Amber’s Descent


Amber is having a really bad day.

(2020) Horror (Breaking Glass) Kayla Stanton, Michael Mitton, Don Knodel, Nathaniel Vossen, Dione Russell, Colm Hill, Destiny Millins, Kirsten Khorsand, Sheron Russell, Jayden Shannon, Craig Paynton, Graham Daley, Sarah Seibert. Directed by Michael Bafaro

 

Trauma can do strange things not just to the body but also to the mind. It can affect us in ways we can’t predict and maybe not even understand.

Amber Waltz (Stanton), who is aptly named due to her profession as a concert pianist and classical music composer, has lived through a severe trauma, having survived being stabbed by her ex Mark (Vossen) who then slit his own throat while she watched, horrified. Understandably, she had a bit of a breakdown after that and decided to leave Seattle where she was living and moves to an isolated farmhouse somewhere in the Pacific Northwest.

The house is lovely and secluded although it needs a lot of work, which is why she hires handyman Jim (Mitton) to fix things up. Soft-spoken and eager to please, he is a bit of a comforting presence for her, particularly since she starts to hear odd, unexplained noises while doors open and shut by themselves. At first she can chalk these things up to the uirks of an old house, but as she begins to see little girls where little girls shouldn’t be, and then has a highly erotic encounter with a bigger girl, and her symphony seems to be magically writing itself, Amber begins to wonder if the house is haunted. Then she wonders if she’s losing her mind. Finally, she wonders if something far more sinister – and deadly – is befalling her.

Early on, the movie has a lot of haunted house tropes that might lead one to believe that they are watching just another ghost movie, but the movie actually surprised me with the direction that it eventually went, whichis an accomplishment in and of itself. Those who stick around for the end (and I won’t kid you, it’s a bit of a slog getting there) may well congratulate themselves on having the fortitude to hang in there and those that do will be rewarded with a nifty ending, although I will say that Balfaro chooses to show you how the film arrived there in case you couldn’t figure it out – underestimating the intelligence of your audience is generally a bad thing. However, good endings are a lot more uncommon than you might think, so it’s always a big plus when you get one.

Balfaro does do a good job of establishing a tense atmosphere and generally resists using jump scares, although there are a couple because you almost have to have at least a few these days. However, the movie is torpedoed by two things: the dialogue, which sounds unnatural, and the acting which is by and large somewhat flat. The movie lacks energy and inertia, which is generally provided by the actors but whether they were struggling with dialogue which I can understand because it often sounds like stringing words together in ways normal people don’t, or they just didn’t feel motivated. Some of that can be laid at the feet of the director, but good actors will give memorable performances without the encouragement of a director. There is accountability to go around here.

And it really is a shame because there are a lot of good elements here, including some lovely cinematography and the unfailing politeness of the characters, although when you discover that this is a Canadian production, a light bulb might suddenly switch on, as it did for me. Sometimes, the right crew and actors coalesce to make magic happen, but sometimes just the opposite happens and this is, sadly, one of those occasions.

REASONS TO SEE: The ending is pretty inventive.
REASONS TO AVOID: Stiff and flat, rarely arouses any sort of feeling in the viewer.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, sexuality and nudity, horrific images and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Stanton is no stranger to genre work, having appeared in the TV shows Supernatural and Lucifer.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, <a Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/9/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kindred
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
ThunderForce

The Believer (2021)


When love becomes toxic.

(2021) Horror (Freestyle) Aidan Bristow, Sophie Kargman, Billy Zane, Susan Wilder, Lindsey Ginter, Robbie Goldstein. Directed by Shan Serafin

 

Sometimes, the person you married isn’t the same as the person sitting next to you at the dinner table. You thought you knew them better than you know yourself, but suddenly you’re not so sure. People change, after all…and not always for the better.

Lucas (Bristow) and Violet (Kargman) are in that kind of a marriage. The two of them are at loggerheads over something Violet did that Lucas is having a hard time dealing with. Then again, he’s an unemployed physicist who following a broken foot has seen his health decline inexplicably. So, too, is his mental health, to the point he is seeing a psychiatrist, the unorthodox Dr. Benedict (Zane) to try and piece together what happened.

What happened, we find out, was an abortion that Violet performed without Lucas’ knowledge or approval. Since then, she has begun to obsess over demons and possession, and the pragmatic scientist she married is having a hard time matching the calm and rational woman he married with the robotic but deranged woman that won’t allow him to touch her anymore.

