Bucket Bros: The Carpenters of Comedy
Bedeviled (2016) & Circus Kane (2017) - Horror Movie Review Double Feature
Happy Halloween! This year I wanted to watch movies that sounded fun and unintentionally cheesy. You couldn't find two better examples than the following Red Box exclusives.
Bedeviled asks the question: If your friend died under mysterious circumstances, and their phone invited you to download an app that seemed unusually interested in sussing out your greatest fear, how many more friends would have to die before you realized that it might be time to switch phones? If you answered "two or three friends at least," you could star in the inevitable Bedeviled sequel!
Bedeviled is an oldschool throwback wrapped in the soggy blanket of a modern, moody, PG-13 horror movie like Ouija (2014) or The Bye Bye Man (2017). The villain, Mr. Bedevil, is clearly inspired by Freddy Krueger and Pennywise. But Hollywood doesn't make 'em like that anymore, or at least, they didn't back in 2016. They'll undoubtedly try to make 'em like that after the It reboot's surpise success. But Bedeviled predates that movie by a year, and in order to sneak in a fun, supernatural killer and get this thing made, they had to coat it in a thick layer of mediocrity.
The cast of Bedeviled are dour, depressed, and likely drafted from the CW. These characters are so lifeless, the actors barely had to alter their performance after they died. But it's well worth sitting through endless scenes of furrowed brows, just for Mr. Bedevil himself. On the phone, he's a regular Ghostface, all menace and voice filter. In person, he's more like Pennywise. And that's before he starts morphing into everyone's worst fears.
"My worst fear? Ummm... clowns. But, like, blonde clowns. Dressed as nurses. Like Heath Ledger, only you know, a girl? Aw, yeah. That'd be the worst."
When a movie kills people with their greatest fears, it works a bit like a horror anthology. And like any anthology, some segments are hit and miss. Most of the fears are entertaining: killer clowns, evil teddy bears, even a ghost with a disturbing backstory, who appears bathed in the lurid color of Creepshow and E.C. Comics. (This childhood fear is inspired by a woman in a picture--another similarity to It.) Unfortunately, other fears are... nothing to be afraid of. The main character (Saxon Sharbino, from the Poltergeist reboot) is afraid of her grandmother. This sort of thing can be done right -- Aunt Zelda in Pet Sematary (1989) -- but here it amounts to a contortionist in a cheap gray wig, scuttling across the floor with her leg around her neck. Granny looks ridiculous, and should have been scrapped, or swapped with a side character.
It doesn't help that another major character's worst fear is equally questionable.
Considering his circle of friends, he must really be into aversion therapy.
Spooky Spoiler Warning!
The end of Bedeviled has to be seen to be believed. Horror movies used to abide by a puritanical code of capital punishment. Have sex, or drink a glass of marijuana bongwater, and your days were numbered. Then Scream ushered in the post-modern era, and all of a sudden, horror movies didn't know who to kill, or why! Bedeviled also follows a strict moral code, one I can guarantee you've never seen before. I won't spoil the whole thing, but let's just say it involves the dangers of modifying your cell phone's firmware. Anti-jailbraking propoganda? Almost makes you pine for the days when movies strove to scare scamps into celibacy.
Mr. Bedevil is a horror villain in need of franchise. He's got a great look, with the sinister grin and red bow tie of an evil Pee Wee Herman. He kills with the self-aware cartoon cheese of a mid-series Nightmare on Elm St. film. And with the Internet of Everything slowly forcing its way into our home, there's no reason why Mr. Bedevil can't break out of his app. After all, who wouldn't want a Mr. Bedevil brand Google Home or Amazon Echo? The device is free! Just don't mention your worst fears around it.
Circus Kane (2017)
A group of "social media stars" are offered $250,000 to survive one night at Circus Kane, a cross between extreme haunted house and escape room challenge. Compared to the bland, photogenic husks of Bedeviled, the cast of Circus Kane is downright lively. Almost to a fault. Every character shoots off the same brand of rapid-fire, reference-heavy dialogue, sure signs of a screenwriter high on Tarantino.
The cast is given a lot of time to bond, swap backstories and chill out before the violence starts. Note to horror writers: DO THIS MORE!
