about the realism because audiences have been trained to expect Heroic Male Action, no matter if it makes sense or not. Also, there is, admittedly, something pretty empowering about watching our two heroines repeatedly save one another and kick the shit out of Bobo the Serial Killer.

Still, when Jordan’s boss (Roma Maffia) tells her that her part in this unfolding drama is over, like, there’s actually something really compelling about that. How exciting would it have been if Jordan did just have to go home, and Casey, using something that Jordan taught her, kills her abductor and rescues herself? There could even be an awesome Powell-McClane meet-up moment at the end. I’d be really into that. But we don’t go that way, and worse, after our Empowering Beatdown of Bobo, The Call goes for a completely dumb and “edgy” twist where, instead of calling the cops, the ladies decide to tie up our bad guy and leave him to starve to death, which, like, look, I’m all about dark turns and vengeance stories, but the twist comes out of left field. It’s totally unsupported, and I just don’t buy it from either character at this point. It’s a hugely disappointing ending for a movie that, up till that last act, really wasn’t so bad at all.

*I couldn’t be bothered to look up the character’s name, but the actor, Michael Eklund, plays Bobo in Wynonna Earp, so Bobo the Serial Killer he became. It is, of course, another excellent band name.

Event Horizon

First Watch or Rewatch: Rewatch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Amazon
Spoilers: Yes
Grade: Vanilla

I watched this for the first time about nine years ago with my friend Denise, and until just now, I’d totally forgotten that I’d reviewed it before. (God, it’s so painful to read early reviews, both for writing skill and for shit I just wouldn’t say now. I still have high school journals I fear looking at.) Many of my general impressions are the same: fun, cheesy, gory SF in space. I like the movie, despite (or possibly because of) its flaws, like shitty mid-90’s CGI, occasional poor acting, excessive slow motion, etc. Though I do still wish we got more time with all our characters being properly tormented by their hell visions. Also, more time with Starck, who I like better this go-around but has very little to do, possibly because they cut some whole romantic arc between her and Miller.

I think my biggest takeaway this time is that Sam Neill’s character just doesn’t really work for me. Everybody starts hallucinating terrible shit, yeah, but no one starts turning evil or even really seems to change, personality-wise, because of it; no one, that is, except Dr. Weir (Neill). Which is weird because while he’s clearly an annoying, arrogant motherfucker, nothing he actually experiences really lends itself to this type of character arc. Like, the whole sad backstory of how his wife killed herself because he worked too much, or something? Yeah, it’s terrible, but at least I’d get it if Dr. Weir thought his dead wife was in the Hell Dimension and he was determined to find her, even if it killed everyone else. I’d get that. But instead, Weir quickly descends into villainous madness, you know, Because. And the whole backstory mostly seems to be an excuse for irrelevant creepy imagery and the opportunity to see Dead Wife’s boobs, which, uh, yay?

I have a surprising amount of nostalgia for this movie, considering that I didn’t see it until roughly fifteen years after its initial release, but I honestly wouldn’t mind seeing a remake now, maybe one that differentiated itself with not just better effects but a different tone: a little less cheese, a little more atmosphere.

Ready or Not

First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Other: actual goddamn movie theater
Spoilers: Not this time (unless you look at the tags)
Grade: Chocolate

I enjoyed the hell out of this. As I already mentioned on my various social media accounts, Ready or Not is the most recent example of what’s swiftly becoming one of my favorite sub-genres of horror: “Welcome to the Family. Here There Be Bloodshed.” (There’s probably a more succinct, less pirate-y name for said sub-genre, but this is what I’ve got right now.) There are some definite You’re Next vibes here, of course–much with the Feels and dysfunctional family dynamics couched between all the comedy and gore–but there are differences, too, and not just plot ones. The jokes in You’re Next are less overt, I think; the horror played more straight. Meanwhile, Ready or Not is campier, but it’s smart, purposeful camp–not to mention, it’s just a really fun spin on that whole “The Most Dangerous Game” type of horror story.

I do have quibbles, of course, but they are very few and relatively minor and I can’t really discuss them without spoilers. Suffice it to say, they don’t take away from what I love about the film: great dialogue, delightful characters, and an utterly brilliant ensemble cast. Kristian Brunn and Melanie Scrofano (from Orphan Black and Wynonna Earp, respectively) are hilarious, as is Nicky Guadagni as Aunt Helene. I would cosplay her in a goddamn heartbeat; she is–as I’m sure many people have already pointed out–one Big Ass Mood. Henry Czerny was just born to play the rich asshole patriarch of this family, while Andie MacDowell is a lot of fun as his considerably more practical and competent wife. Adam Brody fucking excels at tragicomedy, like, I definitely wanna see more of this from him. And Samara Weaving just shines as Grace, who is funny and real and a terrific Final Girl. Weaving’s performance really stands out here, which–considering just how good this cast is–is all the more impressive.

I keep seeing reviews that stress how this movie isn’t anything new or original, even though it’s fun, and like . . . maybe, I guess? And if it’s not your thing, then it’s not your thing, and that’s totally okay. But while it’s always exciting when a film truly breaks the mold, not every movie has to be the next Get Out, you know? Besides, making a movie like this and making it well are two very different things. Tone is difficult. Balancing violence, Feels, and laughter is hard work. You really have to thread that needle, and, IMO, Ready or Not does a pretty great job with it.