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Old School Review: "The Evil Dead" (1981)

Written and directed by Sam Raimi, “The Evil Dead” is the quintessential archetype of the “Cabin in the Woods” style of horror films. Recently, a group of friends and I rewatched Sam Raimi’s masterpiece indie horror cult classic- and it dawned on me that I had never written about it here in the blog. There’s no time like the present they say, so, here I am. First, there will be spoilers- but I highly recommend the film if you’ve never seen it, it’s one of my all time favorite horror films. In the film, five young Michigan State University students travel through the Tennessee mountains to vacation in a remote cabin. Their journey there takes them through increasingly abandoned roads and eventually through a two-track trail deep into the forest. In a bit of unnerving foreshadowing their final descent involves crossing a rickety wooden bridge in Raimi’s 1973 Oldsmobile Delta 88, affectionately nicknamed “The Classic”.

Once the group reaches the cabin, an ominous porch swing continuously slams into the side of the cabin walls until Ash (Bruce Campbell) unlocks the front door with a skeleton key ring above the door’s mantel. The five friends all settle in despite the creeping sense of an ominous force in their midst. One of the girls, Ash’s sister Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss), is drawing the clock on the wall but becomes weakly posessed for a moment as she’s forced to frantically draw a crude rendering of the infamous Necronomicon, or “Book of the Dead”. Then shortly afterwards at dinner, the trapdoor to the cellar abruptly flies open. Ash and Scott (Richard DeManincor) investigate the occurence and wander through the basement, to which they discover a litany of bad omens in a secluded room. Daggers, bones, and a filthy book bound in human flesh and inked in blood are all on display, at which point Ash and Scott laugh at the oddity and decide to take the items upstairs for a goof. They also found an archaeologist’s tape recorder which they play at their peril. In the tape the archaeologist describes the phenomenon that they are about to experience in which ancient Sumerian rituals raise demonic spirits. Cheryl asks them to stop the tape, but Scott insists they hear the end, and when he turns the tape back on the archaeologist has begun reciting the incantations that stir and wake the slumbering demonic forces of evil, eager to posess their latest victims. Initially The Evil Dead stalk their victims from the shadows before going all out on the college students. Cheryl keeps hearing voices clamoring for her to “Join us” and eventually goes out into the woods to confront them- which is a massive mistake as the trees attack her and in one of the most disturbing scenes of the film, rape her with swarming tree branches and sticks. It’s gruesome and horrifying, but it certainly sets up this supernatural phenomenon as one of absolute Evil.

The rest of the film is the blueprint for hundreds of homages, tribute scenes, and essential structure for horror movies utilizing remote locations with teenage protagonists set against something usually quite awful. While the whole film is wrought with excellent suspense and eerie ongoings, the second half of the film is where its at. The practical effects employed in the making of this film are truly stunning and crazily inventive for the time and genre. Once the film gets into it’s third act it gets absolutely bonkers with gore and over the top violence. It’s disgusting, revolting- nauseating even! The fact that the special effects of this indie horror movie still hold up roughly forty years later is effective proof of the film’s cult success and it’s unending rewatchability. Raimi’s direction and camera movement choices help prod the film even further into the absurdism of the third act. His inclusion of extreme dutch angles during Ash’s descent into madness and paranoia are filmed with wonderful speed and ferocity. Especially memorable are the scenes where the mirror turns to water and the comically dark beat where Ash tries to give his obviously dying friend Scott a drink of water that pours down his face as Ash confidentally tries to tell him they’ll all make it out alive.

If you’ve only ever seen Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films from the early 2000’s, I highly recommend you give his earlier work a shot. “The Evil Dead” movies that Raimi and Campbell worked on together share a crazy, manic, and creative spirit, and that’s inspiring. If you’re wondering why so many film nerds are excited by the recent news that Sam Raimi will be directing the “Doctor Strange” sequel, beyond his Spidey films, these horror films showcase a truly intense and massively creative talent behind the camera. We can only hope Raimi’s indie roots stick with him through his introduction to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s a bright future in film folks!

