The Stairs


There are things in the woods.

(2021) Sci-Fi Horror (Cinedigm) Adam Korson, Tyra Colar, Thomas Wethington, Josh Crotty, Brent Bailey, Stacey Oristano, John Schneider, Kathleen Quinlan, Trin Miller, Russell Hodgkinson, Karleena Gore, David S. Hogan, Mark Klein, Sandy Klein, Elena Flory-Barnes, Gordon Frye, Robin Cheung, Derek R. McKean, Jeff Mendenhall, Katherine Grant-Suttie. Directed by Peter “Drago” Tiemann

 

There is a reason why so many horror movies are set in the woods. For one thing, they are remote; the protagonist(s) are forced to rely on themselves to escape whatever horror they are facing. For another thing, they are beautiful. It makes for good cinematography and the juxtaposition of beautiful scenery and blood-curdling terror is a good one. Also, you don’t need to pay a large cast and crew in the woods. It keeps costs down. But most importantly, forests are just dang creepy.

Jesse Martin (Wethington), a young 11-year-old boy, is headed out on a hunting trip with his grandpa (Schneider). Grandma (Quinlan) has packed them both a sack lunch, notably without bacon for the cholesterol-challenged grandpa and their daughter Kate (Miller) drops off Jesse with an admonition to pick up some tomatoes for canning on the way home. But that isn’t going to happen. While out in the woods, Jesse is distracted by a strange sound and wanders off to find an astonishing structure in the woods – a grand staircase. Grandpa, discovering his grandson is missing, goes after him only to witness his grandson being dragged off into a doorway on the back of the structure. Being a good grandpa who is packing a hunting rifle, he grimly goes off to rescue the boy.

Twenty years later, a group of young people are going on a hike in the same area; Nick (Korson), Josh (Bailey), Rebeccah (Oristano), pragmatic Jordon (Colar) and “Dirty” Doug (Crotty) who comes by his nickname honestly. As happens in most horror movies, a local clerk (M. Klein) warns the kids to be careful because it’s a blood moon tonight and people disappear during a blood moon. As also happens in most horror movies, the kids ignore the warning.

At first, the hike is pretty much a standard nature hike as practiced by a group of young city kids. But things start to get weird. Rebeccah in particular sees some strange things, although none stranger than the one vision they all witness – an agitated man with a horrific head wound (Hogan) waving a gun around while his deformed wife (Gore) cradles their baby – a giant maggot. But instead of hightailing it out of the woods, they go further in. That’s where the Stairs are waiting for them.

Okay, the plot description has a little bit of snarkiness in it (can’t help myself – I’m just in a mood) but this is a surprisingly well-acted, taut horror picture with some impressive practical effects. Sure, the plot is a little hoary and there are a few holes in it here and there, but you kind of expect that out of a horror movie these days. In many ways, this is the kind of movie that could easily have been made back in the Eighties – except if it had been made then, there would have been an excuse for one or both of the actresses to take off their tops. Back then, female nudity in horror movies was pretty much as necessary as fake blood. We live in more enlightened times now.

And while the story isn’t anything to write home about, there is much here to praise; the cinematography is ably done, the characters are developed more than you would find in an average modern horror movie and there are a couple of really nicely set up scares as well as a fairly high gross-out factor. All in all, if there was one word that ably describes the film, it’s nifty.

REASONS TO SEE: Surprisingly strong acting performances.
REASONS TO AVOID: Pedestrian plot.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, profanity and gore. There is also a depiction of deer hunting that might upset those who love animals.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Was voted Best Feature Film at the 2021 UK Haunted House Fearfest.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Hoopla, Microsoft, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/3/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wrong Turn
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Vampire Cleanup Department (Gao geung jing dou fu)


There’s nothing like a nice refreshing dip in an acid pool.

(2017) Horror Comedy (Media Asia) Babyjohn Choi, Min Chen Lin, Siu-Ho Chin, Richard Ng, Hok-chi Chiu, Meng Lo, Susan Yam-Yam Shaw, Cheng-Yan Yuen, Jim Chim, Eric Tsang. Directed by Sin-Hang Chiu and Pak-Wing Yan

Budding filmmakers, here is something to consider: everybody loves a secret agency that protects its citizens from supernatural threats – or at least a high enough percentage of everybody that you’re likely to get a whole lot of buzz.

