Vendetta

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“Ripe for a remake starring Zoë Bell.”

vendettaMovie stunt-woman Laurie Collins (Chase) is out for the night with her sister, Bonnie, until the latter accepts the company of a young man. When things get more than a bit rape-y, and Bonnie ends up shooting her attacker dead. She is convicted of second-degree manslaughter, much to the chagrin of her sister. Worse is to follow after Bonnie is sent to prison, as there, she then falls foul of the jail’s top dog, Kay Butler (Martin). Bonnie soon turns up a corpse, with the incident written off as suicide, due to the heroine found in her veins. But Laurie doesn’t believe a word of it, and deliberately commits grand theft auto, among other crimes, in order to be sent to the same prison, where she can find those responsible, and make them pay for what they did to Bonnie.

Starting with a film-within-a-film scene which had me wondering if I was watching the wrong, post-apocalyptic movie, it’s a nice idea to have the heroine be a stunt-woman, and gives a credible explanation for her physical talents. This 1986 film is also ahead of the curve in making, in explicitly making the facility a “for-profit” prison, something which would eventually become an issue almost three decades later. That said, this does appear to be a rather cushy penal establishment, where inmates are well compensated for their work, and there is both a swimming-pool(!) and a video-arcade(!!). It doesn’t skimp on the exploitational aspects, with the shower scenes typical for the genre, and the rape of Bonnie is genuinely nasty.

In this, it shares something of the same look and feel as Reform School Girls, made that year, right down to the presence of an blonde, obvious Ilsa-lookalike in charge, though Collins’s Miss Dice is far more sympathetic  than Sybil Danning’s Warden Sutter. [Coincidentally or not, both films also feature the Screamin’ Sirens’ song, “Love Slave”, during a scene of sexual abuse.] The main weakness here is likely Chase, who seems rather unconvincing in terms of physical presence, though does acquit herself half-decently in the action scenes. Her Laurie just doesn’t quite feel like the kind of character who would go to such elaborate lengths to extract brutal vengeance – and it’s a damn good thing she wasn’t sent to another facility. You can contrast her character with that of Martin, who definitely feel like the kind of scum that would rise to the top inside.

There is a certain bleakness to the ending [spoilers follow]. After Laurie has completed her revenge, with the help of Miss Dice, the warden turns to her and says, “Did it bring Bonnie back?”, then adding, “You have the rest of your life to think about that.” It’s somewhat disconcerting for the viewer who has been brought along on Laurie’s quest, suddenly to have the moral carpet yanked out from under them like this, instead of any closure. If the hairstyles haven’t aged well, this philosophical ambiguity has.

Dir: Bruce Logan
Star: Karen Chase, Sandy Martin, Kin Shriner, Roberta Collins

Scherzo Diabolico

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“Hell hath no fury like a pissed-off teenager.”

scherzo-diabolicoIf you go in with expectations based on the poster, you are going to get two-thirds of the way into this and wonder if there was some mix-up. It’s only as the last act unfolds that the image makes sense – though it’s still somewhat of a misdirection. The main central character is actually Aram (Barreiro), a middle manager accountant stuck in a dull job, and an even less fulfilling marriage and family. He has a plan to break the monotony, which involves kidnapping a teenage girl, Anie (Vell), and Aram is plotting the crime with his trademark attention to detail.

At first, it all appears that everything has gone perfectly to plan, and Aram’s life changes for the better in a range of ways. The victim is released and returned to her family, alive if hardly undamaged by the psychological trauma of her ordeal, and Aram enjoys the fruits of his efforts. That includes a promotion at work, and an affair with a young woman in the office. It appears to have been the perfect crime. Except, there was one tiny flaw, which opens the door for Anie to take vengeance for what she went through. While the monster which Aram created, may still look like a young, innocent girl, he’s going to find out, her heart is now in a very dark place indeed.

