Followed


The devil wants your coffee.

(2018) Horror (Global ViewMatthew Solomon, John Savage, Tim Drier, Sam Valentine, Caitlin Grace, Kelsey Griswold, Christopher Martin, Sarah Chang, Karan Sagoo, Ethan Alexander, Terumi Shimazu, Sonia Lopez Pizarro, Thaddeus Ek, Gregory Adkins, Doreen Fox Loughlin, India Adams, Blanca Blanco, Kate Romero, Santiago Postigo, David Nesler, JoAnna de Castro. Directed by Antoine Le

 

We live in an age when anybody can become an Internet star, and it doesn’t necessarily take talent so much as an ability to get noticed in a crowded milieu. Vlogger Mike a.k.a. DropTheMike (Solomon) comes to us from the mean streets of L.A., taking us on a haunted tour of the locations of suicides and murders. However, his numbers aren’t as high as he would like them to be and in order to drive them up so that he can get himself a $250,000 sponsorship, he decides to film a special Halloween edition – from the Lennox Hotel, the most haunted location in the city.

His cameraman Christopher (Drier) who has no problem going to the exteriors of these notorious locations, balks at spending the night inside of one; unlike Mike, he believes in the supernatural. Mike ups the pay and hires Christopher’s crush, Dani (Valentine) to do sound in order to get his DP back into the fold. Add workaholic on-site editor Nic (Grace) to the mix and it’s “let’s put on a show” time, kids.

At first it’s all fun and games, but genuinely spooky things begin to happen, from loud knocks on their bedroom door, to the discovery of body parts in various places in the hotel, to half-glimpsed sightings of people who aren’t there…you know the drill. Eventually, the fear factor is ratcheted up until the crew begin to desert the project one by one and Mike is left to face the unknown alone.

The movie is done in a found footage style, but in a clever way that avoids some of the more annoying tropes of the sub-genre. A framing device of a heavy-breathing presence uploading various segments to the vlog is effective, albeit a bit over-the-top. Then again, horror thrives on over-the-top, the more the better.

There is a subtle, sly satire on the whole vlogging culture. Mike is sufficiently obnoxious – he’s based loosely on real vloggers PewDiePie and Logan Paul – that at times we wish someone would call him on his insensitivity (mostly his mates just give him the eye-rolls of people who are all too familiar with a friend’s remarks, but what are you gonna do) and certainly, there are elements of creepypasta here (most of the denizens of the hotel have that feel. In fact, much of the movie seems to harken back to other movies, from The Shining to The Blair Witch Project to Grave Encounters and so on – you may end up frustrated that so much is borrowed from other films. That doesn’t make the movie any less fun.

Some of the scares are well-executed, but there is a tendency for the scary sequences to be filmed with handheld cameras in dim lighting so that a lot of the sources of the fright are barely glimpsed. I suppose that’s a function of a very low budget – when you can’t afford terrific make-up effects, you hide them by making sure that the audience never gets a clear view of them. I don’t know if that’s what happened here, but that’s where a critic’s mind automatically goes and, I’m sure, many horror fans as well. Also, keep in mind this is one of at least three horror films involving vloggers coming out this month alone.

Still, this is a pretty good horror movie and as were just getting into the season for them, it’s a good start to getting your terror on. The movie played in drive-ins in June and just hit VOD platforms. If you ask your local drive-in (or pop-up drive-in) nicely, they might rent it for you; this is the kind of film that’s perfect for that kind of venue. But it’s not a bad idea to turn the lights down in your bedroom and watch this on your TV screen…or laptop. But if you really want a good scare, do a Google search for the Hotel Cecil. That might just chill you to the bone.

REASONS TO SEE: Some decent scares.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not super original.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some horrific and disturbing images, plenty of profanity, some violence and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Hotel Lennox is based on the real-life Hotel Cecil, where serial killer Richard Ramirez reportedly stayed and committed some of his crimes; also the Meghan Kim incident is based on the story of Elisa Lam, a Canadian college student who disappeared while staying there and whose actions, caught on surveillance video, were similar to that of Meghan Kim; Lam’s body was later discovered in a hotel water tank.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, iScreeningroom, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/17/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Shining
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Blackbird

By Day’s End


Any corridor is dangerous during the zombie apocalypse.

(2020) Found Footage Horror (Breaking GlassLyndsey Lantz, Andrea Nelson, Joshua Keller Katz, Diana Castrillon, Bill Oberst Jr. (voice), Maria Olsen, Devlin Wilder, Umberto Celisano, Nadia Jordan (voice), Devon Russell, Kyle Nunn, Amber Hawkins, Roy Ying, Matthew Lee, Janaki Tambe, Helen Audie, Shirley Aikens. Directed by Michael Souder

While many of us are stuck at home by social distancing – voluntary or otherwise – caused by a deadly pandemic, a virus-driven zombie apocalypse movie might not be precisely the best choice in social distancing viewing. Still…

Carly (Lantz) has just purchased a video camera. After dropping out of med school just short of graduating, she intends to take up a career as a videographer instead and even has a wedding lined up to shoot on the weekend. She lives with Rina (Nelson), her girlfriend and a lawyer who is, unfortunately, out of work. This set of circumstances has forced them to take up residence in a squalid L.A.-area motel.

