The TSL’s Horror Grindhouse: Wolves at the Door (dir by John Leonetti)


I’m really not sure what to make of Wolves at the Door.

I knew the film was inspired by the crimes of Charles Manson and his family before I watched the film.  Not only was Wolves at the Door specifically advertised as being “Inspired by The Infamous Manson Family Murder Spree” but just check out the plot description that was provided by Warner Bros:

Four friends gather at an elegant home during the Summer of Love, 1969. Unbeknownst to them, deadly visitors are waiting outside. What begins as a simple farewell party turns to a night of primal terror as the intruders stalk and torment the four, who struggle for their lives against what appears to be a senseless attack.

The Manson Family have inspired a countless number of films, so that’s not really an issue.  Almost all of those films either presented Manson and his followers as being the epitome of evil or they told stories that were heavily and obviously fictionalized.

Wolves at the Door, however, is different.  Other than in some news footage that is shown during the end credits, Manson is not seen in the film.  For that matter, the members of the Family don’t get much screen time either.  Mostly, they’re just seen as shadows, creeping down hallways and sometimes materializing in a doorway before vanishing.  There’s no mention of Helter Skelter or the Beatles.  I’d have to rewatch the film to say for sure but I think it’s possible that we only hear them say one or two words over the course of the entire movie.

Instead, Wolves at the Door spends most of its running time with the victims of the Manson Family, following them as they are unknowingly stalked inside of a Los Angeles mansion.  Usually, in a film like this, you would expect the names to be changed but, for some reason, that doesn’t happen in Wolves At The Door.

So, Katie Cassidy plays a pregnant actress who is named Sharon.

Elizabeth Henstridge plays a coffee heiress who is named Abigail.

Adam Campbell plays Abigail’s Polish boyfriend, who is named Wojciech.

Miles Fisher plays a hairdresser who is named Jay and who just happens to be Sharon’s ex-boyfriend.

And, finally, Lucas Adams plays a teenager stereo enthusiast named Steven, who just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Speaking as someone who loves horror and who has defended some of the most critically derided films of all time, everything about Wolves at the Door just feels icky, tacky, and wrong.  Many grindhouse horror films have been inspired by actual crimes but most of them at least changed the names of the victims.   You really have to wonder just what exactly the filmmakers were thinking here.

(Then again, just two years ago, NBC greenlit a show called Aquarius, which could have just as easily been called “The Adventures of Young Charlie Manson.”)

It’s not just that Wolves at the Door is offensive.  In fact some of the best movies of all time were specifically designed to be offensive.  The problem with Wolves at the Door is that it’s also just a very shoddy film.  (In fact, if the film had been well-made, it wouldn’t be quite as offensive.)  Though the actors may be talented, they’re let down by a script that’s full of some of the clunkiest dialogue that I’ve ever heard.  Though the soundtrack may feature some good songs, they’re still the same damn songs that show up in every movie set in 1969.  (Judging from the movies, everyone in 1969 just listened to the same five songs over and over again.)  Though the movie itself is only 73 minutes long, it is so abysmally paced that it feels much, much longer.

Sadly, this film was directed by John Leonetti, who did a pretty good job with Annabelle.  Again, I’m not sure what exactly he or anyone else was thinking with Wolves at the Door, which I’m going to go ahead and declare to be the worst film of 2017.  I know that the year isn’t over yet but I just can’t imagine anything as bad as this.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #112: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (dir by David Fincher)


Curious_case_of_benjamin_button_ver32010 will always be considered, by many of us, to be the year that Oscar journalism first jumped the shark.  That was the year that a group of self-styled award divas (which Awards Daily’s Sasha Stone being the most obnoxious culprit) went batshit crazy over a film called The Social Network.  

From the minute that David Fincher-directed film premiered, the Sasha Stones in the world not only declared it to be the greatest film ever made but also insinuated that anyone who disagreed had to be stupid, crazy, and evil.  It actually got rather silly after a while.  That is until The Social Network lost best picture to The King’s Speech.  Suddenly, what was once merely enthusiastic advocacy transformed into fascistic fanaticism.  Suddenly, these people started to view the 2010 Oscar race (and each subsequent Oscar race) as a rather tedious battle between good and evil.  For these people, David Fincher represented the forces of good.  And Tom Hooper, the director of The King’s Speech, represented all that was evil.  They took this to such an absurd extreme that they not only subsequently heaped undeserved praise on Fincher’s bastardization of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo but also unnecessary scorn on Hooper’s Les Miserables.

