Unfriended (2015) – Levan Gabriadze

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A successful horror movie is a very fragile thing. So much can go wrong that will spoil the effect. One of the best pieces of advice I could give a horror filmmaker (from the perspective of an asshole critic with no experience whatsoever) would be to keep the narrative simple. As a member of the audience, getting bogged down with a complex or convoluted plot distracts me from the feeling of fear. If I have to stop to remember who that character is or wonder why they’re doing something, it takes me out of the moment. And that simplicity is the main strength of Levan Gabriadaze’s 2015 offering Unfriended.

The film is no masterpiece, but it certainly achieves what it sets out to do. Just think I Know What You Did Last Summer meets Blair Witch, but on a computer. Unfriended is part of a modern sub-genre of the Found Footage movement. The whole thing takes place on the computer screen over a series of Skype video chats, emails, Facebook messages and YouTube videos. The point of view is that of our main character Blaire. We’re seeing her screen out of her own eyes. So we see what she sees, types, reads, etc.

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Throughout the film, Blaire chats with her friends in a group video chat but they soon realize that there is an unwanted visitor online with them. They can’t seem to get rid of this person and unexplainable things start to happen like messages from a dead friend’s Facebook account. And things just escalate from there. As the film unfolds, we see this group of friends unravel as strange events take place and deceptions and betrayals are exposed.

And that’s it. That’s the whole movie. It’s admittedly gimmicky, but it sticks to a very simple formula that gets the job done. I actually thought the acting was pretty spot on. Most of which is just a group of teens reacting to various frightening things they’re seeing over each other’s webcams. The dialogue seemed pretty realistic to me, but there are a few cringe-inducing moments where it becomes painfully clear that the writer is not a 16 year-old girl.

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I’m not sure if the Unfriended is meant to be a commercial for Skype or Google products, or if it’s supposed to be a morality tale about cyber-bullying. And while it’s not the scariest film I’ve ever seen, it was fun to watch and it held my attention for 82 minutes, which is not an easy thing to do these days. Maybe it was the constant switching of windows, opening of new tabs, sending of messages, switching of Spotify songs, etc. – so reminiscent of how we actually spend time on computers – that helped this film progress despite simple plot.

Is it scary: 3 – There are some spooky scenes and there’s a growing feeling of suspense throughout but nothing that will keep you up at night.

Originality: 5 – This one is tough. It’s a spin-off of Found Footage and we’ve even seen this kind of thing before (Open Windows). Still, I think we’ll see more of this format based on this film’s execution.

Blood: 2 – Almost no blood. There are just a handful of violent scenes and only one or two even actually show anything explicit.

Believability: 8 – Overall, I thought the writing and acting were on point. I felt like the film was happening right on my computer screen.

Setting/Cinematography: 5 – Again, this one was tough to score. There really was not much setting to speak of and the cinematography was intentionally limited to webcam footage. I think a solid 5 is fair. Like taking a college course Pass/Fail.

Final Score: 23/50

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House of the Dead (2013) – Uwe Boll

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It’s a pretty well-established rule that movies based on video games are shit. There’s really no beating around the bush. There are, of course, exceptions Silent Hill, for example. Then there are terrible films that have gained a cult following (Super Mario Brothers). But for the most part, video game films are uninspired and really just made to cash in on the popularity of the game. Enter House of the Dead, Uwe Boll’s 2003 adaptation of an admittedly cool arcade zombie shooter. This movie is in the running for the worst film I’ve ever seen. I mean that with no sense of hyperbole.

The House of the Dead game was one of the ones where you got to hold the gun and actually shoot at the screen. (Hang on to that image, because we’ll be back to it shortly). Now, I have to admit that I pumped my fair share of quarters into this game back in the day. And while there may have been some kind of story to go along with the zombie carnage, it was not one that stuck with me through the years. I basically remember a haunted house scene where zombies and ghosts would stagger down a hall towards you and throw axes and such and try to eat you. Then you blasted their faces off until your allowance ran out.

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Regardless of where it came from, the plot that made it to the film is ludicrous. A group of college kids hitch a boat ride to a remote island for a rave (this “rave” consists of sixteen 30-year-old college students dancing in the woods). On this island they find — you guessed it — the House of the Dead. I wont spoil too much but we do find out the source of the supernatural forces behind the zombies. And it’s a pirate curse. I’m not big on Twitter, but I think I’m going to start using #piratecurse. Like all the time.

