A teen Bonds, Clooney produces horror, Mick Taylor returns, and an anthology gets a sequel.
IF LOOKS COULD KILL (1991)
Apparently the 1991 action/comedy If Looks Could Kill was a poorly received box office failure, but you wouldn't know that from the impact it had on my childhood. I rented this movie on VHS and caught it on cable several times during its first few years out in the world, and I loved it.
Directed by William Dear from a screenplay by Darren Starr and story by Fred Dekker, If Looks Could Kill centers on Detroit teenager Michael Corben (Richard Grieco), who realizes he won't be graduating because he got an incomplete in French class. French summer school classes aren't available, so in order to earn a satisfactory grade in that class he's going to have to join the teacher and the pupils who actually showed up for classes on a trip to France... and as soon as Michael reaches the airport to catch the flight, he finds himself caught up in international intrigue thanks to a case of mistaken identity. A deep cover CIA agent also named Michael Corben was supposed to be on the same flight as him, and Michael gets confused for the secret agent despite his youth.
As Michael stumbles his way through a briefing from British Intelligence, high speed car chases, and assassination attempts, the film is giving very obvious winks and nods to the James Bond franchise. There's the tour through the gadget lab; Michael is provided gadgets, including a sports car packed with deadly weapons; he attempts to woo a glamorous woman; he is seduced by a femme fatale; there is a sequence set in a casino; he has a formal dinner with the villain; he is pursued by an assassin with a physical oddity - in this case a robotic hand; there is a henchwoman who is essentially Rosa Klebb from From Russia with Love, she just uses different weapons.
During my earliest viewings of this movie, I had not yet gotten into the Bond series. I understood that If Looks Could Kill was playing with Bond tropes, but I wasn't really familiar with the tropes at the time. I just took this as a very cool film on its own merits, while at the same time it formed some of the expectations I had for Bond when I finally dove into watching those movies. Oddly, I never watched If Looks Could Kill again after I became a Bond fan in mid-1995. Twenty-one years later, I finally gave it another look and had even more fun watching its references to the Bond formula.
Grieco makes Michael a likeable character, and there are nice supporting turns from the likes of Linda Hunt as the evil Ilsa Grunt, Gabrielle Anwar as Michael's love interest Mariska, and Robin Bartlett as the French teacher. The Who founder Roger Daltrey also has a quick cameo as a British spy called Blade, a man who is basically James Bond himself but who doesn't survive very long on this latest mission.
My only real issue with If Looks Could Kill is the fact that the inexperienced, out of his league Michael survives the majority of the running mostly through pure dumb luck, but once he becomes proactive in time for the climax and wades into the action with a machine gun in hand, he turns out to be just as capable as a veteran action hero. Suddenly this kid is mowing down baddies like it's nothing. His proficiency comes out of nowhere... but If Looks Could Kill is such a silly movie up to that point, to really be bothered by that would be overly nitpicky.
WIND CHILL (2007)
Directed by Gregory Jacobs from a screenplay by Joe Gangemi and Steven Katz, Wind Chill is quite an unusual horror movie in that it was produced by George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh. Sure, Clooney has some horror credits on his filmography if you go back a couple decades (most notably From Dusk Till Dawn), but other than that these are not names you normally see associated with the genre.
The film stars Emily Blunt, then right on the cusp of breaking into the big leagues, as a young college student who we're first introduced to as she's sitting in class, sending texts about needing to catch a ride back to her home town of Wilmington, Delaware for the Christmas break. And what do you know, after leaving class she goes straight to a bulletin board and finds a note left by someone looking to share a ride to Wilmington.
That someone is a guy played by Ashton Holmes, and they head off through the snow-covered countryside between the college and Wilmington on December 23rd.
We quickly figure out that the girl is not a very nice person, but at the same time we, and she, also start to question the character of the guy (these two are never given names, by the way) because he seems a bit weird. He gives the girl some creepy looks, insinuates that he spies on her in her dorm, and seems to be lying about being from Wilmington. This uncomfortable ride gets even worse when the recklessness of an oncoming car causes them to crash off the road, where they get stuck in a snowy ditch.
I can relate to this situation, because I have spun off a snowy road and been stuck in a ditch myself, but thankfully my incident occurred in the middle of the day (when I was on the way back from seeing Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit), I was stuck off the edge of a busy road so people were checking on my well-being within a minute, and I had cell phone service so I could call for a tow truck. The characters in this movie don't have any of that, and there's no help in sight.