Of course, what was forgotten in all of that drama was that — before Hooper and The King’s Speech came along, the 2010 Oscar race was predicted be some to be a rematch between Fincher and Danny Boyle (whose 2010 film, 127 Hours, was indeed nominated for best picture, alongside The Social Network, King’s Speech, and Black Swan).  When Fincher and Boyle previously competed during the 2008 Oscar race, Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire defeated Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

And indeed, the case of Benjamin Button was curious one!

Loosely based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button told the story of a man who aged in reverse.  When Benjamin is a baby, he has the wrinkled face of an elderly man.  When he’s a teenager, he’s walking with a cane.  When he’s middle-aged, he looks like Brad Pitt in Legends of the Fall.  (In that regard, it helps that Benjamin is played by Brad Pitt.)  And when he’s an old man, he’s a baby.  Though the film, wisely, refrains from offering up a definite reason why Benjamin ages in reverse, it hints that it could have something to do with a clock that was built to run backwards as an anti-war statement.

Benjamin is born in New Orleans in 1918 and raised in a nursing home by Queenie (Oscar nominee and future Empire star Taraji P. Henson).  The love of Benjamin’s life is Daisy Fuller (Elle Fanning when young, Cate Blanchett as an adult), a dancer who also loves Benjamin but who, unlike him, is not aging in reverse.  For this reason, Benjamin and Daisy cannot be together.  That’s the way tragic love works.

The film itself features a framing device.  Daisy, now an elderly woman, is dying and gives her estranged daughter, Caroline (Julia Ormond), the diary of Benjamin Button.  As Caroline reads, Hurricane Katrina rages outside.  I’ve never really been comfortable with the way that the film uses Katrina as a plot point, for much the same reason that it bothered me when Hereafter used the real-life Thailand typhoon and London terrorist bombings to tell its story.  The real-life tragedy of Katrina feels out-of-place in a story about Brad Pitt aging backwards.

As for the rest of the film, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is … well, it’s a curious film.  Visually, it’s definitely a David Fincher film but, at the same time, there’s something curiously impersonal about it.  You almost get the feeling that this was Fincher’s attempt to show that he was capable of making a standard big budget Hollywood film without getting too Fincheresque about it.  Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett have chemistry and they look good together but Fincher has never been a sentimental director and his heart never truly seems to be in their love story.  (Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl feel more like a natural couple than Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett do in this film.)  There’s only a few scenes, mostly dealing with the more morbid aspects of Benjamin’s odd condition, towards which Fincher really seems to feel any commitment.

As a result, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button becomes a curious misfire.  It’s a film that struggles with the big picture but is occasionally redeemed by some of its smaller moments.  (The scenes with the elderly Benjamin as a dementia-stricken baby are haunting and unforgettable.)  Ultimately, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is probably the weakest of the five 2008 films nominated for best picture but it’s still an interesting film to watch.

Film Review: California Scheming (directed by Marco Weber)


California Scheming got an extremely limited theatrical release in January and it’s currently available via On Demand.   I have to admit that the only reason I ended up watching it is was because of the film’s title.  Having now seen the film, I still think it could definitely use a better title but the movie was still a lot more memorable than I was expecting.

California Scheming opens with a few scenes that seem like they were almost lifted verbatim from a 1969 film called Last Summer.  (Last Summer shows up occasionally on TCM and you really should watch it.)  Much as in Last Summer, California Scheming opens with an attractive but apparently sociopathic teenage girl (Gia Mantegna) discovering a wounded sea gull on the beach.  The girl recruits two teenage boys (played by Spencer Daniels and Devon Werkheiser) to help her both nurse the gull back to health and teach it how to fly again.  All three of them are pretty, shallow, and rich and quickly become close friends.  However, they end up meeting a shy girl (played here by Rachel Seiferth) who objects to the way they treat their pet sea gull.  The shy girl and the more sensitive of the two boys end up becoming a couple.  In Last Summer, this leads to the shy girl being raped.  In California Scheming, it leads to Mantegna convincing her three friends to break into a house with her, at which point the film’s plot takes a uniquely disturbing turn of its own.

California Scheming has been getting some terrible reviews but I rather liked it.  The film looks great, the cast is pretty enough that it really doesn’t matter that they’re not great actors, and director Marco Weber does a good job at creating and maintaining a persistent atmosphere of both suffocating ennui and impending doom.  The most frequent complaint that I’ve seen about California Scheming is that, up until the final few minutes, nothing really happens in the film but I think that’s the point.  California Scheming is a portrait of people who, as a result of having everything, are doomed to accomplish nothing.  As a result, California Scheming may not be entertaining in the conventional sense of the word but, when taken on its own terms, it’s something of a minor existential masterpiece.