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Kicking the Tweets
Monday
Feb142011

Better Off Dead (1985)

There's No Stalgia Like Nostalgia, Part Two

Presented here is the second in a series of letters to myself regarding the movies that shaped my worldview.  Thanks to the fine folks at The Emmett Brown Institute for Federal Time/Space Studies and their “Travel Logs” program, I’ve been given the chance to chop through the time/space continuum and communicate with any previous version of Me of my choosing.

Today, I’m writing to little 9-year-old Ian on Christmas Eve, 1986—mere hours away from his discovery of the groundbreaking classic comedy Better Off Dead.  Enjoy!

Dear Ian,

So, you haven’t given up the late-night snooping-around-the-Christmas-tree thing, huh?  You really should get that impulsiveness under control, ‘cause it’s going to wreak havoc on your finances later on.  By the year 2004, your apartment walls will look like Pop Culture threw up on them; five years after that, you’ll look back at photos from that era and wonder how your eyes didn’t fall out of your head, staring a movie posters and action figures day in and day out.

You were probably expecting a letter from Santa, but you’ll have to settle for me instead; which is to say, you’ll have to settle for yourself, talking to you from the future.  Look, if you’re going to hold on to this Jolly Old Man fantasy for another year, surely you can make room for time travel.

I know you’re confused, but don’t wake up Dad.  He didn’t write this.

I’m writing to let you know about a choice you’ll need to make tomorrow.  You’ll be up before the sun—certainly before Mom and Dad—flipping channels for something good to watch.  You’re going to be really tempted to watch Brain Games, followed by Romancing the Stone (again).  But I’m begging you, for the sake of our future sense of humor and the aesthetics of our wedding, please turn on HBO at 6am and watch a movie called Better Off Dead.

It’s not a horror movie (by the way, we’re still reeling from that time you watched the end of Friday the 13th Part 3 last year, when you got up just a bit too early for Saturday morning cartoons).

I just realized you probably don’t know what “aesthetics” means.  Let me re-phrase that last bit: “For the sake of our future sense of humor and what our wedding will look like…”

Make sense?  Good.

Better Off Dead stars your soon-to-be new hero, John Cusack.  He plays Lane Meyer, an awkward teenager whose girlfriend, Beth (Amanda Wyss) breaks up with him in order to date a ski champion named Roy Stalin (Aaron Dozier).  This sends Lane into a downward spiral of depression, and he spends most of the rest of the movie trying to kill himself.  Did I mention this is a comedy?

Lane befriends Monique (Diane Franklin), a French foreign-exchange student living with his across-the-street neighbors, the Smiths: Ricky (Dan Schneider), a chubby pervert, and his overbearing monster of a mother (Laura Waterbury).  Monique teaches Lane that there are things worth living for, like discovering new love and restoring a hot, classic Camaro that Beth had convinced him to buy.

This probably sounds really boring, and you think you’ve seen this movie about ten times before.  But I assure you, there’s nothing in the world as unique and hilarious as Better Off Dead.  I’m writing to you twenty-six years after it came out, and there’s still nothing that can touch it.  The main selling point is something called “absurdity.”

Conventional comedies don’t have fantasy sequences involving claymation hamburgers rocking out to David Lee Roth’s “Everybody Wants Some”; nor will you ever see a Christmas morning where the best presents are TV dinners and aardvark-fur jackets.  From the Japanese street racers narrating their own races as Howard Cosell through roof-mounted loudspeakers to Barney Rubble asking Lane if he could ask out Beth, Better Off Dead is packed with so much nonsensical hilarity that your mind will be blown—if I recall correctly, you’ll spend your own presents-opening ritual stuck in a giggle fit; one that will never truly go away.

You also won’t be able to shake the movie’s title song, “One Way Love (Better Off Dead)” for about a decade, and when you meet E.G. Daily (who performs it in the film) in twenty years, the immovable smile on your face will render you barely capable of speech.