The dingy surroundings might well be a metaphor for the relationship between the two women. Andrea is on edge, sniping and picking on Carly at every turn. Carly doesn’t seem to be taking their circumstances seriously. Their romance is definitely on the rocks, with a twist of lemon even.

But this relationship movie is interrupted by the intrusion of a screaming woman; Gloria (Castrillon) who has been bitten by her husband (Celisano), the maintenance guy for the hotel. All of a sudden, this romance has turned into a zombie movie and the two women are not close to being prepared for it.

=Fortunately, Wyatt (Katz) is. The ex-military man has a cache of weapons and ammo in a hotel storeroom and is aware of a safe zone that the army has set up. Now all they have to do is get there.

This is a found footage film, a sub-genre that seems to be making a comeback this year after taking 2019 off. As found footage films go, this one is pretty standard with plenty of shaky-cam video camera footage and grainy security camera footage mixed in for good measure.

The performances here are pretty decent, all things considered. It is a micro-budget film and most of what budget they have went to make-up effects which incidentally are also pretty decent. The script is full of zombie movie tropes as well as found footage tropes, and never really rises above them to do something different, despite having two lesbians as the lead – which is refreshing. And to the credit of Lantz and Nelson, the relationship between Carly and Rina is pretty realistic, full of missteps and failings but loving when push comes to shove – which it does.

Souder does a good job in several scenes making the tension rise, but there are also some head-scratching moments where he misses some opportunities. However, at a sleek 73 minutes the movie isn’t going to tax anyone’s patience. The relationship scenes early on are the best reason to see this, although there is some fun to be had once the dead start chowing down on the living.

REASONS TO SEE: There are some really tense moments.
REASONS TO AVOID: Kind of a standard plotline with few surprises.
FAMILY VALUES: There is lots of violence and plenty of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the feature film debut for Souder..
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/27/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic:  No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Zombie Apocalypse
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Tape

Murder Death Koreatown


Even the couches are out to get you in Koreatown.

(2020) Found Footage Thriller (Self-Released) Cast unknown. Directed by Unknown

Some movies come to critics with reams of information; pages of publicity notes, director’s quotes, actor and crew bios and so on. Others come to us with much less information to go on. This one came with almost none.

Found footage films are not always received kindly in the critical community and among horror fans in general. There was a time when the market became over-saturated with them and let’s face it, most of them were really bad. The best-known were the original, The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, both of which would eventually see sequels made by major studios.

=The film centers around an unemployed man who is shocked to discover that a murder has taken place in a nearby apartment in which a young wife suddenly and without explanation brutally murdered her husband (it is implied although not directly stated that she stabbed her husband to death). The man is seriously shaken by the brutal event so close to home, but there are some things that are troubling him. For one thing, there are blood spatters on the sidewalk away from the crime scene. Also, the arrest of the suspect took place nearly a block away from the crime scene.

He takes out his cell phone and starts talking to people around the neighborhood, filming the interviews. At first, most of the subjects know less than he does. As he looks into it, there are a few people who admit to knowing the slain man and his wife and they are baffled by the event; all of them say that the suspect was a real sweet girl, although a co-worker of the husband noted that he hadn’t been sleeping and he thought that the couple were fighting which was uncharacteristic of them.

=The more that the filmmaker delves into the crime, the more dead ends arise. One theory gets squashed and another one arises, only to be squashed also. Leads don’t pan out; then things get creepy. People he talks to begin to disappear. Mysterious graffiti in Korean begin to appear all around him and the filmmaker begins to get unhinged. His girlfriend begs him to drop the investigation, concerned for his well-being at first and then angry when he ignores her. Strange things begin to happen; he hears voices. He sees things that can’t be real. Is the murder victim trying to contact him from the dead, or is he losing his mind? And who are the mysterious Pastors?

Like most critics, I have grown weary of found footage movies but I was pleasantly surprised by this one. Put simply, it is the best in the genre to come out since the original Blair Witch Project way back in 1999. It’s taut and believable; the interview subjects don’t feel like they’re acting and even though the camera is very shaky (it IS supposed to be cell phone footage), there are some really good cinematic moments of bright blue L.A. skies and the palm trees of Paradise in SoCal.

I give the unknown filmmakers props for having the foresight to keep the story simple and stick with it. Even though the movie leads in unexpected directions, all of those shift changes are organically done and don’t feel forced. It does take a little while to get going and the coda is a bit anti-climactic but there is a powerful payoff in the film’s climax.

Sometimes the best movies come out of left field and this one certainly does. They aren’t re-inventing the wheel here; they’re taking a straightforward story and telling it in a straightforward manner. That’s something Hollywood veterans sometimes have a hard time doing.