Ok well let’s get down to it. House of the Dead fails on basically every front. It is a staggering failure, and one that astonishingly launched the career of the director Uwe Boll to a new level. The script is like the first draft of a freshman film student banged out the night before it was due. We have poor attempts at humor: “Muerte is Spanish for death, in case you don’t speak Mexican.” (That line was actually one of the Shining Lights of the film). The characters are utterly flat and one-dimensional. The only character’s name that I actually remembered through the film was the Asian raver chick in a spandex American flag jump suit named Liberty.

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Aside from the narrative problems the technical aspects of HotD are abysmal. They actually edited short clips from the actual video game into action sequences. Several times. It almost feels like they were trying to prove something. “See, this scene comes from the game!” Also, I’m a guy who loves to watch zombies get their heads shot off, maybe more than anybody. But there are a few LONG action sequences that really just feel like treading water.

Is it scary: 1 – I mean, there are dead bodies walking around for 90 mins, but really, if you’re not in diapers, this won’t scare you at all.

Originality: 1 – It’s a very spot-on adaptation of an unoriginal video game. So…

Blood: 6 – It’s pretty gory, even though the blood in the shots from the game is green.

Believability: 0 – Every inch of this thing screams illogical and ridiculous.

Setting/Cinematography: 1 – Uwe Boll uses lots of gimmicky spinning camera shots that are supposed to be reminiscent of the game, but they just don’t translate well to the big screen. Also the house itself is just tacky and unconvincing. It felt like of Legends of the Hidden Temple.

Final Score: 9/50

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So what’s the verdict? Don’t even bother watching this film. It’s not “so bad it’s good.” It’s just so bad it’s bad. Like unwatchable.

Contracted (2013) – Eric England

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It’s always nice to see a new spin on a familiar genre. Eric England’s 2013 entry Contracted, gives us just that. It’s a great body-horror film with a twist. While it certainly achieves its goal of gross-out film making, Contracted does still fall a bit flat in terms of the plot and character development.

I’m not 100% sure of what the film is trying to say either. Is it a commentary on the vapid culture of the millennial generation? Is it a study of a complex character? Or simply a condom PSA? I know there’s something he’s trying to get across, it’s just hard to pin down exactly what that is.

Some of my loyal readers may remember my last review of this director didn’t go so well. Mr. England actually read the negative review and commented on the blog. It was…uncomfortable for everyone involved. Fortunately, I found this film to be better than that in almost every way so hopefully, if he reads this, he won’t come to my house and beat me to death with a shovel. Granted, this film is not a masterpiece, but it’s a big step in the right direction

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Contracted is about a troubled 20-something, Samantha (played by Najarra Townsend), dealing with the struggle of life, relationships and transitioning from the end of adolescence into adulthood. While drinking heavily at a party in an effort to forget about said struggles, she gets taken advantage of by a mysterious stranger. The next morning it becomes very clear that she has caught what she believes to be an STD. Over the next few days it turns out to be more than your average case of the clap. And it becomes pretty clear that she’s going to need more than just a shot of penicillin.

I’ve explained why I love body-horror before. It’s easy for us to identify with characters and feel like these things could be happening to us. By ‘these things’ I mean, bleeding from strange places, discolored skin and eyes, sores, fingernails and hair falling out. Its very upsetting and disturbing to see people literally rotting from the inside. England’s film handles the decomposition of young Samantha very well with just the right amount of blood, guts, and maggots.

That leads me to the biggest problem I had with this film. People don’t seem to react properly to Samantha’s varying states of decay. Particularly her doctor. She goes and sees a doctor twice and he remains uninterested even though she’s literally falling apart in front of him. Later our heroine develops a huge open bloody sore on her mouth and proceeds to make out with not one, but TWO people. Though it’s totally nonsensical, it adds to the gross-out factor – which I found to be the film’s strong suit – so I’ve allowed myself to suspend disbelief.

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In terms of scares, Contracted follows a familiar body-horror recipe. The horror comes from watching this girl disintegrate in front of us. She seems unable (or unwilling) to get the help she needs. We can put ourselves in her shoes in that respect so the fear is transmitted to the audience in that way.