Final Score: 1 Ash, 4 Deadites

For fun, check out this article which takes a look at “The Classic”s many appearances throughout Sam Raimi’s filmography:

http://www.filmbuffonline.com/FBOLNewsreel/wordpress/2013/04/09/the-classic-sam-raimi-and-the-1973-oldsmobile-delta-88/

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Review Catch-Up: IT Chapter 2 (2019)

*Caution! There will be some spoilers within this review*

Written by Gary Dauberman and directed by Andy Muschietti, “IT Chapter 2” is the sequel to the 2017 horror hit “IT”. In the second half of this most recent adaption of Stephen King’s monolith of a book, The Losers club returns to Derry twenty-seven years after their initial bout with Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) the dancing clown. After a particularly gruesome murder with a tinge of the supernatural, Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa) starts calling up his old friends to summon them home to finish the deed and kill the clown for good. The Losers are older now, and most of them ended up fairly successful in their careers. Bill (James McAvoy) is a horror author helping to adapt one of his books into a film when he gets the call to return to Derry. Beverly (Jessica Chastain) may have an abusive husband, but she also runs a successful fashion line. Richie (Bill Hader) wanders out a of a backstage to lose his lunch after hearing from Mike, after which he heads onstage to profusely ‘bomb‘ his comedy set. Meanwhile, Ben’s (Jay Ryan) in the middle of a meeting on a new building’s blueprints, he’s the head architect of the project. Eddie (James Ransone), who’s now, aptly, a risk assessment manager, gets into a car crash after hearing Mike’s message. The only loser to not return to Derry, is also the one who’s death is most impactful in the pages of the book version of “IT”, Stanley (Andy Bean). Too horrified by his past encounter with Pennywise, Stanley kills himself in the tub, sprawling the word “IT” in his blood on the tiled walls. In the book, the two halves of the story are meshed together in a circular tale that, wisely, slowly ramps up the tension and horror by hiding it’s secrets in the momentum of both story’s third acts which both happen alongside each other. This allows the adults’ memory loss to feel “remembered” in real time. This also allows Stanley’s death to conjure a more abject fear of IT because we don’t fully know why he was so traumatized to begin with. Imagination breeds a fear of the unknown, and King knew that.

So, the structure of the film is such that the Losers all congregate at a Chinese restaurant as they begin to remember their childhood and why it was so important to come back, to keep their pact intact. In the book, this search for meaning and realization of purpose is a huge portion of the adults’ stories and when it’s meshed in-between the escalating tension of Pennywise’s attacks on them both in the present and the past, you get a more nuanced ebb and flow than what separate adaptions of each era of the story can do alone. Which is why I understand the attempt at recreating the “forgotten memories” aspect of reshooting the kids’ scenes like the fort that Ben built, eluding to his skill in quiet observation evolving into the mind of an architect later on. Essentially the film is organized around the losers meeting in a group and then splitting up so that each character has a personal journey in which they must find themselves and an object, or artifact, from their childhood that held meaning to them personally. We get bits of backstory and exposition from Mike and several scenes to trigger a flood of memories as they remember more crucial information about themselves and their past.

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This film, as entertaining as it was, is definitely a mixed bag at times when concerned with film structure. However, this is similar to the quality of the book. The book has a LOT more backstory on Derry and it’s history that slowly hints at Derry being a place dripping in hatred, racism, and a general lack of morality. Things may seem fine at the surface level, but once you start digging, one finds there to be a litany of malice that has soaked into the dirt upon which Derry was built. The book seems to point to people being the ruinous creatures that true horror emanates from, Pennywise is simply a cosmic predator of sorts, one that has found the perfect hunting ground for an eternal vulture that feeds on fear. The cast and crew make a considerable effort to take what worked from the first film and double down on those traits. Which is why the film works so well given the stumbles that it does have sprinkled throughout. It can feel chaotic, uneven, and as if you’re moving from set-piece to set-piece- structured more like a theme park or funhouse than a story at times, but it’s crafted with such genuine performances and fine-tuned pacing that it never feels boring. It never feels truly ‘scary’ or unsettling either though. The film is far funnier than I had expected, Bill Hader and James Ransone do a lot of the heavy lifting in the levity department and it works to great effect!