The best found footage films make you feel as if you might be watching something real, and this one does. You are left unbalanced; is there something weird happening here? Is there a conspiracy going on? Or is this guy losing his mind? There is a disclaimer in the closing credits (what little there are) that state that “No reasonable person would believe this film or its claims are real…Investigations into this project or its subject is strictly discouraged. There is nothing to find. It’s just a movie.” Even given that disclaimer, I was left wondering if it was real. That’s how the film messes with your head. It truly is creepy AF.

The movie at present has no distribution and has played but once. Hopefully a local film festival near you will find their way clear to show this; ask your local art house to look into it. In the meantime, be aware that this is out there and if it does manage to make its way to a film festival, movie theater that is willing to play indie fare, or a streaming service, for sure check it out. This one is solid gold.

REASONS TO SEE: Maybe the best found footage film since the first one. When clicking it feels very real.
REASONS TO AVOID: Loses steam in the middle third.
FAMILY VALUES: This is quite a bit of profanity, some gruesome and unsettling images and terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie made its world premiere on Leap Day at the Unnamed Footage Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/1/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING:  The Blair Witch Project
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Disappearance at Clifton Hill

Strawberry Flavored Plastic


Sometimes even filmmakers feel the walls closing in on them.

(2018) Drama (Self-Released) Aidan Bristow, Nicholas Urda, Andres Montejo, Bianca Soto, Raelynn Zofia Stueber, Marisa Lowe, Giovanni Lowe, Maureen Winzig, Jim Cairl, Stuart Fray, Crystal Wolf, Kitty Robertson, Steve Boghossian, Erica Duke Forsyth, Maria Severny, Henry Hernandez, Logan Kenney, Margeaux Caroline, David Beach, Despina Drougas. Directed by Colin Bemis

 

Being an aspiring filmmaker is no easy row to hoe. Making films is generally an expensive proposition; it’s not just a matter of picking up a camera and pointing it at something. Even a documentary has to have a story to tell and in order to get a good one, research is needed. A good filmmaker will go to extraordinary lengths to get their film made. Sometimes they might just go too far.

That’s the position Errol Morgan (Urda) and Ellis Archer (Montejo) are in. They want to make a documentary but first they have to find the right project. It appears they have found one when after putting an ad on Craigslist they get a response from a gentleman named Noel Rose (Bristow) who was just released from prison after a crime of passion left two people dead. Sounds like a story, right?

But it’s not that story Noel has to tell. It turns out that while there are bodies in his past there are more than two – and that Noel has never actually been to prison. As a matter of fact, Noel is an active serial killer whose body count in a quiet suburb of New York City has begun to pile up.

That puts the documentarians in a difficult position. They have already committed time and money to Noel’s story and essentially if they call the authorities and drop the project, their careers as filmmakers are over before they start. Still, if they continue to roll cameras and document the process, it could be the biggest film, like, ever.

The thing is that playing with serial killers is inherently dangerous. Noel is a ticking time bomb with a temper that can go nuclear at even the slightest provocation and when Ellis commits a very serious no-no regarding the ground rules, Errol realizes that there is a target painted very squarely on his back and the backs of his wife and son.

Interviews with serial killers are not a new concept, but this one is executed in a fairly unique way. It combines found footage films along with a 48 Hours-like crime documentary vibe. Some independent horror sites have picked up on this film but I wouldn’t (and didn’t) classify this as horror although there are a couple of scenes that qualify – one in particular where Noel breaks into a home and commits an act of violence that is sudden and shocking.

Bemis has a very good grasp of tone and realism and the viewer remains firmly invested in the film’s back story and environment. He benefits from having an unknown but solid cast; Bristow in particular excels here; he reminds me of Arrow regular Josh Segarra from a vocal standpoint. Noel is handsome and charming and Bristow captures that. The one objection I have with the character is that when he shows his mad side, it gets too over the top with lots of screeching and maniacal laughter like The Joker on speed. I think the character would have been far more menacing and realistic if the madness had been more subdued; the fits of rage should not be tantrums so much as unexpected explosions of violence. Urda has a kind of Ben Stiller look to him and also delivers a very strong performance.

The movie runs a bit long and part of the reason for that is that some of the characters, particularly Noel, often go off on somewhat flowery monologues which really add nothing to the story. These should have been edited a little bit; they tend to take the viewer out of the film because this is not how real people talk. It probably looked good on the page but sometimes dialogue should be spoken out loud by the writer before committing it to paper. Some of the scenes were a little on the talky side, particularly when delivering exposition. That needed to be edited too.

This is a very strong effort and despite its flaws a worthwhile one. Bemis has a good deal of potential as does Urda and particularly Bristow. I thought the movie stands very well on its own merits and I don’t have a problem recommending the film to my readers. It was due to have been released on Amazon today but that has been delayed as the movie is being shopped at Sundance and Berlin for potential distribution. I can only keep my fingers crossed that it will find an audience because it certainly deserves one. I will try to keep you updated when it becomes available either theatrically or for streaming.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the performances, particularly Bristow and Urda, are very strong. This is a very cerebral movie.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the dialogue is a little flowery. A few scenes are a bit on the talky side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, violence, adult themes and some situations of terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Bemis’ first feature film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/23/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Anatomy of Monsters
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, MO

The Monster Project


The suggestion of something terrifying is more frightening than the sight of something terrifying.

