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Fall 2023 – Week 9 in Review

Hello folks, and welcome back to Wrong Every Time. With my new apartment now more or less settling into a peaceful routine, all of the humbler creatures within our film screening ecosystem are at last returning to the forest. In less metaphorically incoherent terms, that means we’ve been slotting in more dubious afternoon features to accompany our distinguished evening viewings, and once again plumbing the depths of Netflix, Hulu, and Tubi’s exceedingly variable collections. To be honest, I can’t even fully blame this on my housemates – I’ve made a couple wild swings of my own with recent recommendations, and bear no small part of blame in our recent parade of trash. Nonetheless, the critiques will carry on – whether recommending new favorites or serving as a cautionary tale for others, I take my screenings extremely seriously, and come to you today with a fresh helping of carefully scrutinized cinema. Let’s get to it!

First up this week was The Boogens, an ‘81 creature feature that seemed intent on blending the nascent slasher and classic monster movie genres. The Boogens are somewhat turtle-like monsters that lived in an abandoned silver mine, and begin claiming victims when a crew of workers start working to reopen their home. You’ve got your gaggle of oversexed young folks, you’ve got your crotchety old harbinger warning about secrets, and you’ve got nasty critters with a penchant for human flesh – all the ingredients you need for a gooey, harrowing adventure.

Unfortunately, The Boogens doesn’t quite succeed in its principle objective. It succeeds in a fair number of bonus objectives: the film’s set design feels appropriately weathered, and the chemistry shared by its main cast is truly exceptional by slasher movie standards. But given it’s principally a creature feature, the fact that The Boogens is so hesitant to feature its titular creatures is a disappointing, ultimately debilitating failing. It almost feels like The Boogens suffers from a surfeit of class; it’s got a strong script and superior actors, and perhaps preferred to prioritize them over cheap scares and gory practical effects. But look, when you name your film “The Boogens,” I expect those boogens to be front and center, booging it up.

Next up was The Keep, an unexpected fantasy misfire from the generally no-nonsense Michael Mann. Set in Romania during World War II, the film follows a company of Nazis who end up taking residence in the titular keep, after which strange, seemingly supernatural disappearances begin stealing away soldiers. While the soldiers’ Captain Klaus (Jürgen Prochnow) believes a malevolent spirit is truly afflicting his regiment, he is soon replaced by his sadistic superior Erich Kaempffer (Gabriel Byrne), who believes Soviet sympathizers from the nearby village are responsible. And things really crank into high gear when Ian McKellen arrives, playing a Jewish historian who actually makes contact with The Keep’s ethereal prisoner.

You might have noticed that description is less a coherent, escalating narrative than a series of things that happen, which is really one of The Keep’s primary failings. Initially clocking in at a lofty 210 minutes, The Keep’s distributors demanded it be cut to first 120, then a mere 96 minutes, less than half of its intended running time. The result is a film where Things Simply Happen, as far too much connective tissue has been excised to make sense of dramatic escalation or character motivation. It shifts from a haunted house story to a game of outwitting the nazis to a Conan-esque battle of the titans, leaving the audience far behind by the time it reaches its confusing and characteristically abrupt conclusion.

Given the hatchet job committed by The Keep’s distributors, the film never really has a chance. Characters jump wildly between points in their arcs, continuity is suspect, and even the editing and sound design seem incomplete. Additionally, the film’s special effects supervisor died during filming, necessitating a truncated conclusion that relied on Michael Mann himself constructing the last altered shots. All of this is a terrible shame, as The Keep possesses a palpable sense of space and atmosphere from its opening moments, its grand sets projecting both majesty and ruin with ease, and its supernatural antagonist initially falling into that savory realm of “unknowable spirit that may well reflect our own darkness.” There is a genuinely compelling feature scattered across the ruins of this one, but The Keep ultimately seems much like its titular edifice: cracked and prematurely abandoned, an impassable edifice of unknown secrets.

With Thanksgiving behind us, it apparently ‘tis the season to watch execrable Christmas schlock, a tradition that this year began with the deeply unlikable Fred Claus. The film stars Vince Vaughn as Santa’s deadbeat brother, who begins the film by pretending to be a Salvation Army worker, getting thrown in jail, and phoning up the big man (Paul Giamatti) for bail and a loan for his new casino. Santa says he’ll only provide the money if Fred comes up and helps with the Christmas season, setting the brothers on-track for a wacky adventure that gives each of them a fresh appreciation of the Christmas spirit.

Well, that’s the bluray blurb, presumably. What actually happens is Vince Vaughn parades his fundamentally unlikable self around an overdesigned North Pole (they spent a hundred million dollars on this crap), wasting the time of a variety of much better actors in the process. I have to confess, I simply do not see the appeal of Vince Vaughn – he’s a boorish, smug presence with no emotional range, and I don’t think he’s ever made any film better by his presence. Nonetheless, even sticking a likably disheveled lead in his place would not save Fred Claus from its paint-by-numbers plot and unearned sentimental payoffs. Perhaps the rest of the cast wouldn’t look so bored if they were reacting to someone with genuine acting talent? I mean, this is the kind of film that casts Ludacris as an elf named “DJ Donnie,” I don’t think that would really matter.

Last up for the week was The Doorman, an action film by Ryuhei Kitamura, who also directed the surprisingly superior Midnight Meat Train. The film stars Ruby Rose as a former Marine who, following her failure to protect an ambassador’s family during a convoy operation, has transitioned to the presumably less stressful position of luxury apartment doorman. Unfortunately, this particular luxury apartment may just be the resting place of a collection of priceless paintings, and the ever-engaging Jean Reno has hired a band of thugs to ferret them out. With the lives of Rose’s brother and his children hanging in the balance, Rose will have to use all of her marine skills to take down the bad guys.

So yeah, it’s basically Die Hard, with Rose subbing in for Willis and Reno subbing in for Rickman. Kitamura is a skilled craftsman when it comes to action setpieces, but he’s unfortunately a bit less discerning when it comes to scripts; The Doorman generally lacks the wit and character-specific poignancy of its obvious inspiration, leaving its success entirely in the hands of its scene-by-scene combat spectacles. Only Reno is able to rise above the mundanity of the material presented here, and that’s because he’s Jean fucking Reno – even on relative autopilot, he still possesses a slyness and warmth that energizes the screen. Him aside, The Doorman is an easy skip and a troubling misstep for Kitamura.

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