Following on from Owen’s recent recommendation on the Failed Critics Podcast for the Vestron re-release of Brian Yuzna’s 90’s cult classic zombie film, Return of the Living Dead 3, this article takes a look at the undying love found only in this weird but wonderful genre.
Life After Beth is weird and confused and, despite a game Dane DeHaan and Aubrey Plaza, sadly not very good.
by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
Life After Beth’s first mistake is showing us pretty much nothing prior to Beth’s death. There is a short little pair of shots of Beth (Aubrey Plaza) on the hike where she dies, but that’s it. So, straight off the bat, the film faces an uphill battle, as we are dropped into Zach’s (Dane DeHaan) grief with little context besides the fact that they were boyfriend and girlfriend. Emphasis on “were” as the two had broken up with each other in the week leading up to her death. It’s unclear as to whether this was Zach or Beth’s doing, as well, and at no point do we get an indication of their relationship prior to the events of the film outside of said break-up, and you can probably already tell the issue here.
In any case, about a week after her death, Beth rises from her grave and returns home to her alternately terrified and overjoyed parents (John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon), who keep her sheltered from the world and her condition sheltered from her for obvious reasons. Zach, however, still grieving majorly about the whole thing, manages to force his way in and is similarly alternately terrified and overjoyed about his girlfriend being resurrected, especially since the week between the two of them breaking up and her death is conveniently hazy for her. From there…
Well, here’s the film’s second mistake. The premise is thin, but you can stretch it out to a 90 minute film if you work hard enough on that one bit. Life After Beth, however, is like a magpie; it keeps getting distracted by different shiny objects and only really returns to that original idea, what should be the emotional centre of this whole crazy mess, when it looks back over at it and remembers how shiny it is. The film also wants you to invest in Zach’s cartoonishly uncaring and one-note family, to find Beth’s dad, Maury, overly sheltering and a threat to the couple’s happiness, to also root for Zach to drop Beth and get with a just-returned childhood friend, Erica (Anna Kendrick), and to be sufficiently intrigued and worried by the fact that Beth doesn’t seem to be the only one returning from the dead to not care when that subplot hijacks the majority of the film’s last half-hour.
It’s a very confused film, and writer/director Jeff Baena’s script and direction do little to paper up those cracks. There seems to be no real thematic through line, because the film keeps shifting focus and ideas every few minutes, so it has a slightly hypocritical bent to some parts of it – you gain no prizes for figuring out that Maury is both kinda right in sheltering Beth and that the film painting him as a villain for doing so, when the rather obsessive Zach wants her all for himself but is a hero for that, feels more than a bit selective in the morality sense. The film seems like it’s painting Beth’s return as a second chance for Zach, as some kind of chance to right some kind of wrong he committed the first time, but that feels weird seeing as we have no idea what he may or may not have done wrong the first time, and it all gets lost in the shuffle as the film goes on and becomes more and more overcrowded.
The theme problem then gets exacerbated by the poorly developed characters. Nobody here feels like a real believable person for various reasons. Either they awkwardly flip-flop based on what the current scene is telling them to be (Zach), or they’re still a draft or two away from doing or being what they keep being teased to be (Maury), or they’re so cartoonishly one-dimensional and try-too-hard-to-be-quirky as to be annoying instead of entertaining (Zach’s older brother Kyle, who is a paranoid, abusive, gun-nut security officer), or they’re pointless (Erica) or wasted (Beth’s mum, Geenie), or they’re Beth herself.
Beth isn’t really a character so much as just the thing whose existence the film revolves around. She doesn’t have any real consistency, flitting wildly between scenes, she doesn’t have much in the way of a personality, and that lack of pre-death time means there’s no baseline to measure the dead-alive Beth against. She’s a weird blank slate that gets re-arranged into whatever the film needs her to be at whatever time, and any impression she makes is down to the always likeable Aubrey Plaza instead of herself. And, yes, there is the weird uncomfortableness that stems from her becoming more zombie-like the angrier and, for lack of a better term, bitchier she gets.
