Day two of the Overlook Film Festival unleashed, perhaps, the most humidity I have ever felt in my life, accompanied by a torrential downpour that did little to alleviate the heat. I kicked the day-off with a fest-sponsored ghost tour through the French Quarter, which introduced the perspiring crowd to several of NOLA’s famous haunts, including the infamous house where Delphine LaLaurie was said to have tortured and murdered several slaves (Kathy Bates played the historical murderess in American Horror Story: Coven).
The story of the LaLaurie house was gruesome to the max, involving horrific tortures no Hollywood filmmaker could dream up. The only relief in the tale came with the reveal at the end that none other than Nicolas Cage had lived in the house for a while (he sold it after he got into some hot water over taxes). From the ghost tour, it was off to the Museum of Death, a small but effective locale offering an alarming amount of memorabilia from real-life serial killers (Charles Manson’s prison shirt hangs on the wall). Think of it as Faces of Death: The Building. And then it was time to escape the heat for what we really came here for – movies.
Daniel Isn’t Real Turns Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Son into a Murderous Imaginary Friend
Did you ever have an imaginary friend growing up? Well, what if that friend wasn’t so imaginary? That’s the set-up of Daniel Isn’t Real, the latest from Adam Egypt Mortimer (Some Kind of Hate). After witnessing the aftermath of a horrific mass-shooting, young Luke suddenly finds himself hanging out with Daniel, a friend only he can see. Luke’s troubled, mentally-ill mother (Mary Stuart Masterson) can’t see Daniel – but that doesn’t stop Luke’s new pal from creating some serious problems. Mom orders Luke to send his imaginary pal away, which he does – but Daniel doesn’t stay away forever.
Jump forward a few years, and college-age Luke (Miles Robbins) is in the midst of a crisis. And who should show up to help him? Daniel (Patrick Schwarzenegger). Daniel is everything Luke is not – charming, adventurous, confident, really well dressed. So what if no else can see him? Soon, Daniel is helping Luke have fun, enabling the shy young man to suddenly become quite popular, wooing two girls in the process – artist Cassie (Sasha Lane) and college student Sophie (Hannah Marks). But Daniel has a dark side – a very dark side. And he might not be so imaginary after all. Luke reaches a point where he wants nothing more than for Daniel to go away again – but Daniel is having none of it.
Schwarzenegger shines as the charming-then-scary Daniel, strutting about the film like a demonic reject from a Bret Easton Ellis novel. Robbins is quite good too, especially as Luke becomes more and more unhinged. Mortimer films all of this in tight close-ups, jittery frames, and loaded with sudden bursts of horrific imagery. But Daniel Isn’t Real can’t quite stick its landing. Worse than that, it’s treatment of mental illness is problematic, to say the least. One gets the sense that Mortimer and co-writer Brian DeLeeuw simply skimmed a Wikipedia entry on bipolar disorder and then got cracking on a script. Also not helping is the fact that the supporting cast is woefully underdeveloped. Lane’s Cassie in particular has little to do other than remind us she’s an artist over and over again.
Still, there’s enough creepy menace and palpable dread to keep Daniel Isn’t Real afloat, even as it descends into a climax that borders on goofy. Mortimer is clearly a filmmaker with vision, and while I don’t think he’s yet to find his true directorial voice, I have no doubt he has great things in store for audiences.
Satanic Panic Has a Great Concept Executed Poorly
There’s a great movie to be made with the story behind Satanic Panic. Sadly, this isn’t it. Screenwriter Grady Hendrix was clearly going for a YA horror vibe with his tale of a pizza girl battling wealthy suburban Satanists, but director Chelsea Stardust fatally misinterprets the material. The filmmaker’s sole direction to her cast seems to have been nothing more than yelling “GO BIG!!!” over and over again. As a result, everyone here is broad to the extreme, bugging their eyes out like cartoon characters while screaming their dialogue to the high-heavens. It’s a major disappointment that never finds its footing.
Struggling pizza delivery girl Hayley Griffith can’t catch a break, and when some wealthy snobs in the richest part of town stiff her on a tip for a huge order, she decides to barge into their house and beg for money. Unfortunately, the affluent people inside – lead by an extremely campy Rebecca Romijn – are Satanists trying to summon the demonic entity Baphomet. To pull this off, they need a virgin – and wouldn’t you know it, our pizza gal just happens to be quite chaste.
This scenario would be perfect for a Christopher Pike or R.L. Stine book for teens, and I so badly want that book to exist. Instead, we get this film, which backfires on nearly every single front. Highlights include some wonderful gore and creature effects, a pretty funny extended cameo from Jerry O’Connell, and a cool use of old school movie black magic. Lowlights include pretty much everything else. Griffith’s performance is unconvincing, and it doesn’t help that she’s soon paired-up with Ruby Modine (Happy Death Day), who would’ve made a much better lead. While there’s plenty of dark humor to be mined in the film’s premise, Stardust approaches it far too broadly – the cast might as well be constantly winking directly at the camera. Had the filmmaker directed her cast to play all of this straight instead of mugging non-stop, the end result would’ve been far more rewarding. Worse: the entire movie seems to be comprised of wide master shots, making for a visually flat experience.
Saying all of this gives me no pleasure. I wanted to love Satanic Panic. I wanted to come out of the cooled theater into the humid streets and proudly announce I had seen the best of the fest. Instead, I felt disheartened, pining for what could have been.
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