Monday, March 8, 2010

Issue #16: Amusement (2008)

I want to start by apologizing.

I was duped. Well, sort of. Do you see the cover of the Amusement DVD? Do you see what's on it? That's right. A clown. Now, having seen this, wouldn't you think the movie was about a clown? Of course you would.

But it's really not. Part of it is about a clown, and admittedly that's the best part of the movie, but the movie as a whole is not about a clown. Although some people might argue that it is.

Oh, it's all very confusing.

Let me see if I can explain. First I will tell you that Amusement was written by a fellow called Jake Wade Wall, which by the way is kind of an awesome name. Sadly, Jake Wade Wall is not an awesome writer. Prior to Amusement his writing credits consisted of the scripts for the remakes of When a Stranger Calls (2006) and The Hitcher (2007). That will tell you something. Actually, it will tell you everything.

At least Amusement is an original script. Well, an unoriginal original script. Because JWW basically steals parts from a whole bunch of other better horror movies to make this Frankenstein's monster of a picture.

The first 3/4 of the movie consists of three seemingly independent stories, each about a different girl. The first girl is Shelby. We know this because it says so on the screen.

That's not Shelby driving. That's Rob. Her boyfriend. Shelby is the one you can barely see.

Shelby and Rob are driving on a thruway somewhere. Ohio maybe. I seem to recall someone mentioning Cleveland. Anyway, Rob is driving very fast, only Shelby doesn't know this because she's asleep. But when she wakes up and sees just how fast Rob is going she has a fit and tells him to slow down.

This is where we learn that Rob is in a convoy. Now, I know what a convoy is. It's when a bunch of truckers travel together. I know this because in 1975, when I was 7, C. W. McCall had a huge hit with the song "Convoy." It played about every two minutes on every single radio station, and I loved it.

I also know because I used to watch B.J. and the Bear. I absolutely despise chimps more than anything in the universe, especially when they're dressed up like people, but Greg Evigan's feathered hair made me forget all about how creepy the Bear was.

If you are not familiar with the song "Convoy," please listen to it before continuing, as it will edumacate you.

C.W. McCall

By the way, my friend Mickey had the 45 of this song. We used to alternate playing it and our second-favorite song, Chuck Berry's 1972 hit "My Ding-a-Ling," which we thought was absolutely filthy. We were also sure that our parents had no idea what the song was about because they were old and square, and we used to sing it loudly in their presence. I'm sure they thought we were high on Froot Loops.

What? You don't know the song. Well, here you go. Enjoy. Feel free to sing along on the chorus.

My Ding-a-Ling
Chuck Berry

Okay, so know we all know what a convoy is. Also, a ding-a-ling. And Rob is sort of talking about the same thing. He's following a tractor trailer, and in turn is being followed by another car. This is what he calls a convoy.

He implies that making a convoy is something all drivers do, and that when you find a good convoy you keep it going.

Huh? Is this something new the kids are doing? And is there a point? Does it help you get better gas mileage? Does it help improve your Punch Bug skills? What?

Whatever the reason, Shelby and Rob are in this convoy. So when the semi pulls off onto a kind of deserted road and Shelby thinks maybe this isn't a good idea, Rob says that obviously the trucker knows a shortcut (did I mention the thruway is closed ahead due to an accident?) and that she should really chill.

Shelby feels better when the truck pulls into a gas station. There Rob acknowledges the truck driver, who is blue-collar hot and is played by Kevin Gage, who was married to Kelly Preston before John Travolta turned her into a Scientologist. Rob also makes friends with the driver of the other car, a nervous little man who talks too much. All three go into the store to pay for the gas and buy beef jerky.

Shelby, meanwhile, is waiting in the car, which doesn't ring true to me because every woman I've ever taken a long drive with has peed at every single stop. But maybe she has a thing about peeing in public restrooms and as a result has developed amazing bladder control. Or maybe she pees in a funnel attached to a hose that empties through a hole in the floor, like Matthew McConaughey does in his van. Anyway, when she glances over at the truck she sees a girl's face in the back window. Just for a second. Then the trucker reappears and the girl ducks out of sight. This is how we know Something Odd is going on.