My two main issues with the film were the pacing and a tendency to keep information back from the viewer that should have been revealed. With regard to the latter, for example, there’s one key fact about the identity of his victim which is withheld, for no particularly necessary reason. I’m also unclear on a couple of story points: the length of Anie’s abduction, and why she goes after her first two victims, on discovering who was responsible, rather than directly for Aram. It does also grind to a halt in the middle, with the actual kidnapping and its immediately aftermath, which is a bit of a shame, since the first half does a good job of setting up the situation, and the second half provides an solidly chilling payoff. Not least the final shot, which suggests Aram won’t be the end of the matter…

Bogliano makes particularly good use of classical piano music, which also plays a key role in the plot in a couple of ways – the non-spoiler one is Aram’s childhood ambitions being dashed by his stubby little fingers. The tinkly tunes forming a stark counterpoint to the callous and chilling brutality as it unfolds. Both leads give solid performances too, with Vell certainly having the bigger character arc. There’s enough potential here to leave me interested in tracking down the director’s other efforts, but the problems noted above stop this from being more than an interestingly flawed effort. The less you know going in, likely the better for the experience.

Dir: Adrián García Bogliano
Star: Francisco Barreiro, Daniela Soto Vell, Milena Pezz, Jorge Molina

Angel of Reckoning

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“Near-dead reckoning”

angel-of-reckoningReturning from a stint in the military, Rachel Baldwin (Kabasinski) is looking forward to reuniting and reconnecting with her family. But any hope of happiness is rudely disrupted when her niece slits her wrists in the bathtub. After the funeral, Rachel finds her late relative’s phone and realizes the reason for the suicide was a sex tape she’d made with her boyfriend (Wieczorek), which he had traded to a drug dealer for cocaine, and then ended up on the Internet, to her fatal shame. A thoroughly unimpressed Rachel decides to take her army skills and apply them to the sleazy individuals responsible, working her way up the ladder to Beverly (Hamblin), the woman at the top of the scumball chain of command.

This kind of thing certainly can work well: Sweet Karma is probably the best example of the genre immediately to come to mind. However, this is just too cheap a production for it to be any more than occasionally successful. The poster (right) promises a level of quality that the actual movie rarely if ever matches, in a way that significantly distracts from proceedings. For example, check out the supposed “cinema,” occupied entirely (and inexplicably!) by goths. The performances, in particular, are all over the place in terms of quality, often a real issue with low-budget film-making. The decent ones, such as that of Detective Trufont (Frederick Williams),  the cop chasing down the source of the ever-increasing body count, make the bad ones – by which I mean the rest of the heroine’s family – all the more noticeable.

The other main area of deficiency is the plot. It lurches from incident to incident rather than flowing, and there’s no sense of escalation as Rachel moves through the criminal underworld. I did enjoy the supporting role of former adult actress Jasmin St. Claire as an arms dealer – the makers certainly have to be given credit for casting against type there! But the only memorable action sequence was the one which took place in a shoot at a porn studio, to which our heroine had obtained an invitation to perform. The use of a strobe and UV lighting there was undeniably effective, if arguably somewhat contrived and gimmicky, and also put over her ruthless streak well.

Unfortunately, this is the exception, rather than the rule, and the other sequences are forgettable. It’s perhaps somewhat unfair to judge what’s clearly a small budget film, by comparing it against movies with far greater resources. However, when you’re lined up on the shelf in Wal-mart or wherever, there’s no discount given for limited resources. Although the film’s heart is in the right place, it simply falls short of delivering on its aims and goals. That said, it looks like the director’s studio, Killer Wolf Films, has produced some other GWG flicks; this showed enough promise, I wouldn’t be averse to checking out their current production, Hellcat’s Revenge, when it appears.

Dir: Len Kabasinski
Star: Jessica Kabasinski, Donna Hamblin, Lisa Neeld, Hunter Wieczorek

The Bride

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“Tree’s company”

thebrideAbout to get married, Kira (Riddervold) and Marco (Campos) head out for a last quiet weekend together, at a luxurious cabin in the woods. Unfortunately, they become the target for the local rednecks and their kidnapping plot. This goes wrong, leaving Marco shot dead and Kira raped, then shot dead. Both bodies are buried in the woods, but – what are the odds? – it’s at the base of a tree where a native American woman was similarly slain by American soldiers in the mid-19th century. The spirit of that victim resurrects Kira out of her grave, in order for her to take her vengeance on those responsible.

