Featuring: Alexandra “Boy Meets Girl” Turshen , Keenan “First Person” Henson , Caitlin “‘Continuum’” Cromwell
Writer & Director: Bradley “Clearly wrote his own IMDB biography” Stryker
The Evil Dead Bride and your humble narrator were perusing the alcohol offerings at NileMart the other day when we discovered that, not long after the re-emergence (and re-disappearance) of Crystal Pepsi, fellow transparent ’90s punchline drink Zima is now also back on the market. My long standing theory that the latter is just a fermented form of the former? Confirmed.
Pop culture footnote beverage humor aside, after finally conquering the world’s Russia problem with my last review (The Guardians), it’s time to live up to my promises, play a game of ketchup (“catsup” if you’re nasty) and get the circus train back on its tracks. Well, not the whole circus. It’s more like I’m about to abandon an overbooked clown car on a railroad crossing, let the 7:06 bullet from Tarker’s Mill do the dirty work for me, then all I’ve gotta do is report on the aftermath.
In the interest of transparency, I admit that I’m taking some liberties when it comes to Land of Smiles being a killer clown flick, especially when it comes to the whole “painted horrors” technicality, but if the oozing cold sore on America’s dick can give ethics the tiny middle finger by appointing government positions to his defective offspring and filling his cabinet with the highest bidders, I can bend the rules of the Republic of Tombistan. Though the movie’s antagonists conceal their faces under the visage of sinister jesters, they do so with rubber masks, possibly purchased from the clearance bin of a Spirit Halloween pop-up store. It’s not like the world’s lacking in movies out in the nebulous “there” that center on actual grease-painted murderous mirth makers, I just thought I could use a little change of subgenre scenery. It’s not as if I signed any kind of contract (at least not one that falls under the jurisdiction of any mortal justice system) saying I can’t, so just make like a shed uterine lining and go with the flow, Joe!
The basis for Smiles is nothing new. It’s about backpacking Americans whose vacation to a beautiful country they’ve never been to before leads to the reveal of a seamy underbelly that threatens to swallow them whole in its gaping maw of stranger danger, inducing increased paranoia in any members of its audience who already didn’t need any more reasons to never take a vacation beyond pitching tents and making s’mores in their own backyard. See Wolf Creek, Turistas, A Perfect Getaway, Eli Roth’s Hostel flicks and, of course, The Hangover Part II. I would’ve included The Ruins on that list, but that’s supernatural horror and thus does not fall under the “people from other countries are the real monsters” xenophobia gimmick.
Our vulnerable young travelers begging to never be heard from again are lifelong friends and overly confident American college students Abby (Aleandra Turshen) and Penny (Krista Donargo). Having planned a trip to Thailand together for the longest time (oh, oh, oh, for the longest time), Abby earns her BFF of 19 years’ ire when she backs out of their girls only vacation to stay near her boyfriend Brad (Brandon Nagle), who more than likely didn’t like the idea of his girlfriend being half-way across the globe and possibly getting peanut sauce licked off her ass by some beefcake with jungle herpes.
In a moment that can only be scripted (and poorly at that), Ab’s sacrifice of Pen’s friendship blows up in her face almost instantaneously when her attempt to surprise Brad with a candlelit cupcake (birthday/anniversary?) leads to her walking in on Brad in the middle of a Skinemax bump n’ hump session with Lacy (Charisse Bellante) – a random blonde who comes off just as “trashy party girl who’s upset she never got to be in a Girls Gone Wild DVD” in her sex making as her name would suggest. To any Lacys out there who take offense to that, I’m sorry, but maybe your parents shouldn’t have named you after a style of lingerie trim.
Blinded by confusion and rage, Abby unleashes a few shots of Cowboy Mike’s Extra Bold Red Hot Ricochet Pepper Spray upon the ocular orbs of the indignant fornicators, apologizing at first before revoking said formality and storming out in justified rage. If you think pepper spray’s a little intense, these two are just lucky Abby’s probably too young to remember the whole Lorena Bobbitt episode. However, as is all too common the case, the cupcake is the true victim of the break up. Poor thing’s probably going to be swallowed up by the foster system like so many little lost souls before it. If you would, say a little prayer for the cupcake’s well being tonight while you’re taking your pre-bedtime dump, won’t you?
Of course Abby couldn't have made this discovery before Penny’s departure, so now she’ll play some ketchup of her own and do the first leg of their itinerary solo. No idea why she couldn’t have just traveled ahead and met Nickel immediately, but then we wouldn’t have a movie. Why? Because Dime gets kidnapped. Not ready to cancel your plane tickets to Thailand yet? Well, the people who take her are dressed in those aforementioned clown masks. Calling the airline now to see if you can get a refund? I thought so. Besides, why travel when you can spend summer break crashed on your couch in your underthings (or, if you’re like myself, au natural) with the AC cranked to “Absolute Zero” as you eat can after can of overstuffed ravioli and play your favorite video games? I’m currently working through Saint’s Row IV right now. Did you know you can dress up your character in a MechaGodzilla costume?! It’s true taint-tingling terrificness!
