Anthology Schmanthology: Fun Size Horror: Volume Two (2016)

Fun Size Horror: Volume Two (2016)
Dir.: various
TC4P Rating: 5/9

Speaking from a technical standpoint, it would appear that Fun Size Horror: Volume Two comes in an even funner size (as in: shorter collection, by almost half an hour) than the original volume, a grouping of several short films of varying quality and talent built around horror themes. It turned out that I like the first volume overall (see my review here), and I was hoping that the ratio of decent to merely banal would continue for the newer group.

However, I have always thought that the notion of a tinier portion of candy bar being a more "fun" size than a normal bar to be idiotic, because why would you want less candy bar? What's so fun about that? I think it is just marketing b.s., and we have allowed this notion to take over the Halloween candy industry without someone calling foul on the whole process.

To the point, though, Volume Two of the Fun Size Horror franchise (yeah, I am afraid so; they have a new online series for 2016 as well) comes in a smaller package, and a more apt definition somewhere for the phrase "diminishing returns" hasn't been revealed in ages. In my previous review for the first volume a couple of weeks back, after rating each short film in it one by one and tallying up an average, I found that I actually liked the film far more than I thought that I had while engaged in watching it. Would that also be the case with Volume Two? Well, the cat (black, of course, to fit the Halloween theme) is already springing about the room after being freed from its sack, having already let it slip slightly above that it wasn't. But let's go through this thing one by one as I did before... 

Initiation
Dir.: Michael May
TC4P Rating: 6/9

An interesting piece with which to begin the proceedings. Complete within itself (though you may not feel that way given what is revealed in the "twist"), Initiation also seems to serve as somewhat of an introduction to the remainder of the collection. Co-producer Mali Elfman (composer Danny's daughter), who is all over the place in this anthology along with fellow producers Michael May and Zeke Pinheiro (as they were in the first volume), not only takes the lead acting reins here, but also serves as the writer. Mainly a monologue piece, Initiation is a decent enough start for Volume Two. Two notes on this short: it was filmed entirely using candlelight, and the artwork that surrounds Elfman is that of acclaimed novelist Clive Barker, though it really doesn't play much of a hand in the story at all.

The Last Laugh
Dir.: Zeke Pinheiro
TC4P Rating: 5/9
An aging television star is haunted by the way he treated his ex-wife on their I Love Lucy-like sitcom, Life with Daisy. After she dies, guess who comes calling for revenge because of the credit he took over the years for their success? This one veers closer to a Tales from the Darkside in style, which is neither a knock or a compliment, just an observation (sort of a memory reflex). There is a slapstick punchline built into the back half of the piece that actually pays off for me, but the results overall are pedestrian and a little dull at best. This one would have benefited from a stronger lead. And if there is something in this world that I am actually afraid of, its having to watch fake audiences laugh at staged comedy within a film, especially when the people playing the fake audience aren't all that great at acting in the first place.

Kill Them Mommy!
Dir.: Peter Chun Mao Wu
TC4P Rating: 5/9
This is the most frustrating type of short, and it is not because it was executive produced by Brett Ratner. Surprisingly enough, his involvement actually raised my hopes a tad (for once), because I thought it might lend a bit more gloss to the look and feel of the film. You see what the director was going for in Kill Them Mommy! (it almost plays like an extended sequence/trailer for a lost Italian horror flick from the '80s even though it clearly takes place today), and the sudden insertion of a full title card twice in the proceedings makes it feel like it desperately wants to be included in a Grindhouse Vol. 2 collection instead, were such an unlikely event ever get made. I kind of appreciate someone taking the fake giallo/Italian horror route, though it has been done by others recently at a very high level; see The Editor as just one example. But the problem here is that the tone is all off through half of the attempt. The style is maddeningly inconsistent within just a few minutes, and sometimes even in the same scene, and for the second film in a row in this collection, the lack of a stronger actor in the lead fails the short. (Yeah, twitching your head at the right moment always means "confusedly crazy"...) Neat use of color, though, in the kill scenes. Almost feels like confetti flying. 

