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

Rent-a-Pal


Television is my only friend.

(2020) Horror (IFC MidnightBrian Landis Folkins, Wil Wheaton, Amy Rutledge, Kathleen Brady, Adrian Egolf, Josh Staab, Luke Sorge, Brandon Fryman, Olivia Hendrick, Karin Carr, Sara Woodyard. Directed by Jon Stevenson

 

Loneliness can do strange things to the human mind. It can be as comfortable as an old friend, but it also gives us the opportunity to twist and turn every life failure that we’ve partaken in. Eventually, loneliness feeds on us much as a vulture that isn’t willing for the carrion to die.

David (Folkins) lives in a small Midwestern town and takes care of his mother (Brady) who is suffering from dementia, often mistaking David for his deceased father. Mom is often nasty to her son, who just seems to take it with a shrug. It’s 1990 and he doesn’t even have online chat rooms for company; mostly he watches old movies with his mom. He has gotten desperate enough to enroll in a video dating service.

This particular one requires their clients to make an introductory video. The “relationship experts” that work at the service then match the tapes up with people with similar interests; if the client wants to view the tape of someone who matches with him, they have to pay for the privilege. It’s lucrative, but you’d never know it from David who doesn’t match up with anybody.

On a trip back to the service to re-record his video as an update, David happens upon a videotape in the bargain bin called “Rent-a-Pal” and takes it and is thus introduced to Andy (Wheaton), a grinning sweater vest-wearing guy who carries on a conversation with pauses so that the viewer can respond. The lonely David is skeptical at first but eventually seizes on this lifeline and begins to converse with Andy, playing the tape night after night after night.

Then, something of a miracle happens – David gets a match, from Lisa (Rutledge), a kind-hearted nurse. The date goes well, and things are suddenly looking up for David. However, Andy isn’t so happy about his friend deserting him for a mere woman; there’s about to be a battle for David’s attention and it’s not going to be pretty.

Loneliness and isolation are particularly on our minds in this age of quarantine, where most of our interactions are done via Zoom and when more and more people who are working from home and sheltering in place by themselves are finding themselves to be more and more suicidal. Just because we’re safe from a coronavirus doesn’t necessarily mean we are safe. Depression is far more insidious and doesn’t respect a mask.

David is one of those big, lumbering schlubs who are awkward both socially and physically. His heart seems to be in the right place but the more the movie wears on, the more we see how wounded his loneliness has made him. Gradually, he begins to descend into madness as he imagines that Andy is talking directly to him and listening to his every confession of failure. For Folkins, it is a masterful performance and one you won’t soon forget.

But as good as Folkins is, Wheaton is just as good and maybe a little bit better. He comes off as a cross between Mister Rogers and Beelzebub and his innocuous sweater vest and disarming grin doesn’t hide the fact that Andy doesn’t like women very much, and isn’t a particularly nice guy. I thought at first this would be like what Wesley Crusher would be like at 40, but that’s not quite accurate; it would be like what Wesley Crusher would be like at 40 if he had completely failed at life and romance.

Stevenson in addition to writing and directing the film also edited it, and he shows some real skills in all three; the editing is masterfully done, often giving the illusion that David is having a different conversation with Andy even though Andy isn’t saying anything different than he usually does. It raises the question in the viewer’s mind if there isn’t something supernatural going on, although what’s going on is clearly mostly in between David’s ears. Stevenson also invokes a strong sense of period, with the videocassettes and utilizing a great score by Jimmy Weber that calls to mind some of John Carpenter’s work.

The final scenes are fairly gory and more of a standard horror film type of thing, which some critics found disappointing after the effective build-up of tension and suspense; I thought that the ending was justifiable and while it is a distinct left turn from the feel of the rest of the movie, it isn’t too far of a change of route.

This is a solid suspense/psychological horror film that relies on two strong actors bringing well-written characters to life. This isn’t a loud, in-your-face kind of terror that you get here, but more of a slow building dread. It’s very effective and worth checking out.

REASONS TO SEE: Nice placement in the 90s. Surprisingly creepy.
REASONS TO AVOID: Could have gone for the gusto a bit more.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some sexual references and violence..
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Folkins previously worked with Stevenson in the horror film Hoax.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/11/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Session 9
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
I Am Woman

Day 13


Colton comforts Rachel as an LAPD cop looks on.

