DownStream – Halloweenies

If you’ve followed this blog since its inception, and even if you haven’t, you might well be aware that I have a personal rule regarding cinematic remakes. With very few exceptions, the basic line is, “fuck those cynical cash grab pieces of shit.”

However, there are times when even I’ll violate my longstanding procedure, and this past week was one of those times. Thanks to a request from a friend as well as some seasonal boredom exacerbated by the pandemic, I decided to give a look to two streaming films released for Halloween, both remakes of films I very much enjoyed in their original form for one reason or another.

If you’re in a hurry and don’t want to read any further, I’ll spare you any added effort. They both sucked. Now, how much they sucked and why, you’ll have to keep going, and immerse yourself in the painful tortures as grizzly ghouls from every tomb are closing in to seal your doom. MWAHAHAHAHA!

Yeah, if you’re looking for scares, that “Thriller” reference is the best you’re gonna get. Enjoy these Halloween duds! And if you’re wondering why I waited until November 1st to do this, well, if The Simpsons can keep doing their Halloween episodes in November, why can’t I?

Rebecca – Netflix

I was asked to review this by my friends at Behind the Rabbit Productions and the No Rest for the Weekend podcast. You can find the full review here, but really, the whole thing boils down to two essential truths: Don’t remake Best Picture winners, and don’t remake Alfred Hitchcock. The fact that we’ve got both cardinal sins in this picture is an indicator of just how far we’ve fallen.

Armie Hammer and Lily James lead a toothless, bland retelling of one of the finest tales of gothic romance and suspense ever put to celluloid, and just about everything that made the original so great is gone. There’s no atmosphere, no suspense, and no real purpose for anything that transpires over the course of two hours. Hammer and James, who I normally love as actors, give wooden, one-note performances that absolutely pale in comparison to the likes of Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier, who could say more with just his eyes than Hammer does with 20 minutes of meet-cute dialogue. It’s also weird how his quasi-British accent is closer to that of the late great George Sanders, who played the philandering Jack Favell in the original, than it is to Olivier or any normal-sounding British voice. The only actor who gives a passable performance is Kristin Scott Thomas as the villainous Mrs. Danvers, but she’s weighed so far down by the just awful screenplay that you can never really enjoy it, especially since all of Danvers’ subtlety from the original is replaced with outright hostility and gaslighting this time around.

It’s been 80 years since Hitchcock directed his masterpiece, and the advancement of storytelling and cinematic technology creates a lot of opportunities for director Ben Wheatley to expand on the moody backdrop of the palatial Manderley estate, but he often takes the easy way out rather than giving us something genuinely thrilling. Apart from some really well-appointed sets, which add to Hitchcock’s version of Manderley by combining the giant spaces with overstuffed brick-a-brack to create both a sense of isolation and claustrophobia, there’s never really anything that can build any kind of feeling of foreboding. Armie Hammer’s character suddenly sleepwalks to the late Rebecca’s old bedroom, which is somehow a hall of funhouse mirrors. A dog leads Lily James to the next plot point no less than three times. The vistas are brighter and bigger thanks to color film and widescreen format, but the color palette is drab and washed out, wasting the chance to contrast colorful settings with the dark undertones of the story. Wheatley’s, I guess I’ll call it, “homage,” to Hitchcock is a CGI flock of birds in the distance in a few shots (Daphne du Maurier wrote both the novels “Rebecca” and “The Birds”) that’s supposed to look ominous but really just insults our intelligence.

Maybe I’m being snobbish, but even if the previous Rebecca didn’t exist, this would be a bad movie. The fact that it does exist makes this a bad idea on basically every front. Apart from one decent performance and some honestly very good production design, this should have been a no-go from moment one. There are just some things that should be left as sacrosanct, especially because they’ve been royally fucked up before, and I think it’s easy to agree that Best Picture winners and Hitchcock should be on that list. It’s also on a meta level fairly short-sighted to take a film and a story about a woman trying to replace someone that’s been idealized without knowing her own self-worth and then try to replace it with a film that basically has no worth. Just call me Danvers because all I want to do is burn it down.