Then again, Lucas doesn’t appear to be much of a prize either, but we’ll get to that. Right now, Violet’s parents Charlotte (Wilder) and Gus (Ginter) have dropped over for a surprise visit at just the absolute worst time. There’s a problem with that, though – Violet insists that her parents are both dead and these people are not who they say they are. What is going on? Is Violet right? Or has she lost her mind? Or is something far more insidious, far more sinister going on?

Shan Serafin has crafted a psychological horror film that does a good job of keeping the viewer off-balance and heightening a sense of unreality. Lucas is definitely an unreliable narrator, particularly the more you witness his sessions with Dr. Benedict which may or may not be real. Serafin does some moderate borrowing from other films, including Rosemary’s Baby and Misery, both of which, ironically, started out as books.

But borrowing from other sources isn’t the movie’s greatest sin. Kargman is a bit too much the icy, emotionless blonde (although she’s a brunette) to be memorable here, while Bristow flails away but his character has too many unlikable moments to build a viewer connection. Zane is virtually unrecognizable as the therapist, so it falls to Violet’s parents/not-parents to be the characters here you’ll most remember, with their false bonhomie, fake smiles and sinister undertones.

The movie relies too much on jump scares, particularly in the second half, and when things really start to get unwound in terms of Lucas’ sanity, the movie starts to fall apart some. The movie’s final scenes aren’t harrowing enough to really keep your interest. There are some good things here, but overall the movie is unsatisfying and could have used a bit of tweaking.

REASONS TO SEE: Sets up a nice sense of unreality.
REASONS TO AVOID: When things get trippy the film loses cohesion.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, profanity, some sexuality and scenes of terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Serafin in addition to directing and writing screenplays has also written horror novels.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/6/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gaslight
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Boss Level

The Dead of Night


Colby Crain takes a beer break.

(2021) Horror (Shout!) Jake Etheridge, Colby Crain, Leah Bezozo, Kyle Overstreet, Matthew Lawrence, Lance Henriksen, Charlotte McKee, Darius Homayoun, Merritt C. Glover, Boots Southerland, Jack Lutz, Jesse Kinser, Ellen Gerstein, Mark Speno, Chris Ranney, Tim Stafford, Maria Robison, Brian Patrick Buckley, Harrison Wirstrom, Rudy Benta, Sid Goodloe, Connie Hanley. Directed by Robert Dean

 

Some people prefer the hustle and bustle of a big city. Others prefer a more rural existence. There is something about living in the country – isolated, quiet, peaceful. You quickly learn to fend for yourself in a situation like that because if trouble comes, there’s nobody to come save you.

In a small New Mexico town a couple of drifters, both wearing wolf skins and masks, murder a pick-up truck driver and steal his truck. They move on into town where an annual rodeo is taking place. One of the stars, Colt Skeen (Homayoun) – a local boy – hooks up with Maddie (MeKee), the daughter of unpopular local developer (Speno) who has just announced that he is running for mayor, to a dreadfully stony silence. They repair in Colt’s rundown RV to an empty field (there are a lot of them around town) for a tryst, only to be interrupted by the wolfskin killers.

The killing of the young people take place near the ranch of Tommy (Etheridge), who has some things on his mind. His sister June (Crain) is leaving town the next day to fly out to Germany to be with her fiancée who is stationed on a base there. Young sheriff’s deputy Luke (Lawrence), who has a thing for June, suspects that Tommy has something to do with the killings which makes things even harder for the brother and sister who are already on thin ice with each other – Tommy wants her to stay and help run the family ranch, while June is happy to be anywhere but there.

But June is determined, so her friends Amber (Bezozo) and Ryan (Overstreet) throw a farewell party at her house for her. In the meantime, Tommy witnesses the wolfskin killers murdering an old man. He is detected but escapes, bringing the killers to his ranch – where they’ll terrorize the siblings and their guests. Blood will spill before a twist nobody will see coming gives the movie a punch in the gut.

Up until that twist, this is fairly standard stuff; mysterious masked strangers killing seemingly without rhyme or reason, murdering people at random simply because their paths cross. That has been a popular theme in horror movies, particularly of late. In these anxiety-ridden times, I think we’re all suspicious of just about everyone else. And we’re not too sure about ourselves.

There’s some real nice empty spaces cinematography courtesy of Troy Scoughton Jr., and while there is a country and western feel to the proceedings that give it a kind of Texas Chainsaw Massacre overlay, which is nice and welcome in these times. The performances by the young cast are solid and Dean gives a lot more thought to character development than the average horror director, who tend to line up the body count more than anything else. You may notice genre veteran Lance Henriksen in the cast, but don’t be fooled – he’s only in the film for a very brief cup of coffee, and really has not much of an impact overall, which is a shame because he is the sort of actor who normally adds a great deal to any film he’s in. They could have used him in a larger role.