Shelby of course tells Rob about the girl, and Rob of course doesn't believe her, which is stupid because why would she make something like that up? He begins to believe her a little while later when they're once again driving behind the semi and the girl reappears holding a sign that says HELP ME on it. And he really believes her when the girl suddenly flies out of the truck and smacks into their windshield. This is what that looks like.

Naturally, they stop to make sure the poor thing is all right, which she isn't. Little Nervous Guy stops too, and says that he'll stay with Shelby and the Human Moth while Rob chases down the truck to get its license plate number. Never mind that he's been driving behind the truck for hours and has had ample opportunity to memorize the plate already, which I myself do just in case the car ahead of me does something stupid and I need to be able to give the info to the police. But perhaps Rob was never a Cub Scout, as I was, and therefore never learned to be prepared. However, I bet he never suffered the humiliation of placing dead last in a Pinewood Derby, so perhaps it's a tradeoff.

Moving on.

Off Rob goes after the truck, which of course involves speeding along windy dirt roads through a forest. And of course he manages to lose the truck. But then he finds it again. Only he's gotten out of his car to yell at the forest and now the truck has turned around and is heading at him. This part looks very much like a lot of other things, including the video for Metallica's "Enter Sandman," the bit in Terminator where Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn run from Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the bit in Terminator 2 where the T-1000 chases Edward Furlong along that canal thing.

See for yourself.

Not that I'm complaining. It's very dramatic. But haven't we seen it enough? I mean, come on, Jake Wade Wall. Come up with something new to entertain us. You've already used the creepy (but hot) truck driver, the detour down a deserted road, and the girl flying out of the truck.

Okay, that part was novel. But this all still feels a little too familiar.

Rob manages to get back to his car without being squashed, and the truck roars by him. He follows, and eventually manages to crash into a parked tractor. I know. But he's freaked out, so cut him some slack.

Now he's back where he started. But guess who's missing? That's right. Shelby and the Human Moth. And Little Nervous Guy is lying face down in the road.

Rob asks Little Nervous Guy what happened, and LNG tells him that the trucker attacked them and took the girls to a housey-shacky kind of thing a little ways off, where he's doing who knows what to them RIGHT THIS VERY SECOND.

So off Rob and LNG go to the housey-shacky thing. And sure enough, creepy (but hot) trucker guy is in there. He's talking to someone on the phone, and we hear him say something about "taking her to rehab." Which makes us wonder about the girl on the windshield and just exactly why and how she flew out the window.

While this is happening LNG is sneaking up on the porch while Rob waits in the car. And by the expression on LNG's face we know we've misjudged some peoples' characters. Although we sort of suspected this before because the whole creepy (but hot) truck driver thing is too obvious.

Not that what happens next isn't. Just as truck driver guy comes out of the house and is whacked with a hammer by LNG, Rob hears a noise and turns to see something in the back seat covered by a blanket. He pulls the blanket back and sees this.

And then he's all like this.

And we're shocked--SHOCKED.

Only we're not.

Then Rob decides he should start the car and get out of there. Only the keys aren't in the ignition. Why?

Because they're here.
So that's how that ends.

The second story is about Tabitha. Again we know this because it's written on the screen.

Tabitha has arrived at her sister's house. She's there to babysit two little boys, Thing 1 and Thing 2. No, I don't know where her sister is. Tahiti, maybe. Or an Avon convention in Boca.

You know that any horror story involving babysitting is not going to end well. You especially know this when the screenwriter of the movie you're watching also wrote the screenplay for the remake of When a Stranger Calls, which is all about babysitting gone wrong.