Other than some structural critiques and some changes from page to screen (some better than the book, others not as much), “IT Chapter 2” was mostly a success and I personally had a good time with the film. The only big disappointment for me was the end sequence, and I get it, it can be hard to visualize scenes from a book that weigh so heavily on the power of imagination that this wild one was bound to be a disappointment in most adaptions. However, that being said, I wish the filmmakers had gone for the gold and went with the book’s trippy cosmic-horror ending with Bill’s consciousness transcending the universe, then deliberating with the giant space turtle, and diving into Pennywise’s spidery abdomen and swimming through his gooey innards to crush his heart from the inside. Now that’s metal.

Final Score: 7 Losers and 1 Killer Clown from Space!

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“The Wretched” Traverse City Film Fest Review (2019)

Written and directed by Brett and Drew Pierce, “The Wretched” is a throwback horror film that uniquely finds a balance between old school practical effects and an unnerving new wrinkle to the folklore of Witches. This was the last film that I caught at the Traverse City film festival this year, and it turned out to be my favorite film of the fest! Oddly enough, I was in line for another film earlier during the week with friends and we struck up a conversation with a couple of guys behind us after hearing them name-drop “Big Trouble in Little China” and “The Thing” as a few of their favorite films. They happened to be filmmakers from Michigan, now out in L.A., and had a film at one of the later Midnight movies during the week. That film was “The Wretched” and my friends and I made the move to get tickets for that film because of that short conversation, and we were better off for having done so!

This review will be more vague than usual as the film has only been screened a few times for audiences at this point, and the less plot details out there, the better, in my opinion. We follow Ben (John-Paul Howard), a seventeen-year-old visiting his father, Liam (Jamison Jones), for the summer in North Port Michigan, on the Leelanau peninsula. Over the summer Ben works with his father at the local docks teaching kids how to sail and clearing out the slips. He’s mostly concerned with garnering the attention of the local girls and trashing the petulant bullies’ boat after some uncomfortable humiliation. However his attention is soon turned to his fathers’ odd neighbors and their increasingly strange behavior. Ty (Kevin Bigley) and Abbie (Zarah Mahler) seem normal at first, and initially they are, but after a wander in the woods with her son Dillon (Blane Crockarell), Abbie begins to take on more… aggressive tendencies. Eventually evoking “Rear Window” in Ben’s obsessive paranoia over his neighbors’ strange actions, Mallory (Piper Curda) a quirky co-worker at the docks, joins him in investigating the truth. Kids start disappearing and everyone except Ben seems to have forgotten them, forcing him to action.

Piper Curda and John-Paul Howard in “The Wretched”

This film excels on several technical fronts. Firstly, the adherence to practical effects over the use of CGI in this film is not only admirable, but downright mesmerizing. I’m not sure how they crafted some of their scares, but they were highly effective in creating an atmosphere of disgusting, moody, tension. Which, by the way, is utilized perfectly in this film. Some modern day horror films overdo the heightened levels of tension throughout their run-time, but this film wisely gives the audience a false sense of security at times; allowing several scenes to breathe and the audience to get attached to these characters as people first and foremost- not just fodder for the supernatural villain to devour. These characters were also, delightfully, more intelligent than expected, they’re smarter than your average teenager stereotype from any given slasher flick. One character even removed his shoes before heading up a staircase to find the source of a few bumps in the night. They seemed like reasonable people approaching an unreasonable scenario, no comic relief characters blindly blundering into danger here! Oh, and the sound design has to get a mention as well, it was unsettling and perfectly set each scene to a mood that slowly evolves from creepy to outright terror nearing the third act!

Zarah Mahler as Abbie in “The Wretched”

Speaking of the third act, it gets pretty intense! Not to oversell the film, but the choice to stack several types of phobias on top of each other in the final sequence was brilliant! Forcing your characters to keep charging forward through a continued escalation of terror like that was, well, it was a damn good time at the cinema. This was a satisfying throwback to old tropes with refreshing new techniques and execution. Anyone that enjoys films like “The Witch“, “Evil Dead” (The Sam Raimi version), or “Halloween” (The John Carpenter version) will probably enjoy this one as I did. I highly recommend seeking this one out once the film makes it’s way through the festival circuit and distribution process. Keep your eyes peeled for this one!