And there is a body count here, but curiously, not a whole lot of gore. The murders often take place off-screen and the gore is kept to a minimum. That might not sit well with hardcore horror fans, but there are compensations – namely, the character development I mentioned earlier. I wish that there had been a little more thought given to the plot, though, which is fairly derivative throughout until the climax. All in all, not a bad effort but a tame one when it comes to gore and horrific images.

REASONS TO SEE: Manages to build the suspense nicely.
REASONS TO AVOID: A few too many standard slasher tropes.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, plenty of violence, and some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was shot in New Mexico and is based on a childhood fear of writer/director Dean, who grew up in an isolated rural environment.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/25/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Strangers
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Six Minutes to Midnight

Happy Times (2019)


Dinner parties can be SOOO stressful…

(2019) Horror (Artsploitation) Liraz Chamami, Michael Aloni, Iris Bahr, Alon Pdut, Stéfi Celma, Guy Adler, Ido Mohr, Daniel Lavid, Shani Atlas, Sophia Santi, Mike Burstyn, Kevin Thomas, Rigo Obezo.  Directed by Michael Mayer

 

What could be more civilized than a gathering of friends and family for a dinner party? Breaking bread with those we care about is one of the nicer parts of being human, something many of us have been missing during the pandemic. However, one look at this dinner party and we might want to embrace social distancing to a much more restrictive degree.

Boorish businessman Yossi (Mohr) and his elegant trophy wife Sigal (Chamami) are Israeli ex-pats living in Southern California. They host a post-Sabbath dinner at their McMansion in the Hollywood Hills, sending the kids away with a heartfelt “Good riddance!” (now, there’s my kind of mom) giving the adults room to party.

Attending the party is Yossi’s business partner, contractor Ilan (Adler) and his girlfriend Noya (Atlas), business executive Avner (Pdut) and his wife Hila (Bahr) who gave up a law career to start a family, and cousin Maor (Lavid) who came stag. Aspiring  actor Michael (Aloni) – Sigal’s beloved cousin who is essentially maligned by the rest of the group – arrives  last with his African-American girlfriend Aliyah (Celma).

Soon, long-simmering resentments begin to leak to the surface and despite Sigal’s best efforts to keep everything sociable, the addition of  black sheep Michael who seems hell-bent on irritating absolutely everybody brings things to a boiling point. Buttons are pushed. Punches are thrown. People are knocked out. Dick pics are taken. Panties are stolen. Accusations are hurled. Bullets fly. Cops arrive. Cops leave. Things get much, much worse.

There is a ghoulish pleasure in watching a dinner party of snobby, shallow rich people turn into a Tarantino climax and you can almost feel Mayer’s glee at staging it. None of the characters onscreen (with the possible exceptions of Aliyah and the rabbi (Burstyn) who shows up in the third act) have any redeeming qualities at all. None of the relationships here seem to be healthy in any way, shape or form except for maybe Sigal and Michael in which there seems to be at least some genuine affection.

There’s a lot of dark humor here, with writers Guy Ayal and Mayer injecting commentary on the shallow nature of Hollywood elites as well as the macho posturing of Israeli men. Even Israeli women don’t go unscathed as the Israeli women here are largely pretty nasty pieces of work with plenty of repressed fury.

There is plenty of blood and carnage, although the murders aren’t particularly inventive. Then again, most of them are crimes of opportunity and passion. Someone gets pushed to the breaking point and grabs whatever is at hand, be it a heavy blunt object or an antique crossbow. Someone even gets stuffed into a kiln.

The mostly-Israeli actors are extremely strong here, with Chamami and Aloni getting the lions share of the moments to remember. However, Pdut has his own share of moments as the businessman hiding PTSD from his time in the compulsory Israeli military service. The movie, though, falls in between niches; it’s not really the kind of horror film that is going to invite raves in the horror film community, and it is a little bit too genre for the arthouse crowd. It also forces the audience to sit through about 45 minutes of a dinner party of unpleasant people before getting to the good stuff, which may try the patience of many. Still, the last half of the movie does move at a pretty good clip, so those who like their mayhem with a side of Jewish gestalt will get their money’s worth here.

REASONS TO SEE: Skewers both shallow Hollywood culture and macho Israeli ethos. A stellar dark comedy.
REASONS TO AVOID: Takes a very long time to get going.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of violence, gore and mayhem, plenty of profanity, some sexual situations and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: “Melder.“ from the HAM radio handle that Eva uses, is German for “reports.”
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Vimeo, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/24/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Perfect Host
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Bliss

Willy’s Wonderland


Enter a wonderland of mayhem.