Better Off Dead will become your humor litmus test, but it will also help determine the course of your life.  In the next decade or so, you’re going to have a series of girlfriends (yes, it’s true; calm down) who will be great in their own special ways.  But you’ve got to hold out for the one who loves this movie as much as you do.  Let me be very clear: When I use the word “love”, I don’t mean “like”.  The one you’re meant to spend the rest of your life with will not only know every joke and sight gag back and forth, she’ll also quote lines to you whenever an occasion calls for it.  You’ll exchange knowing smiles whenever someone says “two dollars” or “tentacles”.

This girl will be so hip and so on your wavelength that she’ll marry you in a movie theatre with “Better Off Wed” below your names on the marquee (she’ll also appreciate the boy and girl hamburger people you’ll sculpt as wedding cake toppers).  I’m not going to tell you which girl will be The One.  Because as painful and wonderful as your test-run relationships will be; as much as you’ll want to marry some girls and kill yourself over others; there’s a great one waiting for you, who won’t look at you cross-eyed when you tell her she likes raisins.

(Sorry for all the mushy stuff.  It’s Valentine’s Day, and I’m pulling double-duty with this letter.)

So, yes, if you’re looking for some real brain games, watch Better Off Dead tomorrow.  And go back to sleep!

Sunday
Feb132011

City of the Living Dead (1980) Home Video Review

The Eyes Have It

To declare my love for Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead sets me up for an attack from two disparate camps.  The first are die-hard fans of Italian Horror, who will no doubt spot my late arrival to their party right away; I know little of the genre, or of Fulci, so I fully expect some readers to sniff at my reasoning and find this review incredibly cute.

The second group are fans of “serious cinema” who likely see “Living Dead” and “1980” in a review description and keep on scrolling.  If they do stick around, it’s possible they’ll dismiss what I’m about to say as impossible: a decades-old low-budget zombie movie can’t be any good unless it was directed by George Romero, right?

Wrong.  And I sincerely hope you’ll take the time to watch City of the Living Dead.  It’s unlike any horror movie I’ve seen, and is full of cool narrative and filmmaking elements that modern movies could take cues from—horror or otherwise.

Sure, there’s plenty to giggle at here.  As with most movies of this kind, you have to set aside the poor dubbing the same way you must get used to reading subtitles on a foreign-language picture.  This may take a bit longer than usual, because the Italian and British actors perform alongside Americans, meaning that sometimes the dialogue syncs up with the mouths and sometimes it doesn’t.  The dialogue itself is also painfully corny in some places, as is the Telemundo-style hysterics that the female performers are prone to.

But faulting the tropes of this era of horror films is like blaming a black-and-white movie for not being in color.  So let’s move on to the particulars.

City of the Living Dead begins with a priest (Fabrizio Jovine) hanging himself in a Dunwich, Massachusetts graveyard.  A New York psychic named Mary Woodhouse (Catriona Maccoll) has a vision of the act during a séance, in which the suicide opens up the Gates of Hell.  Images of the dead rising to wreak havoc are so traumatizing that she instantly dies of fright.

A couple days later, reporter Peter Bell (Christopher George) visits the cemetery where Mary is about to be interred.  He has no luck getting information out of the gravediggers—who leave before filling in the hole—and as he walks away, Peter hears screaming coming from inside the coffin.  He breaks Mary out and she implores him to travel to Dunwich with her to destroy the priest, who’s returned from the grave imbued with the powers of Satan.

Meanwhile, things aren’t going so well in Dunwich.  Dust bowls swell up out of nowhere; guttural moans shake the earth and shatter mirrors; and, oh, yeah, the dead priest resurfaces and kills people.

Predictably, City of the Living Dead develops along these parallel lines, eventually leading to a climactic showdown between the priest and his modest army of the undead, and Mary and Peter—who pick up a Dunwich psychiatrist named Gerry (Carlo De Mejo) along the way.  But the movie has a great journey of discovery for people who think Fulci has just churned out a standard zombie flick.

When I turned the movie on, I knew nothing about it, save for the generic-looking poster featuring a green ghoul hovering over a city—and the fact that Fulci had directed Zombi the year before.  Given that many believe Zombi to be a rip-off of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, I expected this to be more of the same.  I was surprised to find a closer resemblance to Stephen King’s 'Salem’s Lot.