(2017) Horror (Epic) Toby Hemingway, Justin Bruening, Murielle Zuker, Jamal Quezaire, Yvonne Zima, Steven Flores, Shiori Ideta, James Storm, Susan Stangl, Phillip Sebal, Pat Scott, Shayne Eastin, Chase Olswang, Zac Cracknell, Allie Marie Costa, Jim Beinke (voice), Victor Mathieu (voice), Martin Lee White, PeiPei Alena Yuan. Directed by Victor Mathieu

 

So a vampire, a werewolf and a demon go into a bar and… That’s how a joke might begin but that’s loosely the premise in this indie horror film, only it’s an old abandoned house instead of a bar. Although it might have worked out better if it had been a bar; old abandoned houses are so cliché.

Devon (Hemingway) and Jamal (Quezaire) have been pretty successful making homemade YouTube horror movies. Devon is convinced that they are ready to take the next step – and make a horror feature. Jamal is a little hesitant but Devon talks him into a fairly high concept idea; their films have been faked “real” encounters with monsters – Devon in a cheap costume, Jamal running around with the camera. They were getting thousands of hits. What if they recruit people who actually think they’re monsters and interview them?

Devon recruits his ex-girlfriend Murielle (Zuker) and her current beau Bryan (Bruening) who is fresh out of his most recent stint in rehab – yes, there’s been more than one – to direct and run sound, respectively. Murielle is still angry at Devon for the break-up but jumps at the chance to direct a feature. Through Craigslist – iMDB for potential victims – they get responses from Steven (Flores), a native American who is a cop on the reservation and a skinwalker, or a sort of werewolf; Shayla (Zima), a pretty albeit heavily tattooed vampire who apparently has the hots for Bryan, and Shiori (Ideta), a miserable young Japanese girl who believes she’s demonically possessed.

The dashing Devon gathers them all together in a house that has a history – a devil-worshiping coven once operated out of it – on the night of a lunar eclipse. Now I don’t know about you but all sorts of alarm bells would be going off in my head if a friend tried to drag me into a situation like that. I mean, I’ve seen a few horror movies, y’know? In any case, it turns out that not only do these people think they’re monsters, they actually are the monsters they think they are.

Locked in the house with three beings possessed of plenty of fangs, teeth, claws and muscle, the four filmmakers are going to have a hell of a time (pun intended) escaping the house and getting home alive but it soon becomes apparent that there is something much larger at work – and something far more powerful with sinister plans in mind for all of them.

This is a micro-budget indie horror movie which in the genre means nothing; great movies have been made on budgets that wouldn’t cover the coffee budget on a mid-sized studio film. The movie has some strong points – the creature effects, considering the budget, are really effective. The last hour of the film is basically shot in darkness however so there’s a kind of “night vision” sheen to the cinematography that makes things a little murky, so we don’t get the full effect of the effects, if you’ll forgive a bad joke.

Found footage films, which this is, can be entertaining or they can be pretty rote and this one follows a pretty standard found footage template with an ending that isn’t unlike what you get with most found footage films; after all, if the footage is found it must first be lost. It does lack a framing story – if nothing else a graphic stating “this footage was found in the middle of the desert blah blah blah” to give the movie context but then again, considering how it ends, it doesn’t really need it. However, like nearly all found footage films, a lot of the movie consists of terrified videographers running with their cameras. After awhile it gets pretty old and quite frankly, that’s one of the qualities of found footage films that I dislike the most. I’d gladly trade the “you are there” quality for something more watchable.

The performances are pretty solid from the unknown cast. Zima is phenomenally beautiful as the vamp but she does overdo a bit. Beyond that, I can’t really complain; there’s not a lot of character development here but I think the whole point is to get to the part where the monsters show up which is about forty minutes into the hour and forty minute film. Quite frankly, the movie could have used some trimming as well

Still in all, this is a fair to okay effort in indie horror that will certainly have its fans. While I can’t really rave about it, I can say that the movie pretty much meets the standards of the genre. I would have liked some more legitimate scares – the film is far more action-oriented than horror-oriented in delivery which I think doesn’t do the film any favors – but nonetheless I can say that you’re not wasting your time if you rent this or see it in the limited theatrical release it’s getting. Indie horror films have been on a bit of a hot streak lately and while this isn’t one of those big buzz indie scare flicks, it is at least competently made and has some gee whiz moments that will keep the fans happy.

REASONS TO GO: The creature effects are pretty nifty. The acting is for the most part pretty solid.
REASONS TO STAY: The cinematography is murky and like most found footage films the shaky cam gets old. It’s a little light on the scares.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence and terror, plenty of profanity, drug references and some sexual innuendo.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Shiori demon makes an early appearance in the DVD she gives Devon and Jamal.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/23/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Blair Witch Project
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: The Trip to Spain

The Midnight Matinee


The filmmakers of Midnight Matinee are appealing to a potential audience one viewer at a time.