Final Score: 1 Witch

*Below is a link to an interview with one of the directors, Brett Pierce, where he discusses the reasoning behind why they decided to shoot the film in Northern Michigan, check it out!

https://www.northernexpress.com/news/feature/evil-dead-descendant-bros-brett-and-drew-pierce-bring-the-wretched-1/

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Review: Crawl!

Written by Michael and Shawn Rasmussen and directed by Alexandre Aja, “Crawl” is a tight thriller about a young woman helping her estranged father survive a hurricane while fighting off numerous alligators. The heavy marketing of Sam Raimi as a producer may have caught my attention, but it was the prospect of a competent summer horror film that got me into a seat for this one. That, and the fact that I tend to gravitate towards a good “man versus nature” story. The thing that struck me most in the first act of the film was that the film took itself seriously as a competent thriller. Which was more than I expected going into this one, I assumed it would be more tongue-in-cheek camp, something along the lines of the director’s previous work in “Piranha 3D”. We begin the film with our lead character Haley (Kaya Scodelario) in a swimming practice as a Hurricane begins to batter the Florida coast. The film wastes no time getting the plot moving along as Haley’s soon called by her sister Beth (Morfydd Clark) to see about their father Dave (Barry Pepper), Haley agrees even though we see apprehension in her eyes.

After finding an abandoned apartment, Haley heads to the old family home (recently put on the market)

Haley gets to the family house and searches for her father, eventually leading to the crawlspace under the main level. The whole first act resides here, and that was a smart decision. After finding her father unconscious near some piping, she comes face to face with a large ‘gator’- the one that took a nasty bite out of her father’s leg. Haley manages to wake her father back up as they try to find a way around the ‘gator’ that’s perched itself right next to the stairs out. I won’t go through and breakdown every character action in the film but the filmmakers and cast did an excellent job of playing into natural fears that people have, claustrophobia, aquaphobia, mysophobia etc. The cat and mouse sequences between Haley and the ‘gators’ were very effective and pleasantly thrilling throughout! Those swimming practices paid off. The constantly rising water was also very effective in forcing the characters to push themselves and go for the riskier maneuvers.

Rising water works great as a ticking clock!

Keeping with the rising water, this forces the characters to move into the next floor or room, all of which come with new challenges and scares as the gators have new advantages and difficulties as well. There are a few qualms I should mention at this point- but they are few and didn’t truly impact my enjoyment of the film. Any and all side characters that are introduced in the movie are essentially only there to be killed by alligators- which is fine, there needs to be a legitimate threat introduced to instill urgency, but I was surprised with the speed at which these people were devoured by these modern day dinosaurs. There’s also almost no thought put into how our two main characters would realistically handle some of the admittedly gruesome wounds they have inflicted on them throughout the movie- like, you can’t push a major leg bone back into your leg and then walk and run on it just fine when needed- but hey, this is an hour and a half movie about killer alligators, it’s not “Citizen Kane” you know?

Barry Pepper stars in CRAWL from Paramount Pictures. Photo Credit: Sergej Radović.

So, if you’re looking for a fun summer flick with some good scares and solid pacing under a tight hour and thirty minutes- this is it! “Crawl” was better than expected and a damn fine summer flick to kill a hot afternoon, check it out!

Final Score: 1 Father, 1 Daughter, and Dozens of Alligators!

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Review: Hereditary

Written and Directed by Ari Aster, “Hereditary” is the latest horror movie from studio A24. This most recent offering continues A24’s tradition of releasing films that refuse to be average, which results in a storytelling boon for their audiences. “Hereditary” follows the lives of the Graham family as they navigate the loss of their Matriarch, Ellen. The film opens with her funeral as her daughter Annie (Toni Colette) gives a muted eulogy which perfectly preps us (but does not prepare us) with a foundation of paranoia. Ellen, it seems, was a very private person with private friends. So much so that her closest relatives know almost nothing about her life and its many secrets. The family dysfunction that stems outward from Ellen has produced a multitude of psychological and emotional issues in her offspring. Most notably affected by this is Annie, a miniature model creator, wife, and mother, who seems to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown- or at least close to one- right from the beginning of the film. Her husband Steve Graham (Gabriel Byrne) just tries to keep everything and everyone around him afloat amidst the cavalcade of creeps that’s about to descend into his family’s life. They have two children Peter (Alex Wolff), the older teenager, and Charlie (Milly Shapiro), the very unsettling young girl who makes those creepy clicking sounds that you’ve heard in the advertising of the film.