The problems from here start early, beginning with the inability to spell the word “battalion” in the opening titles. Yes, it’s a small thing, but a low budget is no excuse for such sloppiness. Things continue wobbly, with both leads clearly having English as a second acting language; Campos, in particular, is often borderline unintelligible, and I wondered if this was perhaps filmed deep in the forest territory of the lesser-known Belgian Apaches. Things perk up a bit once the kidnap kicks in. There’s a suggestion Kira might be military trained, as her hand-to-hand skills are clearly non-standard issue. This is rapidly discarded, and never mentioned again; you wonder why they bothered, especially since the main thread is supernatural power.

There are some other issues too. Too much time is spent on the bad guys, who are little more than shallow and uninteresting stereotypes – save the one who admits to a fondness for Elton John because “his music soothes me.” I did like that. Partly as a result of this padding, as well as an excess of Kira/Marco shenanigans early on, the entirety of her revenge ends up shoe-horned into the last 30 minutes, when it should certainly be the focus of the majority of the movie. On the plus side, the film goes old-school for its (fairly copious) gore, using practical effects instead of the bad CGI we see too often these days in low-budget films.

Riddervold is somewhat better when not burdened with the lumpy dialogue the film inflicts on her. I mean, who comes up with lines such as, “Fuck it in a bucket”? Probably the same person who thought it was a good idea to simulate FaceTime with video superimposed on a very obvious still photo of a hand holding a phone. Those kind of blatant and entirely unnecessary mis-steps are all too common. Sadly, they tend to rob the film of the intermittently entertaining energy it possesses, at least when concentrating on the revenge which should have been the main topic.

Dir: Marcello Daciano
Star: Henriette Riddervold, Lane Townsend, Burt Culver, Charles Campos

Nightmare Nurse

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“Nurse shark.”

nightmarenurseThis Lifetime TV movie is the story of Brooke (Butler) and Lance (Good). The happy young couple get into an accident returning from celebrating her promotion at the restaurant where she works. The pedestrian they hit is killed, while Lance breaks his leg, and is confined to bed while he recuperates. To assist with that task, since Brooke has to work, they hire Chloe (Hartley). She initially appears perfect for the job, helping out with the household chores as well as her nursing work. However, it’s not long before strange little incidents suggest that not all is well in Chloeland. We see her life with an abusive boyfriend, and she develops an attachment for Lance well beyond the normal bounds of professional concern. Might this, possibly, be something to do with the accident?

Oh, who am I trying to kid. This is a Lifetime TV movie. Of course it has something to do with the accident, although the precise details are vague until the final 20 minutes. Which are actually when the film raised itself beyond the painfully humdrum, not least because of the return of Traci Lords. She plays “good” nurse Barbara, in what initially appears to be a glorified cameo, yet ends up an extremely pivotal role. Lords wipes the floor with the rest of the cast, and it’s a shame she is almost absent from the first hour. [It has to be said, knowledge of her past adds to the frisson here; she wouldn’t exactly be person most women would want caring for their boyfriends!] The final battle, as Brooke defends her territory like a lioness, is certainly the most fun this has to offer.

Unfortunately, you have to get through an awful lot of Very Obvious to reach that point. Naturally, it’s another sensitive and sympathetic portrayal of mental illness and the stigma faced by those who suffer fro… Oh, again – who am I trying to kid? Chloe is as batty as a fruitcake, whose direction appears to be the result of viewing Fatal Attraction. Except, Hartley isn’t exactly Glenn Close, no matter how wide she opens her eyes and stares really hard. She’d have been better off watching Nurse 3D, and taking lessons in scenery-chewing from Paz de la Huerta. Butler and Good are serviceable enough as the perfect couple with impeccable teeth. Though I’m surprised Lance remains faithful, given the Lifetime tendency for all men to be unreliable in the loyalty department.

It just about stays on the acceptable side of entertainment, until the final reel. However, the main thing you’ll take from that is how much more entertaining it all might have been, if the makers had Lords play Chloe instead.

Dir: Craig Moss
Star: Sarah Butler, Steven Good, Lyndsay Hartley, Traci Lords

Wandering Ginza Butterfly 2: She-Cat Gambler

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“Goddess of gamblers.”

wgb2Nami (Kaji) – or, to give her character’s full name here, Nami the Crimson Cherry Blossom – is still the same ice-cold, vengeful warrior as before. Though for this sequel, for some reason, she has switched to rather more traditional attire, in the shape of a kimono. She encounters Hanae, trying to escape a Yakuza sex-trafficking gang, to whom she has been sold by her father(!). Nami rescues her, subsequently wins Hanae’s freedom in a card game, and returns her to Dad. Turns out he can shed some light on Hoshiden, the man who killed Nami’s own father in a gambling spat, years earlier, and for whom she has been searching ever since. To find her target, Nami needs to embed herself deep in the murky, Ginza world of gambling and prostitution, helped by former friend Miyoko (Kagawa), now part of Hoshiden’s organization, and rival pimp, Ryu (Chiba).