(2017) Horror Anthology (IP Productions) Maggie Tehan, Justin Doesch, Juan-Pablo Veizaga, Shaun Woodland, Ian Flanders, Melissa Merry, Aggie Binkley, Maggie Binkley, Becky Edwards, Jimmy Edwards, Sophie Edwards, Jennifer McCormick, Santiago Veizaga. Directed by Justin Doesch

 

I’m a bit of a sucker for horror anthologies. I always go into them hoping I’ll get that rare and magical experience – when all the stories within the anthology are terrific. It hasn’t happened yet but I still keep hoping.

Justin Doesch, the man behind the camera for this anthology, is a name you should remember. He’s definitely got a ton of potential and a boatload of vision. He’s delivered five pretty solid stories in an amazing 42 minutes – an average of about eight minutes per segment. I have nothing against short, taut storytelling but my main complaint here is that some of the segments could have used some fleshing out; there was an unfinished feeling to some of them as if key scenes hadn’t made it into the final product.

The opening segment, “Open Sea,” is one of those. It is a bit of a cross between The Blair Witch Project and Open Water. Brian (Doesch) is taking his girlfriend Lauren (Tehan) out on his boat on the ocean for some scuba diving but with a specific purpose; he means to propose to her. Unfortunately, man proposes and sometimes, the ocean disposes. The Blair Witch aspect is that Brian intends to document the big day but he ends up documenting something else. It actually is a pretty decent segment but it felt rushed in terms of pacing and the payoff, one of the better effects shots of the film, could have used a bit more build-up.

“Let Go” is the weakest of the five. It’s modern dating with a twist. Let’s just say that if you think you’ve got problem with the dating scene, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Unfortunately, I found my attention wandering during this one although it does have a pretty decent twist. “Premonition” also utilizes found footage but in a totally unique and different way. A little girl who is prescient tries to warn someone against a life or death situation…but being psychic doesn’t mean you get to save people. Timing, as they say, is everything.

The next sequence was my favorite and happened to be the only non-horror segment of the bunch. “Frances” concerns Nikolai (Flanders), a kind of a low-level criminal screw-up who’s got one job – to pass along a package to Frances (Merry), a blind courier for a criminal boss. Simple enough – but Nikolai is the kind of guy who could mess up boiling an egg. You’re expecting some horrific twist so when the twist comes it comes out of left field. Who said that a horror anthology has to be all horror?

Finally, “Night Night” brings the film to a close about an exhausted father (J-P Veizaga) who is pestered by a son (S. Veizaga) who simply won’t go to bed – he’s certain that there is something terrible after him. This was the scariest sequence of the five and ends the movie on a nice note, or not-so-nice depending how you look at it. For my money, it is one of the better directed segments of the five.

There isn’t a ton of bloodshed and the special effects are minimal. It’s clear that Doesch had a minuscule budget and at times it shows on screen; for example, the “Premonition” set looks like a set rather than a lived-in home. That kind of thing can take the viewer out of the film. Still, if you can get past the low-budget production values, there is some entertainment to be had here, particularly the final two sequences although seeing Tehan in a bikini is certainly worth a look.

Doesch has an excellent eye and despite all the limitations that a micro-budget puts on a filmmaker he shows here that he has the talent and the imagination to really turn some heads. As it is, I think he has enormous promise and even if this almost has a work in progress feel to it, at least the investment of your time isn’t galling. 42 minutes for an early look at a director who has every sign of going places isn’t too much to ask.

REASONS TO GO: Doesch has a fine eye for camera angles and scene composition.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the shorts could have used some fleshing out. Some of the low budget shows in places. Other than the final segment, I didn’t find any of the shorts excessively scary.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as disturbing images and situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Doesch was the 2017 recipient of the Amazon Filmmaker of the Year award.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/10/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: VHS
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT: A Double Life

Phoenix Forgotten


A billboard you don’t want to see your image on.

(2017) Horror Sci-Fi (Cinelou) Chelsea Lopez, Luke Spencer Roberts, Justin Matthews, Florence Hartigan, Clint Jordan, Cyd Strittmatter, Jeanine Jackson, Matt Biedel, Ana Dela Cruz, Mackenzie Firgens, Jay Pirouznia, Marc Marron, Don Boyd, Tony Duncan, Richard Cansino, Hector Luis Bustamante, Joseph J. LaRocca, Larry Toffler, Cynthia Quiles. Directed by Justin Barber

 

Some may remember the notorious Phoenix Lights that on March 13, 1997 were witnessed by thousands of Phoenicians. Some in the UFO community consider it one of the most important sightings in history; others pass it off as military planes in formation dropping flares. Either way, it is still something of a mystery.

Three teens – Josh Bishop (Roberts), his crush Ashley Foster (Lopez) and their mutual friend Mark Abrams (Matthews) decide to head towards a remote area of the Arizona mountains to investigate the lights a week later. Their car was found abandoned by the side of the road but the three young people were never seen again.