The acting is okay – not great. And I had some trouble really identifying with, or even really liking the characters, which is probably the biggest shortcoming of the film. All that being said, I really liked it. There’s a cool punchline at the end that I wasn’t expecting, so kudos on that. I usually see these things coming a mile away. Though I wonder if it detracts from the overall message of the film (whatever that may be).

At any rate, the moral might just be ‘Always wear a condom, and keep an eye on your drinks at parties’. I think that’s a moral we can all get behind.

Is it scary: 6 – Solid body horror experiment. Definitely upsetting and haunting to watch a beautiful girl rotting on the screen.

Originality: 5 – It’s a clever twist on a story we’ve seen a thousand times before.

Blood: 7 – This film is soaked in blood. Delicious decaying blood.

Believability: 2 – As I mentioned before, I had a hard time following the reactions of other characters to Samanta’s illness. Most people didn’t react realistically at all.

Setting/Cinematography: 5 – The setting was mostly out in bright sunny southern California which isn’t ideal for horror, but the cinematography was executed perfectly. They way it was shot to expose each new symptom was great.

Final Score: 25/50

Verdict- Not a perfect film, but definitely entertaining and worth a viewing if you like watching people decompose, that is.

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The Fly (1986) – David Cronenberg

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All throughout the bible, it states that “your body is a temple.” Regardless of your religious feelings on this, you have to admit that we all do take our bodies very seriously. Have you ever spend 10 minutes staring into a mirror trying to fix your hair or hide of a pimple? The thought of even something very small being wrong with our personal temple is upsetting. And it’s disturbing to watch bad things happen to others’ bodies as well. There’s a whole genre of horror movies out there called Body Horror dedicated to this very idea.

When you think about it, it’s all very relatable. It’s one of the few things we all have in common- the human body. When you watch something happen to someone else, it’s easy to put yourself in that situation. Body horror movies focus on the details of destruction of the human body. David Cronenberg’s 1986 The Fly is a body horror masterpiece depicting the slow, graphic mutation and decay of a man’s body after being spliced with fly DNA.

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 The film opens with Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) being awesome and trying to pick up/show off to Veronica (Gina Davis). He’s a scientist; She’s a reporter doing interviews at a university meet-and-greet party with the press. For some reason, she gets in the car with CREEPY-ASS JEFF GOLDBLUM and goes to his apartment/lab to see some mysterious new invention that’s supposed to change the world: a teleportation pod. Only problem is that it only transports inanimate objects. When they try to use it on a living baboon, the thing comes out looking like Omaha beach right after the first scene of Saving Private Ryan. Don’t worry. After a post-coital eureka moment and a couple of keystrokes on his Apple 2, the machine works perfectly. Baboon #2 comes out unharmed.

Seth and Veronica have struck up a nice little romance/business arrangement where she’ll document the development of his experiments and give him BJs and stuff in exchange for exclusive reporting rights. After a dispute one night, Veronica runs off and Seth gets drunk tries the machine out on himself. It works fine, except for the fact that a fly buzzed into the pod with him and the machine has spliced their DNA together. At first everything is great. Seth is smarter, stronger, more energetic, but this starts to fade into a sort of mania as the fly personality begins to take over.

Then we start to see his body changing. Fingernails falling off, teeth coming out, skin getting blotchy and peeling off. Basically puberty from Hell. Each time we see him he gets more and more disfigured. He can’t eat food normally anymore- he has to puke up  this milky acid and melt his food and then slurp it back up. The whole thing is pretty revolting. Veronica is surprisingly cool through the whole ordeal and tries to help him out, but becomes clear that her BA in journalism is not going to cut it.

