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Shared Darkness

A Communal Life in Film, Examined

When a Stranger Calls

When a Stranger Calls isn’t an emotionally vacuous siege,
but more of an exercise in anxiety provocation, a psychological
thriller. This doesn’t mean it lacks huge lapses in logic, though.
On a playing field of its own devising, the movie somewhat fails because it introduces kids as bait but can’t — due to the
constraints of its PG-13 rating — fully integrate them into the story
.
Jill doesn’t “check the children” until roughly two-thirds of the way
into the film, and even later, in the mad scramble to stay alive, they
have to be tucked away while Jill bears the direct force of attack. For the full review, from IGN, click here.

Thank God It’s Friday

That
the staid, torch-bearing woman who serves as the erstwhile Columbia
TriStar’s logo
— you know, the one that looks like a cross between
Annie Potts and Annette Bening — busts out some disc moves at the
beginning of Thank God It’s Friday should tell you everything
you need to know about this slice-of-nightlife musical dramedy from
1978
. Featuring early performances by Jeff Goldblum and Debra Winger,
and written by Armyan Bernstein — who would go on to produce a wide
range of chiefly guys’ flicks, including The Hurricane, Air Force One, End of Days, Spy Game and For Love of the Game — the movie is a weird sort of time capsule; think of it as informal prequel to 200 Cigarettes, made very obviously for the boogie-down crowd to capitalize on a waning trend.

Set over the course of a single evening at the hottest nightspot in town, all leading up to a scheduled set by the Commodores, Thank God It’s Friday
tells a clutch of intersecting stories
, including that of a mismatched
couple on a blind date; a disco diva trying to get the deejay to play
her demo; another uptight couple, Dave (Mark Lonow) and Susan (Andrea
Howard), celebrating their anniversary; two underage disco queens
(Terri Nunn and Valerie Landsburg) out to crash Club Zoo and strut
their stuff; and a sleazy, glad-handing owner, Tony Demarco (Goldblum),
who’ll do anything to bag a lady. The big news, per the DVD cover, is
Donna Summer — who sings the Oscar-winning “Last Dance,” and sets the
dance floor a-burnin’ as Nicole Sims — but she and the Commodores are
in all honesty late entries to this party, and blow in and out like a
cool but inconsequential breeze.

Full of polyester threads, banana daiquiris and laughably bad helmet-hairdos, Thank God It’s Friday
is a yawning trifle through and through
. The music is decent, but the
film’s intense stroboscopic dance scenes are enough to induce seizure
on the small screen, even without the presence of Mary Hart. The acting
is, for the most part, declamatory and amateurish (on occasion you even
see a couple actors look down to hit their marks), but it’s amusing to
see Goldblum’s Cheshire cat grin in its nascent stages, and Winger
shows flashes of why she would go on to establish herself as a breakout
star
. Given bad dialogue and rote set-ups, she still manages to put a
fresh spin on things, as in a scene where she spills a drink on a
fellow patron and knocks over items from the bar.

Housed in a single-disc Amray case and presented in anamorphic
widescreen that preserves the aspect ratio of its original exhibition, Thank God It’s Friday
features a 5.1 Dolby digital surround soundtrack in English and a
poorly-mixed track in Portuguese, as well as alternate subtitles in
English, Japanese Spanish and Portuguese — though the latter two are
unbilled on the disc’s packaging sleeve. There are unfortunately no
supplemental bonus features contained herein, vacuuming this title free
of any possible kitsch replay value. D (Movie) D (Disc)

House of Wax

I’m filing this piece, originally tapped out for IGN last fall, as both a full-fledged film and DVD review, since it trips into substantive analysis (as much as the movie will allow) on both fronts. To wit:

In theory, teen and early twentysomething couples actually have to do something between dinner and making out; ergo Hollywood product like House of Wax,
a remake of the old Vincent Price flick adapted by Chad Hayes and Carey
Hayes and captured in moving form by Spanish music video and commercial
director Jaume Collet-Serra, who makes his feature debut. It’s not the
familiar template narrative (car troubles lead a group of bickering
college students into a small, abandoned, backwater town and its
eponymous wax museum overseen by a sadistic, psychopathic curator) that
grates. No, it’s the fact that House of Wax is studded with
such a choking number of incongruities and irritations, small and
large, that it eventually — or rather quickly, actually — deflates even
the possibility of vicarious shock fun
.

Paris Hilton, above right, and every bit as bad
as you might assume
). They’re all heading to a football game, but end
up waylaid in the bayou outback after a no-good shortcut, woodland
camp-out and car trouble conspire to foul up their plans. Split up, one
pair hitches a ride to the nearest “town,” Ambrose (which looks like
part of a backlot studio tour, even though it was constructed
especially for the movie), and comes across the House of Wax. They also
finally stumble across a peculiar mechanic (Basic‘s Brian Van Holt) who invites them back to his place for the fan belt they need to repair their car.