(2021) Horror Comedy (Screen MediaNicolas Cage, Emily Tosta, Beth Grant, Ric Reitz, Chris Warner, Kai Kadlec, Caylee Cowan, Jonathan Mercedes, Terayle Hill, Christian Del Grosso, David Sheftell, Jiri Stanek, Jessica Graves Davis, Taylor Towery, Chris Bradley, Duke Jackson, Billy Bussey, BJ Guyver, Christopher Carlos Padilla, Olga Cramer, Grant Cramer, Madison Leigh.  Directed by Kevin Lewis

 

Back in the ‘80s, we used to go to the neighborhood video store to find horror movies that we’d missed in the theaters or on cable. Every so often, we’d discover a gem on the shelves that we might not have heard of, or if we did hadn’t seen because it only played L.A. and New York. We’d rent the puppy, order a pizza (if we still had cash) or grab whatever snacks we could lay our mitts on and settle in for an evening of bliss, usually with a few invited friends – we don’t share such things with just anyone, you understand.

A mysterious drifter (Cage) rolls into a small town in his muscle car only to see it break down. The repairs cost way more than he has, so a deal is struck; if he spends the night cleaning up a disused family entertainment center that owner Tex McAdoo (Reitz) is thinking about re-opening, he’ll get the repairs done on the house. The drifter agrees to be a Janitor for a night (the character is referred to in the credits as “The Janitor” so we’ll do the same here).

What the Janitor isn’t told is that the property used to be owned by a group of serial killers who used to lure families into a “special room” for satanic rituals. When the law caught on, the murderers performed a ritual that transferred their souls into the animatronic characters. Now they come to life from time to time and the town, tired of having them hunt down their own citizens, promise to provide human sacrifices for the bloodthirsty machines. People like the Janitor.

Liv (Tosta) has a special connection to Willy’s Wonderland, as the Chuck E. Cheese from Hell is known, has an agenda of her own. She’s gonna burn the MF to the ground. However, when she realizes there’s an innocent man in there, she goes inside to rescue him along with her fellow teens, albeit reluctantly. Can anyone say midnight snack?

But, as Liv so eloquently puts it, as it turns out, the Janitor isn’t locked in with the possessed animal machines (Willy the Weasel! Gus the Gorilla! Ozzie the Ostrich! Arty the Alligator!); they’re locked in there with him. Armed with a busted broom, a plunger and other tools of the trade, he takes on the murderous characters in between bouts of gulping down Punch Pop (“A fistful of caffeine to the kisser”) and playing pinball.

Bleary-eyed gamers who have spent hours playing the 5 Nights at Freddy’s series might be heard to say quizzically “Wait…what?” when they hear the plot. There is a real 80s vibe here, from the tinny synthesizer-laden score to the horror tropes of dumb teens pausing for sex in a deadly haunted house and, of course, plenty of gory goodness. Children of that era will likely appreciate the similarities.

And it’s also true that Cage is usually good for action fun, whether through his idiosyncratic line readings or legendary on-screen freak-outs. While some of the latter take place, the former is a wash as the Janitor has no dialogue whatsoever. Not a word. Still, Cage is still Nicolas Cage enough through gestures, body language, and his trademark pissed-off glare.

The movie’s big flaw is that they have this setting of a dilapidated family entertainment center, complete with ball pits, pinball machines and a full-service kitchen, but don’t really do anything with it. The robots attack, the Janitor counter attacks, blood, blood, gears, gears, snarl, scream, done. This happens time after time. A little more imagination would have been appreciated.

Still, for sheer nostalgia value and of course the presence of Nicolas Cage, this can’t be beat. So grab yourself a gallon of Jolt Cola, fire up the microwave pizza rolls, grab a couple of bags of Nacho Cheese Doritos, and settle in your bean bag. All that’s missing is the time stamp and wiggly lines of your old VHS player.

REASONS TO SEE: Completely whacked in a good way.
REASONS TO AVOID: Doesn’t really take advantage of its environment.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of violence, profanity and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cage has no spoken dialogue in the film, and communicates only through grunts and occasional battle yells.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/17/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews, Metacritic: 42/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 5 Nights at Freddy’s
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
X

The Night


The first rule of horror movies – don’t look behind you.