Working with co-writer Dardano Sacchetti, Fulci injects his story with a supernatural angle that defies convention.  Most zombie movies—whether they acknowledge it or not—have an underlying theme of the dead returning to life as a precursor to judgment day (as with the famous Romero tagline, “When there’s no more room in Hell, the dead shall walk the Earth”).  These inevitably turn into simple survival movies—numbers games where a small band of heroes locks themselves in a house/mall/underground cave and fends off slow-moving, stupid monsters.  In City of the Living Dead, the zombies are still dumb, but they’re the puppet-agents of the evil priest, whose dark powers allow the creatures to teleport and play mind-games with their victims.  In this way, the undead antagonists of Fulci’s movie are less like ambulatory corpses and more like the vampires of King’s iconic novel.

The King influence—speculating here—also shows up in the brief portraits we get of the Dunwich townsfolk.  From the fat, paranoid good ol’ boys at the local bar to the misunderstood loner kid who gets framed for something and brutally punished by his friend’s overzealous dad, the story provides plenty of opportunity for the forces of Hell to influence peoples’ behavior; by the time the zombies show up, half of their work has already been done.  I also liked the maggot-storm flourish, wherein our heroes are warned not to go any further by one of the nastiest and unintentionally hilarious uses of worms you’re likely to see.

The one thing City of the Living Dead has in common with other zombie movies is its creative use of gore.  The famous head-drilling scene and the moment where a girl—under the hypnotic influence of the priest—bleeds from the eyes and then vomits out her internal organs in sequence are as spectacular as you’ve heard; if you’re not in the know, I suggest eating either way before or way after watching this movie.  Fulci runs out of creative steam, though, as by the end we’ve been treated to about four zombie attacks involving brains being ripped out the back of peoples’ heads; he’s clearly not re-using the same shots, so I wonder why he chose repetition over invention.

He makes up for this, though, with his bleeding-eyes obsession; particularly in a scene involving Mary.  Watching this on a high-definition monitor, I couldn’t figure out how the director achieved the effect of making Maccoll cry blood.  Yes, there’s a cutaway that allows hints of red to appear near the rims of her eyes, but he holds on her long enough for us to see that droplets begin to form and then streak down her face, as if the actress had been fitted with microscopic squibs (or had become afflicted with ocular stigmata).

Regardless of how he achieved the gag, Fulci’s fixation on eyes is undeniable. There are so many close-ups of eyeballs and pairs of peepers that one wonders if the director’s intent was to parody soap operas and Spaghetti Westerns or to make sure the audience didn’t leave the theatre without knowing what a motif was.  Whatever the case, the staring fetish works about half the time; when no one’s face is bleeding, we simply get a lot of confused quick-zooms to the eyes that sometimes, horrifically, lead to characters breaking the fourth wall.

Not all credit can be laid at Fulci’s feet.  I’d say forty percent of the film’s effectiveness comes from Fabio Frizzi’s unsettling score and the bone-rattling percussions of the sound department.  I’m neither a musician nor a musical expert, so I won’t embarrass myself by trying to explain why City of the Living Dead is such a compelling aural experience.  I challenge you to watch it and not be creeped out; I also challenge you not to laugh at the music during the climax and finale—which is goofy from an audio and visual standpoint; the movie’s last ten minutes are bizarre beyond words, and I don’t mean that as a compliment.

This is my third foray into Italian Horror (following Dario Argento’s Suspiria and Fulci’s Zombi), and so far most of my fears and preconceptions have been proven false.  I wasn’t above thinking that these older films would be dripping with cheese and have nothing to offer my understanding of movies.  But similar to Sergio Leone’s re-vitalizing of the Western with his Man with No Name Trilogy, the Italian horror auteurs doused the American formula in blood and grit, creating a new paradigm that begged to be embellished and improved upon.  We’re thirty years out from City of the Living Dead, and I’m still waiting.

This review also appears at Cinelogue.

