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Friday, March 1, 2024

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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: Shark Week? More like Shark Century

Screen Grabs: Shark Week? More like Shark Century

Plus: Dracula on a boat! Influencers butchered by Wendigo! Baffling Sasquatch! Devilish day trader! More genre delights

Last weekend saw the release of Meg 2: The Trench, a not-widely-anticipated sequel to 2018’s surprise hit The Meg. It offers a throwback to the kind of no-brainer formula genre thriller that used to be par for a summer’s moviegoing course, but now seems a bit out of place in a season dominated by the Barbenheimer behemoth, as well as bloated additions to the Transformers, Indiana Jones, and Mission: Impossible franchises.

Of course the mother of all summer blockbusters—not to mention shark movies like the Megs—was Jaws, which remains a near-perfect popular entertainment at nearly 50 years’ age. An unprecedented phenomenon, which toppled The Godfather as highest-grossing film ever to that point, it changed the industry in many ways.

Not least in targeting summer—a time hitherto viewed as a relative filmgoing slough, as people had other recreational outlets—for release of heavily promoted major studio popcorn spectacles with all-ages appeal. (Today, when mainstream Hollywood films typically cost $150 million or more, an admittance-limiting R rating can be considered a financial kiss of death.) Jaws was, as B-movie king Roger Corman—who’s still active at age 97—frequently said, basically one of his old drive-in “creature features,” only with a bigger budget… and much, much better.

Corman is one of many interviewees in the new documentary Sharksploitation, currently streaming on the genre platform Shudder. He was among many who duly climbed aboard the Jaws bandwagon, grinding out cheaper imitations of one sort or another (like Piranha). The Italians produced some cut-rate copies so blatant that Universal was occasionally moved to sue for plagiarism. Meanwhile that studio was cranking out its own increasingly weak official Jaws sequels, while sadly declining to risk mocking the franchise with National Lampoon’s Jaws 3, Humans 0, a planned collaboration between pre-Gremlins Joe Dante and pre-Breakfast Club John Hughes. Eventually this first wave of knock-offs sputtered out.

Yet that tide has returned again and again. Director Stephen Scarlata’s overview makes note of sharks’ fairly minimal appearances in pre-Jaws cinema—including a surprising number of 007 adventures—some of which treated them more realistically than the “unstoppable killing machine” image they’ve been stuck with since 1975. (Experts here point out that the Great White is just one of some 500 shark species, and even they rarely attack humans—“We just don’t look like anything they’d want to eat,” a marine biologist says.)

Once the initial big-screen ripoffs tapered off, there was a lull for a time. But 1999 sleeper hit Deep Blue Sea triggered another cycle, and a decade later Mega Shark Versus Giant Octopus commenced an as-yet-unending flood of jokey, preposterous films often made by production company The Asylum for the Syfy Channel. In addition to infamous 2013 Sharknado, their low-to-no-budget brethren include such titles as Sharkopus, Raiders of the Lost Shark, 6-Headed Shark Attack, Santa Jaws, Ghost Shark, Ozark Shark, Avalanche Sharks, Sharkula, and the climactically self-aware Bad CGI Sharks.

There’s also been a 21st century mini-trend of small-scale, serious, comparatively realistic thrillers like The Reef, Open Water, 47 Meters Down and The Shallows, in which psychological suspense is eked from the terror of a handful of characters stranded in a shark’s territory. Their success of course led to gradual upsizing, which of course led to the likes of… Meg 2. Which I have not seen, though word is that it spends waaaaay too much time on subplots not involving sharks. Reviews have been tepid, though curiosity is piqued by the fact that it is directed by the seldom-uninteresting Brit Ben Wheatley (Kill List, High-Rise, Free Fire)—and, odder still, is a coproduction with China. That means martial arts star Wu Jing is now Jason Statham’s co-star, and there is probably some state propaganda none-too-subtly slipped in, as is typical with mainland Chinese stabs at international blockbuster cinema these days.

This coming Friday brings more wet horror with Universal’s Last Voyage of the Demeter, directed by Norwegian Andre Ovredal of cult hit Trollhunter and the underseen, creepy Autopsy of Jane Doe. It’s yet another variation on Dracula, if a promising one: Adapted from Bram Stoker’s original 1897 novel, albeit solely the “Captain’s Log” section chronicling the terror of the crew unfortunate enough to sail the ship transporting a mystery cargo from Transylvania to London.

Of course you don’t have to get in the water—or even leave your living room—to enjoy some summer thrills of more modest production means. We surveyed a few such recent direct-to-streaming releases…mostly so you don’t have to, as it turns out. But there are a couple points of interest amongst the disposable dross.

Lethal Menagerie: Wendigo, Bigfoot, Werewolf

Exchanging the ocean for the forest means no lessening of peril in three new movies. Jake Robinson’s The Wendigo (not to be confused with Larry Fessenden’s superior 2001 Wendigo) is something we’ve seen before: The Blair Witch variant in which a bunch of obnoxious influencers-podcasters-YouTubers etc. traipse into the woods and cannot die quickly enough to end viewers’ pain.

In this case, it’s a quartet of those types in search of a missing fifth, whose livestream of his apparent mauling death by some offscreen entity went “viral.” The argumentative foursome suspect a hoax, but soon they’re lost and scared and stuff. Could it be that the titular evil spirit of Native American lore, said to be lurking in these hills, is really a thing? This movie barely nudges past the one-hour mark, but getting there feels longer than hiking Half Dome. Terror Films released it to digital platforms last Fri/4.