(2020) Horror (IFC MidnightShahab Hosseini, Niousha Noor, George Maguire, Michael Graham, Elester Latham, Armin Amiri, Steph Martinez (voice), Kathreen Khavari, Gia Mora, Leah Oganyan, Lily V.K., Ali Kousheshi, Amir Ali Hosseini, Hana Rahimzadeh, Sam Tarazandehpour, Boshra Haghighi, Sara Fuqua. Directed by Kourosh Ahari

 

Sometimes, we lose our way. Not just metaphorically, but literally – and not unusually, both at once. Finding our way back home is hard enough when our GPS is faulty. Sometimes, we have to fight through demons of another kind, too.

Babak (Hosseini) and Neda (Noor) have been enjoying an evening out with their friends. Party games, good food and the company of their friends should be the recipe for a pleasant evening, but it is obvious there is some tension between them. Babak has had maybe a little too much to drink and the couple, along with their infant daughter, are getting ready to head back home.

But Babak is probably in no shape to drive, and Neda’s license has been suspended so Babak definitely doesn’t want her driving. So the Iranian-American couple head through the twists and turns of Los Angeles late at night and get lost. Oh, they have a GPS but it’s acting wonky. Running low on gas and definitely in the kind of neighborhood you don’t want to run out of gas in, they decide to pull into a hotel and sleep it off until morning.

The Hotel Normandie seems ordinary enough from the outside, but an unsettling encounter with a homeless man (Latham) does nothing to alleviate Neda’s already frazzled state of mind, and while the obsequious night manager (Maguire) seems courteous enough, there’s just something off about him.

They check into their room and right away it’s rough sledding. Their daughter is being fussy, and for good reason; there is an uncommon amount of unsettling noise to be heard, from the footsteps in the room above to the child plaintively calling out for his mother and the loud knocking noises. At first, they chalk it up to their own state of mind but soon they begin to see things that causes them to realize that there is something very wrong at the Hotel Normandie which like another famous California hotel, is the kind where you can check out any time you like but you can never leave.

From a technical standpoint, this is an amazing piece of work. Sound is utilized in a powerful fashion, and not just for jump scares (although there are a few of those). There is also a very effective use of light and shadow and cinematographer Maz Makhani does an excellent job of creating a creepy vibe (the Hotel Normandie, incidentally, is a real hotel and was used as a filming location for the movie). It might surprise you to know that the cast and crew were largely Iranian or Iranian-American and although most of the dialogue is in Farsi, the locations were all right here in the good ol’ U.S. of A.

Both Hosseini and Noor need to be at the top of their game because they are in virtually every seen either separately or together. There must be enough chemistry together to convince us that they are married, but enough discord between them to remind us that the marriage is in trouble. Even the soundtrack is calculated to rachet up the tension without using horror movie tropes – or at least not many.

The movie may be paced a little bit slower than most American audiences are used to, but Ahari is like a master chef here, layering clues and subtle hints to give you a picture, but never makes it obvious what’s cooking; it is left to the viewer to figure out what it all meant and whether what you saw is what you think you saw.

=Unfortunately, that can work both ways – for and against a film. There’s a maddening feeling like you’re seeing only a portion of the movie and that critical pieces are being left out. Even after the strong ending, and although much of what is happening is explained, I still left the film feeling like I’d seen an incomplete picture, like there were important things just out of frame that I should have been able to see. While I like the feeling now more than a week after I viewed the film, at the time I didn’t appreciate it at all.

This is an impressive work, albeit a flawed one. The scares are mainly subtle and the horror rarely overt, although new parents will certainly chime in when I say that a fussy baby can be a horror show all its own.

REASONS TO SEE: An atmospheric horror film with terrific sound and cinematography.
REASONS TO AVOID: The acting can be over-the-top.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and sequences of terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first American-made film to be invited to screen in Iran since the Iranian Revolution.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/3/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews, Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Followed
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Riding the Rails

Grizzly II: Revenge


She’s a big’un!

(1983) Horror (GravitasSteve Inwood, Deborah Raffin, John Rhys-Davies, Louise Fletcher, Deborah Foreman, Dick Anthony Williams, Jack Starrett, Charles Cyphers, Marc Alaimo, Laura Dern, Barbie Wilde, Ian McNeice, Charles Young, Charlie Sheen, George Clooney, Billy Boyle, Nigel Dolman, Edward Meeks, Timothy Spall. Directed by Andre Szöts

 

Some movies are most definitely products of their eras. You can look at them and immediately say “Oh, that’s a noir film from the 40s” or “that’s a 70s anti-hero film.” The 80s were like that; movies from that decade had a style and a presence all their own, much like the music and fashion of the time. Sometimes, that’s a very good thing. In this case, not so much.