Twenty years later Sophie (Hartigan), the younger sister of Josh, comes back to Phoenix to help her mom (Strittmatter) move. She comes across some of the videotapes her camera-obsessed brother took, including those of the lights themselves and decides to make a documentary of her brother’s disappearance. She interviews as many subjects as she can including her dad (Jordan) and other interested parties. At length she discovers a badly damaged camcorder found in the desert with the tape in it amazingly intact – which may solve once and for all the mystery behind the disappearance of the three teens.

The movie is in reality two separate movies; the story of the three teens told through their own videos, and Sophie’s investigation, which is a more standard storytelling method. The more interesting of the two is surprisingly the found footage. Barber has recreated it well, making it look like it was recorded on a camcorder circa 1997 complete with wavy lines, static and shaky cam. It looks real authentic as does the environment depicted; kudos to Barber for that.

The three “teen” leads are all as they tend to be in low budget horror movies attractive and do at least an adequate job of performing. Lopez in particular seems to have some screen presence and might well be on her way to a bright future in the business.

The thing here is that it borrows a little bit too much from The Blair Witch Project, even one of the character’s names is present. The plot is just about identical, adding elements from last year’s Blair Witch to sweeten the pot, substituting the Arizona desert for the Maryland woods. Imitation is of course flattery and in all honesty Phoenix Forgotten does imitate well, but if you’re looking for something more, you might end up disappointed.

Speaking of disappointing, the special effects are pretty poor for a film of this caliber – although they do get the aging of the found footage right. Mostly the effects consist of colored lights, wind machines and wires and it would have looked primitive back in 1997. In 2017, well, it’s simply not good enough. With maybe a little bit larger budget they could have done a more realistic job.

Still, the movie delivers where it needs to. I’m pretty sure I’m alone in this assessment; the movie disappeared without a trace (much like its protagonists) at the box office and the critical reception was less than enthusiastic. I liked it though; there was plenty that worked that I can recommend it to horror fans and to thriller fans alike. Sci-fi fans might have issues with the subpar special effects. Phoenix Forgotten is likely to be forgotten judging on the overall lack of interest in it (there are only six reviews up on Metacritic; most major releases have anywhere from 20-45) but it doesn’t deserve to be.

REASONS TO GO: The found footage is cleverly utilized, making it more palatable. I got a bit of high school nostalgia watching this.
REASONS TO STAY: The special effects are nothing to write home about.
FAMILY VALUES: There are scenes of peril and terror as well as a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The footage of the Phoenix Lights was digitally simulated and then saved onto VHS tape. It was then converted back to digital. The analog effects are a result of this process and help to integrate the CGI into the era-proper technology.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/12/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 40% positive reviews. Metacritic: 33/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Blair Witch Project
FINAL RATING:7/10
NEXT: The Discovery

Be My Cat: A Film for Anne


How would you like Sonia to be your cat?

How would you like Sonia to be your cat?

(2015) Horror (Artsploitation) Adrian Tofei, Sonia Teodoriu, Florentina Hariton, Alexandra Stroe, GiEmSi, Donna Tofei. Directed by Adrian Tofei

 

Love and obsession can be two sides of the same coin. What happens when one becomes the other can be frightening indeed, particularly when the obsessive is a psychopath.

Adrian (Tofei) is a budding filmmaker who lives in a small Romanian town, but that doesn’t preclude him from big dreams. He has an idea for a movie and only one actress will do – Anne Hathaway. To a sense, he’s somewhat pragmatic; he realizes that an actress of her stature isn’t going to give the time of day to just anyone. What he decides to do is make a kind of video pitch to her, showing her the film he intends to make with her using other actresses to fill in her role so she can get a sense of the movie he wants to make.

At first, Adrian seems a likable film dork. He lives with his mom (D. Tofei) and has rented out a pension to do his filming in. He has informed all and sundry around the area that he is making a horror film and not to be alarmed at shrieks and loud voices.

It seems pretty cinema verité to the actresses he hires. Sonia (Teodoriu) gets frustrated at Adrian’s barebones direction, telling her to find a solution to what appears to be contradictory directions. Finally, after Adrian stages an abduction scene, the actress isn’t aware that he’s using real chloroform, or that he’s planning a real murder with her as the star.

When the second actress, Flory (Hariton) arrives, Adrian is severely disappointed. For one thing, the actress has gained weight since she took the head shots and video that she submitted. For another thing, she seems more interested in having sex with Adrian than in acting in his film. Adrian is genuinely embarrassed by this and the results for Flory are fairly gruesome.

Finally there’s Alexandra (Stroe), the third actress. By this time, Adrian believes he’s ready for the real Anne Hathaway and that he doesn’t need to murder a third actress to play the part with his beloved Anne. That leaves the question; what to do with Alexandra? She certainly doesn’t want to die for her art.

This is a found footage-style horror film with a budget that is virtually non-existent and was raised by an Indie-Go-Go campaign. Tofei, who was inspired by a one-man stage show he performed as a similar character, does virtually everything from writing and directing to starring to editing to distributing to publicizing to producing and he probably made sandwiches for the cast and crew which was largely just him.