Another creature of fearful North American legend figures in Summoning the Spirit, which wastes very little time before flaunting some guy in a gorilla suit—though while we spend much of the next 90-odd minutes wondering “When are we gonna find out who’s posing as Bigfoot?,” in the end the movie seems to want us to think it really is Bigfoot. At least I assume so… but frankly this entire film baffles. It’s from Jon Garcia, who’s made some better gay-themed dramas before, including the very good 2020 Luz. What he intends here, however, is anyone’s guess.

Most of the narrative centers on a couple (Krystal Millie Valdes, Luz’s Ernesto Reyes) who’ve moved to a rural area in order to recoup after some personal setbacks. They soon meet “The Mountain People,” a dozen or so neighboring space cadets who comprise some kind of cult. At first they seem harmless enough, if annoying—in that simultaneously dazed, smug, slightly hostile way that certain New Agers have of forcing hugs and telling you about yourself when you’ve only just met them. They are all somewhat broken people in need of healing, but then so are our protagonists.

Things eventually go south, as one expects, complete with body parts ripped off so easily you’d think they’re only attached by velcro. Yet even then the group’s purpose remains murky, and how exactly does Sasquatch fit in here anyhow? Whatever Garcia was aiming for, his film’s awkward mix of elements never quite gel. Dark Star Pictures releases Summoning to DVD and digital platforms this Tues/8.

A big step up from those two is Wolfkin, a European co-production released there as Kommunioun. Its matter-of-fact handling of the supernatural has Louise Manteau as Elaine, a working-class single mother in Brussels who is at rope’s end with only child Martin (Victor Dieu). The 10-year-old’s behavior towards other children is increasingly, unpredictably violent, to a point where that risks school expulsion and police involvement. Desperate, Elaine drives him to the Luxembourg estate of his long-absent father’s family, the Urwalds, who didn’t even know this grandson existed. Nonetheless, they accept him immediately, and rather possessively, via some mighty strange customs that mom is slow to grasp the sense of.

The word “werewolf” is never spoken here. Still, eventually it is clear that is what Martin is becoming—a feral creature who lives for the hunt, and requires very careful handling. Elaine rejects the notion of this hereditary curse, but an attempted return to “normal life” proves disastrous. Jacques Molitor’s film doesn’t have the original ideas needed to leave a deep impression, but it’s very well done, and worthy of comparison to prior movies like Let the Right One In and Ginger Snaps in taking a psychologically realistic approach towards dealing with an actual monster within. Uncork’d Entertainment is releasing Wolfkin to DVD and digital platforms this Tues/8.

Women Scorned: ‘I Am Rage,’ ‘Trader’

Eschewing the fantastical—well, mostly—are two enterprising if variably successful independent thrillers. David Ryan Keith’s U.K. I Am Rage has Hannaj Bang Bendz as a woman suffering PTSD from a prior abduction (glimpsed in flashbacks but never explained) whose current boyfriend takes her to his family’s gated country manse, along with his brother and his new girlfriend.

After ignoring an initial flurry of red flags, the two young women quickly find they have been lured into a trap, and the film becomes one more variation on perennial “humans hunting humans” tale The Most Dangerous Game. It’s fast-paced and well photographed, but the action is not very credible (unhelped by some weak fight choreography), and the poor writing doesn’t do the actors any favors. You’re better off watching some of the vintage schlock this derivative film recalls, notably 1974’s Shriek of the Mutilated (which Summoning also evokes) and 1982’s Turkey ShootRage is already out from Uncork’d, on digital platforms and DVD.

More conceptually adventurous is Trader, a virtual solo showcase for Kimberly-Sue Murray as a nameless, androgynous protagonist holed up in a basement, where she’s introduced cold-calling people to convince them their credit card has been stolen—then actually stealing their info. From that low-level scam she eventually works her way up to high-stakes stock trading, manipulating the market with help from a private equity firm broker she snares via phone sex.

An adrenaline junkie, she does not shy away from drug use, utilizing multiple identities, worming long-distance into the confidence of grieving strangers, or anything else. In the end, it seems all this has been a means of forcing her way into a “seat at the high rollers’ table” within the national financial industry. But that rings a bit hollow, as we’ve still learned zilch about our antiheroine’s backstory… or even whether she can handle the outside world of fresh air, sunlight, and face-to-face contacts. Plus, it remains hard to root for the triumph of a conscienceless sociopath we’ve already seen bilk numerous naive strangers.

Nonetheless, Trader impresses in its sheer determination to impress, utilizing myriad flashy filmmaking methodologies to keep this single-setting story from growing claustrophobic. Some of those means are gratuitous, not-infrequently feeling like excuses to make Murray run the gamut of performative emotions—from cunning to fury to interpretive dance and psychedelic tripping. But she does handle them well, and writer-director Corey Stanton likewise nimbly jumps through all the hoops he sets for himself. This Canadian feature releases to US On Demand platforms from XYZ Films this Thurs/10.

Also worth a parting note is one special event in the East Bay this weekend. Night of the Living Dead Zombie Festival, celebrating that classic’s 55th anniversary—though actually it’s more of a Mid-Morning To Late Afternoon Zombie Festival, running 10am to 3pm, Sat/12 at the Orinda Theater. In addition to George Romero’s 1968 original, there will be screenings of prior B&W undead opuses White Zombie (1932, with Bela Lugosi) and I Walked With a Zombie (1943, produced by Val Lewton). Details are here

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