(2020) Horror (Breaking Glass) Alex MacNicoll, G. Hannelius, Meyrick Murphy, JT Palmer, Martin Kove, Darlene Vogel, Shakira Ja’nai Paye, Jonathan Ohye, Harvey B. Jackson, Hollis W. Chambers, Jeremy J. Tutson, Bobby Milhouse, Lauren Donoghue. Directed by Jax Medel

We never really know what’s going on with our neighbors; we might see them to wave to as they get into their car or pick up their mail, but by-and-large we are completely clueless about what goes on behind those closed doors. Sometimes, it’s actually for the best that we don’t know.

Colton (MacNicoll) is a bored teen on summer vacation in the suburbs of L.A. who has been given the unenviable task of babysitting his bratty younger sister Rachel (Murphy) while his mom (Vogel) takes off on a two-week girl’s trip to Barcelona. Colton’s Dad took off a while ago, leaving the three of them to fend for themselves.

Colton’s buddy Michael (Palmer) is constantly trying to get him to come out and play as it were, but Colton has an unusually keen sense of responsibility for a kid his age, plus his interest has been piqued; the long-abandoned house across the street has been showing signs of life; lights flickering on and off in the darkness, shadows moving against the lights. He is a curious sort, so he spends a bundle of money on surveillance equipment and failing to find anything concrete, takes a walk over himself to investigate. There he finds Heather (Hannelius), who has just moved in with her foster father (Kove). He is instantly smitten by her but turns down his requests to go out with him; her foster father, it seems, is something of a disciplinarian.

As Colton continues to observe the house, it turns out that the foster dad is a lot more than just a disciplinarian and Colton begins to fear for Heather’s safety. He takes his concerns to the police, but they don’t believe him and he ends up with a restraining order taken out on him – perhaps the quickest in the history of California – by dear old foster dad. Colton becomes convinced that Heather is in imminent danger, but as it turns out he really has no idea of just what he’s up against.

Some critics have compared this to Rear Window and it’s true that there’s a superficial resemblance, but it ends there and it really isn’t a fair comparison; the Hitchcock film is a classic that delivers enough tension for several heart attacks and a fiendishly concocted plot that keeps the viewer guessing. It’s not fair to expect something like that from a low-budget indie film.

One of the swerves in the film (and this really isn’t too much of a spoiler) is that the movie goes from thriller to straight-out horror in the final half hour which might be a little wrenching for some viewers. It’s actually a good idea, although it has been done before, also with a teen protagonist.

Part of the biggest problem here is the character of Colton, who is very poorly written. He often does things that defy logic and common sense even for a teen – why, for example, would he be so interested in the house across the street that he is motivated to spend $600 on surveillance equipment (and where did he get the money, considering that he has no visible job). He bickers constantly with his sister and is always blowing off his friend Michael. He is clearly hung up on his father’s desertion, but never articulates it. That’s okay; teens rarely articulate things well, but for the purposes of the movie we need a little bit more fleshing out of Colton if we are to have a reasonable shot at identifying with him. MacNicoll, so capable in 13 Reasons Why, doesn’t have the experience yet to overcome this.

The movie doesn’t have a lot of special effects and those it does have are not very good. I do like the part of the film where most of the CGI shows up, but they aren’t necessarily the highlight. There is a decent twist, but it isn’t one you shouldn’t see coming. Veteran actor Kove, who cut his teeth as the villainous sensei of Cobra Kai in the Karate Kid movies (and the recent TV show) as well as in action movies like Rambo and TV shows like Cagney and Lacey.

It takes a long time for the movie to get going and once it does, it is admirably paced but by then, most viewers will have lost interest. These days, a filmmaker has to keep the pulse of the viewer pounding if they are to keep the attention of viewers who have far too many distractions in their lives as it is; you need to grab the viewer quickly and keep holding onto them until the final reel. Otherwise, you’ll get a whole lot of viewers tuning out before the final credits roll, and that is bad news for any film.

REASONS TO SEE: The ending is fairly nifty.
REASONS TO AVOID: The part of Colton isn’t particularly well-developed. Really slow in developing.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, some violence and some disturbing and horrific images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first feature length film for Medel.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: AmazonAppleTVFandango NowGoogle PlayMicrosoftVimeoVuduYouTube 
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/8/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fright Night
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT: The Garden Left Behind

Star Light


Scout Taylor-Compton looks for guidance.