He does a pretty satisfactory job as the obsessed directorial wanna-be. The longer the film goes, the more manic and crazed Adrian becomes until he is clearly around the bend by the final act. There are some maniacal giggles that are a bit over-the-top but Adrian’s lunacy is completely believable, from the repetition of his dialogue to the disarming but sinister grin. That the actresses willingly put themselves in situations in which a monster like Adrian can do his dark deeds is also believable.

Most of the film is shot in Adrian’s actual home and on the street nearby. While the fictional Adrian is agoraphobic and refuses to leave his small town, the real Adrian actually lived in Bucharest and moved back home to make his movie. The first actress got so freaked out that she actually called the police for real; the footage of their arrival made it into the final film. More to the point, the third act is so intense, the second so bloody that the end credit disclaimer “No persons or animals were harmed in the making of this film” actually came as a relief to this reviewer who was beginning to wonder if what it was I was viewing wasn’t a Romanian snuff film. Also pictures of the alive and well actresses at the film’s festival debut were also quite reassuring. That’s impressive, especially for a first-time filmmaker.

The intensity level might be a drawback for some. Adrian is rather cruel to his actresses, calling one fat and another untalented. My understanding is that the actresses were not informed in advance of a lot of the things that happened in the film in order to make their reactions more believable. Each of the actresses are beautiful and talented; each one creates a distinct character – the mousy Sonia, the forward Flory and the quick-witted Alexandra.

This is a refreshing and new take on found footage (and incidentally the first found footage film produced in Romania) which is a headline in and of itself. While the issues that are problematic for that genre (i.e. shaky handheld camera inducing vertigo in the viewer, poor lighting) remain, the performances more than make up for the drawbacks. The last third of the film really held me spellbound and I literally had no idea how it would end. That’s the mark of a great filmmaker.

REASONS TO GO: A strong performance by Tofei and the three actresses as well. The blood-soaked second act and tense third act are worthy of much larger productions.
REASONS TO STAY: At times the low budget is pretty obvious. The handheld camera is on occasion nausea-inducing.
FAMILY VALUES:  Some very intense peril, strong violence and a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  In order to maintain a feeling of realism, Tofei shot nearly all of the footage himself. This also helped with budget constraints.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Vimeo (coming to Amazon Prime in January 2017)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/6/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: My Date with Drew
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Arrival

UFO: It Is Here (UFO: Es Ist Hier)


These German lasses just found out that Donald Trump COULD be elected U.S. President.

These German lasses just found out that Donald Trump COULD be elected U.S. President.

(2016) Horror (Daredo) Laura Berlin, Dennis Mojen, Olga von Luckwald, Leonard Hohm, Jan Walter, Hacky Rumpel, Andreas Ladwig, Fabio Cimpeanu, Nika Cimpeanu. Directed by Daniele Grieco

 

If you’re gonna be a film student, you might as well be ambitious. It’s all well and good to film a documentary at the local zoo, but when an object appears in the sky above your heads, causing the animals in the zoo to universally freak out, that’s a whole other matter. Abandoning your original project to search out a crashed meteorite might just be the ticket not only to getting an “A” but perhaps getting your name out there in the industry.

That’s exactly the situation that confronts Melissa Stein (Berlin), Leo Best (Mojen), Paula Idem (von Luckwald), Erik Greven (Hohm) and André Selke (Walter). Afterwards, they take a vote among themselves to drive to the Northwest and find the crash site of the meteorite and the vote passes, with only sensible Paula voting to finish their Zoo assignment.

Paula is however overruled and off they go in their van into the woods of Germany/Luxembourg/Belgium (where the movie was filmed by the way) and find what amounts to a needle in the haystack. Wouldn’t you know it but they do; a plume of smoke signals that they’ve found what they were searching for.

The crash site is covered with a haze of smoke and is nothing like they expected. There are metal fragments everywhere; scattered all over the ground among scorched trees and embedded in the trunks of trees as well. It is nearly dusk by the time they get there and worried that the authorities will have cordoned off the area before they can get the footage they need, they elect to remain there overnight with once again Paula voting for going home. They should have listened to Paula.

One of their number turns up missing the next morning and when they eventually make a grisly discovery, it becomes clear they are being hunted. Eventually they find a cave where they have an encounter with the thing that’s stalking them and it is like nothing seen before on this Earth, at least for as long as humans have been here.

This is a found footage film which may turn some off to it immediately; for awhile there it seemed like every other horror movie utilized the technique until it became pretty much overused. These days it has become decidedly less so, which makes reviewing it a bit easier. Still, it’s hard not to compare it to the granddaddy of all found footage films, The Blair Witch Project whose template is followed pretty closely by Grieco and to be fair if you’re going to follow a template, that’s a pretty good choice. There are also some nods to Alien, a movie Grieco professes much admiration for. The creature has some similarity to things encountered in the Ridley Scott film, although I think it’s more of an homage than a theft in this case.