This is slightly better than its predecessor, though is still hampered by too much reliance on gambling. It doesn’t help that the cards here are not the ones familiar in the West. As a result, we only know how the game is going by the reaction of the participants. Imagine watching Casino Royale with no idea of how poker works. It’s like that. When not actually gambling, things improve, and interesting to see Chiba play somewhat against type. Ryu is more stammering comic relief than the typical Chiba hero, though this dates from 1972, a couple of years before his star-making role in The Street Fighter.

As in its predecessor, this isn’t exactly action-packed. The opening confrontation, between Nami and the Yakuza gang on the bridge, looks like it’s about to explode… Right up until she pulls a gun. That’s not exactly very samurai (or geisha), is it, Ms. Kaji? From there until Nami and Ryu storm Hoshiden’s headquarters, it’s restrained, with more drama than swordplay. However, it is better at sustaining interest than part one, helped by aspects such as Ryu’s noble approach to prostitution. As he says, “We don’t force you or watch what you do. Our motto is clean, virtuous and classy,” prompting the sarcastic retort from one of his whores, “Well, you sound like Governor Minobe!” [The socialist governor of Tokyo at that time]

These elements help tide viewers over the card-playing scenes, until all sword-swinging hell finally breaks loose. This is rather at odds with some of the broad stabs at humour previously attempted. The “how to use a bidet demonstration” scene sticks in my mind there, and not exactly as an iconic sequence of comedy. It doesn’t sit easily in a storyline kicked off when a daughter is sold into sex slavery by her own father, and the ending of the series with this entry suggests the intended market was equally unimpressed.

Dir: Kazuhiko Yamaguchi
Star: Meiko Kaji, Sonny Chiba, Junzaburo Ban, Yukie Kagawa

Woman Avenger

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“A simple tale of vengeance, vigorously told.”

womanavengerThis appears to have been virtually the sole starring role for leading lady Shen, and that’s a shame. While, unfortunately, the only way you can see this is a badly cropped, English language version, her martial arts talents are undeniable. Chris caught the last 15 minutes on her lunch-break, and once she saw the skills on display, went from mocking the dubbing to yelling “Kick him in the balls!” at the TV. Repeatedly.

She plays Lu Ling Chi, who is delivering goods with her husband in the countryside when they’re attacked by a band of robbers. He is killed; she raped and left for dead. She’s rescued by a conveniently passing Buddhist priestess (Tai), who nurses our heroine back to health and, after some doubts as to the nature of her mission, teaches her kung-fu. Three years of training later, Lu goes undercover to infiltrate the gang, in the process, setting a new record for “least convincing male impersonator”, even by the low standards of martial arts films. She works her way up the chain, yet still lacks the skills necessary to best their leader, Kwong Wu Chi (Peng). However, she meets a woman (Yeung, I believe, though she’s not in the IMDb listing), crippled by Kwong and reduced to working as a prostitute. Her father used to be Kwong’s kung-fu master, and she offers to give Lu that techniques which will take him down.

The stuff between the fights is mostly blandly inoffensive, following the standard tropes of the genre, such as training montages, while Lu perfects her skills, under both her teachers. Though it is certainly unusual that both those are martial arts mistresses, rather than masters, making this an almost literal war of the sexes. But the presentation, in particularly the ludicrously inappropriate dubbing, reduces the film to something you might find at 3am in the morning on the El Rey network. [It’s not all the dubbing: Kwong’s blond wig doesn’t exactly encourage solemnity] Similarly, the reduction of the frame to a strict 4:3 ratio does the abilities of the stars absolutely no service at all.