But Tabitha is pretty and we have nothing else to do, so we continue to watch. Tabitha finds it odd when she asks the boys where the sitter who was supposed to be there until Tabitha arrived but isn't is and they say she's gone. Then they giggle and bounce up and down on the couch, which along with the fact that they both have bowl haircuts makes them supremely creepy.

The evening is pretty routine. Tabitha feeds the boys. She makes herself a sandwich and looks like this when she eats it, proving that even pretty girls have moments they'd rather you didn't see.

She also answers the door and sees some guy in a hoodie standing there. He says his name is Owen and he's the other babysitter's boyfriend and he's worried because she missed cheerleading practice and does Tabitha maybe know where she is? And Tabitha says no and shuts the door, which is smart. Also, it's raining. Because it always rains in horror movies.

Now Tabitha feels she needs a glass of wine, and I think she's entitled to that because babysitting is hard work. Although she might have reconsidered taking the wine upstairs with her when she goes to check on Thing 1 and Thing 2, because drinking in front of kids is bad and they can get drunk off the alcohol on your breath and turn into boozers. Everyone knows that.

But Tabitha drinks in front of them anyway, which causes Thing 2 to announce that he's just farted. Then Tabitha puts the two of them to bed before trotting down the hall to the guest room.

And this is when we finally get a clown. Although it's taken a long time, it's worth it because the clown is super creepy. He's life-size, and he's sitting in a rocking chair holding one of those little accordions clowns and people with monkeys play.

He's not the only clown, either. The room is chock full of them. There must be a million. Or at least a thousand. Or maybe a hundred. Anyway, they're everywhere, and this is not a good decorating choice if you want people to actually stay in a room. It is, however, an excellent choice if you want to freak people out and make them leave early. Which is something to keep in mind because one day it might come in handy.

It's not every day you see a life-size clown in a rocking chair, so you know this is significant. And if you have even half a brain or have seen even half of any horror movie, you know what's coming.

Before it comes, though, Tabitha has to strip to her underpants. Because she's modest she turns away from the clowns when she does this, but we know the big one is totally watching her. Also, we are kind of amazed at how ugly her underwear is. We were kind of expecting a thong or something.

Tabitha herself suspects that something isn't right about that clown, and at one point she even thinks about looking beneath its mask. But of course she doesn't. Instead, she goes to sleep. That's when the clown finally moves, turning its head to look at her. But because we figured this would happen all along it doesn't make much of an impression one way or the other.

Sometime in the night the phone rings, which wakes Tabitha up. The phone happens to be handily located in the hall, so that when Tabitha talks to her sister and tells her that everything is fine but the giant clown in her room kind of freaks her out and her sister says what giant clown I have no idea what you're talking about, Tabitha can slowly turn around and see that the rocking chair in the guest room is empty.

Now there's a lot of running, as in Tabitha running into Thing 1 and Thing 2's room and yelling that someone is in the house. That's when Thing 1 tells her to stop freaking out because it's just Owen and he's playing a game with them and Tabitha--who has lived a little longer than Thing 1 and Thing 2 and therefore knows when people like Owen have told lies to small children--freaks out some more. Also, she makes a mental note to have a talk with Thing 1 and Thing 2 when this is all over, both about talking to strangers and about fibbing.

First, though, the clown pushes some knives through the bedroom door, which lets Tabitha know he means business. These knives are attached to a glove of some sort and are very intimidating. As a result, there's a lot of yelling and pushing around of furniture. Then Tabitha realizes that there's a window and she sends the boys out it and down a trellis just in time.

She also makes it out just in time herself, only the clown lunges at her and she slips off the trellis and lands on her back. But she's plucky and she gets up and runs into a tool shed to hide.

Only someone is already hiding in the tool shed. It's the other babysitter. (I remember her name now. It's June.) And June is dead. I bet you weren't expecting that. Okay, you totally were. But Tabitha wasn't, so she screams. This relieves some stress and also is helpful in letting the clown know where she is.