Essentially what you have here is five good-looking young people making bad choices in the woods (and later, in a cave and even later in an abandoned farmhouse). That’s essentially the recipe for any horror film, but I was pleased that at least one of the characters seemed to be sensible; she just wasn’t listened to  There is a fair amount of gore here – it’s not for the squeamish by any standard – and mostly practical effects. The alien itself is pretty nifty, although I wouldn’t call it a state-of-the-art creation. We don’t see much of it except in one cave scene where one is found that appears to be in a slumber while digesting a recent meal. There is also plenty of shaky-cam going on which those who are sensitive to such things should be wary of.

I admit that for me to be wowed by a found footage film it has to be really innovative and bring something to the table that no other film in the genre has. This one does have a few things worth checking out but otherwise it really doesn’t add anything particularly new to the genre. It’s solidly made by a filmmaker who knows what he’s doing and I wouldn’t be surprised if a few years down the line he starts to get some mention with the young lions of the horror genre.

REASONS TO GO: The creature effects are primitive but effective.
REASONS TO STAY: There are way too many found footage tropes here.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a ton of profanity, some disturbing images and plenty of horror violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second straight found footage film that Grieco has directed, having had a hit in her native Germany with The Presence in 2014.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/4/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Blair Witch Project
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Deepwater Horizon

Ghost Team One


Carlos Santos is uncomfortable around pretty women.

Carlos Santos is uncomfortable around pretty women.

(2013) Horror Comedy (The Film Arcade) Carlos Santos, J.R. Villarreal, Fernanda Romero, Tony Cavalero, Meghan Falcone, James Babson, Scott MacArthur, Craig Stott, Damien Amey, Felicia Horn, Sarah Chapman. Directed by Scott Rutherford and Ben Peyser

6 Days of Darkness 2015

Florida Film Festival 2013

Haunted houses aren’t what they used to be. You never can tell what sort of house will be haunted – from the suburbs to the country to big cities, houses and even apartments and duplexes can be haunted by all sorts of ghosts.

Roommates Brad (Santos), Sergio (Villarreal) and Chuck (Cavalero) are hosting a party in their apartment. All three are young Latino-Americans and while Brad is super-sexed and Chuck super-uptight, Sergio is a bit more of the party animal.

When a drunken Sergio staggers from the party to discover some fornicating going on in his apartment, at first he thinks nothing of it. However when he has an encounter of his own with a ghostly partner, it’s discovered that the apartment building used to be a Chinese brothel and the madam who ran it was apparently not a very nice person.

After inadvertently waking up the madam, Sergio and Brad unwillingly enlist the aid of the gorgeous Fernanda (Romero) with whom both boys quickly and quite decisively fall in love with. Sergio is irked because Brad already has a girlfriend – Rebecca (Falcone) – and Sergio really has it bad for Fernanda.

Their attempts to ghost hunt turns into a mighty crapfest of incompetence, sexuality and paranormal activity. Chuck shows an unexpected side and the boys have to figure out a way to keep the world – or at least their corner of it – from coming to a screeching, bloody halt.

This movie comes off as a bit of a satire of the found footage genre which quite frankly has overstayed its welcome by this point. Not that I mind a bit of good satire but this thing seems to just kind of be non-satirical as satire goes. Sure there are some funny bits – a line about sucking the demon out pretty much made me fall to the floor laughing – but the jokes are mainly of the goofy frat house humor sort. Frankly I thought the film would have been better served to eliminate the found footage trope entirely – and just tell the story as a story.

Some critics – alright one critic that I’m aware of – groused about the portrayal of ethnics here, specifically Latin and Asian playing to stereotypes but I think that especially the Latin roles pretty much ran the gamut of not just the Latin experience but the American experience. If white actors had played the same characters as white characters not a peep would have been heard. This is one of those occasions where the ultra-liberal get their politically correct panties in a bunch over what is really nothing. Frankly, I thought the movie portrayed Hispanics as able to take a joke about themselves. After all, if we can’t laugh at ourselves, who can we laugh at?

That said the chemistry between Santos and Villareal is genuine and carries the movie. You believe instantly that these guys are buddies and have each other’s back. Of course, that sort of thing is always open to interpretation but what is not subject to debate is that Fernanda Romero is smokin’ hot and I truly hope we see a heck of a lot more of her in future movies. The woman is sexy personified.

The movie goes off the rails a little bit in the climactic moments but overall this isn’t all that  bad even though critics panned this pretty much universally. I found it to be reasonably entertaining but not breaking any new ground, although I suspect the filmmakers went at this from a different angle than we’re used to. A little too self-referential, possibly a little too self-congratulatory, the film could have used a modicum of humble pie or at least tried a little less hard to take itself too seriously. I liked it more than most of my colleagues did which likely means you will too. Incidentally, the movie played the Florida Film Festival back in 2013. Just sayin’.

WHY RENT THIS: Occasionally really funny in a goofy frat humor way.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Would have been better off with a straight story rather than found footage.
FAMILY VALUES: Strong sexual content and graphic nudity, some drug use, a fair amount of profanity and some brief violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Romero started her career as a member of the Mexican pop group Fryzzby.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a blooper reel and a video diary.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $9,195 on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only). Amazon, iTunes, Flixster
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Haunted House
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Six Days of Darkness continues!