(2020) Horror (1091Scout Taylor-Compton, Cameron Johnson, Robert Adams, Liana Ramirez, Garrett Westton, Chandler Rachelle, Hagen Mills, Tiffany Shepis, Kevin Jiggetts, Bret Roberts, Geoff Callan, Darryl Phillipy, James M. Jennings, Gregory Dean French, Victoria Graham. Directed by Mitchell Altieri and Lee Cummings

Horror movies are undergoing a kind of renaissance of late; there have been some real game-changers out there. One of the benefits of this kind of quality is that it tends to inspire other filmmakers to do better, taking sometimes cliché ideas and characters and elevating one, the other or both. The average horror buff only benefits from this kind of thing.

Dylan (Johnson) is a fairly typical high school kid; he’s not sure where his future is leading him and his main interests are in playing video games, listening to music – particularly that of his pop crush Bebe A. Love (Taylor-Compton) – and hanging out with friends, much to the disgust of his single mom (Shepis) and her judgmental pastor boyfriend (Jiggetts).

On the way home one night, he literally runs into a terrified girl who has been injured in a car accident. Unsure of what to do, he takes her over to his friend Nick’s (Adams) house, where a few stragglers are left after one of those graduation bashes that occur when the parents have left the area. Dylan’s BFF Casey (Ramirez), hot-headed Monty (Mills), jock Tex (Westton) and slutty Sara (Rachelle) all remain as it soon becomes apparent that the injured girl is Bebe.

But then her handler/driver/manager Anton (Roberts) shows up, demanding that the teens turn over the pop star to him. And he is creepy enough that Dylan says “not a chance in Hell,” not realizing that Hell is a lot closer than he thinks. Anton lays siege to the remote party house. Can Dylan really impress Bebe enough to get a relationship going? Who will survive the night? And what is the thing in Anton’s trunk?

This is a movie that is occasionally frustrating – it establishes some plot threads that seem interesting, but then does nothing with them, for example, but Altieri and Cummings did assemble a pretty fine cast of veterans like Taylor-Compton and Shepis, and some really strong up-and-coming talent, like Johnson and Adams.

The movie starts off with plenty of teen angst as we get the sense that things between Dylan and his mom aren’t too cool, but the movie morphs into an occasionally dazzling horror fest. Roberts makes an extremely creepy villain, and while the twists aren’t exactly world-shattering, the plot keeps humming along and a pretty frenetic pace and the strong performances enable you to care about characters that are essentially teen slasher stock characters – although you won’t believe for a moment that these are high school kids, which is a sin a lot of teen-centric horror movies commit.

By no means is Star Light a game-changing horror movie, but it is solid and entertaining with enough to recommend it to fans and curious souls alike. Yes, there are movies out there that are far more innovative and maybe even more over-the-top but the filmmakers stick to what works and if they don’t take chances, they at least get the execution down properly. Not all horror movies can say that.

REASONS TO SEE: Strong performances, reasonably scary and utilizes teen angst and slasher film tropes with equal gusto.
REASONS TO AVOID: Most of the characters are kind of stock.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, teen sex and teen drinking, as well as some violence, terror and gore.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Altieri and Cummings are two-thirds of the Butcher Brothers, horror specialist directors (The Hamiltons).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/31/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Evil Dead
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Attack of the Unknown

The Unfamiliar


Not destined to be a new dance craze anytime soon.

(2020) Horror (Vertical/Dark MatterJemma West, Christopher Dane, Rebecca Hanssen, Harry McMillan-Hunt, Rachel Lin, Tori Butler-Hart, Ben Lee, Guy Warren-Thomas, Beatrice Woolrych. Directed by Henk Pretorius

 

Unlike my wife, I love horror movies. I love a good scare, a terrifying creature, a malevolent poltergeist, a deliciously evil demon, a skilled slasher, whatever the case may be. I even love those psychological horror films where the main character may or may not be going insane. This is one of those.

Dr. Elizabeth “Izzy” Cormack (West) is recently returned to England from Afghanistan, where she was a British army medic. She returns, like many of her peers, loaded with PTSD, but she’s happy to be back in the bosom of her family – husband Ethan (Dane), a collect professor of anthropology, son Tommy (McMillan-Hunt) and daughter Emma (Hanssen). But, as with most horror movies, the idyllic homecoming doesn’t last.