Trapped in the car with the temperature outside dropping well before zero, this young pair is in a bad spot even if the guy can be trusted. Oh, but it gets even worse for them, because this stretch of road they're on turns out to be haunted, and they were knocked off the road for a very specific reason.
The filmmakers described Wind Chill as "the smallest haunted house movie ever made" - since it's not a house, it's a car - and as you might expect from something that is simply about two people sitting in a car, there are times when the movie feels like it's dragging and your attention might threaten to wander away. Still, Blunt and Holmes do their best to keep you interested with their performances, and the film takes an odd approach to the characters in that they're tough to connect with at first - she's unpleasant, he's slightly creepy - but become more likeable as the film goes on.
Something else that kept my interest is the back story that's given for this haunted stretch of road. I really liked what Gangemi and Katz came up with to explain what's going on here... and could imagine that back story being used for something even more exciting than this particular film, but it gave this one a boost in my estimation.
Wind Chill didn't blow me away, but it's a decent film with an interesting concept.
WOLF CREEK: MINI-SERIES (2016)
After two feature films depicting the mayhem serial killer Mick Taylor (John Jarratt) wreaks in the Australian Outback, the Wolf Creek franchise has been continued in the form of a six episode mini-series that was made for the Australian streaming service Stan and has made its way to the United States courtesy of the Pop TV network.
The series centers on a 19-year-old American girl named Eve (Lucy Fry), a former pentathlon athlete we stumbled off the path to the Rio Olympics due to an addiction to painkillers and, now that she's getting the past the addiction, is giving up on her Tokyo 2020 hopes as well. To aid in Eve's recovery, her parents have taken her and her little brother on a vacation to Australia... and within the first 15 minutes of the first episode that vacation has come to a tragic end, with Eve's entire family having been murdered by Mick. Eve herself takes a bullet that Mick believes killed her.
Eve survives, though, and vows to avenge her loved ones. The rest of the series follows her on her mission of vengeance as she relentlessly searches the Outback for the maniacal murderer, taking it upon herself to do something the police force has never managed to do: bring Mick Taylor to justice.
Eve goes through a great character arc over the course of the episodes, going from being a sullen teenager to becoming a warrior. The viewer becomes deeply invested in her story, and she's such an involving character that we want to see her succeed - go ahead, kill Mick and bring the Wolf Creek franchise to an end. She deserves the victory. She earns it in the build-up to the climactic confrontation. But I won't say whether or not she really does get her proper revenge.
During her search for Mick, Eve encounters some of the worst people Australia has to offer, and while I understand that this endeavor is taking her through the underworld, the number of bad people around her did start to feel overwhelming at a point. There's an escaped convict, people who aren't who they appear to be, a rapist who stalks her, she steals money from some professional criminals and gets a biker gang on her tail... She has to deal with a lot more than just Mick.
For most of the time I spent watching the series, I felt that this was not only a continuation of the Wolf Creek property but also an elevation of it. This was great, captivating stuff that did an excellent job taking us deeper into the world of the films. There's even a direct tie to the first movie (aside from the shared presence of Mick). The characters were interesting, and Fry carries the whole thing on her shoulders very well.
Then I felt that the final episode whiffed it a bit, which is surprising because it was the one episode directed by the man who should know how to handle Wolf Creek better than anyone else - Wolf Creek and Wolf Creek 2 director Greg McLean. All of the other episodes were directed by Tony Tilse, and I ended up preferring Tilse's build-up over McLean's resolution.
Some fans might find the final episode controversial because it reveals some things about Mick's background that they might feel is unnecessary, even though these things were already told in the pages of a 2014 book that McLean wrote with Aaron Sterns, Wolf Creek: Origin. I didn't mind these things, they only really amounted to about five minutes of information and only serve to let us know what Mick's parents were like and who his first few victims were. My main issue with the final episode is how underwhelming the final confrontation with Mick is, and how subdued he is during it. This is not the frustratingly capable killing machine we usually see.
Overall, I liked the Wolf Creek mini-series more than the two movies, but for me the "pay-off" was a letdown.
The following review originally appeared on ArrowintheHead.com
Anthology films tend to be hit or miss, and for me the 2012 anthology V/H/S was largely a miss - while it had some good things about it, I never warmed up to the mixture of the found footage and anthology styles and really didn't like the majority of the characters in the film. One thing I loved about V/H/S, though, was the character of Lily, played by Hannah Fierman and introduced in the "Amateur Night" segment, directed by David Bruckner. She was an odd young woman who was picked up in a bar by some very questionable young men who intended to record their tryst with a hidden camera. Instead, they ended up recording their own deaths, because when they got Lily back to their room she turned out to have some interesting secrets... Lily and Fierman made a strong impression on a lot of V/H/S viewers and is remembered for her awkward manner, the badass reveal of her hidden abilities, and her delivery of the line "I like you."