And that's how that ends.

Only it doesn't. See, when we return from the fade to black Tabitha has somehow survived and is in a room being questioned by a guy in an FBI hat. Only he's not being particularly nice given that she's just been chased by a clown and still seems out of it.

The man asks Tabitha if she remembers anything and she shakes her head and he leaves. That's when she does remember something. It's someone laughing. And suddenly we are flung back in time to when Tabitha was maybe nine or ten years old. She's standing in a schoolyard with two other girls and a boy. The boy is telling them that he'll show them his after they show him their boxes.

He means dioramas. See, each of them has made a big box inside of which is some kind of scene. You look at the scene through a hole in the box. Cute, right?

The first box we see belongs to Tabitha. Inside of her box is a circus scene featuring clowns. Do you sense that this might be important?

It is. Also important is what is inside the other girls' boxes. The second one contains this. A car on a country road rushing past a speed limit sign. Does that remind you of anything?

Would it help if I told you that the little girl's name is Shelby?

But who is that third girl? Her name is Lisa. When the little boy peeps inside her box he sees this. He doesn't understand what it is, so he asks and Lisa informs him that it's a slumber party. File that away for later reference.

The question right now is, who's the boy? We don't know. But he has a box too, and now it's time to look inside it. Tabitha gets the honors, and this is what she sees.

No, it isn't a Nine Inch Nails video. It's a poor little squirrel (or maybe a rat, I don't remember what kind of tail it had), cut open and with its eyes and mouth sewn shut but still alive. "Isn't it funny?" the boy asks, laughing.

But Tabitha doesn't think it's at all funny and she says so. It's also pretty clear that she's going to tell the teacher in about two seconds.

Then we're back in the present and Tabitha is all grown up again and a woman comes in who tells Tabitha that she's a therapist of some kind who has been called in to help Tabitha get over her horrible clown trauma. She also informs Tabitha that Shelby is in the building after being rescued from a crazed killer. Oh, and by the way, does she know a girl named Lisa? Because Lisa is there too.

Now we get to see Lisa's story.

It opens in a bar. Lisa is there with her best friend and roommate, Cat. Cat's the one with the pony tail. Lisa is the one with the word Lisa underneath her.

Cat has met a really nice guy, and she's maybe kinda thinking of hooking up with him. But she's a good girl and doesn't do that kind of thing.

Here's the guy.

Cat says he's dreamy, but we'll have to take her word for it because we never see his face. Often when that happens in horror films it's a clue that the faceless character might not be as dreamy as the girl thinks he is. But maybe this time it will be different.

Only it's not. Cat assures Lisa that she won't do anything stupid. She's just going to hang around for a little chat and then have the guy drive her back to the apartment she shares with Lisa. Lisa is cool with this and leaves with her own boyfriend, whose name is Dan.

Dan and Lisa go to Ikea to look for a PoƤng armchair (not really, but they apparently go somewhere for an hour or two) and then Dan drops Lisa off at her apartment. But when Lisa goes in, there's no Cat. Not in the bedroom. Not in the bathroom. Not behind the sofa. Lisa assumes that Cat has decided to not be a good girl anymore, so she calls Dan and tells him to turn around and get his ass back to her apartment so that she can not be a good girl. And if right now you're remembering that her diorama involved a sleepover, you're very clever.

The next morning Lisa wakes up and still doesn't feel good about Cat not coming home. She insists that Dan come with her to see if Cat is at the guy's place. By the way, he happens to live in this amazingly creepy (meaning awesome) old hotel/boarding house kind of place. And when I say awesome I mean awesome. If you're into creepy old mansions. Which I totally am.

Lisa hangs around outside the house for a while, waiting for someone to come in or out. When no one does she knocks on the door, which is opened by a freaky little man who tells her that there are no rooms available, which isn't what she wanted to know and is therefore frustrating. He also says he hasn't seen her friend, which is what she wanted to know but is possibly even more frustrating than learning that the place is full up.