Anyway, Abby isn’t aware of her sister-from-another-mister’s peril, so she simply does the tourist thing for a bit as intended. Her only communications from Quarter involve random pics without any accompanying messages to explain them, which our heroine chalks up to her still having rump rash about the whole “I’d rather spend summer break with the boyfriend that you’ve repeatedly informed me is a heaping piece of pooper pie than go to on a tropical dream vacation with my oldest, dearest friend” drama. Along her travels, she meets a pair of fellow out-of-towners in Ben (Keenan Henson) and Jewel (Caitlyn Cromwell/Stryker, the writer-director’s wife), who approach her under the most suspicious of methods when Ben steals her backpack. He returns it to her right after though, calking it up to a lesson that she should keep on her toes lest she be destitute (given that she’s already Pennyless *rimshot*) and giving bareback Around the Worlds to American businessmen by Tuesday.
A bit douchey, but in that “big brother tough love” sorta way, Abby accepts the advice as well as the offer to tag along with the couple. Their reason for being in Thailand is so Brad can traverse the whole of Southern Asia, shooting a wanna-be VICE style vid about the things backpackers experience while trekking through third world countries. I think. I don’t really know what his point is, because it all just looks like a tourism video to sell Thai travel packages to college kids back in the states. They also fraternize with a fellow outsider named Dale (writer-director Brad Stryker), an Aussie guy there for the nightlife, the pretty scenery, and to bang as many random prostitutes dressed in “sexy (career here)” Halloween costumes as his down under can afford. I’d advise him to make sure the females he’s bedding are actual females, given that it’s Thailand and all, but somehow Dale seems like the type of guy that wouldn’t really care either way once his Foster’s and Cialis cocktail kicked in.
And for anyone protesting that Foster’s isn’t what actual Australians drink, it’s okay. Stryker was born in fucking Oregon, so he’s about as not an actual Australian as a white person can get. His put-on accent (as in “put-on like Kris Kross’ pants – incorrectly”) will support me on that.
When Abby does finally get the confirmation video that Half-Dollar has been Taken-ed, the young lady’s clown cloaked absconders have two simple demands – (1) Do NOT tell anyone about the crime and (2) continue on with the plans to rock n’ roll all night and party every day. If Abs can ignore the anxiety of her best friend’s peril and embrace the drunken American party girl stereotype inside her that she came to Thailand to rediscover in the first place, then they’ll release their abductee and the girls can be reunited. That’s…weird. Have I been lied to my entire life and the point of kidnappings isn’t to demand ransoms, but rather force people to live the Miller High Life?! Because as much as I love some of the people in my life, I wouldn’t be willing to drink excessively of such bottled piss swill for the return of some of them.
Fortunately, it turns out that this isn’t so much the case. When Absinthe breaks the first rule of fight club and talks about fight club with B&J, Ben (last name “Dover”?) introduces her to the world of Southern Asia’s newest craze – staged abductions! Seems that there’s a whole subgenre of today’s Generation Meme culture dedicated to setting up false kidnappings for the sake of “reminding people how to have fun”, then posting the reaction videos online when the victim is told it was all for funsies. Just psychologically scarring, emotionally terrorizing, friendship shattering funsies. Fucking people and their fucking reaction videos. It was funny for about 5 minutes in the wake of the “2 Girls 1 Cup” epidemic, but I never wanna see another one of those stupid things again. Unless it involves the kind of reaction George Clooney had when he found Brad Pitt hiding in his closet. Now THAT’s a multi-million views moment!
(Today’s lesson: don’t come out of the closet to Worst Batman)
Additionally, what the frosted fucks does that ambiguous “reminding people how to have fun” description mean? In this case, “people” refers to adults and “have fun” refers to intoxicating ones self to the point of long term brain damage because your friends apparently only like you when you're making as asshole out of yourself in public, throwing up $60 in margaritas, and blacking out so you can put yourself at risk of being sexually assaulted by any horny festering pustule excuse for a human being that happens to be passing by. Given the length of that explanation, you can see the need for the “TL;DR” version provided.
