Studio: Midnight Releasing
Director: Mitch Wilson
Writer: Mitch Wilson
Producer: Dirk Hagen
Stars: Julin Jean, Katie Bosacki, Cameron D. Stewart, Justin Arnold, Taylor Tippins, Mary Catherine Wells, Daniel Walker Rice, Carrie Holland, Tom Young, Jason Duffy Klemm, Tom Zembrod
A group of friends inadvertently summons a murderous demon by playing with cursed dice made from a dead man’s hand.
You might think it gets easier to write genre film reviews after you’ve done hundreds of them over a multiyear period. It doesn’t.
In the beginning, all movies are seemingly created equal. Whether it is a big studio star vehicle or a straight-to-video “Puppet Master” sequel, you simply say what you feel, praising what you appreciate and panning whatever makes you wince, not necessarily understanding how naïve unfiltered opinions can be.
Over time, you realize reviews are relative and start considering criticism more carefully. Applying the same standard to both a SyFy creature feature and James Wan’s latest multiplex release doesn’t make sense because different movies serve different purposes targeting different audiences with different expectations.
In the past, I might have disliked an off-the-radar effort at a minor film festival and given it the same kind of critique I would give a production from Paramount Pictures. However, I might recognize later that said film would never play outside of that supportive circle it was already orbiting, if it ever landed distribution at all. I’m then left wondering, for whom is an unfavorable viewpoint intended if the niche audience existing for a movie is perfectly comfortable with amateur aesthetics and a boilerplate screenplay?
As I’ve grown savvier in separating varied tiers of production quality, I’ve phased out focusing on the level of horror that is underneath even The Asylum’s mockbusters. This is why when I come across a movie like “Knucklebones” nowadays, I’m no longer certain what approach to take. Do I vocalize disdain for a derivative storyline or just willfully surrender to substandard slasher silliness? Should I care about the cast’s inability to deliver dialogue or only acknowledge how attractive they are?
Who is the likeliest audience for “Knucklebones” and what do they want for their entertainment dollar? I’m not sure I know.
Macabre dice built from the bones of a man murdered 2,000 years earlier have the power to summon a murderous demon. When a Nazi scientist tries doing exactly that, his occult experiment to create a supernatural weapon goes haywire by unleashing the unstoppable destructive force of “Knucklebones.” Nazis, demons, dice, and black magic is all the explanation there is for the setup, so deal with it.
A garment factory in Texas supplies the Third Reich with their uniforms. This part of the prologue takes place in the 1970s, when I can’t imagine Germany would have high demand for Nazi officer garb three decades removed from World War II, but deal with that detail too. A little boy in possession of the devilish dice inadvertently conjures Knucklebones and every last employee on the premises is horribly slaughtered.
40 years later, the now-abandoned factory is the go-to urban legend for local teens and college kids looking to take a drunken dare. Recovering from a failed suicide attempt after her fiancé broke her heart, Nessa is told by best friend Samantha that spelunking in the spooky building with a six-pack of Lone Star is precisely the sort of therapy she needs. Into the factory go the girls with another gal pal and two guy friends. Guess what happens when they discover the dice?
Here is the conundrum in objectively assessing “Knucklebones:”
The focal fivesome is introduced in a driving sequence set to a nondescript rock song while exterior daylight blows out the windows because of point-and-shoot camerawork. Plot beats are a rote retread of typical teens behaving stupidly in the face of life-threatening danger, splitting up inside a haunted building even after seeing two of their friends brutally butchered. Other common clichés include a dying victim’s bloody hand smearing a window, public domain “Night of the Living Dead” playing on a TV, and the timely arrival of four random bodies to boost the kill count and put bare breasts onscreen in a nonessential sex scene.
But by-the-book behavior on both sides of the lens is what “Knucklebones” wants, qualifying it concurrently as a failure for avoiding any attempt at mold-breaking and a success for perfectly employing cookie-cutter conventions. Hence my dilemma in choosing the correct criteria for grading.
Although the acting isn’t describable as good, casting is mostly on the money. Micro-budget movies often star inexperienced actors who are actually plain-faced acquaintances of the filmmaker. Here, leading ladies Julin Jean, Katie Bosacki, and Taylor Tippins at least look like they fit in front of a camera and might make more out of heartier horror heroine roles. The women of “Knucklebones” are eye-catchingly photogenic and that seems to be what the movie requires of them most.
Improved performances wouldn’t make much difference. “Knucklebones” creates characters using lines like, “what if you were to travel into the future and jerk off your future self? Would that be gay or just masturbation?” Another person ponders if it would be politically incorrect for a Special Ed teacher to call a student “tardy” if s/he was late to class. Again, these are stereotypically obnoxious horror movie people, yet that’s precisely who “Knucklebones” intends them to be.
Once I turned off my taste and indulged in the absurdity, “Knucklebones” became more tolerable despite its deliberate restraint on ambition. By then I even began finding it modestly entertaining as a straightforward supernatural slasher.
Safe play suggests splitting the score down the middle at 50/100. If a Jason meets Freddy madman stalking teens in tank tops is enough to make “Knucklebones” worth a watch, you don’t need me raining on the parade with critical comments. And if personal preference puts you past flat fright flick fare, you’ve heard enough by now to know skipping “Knucklebones” is a decision you’ll never regret.
Review Score: 50