Tim Cheung (Choi) is something of a clumsy nebbish. An orphan, he was brought up by his grandma who often confuses him with his deceased father. One night, he sees someone being attacked in an alleyway and tries to help; instead, he is bitten on the behind by a strange creature.

That creature turns out to have been a vampire. When Tim wakes up, he’s in the underground headquarters of the Vampire Cleanup Department, a secret government agency that takes on the nosferatu of Hong Kong. Among those who work for the VCD are his Uncle Chung (Ng), the head of the department as well as his Uncle Chau (Chin) who is the martial arts master of the group. There’s also Ginger (Yuen), a priest who is the master of the amulets that freeze the undead among other things; there’s also Tai Gau (Lo), the weapons master.

On Tim’s first mission, he gets dragged into a lake that had once been farmland and is kissed by a rotting vampire. The vampire’s rotting flesh sloughs off, revealing a beautiful young girl. Summer (Lin) was a 20-year-old girl whose Landlord had her buried alive with him when he died; the Landlord was a vampire and the living girl had become one due to her unjust death. Like most vampires, she can only hop around rather than walk or run. The others order Tim to immolate Summer in their furnace but Tim, seeing the tears flowing from the undead girl’s eyes hides her instead. The two soon fall in love. He grows to believe that she is not evil; that she is in fact a rare human vampire who might be able to learn how to become human again.

It’s a bad time to fall in love with the undead; there is an ambitious police officer who wants to take away the undead gig from the VCD and has his American scientist find a way to destroy the vampires scientifically. It is also very nearly time for the blood moon during which time the Landlord vampire can resurrect himself. What’s a nerdy vampire hunter to do?

For fans of classic Hong Kong cinema, particularly the hopping vampire genre, your ship has come in. This is an amazingly entertaining but lightweight homage to those films of yore such as Mr. Vampire – many of the cast have made appearances in one hopping vampire film or another. This is more of a romantic comedy than outright horror; while there are some gory images, they are relatively few in number and the bulk of the story is concentrated on the romance between Tim and Summer.

This is very much a guilty pleasure, with cheesy special effects and comedy that falls on the silly side but it has charm by the bucketful. One can’t help but root for Tim despite his hangdog demeanor and his somewhat klutzy cluelessness. It is well above the Abbott and Costello horror spoofs and way above the more modern Scary Movie-type abominations. After viewing it, I was thinking this is what a Hong Kong hopping vampire film might look like if produced by Kevin Feige and directed by Guy Ritchie – although you might have to twist yourself sideways to see the Ritchie reference (I was thinking of the Sherlock Holmes films).

The mythology behind the Vampire Cleanup Department itself is solid and has the kind of detail normally reserved for comic book adaptations. Think of these guys as the Avengers of hopping vampire hunters with a Shaolin twist. Who can’t love vampire hunters who are disguised not in dark suits but in rubbish collector vests? Some of the humor is downright subversive if you can get past the pratfalls. I love that the voice of Summer is essentially Siri after she swallows Tim’s smart phone.

There are a few missteps. Some of the intentional cheesiness is perhaps a mite too cheesy for Western audiences. Some of the externally filmed scenes at night are way too murky and were hard to make out and while the Siri-voiced Summer conceit is cute, the Malaysian pop star Lin actually has a very naturalistic delivery and I thought the film might have benefited from more dialogue from her.

This may end up being my favorite movie from this year’s New York Asian Film Festival, which is saying something because this was a particularly bumper crop of fascinating films for the festival which has become more and more influential in the past few years. It isn’t going to change anyone’s point of view or educate them all that much on conditions in Asia but it is going to entertain the ever-loving heck out of you and that’s a lot more than many of this year’s summer blockbusters can claim.

REASONS TO GO: Although this is a bit on the cheesy side it’s nevertheless supremely entertaining. The background mythology is solid. Choi is ideal for the handsome nerd role. It reminded me of a Guy Ritchie film in a kind of twisted way.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the humor is a bit overly silly for Western tastes. The special effects are definitely cheesy and some of the outdoor night scenes are a bit hard to see.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some horror violence (some of it comedic) as well as bits and pieces of gore.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cheng-Yan Yuen, who plays the priest Ginger, is the brother of legendary stunt choreographer Woo-Ping Yuen.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/16/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fearless Vampire Killers
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Birthright: A War Story