Grade: C-

The Witches – HBOMax

I kind of feel bad for today’s youth, because they’ll never get the thrill of having a good harmless scare in a kid’s movie. Growing up in the 80s and 90s, my generation got to see some genuinely creepy stuff, most of which still holds up today. Remember, Raiders of the Lost Ark was rated PG at the time, and that had fucking faces melting. But even the films that were very much for kids could give actual fun scares, like The Goonies, Gremlins, Return to Oz, or The NeverEnding Story. Back then movies knew how to engage with a young audience on their level to bring the minor frights but also reassure them that there was nothing that would hurt them. It was a subtle art. Nowadays all we get are jump scares, over-the-top comedy bits, and pop culture references for the parents forced to sit through these things.

A prime example of how great these scares could be was the 1990 film, The Witches, based on Roald Dahl’s 1983 book. Now, Roald Dahl famously hated most of the film adaptations of his work, including The Witches, mostly because the studio changed the ending to make it more happy. And while Robert Zemeckis’ 2020 remake does retain most of the original ending, I get the feeling that if Roald Dahl were to watch this version, he’d be BEGGING for the early 90s treacle.

The film is narrated by Chris Rock, playing an older version of the nameless Hero Boy (played by Jahzir Kadeem Bruno), and for every second of his introductory slideshow about witches and every instance of expository interludes, all I could think about was a joke he did at the Oscars a few years back about voice acting:

I hate when people go on TV and tell you how hard it is to do animation. It’s like, “Oh Jay, it’s such hard work. It’s so hard doing animation, getting into character.” No no no, UPS is hard work, okay. Stripping wood is hard work. I’ve done some animation, and here’s how easy it is. It’s the easiest job in the world. I go in a booth, and I go, “Uh, what’s the line?” And the guy goes, “It’s time to go to the store.” And then I go, “IT’S TIME TO GO TO THE STORE! You like that? Okay, we can move on?” And then I go, “What’s the next line?” And he goes, “Uh, it’s getting dark outside.” “IT’S GETTING DARK OUTSIDE!” And then they give me a million dollars!

That. All of that. That is what Chris Rock contributes to this film. Every time he talks about witches, it might as well be, “Uh, what’s the line?” “Uh, witches are real and evil.” “WITCHES ARE REAL AND EVIL!” Check cashed.

It only gets worse from there. From the original settings of Norway and England, we’re instead transported to 1968 Alabama, as the Hero Boy, after losing his parents (because we can’t have a kids movie without dead parents; it’s the only “scare” the kids are allowed to have), goes to live with his grandmother, played by Octavia Spencer, who teaches him about witches, having witnessed a witch attack herself as a child. After the boy encounters a witch himself, they go to a fancy hotel on the Gulf Coast, where it just so happens that the American coven of witches is having their annual convention, where the Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway) reveals their diabolical scheme to use a potion to turn all children into mice. Before long, the Boy and his chubby British acquaintance Bruno (Codie-Lei Eastick) are turned rodent and flee, along with the Boy’s pet mouse, who also turns out is a transformed child (Kristin Chenowith), and they scheme with Grandma to defeat the witches once and for all.

Every opportunity to do something new and exciting with this story is utterly wasted. Changing the setting to civil rights-era Alabama offers the chance to do some real social commentary, as it’s mentioned the witches prey upon poor children that society wouldn’t miss. This is a goldmine of potential allegory and subtext about racial segregation, class warfare, and the concept of social justice. Instead, it’s just a quick wink about how shocked the black staffers are to see a black person staying in the hotel. Anne Hathaway’s Grand High Witch could have been portrayed as the Ultimate Karen, as she’s constantly arguing with the put-upon manager (Stanley Tucci, slumming it to an insane degree) and making insane demands, but each moment is so fleeting that it hardly bears mention. Technological advancements could have made for super realistic looking mice and other effects that could give kids a legit momentary fright. Instead, we’re given CGI that would have looked dated 10 years ago. Remember “Rubber Peter” from the first Spider-Man movie? Or cartoon Harry riding the troll’s back in the first Harry Potter film? Yeah, these effects are on par with those movies, only those movies came out 18 and 19 years ago, respectively, and in 2020 you have to do better than that.

