(US/UK - 2019)
EXCISION, which felt not unlike MEAN GIRLS re-imagined by David Cronenberg. It found significant acclaim in indie horror circles, but his follow-ups--2015's SUBURBAN GOTHIC and 2016's TRASH FIRE--didn't attract nearly as much attention from genre fans. Early buzz for his latest, TONE-DEAF, served as a reminder of Bates' existence, but you won't get far into it before thinking he may have peaked with EXCISION. A heavy-handed and ultimately toothless generation clash horror satire, TONE-DEAF had some potential to offer some insightful and cutting commentary on today's volatile cultural and political climate, but true to the film's title, Bates settles on neither a tone nor what exactly the targets are supposed to be. After Olive (SILICON VALLEY's Amanda Crew) splits with her boyfriend (Nelson Franklin) and loses her job after refusing to take any shit from her sexually-harassing boss, her besties Lenore (Hayley Marie Norman) and Blaire (EXCISION's AnnaLynne McCord) convince her to get out of town for a few days and take some time to herself to regroup. She rents an old, lavish country home in the middle of rural nowhere ("This place is boujee as fuck") from recent widower Harvey (Robert Patrick, one of a dozen producers). It isn't long before Harvey is creeping around the house, spying on pot-smoking Olive in frowning disapproval, and playing tricks like hiding a spider in her contact lens case. What we know and Olive doesn't is that Harvey has killed Agnes (Nancy Linehan Charles), an elderly neighbor and his late wife's friend because, while he's lived a good life, "killing is an itch I never got around to scratching." And he's still feeling the itch.
TONE-DEAF might've functioned as a straight two-character suspense piece, but Bates instead fashions it as a Baby Boomer vs. Millennial throwdown, thus turning it into a pointless mash-up of a home-invasion thriller and a Thanksgiving argument with your Fox News-obsessed uncle. Olive is everything that the bitter Harvey hates: young, liberal, independent, her social media profile pic shows her in a T-shirt that reads "This Pussy Grabs Back," and her arrival at the house is accompanied by Awkwafina's "My Vag" in a car with a CoExist bumper sticker. Harvey has a chip on his shoulder about millennials, Venmo, climate change, young people's sense of entitlement and perceived lack of work ethic, and how Sundays are for the Lord, and Bates often allows him to break the fourth wall to rant directly to the viewer about "brunching bimbos getting drunk off your skinny-girl margaritas and cavorting around with your jobless, fedora-clad boyfriends." It's great in theory that Bates has given Patrick a role that he can sink his teeth into as a retiree Patrick Bateman for the MAGA crowd, but the characters are painted in such broad strokes that there's no room for subtlety, nuance (Harvey changing the lyrics to Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land" and declaring "That's right, kids...Papa made a remix!" is embarrassing), or consistency (if his beef is with millennials, then why does he kill geriatric Agnes?). Bates also drops the ball by cutting away from the action to focus on inconsequential asides that only serve to pad the running time, like Olive's hippie mom (Kim Delaney), who joined a commune after Olive's dad (Ray Wise) committed suicide years ago, and now has a young, snowflake boy-toy (Johnny Pemberton) who can't change a tire and objects to her texting Olive while he goes down on her, a potential Olive Tinder hookup (Tate Ellington) at a townie bar, which does offer one legit surprise that goes nowhere, or Olive buying acid from a local dealer (shouldn't WHALE RIDER Oscar-nominee Keisha Castle-Hughes have better things going on than 13th billing in TONE-DEAF?) and tripping balls in the living room, where she imagines conversations with her exes and her dad. A couple of jokes land, like Harvey yelling "Jesus Christ, I didn't really think this through!" after he impulsively stabs Agnes and is shocked by the amount of blood gushing out of her, and a running gag about Olive's terrible piano-playing has a funny payoff that, of course, Bates bungles by immediately over-explaining it. But by the time Harvey and Olive have their final showdown, where he comes after her with a tomahawk and she snarkily sighs "Is that at tomahawk? Textbook cultural appropriation, man," you'll have long since lost your ability to even with TONE-DEAF. (R, 88 mins)