Prey
Dir.: Stephen Boyer
TC4P Rating: 4/9
The only student film in the Fun Size Horror series to this point, Prey actually feels, for at least a couple of its minutes, equally as accomplished as many of the more professional films surrounding it. Four gawky teens wander an abandoned facility in a search for one of their group's missing dog. They argue at first about how wise it is to split up into smaller teams ("You're not gonna Scooby-Doo me!"), but they do, of course, which is exactly how we will get to the title eventually. Not bad as these things go, and I like the energy of the four kids (which you will not hear me say often about a group of amateur teen/young adult actors). The payoff, however, is absolutely expected and therefore underwhelming to me, and ultimately makes me question the logic of the entire enterprise. 

Whispers
Dir.: Max Isaacson

TC4P Rating: 6/9
OK, this one went for full-bore crazy and just about succeeds. Gory, nasty, sickening to the point of distraction, I am glad Whispers was placed as early in the anthology as it is. If it came later in the proceedings, I may have thought Whispers was a masterpiece after having to sit through so many less well-conceived films. As it is, while animal rights activists and/or the squeamish may not wish to sit through it (I am pretty certain that everything was on the up and up with the animal performers though), this tale of a man obsessed with ridding himself of menacing rats is about as truly gruesome as this series gets. Strikingly composed visually, I almost got the sense Whispers started (or was intended) as a story in a graphic novel (or comic book, to you and me). Personally, I would have named the film Whiskers instead, but that is a minor nitpick. 

The Great Corben (in "Abraca-Danger!")
Dir.: Mark Alan Miller
TC4P Rating: 4/9
I am not one to criticize badly done animation if the humor behind it pays off or is interesting in a storytelling sense. We should be, by this moment, pretty used to animation that is probably not the greatest in terms of fluidity or design of movement, but matches the stylistic and dramatic intent of its filmmaker. The Great Corben is somewhat of a combination of stiff, South Park-style movement (or even proto-Gilliam at times) combined with a lusher, early 20th century graphic sense in its backgrounds, costumes, and setting. A strange, off-kilter tale of a very stage-frightened (and ultimately disturbed) magician, I think that I would have preferred if this one were told by live actors instead. The extended dialogue might work better then, but as it is, rather takes one out of the story from the start, to where one has to backtrack to remember what the point was. It just didn't quite work for me, and the reveal is anything but magical.

Pillow Fright
Dir.: Patrick Rea
TC4P Rating: 6/9
"Light as a feather, stiff as a board." The short that is the most pure fun of the group. College girls playing stupid games one night (many in their undies, of course) decide to have a pillow fight and collapse in exhaustion. Too bad, because the pillows are not just sentient creatures, but full on murderous in intent. Really goofy, bubbly (despite the outcome), and a taste of what this series desperately needs: out of left field ideas with a light sense of humor, but that still deliver the goods in a horror aspect. I don't know if I am ready to see an 80-minute film churned out from the single theme of killer pillows, but people are still talking about Death Bed forty years later, and at least this short film is intentionally funny.

And They Watched
Dir.: Vivian Lin
TC4P Rating: 5/9
The custodian in a chamber with an electric chair has little care for anything except for doing his job, until he is trapped by the ghost of the last man to be executed in that chair, who was wrongfully accused of his crime. I will admit that I have a real problem with execution scenes (especially hangings), and it is not just a political issue with me (though that plays a part) but also from seeing the wrong pictures in the wrong books as a child and being haunted by them for years. 

Playing Dead
Dir.: Ned Ehrbar
TC4P Rating: 5/9
This one has a really cool idea: a bunch of bored ghosts get their kicks pranking regular humans by pretending to come alive on autopsy tables, cutting off their faces and climbing into the backs of cars, or lighting themselves on fire. You know, the kind of things we all might do once you discover you have superpowers but have nowhere to go because of some stupid rules binding you to the earthly realm. But they have a new member of their group who just doesn't quite fit in with the rest. I am not going to lie. This one started out in a fairly promising way, and the cast works well together, including Tracie Thoms as one of the ghosts. (Diva Zappa has a bit part.) But it falls apart in two areas: not enough inventiveness with the ghost gags, and a final punchline that just falls completely flat. Like badly conceived improv flat. And I should know, because I have been in some badly conceived improv in my day.