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 Not only is The Fly a great horror movie, but it’s just a great movie in general. It’s not overly complicated (it’s based on a short story). We really just have a short list of characters, whom we get to know very well. Jeff Goldblum as the half-man half-fly mad scientist monster is pretty much the best casting I’ve seen since Jack Nicholson in Cuckoo’s Nest. And they used all practical effects and makeup to create this bloody monstrosity that Jeff Goldblum will become. If you’re interested in seeing a step-by-step progression of his deterioration. I found a great pic. It’s pretty spoileriffic, so if you haven’t seen the film, don’t click:

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  1. Is it scary? 6Watching this guy literally rot alive in front of your eyes is bound to terrify you. You can almost feel it happening to you.
  2. Originality: 5Well it’s a movie based on a short story for which there was already a movie made in the 50’s. I can’t give them big points here but they definitely made it feel new and unique.
  3. Blood: 7 – By the end Jeff Goldblum has no skin and he’s just a pulsating mess of guts and hair and two giant eyeballs.
  4. Believability: 7 – I thought it was very believable. The plot was simple enough, the casting, directing and acting were right on. The only thing I’ll say is that Gina Davis’ character should have been a little more freaked out.
  5. Setting/Cinematography: 7Jeff Goldblum’s house/lab in a warehouse is the perfect mad scientist lair. They do some cool walking on walls and ceiling shots too.                

Final Score: 32/50

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Event Horizon (1997) – Paul W.S. Anderson

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So we know there are lots of subgenres that fall under the “horror” umbrella. One of my favorites has always been Sci-Fi horror movies. Some of the best horror movies out there fall under this category, The Thing, Alien, Scanners and of course, Jason X (wait, what?). Maybe it’s because the source of the horror is anchored to reality by some kind of science, or maybe they just remind me of Star Trek. A lot of these movies are not really that scary- they may play up the Sci-Fi angle and downplay the horror. Paul Anderson’s 1997 Event Horizon, does a good job bridging the gap between sci-fi and conventional horror.

The film opens with us learning that a spaceship, called the Event Horizon, disappeared on its maiden voyage and has been lost for years. We’re in the mid-21st century, and we soon find out that Sam Neill (Dr. Weir) built this ship that can “fold space” to travel incredible distances instantaneously. We’ll just give them the benefit of the doubt on the explanation. A distress signal is received from what appears to be the missing ship so Laurence Fishburne, and his crew, along with Dr. Weir travel out to see what’s up.

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When they get to the deserted ship, it’s not a pretty site. The crew is missing, but we see blood and body parts floating around in zero gravity. During the search and rescue mission, The “Gravity Drive” which allows the Event Horizon to travel faster than light speed, activates itself and damages the other ship. Now we’re stranded on this derelict ship and shit is getting worse. The crew starts having seriously fucked up hallucinations and acting crazy. Eyeballs sliced out. Self-mutilation. Blood spraying everywhere.  Bodies on fire. Dead friends coming back to visit, that kind of thing. Then in an all-too-Bond-villain-esque explication monologue, Sam Neil goes all mad scientist tells us that the ship has actually traveled to Hell and brought back something purely evil that intends to cause death and dismemberment to anyone it comes in contact with.

It’s interesting to see how filmmakers interpret the future even just a few years ago. In the 90’s the future always looked sort of accidentally steam-punk. Rusty panels and exposed wires, even steam pumping out of vents everywhere. And everyone wears leather bomber jackets with patches on them like Top Gun in their 2048 space ships. The interior of the spaceship and the rapport between the crew is very ripped off from Alien. I kept waiting for someone to start puking up rice pudding and trying to kill the crew.

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Overall, the film had a great set-up. Spaceships, black holes, bombs, demons, intestines- everything your twisted little heard desires. The story is fairly original and clever too. I like how they merged sci-fi and conventional, semi-religious horror and made it work. It’s almost like Alien meets The Shining meets The Exorcist. It’s one of the films that I remember from childhood that scared the shit out of me. The scares are overwhelmingly visual, which to me is less scary, but it’s hard to come up with better nightmare fuel than some of the stuff they showed.

  1. Is it scary? 6The suspenseful sequences are fairly predictable and flat but the visuals are downright disturbing. (If it gives you any context, I had to hold back and use some more tame pictures for this blog- it gets a good deal worse than I’m showing you.)
  2. Originality: 7 – The plot is fairly formulaic once you get past the initial set-up, but the boiled-down version feels pretty unique.
  3. Blood: 8 – Buckets of blood and guts floating through space.
  4. Believability: 5 – The cast does a pretty good job acting. I thought Weir’s turn from magnanimous to mad scientist was a little abrupt though, even if he was pushed in that direction by the devil.
  5. Setting/Cinematography: 7The ship itself was pretty epic and they did a great job with CGI and space. There were some amazing shots zooming through space station architecture.                                          

Final Score: 33/50

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Texas Chainsaw 3D (2013) – John Luessenhop

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First of all, I feel obliged to apologize to my swarms of loyal readers for my recent hiatus. I moved last month and frankly, I’ve been lazy. It’s hot out, get off my back. Anyway, I’m back so quit whining, buckle up and get ready to have my opinions thrust upon you. You’re welcome in advance.