And so we’re left with the mystery of whether this is a legitimate criminal situation by a Thai maniac clowning with their prey, or if it’s all just a really shitty scheme by Hay Penny to make Abby abandon the maturity of adulthood and “loosen up”. Which is just a dickhead way of Sixpence (who’s none the richer… *rimshot*) saying that she fundamentally intends to drag her friend down so she herself doesn’t need to be alone in her terror of growing up and assuming responsibilities that she’s not ready for. Could she have opted for a less vindictive, “Reverse Jigsaw” method? Maybe. But that would kill Stryker’s entire effort to make something he likely mistook as being “visionary”.
Not only does what could have been a decent little flick foil itself in the finish with a fumbled finale, but Stryker opted to be the seventy-thousandth indie movie director to think they’re the one who’s going to breathe unasked for life into the fetid, deflated lungs of the “found footage” movie, completely ignoring the Do Not Resuscitate notice the subgenre has hanging around its neck. And it’s not even some semi-reasonable bullshit like the Paranormal Activity security cam footage concept, it’s just yet another instance of the characters shooting their own videos of the proceedings, likely until they all die, never putting the camera down no matter how much immediate peril they’re put in. Once they’re dead, all of this “found footage” then gets spliced (I guess “merged” would be the modern digital version?) by some unknown editor who cobbles together a single project whose final cut just happens to be very movie-like, both in structure and length, and includes numerous clearly not found helicopter shots and professionally framed footage of the landscapes. Sounds like mister first-time feature couldn’t play it casual and stick with his own theme. I guess you can’t “make the environment a character” without pricey aerial establishing shots, eh?
Land of Smiles makes some attempt at explaining itself in the finish, but does about as well as a stoner trying to explain to their probation officer that their eyes are red because they “just have bad hay fever”. It even comes with a lazy, forced Shyamalanian pseudo-twist hanging off of its ass, metaphorically wrapping the whole thing up in a way that’s equivalent to actually wrapping a broken toaster with soiled newspapers, not unlike those I put around Bastet’s litter box so she won’t track her shit grit into my bed during one of her 2am “u up?” booty calls. I haven’t been this aggravated about such a fucking stupid, pointless, shoved-in-dry, “for the sake of getting one over on the audience” Chubby Checker conclusion since The Bone Collector (aka “That there Bone Crusher” to quote a private joke). It’s not even the whole ending, either! If you circumcised Styrker’s failed attempt at being cutesy with his end credits sequence, it would’ve been a perfectly fine ending to a mediocre thriller. As is, though, you may audibly boo it the same way I did. Try not to wake up your downstairs neighbor when you do so the same way I did, otherwise you too will have very awkward mailbox interactions for the next few days also…
All of that nonsense aside (if you can put the last minute alteration of the entirety of the movie’s story “aside”), Stryker’s other major effort goes into the “ugly behind the beauty” theme he seems to believe he himself created. In case the fact that you’re watching a HORROR movie titled Land of Smiles is too subtle for you, the guy includes numerous shots of beautiful locales populated by beautiful people having beautiful good times with beautiful beautiful party party yadda yadda blah blah inter-cut with moments of our protagonists freaking out (again and again and again) and vids of Penny maybe-or-maybe not being tortured. It’s juxtaposition overload! It’s the hallmark of a film school student who doesn’t respect their audience’s intelligence/awareness, so they spend too much time hitting us over the head with it to make sure we get the point. Though, as we all know, no one will ever truly get the deep introspective point of Mr. Stryker’s art because, well, he’s a creator while we the audience are simply refuse in his path to brilliance.
Except for those who leave 8+ star reviews on IMDB. Clearly they “get it”…
In case you require more evidence of my claim (like the police insisted on that time I accused my aforementioned downstairs neighbor of shitting on my doormat), observe the name of Stryker's self-production company as Exhibit D –
That’s not a ‘shop job, kids. He actually calls it “Stryke-Force Films”. A guy who wants us to take his very serious horror movie very seriously sticks a name like that onto the opening. For Francis Ford Fuckula’s sake, this is not a hoax, not a dream, not an imaginary tale. This is for real. He’s Tommy Wiseau without the charming Ed Wood-ian naivete. I can only hope that whichever family members he conned into putting up the money for this vacation-turned-movie are the “more money than brains” type, otherwise I fell sorry for them.
But, despite all of this fresh personal contempt I’ve discovered for one Bradley Stryker, Land of Smiles isn’t a terrible movie. It’s better-than-bad without quite reaching the lofty levels of “good” as established by Log (*from BLAMMO!™). It at least makes an effort to do something uncommon if not new (even going so far as name dropping The Game as the in-continuity inspiration for the fake kidnapping business), and the cast (excluding Stryker’s needlessly Australian Dale that is) does a well enough job conveying their fear to keep playing along while Ben urges the girls on. Whether his motivations are as altruistic for Penny as he claims them to be, or he just wants to finish his video project like the girls have growing suspicions of is never entirely clear, which works in the flick’s favor. Oh, and if you close your eyes, there are times you’d swear Keenan Henson’s lines were being delivered by a manic Vince Vaughn. It’s neither a pro nor a con, really, unless you’re Isla Fisher’s character from Wedding Crashers, in which case it’ll probably create a babbling brook down your thigh.