When poachers kill a bear cub and remove its gall bladder for its aphrodisiac qualities – one would think it would work much better as a laxative – mama bear goes ballistic and starts shredding every humanoid she lays eyes on in Summit National Park. Park ranger Nic (Inwood) is trying to rally his rangers for an upcoming rock concert that park manager Ms. Draygon (Fletcher) insists must go off without a hitch, 15-foot-bear or not. The hunky ranger brings aboard the “best grizzly tracker” in the business, the French-Candian Bouchard (Rhys-Davies) with an accident that would embarrass Pepe LePew – much to the horror of “bear manager” (don’t all national parks have one?) Samantha (Raffin). Ahh, but the show must go on, something that the makers of this film took much to heart.

The story of how this movie finally made it into theaters 38 years after it was filmed probably makes a more interesting movie than the one that actually got made. Lensed at the tail-end (‘scuse the pun) of the killer animal craze that Jaws created, this sequel that nobody wanted was filmed in Hungary while the Cold War was still in full swing and the Iron Curtain was still Iron. The producers apparently ran out of funds before post-production could be commenced, and the uncompleted movie languished on the shelf, famous only for the future stars that appeared in it – all cast because of their famous relatives, being unknowns at the time. In fact, this movie has three Oscar-winners in its cast (two of them are killed before the movie is even five minutes old, so there’s that) but you’d never know it. But somehow, an unfinished work print started making the rounds on YouTube and at genre film festivals until original producer Suzanne Nagy, realizing that there was an audience for this, finished the special effects and got the movie edited for release. There is no disguising the mechanical bear, however.

Interspersed with the action is concert footage of very bad Hungarian new wve bands performing at the faux concert….in Hungarian. Yes, this concert that is supposedly taking place in an American national park features songs sung in a language only a tiny percentage of the population here speaks. And the music is about what you’d expect it would be.

This is the kind of movie that’s enjoyed more in retrospect. While you’re actually watching it, you might find yourself having a hard time keeping from turning the bloody thing off. In fact, those who do see the movie from start to finish should get some sort of merit badge.

So why the score it got? I’ll be honest with you, the movie deserves a much lower score and in fact my initial rating was going to be much lower, but the fact of the matter is as I sit down to write this, the more I think about the movie, the more enjoyment I’m getting out of remembering how ridiculous it was. I don’t know if Clooney even remembers making the film – I assume he likely remembered a trip to Budapest – but I’m sure he was just as happy it never was released into theaters. I would love to hear what he thinks of its release…I can only imagine the expression of pain he might extrude. All in all, with Rhys-Davies and Fletcher gamely delivering what they can in the way of performances and a kind of car crash vibe that really takes hold well after you have finished watching, the experience is one that I am glad of – and one I sincerely never hope to repeat.

REASONS TO SEE: Unintentionally funny, sort of like a Plan 9 From Outer Space.
REASONS TO AVOID: Very much a product of its time and not in a good way.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexuality and plenty of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fletcher and Alaimo, who have no scenes together here, would go on a decade later to play major recurring characters in Star Trek: Deep Space 9.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/27/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 9% positive reviews, Metacritic: 7/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Grizzly
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
76 Days

GetAWAY


That’s the way to get ahead in the movie business.

(2020) Horror (GravitasEmma Norville, Danielle Carrozza, Kyle Mangold, Franchesca Contreras, Joshua Cody, Michael Recchia, Jon Rust, Kristel Rachocki, Abigail Haggerty, Kira Jackson, Trevor Stevie Ray Ontiveros, Cherish McCormick, Joseph P. Durbin, Hank Stone, Jacob Yard, Marissa Chaffee, A.J. Cabbagestalk, Connor McLean, Stanley Payne, Ali Dougherty.  Directed by Blayne Weaver

 

It is often said (because it is absolutely true) that making movies is a collaborative effort. When everything goes smoothly, you can tell in the final product that it did. When things are more chaotic, well….

Student would-be actress Maddie (Norville) is still reeling from the break-up with her now ex-boyfriend Noah (Cody) and her bestie Harlowe (Contreras) suggests she accompany a student film company heading into the mountains at a deserted summer camp to shoot a horror movie. For one thing, it would get her some valuable film credit; for another, it would get her out of town, out of her dorm room and give her the opportunity to forget her troubles with a whole lot of drinking and flirting. Unfortunately, nobody told Noah who is also bringing along his new girlfriend Kayla (Carrozza) along for the same getaway. You just know that isn’t going to turn out well.