Friday
Feb112011

Black Dynamite (2009) Home Video Review

Code of Ethnics

If you’ve seen any Blaxploitation movie or the Wayans Brothers’ I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, you can skip Black Dynamite.  A joke is only really funny the first time you hear it, and eighty-four minutes of old jokes is a sojourn in Hell.

Director Scott Sanders seems to think that his farce about a streetwise, ex-CIA Kung Fu master taking on The Man to avenge the murder of his brother is new territory—that the retro-pimps-platforms-and-puffy-hair era hasn’t been parodied in a hundred TV shows, movies and Web avatars in the forty years since Richard Roundtree first strutted down the street to Isaac Hayes’ Shaft theme.  But he’s wrong, and the only thing he gets right in this lowest-common-denominator retread is the look and feel of a low-budget 70s actioner.

Instead of using his gift for capturing an era with perfect wardrobe, music and film stock to do what Quentin Tarantino did with Death Proof—which is to tell a new and interesting story using genre conventions as a starting point and not a destination—Sanders tries to make Airplane!-in-the-ghetto.  I wouldn’t necessarily have a problem with that, except all of the jokes and gags are the first things that spring to mind when I think of what would likely show up in a movie with that description.

Look!  You can see the boom mic when Black Dynamite (Michael Jai White) stands up from his desk!

Hey!  Check out that ad for Anaconda Malt Liquor!  Black guys have huge penises, you know.

ROTFLMAO.

It’s all too easy.  Worse yet, there are some cases where Sanders and co-writers White and Byron Minns don’t bother to make fun of Blaxploitation movies—they straight-up co-opt them.  Like the scene where Black Dynamite’s large madam friend, Honeybee (Kym Whitley) cries, “Black Dynamite, I’m so happy.”  This is a callback to the movie Dolemite, where a large madam named Queen Bee delivers almost the exact same line—it’s hilarious in that movie because the acting is unbelievably bad.  In Black Dynamite, it’s a recreation of a moment that has nothing to do with anything, except to remind the four audience members who know better of a genuinely funny scene that took place decades ago.

This Xerox-ing of material and the accompanying cheekiness of everyone involved drags the film down.  The best comedy is unexpected.  If I tell you that the movie you’re about to watch is either the funniest or scariest thing you’ve ever seen in your life, your natural inclination—no matter how hard you fight it—is to be on the alert for points of reference (assuming you’re not a zombie, I mean).  Your mental search engine kicks into high gear as scenes play out, recalling everything that’s ever made you laugh or crawl under the covers.  The most successful movies spring things that you never saw coming—eliciting laughter or shrieks (sometimes shrieks of laughter).  The least successful ones elicit yawns or long chats about better movies.  This isn’t a conscious activity; it’s a human one, refined from millennia of evolution to help us navigate bullshit as a species.

Pardon the armchair science, but I’m sure there are Black Dynamite fans reading this who think I’m some kind of a freak for having sat stone-faced through what seemed like five hours of endless “wacky” martial arts fights, sex scenes and monologues where derivations of “jive-ass cracker turkey” are used so much you’d think they were being outlawed after the production wrapped (as they should be).  But for all the effort that went into production design on this film, the writers couldn’t invest more in their material than relying on the laughter of recognition when Arsenio Hall shows up in a funny outfit and proceeds to do absolutely nothing worth watching.

I was surprised by one aspect of Sanders’ movie, which is its rampant misogyny.  You could argue that since it’s a parody of a genre that wasn’t exactly pro-women’s-rights we should expect some “comical” bitch slaps and lots of willing flesh.  But Black Dynamite doesn’t comment on its demeaning treatment of women; it merely revels in it.  Even the strong female activist Gloria (Salli Richardson-Whitfield), initially built up as a sassy foil to the clueless, macho Black Dynamite, is reduced to a fawning damsel.  The scene at the end where our hero apologizes to Patricia Nixon (Nicole Sullivan) for having knocked her into a china cabinet isn’t so much an admission of mistreatment (he only “over-reacted”, after all) as it is an excuse for the writers to engage in that most tired and offensive tradition of urban cinema wherein a street-lingo-slinging thug delivers a rambling soliloquy full of big words in a “white-sounding” voice.  In one scene, we get a tasteless twofer.