Then there’s the issue that this comedy is lacking in laughs. It’s not completely without them, especially when it lets Aubrey Plaza go full-zombie near its end game, but it is weirdly lacking in actual jokes. The scenes where laughs are supposed to come kind of just ramble with no real construction until you eventually laugh at something, although I’ll be damned if I figured out what said laugh was supposed to be about 80% of the time. Otherwise, a lot of the film is played weirdly straight but also kinda isn’t? There are a lot of scenes that are supposed to be played for some kind of emotional resonance, but the film keeps undercutting them with its desire to be off-beat, and I found that rather distracting. It’s especially bad during what is supposed to be the film’s big emotional climax, where whatever power a scene lacking in pre-film context could have had is immediately set on fire by having a ridiculous piece of physical comedy occur seconds after its crescendo. It’s jarring, and not in a good way, the definite mark of a first-time director who hasn’t figured out how to juggle disparate tones yet.
None of this is to say that Life After Beth is without merit. After all, I laughed occasionally, I was never bored, and its cast is game. John C. Reilly is madly trying to fill in the blanks in his character, Molly Shannon is asked to Molly Shannon for 90-odd minutes and she’s more than happy to do that, Anna Kendrick literally walks into the film for about two or three scenes and is adorably charmingly amazing as per usual (yes, I have my biases, at least I admit them), whilst Aubrey Plaza is strangely withheld from large sections of the runtime but she attempts to make the most of them when she gets the chance, and I will cop to finding her full-zombie really funny. Dane DeHaan, meanwhile, continues his post-Chronicle career path of wasting his considerable talents on films that don’t deserve them, managing to keep Zach a consistent and interesting character whilst the film is running and visibly straining to make the more dramatic scenes work.
Life After Beth, then, is a failure, but it is an interesting failure. It’s the kind of failure where one can see where the potential for a very good and maybe even great film is located, but can also see it, in real time no less, squander said potential due to a bunch of mistakes that could have easily been sorted out. It all comes back to that script, which is at least five-or-so drafts away from tapping that potential but, as is, is an unfocussed and rather unfinished mess. There’s a really talented cast desperately trying to raise the material on display, but they just end up being wasted. I was never bored, I was even fitfully entertained, but I was severely disappointed and ultimately unfulfilled.
By Mike Shawcross (@Shawky1969)
Over the years at FrightFest I’ve always looked out for the comedies which play the festival. The very first film I saw was Black Sheep, a New Zealand horror comedy about zombified sheep hell bent on eating people. Watching it with that audience, it was hilarious, laughter is infectious at the festival and I got swept along with it. I’ve since revisited the film and it’s just isn’t that funny, or as funny as I remember it that night.
So, what did this year’s festival have in store for me? Well Dead Snow 2, Zombeavers, WolfCop and Life after Beth were the four I had planned to see. However, Dead Snow 2 was playing the horror main screen while WolfCop was in the discovery screen. A bad clash to say the least! The only way around this problem was to buy a ticket for the earlier screening of Dead Snow in the Arrow screen. Next, I just had to make sure I got myself a Discovery ticket for WolfCop, else I’d be watching Dead Snow 2 again or going to the Phoenix for a drink; I got a ticket.
Opening night and Zombeavers gets the midnight slot, playing to an almost full house; a few always disappear to the Phoenix or need to get the last tube or bus home, but this is an impressive turnout.
Zombeavers, very much like Black Sheep, plays on the animals of choice, becoming infected by some man made toxic waste – isn’t that nearly always the case? This bright green goo, having an adverse effect on the local beaver colony, makes flesh and bone much more appetising than gnawing on a lump of wood now. Introduce the food, a group of attractive college girls (of course) staying at a relative’s cabin by the lake. One’s trying to get over her cheating boyfriend, the others are there to keep her company. Obviously the boyfriends turn up at some point, just to add to the expected body count and group tension; the cheating boyfriend, who hates who and the one who would ditch the others in a beaver attack to save themselves. The typical old couple living next door, a hunter who you wouldn’t trust as far as you could throw him and of course don’t forget the dog; there is always a dog. Actually the hunter and the dog gag are a couple of the best things in the whole thing.