But the worst of all is the transformations of the Grand High Witch herself and the kids. If you ever saw the original film from 30 FUCKING YEARS AGO, you’d remember the absolutely revolting (in the best way) makeup design that went into turning Angelica Huston into an inhuman monster. She was grotesque beyond belief. I saw the 1991 Addams Family movie as a kid before I saw The Witches, so when I did, I remember recognizing Angelica Huston as this beautiful dark queen and romantic. To see her then morph into a mass of boils, hair, long nose, and dangling flesh was damn near traumatic for me. It was THAT good of a design, and one that still holds up today.

In this film, on the other hand, we get cheap CGI. There are a few rash marks on the obvious bald cap Hathaway’s wearing under her wig (which she changes several times, because, why exactly?), and her mouth just splits back at the corners (I half expected her to ask people if they knew how she got those scars every time she’s on screen) to reveal CGI jagged teeth. The same goes for her eyes, her nostrils when they flare, her clawed fingers (I’ll give mild credit that the clicking sound when the witches “clap” is somewhat creepy) that magically change from two to four when she’s wearing gloves, so her middle fingers can move independently, and her tongue. All CGI, all fake as shit. Her arms stretch out and contort at weird angles when she’s reaching out for the kids, which I think was intended to be a 3D effect given the way the shots are framed, but against a flat surface like a TV or computer screen it just looks terrible. When it was decided this film would go to streaming instead of a traditional theatrical release, they probably should have cut or reshot those scenes. The witches even have snakes that make up part of their costumes, which is an interesting touch, except that once again it’s dated digital animation that by this point they should all be ashamed of, especially since Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuaron produced this picture.

And to top off the shit sundae is her voice. Even though she’s the head of the American coven of witches, for some reason it was decided that Anne Hathaway should speak with an accent that recalls Natasha Fatale on Quaaludes in her “human” form, and in her true form she has this gargling hiss that made me think that Gollum was being vivisected. As much as I love both actresses, Hathaway and Chenowith seem to have an ongoing battle throughout as to whose voice is more jarring whenever you hear it. True, I’m covering my ears and screaming, “Make it stop!” but it’s because of irritation, not because anything even remotely scary is going on.

And sadly, it’s no better with the kids. If you’ve never seen the original, just do yourself a favor and watch Bruno’s transformation on YouTube. It is the stuff of nightmares, combining smoke effects, practical makeup, and Jim Henson creatures to create something truly terrifying for little kids, and something that wouldn’t have been out of place in 80s horror B-movies. In this film, you get the admittedly funny scene of people catapulting into their transformations, but we’re robbed of the real effect in favor of slapstick. And once we’re truly into the mousey world of these kids, once again it’s all CGI. In the original film they used puppets and animatronics that were fairly realistic looking for their time. Here it’s just a straight-up cartoon, even down to the mice smiling as they talk. There’s no attempt at realism whatsoever. And that’s fine, if you want to make an animated film, but to have these clearly cartoonish characters in a live-action film with real human actors is just off-putting, and it robs the story of any real stakes or suspense, because the sickly mouse club is just so happy and giggly all the time that nothing bad can happen, no matter how many times Bruno puts them all at risk to get food because fat kids be fat, y’all, and that’s the only character trait they have. Seriously, Dahl was NOT kind to the portly. Bruno is Augustus Gloop with Veruca Salt’s “I want it now” attitude. Even Hathaway’s cat is 100% CGI, because training animals requires effort.

This could’ve worked. It really could’ve worked, especially in the context of a harmless kids film, because kids don’t know how shitty remakes can be. And with A-list talent in front of and behind the camera, including people who KNOW how to film darker themes for kids, there’s just no excuse for how much of an abject failure this is. The acting is terrible, any chance at a poignant subtext is abandoned before it’s even attempted, and the special effects are so cheesy I was afraid looking closer at my screen would set off actual mouse traps. Hell, if you want a more entertaining, less frustrating waste of 105 minutes, play the board game “Mouse Trap” and try to get it to work properly. It’ll still be better than this pile of turds.

Grade: F

* * *

That’s all I’ve got. Hope you all had a safe, fun Halloween, or that at minimum you’re eating lots and lots of candy. It was my nephew’s 2nd birthday yesterday, and he was a birthday boy parrot. To me that’s sweeter than any treat I could think of.

Join the conversation in the comments below! Did you see either of these movies? Have I scare you off from them? Would you have enjoyed the CGI mice so much more if they pooped in Octavia Spencer’s hand? Give her a little shit pie of her own? Let me know!

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