You don’t know the half of it. You see, unbeknownst to the clueless students, there’s another movie being filmed in the same location shoot. And this one’s a snuff film – in fact, their suddenly missing professor (McCormick) has already done a cameo. And the really fun part? They’re all tapped to be the stars.

College students fornicating, drinking, and doing drugs in a remote location with no cell service. Sounds like a movie you’ve seen before, no? Yes. And there is nothing that’s particularly memorable here compared to any one of a dozen slasher films set at Camp Crystal Lake, Sleepaway Camp or Cheerleader Camp. That isn’t to say that Weaver, who also wrote the script, wasn’t trying to at least be a little bit different, but let’s face it; the script had been sitting, forgotten, in his desk for more than a decade. He did do a polish on it, but it still feels a little dated and I don’t mean ten years – it feels like something you might have seen in 1983. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, particularly for younger viewers who ight not have seen a lot of movies from that era, but those of us who cut our teeth on slasher films from that era might find this disturbingly familiar.

Weaver, who utilizes a lot of cast and crew from the University that he teaches at, at least captures the feel of a student film, but that’s a double-edged sword. We end up with a spineless director, a tightly-wound producer and a cameraman who’s more interested in getting high than getting the shot. And all of them talking like they’re making the next iteration of Battleship Potemkin while they’re at it.

I can’t really say that this is a bad movie, because it isn’t. It just isn’t particularly memorable. The trouble with slasher films is that there’s only so many ways that you can kill somebody without making it look ludicrous or like a self-parody. If you really dig slasher films and you’re looking for some, ahem, new blood, well, here’s a whole mess of it. For those who like their horror films a little bit more inventive, there are other movies out there that would serve them better than this one.

NB: This shouldn’t be confused with Getaway, another 2020 horror film but this one starring Scout Taylor-Compton.

REASONS TO SEE: There is a certain amount of satisfaction watching these bickering ninnies get 86ed.
REASONS TO AVOID: An unremarkable, standard slasher movie.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, vioilence and sex.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Weaver was director-in-residence at Shenandoah University at the time of filming; most of the cast were students at the University.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/30/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Tiger Within

Don’t Click (2020)


The Internet is full of horror.

(2020) Horror (GravitasValter Skarsgård, Mark Koufos, Catherine Howard, Geoff Mays, May Grehan, Samantha Hart, Dayjan Lesmond, Derrick Rabethge, Erica Sherwood, Ry Barrett, Anthony Polito, Jessica Vano. Directed by G-Hey Kim

 

Those selling us the Internet have portrayed it as a repository for human knowledge and ingenuity, where our lives may be made easier and the ability to access the sum total of everything knowable could lead us to a new golden age…yeah, right.

Like everything else, we humans tend to muck it up with our baser instincts. In this horror opus from G-Hey Kim based on her own short film, college student Josh (Skarsgård) returns home after a night of drinking and partying to find his roommate Zane (Koufos) missing. His laptop, however, is still there and still connected to the site Josh had been watching – something called Beataslut.com. In it, voyeurs may watch the torture and degrading of a woman (Howard) who is gradually stripped, tortured and then eventually murdered by a smiling sadist (Mays).

Abruptly Josh is sucked into the laptop and finds himself in a dungeon with no windows or doors; only a mirror with the phrase “Take a good hard look at yourself” written in what may be lipstick, or might be blood. Therein is also Zane whose lips have been sewed shut and who has had tortures of his own visited upon him. Soon, it becomes obvious that the supernatural entities that are in control of the room can also control Josh, forcing him to do unspeakable things to his roommate. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why Zane has been brought there – but why is Josh suffering the same fate?

This is a horror movie with a message and it is attempting to deliver it to the subset of viewers who might need to receive it the most – male horror movie fans. It has never been a secret that horror movies have traditionally been guilty of sexualizing brutality towards women, helping to create a culture of misogyny and rape that society has embraced. And yeah, that might be a harsh and simplistic assessment – rape culture and institutionalized misogyny come from a variety of sources, not just horror films – but let’s face it, horror movies have desensitized young men to brutality towards women for decades now.

The movie harkens back to the torture porn of the late 90s and early 21st century, and skeptics might be forgiven for pointing out that the movie, even as it seems to point out the violence towards women also indulges in it. There is definitely a sense of “do as I say, not as I do” here. It’s also certainly understandable that certain segments of the audience might find the scenes of violence and brutality too much to handle, although most hardcore horror fans will find it no problem at all, although a scene involving a character’s private parts might make even the most rabid of gorehounds a bit squeamish.