I have a titanium firm “no toilet sex” rule, but ever since that movie she gets an exclusive pass. Well, her and Barbara “Megan Halsey” Crampton, but she’s of an unlimited classification all her own. Don’t ask me the acts I would do for that woman, lest ye have a cast iron constitution or have long lost your soul to the dark horrors of the internet.
Oh, back on topic, as much as I hate The Blair Witch Project for its piss poor “let’s just say ‘fuck’ a lot because we can’t ad lib to save our thrice damned lives” improvised dialogue, it was at least more realistic than a lot of the supposedly “real footage” exchanges in Land of Smiles. Blame the actors for not being able to make it believable or blame Stryker for a clunky script, but either way it doesn’t help sell the lie that we’re meant to get lost in. In spite of my gripes about this, the crap ending, and a shooting style too schizo to settle on whether it’s trying to be a traditional movie or a vacation video, the movie is still oddly watchable! Weird, right?! I know! I’m as shocked to type it as you are to read it! So, yeah, there are way worse ways to wear out your eyeballs for an hour or two and if that’s enough of an endorsement for you to seek LoS out, have at it, friends.
Whether Brad (the director, not the cheating boyfriend…though Stryker could very well be the type who needs a woman to tell him he has a big dick to perform) can parlay his first feature into a career win in the long run or not, only time will tell. Whether the sparks of potential are enough to feed a flame of success, at least he can fall back on his extensive work as a bit part player in TV shows and direct-to-DVD movies. It may not make him a household name, but at least it pays the bills!… I presume.
My role as the grand marshal of this parade of fools continues next time (and four or so times again after that) with a movie that’s, well, less a movie than a digital version of a lost Hippolytus de Marsiliis torture method. While you look that name up, I’m gonna casually slip away via the escape hatch I had installed under my desk… CIAO!
“I never understood how these stupid horoscopes work. What does my having been born in the first week of November have to do with not being compatible with someone born in mid-June?! I call bullshit… So, what does mine say?
I understand that this guy’s probably doing the clown thing to work out some deeply depressing personal issues, but you may not want to do the “limp flower as a metaphor for my erectile dysfunction” bit around the ladies.
“Shit! That’s the fourth iPhone I’ve lost to the porcelain Sarlak pit this year! There goes the rest of my savings.”
Sarah and Elaine’s attempt to resurrect the “Girls Gone Wild” series with all of the drinking and partying minus the nudity and “lesbian stuff” proved grossly unsuccessful.
“Why do you need such a big backpack?”
“So I can sleep inside it at night while hanging it from a tree to avoid bears!”
“I keep telling ya, love, even if there were sharks this far inland, they wouldn’t come after ya! Just because you’re on your period doesn’t mean you’re ‘bikini chum’!”
“I don’t get it. I ask you what a ‘lemon party’ is and now you’re recording me watching a video? You’re so weird.”
“I hope you’re at least not being cheap and paid extra for a reach around, Greg.”
“Welcome to ‘Clowning Around’ with your host, Zippo VonLaughsalot. This week’s contestant is Janet, and she’ll be playing ‘What’s Crawling On My Leg?’ for her chance at a $25 Best Buy gift card!”
“I know it’s tradition to swallow the worm when drinking a bottle of Mezcal, but that thing last night… it had a face… a human face! I swear it looked at me and mouthed my name before… before… oh god, what have I done?!”
Oh jeez. I hooked up with her at last call a month ago and the bitch gave me crabs. Let’s just go before she… DON’T MAKE EYE CONTACT WITH HER! GAH! RUN!
It’s sad to know I will never be as happy as she is right now. Let’s not ruin it and tell her that every stray cat in the neighborhood makes that place their litter box.
Uh-oh! Looks like some tourists discovered their hotel’s hidden toilet cameras!
I’m not the most culturally educated man-jackal, but I can’t imagine it’s very sanitary of Thailand letting elephants just leave piles of number two in their human restrooms.
Laugh all you like, but lonely weirdos pay $200 a night just to watch her sleep on a webcam site!
“You know what I hate? Stupid assholes in goofy rubber clown masks that sneak up on people to try and scare them… Damn it, there’s one right behind me, isn’t there?”
“Wow! These Gushers fruit snacks really are bursting with fruit flavor!”
This is why I stopped going to the local beer garden during carnival season.
And this is why I started going to the local strip club during carnival season!
Anubis will return in
“The Inbred Clown Posse”
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