They say, “There’s no such thing as bad pizza or bad pussy.” That statement is obviously flawed for reasons I don’t feel I need to get into right now. It should really be “There’s no such thing as a bad Texas Chainsaw Massacre film.” Take a pro-wrestler sized dude with a learning disability who probably needs to switch to decaf, put a chainsaw in his hands and then come up with a flimsy pretext for a group of sexy teenagers from the big city to break into his house. It’s so simple but it just works.  John Luessenhop’s 2013 installment Texas Chainsaw 3D fits the mold in every way we want it to.

Let’s be honest. The saying I mentioned above does not mean that that DiGorno’s stacks up to a fresh New York slice, but pizza is pizza. Or that chick you picked up off the floor just after last call is going to be Charlize Theron, but you know what you’re getting and you know it’ll probably be good enough.

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Texas Chainsaw 3D adds a modern twist that fits into the original story. The film opens a short time after the original film has taken place. If you remember, there was one girl who escaped right before leatherface does his famous “chainsaw dance” in the hot Texas sunset. Now there’s a cop and a mob outside his family’s house itching for some Texas justice. Fast forward: big fire and lots of dead bodies. Fast forward some more to present day and we meet our heroine Heather. She’s the sole survivor and heiress to the family farm. She gets a letter from a long lost grandmother who has died telling her she’s inherited a big old house in Texas. So she packs her friends into a VW bus, picks up a hitchhiker for good measure and heads down to check out her new place. Spoiler Alert: Leatherface survived the fire. Duh, he’s on the fucking poster.

Well if you’ve seen any of these movies before, or dissected something in biology class, I think you know where this is going. There are few big surprises here.

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Overall the movie is solid, for what it is. There are some good scare scenes. Some chainsaw chasing, people getting naked and doing drugs to be used as chainsaw fodder, and plenty of 3D organs flying across the screen. I do have a couple of issues though. The biggest one was that they tried to add too much background to the Leatherface character. They take away that cold, mindless fury that he has and try to give him some real emotions. One thing we don’t need from Leatherface is pathos. He’s a monster, not just a large man who didn’t take his meds. Also, though it’s a fun movie, it’s still a pretty horrendous bastardization of one of the scariest movies ever. It’s bad form and downright sacrilege to show shots from the original during the opening credits.

Well, I don’t foresee a very high score for this flick. If we were rating it on the pizza scale, I’d give it a “Yesterday’s Papa John’s from the fridge.”

  1. Is it scary? 4 -There are a couple of good scary scenes but overall it left me feeling less than massacred if you catch my drift.
  2. Originality: 3- Nope. I did add a point or two for some little twists at the end, but we kinda saw it coming.
  3. Blood: 8- Come on, it’s a movie about a man who cuts people up with a chainsaw.
  4. Believability: 5- Honestly the acting wasn’t half bad. The story was a little far- fetched, but hey, read the description for the previous criterion. There was some “girl running up the stairs” caliber stupidity, like “Hey, I think I’ll go hide in this open grave.”
  5. Setting/Cinematography: 5- In general, I hate 3D. I hate that they charge you like $16 to see these movies in the theater. I don’t even think that they did a great job with the 3D in this film. Besides that, the cinematography wasn’t bad. There are some cool shots and camera stuff.                                                            

Final Score: 25/50

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The Collection (2012) – Marcus Dunstan

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When we hear the word ‘sequel’ it instantly conjures up a certain feeling- like the one we get when we hear ‘remake’  or ‘Hitler’ but marginally less unpleasant. The reason for this is pretty simple. When a sequel is made, it’s generally something that was planned after the original film was written, filmed, released, and had some commercial success. So there are different motives for making a sequel than there are for making the original. And that basically boils down to “I want to tell a great story” vs. “I know an easy way to cash in on that story I told 2 years ago.” There’s nothing wrong with that-it’s the American Dream. But all too often, we see sequels just basically telling us the same story again. And to make up for the lack of originality, they crank up all the non-essentials, leading to a film that’s top-heavy. All sizzle, no steak, as they say.