Lisa decides to wait around some more. When a long time has gone by and no one has entered or left the house, she convinces Dan (who works for the health department) to pretend to be an inspector and talk his way into the house. He resists, but he knows he'll never have sex again if he doesn't do it, at least not with Lisa, so he gives in.

Freaky Little Man lets Dan in. Now, if you or I were let into a creepy old mansion by this guy, we probably wouldn't stay long. But Dan doesn't seem to think there's anything amiss, despite the fact that there's no one else in the place and it's supposedly all booked up.

In fact, he seems to think Freaky Little Man is kind of interesting in a quirky way. Which is why he thinks nothing of it when the fellow tells him to look into the opening of this really bizarre antique music box type contraption that sits in the mansion's living room. This is a bad decision, as Dan ends up getting speared through the eye and dying.

Lisa, who is waiting outside, starts to worry when nine or ten hours go by and Dan hasn't emerged from the house. But rather than getting help she decides to save time and sneak into the house herself. She manages this rather easily, and is now free to roam around the house looking for signs of Dan and/or Cat.

Instead she finds a deaf person of indeterminate gender sitting on a cot in an upstairs room that's filled with other cots. Realizing that the person can't hear, Lisa speaks VERY LOUDLY, because that's what you do when speaking to deaf people. Also, foreigners.

Lisa is convinced that yelling is the best course of action, particularly as it can't possibly alert Freaky Little Man to her presence. But the deaf person--who isn't entirely deaf but only kind of--hasn't seen Dan and/or Cat either, so that went nowhere.

Shortly thereafter they hear someone coming and the not-deaf person starts gibbering about Lisa having to hide. Lisa lies down on a cot and her helpful new friend pulls a sheet across it to hide her from view.

But something isn't quite right about the cot. It's lumpy. Lisa wonders why this is, so she pulls back the blanket and sees something disturbing. It's Cat, sewn into the bed and trussed up like some kind of turducken.

This doesn't sit well with Lisa, who gets up and runs around the room pulling the blankets off all the beds and finding mummified corpses in each of them. This nasty surprise gets worse when she turns and finds her new buddy standing behind her, laughing crazily and holding a knife. At that point she realizes that Freaky Little Man is a master of disguise, but it's too late.

Repeat after me: So that's how that ends. My ding-a-ling.

Now we're back with Tabitha and the therapist, who is stunned to discover that Tabitha, Lisa, and Shelby went to school together. If you're also thinking that this is all a little coincidental, it gets better. When Tabitha mentions the town the girls grew up in, the therapist gets a weird look on her face. It turns out that years ago she had a patient--a little boy--who was insane. He had a very distinctive laugh. You know, kind of like the little boy in Tabitha's flashback. And the Little Nervous Guy from Shelby's story. And the loon from Lisa's story. Oh, and he lived in the girls' town too.

Now the therapist--who doesn't work for the FBI and was just responding to a call from someone seeking her assistance with counseling three traumatized girls--is freaked out and says she has to make a call. She leaves the door to the room open, and Tabitha decides enough is enough and goes out into the hall. It suddenly occurs to her that this is a really odd place for being an FBI office, and she thinks that maybe she's being had. Which occurred to us about twenty minutes earlier when we noticed that the supposed FBI office looked more like a basement torture chamber than a government building.

Then Tabitha notices the therapist dead on the floor and the FBI agent who was questioning her earlier kneeling over the body. That's when she finally sees his face.

Here he is. Does he look familiar? Like if you shaved off Little Nervous Guy's mustache, would he look like this? And if you took the surgical mask off of Little Freaky Guy, would he look like this? And if you cleaned up looney tunes from the attic, would it look like this? Oh, and if you turned the guy in the club around so you could see his face, do you think he would look like this?

I do.

In case you're curious, this is what he looks like when he's just being actor Keir O'Donnell. Now you know why Cat wanted to go home with him.