Black Dynamite could have been a really great movie, had Sanders and company gone the straight storytelling route and made a retro-70s action film.  There are moments where the promise of what could have been shine through—as in the brief exchange between Black Dynamite and a thug named Chicago Wind (Mykelti Williamson); it’s tough-guy dialogue that comes close to exciting—until the screechy Kung Fu silliness ruins the scene.  I’ve said it before, and it bears repeating, the movies we consider to be cheesy today are funny because of how earnest they were; not because they constantly hit us over the head with assurances that we would laugh at them.  Instead of directing a bad parody (seriously, this could have been called Not Another Blaxploitation Movie), Scott Sanders would have been better off making a better version of one of the old films.

Besides, Keenan Ivory Wayans already covered this territory in 1988 with I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, which imagined what Blaxploitation characters would be like fifteen years after their prime.  It’s not a perfect movie, but it’s a unique beast that blends humor with ideas (like the throwaway scene where the hero goes to the former black revolutionary headquarters to round up troops in his war against The Man—he’s informed by the last hanger-on that all of the old rabble-rousers got government jobs; it’s a decent laugh, a comment on selling out, and an actual plot point).  Sanders could have learned a lot from Wayans.  Instead, he invested a lot of time, talent and money into the world’s longest, lamest knock-knock joke.

Wednesday
Feb092011

Dogtooth (2009) Home Video Review

A World of Human Wreckage

The only thing more puzzling than the movie Dogtooth is the New York Times blurb on its poster that reads, “Hilarious!”  It’s a foreign film—possibly the foreign film, if Oscar is kind—but I’m pretty sure a sullen-looking woman with blood running down her face doesn’t translate to “comedic romp” in any language.

But I went in with an open mind, which—by film’s end—was cracked and splattered across the realms of the inconceivable.  This is a seriously disturbed horror story that deserves to be seen by anyone decrying the lack of originality and emotion in movies.

Like The Human Centipede, Dogtooth takes place in a big, secluded house where a deranged old man performs experiments on three helpless innocents.  Don’t worry, Father (Christos Stergioglou) doesn’t fuse anybody’s anus to anyone else’s mouth; his captives are his children, for God’s sake.  No, his brand of exploration involves sequestering his teenagers from the outside world at all costs; including convincing them that stray cats are ferocious creatures who must be killed and teaching them incorrect word usage (“Vaginas” are called “Keyboards”).  Father also provides a sex partner for his son, Son (Hristos Passalis), in the form of Christina (Anna Kalaitzidou), a comely security guard from his factory job.

Anal fusion doesn’t sound so bad now, eh?

While Father works, Mother (Michele Valley) stays home with the kids.  She lets them roam the family’s lush estate, indulging in dips in the pool and games of blindfolded, Reverse-Hide-and-Seek.  Their only education is a sexual one, with Christina secretly bartering with the girls for bejeweled headbands and hair gel in exchange for cunnilingus.

Teenage incest is an awful subject for entertainment.  Fortunately for Dogtooth, the filmmakers leave just enough questions unanswered to put the audience somewhat at ease.  For example, I would’ve had no idea that the kids are supposed to be teenagers had I not read the synopsis.  A quick IMDB search reveals that Older Daughter (Aggeliki Papoulia) was about thirty-five at the time of shooting.  All of the children look well into their twenties, though their behavior looks to have been arrested at the age of nine.

There’s also the issue of the family’s legitimacy.  Another film Dogtooth brings to mind is Disney’s Tangled, in which Rapunzel is kidnapped at infancy and raised in a hidden tower by a scheming sorceress.  Both films feature characters who are sheltered from the outside world by pure manipulation on the part of adults they trust implicitly.  With this in mind, I can’t say for sure that the three siblings in Dogtooth are actually related (true or not, it helps the numerous sex scenes go down a little easier).  If they are blood relatives, we must question what Father and Mother’s deal is.  Are they related?  Or did they meet in a Greek Kidnapper’s chat room?