Izzy notices that her family is acting a bit strange and distant. There are also pictures that fly off the wall of their own accord, and strange sounds during the night lead Izzy to believe that she’s either being driven mad by her post-traumatic stress, or there is something supernatural going on in her house. People who hear about her issues are wondering if she’s taking her pills. At last, Ethan decides to take his family on a vacation to Hawaii, where he first began studying the culture of Hawaiian myths. And if you think Hawaiian folk tales have anything to do with what’s going on with Izzy, well, you’d be right.

This might be the most mis-named horror movie in history because everything in the film is likely to feel familiar to anyone who has seen more than a few horror movies. From the jump scares to the creepy psychic to the haunted house tropes (although this isn’t strictly speaking a haunted house movie), there is nothing here that is terribly original. It IS nice that the hero here is a woman and an army veteran; she’s the one who takes the fore, directs the husband to stay with the kids and goes out to face down the villain herself. That’s a nice change.

But there’s little to no character development going on here. Sure, there are a few good scares, particularly in the final act, but for the most part this is ho-hum horror. With so many good horror movies out there (and more coming out all the time), it’s hard to give a movie like this much love. It isn’t that the movie is bad – it certainly is no worse than anything else out there – but it’s just more of the same. If that’s what floats your boat, then by all means give this one a shot.

REASONS TO SEE: Some pretty decent scares.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not particularly memorable.
FAMILY VALUES: There are scenes of terror as well as some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Following the death of Barry Kramer, the magazine went through a number of different hands; by the 21st century there were legal disputes as to the ownership of the CREEM name and archives. By 2017 the litigation had been settled with JJ Kramer (son of Barry and Connie) taking control of the brand.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/2/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 17’% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hole in the Ground
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Epicentro

Black Water: Abyss


This big reptile is a croc.

(2020) Horror (Screen MediaJessica McNamee, Luke Mitchell, Amali Golden, Benjamin Hoetjes, Anthony J. Sharpe, Louis Toshio Okada, Rumi Kikuchi, Stu Kirk, Damien Blewett, J’ Ma, Jarod Woods, Rhys Ward, Isabella Sheehan, Glenn Adams, Julie Selis-Muscat, Vicky Wanless, Lincoln Callaghan, Troy Black, Mary Jane, Adam Lacey, Phillip Davy, Isabelle Rickards, Lynne Rose. Directed by Andrew Traucki

 

Sometimes, you’re not after a movie that’s going to involve you in the lives of its characters. Every now and then, you want a movie that just smacks you in the face with a stupid stick, fills the screen with improbable action and just lets you revel in your baser instincts. That’s not too much to ask, is it?

A pair of Type-A Aussie couples – well, at least that’s half-true – are headed to do some spelunking in the cave systems of Northern Australia. Alpha male Eric (Mitchell) and his wife Jennifer (McNamee) – who would much rather be getting room service in a five star hotel – has taken cancer survivor Vitor (Hoetjes) and his newly pregnant wife Yolanda (Golden) along with cave explorer and Eric’s buddy Cash (Sharpe) to a cave that only recently was discovered when a sinkhole opened up. Do they tell anyone where they are going? NO, THEY DO NOT! Have these assclowns not seen a horror movie ever?

Well, if you think that’s irresponsible, they also choose to ignore an approaching storm. The result? They are trapped in the cave with rapidly rising waters, but that’s really the least of their problems. You see, there’s a very hungry and singularly-minded crocodile swimming around and these five numbskulls have effectively just rung the dinner bell.

There are stabs at plot development, but they just don’t work. When you’re in a survival situation, generally speaking that’s not the time to work out marital issues, but of course, when you’re being stalked by a giant killer croc, what else is there to do? One of the dim-witted croc snacks even expresses shock that they can’t get a cell signal two hundred feet below the ground in the middle of a swamp. No, really? REALLY?!?

Predictably, as the crock picks them off one by one, they race for a way out before the water rises above their safe little ledge. With one of their number badly injured and another pregnant, what chance to these guys have to outwit the croc in its own element?

This is a sequel to the minor 2007 hit Black Water only in the loosest terms in that it’s set in Australia, there’s a crocodile and one of the young people being stalked is pregnant. If you didn’t see it, it won’t affect your enjoyment of this one (or lack thereof). And while I’ve been harsh up to now, there are some elements here that aren’t too bad – the cinematography is lush, whether in the caves or out in the swamps.