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I will do my best to avoid spoilers in this review, or at least keep them to a minimum. There are essentially two sides to this film. There’s the story you think you’re watching for the first half of the film, and then there’s the second story that you won’t likely fully grasp the details of until the film very deliberately tells you what’s happening in the final shot of the film. In retrospect, there’s a very well thought out string of breadcrumbs sprinkled throughout the film that do hint at the supernatural underpinnings that are taking place just out of frame. There’s a lot going on in the film, there’s throwbacks to classic horror cinema from the mood and tension building of “The Shining” to the wild shock and awe of certain scenes from “The Exorcist”. Granted, I wouldn’t recommend going into any movie with your expectations rampant and out of control- the film simply cleverly pulls from those icons while greatly remaining as its own unique experimentation.

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The greatest thing the film accomplishes is its’ execution of tension and unsettling mystery. There’s one, maybe two, jump-scares in the entire film and that is a huge benefit. There is no release here, once the film has entrapped you, it has your undivided attention. There are words scrawled on the walls of the Grahams’ house, only ever seen by Annie who seems to become more and more untrustworthy and unraveled as the film progresses- which makes us question if she’s actually even seeing them. Not to mention Charlie, who is unquestionably disturbing in nearly every scene she’s in- and even in a few she’s not. Charlie has visions of her dead grandmother, cuts off a dead bird’s head for unknown reasons (a prelude to all the beheadings later in the film- there’s more than you would expect from this film’s pretenses), and she exponentially keeps making that freaky clicking sound that I keep thinking I hear when it’s too quiet around the house. Curiously Peter isn’t all that focused on in the first half of the story, until about the mid point when THAT SCENE happens and it affects Peter so much that he begins to slowly lose his mind. Then there’s these visual clues, symbols, and red herrings all over the film- everything that happens or is shown seems to have a reason and action behind it, but it does help to keep the audience out of the conversation and thereby cleverly distracting us to keep the intrigue high. It keeps building this ever creepy crescendo of madness until it reaches the boiling point.

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Everything about “Hereditary” was crafted with horror loving hands. The score is effectively distressing and alarming when it needs to be, the way the film is edited is pure unease, and the progression of the characters is downright unnerving. There’s so much more I could discuss, but by doing so I would ruin the fun of the mystery. I highly suggest seeing this film if you enjoy good horror films. I don’t even really care all that much for the genre, but this film got to me. It still wanders into my mind days later and turns lovely afternoons into insidious hours of peeking around corners and occasionally getting scared by the cat.

Final Score: a Dozen creepy cult members

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Review: A Quiet Place

Written by Bryan Woods, Scott Beck, and John Krasinski and directed by Krasinski, “A Quiet Place” is an intelligent and intimate thriller that expertly showcases Krasinski’s skill behind the camera as well as in front of it. This is Krasinski’s third time in the director’s chair when it comes to features, his first two, “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men” and “The Hollars” were both comedies with drama sprinkled in, though he also directed a few episodes of The Office. None of which suggest the talent and brilliance laying dormant within Krasinski for his third time at bat in “A Quiet Place”. I didn’t know what I was about to witness after buying my tickets to this particular showing, I had a night off from work so I looked at the showings and randomly happened upon the monster movie- some word of mouth around the internet from critics I trust seemed to suggest it would be a good time at the theater, and they weren’t wrong in the slightest. In the opening scene we’re introduced to the family Abbott in an abandoned grocery store. The parents (Krasinski and Emily Blunt) and three children all seem tense, barely making a sound as they carefully scatter about on the balls of their feet looking for supplies. They use sign language to communicate between others and through some clever use of sound editing we notice that one of the children (Millicent Simmonds) must be deaf. As they leave the store newspapers flutter in the wind as you can see the headlines read in bold letters, “IT’S SOUND!” consuming the page. I won’t divulge into details that one might consider spoiler territory, but it’s quickly established that any noise above a muted whisper is met with brutal violence from the monsters lurking just beyond sight.

