by Paul Deeter
With the recent release of Zack Snyder's Army of the Dead we have a true return to form for the famously inconsistent director. Not just a return to the stylistic elements that made him a talent who favored the idea of slow-motion mixed with frenetic action, but a literal return to the zombie genre altogether. There's nothing like a solid zombie film that doesn't fall into the brainlessness of the monsters inside them. Examples being 28 Days Later, Zombieland and Snyder's original zombie venture with a remake of the George A. Romero classic Dawn of the Dead. In this 2004 zombie feature, Snyder chose to completely revert the slow mumbling zombies with real runners haunting the aisles of the protagonist's mall. He also choose to blend a leaner, campier sense of satire with its over-the-top violence. It worked then and still works now, looking back on it. So Army of the Dead, while not quite matching the quality of his 2004 feature, feels familiar and nostalgic in its style and humor. Also the setting of the film is bonkers, out-doing a mall type-setting with the dusty, abandoned lots of a post-apocalyptic Las Vegas.
While the incentive of our protagonists in Dawn was to fight for survival, in Army our characters really, really want money. Enough to risk their skin, and even other members of the team, to get their hands on life-changing loads of cash. It's a heist movie, nothing wrong with that. But it does beg the question of why horror-characters risk their lives for money. It's not a set-in-stone question. In fact in each of the following movies, our characters have multiple motives which keep them defined by their individuality. These motives keep the film interesting. And while Army is kind of a movie about people who just want money for money's sake, these films keep the stakes high for reasons beyond that. The following films share one commonality though: stupid people. While everyone has their reason, they also have their breaking points. These movies stretch beyond the realm of reasonability and force us to truly judge these money-grubbing fools. Judge away.
House on Haunted Hill (2019)
The movie that established my inspiration for the making this list, there's nothing more dumbly on-the-nose as this film's premise: stay in a haunted house for a night for one million dollars. Our antagonist is Geoffrey Rush, a mustache twirling baddie who seems to have an unlimited amount of money for his ultra-realistic theme park. His rides go from simulated to all to real though, with his offer for a group of strangers to survive the horrors of the House on Haunted Hill, formally a spot of an insane-asylum massacre. Late 90's/early 00's were not so great times for horror films, with the ultra-realistic style of gore and guts outweighing these films over the use of good-ole scares. In fact, it's in this critic's opinion that this specific era led to a bad taste of horror in critical response. Horror movies have had bad reputations with critics for a long time, but past the solid 80's slasher features we didn't have any franchise with to bank some quality scares. I digress. House on Haunted Hill is as forgettable as any poor remake can be, taking the idea of the Most Dangerous Game premise and over-doing the believability of the contestants. To the film's credit, our leads get stuck in the house after the chance to back out. But is it not fishy enough to follow a winding path to an old creepy mansion with no prior knowledge of the man hosting it? I guess before the Internet stupid people tried these contests enough to make a movie of it? These characters are annoying enough, but not even the deaths make anything worth remembering. Pass.
2. 13 Sins
A couple of these films are Independent features, and it's not that common that this film comes to conversation. With the appeal of the "what would you do?" question that comes to the lead protagonist Elliot, we get a serious of text messages challenging the user with 13 tests. These tests naturally get harder sequentially, but when Elliot gets a text saying "eat a fly for twenty dollars" he decides it can't hurt to start. The unseen gamekeeper goes from there to making Eliot carry a deceased man out to coffee in disguise as a drunk in a Weekend at Bernie's challenge gone wrong, to actual murder. The cafe sequence does stand apart as some of the movie's generally decent off-kilter humor. We see a few more scenes like these where he has to do audacious public acts of humiliation that go from painful to kind of hilarious. But then there are some baffling moral decisions made by Elliot that lost me completely. Sure the desire for money goes up as the offer is higher, but it's not enough. Elliot does use this time to hunt down the gamekeeper, but it seems a bit ridiculous that this everyman turns into a killer. It's not worth it dude, walk away.
3. Don't Breathe (2016)
This is the exception that proves the rule, a case of a film premise that starts shaky and then becomes evidently more harrowing over its runtime. Our young leads are foolhardy for sure; their desire for the hidden $300,000 dollars is simply to break them out of debt and their poor living situations. The plan is pretty simple too. The money belongs to an old man whose family's deaths left it behind for ambiguous reasons. Easier yet, is the old man is blind. How hard could it be to rob a blind man in pitch darkness. Well it's this pitch-darkness that works in the favor of this ex-military monster (played brilliantly by Stephen Lang) who seems to have super-awareness in hearing. He uses the soft footfalls or quiet gasps to hunt the kids and things get twistier from there. This film had a great reception and successful financial run. It's lean (and maybe a bit too mean) and almost entirely works. It's dumb to rob people, especially those who are disadvantaged. But I'm sure the survivors learned their lesson. Hopefully.
4. Would You Rather (2012)
Brittany Snow plays Iris in a film that's somewhat smarter than its name makes out to be, another film that stands by the offer of some sick puppies. This contest is less of a true mansion-haunting or game show gone wrong, but an intimate dinner with some colorful characters, hosted by another mysterious man with deep pockets. This movie finally offers a reasonable protagonist who desires the money for payment for her brother's advanced leukemia. Iris is not fully aware of the torture she has to face, but she's willing to risk it for the biscuit when things get hairy. And things get hairy. The pacing of this film is granted, pretty effective. Our offers of cash come early with an alcoholic man offered several thousand dollars for falling off the wagon and having a drink. And then downing that drink and eventually a whole bottle. Sure we get a moral dilemma, but money is money, and I do understand the character's questionable decision based on the offer. But things get pushed past the turning point when the host makes it clear there's no going back beyond his final warning. And then the movie kinda sucks. There's nothing but gore and torture beyond the first twenty minutes, which surprises me that the film lands around 60% on Rotten Tomatoes. I think the main issue here is that the players are willing to undergo incredible pain or risk for money, but it's made clear they'd die otherwise. Still, I would not have the willpower to hold a stick of dynamite till it blows off my hand, or slice my own eye with a razorblade (yeesh).