Pinned
Dir.: Andrew Wesman
TC4P Rating: 5/9
I like it when horror attempts to update (however hamhandedly) to new technologies, and with so many thousands of apps on our phones and other devices, I figured it would be no time at all before we were regaled non-stop with variations of old themes updated to the millennial sensibility. One Missed Call and its American remake aside (which made use of cell phone tech, pretty well in the first case and unnecessarily so in the second), Why there aren't a thousand films of people being catfished by ghosts already is beyond me. Or is it just too easy to kill victims now because everyone is just so self-absorbed taking social media photos? Who has time to notice a lurking killer? Pinned makes vibrant use of cell phone tech to tell the story of a guy who is being stalked by an unseen killer that can only be detected through camera shots captured on a GoogleMaps-style of application. Once more, I am intrigued by the basic concept and it spins along nicely for a minute or two, but the execution leaves me cold by the end, when digital nonsense starts crashing into reality and I can no longer buy into the story. 

Perfect
Dir.: Taylor Phillips
TC4P Rating: 5/9
"You promised me a perfect time." Perfect is actually a sequel to Anisa Qureshi's short film, The Lover, from the first volume of Fun Size Horror, with Elfman reprising her role as a formerly spurned lover turned murderous psychopath. This time, her character of Lisa is back out in the singles market, as a woman obsessed with her personal sense of perfection. She wakes up with a one-night stand guy who is anything but perfect, but she is able to justify even his "dad bod" (which, refreshingly, it is and far beyond it) to maintain her ideal. Except there is one little thing that bothers her... I like Elfman's performance here, though the character really does not feel like the same one from The Lover. The M.O. seems a bit different, and the only real nod that they might be the same character (besides being played by the same actress) is a rather tacked on epilogue that feels a bit unnecessary. I will give the filmmakers credit for inventive use of an iron, though..

Conventional
Dir.: Karen Gillan
TC4P Rating: 7/9
A former horror film star actress (named "Bloody Disgusting's Scream Queen 2007") who has fallen on hard times (and has had terrible lip surgery in desperation, resulting in a permanent set of duck lips that repel her former "fans") does her time at a horribly under-attended convention. She even finds herself regaled to turning tricks in a bathroom stall with the occasional man dressed as the slasher killer from her film series, Axe Wound. It's a pretty surprising directorial (and writing) debut for former Dr. Who companion Karen Gillan, and her performance here is easily the best thing in all of Volume Two, though it is not faultless. Gillan's debut behind the camera is far more assured than I could have hoped, and I wish other films in this batch had been as thoroughly thought through as Conventional turns out to be. Conventional does make more of an attempt at character growth than any of the other films (though growth may not be the right term; regression is more like it), and you can really see and feel the wheels coming off Gillan's character's bus internally. That they placed this one at the tail end of the lineup is no surprise at all, given Gillan's fanbase from hanging out with the good Doctor, and now becoming a Guardian of the Galaxy. It is also just damn good luck it turns out to be the best film of the lot as well.


*****

So, we have a dozen films of varying quality, and summing up the ratings totals, the per film average rating is a 5.25, which is only slightly down from the 5.3 for the first volume. However, I rated Volume One a 6/9 in the end because of the higher ratio of hits to misses. This volume has eight less films in it, and I actually only ended up liking four of the twelve shorts, so I have chosen to go with a 5/9 rating, "5" being my middle of the road rating, neither good or bad, just "blah". But, by all means, if you have a Hulu subscription, watch it all the way through just to get to see Conventional. Or at least move that little bar all the way to the 1:03:00 mark and just watch Conventional.

I might be knocking much of Volume Two, but I do want to see more installments of Fun Size Horror in the future. It is quite clear to me, however, that they need to get away from the feeling of a "house style," that is, endless cameos or appearances by Mali Elfman and Michael May, and need to reach and embrace a wider variety of actors and directors to get more fresh blood into the proceedings. When the same people keep showing up as extras in film after film after having been leads in other shorts, it becomes a little annoying. While it may be fun to have the feel of a repertory house or even a family atmosphere in your studio, onscreen it doesn't play as freshly as you might think. And producer/director cameos can be fun if Alfred Hitchcock is the personality involved, but too much of this stuff at a low level just becomes cloying. It feels a little too cutesy. And cutesy is very rarely scary.

RTJ

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