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This film is a masterclass in efficiently showing you everything you need to know about every member of the family and how they all interact with each other through this world changing scenario. Since there is almost no spoken dialogue in the film and few signed lines, we’re inclined to study each character’s face and body movements more than a film might normally require of its audience. The film’s world and sense of danger are exquisitely portrayed in the first half of the movie. We’re introduced to the threat outside and how very real it is, we see how they survive through careful planning and awareness of their surroundings, and we see them trying to live a normal life amidst this ever present terror. At the beginning of being seated in my theater, I was worried that the crowd might be too noisy for this film. The audience was laughing and chatting, eating and coughing all throughout the trailers- but as soon as the opening scene captured everyone’s attention with rapt bated breath, I knew I was in for a treat. This is a film where precise sound design is key, it was utilized with such perfection in order to ratchet up the suspense as much as possible at any given moment that it seemed almost cruel in it’s execution, it was almost too good!

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What I loved most about the film was that, much like “Jaws”, the focus wasn’t on the unseen threat awaiting our characters, it was on the people at risk themselves. The monsters, or aliens, or whatever they were (it’s really unimportant as to what exactly they are) weren’t overused, though they do show themselves eventually, the simple fact that they were nearby created an unsettling atmosphere that was prevalent throughout the film’s runtime. The second half of the film is almost entirely steeped in suspense. Krasinski pulls from masters like Hitchcock here in that once things start to go off the rails for the family Abbott- there’s always another problem that exponentially increases anxiety and tension. He never lets the audience go once he’s got you, splitting up the various family members for one reason or another comes with a lot of variables and everything that can go wrong does!

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After this film, I know I’ll be paying attention to whatever projects Krasinski’s working on, because this shows great potential. “A Quiet Place” is a classic thriller that’s incredibly clever on several fronts and I imagine it will be a favorite among audiences from here on out! This film may be the evolution of a master at work, only time will tell!

Final Score: a million unsaid things and several screams!

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Review: Grabbers

Written by Kevin Lehane and directed by Jon Wright, “Grabbers” is an Irish horror comedy about a small Irish Isle besieged by tentacled aliens that harbor a thirst for blood. I didn’t watch this film with the aim to write a review about it, but I enjoyed it so much that I thought it would be good to spread this title around and get more eyeballs on it. The premise of the film is simple enough, the small island has a police force of two and when the captain goes on holiday for two weeks a rookie from Dublin signs up to fill his shoes for the duration of his vacation while the second in command, Ciarán O’Shea (Richard Coyle), is a washed up  drunk who doesn’t take kindly to the newcomer. Lisa Nolan (Ruth Bradley) is the workaholic to O’Shea’s alcoholic and they awkwardly go about their duties once she’s settled on the isle. They quickly come across a bunch of beached whales with strange deep cuts all over them, the local scientist Smith (Russell Tovey) notes that they died at sea, curiously.

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One of the local fishermen, Paddy (Lalor Roddy) traps one of the strange creatures while out on a trawling run and brags about it to O’Shea while at the pub. One thing leads to another and the odd couple police force brings the captured squid-like creature to the local doctor (Pascal Scott) to find out what it might be, but even he has no idea forcing a return to Smith’s laboratory where they discover the creature’s weakness despite its unknown origin. Alcohol. Since the creatures need water and blood to thrive a victim with a high enough blood alcohol concentration causes the aliens to foam at the beak and writhe to death. With a particularly nasty storm coming making evacuation off the island impossible til the morning the ragtag group assembles the island residents to the pub to last through the night.

 

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The film gleefully embraces the cliches of its setting and the genre mashup tropes of Irish drunkenness, small town life, and the briny fishermen known to own their rebellious spirits while enjoying a pint or two more than is recommended. The film may be somewhat predictable but the actors leading the charge are effectively charming enough that I personally was having enough of a good time that this was less of an issue for me. The CGI for the creatures was effective in that they never seemed too goofy looking and once they start to grow, they’re malice enlarges with them. If you enjoy a good horror comedy, I suggest seeking this one out, it playfully acknowledges itself and the common tropes of similar movies, but it’s unique enough to stand out from the crowd.

 

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Final Score: Two cops, a scientist, a doctor, and a pub