Kim does make a few stylistic choices that are questionable; for example, the scenes set in the dungeon are shot at a lower frame rate, giving the action a jumpy and overexposed feel that is more endemic to internet video of 20 years ago, not so much now. Skarsgård does a credible job in the lead role, but his character is somewhat bland and spends a good deal of the movie whining about one thing and another.

As a society, we are all guilty of turning a blind eye to the violence that has been visited upon women, not only in the physical sense but also in the emotional and mental sense as well. The overall theme of the movie is written on the mirror, and it is rare that a horror movie invites us to do just that. While the movie might have benefited from stronger characters, the message is one that can’t be ignored.

REASONS TO SEE: A cautionary tale for incels.
REASONS TO AVOID: May be too brutal for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, disturbing images, nudity, abusive sexual behavior and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film debuted at the UK Frightfest this past August.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/22/2020: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hostel
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Max Cloud

To Your Lasts Death


Someone give this guy a hand.

(2020) Animated Feature (Quiver) Starring the voices of Morena Baccarin, Ray Wise, William Shatner, Bill Moseley, Dani Lennon, Damien C. Haas, Benjamin Siemon, Bill Millsap, Florence Hartigan, Tom Lommel, Steve Geiger, Tanya C. Klein, Jim Cirile, Ruairi Douglas, Charles Wyman, Jason Axinn, Paige Barnett. Directed by Jason Axinn

 

Animated features tend to be fantasy or science-fiction oriented. There are dramas and comedies, to be sure (particularly from Europe), but for the most part there are elements of either one of those genres involved. It makes sense that the horror genre would also be fertile ground for animation, but surprisingly, very few animated features have gone that route.

In this opus, Miriam DeKalb (Lennon) has survived an unthinkable ordeal that has seen all of her siblings killed. Suspected of involvement in the grisly demise of her family, Miriam has been held in the prison wing of the hospital as interrogations by the police have illustrated their disbelief in her story. Then, she is visited by the Gamemaster (Baccarin), an alien being who is able to control time and puts on entertainments in which high-end clients bet on the outcomes. Miriam is given the opportunity to go back 24 hours, armed with the foreknowledge of what is going to happen, and attempt to save her sister and brothers. Should she choose not to, it is likely she will never know freedom again.

24 hours earlier, her father Cyrus (Wise) had gathered them together – sister Kelsey (Hartigan), and brothers Ethan (Haas) and Collin (Siemon) to inform them that he is dying. But rather than using the opportunity to draw the family closer together, their deranged old man – a wealthy arms manufacturer whose run for vice-president of the United States was torpedoed by his children when they informed the press of his many moral failings – chooses to take his revenge for that indiscretion and kill all his children. Sounds kind of medieval (or at least Biblical) to me.

He has locked up the office building and staffed it full of gunmen and set up lethal traps tailored to the weaknesses of each of his children. Miriam tries desperately to tell her siblings what is coming, but that only makes them suspicious that she’s in collusion with Cyrus. To make matters worse, the Gamemaster is changing the rules by changing events from how Miriam remembers them. There are no guarantees that she herself will survive, let alone save her brothers and sister from the maniacal machinations of their father.

Axinn spares no bloodshed and why should he? It’s not like he has to pay for additional fake blood. The problem here is that the various scenarios for each sibling comes off as kind of a lame retread of the Saw series, only much more heavy-handed. Considering that the sky is the limit when it comes to animation, it’s a bit of a drag that Axinn didn’t go more over-the-top here. It feels like a failure of the imagination.

Shatner guest stars as the narrator here and his dialogue is truly cringeworthy. You may be forgiven if you give in to the urge to fast-forward through his narration. It’s not Shatner’s fault; it’s just florid writing. Even Meryl Streep would have a tough time making the narration sound any better than Shatner does.

There’s still plenty of gore to delight the most exacting of horror lovers, and certainly if on the one hand one wishes for a little more originality, the execution of the various torture porn scenes are right on the money and at least as well done as any in that genre. I suspect that most hardcore horror fans and Adult Swim fans are going to find this delightful. It certainly is an idea whose time has come. I just wish the writers would have taken a little more care to utilize the medium to their advantage better.

REASONS TO SEE: Gloriously violent and gory.
REASONS TO AVOID: The story lacks ingenuity.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a ton of bloody violence and gore, rape, nudity and more profanity than you know what to do with.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The animation was hand-drawn and took five years to complete. The filmmakers used Archer and Metaloccalypse as inspirations for the animation style.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Hoopla, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/29/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Saw Franchise
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Estate