We don’t get to see much of the crock, as it mostly swims around in murky waters, but what we do see is pretty impressive. However, the actual deaths are not easy to see, given that the cave environment is so dark, the water is murky and roiling with a thrashing crocodile and an equally thrashing victim. The sounds of the kills might be what get to you, though, if you tend to be faint of heart. In some ways, that makes the death scenes more gruesome than they actually are.

Essentially, this is pretty typical survival horror with a big, mad predator. There are no surprises here, hardly any character development other than one of the girls remarking that her relationship with her fella has been rocky, until near the end when we find out….well, you’ll see. And if you’re not planning on seeing this, I’m still not going to tell you. In any case, if you’re looking for something new to rent, this fits the bill. It isn’t horrible but it isn’t great. It’s just kind of there, like an Appleby’s.

REASONS TO SEE: Some lovely jungle and cave cinematography.
REASONS TO AVOID: Stock characters being picked off one by one.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and scenes of terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is a sequel to the 2007 film Black Water which Traucki co-wrote and co-directed.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/19/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 46% positive reviews, Metacritic: 46/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Crawl
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Perfect Candidate

The Hole in the Ground


Another creepy kid flick.

(2019) Horror (A24Seána Kerslake, James Quinn Markey, Kati Outinen, David Crowley, Simone Kirby, Steve Wall, Eoin Macken, Sarah Hanley, Andrew Bennett, James Cosmo, John Quinn, Miro Loppen, David McMahon, Alain Eloy, Chloé Grogan, Gregory Praet, Kobe Truijens, Stevie Greaney, Karim Barras, Helena Coppejans. Directed by Lee Cronin

 

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A young woman, Sarah (Kerslake) escapes a (possibly abusive) relationship with her young son Chris (Markey) to a creepy old house in the middle of nowhere. One day, her little boy disappears for a short time, only to turn up in his bedroom, insisting he had been there all along.

After that incident, he begins to change in subtle but terrifying ways. Sarah becomes slowly convinced that her boy that disappeared is not the one that returned home, particularly after the rantings of a (possibly demented) old woman (Outinen) proclaim “that is not your son!” Might it have something to do with the gigantic but oddly symmetrical sinkhole near the house that nobody else in the village even knows about?

In the last few years, we’ve been treated to some innovative and downright terrifying movies in the independent horror genre. This isn’t one of them. You get the sense that Cronin is trying too hard to create an atmosphere of dread, but he throws way too many red herrings in our direction, hoping that one will stick. That isn’t to say there aren’t some wonderfully inventive moments with some foreshadowing that hints at infernal roots, and yes, the movie does deliver on some of the scares. Kerslake makes for a resolute heroine, and her emotional journey is believable. I just wish Cronin had had enough faith in his story to pull through without the completely unnecessary white noise that he delivers.

REASONS TO SEE: Kerslake does a fairly decent job.
REASONS TO AVOID: Tries a little too hard to be atmospheric, throwing too many red herrings at the audience.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The pattern on the wallpaper Sarah is working on is a reference to The Shining.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Kanopy, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews, Metacritic: 63/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Prodigy (2019)
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Black Water: Abyss

The Rental


Beware of dark shadows.

(2020) Horror (IFC Midnight) Dan Stevens, Alison Brie, Sheila Vand, Jeremy Allen White, Toby Huss, Anthony Molinari, Connie Wellman. Directed by Dave Franco

 

The Internet Age has given us, among many other ostensibly helpful programs, Air BnB; the ability to rent out our homes as vacation properties. Millions take advantage of the program, which is kind of a crap shoot; when it works out, you’ll find yourself in a much more comfortable environment than a hotel, and generally for a lot less. When it doesn’t, you can end up in an absolute dump – or with an owner who might not be altogether benevolent.

A pair of 30-something couples – start-up entrepreneur Charlie (Stevens), his hot-tempered and less successful little brother Josh (White), Charlie’s wife Michelle (Brie) and Josh’s girlfriend Mina (Vand), who also happens to be Charlie’s business partner. With a big project looming on the horizon, Charlie and Mina figure a weekend of R&R would be just the thing before several months of long hours and stressful deadlines become the norm for both of them. They find what looks like an ideal seaside home.