But he's not Keir O'Donnell now, he's The Laugh. Yes, that's what he's named in the credits. The Laugh. Make of it what you will.

Okay, so now Tabitha realizes she's dealing with The Laugh. She runs. He chases her. She ends up in this weird room made of glass walls. Then the lights go on and she sees Lisa and Shelby on either side of her.

Like this.

Look! They're squirrel-rats!But as impressive as this is visually, it's just like something out of Saw and that kind of takes away from the ooooooh factor.

You know the drill. The Laugh saunters in and taunts the girls. Tabitha cleverly pretends to go along with him and laughs when he reveals the one genuinely surprising thing in the movie--that the girls aren't really splayed open. They're wearing shirts made to look like it! You know, like those tuxedo shirts that make you look like you're wearing a tuxedo! Only cooler!

The Laugh buys Tabitha's act and moves in for the kiss. Tabitha stabs him. She unties her friends. The Laugh recovers in time to stab Lisa, so one down and two to go.

Tabitha and Shelby run for their little lives and find a ladder that they can climb, although they don't know where it goes. So they climb and climb and climb and The Laugh climbs after them. Naturally this can only end one way, which it does when The Laugh grabs Shelby's foot and pulls her off the ladder.

Now it's just Tabitha vs The Laugh, which is totally fitting because remember she's the one who told him his squirrel-rat diorama was serial killer weird and he hasn't forgotten that, not one bit. Which we know because he totally arranged the whole convoy thing, found a trucker who was carrying some girl to rehab who he knew would jump out the window, and also caused a major accident on the thruway ahead of the convoy to force them onto a deserted road, all of which made it possible for him to get Shelby. And he totally faked out Thing 1 and Thing 2 so that they let him into the house so he could dress up like one of the clowns in Tabitha's diorama and scare the higgledyboo out of her. And he totally rented that weird old mansion and sexed up Lisa's roommate because he knew it would lure Lisa to the house.

That's dedication to revenge.

But it's been Tabitha he's wanted all along, and now he has her where he wants her. How? Because the ladder leads right up to a locked room that has only one way out, and that leads Tabitha into another room where after a few moments we start to notice that she's surrounded by props from the three stories we've been watching, including the clown mask, which Tabitha thinks for a second is real and is all "Ahh! Ahh! Ahh! Get it off me!"

Then she hears what sounds like a car door slamming and an engine starting and it turns out she's not in a room at all. She's in the back of a truck. And it's filled with all of the crap The Laugh has used in his chicanery.

Fortunately for Tabitha, one of the things is the weird knife gloves The Laugh used when he was the clown and breaking through Thing 1 and Thing 2's bedroom door. Tabitha finds these and senses that they might be used to good effect. When The Laugh opens up the peephole between the front of the truck and the back (you know, like in the DIORAMAS), Tabitha spears him in the face.

This results in some unfortunate wounds and The Laugh laughs no more. Tabitha somehow gets out of the back and drives off in the truck, accompanied by a voiceover in which--just in case we haven't gotten it--she explains that she, Lisa, and Shelby made fun of The Laugh and he never forgot it, especially after they told the teacher on him and he got sent away to an asylum. Now it's Tabitha's turn to never forget. Specifically, she will never get the sound of The Laugh's laugh out of her head.


As I said, this isn't a clown film per se. But the clown bit is pretty good, at least visually. And really, isn't The Laugh a clown at heart when it comes down to it? Everything he does, he does for amusement. He's there to bring a little ha-ha to the world. You know, along with the blood and pain.

Amusement is not a good movie. It's little bits of lots of other good movies made into a clown-flavored smoothie, a smoothie that is drunk too fast and leaves us with an ice cream freeze headache. On the plus side, however, it looks amazing. And the clown is creepy.

Sometimes that's enough.

Favorite Line: "Hee, hee. I tooted!"

Rating (Out of 5):