Marcus Dunstan’s 2012, The Collection (follow-up to 2009’s The Collector) falls into this typical sequel trap. That’s not to say it was a bad movie (but it might be), I’m just saying it feels very sequel-y. In the first film, we had about 10 deaths, while this one has closer to 200. There’s an unexplained 2-3 minute dance party/techno music scene (think: the underground dance scene in the second Matrix movie) that contributes exactly nothing to the story. We get to see into the Collector’s lair, or his headquarters or whatever. It turns out to be an enormous hotel/mad science lab/elaborate Saw trap. Everything is so over the top like this, that it starts pulling you out of the realm of reality, in which we were firmly planted in the original.

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(Warning: Minor spoiler to the end of the original film)

The Collection picks up a short time after the first film ended. Arkin (our hero) is still trapped in the box. Though he’s been moved (ostensibly, to the Collector’s hideout and then) to a back room in a secret underground dance club. We hear news reports that this guy has been very busy slicing, dicing and kidnapping people. Our new co-main character, Elena, happens to this dance club. The collector has rigged up some industrial farming equipment with spinning blades (google “combine harvester”) to mass murder all the ecstasy-fueled dancers. Elena is the sole survivor, Arkin escapes and the Collector takes Elena back to his hideout.

Arkin, the only person who knows where the collector lives, teams up with some mercenaries, hired by Elena’s father, and they go to save her. At this point the movie turns into a gory/torturey survival horror movie much like Saw II. The badass mercenaries get picked off one by one as they stumble through the trap-infested maze that is the Collector’s lab. There are all sorts of human experiments and bodies everywhere. Razor wire and spring loaded traps in every room. Empty elevator shafts while piles of dismembered body parts and pools of blood. Drugged up experiment victims/zombies that attack the good guys…basically the most hostile environment imaginable. Everything is very predictable and you can probably guess the ending.

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I had two main problems with the film. The biggest was the lack of real character development. I loved the first movie because you get into Arkin’s head. You sympathize with and root for him immediately even though he’s a criminal. In this movie, we get exactly 0 development for him. In fact, he comes off as kindof a pussy. Everyone else in the movie was just a walking cliché. Elena is the closest to a real person. There’s a half-hearted attempt at some pathos/backstory that never gets followed up on. But then she rips apart her bra and MacGyvers the underwire into a hook/flimsy pretext to have her nips poking out for the rest of the film.

The other thing that bugged me was the sheer amount of work that it would take for the Collector to actually be able to build, maintain and operate this whole carnival of death/science lab from hell. The logistics are mindboggling. Where does he find the time? And the energy? This dude is somehow able to set up house after house after house into elaborate murder traps, kill everyone but one sole survivor, then take that survivor to his lair and do experiments on them. He’s got to have a degree in mechanical engineering, and some sort of human medical degree, and he’s also a licensed etymologist (this final fact is all but irrelevant in this film).

Anyway, the verdict is, it was a fun, but forgettable sequel to a great movie. They should have kept it a little closer to reality and focused more on the characters. Like, why don’t we know anything about the Collector himself? Don’t worry, they left the door wide open for “The Collection Agency: Dunstan’s Credit Cards are Past-Due so He’s Making Another Movie”

  1. Is it scary? 3You’re too distracted by the lack of logical progression to be scared. It turned out to be more of an action movie than a straight horror.
  2. Originality: 4– The Collector’s bachelor pad was definitely worth some points here. But the movie falls flat in terms of being anything we’ve never seen before.
  3. Blood: 8– From start to finish, there’s blood shooting across the screen. Incomplete medical experiments and body parts all over the place. The dance club massacre scene was pretty perfect to set the mood.
  4. Believability: 4The whole thing felt like a cheesy 90’s movie that they’d show on basic cable on a Saturday afternoon (anything with Van Dam or Steven Seagal). Cookie cutter action and violence. Clichés on top of clichés.
  5. Setting/Cinematography: 6– They definitely did some cool things with light and shadows. The torture chamber setting was certainly effective, albeit heavy handed.                                                                                                                        

Final Score: 25/50

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