(US/China - 2019)
fucking an apple pie and quoting Alyson Hannigan's perfectly-delivered "This one time...at band camp..." But in the relatively minor supporting role of grating goofball Steve Stifler--aka "The Stifmeister"--it was Seann William Scott who stole every scene he was in and would eventually become a major focus of the subsequent big-screen sequels (not counting the various Eugene Levy-headlined DTV spinoffs), with each successive performance going more obnoxiously over-the-top. Inevitably, Scott found himself typecast as variations of Stifler in comedies like ROAD TRIP and DUDE, WHERE'S MY CAR? and even into his early 30s, he was still utilizing his Stifler schtick in MR. WOODCOCK and ROLE MODELS. Though he's found steady gigs doing voice work in animated films like the ICE AGE franchise (as fan favorite opossum Crash) and PLANET 51, and enjoyed a minor cult hit with the Canadian-made hockey comedy GOON and its lesser-seen sequel, Scott, perhaps more than any of his castmates from that influential raunch comedy from two decades back, will forever be inextricably linked with his AMERICAN PIE character.
With that in mind, BLOODLINE is about as radical a departure as possible for the now-43-year-old actor. An under-the-radar Blumhouse production that only made it into a few theaters, BLOODLINE is a horror oddity that doesn't skimp on the gore, but may be a little too offbeat and cerebral for those looking for run-of-the-mill jump scares. Scott is Evan Cole, a social worker at an L.A. high school who's happily married to Lauren (Mariela Garriga) and the father of a newborn son. Parenthood is stressing both of them out, even with Evan's mom Marie (a terrific Dale Dickey) helping out. Evan isn't feeling effective at his job, where he spends day after day counseling students--including a scholarship candidate with a junkie dad, another who's come out of the closet and is regularly beaten by his homophobic father, and a 15-year-old girl who's being sexually molested by her uncle--which brings up long-suppressed memories of his own abusive father. Evan decides the best way to help these kids is to permanently eliminate the source of their troubles, so he spends his evenings moonlighting as a serial killer. Lauren begins questioning where he goes at night while Marie offers a silent, knowing understanding of her son's apparent calling. It isn't long before an incredulous and persistent detective (Kevin Carroll) comes snooping around after Evan didn't do as thorough a job as he should have in disposing of his victims, the killings having a strangely similar M.O. to an unsolved string of murders in a different city and school district in where Evan used to work before he met Lauren.
Director/co-writer Henry Jacobson, a documentary filmmaker helming his narrative feature debut, stages a few startlingly blood-splattered kill scenes while sometimes going for bizarre shock value (a close-up of a stretched prosthetic vagina as Lauren gives birth to their son seems to be a bit...much). He also deploys some De Palma split diopters and an effectively-executed split-screen late in the game (he's also got a ringer in editor Nigel Galt, a late-period Stanley Kubrick inner-circler who worked on FULL METAL JACKET and EYES WIDE SHUT), but the idea of an everyman serial killer as portrayed here owes quite a bit to the likes of DEXTER and THE STEPFATHER (and I'm willing to bet that Jacobson is also a huge fan of Donald Cammell's WHITE OF THE EYE). The surprise development at the end is something you won't see coming, but its abruptness dampens things a bit, as it hasn't been built up enough to be wholly plausible. BLOODLINE isn't a great movie by any means, but it deserved more than the dump-off of a release that it got, though I get it: it's a strange and eccentric little thriller even beyond the novelty of the against-type casting of Scott, whose restrained and very internalized performance as a homicidal maniac quietly living his life as a family man and upstanding member of the community wouldn't have delivered the wisecracking, serial-slashing Stifler that mainstream horror fans would've expected. (R, 98 mins)