House of Wax takes an awfully long time before it starts
dispensing bodies, and while I wish I could say that was because of
some sense of either care or cleverness, that’s hardly the case
. Wade
is pretty much the worst boyfriend ever, whether letting Carly ride
next to creepy, knife-wielding dudes in pickups, goading her into
stupid situations or leaving her alone in cars. Hilton, meanwhile, is
given such a number of fawning close-ups — including, I hesitate to
mention, a striptease with no payoff — that you could be forgiven for
thinking her billionaire father bankrolled the production. When she’s
finally offed (her death involves perhaps the worst movie hide-and-seek
intuition I’ve ever seen), the audience will likely let loose with a
collective sigh of appreciation.

It’s true that House of Wax plays much, much better on the
small screen, where many of the film’s practical effects (though
certainly augmented, particularly in the third act) are different
enough to hold your attention
. Still, narratively, so much of the movie
defies plausibility that you just don’t at all get caught up in the
proceedings. (I’m no genius, but it would seem that the requirements of
climate control would necessitate that elaborately posed wax funeral
chambers not be lit solely with, oh, open flames.) Too preposterous to be truly scary, House of Wax in the
end is just what it its ridiculous theatrical tagline — “Prey, Slay,
Display” — first expressed: less a movie than a creaky claptrap poke in
the ribs, a piece of posed entertainment
.

House of Wax is the fifth big screen venture of Joel Silver and
Robert Zemeckis’ Warner Bros.-based Dark Castle production shingle,
following in the footsteps of Thirteen Ghosts, House on Haunted Hill, Ghost Ship and Gothika. Owing at least in part to the accumulated clout of that pair, you know House of Wax is going to get a fair shake in terms of its DVD release, which it certainly does here. I take some umbrage with the way that Collet-Serra and cinematographer
Stephen Windon have shot the picture — many action scenes are much too
dark, most notably Hilton’s robed, pre-death dash through the woods and
an abandoned factory and some ill-advised campfire shenanigans that
incorporate handheld video footage from the characters’ points-of-view
— but House of Wax, presented on DVD in 1.85:1 widescreen, is
additionally difficult to handicap since it’s so color-corrected —
everything is given a slight blue-green tint, even in the daytime
scenes. There are no massive irreconcilabilities, but a little bit of grain is
present here and there (again, in Hilton’s death scene and some
nighttime driving sequences early in the film), but these few specks
come mostly in scenes that are darkly lit, so the inattention is both
mostly masked and not that offensive or distracting.

Dolby 5.1 surround mixes in English, French and Spanish stand alongside
subtitles in each language. Part of any almost horror film lies in the
aural presentation, and while House of Wax
isn’t particularly sophisticated in this area, its surround mix does
allow a wide variety of elements to come into play in the more charged
scenes. Of particular note is the final battle in the titular
structure; as it burns around them, viewers are given a good sense of
the gloopy running of the wax, hand-to-hand combat and the sound of the
structure crumbling in on itself.

Kicking off the slate of supplemental extras is the “B-roll and Bloopers Video Cast Commentary,”
with Cuthbert, Hilton, Murray and Padalecki. In this 27-minute,
split-screen featurette, the quartet basically sit in a room together
and watch the aforementioned footage; it’s an awkward idea rendered
much worse by the fact that the audio mix all but guarantees we can’t
hear most of the actual bloopers and B-roll footage
. Highlights include
how-to footage in regards to the whizzinators used in the film, as well
as Cuthbert’s massive, comically duct-taped boots (wood blocks on top
of flats, actually), used to trim the one-foot height difference
between she and Padalecki. Remarkably, Hilton herein manages to make even more of a fool of herself, revealing that she was somehow duped by a director whose first language isn’t
English into a scene that mocks her sex tape fellatio
(“Yeah, it wasn’t
supposed to be like that. My boyfriend was so upset”). This bit also
reveals that she had the entire crew scream along with her during her
first several death scene takes (because she was “embarrassed”), and
that Hilton is apparently a method actress, as she runs up and down a
flight of stairs to prepare to simulate breathlessness during
aforementioned chase sequence. Wow… priceless stuff.

Other extras include an amusing, tongue-in-cheek introduction by Silver from the set of the just-released Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang,
a seven-minute featurette on the design work in the movie, a
three-minute gag reel, a 10-minute look at the visual effects work of
the movie and a 90-second alternate “cold open” in which an anonymous
character gets tossed by the neck from a moving car through a
windshield. The bottom line? House of Wax isn’t necessarily a very good movie; the acting is
of such varying quality that it really becomes a problem in sustaining
credible mood
. Likewise, the relative novelty of seeing a lot of
practical effects work is somewhat stunted by a narrative that
repeatedly presses the Staples “Easy” button. That said, its DVD
presentation offers up a decent enough mix of supplemental material that
those so inclined to delve into obvious genre fare will more likely
than not find House of Wax a relatively diverting if not completely fulfilling rental. If you really want to see the original layout of the review, from IGN, click here. D+ (Movie) B (Disc)