Jordan Rubin, directing his first feature, doesn’t do anything wrong really, it’s just by-the-numbers. He plays on all the same beats every other crazy, zombified animal vs humans film has used before. The cast are all relatively unknown (well, unknown to me) although I did recognise Rex Lin (CSI Miami) as the hunter and as I said before, he’s the best thing in it. Using animatronics, which on the whole are very good, gave the film some old school charm and definitely beats a colony of psychotic CGI beaver’s any day.
Now, I don’t mind these films on the whole, but the visual gags have nearly all been covered now. It needs strong writing and decent acting to make it stand out from all the other crazy killer animal films already out there. While there are some funny moments, they are mostly visual as the script and the acting were rather flat. It just didn’t stand out from the crowd in the end, which was a shame because I really wanted to like this film.
Dead Snow 2: Red Vs Dead was one of my most anticipated films at this year’s festival. Twitter was full of positive comments before FrightFest and being a big fan of the original I was extremely excited to see this.
Martin’s nightmare continues; he thinks he’s survived, that he’s escaped the Nazi zombies with only losing his arm (a small price to pay after the carnage he’s witnessed). But, it’s not over, not yet. He still has one gold coin and Herzog wants it back. In the fight for the coin, Herzog loses his arm but recovers the gold. Martin awakes next day in hospital with a new arm… Herzog’s arm! Found in the car, the doctors assumed it was his and attached it instead. Meanwhile, Herzog has remembered his original mission and now he’s going to complete it; plus he as a new arm, Martin’s arm. The local police are on Martin’s case as well and they plan to catch him before the big city cops arrive on the scene and get the glory. Martin knows Herzog’s plan through the arm’s connection to its former host. Armed with his new zombie arm and the zombie squad from America, he sets out to defeat Herzog and his army of zombies.
Tommy Wirkola returns to his original Dead Snow and continues the story from literally the last frame of the first film. He takes everything he did in the first and makes it bigger and better in every way possible. Escaping the confines of the snow bound cabin, Wirkola really lets loose with the scope of the sequel. Now his zombie army are taking down towns and slaying everybody that gets in their way. It’s bolder in content, with more gore, blood and some “really did they just do that” moments that I just couldn’t stop laughing at. From start to finish I laughed and so did the Arrow screen. The FrightFest crowd I saw it with were laughing, cheering and clapping. Horror comedy at its best!
Vegar Hoel returns as Martin and carries the film easily, he is simply brilliant. Orjan Gamst is great back in the role of Herzog. While Daniel, Monica and Blake are played by Martin Starr (Adventureland), Jocelyn DeBoer and Ingrid Hass (Scott Pilgrim vs The World) and form the Zombie Squad. Stig Frode Henriksen is Glenn the tour guide who has some great lines and Derek Mears as Stavarin, the action police officer who knows nothing, and Amrita Acharia as Reidun, the cop that does know everything. They are all great characters and drive the story along backed by the strong script, super visuals and a great sense of fun.
For once my expectations were rewarded. Here was a sequel which was better in every way than its predecessor. My comedy of the festival without doubt and my second favourite film all weekend.
WolfCop was another film with a big social media following. How could this fail to be entertaining and, more than that, funny? I mean he’s a werewolf and a cop, the jokes should write themselves.
Lou Garou is a local police officer with a drink problem, a major drink problem usually resulting in a complete blackout of the previous night’s events. Yet his problems are about to get a whole lot worse, a lot bloodier and hairier than he could ever imagine. Cursed, he now becomes a werewolf, blacking out after each transformation. Lou’s memory is fuzzy and he blames the drink. Yet as the vicious attacks continue and the bodies mount up, all the clues point towards Lou being the culprit. With the help of his friend, Willie, he sets out to solve the case, but Tina, another police officer, is already one step ahead. She confronts Lou, but there are darker forces at work and Lou soon realises that he’s going to need the wolf to solve this case and beat the evil in his town.