There are some issues; when Mina tries to rent the property, she’s turned down. When Charlies tries again an hour later, his rental is accepted. Mina, who has a Middle Eastern last name, cries racism and confronts the caretaker Taylor (Huss) with her accusations; he neither confirms nor denies them, but informs her that he isn’t the owner but the brother of the owner who is rarely home to use the property.

Although the property seems absolutely perfect, with a hot tub overlooking the ocean and all the modern amenities, there is a feeling that something is off. For one, Taylor comes off as kind of a racist creep. For another, there’s the locked door with an electronic lock which just smacks of “something to hide.” As the weekend wears on, the underlying tensions between the two couples begin to surface as the bickering and accusations start. When Mina discovers a closed circuit miniature camera in the shower head, she realizes that they are being watched, and that someone is getting their jollies watching the two couples take molly, fool around and bicker. There’s someone watching them and that generally isn’t a good thing.

Franco, who co-wrote the film with mumblecore legend Joe Swanberg, sets the film off as a slow burn, gradually building the tension until the climax, although that climax takes off in an unexpected direction, like an RC airplane with a faulty rudder. What starts off as an amazing psychological horror film and character study ends up during the last 20 minutes as a more traditional visceral horror film which is somewhat disappointing.

Disappointing because the movie shows the vulnerability of renting from a site like Air BnB; we put out trust in homeowners based on a few good ratings. If those owners turn out to be homicidal maniacs, we have no way of knowing or preparing and certainly no way of protecting ourselves. It’s a chilling thought and one the movie exploits early on before turning itself into a standard slasher film, complete with a too-long coda setting the film up as a potential franchise.

As an actor, Franco relates well to his cast and they do good work here. Most surprising was White, who gives Josh a nuanced character; unselfconfident after his violent temperament had landed him in trouble with the law earlier in life especially given his brother’s financial and personal success, he still has a hair-trigger temper which surfaces late in the film. Most of the rest of the way he seems like a genuinely sweet guy with difficulty believing in himself.

Slasher fans will find the movie a little too slow-developing for their tastes (unless they love psychological horror films that build gradually as well) and the frenetic ending will disappoint fans of psychological horror. Nevertheless this is a strong debut from Franco and while it isn’t likely to have the impact that his brother James’ debut did, it makes for some marvelous summertime genre viewing.

REASONS TO SEE: A true slow burn. The cast is terrific, but White is a real find.
REASONS TO AVOID: The plot is just too ludicrous to ignore.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is profanity, drug use, sexuality and graphic violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Alison Brie is married to Dave Franco, who is making his feature directing debut here.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/30/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews; Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Crawlspace
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful

Relic


All is not well in this house.

(2020) Horror (IFC Midnight Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin, Bella Heathcote, Jeremy Stanford, Chris Bunton, Christina O’Neill, Catherine Glavicic, Steve Rodgers, John Browning, Robin Northover. Directed by Natalie Erika James

 

The most frequent description I’ve seen of this impressive first feature by Japanese-Australian director Natalie Erika James is “slow burn” and that’s extremely apt. This is a movie that takes it’s time and builds organically to a terrifying conclusion that will leave you breathless.

When octogenarian Edna (Nevin) is reported missing, her concerned daughter Kay (Mortimer) and granddaughter Sam (Heathcote) hurry to her decaying old home on the outskirts of Melbourne. There is clearly tension between mother and daughter, but there is also a great sigh of relief when Edna turns up with no memory of where she’s been, nor how she got those ominous black bruises on her chest.

But Edna isn’t at all well; she doesn’t recognize her house or even her family at times, and her mood swings are growing progressively more violent. Kay is trying to organize the house and look into a care home for Edna, while Sam is wondering why Edna doesn’t move in with Kay, or Sam with Edna. The deterioration of Edna’s mind is mirrored by the deterioration in Edna’s house; mold and mildew throughout the once-great home, things behind the wall that unexpectedly go thump and a stained glass window that was once part of a cottage that stood on the property but has long since been demolished but is a connection to a family secret that is rearing its ugly head.