Director Giorgos Lanthimos and his co-screenwriter Efthymis Filippou have created a brilliant, unique look at a group of people that could never (hopefully) exist.  Sure, it’s exploitive and sick, but it’s impossible not to get wrapped up in these sad lives.  Dogtooth benefits from the indie aversion to over-explaining everything, reveling in the weird ambiguity of a story that is essentially a ninety-minute second act.

We wonder how the parents can afford such nice digs, and where Father’s penchant for beating people over the head with electrical equipment comes from.  We marvel at the sisters’ naiveté can run so deep that they believe a toy airplane that Father left for them in the yard is actually a crashed version of the ones they see overhead—yet so shallow that they’re able to re-enact scenes from Rocky and Jaws; indeed, the only media in the household seems to be the porn in the parents’ bedroom.

The subject matter is matched by cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis’ beautiful compositions.  From the awkwardness of Son’s test of his sisters’ virility in a bathtub three-shot to a beautiful metal sink full of blood and tooth fragments, there are few frames in Dogtooth that couldn’t be ripped out and hung in a gallery.  I also loved the early scenes—in retrospect; not so much as they were happening—where we see the characters at strange, cropped angles, acting in a monotone that’s cloying until the story helps us understand why no one in the film is particularly expressive.  The camera joins in the dysfunction by showing us unsettling subject matter in ways that tell the brain things aren’t quite right.

I don’t know that Dogtooth has a point, other than as an exercise in making the audience uncomfortable (that is, unless you find it to be hilarious).  If there are undertones about homeschooling, I didn’t see them—and I doubt the Greeks are engaged in the same bogus fundamentalist culture wars that we are. I guess it comes down to whether or not people will tolerate a gorgeously acted, superbly shot movie about captivity and sibling sex.  I loved almost every squirmy, subtitled second of it.  I suggest you give this cinematic Rorschach Test a try before making with the dirty looks.

This review also appears on Cinelogue.

Monday
Feb072011

The Roommate (2011)

Run, White Bitch, Run!

Let’s get something out of the way:  The fact that The Roommate is an unofficial update of Single White Female has nothing to do with its quality or whether or not you should see it.  There are plenty of reasons to avoid the film, but this SWF remake hysteria is not one of them.  People act as if director Christian E. Christiansen and screenwriter Sonny Mallhi should be locked away for stealing the plot of a nineteen-year-old movie.  This premise is false for three reasons:

1.  The Roommate’s target audience wasn’t born when Single White Female came out; nor would they likely grasp the concept of looking up anything in a newspaper; thus the idea that this is some kind of back-door brand recognition is ridiculous.

2.  The people complaining about this film being a remake aren’t going to see it anyway.

3.  If intra-genre rehashing of stories, characters and scenes is a crime, then Nora Ephron, Ashton Kutcher, and Cameron Diaz should be shackled and banned from ever making movies again.

Is that settled?

Okay, good.  Let’s talk about The Roommate.

Scratch that.  I can’t begin without explaining the environment in which I saw it.  Last Saturday, at 7:50pm, I was the oldest attendee at Old Orchard Mall’s Theatre Seven by at least fifteen years.  The place was packed with teenagers, many of whom showed up in weird clusters that looked to represent pre-sleepover factions or gang bangers locked out of their cribs.  The atmosphere was so loud, so rambunctious and participatory, that I felt like I’d wandered into the theatre scene from Gremlins—minus the satisfying conclusion.

Because Theatre Seven doesn’t have stadium seating, I watched much of The Roommate with a shaved-dome silhouette obscuring the lower-right sixteenth of the screen.  The kid in front of me paid $9.50 to sit in a movie theatre with his head down, looking at his glowing cell phone for ninety minutes; he only looked up when he heard a scream, at which point he yelled things like, “Aw, hell naw!” and “Run, white bitch, run!”