When I heard that Lily would be coming back in her own spin-off film, I was excited to see her return. My enthusiasm for SiREN (they want you to write it with a lower case I) was boosted by the fact that it was being directed by Gregg Bishop, and I have been anxiously waiting for him to make another feature ever since seeing his movie Dance of the Dead in 2008. So, four years after V/H/S, Lily is back in a Bishop film released eight years after Dance of the Dead. I was hyped to see how it would turn out, and if Lily would be as captivating in a feature as she was in an anthology segment.
At its core, SiREN is exactly what you would expect a Lily movie to be, and what "Amateur Night" was - the story of a group of men meeting Lily while they're out for a debaucherous good time. She takes an instant liking to one of the men and pursues him while picking off his cohorts. However, the things writers Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski surrounded that story with were completely unexpected.
The film starts with an origin of sorts for Lily: apparently she was summoned into our world by a group of people who didn't realize what they were messing with, but were interested enough in the occult to sacrifice a whole bunch of goats. Almost immediately upon her arrival, Lily (or "the Lilith") ends up in the possession to an odd fellow called Mr. Nyx (Bishop regular Justin Wellborn), who imprisons her as a sex worker in his twisted "gentlemen's club".
This club is one strange place, filled with beyond the pale perversions. People can live out any fantasy here, and it won't cost them money. The price is a memory, extracted from your mind and represented as a leech. The workings of this club raised more questions for me than Lily herself ever did. I didn't need any answers about what she is other than a shrug, "Eh, she's just a monster." But this place - what is going on here, and how did this come about? We don't find out, because that's not really the point. This stuff just adds a whole other layer of unnerving strangeness that I didn't know I would be getting with this film.
The guys Lily met in "Amateur Night" were detestable scumbags, and Bishop promised the guys in his movie would be more likeable. They are. They're a quartet of pals out on the town for a bachelor party, it's the last night out for groom-to-be Jonah (Chase Williamson). Thankfully, these guys aren't the total assclowns you can sometimes get in a movie about party dudes. Jonah's brother Mac (Michael Aaron Milligan) is trying a bit too hard to show his sibling a good time, but he doesn't cross the line and become unbearable. This group is a little older, their glory days are behind them, they get tired earlier in the night than they used to, and it's more like they're partying out of a sense of obligation rather than a true desire to go nuts. These guys were not born to be wild.
It's Jonah who is taken to a back room where Lily puts on a show for him. It's he who is entranced by the unearthly "song" she "sings" and decides to help her escape from this life as a captive of human trafficker Mr. Nyx. And with this act of nobility he unwittingly unleashes hell on himself, his friends, and the club employees.
As good as the build-up to the moment when Lily is freed is, it does feel like it lasts a bit too long. More than 30 minutes have transpired before she takes off her shackles, and I don't think the film needed to spend quite so much time getting to that point. The bright side is, it's almost non-stop action from then on, with Lily doing her best to hold on to her man, Jonah doing his best to get away from her, and Mr. Nyx trying to get his Lilith back. There's plenty of violence and twists and turns along the way, with a standout moment being when Lily wreaks havoc at a diner while the camera focuses on Jonah instead of the destruction around him, the sound lowered because Jonah has earbuds in, trying to block out Lily's "song". This was a very cool stylistic choice.
Bishop assembled a good cast around Fierman to bring the characters to life, but anyone who has seen Justin Welborn in action before, particularly in Dance of the Dead, probably won't be surprised to know that he pretty much steals the show. Fierman is also perfect in the role of Lily, but I was slightly disappointed that she spends so much time in monster mode rather than having more "awkward girl" scenes. She's a little too preoccupied with tearing people to pieces.
Overall, SiREN is an entertaining little creature feature, with an emphasis on little - it runs a scant 82 minutes and isn't aiming too high. While this film did get a limited theatrical release, it does feel more suited for the VOD, Digital HD, and DVD release that followed four days later. It's more of a small screen movie than a big screen one, but it's fun to watch on the smaller screen. If you liked Dance of the Dead and/or were intrigued by Lily in V/H/S, SiREN is absolutely worth checking out.