Hello everyone, and welcome the heck back to Wrong Every Time. We’re actually nearing the end of the year at this point, which means it’s time again for me to rise from my gleefully untimely mode of anime viewing, and actually consider what the year’s best anime were. It doesn’t seem like we’re getting anything on the level of a Heike Story this year, but I’ve definitely gotta check out Orbital Children, The Girl From The Other Side, and the year’s most impressive films, alongside the fall season’s top productions. I’ll be getting to all of that soon enough, but in the meantime, today I bring you a fresh collection of cinematic reflections, ranging from a classic of French cinema to a goofy Dwayne Johnson vehicle with lots to say about Bush-era America. Let’s break ‘em all down in the Week in Review!
Our first viewing of the week was a recent Shudder addition, the horror-comedy found footage feature Deadstream. The film follows a disgraced streaming personality (Joseph Winter, who also directed and co-wrote the film), who’s attempting to repair his reputation by spending a night in “the most haunted house in America.” Soon after arriving, the usual spookums make their appearance, and things swiftly escalate from a fight for online relevance to a fight for survival.
I was frankly a little surprised by how much I enjoyed this movie. I was expecting my profound suspicion of online celebrity and parasocial relationships to make it tough to connect with the material, but Winter proves himself such a charmingly relatable fool that it’s hard not to root for him. And though Deadstream isn’t nearly as scary as a film like Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum, their shared conceptual focus on aggravating ghosts for streaming numbers provides a convincing natural incentive to poke the beehive, here paying off through Winters’ increasingly reluctant “aw shit, I have to go check out that noise, don’t I?” moments. The film rides a fine line of “Winters’ character is an idiot and a dick, but he probably doesn’t deserve to die for that,” and just as importantly, the actual ghosts aren’t treated as a comedic afterthought. Their designs and behavior patterns could easily have fueled the drama of an entirely straight-faced horror movie, proving this team’s clear appreciation of the genre, and facilitating what is on the whole a light but consistently entertaining ride.
Next up was Walking Tall, a 2004 Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson vehicle about a soldier who returns to his hometown after many years, only to find it caught in the grip of a nefarious casino owner. Seeing the people he grew up with suffering, Johnson has no choice but pick up his trusty two-by-four and beat some justice into this town. Eventually, Johnson’s crusade sees him elected sheriff, leading into a final faceoff with the forces of evil.
Walking Tall is a pretty bad movie all told, though it does have its pleasures (Johnny Knoxville as Johnson’s best friend, Kevin Durand at his sleaziest as a casino bouncer). The script is simplistic, the concept is preposterous (I have to imagine the ’70s original was also a fairly silly film), and the production is altogether indifferent. What Walking Tall does offer is a perfect expression of George W. Bush-era small town resentment, and the fundamental incoherence of the American conservative worldview.
Neal McDonough does his honest best to encapsulate the villainy of big city slickers ruining small towns with their godless ways, but the clear “villain” of Walking Tall is the march of capitalism, which built this town around a cedar mill and left it to die once the mill shut down. McDonough’s presence serves to assign a specific human face to the post-industrial decline of many such towns, but the idea that his casino is somehow to blame for the town’s problems is, well, about as convincing as claims that the decline of Christian prayer in schools is responsible for the same. Americans cannot abandon their belief in a capitalism that has already abandoned them; instead, they create ghosts to spar with, imagining that “coastal elites” and other degenerates have somehow halted America’s industrial growth, rather than the simple cost-cutting reality of overseas labor.
So how does Johnson attack a problem he cannot comprehend? With a big ol’ two-by-four, bringing the righteous violence of mob justice down upon his enemies, even after he becomes the town’s sole lawman. It’s frightening in a way to see the true fantasies of these people embraced as some kind of misdirected revenge against capitalism’s inevitable grind, but also sad. Something was indeed stolen from these people, but they are bound to a political faith that prevents them from seeing their enemy, instead letting their most small-minded of cultural assumptions guide their anger. Eventually, Johnson beats up all the people who need beating, and guess what? The mill reopens! I guess if you just punch the right people hard enough, industry will return to the American heartland. A sad revenge fantasy for Americans who’ve chosen resentment over solidarity.