It still isn’t enough to conceal the expertise of the participants though, with even the training montages showcasing Shen’s extraordinary flexibility. There’s a genuine sense of progression over the course of the film, with Lu learning new techniques and building them into her arsenal. For example, she learns how to attack her enemy’s joints from the priestess, and that’s seen a lot against the lower minions. However, it proves ineffectual against Kwong, and she needs to adopt different tactics, radically different from her early bouts. This allows Shen to demonstrate a number of styles, and if some are better than others, the overall impact remains impressive. Below, find a sample of her skills: I love, in particular, the way she disarms the gym owner, then discards the weapons obtained! I have to wonder why she never received any further chances to shine as a lead; whatever the reason, it’s probably our loss.

Dir: Lee Tso Nam
Star: Shen Kwan Li, Peng Gang, Tai Chi-Hsia, Sharon Yeung Pan-Pan

Women on the Run

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“Letting the Cat III out of the bag.”

womenChinese teenage martial-arts champ Li Siu-Yin (Guo) is seduced into a life of prostitution by her boyfriend, but eventually snaps and kills him. She escapes to Hong Kong, only to be arrested there, and given a stark choice: help ensnare crime boss King Kong (Kim) or be deported back to China. Unwillingly, she takes the former and goes back over the border with undercover cop Hung (Cheung), who is also having an affair with colleague David (Lai). However, it turns out that David is in cahoots with King Kong, and the pair end up in Canada and in jail. It’s a long way back from there, before the two can take their revenge on the men who betrayed them.

It appears my memories of this were conflated with another “Cat III” (the Hong Kong adults-only film classification) kung-fu film, the considerably more sleazy Escape From Brothel. Aside from some nekkid kung-fu and a couple of scenes of sexual violence, this is mostly mainstream. And it’s kinda hard to take the gang-rape sequence seriously when the perpetrators are set up as being Really Bad People by punting a clearly stuffed dog, as they make their way into the warehouse where our heroines are hiding out. Elements like these deflate entirely apparently serious attempts at drama; see also a flashback to an apparently kinder, gentler era of airport security when you could not just take your stun-gun onto a plane, you could apply it to other passengers without anyone rushing you with a drinks trolley. Ah, those were the days, eh? There are also bad subtitles which translate the line “smoke some weed” in English as, “get some sweet meat,” and a really nasty portrayal of Canadian law-enforcement, that left me wondering if the directors got a traffic ticket in Vancouver or something.

Fortunately, salvaging proceedings are some decent to solid action, as you’d expect from Yuen, who has a long track record of such things. Both Guo and Cheung are more than credible; the former, in particular, to an extent where it’s a surprise that she never appeared in anything of significance again. As a villain, Kim lets his feet in particular do his talking, and he makes for a formidable opponent, particularly at the end. There are a number of solid sequences before that, that let both leads show their skills – though I could perhaps have done without the comedic drug addiction, Liu doing her best kung-fu after a little H. I guess it’s a variant on Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master? All told, this is more or less your typical Cat III film, containing both the good and bad the classification implies. Action, exploitation, comedy, brutality and nonsensical aspects all rub shoulders, with the end product being… Well, while I could point out any number of other flaws, let’s accentuate the positive instead, and just say. this is certainly never dull.

Dir: David Lai and Corey Yuen
Star: Tamara Guo, Farini Cheung, David Lai, Kim Won-Jin

Hunterwali

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“Oh, God. Where to start….”

hunterwaliIt’s through this film that I backed into my discovery of early Bollywood star, Fearless Nadia. For doing some post-view Googling, I realized this 1988 Pakistani film is actually inspired by an Indian one of the same name, from more than 50 years earlier. That’s an entirely different rabbit-hole however: let’s consider this on its own, highly psychotronic merits.

The plot concerns two sisters, Bano and Bali (Anjuman), the latter also known as Hunterwali. Bano is demure and quiet, Bali… is not. In fact, she’s a totally wild child by local standards. Mind you, local standards apparently also involve killing girls who have the temerity to want to marry someone of their own choice. Still, there are three suitors for Bali’s hand. #1 is Umri, a warrior type, who tames her horse. However, after taking vengeance on the man who kills Umri’s entire clan, he is forced to become an outlaw. Potential husband #2 is the son of a family friend, who is her father’s choice. He is entirely useless and can be ignored, since he is present largely for comic-relief.

