It’s All Fun and Games Until You Stare Into the Void

The Spine of Night

by Christie Robb

The Spine of the Night is a rotoscope-animated feature that presents a pseudo-H. P. Lovecraft story of humanity’s cosmic insignificance in the visual style of a higher-budget He-Man cartoon.

The film is mostly the backstory of a formidable, almost-naked, swamp queen who has trekked up the face of a mountain. She’s come to swap tales with a Guardian sworn to protect humanity from confronting its own vulnerability in the face of a vast and indifferent universe.

He’s guarding a blue flower that makes folks trip balls and contemplate the cosmic void. But a seed got away from him and floated to the fertile earth of the swamp. With the knowledge of the void comes magic power.

And humanity’s quest for this power has caused no end of trouble.

Like Lovecraft’s stories, the Spine of the Night has a slow, dreamy pace. The art style pays homage to the otherworldly and provocative covers of vintage pulp fantasy/horror novels, but with a welcome understanding that not all women are proportioned like Barbie dolls, and with more diversity in the race/ethnicity of its characters.

The theme of humanity’s fragility is underscored in the movie’s violence. Skin parts and limbs break off with the ease of a tortilla chip placed under the pressure of a slightly viscous dip. Viscera are just waiting to pop out of the body’s private cavities like trick snakes in a can of faux potato chips. People are cleaved in half.

Writer/directors Philip Gelatt and Morgan Galen King have assembled a roster of voice talent that helps bring the characters to life. Is there a better choice to play a badass swamp queen who is impervious to frostbite than Lucy Lawless? I don’t think so. Joining Lawless are Richard Grant as the Guardian, Joe Manganiello as the beefy soldier Mongrel, Betty Gabriel as a warrior-librarian, and Patton Oswalt as the whiny and entitled Lord Pyrantin.

As a child of the eighties, I was left feeling swaddled in nostalgia by Spine of the Night, wanting to pair it with some cozy PJs and a bowl of sugary cereal.

Webcam Confessional

Unfriended: Dark Web

by George Wolf

The good news: this Dark Web isn’t searching for your credit card info.

That would be playing nice compared to what the sequel to the surprisingly effective Unfriended has in store. More good news: it’s mean is pretty damn lean, clever and creepy.

Like its predecessor, Dark Web does a great job upholding the integrity of the “real time computer screen” gimmick. But from the opening setup, this one carries more eerie authenticity.

First-time director Stephen Susco, a veteran writer with plenty of horror titles in his resume, knows the genre has always reflected the anxieties of the day, and his screenplay here feels as in-the-moment as a brand new laptop with all the latest add-ons.

And that’s just what Matias (Colin Woodell) needs for his new programming project, but funds are tight. He finds a used one on Craigslist that might do, but when he hooks it up for a Skype game night with his friends, the previous owner “slides into his DMs.”

That’s what the kids, say, right?

There’s some bad, bad, stuff on that hard drive, and Matias has to strike bargains with the bad guy if he wants his friends to survive the night.

Sure there are some preposterous turns, but as the upper hand shifts (and shifts again), Susco and his winning cast (including Blumhouse favorite Betty Gabriel) make it a suspenseful ride. We’re making these discoveries right along with them, and while true scares might be in short supply, there’s is no shortage of nasty and unpleasant.

As online cautionary films go, Dark Web gets it better than most. The original Unfriended debuted four years ago, or in tech/social media terms, the Stone Age. Susco finds a wry, self-aware groove to drive home just where we’re at today: manufactured reality, “swatting,” and even, yes, internet currency.

Word is, there will be two theatrical prints, each with different endings. I can think of one that would pretty well spoil all that Dark Web executes so well.

I didn’t see an ending like that.

I hope you don’t either.

 

 





KITT, Meet Stem

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by Hope Madden

It’s a setup you’ll recognize. A man, doing man’s work, brightens when his wife arrives. Oh, they are really in love. Let’s just do this one thing before the romance, OK honey?

Minutes from now, she will be dead, he will be damaged, and eventually his suicidal melancholy will fuel revenge.

From Death Wish to John Wick to Death Wish (again), it’s a premise that never goes out of style and never, ever surprises.

Credit writer/director Leigh Whannell and star Logan Marshall-Green (The Invitation) for keeping you entertained for 90 minutes.

Marshall-Green plays Grey. While all the rest of the world relies on technology to drive them around, buy their eggs and dim their lights, Grey’s in the garage listening to blues on vinyl and rebuilding a Trans-Am.

After the aforementioned tragedy, Grey reluctantly turns to a Cyber Victor Frankenstein type (Harrison Gilbertson, a little over-the-top), who implants a chip to help repair the physical damage.

What happens from there is like Knight Rider meets David Cronenberg.

Right?!

Whannell freshens up the technophobe dystopian narrative with a few fresh ideas, a silly streak and serious violence.

This is the guy who wrote Saw, after all. Those who are surprised by the inspired bloodshed probably haven’t seen his canon.

Marshall-Green shines when he’s not morose and lovelorn, but rather tentatively administering “justice.” His physical performance and the action sequences are enough to keep you interested; the strangely comical tone rewards you for your time.

Aside from Betty Gabriel (always a joy to see her), the performances around Marshall-Green are serviceable: the devoted mom, the icy mercenaries, the boundlessly loving wife. Luckily, this is Marshall-Green’s show. Though he struggles (as does Whannell) with the emotional bits, he’s more than at home with the goofy and the violent.

Long live the flesh!