Leo Fafard as Lou gives a solid performance as the “I couldn’t give a shit” drunken cop, and his transformation into a person who could give a shit is well handled. Amy Matysio is the standout cop, Tina, and she gives a good performance, if a little underused. The rest of the cast are all fine; Jonathen Cherry as Willie has the majority of the best lines throughout the film. The direction by Lowell Dean (13 Eerie) is solid, though it’s the writing which I felt was the weakest aspect of the film. It’s not bad and does have its moments, it just seemed a little flat. The action is very well handled and the werewolf attacks were gory and extremely bloody. The look of the werewolf was along the lines of The Wolfman, allowing him to wear the cop uniform and obviously be able to talk and of course have sex! One of the funnier scenes (or not, depending on your taste). Of course, being a wolf, he needs a car to reflect his ferocious animal nature; time to pimp the police car.
I really wanted to like WolfCop, I had bent over backwards to see it. I did like quite a bit of it really, but I just couldn’t figure out its tone and I’m still struggling to find it now. Either it was a little more serious than I expected or I just didn’t find it that funny, I’m not sure which. Alhough I remember some laughter, it wasn’t in the same league as Dead Snow 2, which I think that was what I was expecting. Yet, while not finding it that funny, it’s still a solid b-movie and worth having a look at. You may just find it a lot funnier than I did.
Life After Beth wasn’t a film I had noticed on my first look through Saturday’s schedule. With no competition in the Discovery screen, it picked itself and I left it at that.
Zach is missing his recently deceased girlfriend, Beth. He’s even taken to playing chess with her dad, Maury, and wearing Beth’s scarf in the middle of summer. Then one day, he thinks he sees Beth. He’s convinced it’s her and tries to prove he’s not seeing things. Beth is alive! Well, sort of. Her parents are keeping her housebound, but Zach wants to see her, rekindle their relationship and go hiking. But she’s turning more zombie every day and soon she wants to start eating people, even Zach.
Zach, played by Dane DeHaan (Chronicle, The Amazing Spider-Man 2) and Aubrey Plaza (Safety Not Guaranteed, Parks & Recreation) as Beth are both superb. There is a strong connection between them which comes through in their performance and the writing which takes you on an emotional rollercoaster. From the quite depressing lows to the extremely funny highs, it’s a great ride and one I was sorry to see end. The rest of the cast are all extremely good as well; Molly Shannon and John C. Reilly as Beth’s parents; Paul Riser and Cheryl Hines as Zach’s parents; and a great performance from Matthew Gray Gubler as Zach’s older brother Kyle.
Life After Beth is written by Jeff Baena – it is also his directional debut and it’s a pretty impressive one at that. Some of the visual gags are superb and extremely funny, especially one particular scene with a cooker which was hilarious.
Boasting a strong cast, backed with a great script, this was a joy to watch and ranked third in my best of FrightFest list, behind Dead Snow 2 and The House At The End Of Time. I do believe it is scheduled for a cinema release soon. It’s one I would recommend seeing wholeheartedly. I’ll be going back to see it!
You can check out what else Mike has seen at this year’s FrightFest here, including Truth or Dare, The Guest and more!
Welcome to this week’s Failed Critics Podcast, and it’s a shorter one than usual as James had to shut up a lot more than usual due to a sore throat. We’re sure many of our listeners will appreciate this improvement.
We’ve only managed to get out and see one new release this week, but [SPOILER ALERT] it’s a great one. The Coen Brothers are back with Inside Llewyn Davis, an exploration of the search for fame in the 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene. Also reviewed this week is the Aubrey Plaza-starring The To Do List, war photography documentary Which Way is the Front Line From Here?, and yet the final member of the team gets around to watching Sightseers.
We also discuss the furore over Quentin Tarantino’s leaked The Hateful Eight script (and the film’s subsequent shelving), and discuss our most anticipated films to come out of this year’s Sundance Festival.
Gerry is technically an old man who can’t stay up past 11pm apparently.
Anyway, better late than never! On this week’s podcast we review the latest instalment of the Big Fish in the Found Footage pond – Paranormal Activity 4. We also catch up on what the critics have been watching in the past week, including the wonderful Safety Not Guaranteed, the utterly bonkers Holy Motors, and the little-seen Speed Racer. Steve also finally got around to watching The Raid.
Join us at the weekend for Triple Bill where we discuss the films that have scared the crap out of us – and next week the Review returns with a review of Skyfall and a BOND SPECIAL!