Director: Jesse Holland
Writer: Peter Sullivan, Jeffrey Schenck
Producer: Chris Regina, Justin Smith, Brian Nolan, Kimberly A. Ray
Stars: Michael Jai White, Angelique Rivera, Cameron Jebo, Dina Meyer, Amber Benson, Daniel Booko, Dia Frampton, Brianne Tju, Reilly Stith, Alexis Wilkins
A cursed nursery rhyme unleashes a supernatural being that kills anyone who sings his song.
“There was a crooked man, and he walked a crooked mile…” So starts the notorious nursery rhyme that trumps “Bloody Mary” as a go-to dog dare for 12-year-olds looking to put the “pee” in their pjs. Young Olivia’s skeptical pfft at this urban legend of a song that can kill earns her such an “oh yeah?” challenge from her slumber party sisters. What the girls don’t expect is that the rhyme really does summon a demon, and Olivia’s friend Jill pays the piper with her life. Worse still, Olivia is left holding the bloody knife, telling tall tales of a Crooked Man no one else saw.
Olivia ends her subsequent psych ward stay six years later. Unfortunately, she’s coming home to a small town full of side-eyes, stares, and whispers. Everyone in town shuns the troubled young woman, including former friends holding tight to their belief that Olivia is to blame for the blade that killed Jill.
Everyone that is, except Noah Harris, big brother to one of Olivia’s old classmates who, wouldn’t you know it, grew into a photogenic man ready-made for a walk-on role in any CW series of choice. Not only do Noah’s stubbled cheeks and headshot-ready haircut make him the perfectly predictable romantic interest for Olivia, but his convenient career as a police officer places him just as perfectly for partnering up to solve the Crooked Man mystery.
Since Olivia’s release, each person present that night the Crooked Man came has been dying one by one, about ten movie minutes apart, immediately before each commercial break. Olivia is up against the clock to convince her stubborn gal pals that the evil entity has returned for the rest of them. Even with a handful of folks onboard alongside Noah, she is also going to need the help of a serendipitously arriving man named Milo, who holds the key to the backstory Olivia desperately requires to reverse the Crooked Man’s curse.
SyFy Original film “The Crooked Man” is a straightforward made-for-cable fright flick. Director Jesse Holland has previously played in more daring indie horror territory with the psychologically-centered spooks of “Yellowbrickroad” and “We Go On” (review here). Here, Holland sticks instead to by-the-book standards of pat plotting and simple setups that read as routine, but with a mild manner that is amusingly entertaining rather than strictly pedestrian.
I don’t have the details to determine if the Crooked Man’s popularity in “The Conjuring 2” (review here) did indeed put this full-blown version of his folklore on a fast track to completion. Though it’s a harder argument to make that certain portions of the production definitely didn’t feel the pinch of being rushed.
A sign behind Olivia on the mental hospital steps reads “Psyciatric” without an “h.” Noah’s stated last name and the one on his nametag is Harris, yet the one on his email to Olivia says Palmer in two places. There is a conclusively distinct sense that wherever the eyes of production design were pointed, it wasn’t on details.
Sore thumb scenes also stick out as included purely for plot movement or are staged so awkwardly that they practically scream, “there wasn’t enough time/interest for a rewrite!” One unnecessary moment has Olivia anxious to get inside a crowded nightclub to warn a performer. Tired of waiting with the riff raff out front, Olivia huffs up to the doorman pleading, “please, please, our friend is in danger” with the same yawning urgency Willy Wonka used to warn Mike Teavee and Augustus Gloop. Without missing a beat, the bouncer responds, “go in” and unhooks the rope before Olivia has barely finished her breath.
Try this tactic next time you want to jump a line. See how far you get. Odd thing is, the script doesn’t need this at all. Why not have Olivia simply enter the club normally since it moves her to the exact same place while avoiding an implausible aside?
A similar instance occurs when Olivia and Noah enter an old house to summon the Crooked Man with a music box. Olivia could just sit down and play the tune right away. Still needing to fill three more minutes for the time slot however, the duo instead pointlessly explores the house first, leading to the most cliché jump scare possible: a cat jumping from furniture.
Other eye-rollers? How about animating the Crooked Man to look like a Tool video unable to maintain a stable framerate? Or top-billed stars Michael Jai White, Amber Benson, and Dina Meyer combining for less screen time than almost any other individual character? And my personal favorite, exposition so nonsensically conceived, like why the Crooked Man disappeared for six years or how he was created in the first place, characters literally explain things using the word “somehow” and leave it at that?
The funny bit about these faults is, “The Crooked Man” knows how conventional it is, and that’s okay with everyone, audience included. By understanding its aspiration to be average, the film finds a fair bit of fun in following formula and its tiredness is rarely tiresome. When the movie makes its first victim a pre-teen girl with a snapped neck and butchered belly, you at least know “The Crooked Man” isn’t playing it completely safe for a typical small screen thriller. It fills out just fine for a film permitting viewers to set imaginations on idle.
I wouldn’t necessarily recommend the movie, but I wouldn’t discourage anyone from giving it a “why not?” whirl either. Will you want to own it on home video for repeat viewings every Halloween? No. But for a one-and-done viewing to kick off October? Sure.
Review Score: 50