Finally, there’s Shahreyar, he helps rescue Hunterwali from attack by a gang. However, turns out that’s a ruse to gain her confidence. When she elopes with him, he takes her to a seedy cave – we know it’s seedy, because it has posters of Madonna and Brooke Shields on the wall! – and assaults her, along with the rest of the gang. The disgrace this brings to the family, causes Hunterwali’s dad to kill himself. In the fracas, Bano is also killed, but Bali takes the identity of her sister, who is married to the local police commander. This allows her to go out on vigilante missions, masked and with her whip, to hunt down the perps. She’s not messing around either: she shoots their eyes out and hangs them from the cave roof. While she eventually works her way up the chain to Shahreyar, he has an entire new gang. Fortunately, she has the help of Umri. And her horse. And her dog.

This has not dated well. Indeed, I suspect this wasn’t very good, even for the time – 1988 was the year Hollywood gave us Die Hard. The thing about the Fearless Nadia films is they’re not incomparable to what Hollywood was making at the time. You can’t say the same about this, which has all the technical quality of a bad 50’s B-movie. The director’s sole cinematic trick is the snap zoom, which is used so often it becomes a surreal joke, as does the single horse noise apparently available to the foley team. Yet there’s a loopy energy, and Anjuman has screen presence, which means the two and a half hours certainly do not drag. If you’re looking for a bizarre combination of Zorro with a musical version of I Spit on Your Grave,  also including a dog riding to the rescue of its owner on the back of a horse, the entire thing is on YouTube [enable closed captions for the English subs]. Just don’t say, I didn’t warn you…

Dir: Iqbal Kashmiri
Star: Anjuman, Sultan Rahi, Mustafa Qureshi, Jameel Babar

Roommate Wanted

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“Share today, gone tomorrow.”

If this concept sounds familiar, it should. Because this bears a strong resemblance to 2003 Japanese film 2LDK. Most obviously, both films are virtually single-location set pieces, in which the relationship between two room-mates devolve over the course of the feature, into a full-on brawl. Perhaps even more damningly, the original working title for this was 2BR/1BA – exactly like 2LDK, real-estate shorthand. [I wonder where the new title came from, since there’s no “wanted” at any point here] Yet there’s not even a “based on” credit to be seen, and no apparent acknowledgement of any inspiration. Hmm.

roomatewantedOn the other hand, if the plot has more than some similarities, the tone and approach are different here. There’s much more in the way of social commentary here, with the disparate personas of the two young women. [Indeed, so disparate, you have to question how the heck they ever ended up sharing a house] Jamie (Vega) is serious-minded, the kind of person who labels her food in the fridge, and seeking to pursue an academic career, but desperately needs funds to cover tuition at her chosen college. Dee (Grammer) is a party girl, whose days are filled with going to the gym and tanning, while her nights are filled with tequila and casual sex.

The culture clash between them is obvious, and provides most of the dramatic tension, as well as the more comedic aspects. For instance, Dee offers to make Jamie a smoothie, and on being reminded the latter is vegan, replies that she’ll use low-fat milk. Grammer nails the vapid, wannabe model-type perfectly, yet there’s an undercurrent of bitterness (particularly, as things turn out, toward Jamie and her perceived superiority) and you get the sense she’s smarter than she appears. Jamie has her own set of insecurities to deal with; as well as her tuition situation, she just broke up with her boyfriend after finding a thong in his car’s glove-box. Might Dee be able to shed some light on that?

Where this isn’t as good as 2LDK is in the mayhem. The Japanese version was, literally, no-holds barred, up to and including the use of a chainsaw. Here, there’s rather too much of the protagonists standing at a distance and lobbing things at one another. While the cynical social commentary and bite can make up some of the difference, this needs to amp up the brutality significantly, and include more surprises. When a point is made of a giant fish-tank in the living room, you know it’s only a matter of time before it’s going to come crashing down in a mini-tsunami of water, broken glass and flailing fishies.

Then there’s the ending. It could be the greatest ever. Or the worst ever. I’d listen to arguments, and could be convinced in either direction. It certainly is… a shocking ending. I should say no more than that. We will remember it, that’s for sure. But we’ll be more likely to watch 2LDK again, and an interest in doing so, is likely the main takeaway from this unofficial reboot.

Dir: Rob Margolies
Star: Alexa Vega, Spencer Grammer, Kathryn Morris, Bryan Dechart