This was a much uglier crowd than the fine folks I saw The Rite with last week, but I hunkered down and learned to enjoy the kicked-over buckets of popcorn and heartwarming spectacle of a four-year-old girl being escorted by her parents after the credits.  I was also proud to have helped make The Roommate the number one movie in America.

You may think you’ve got the film pegged by the synopsis: Sara (Minka Kelly), a freshman and Los Angeles University, gets paired with a psychotic lesbian roommate named Rebecca (Leighton Meester) whose possessiveness drives her to attack Sara’s friends and eventually try to kill her.  If you’ve seen Single White Female, or a few key episodes of any teen soap in the last twenty-five years, you know exactly what’s going to happen.  Because The Roommate is rated PG-13, you’ll be teased with nudity and violence, but the only casualty will be poor, misunderstood, under-medicated Rebecca.

That’s not what makes this film worth seeing.  I’m qualifying my recommendation by addressing only fans of The CW television network.  As I said before, if you’re not in The Roommate’s mental or physical demographic, chances are you’ll skip it anyway (chances are, you’re not even reading this).  But if you never miss Gossip Girl, 90210 or One Tree Hill, you’ll get a kick out of this movie.

Mostly that’s because The Roommate is a tame-horror mash-up of all that network’s shows.  Seriously, there’s at least one star from the aforementioned, as well as The Vampire Diaries and Hellcats; the opening ten minutes are like a bubblegum version of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.

But this isn’t just a case of cynical stunt-casting.  Leighton Meester is a revelation as Rebecca.  Her Blair Waldorf character on Gossip Girl is an empowered, manipulative socialite who loves high fashion and ruining people.  Here, the actress dials it back several degrees, disappearing into a meek and troubled performance.  She turns on the neediness and crazy eyes a bit too soon for my taste, but that’s what makes the story so fantastic.

You see, Sara is really, really dumb.  And so are her new campus girlfriends and hunky drummer boyfriend, Stephen (Cam Gigandet).  Apparently, no one in the film has seen a movie of this kind, and so don’t think to ask for a room transfer or ask questions when the creepy girl begins throwing evil, protective looks everywhere and, um, laundering kittens.  If anyone in The Roommate had acted like an adult, the movie would’ve been a short film—maybe even a public service announcement.

Speaking of adults, it wasn’t until I got home and checked IMDB that I realized why Kelly seemed so strange to me.  What I’d written off as a poor makeup job turned out to be a case of a thirty-year-old playing eighteen.  This is nothing new, of course, and she fits perfectly with late-twenties Gigandet, whose face is so constantly scrunched up in a smiling “I-feel-ya-babe” sympathy-squint that he looks like a botched Reagan wax dummy.

Despite the distracting cast, The Roommate has a few semi-effective horror moments; as when Tracy (Alyson Michalka) is stalked in the dorm showers.  It’s a shameless rip-off of a similar moment from the original Friday the 13th, but the director draws it out just enough to provide a satisfactory jump when Rebecca lunges into frame (though I’ll offer this tip to aspiring filmmakers: if you’re going to establish that a character has a belly button ring so that you can rip it out later, establish it before the scene in which it’s ripped out; Christiansen might as well have used a CG arrow with “Foreshadowing” stenciled on it when the piercing is introduced ).

I also appreciated the screwball guns-and-blunt-objects climax, which surprised me with its crazy violence and slightly dizzying dangling-from-a-window moments.  I probably would’ve enjoyed these scenes more had there not been running commentary from the audience about how much one or both of those “bitches” was gonna get “fucked/jacked” up.

I can’t defend The Roommate on any level, outside of CW fandom, or the hope that some teen will be interested enough in horror that this movie will act as a gateway to better scare fests.  I found it to be funny and dumb, but not boring (how can any film where “And Billy Zane” appears on screen be boring?).  If you love awkward moviegoing experiences, check it out before I Am Number Four, Gnomeo & Juliet, Just Go With It or whatever inane garbage coming out Friday usurps this magical moment in time—where a gaggle of studio executives sits crowded around a conference room table, blowing on the fresh ink of Christian E. Christiansen’s sterling sequel contract.

God bless The Roommate.

God bless America.