After that, we continued our journey through the Final Destination franchise with the confusingly named The Final Destination. This one is actually the franchise’s fourth entry, and another presumed attempt at attracting a broader audience with a franchise reset. Directed by a returning David R. Ellis, who also handled the franchise’s excellent second entry, The Final Destination unfortunately can’t quite live up to that standard, but nonetheless offers a satisfying array of appropriately squelchy takedowns.
The film’s relative success is all the more significant given this entry’s weak fundamentals: the central cast is undoubtedly the least compelling collection of actors so far, and the fact that this is a 3D film means audiences must suffer or chuckle through all the attendant, universally hack “whoa, it’s coming right at me!” shots. Nonetheless, The Final Destination rallies on the strength of this franchise’s most essential ingredient: convoluted, grotesque, and inordinately satisfying character takedowns. This film manages to include both hostile escalators and bloodthirsty pool drains, two perennial childhood fears that I was delighted to see validated. It ain’t Shakespeare, but it gets the job done.
With momentum on our side, we then charged right on into this venerable franchise’s final installment, with an immediate screening of Final Destination 5. Now, I know what you’re going to ask me, and I’m happy to say I can confirm: Tony motherfucking Todd does indeed come back for this film, after being rudely overlooked for the last two entries. It seems the franchise has by this point given up on half-hearted reboots, and thus Tony Todd gets two whole scenes to perform his creepy-ass grim reaper routine.
Tragically, aside from the return of Todd, this entry is mostly just noteworthy for the particular brutality of its kill scenes. I certainly can appreciate a good kill, but my tastes lean more towards the goofy and garish; I’ve never been one for the torture porn movies like Hostel and whatnot, meaning this film’s one-two punch of an acupuncture-based kill into a laser eye surgery-based kill was a little hard to stomach. There’s a particular balance you have to strike with these things; silliness can significantly ameliorate mean-spiritedness, and I can’t say this one got the ratio correct. That, plus the franchise’s increasingly desperate use of 3D tech, make Final Destination 5 a somewhat ignominious conclusion to the franchise – but hey, they did right by Tony Todd, and that earns them a lot of points from me.
Last up for this week was a French titan of early horror cinema, Henri-Georges Clouzotl’s Les Diaboliques. The film centers on a boarding school run by the cruel and violent Michel, who takes out his flights of anger on both his frail wife Christina and schoolteacher mistress Nicole. Fed up with Michel’s behavior, Nicole hatches a scheme to secretly kill him, and convinces the hesitant Christina to help. But once the deed is done, new horrors emerge to torment Nicole and Christina, with Michel’s spirit seemingly haunting his killers from beyond the grave.
I had quite an interesting time with Les Diaboliques. The film’s formal merits are unimpeachable; the cinematography embodies the best dramatic virtues of black and white photography, and Simone Signoret puts in an unforgettable performance as the stalwart Nicole. Her every move and gesture in this film feels iconic in the mode of the best femme fatales, while her relationship with Christina possesses a messy vitality that makes you really feel for the desperate quasi-couple.
And yet, for all that there is to enjoy about this film, it also feels somewhat limited by its era’s genre expectations. Released years before Peeping Tom or Psycho, Les Diaboliques is essentially charting new frontiers of horror cinema with its every twist, yet cannot escape the fact that it is ultimately more of a mystery-thriller with an unusually macabre inspiring incident. The need to provide a “mystery to solve” does the film few favors – if it was more earnestly committed to the dynamics and relationships as illustrated across the film’s first half, it would ultimately be a more moving, emotionally coherent experience. As is, the ultimate reveals seem to directly undercut the film’s strongest emotional beats in favor of the dramatically flat payoff of “oh, so that’s what happened.” The film thus feels both revelatory and hamstrung at once, partially bound by the same narrative assumptions it would play a key part in dismantling. Still highly recommended, of course, but in some ways an odd victim of its own success.