Most of the group doesn't even seem all that internet famous. Billy (Mark Christopher Lawrence) is an older gamer who I like to pretend is based on YouTube's Radical Reggie. We see him play a fictional PC game in a dark room, but he doesn't appear to be streaming or recording anything. Big Ed (Ted Monte) is a memorabilia dealer with the face of Tony Stark and personality of a ball-busting pawn shop owner. I guess he has a lot of instagram followers? Then there's Scott, a thief with a shady past. His character is only interesting in retrospect, after you go on IMDb and realize he's played by Jonathan Lipnicki, AKA the kid from Jerry Maguire.
I'm not sure if I wanna do a horror movie. Wait, hang on, got a text from my landlord...
So when do we start?
To bad these social media stars didn't google "How to Survive in a Horror Movie," because man, they are dense. First, the "House on Haunted Hill" challenge is issued by Balthazar Kane, an infamous carny fresh out of prison for murder. Then one of the group is taken and brutally killed in the very first room, but the group convinces themselves that the victim was a plant, just another one of Balthazar Kane's tricks. Two rooms later, the floor is practically lava, and razor-sharp blades swing out from the walls, slicing Scott's arm open.
No one takes the hint.
Dumb characters are par for the course, but unfortunately the escape rooms themselves aren't much better. The next puzzle involves a High Striker, that classic strongman test of strength, but there's no mallet in sight. Good thing the one member of the group with a heart condition just happened to be standing in exactly the right place, so that when a fatal shock stopped his heart, his head smashed right into the button. This was the moment we lost Big Ed, and the exact moment the movie lost me.
Normally with these trapped room scenarios -- your Cubes, your Saws -- there's some sort of internal logic. People die because they make the wrong decisions, or are unable or unwilling to make the right ones. Here, it's all random. Sometimes they make it through. Sometimes they don't. Sometimes a clown randomly teleports into the room and caves someone's head in. So why bother with puzzles in he first place? If they wanted chainsaw clowns to chase contestants through a series of charmingly campy no-budget sets, they could borrowed a page from the much more effective Slashers (2001). The best I can figure is, Escape Rooms are "in" right now, so the filmmakers latched onto a current trend.
Speaking of escape, there's the escape clause. Kane announces that to leave, one need only repeat the words: "Balthazar Kane, you've won again." But the second someone says it, they're brutally murdered.
Damnit, Kane. This is why people have trust issues with carneys!
Balthazar Kane is played by Tim Abell, one of those hobo character actors who lend their grizzled gravitas to shows like Daredevil and Deadwood. He has the air, not to mention hair, of WWE's Bray Wyatt. And like the Eater of Worlds, he tends to ramble uninterrupted, chewing scenery and spitting out five minute monologues filled with cool words that don't actually fit together. If only they had shaved a few minutes off one of Balthazar Kane's rambling monologues. It might have made time for the actual plot.
Spooky Spoiler Warning!
Look, I'm not trying to nitpick. If I was, I'd dwell on Kane's claims that the social media stars' deaths will be live streamed to their fans. How could Kane's closed-circuit cameras possibly reach each victim's audience? Who knows. Who cares. Kane can do magic. Maybe a wizard did it. But magic doesn't explain what the hell he was trying to accomplish with all this. The closest we get to motivation is Kane muttering about how "magic is sacrifice." But if this was all part of some weird black magic deal with the devil to make Kane immortal, they kind of sort of forgot to write that part in.
Bedeviled's ending was silly, but it's a type of silly you scoff at and move on with your life. Circus Kane's ending is hauntingly stupid, the kind of movie that sticks with you for days, weeks. Months after seeing Circus Kane, you'll find yourself asking: What the hell was that about? It's a movie frustratingly convinced of its own internal logic. Trying to figure it out is like trying to win an argument on Facebook. And the worst part is, its smug, wannabe-Usual Suspects monologue that plays over a series of flashbacks. It was bad enough when Dead Silence called the audience a dummy for not guessing its (super predictable) twist. But Circus Kane? I'm not even sure what they were going for, let alone whether or not they pulled it off. The end result of Kane's master plan is suicide by cop. All part of the plan, I guess?
I'd like to issue a challenge of my own: $250,000 to anyone who can explain Kane's master scheme in a way that doesn't sound like complete bullshit.
* Cash prizes awarded only to contestants able to solve my unwinnable death maze. Void where prohibited by law.
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