Creaky old houses are naturally perfect locations for horror films and in particular for this one. There are plenty of noises in this house, from loud bangs to whispered conversations Edna has with people only she can see. James, who co-wrote the screenplay and based the movie on her experiences with her own grandmother who was afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease, has a sure, patient hand, allowing the mood to grow until by the end of the movie the tension is nearly unbearable. She has a deft touch for horror, which sometimes gets treated with in a heavy-handed manner; good horror movies don’t necessarily have to be screams when whispers can be far more terrifying.

James was fortunate enough to get three strong actresses for the lead. Mortimer is one of the world’s most capable actresses – I can’t recall a single subpar performance on her part – and Heathcote has become one of the best young actresses in the business today. Nevin will be less known to American audiences. A veteran of Australian stage and television, she is absolutely mesmerizing here, giving a performance that is strangely sympathetic even as her mind slpis away. It’s heartbreaking to watch, yes, but also terrifying as there are hints of a supernatural presence involved.

The scares are mostly accomplished with practical effects, with sound being predominant – this is a movie that takes “things that go bump in the night” quite literally. In fact, be aware while watching it that the pounding that you hear throughout the movie may be headache-inducing for you – it was for me, although considering how effective the thumps were, I didn’t mind quite so much as I might have. While the one misstep in the film is an overabundance of jump scares which are a cheap way of getting a gasp from your audience. For the most part, though, James relies on atmosphere and superb performances from her leads to get this film on the radar for one of the top horror films (so far) of 2020. I’ll be watching with interest to see what Ms. James does next.

REASONS TO SEE: The use of sound effects is second to none. Creepy and disturbing. Nevin gives an astonishing performance as the demonic grandma.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit repetitive in its use of jump scares.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, violence, brief nudity, and scenes of terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie made its debut at Sundance earlier this year.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/12/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews, Metacritic: 77/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Others
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Olympia

The Prodigy (2019)


A little kid can be the death of you.

(2019) Horror (Orion) Taylor Schilling, Jackson Robert Scott, Peter Mooney Colm Feore, Paul Fauteux, Brittany Allen, Paula Boudreau, Elisa Moolecherry, Olunike Adeliyi, Janet Land, Martin Roach, Byron Abalos, Ashley Black, Tristan Vasquez, Nicholas McCarthy, Jim Annan, Milton Barnes, Grace Armas, Brock Johnson, Michael Dyson, Mark Sparks, Martha Girvin. Directed by Nicholas McCarthy

 

The creepy kid is a horror trope that goes back half a century. Kids are innocent, angelic; they are the future and we can’t see anything bad in them – after all, they’re just kids – but who says a kid can’t be a psychopathic monster? There is evidence that some kids have exactly that trait within them from birth.

But the film is quick to point out, in this case, that it isn’t really the poor little dear’s fault. Young Miles Blume (Scott) is born to his protective mom (Schilling) and disbelieving dad (Mooney) just as serial killer Edward Scarka (Fauteux) is killed during a police raid, the cops having been led to his in-the-middle-of-nowhere farmhouse by the sole survivor of his escapades (Allen), who had her hands chopped off for her trouble.

At first, the kid just seems precocious to the delight of mommy. But that soon gives way to genuine creepiness – the dead-eyed stares, the animal abuse, the accident befalling a babysitter (Black). The kid is speaking a rare dialect of Hungarian in his sleep, one spoken by Scarka. It appears the serial killer is not quite dead yet and he has an axe to grind with the woman who got away – and he doesn’t have a problem using young Miles to do it.

Although there are some nice twists and plot points here, this is pretty standard for the subgenre. The big reveal about what is wrong with Miles is answered way too early in the film and rather than giving us a parental “is my kid really a monster” conundrum to deal with, we just get one parent (the mom) denying reality, the other perhaps embracing reality too easily.

Schilling (Orange is the New Black) and Scott (the doomed younger brother in the IT movies) are actually pretty good, particularly Scott who is truly convincing; the movie doesn’t work with a lesser performance in place. But the movie relies too much on jump scares (the refuge of unimaginative directors) and hackneyed dark house stalker clichés to really be of more than passing interest.

REASONS TO SEE: Schilling and Scott give pretty decent performances.
REASONS TO AVOID: Very predictable, utilizing too many jump scares.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images, violence, terror, profanity, a sexual reference and brief graphic nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Scott sandwiched the filming of The Prodigy in between shoots for IT and IT Chapter 2, thus meaning he filmed three straight horror movies.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Epix, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hulu, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/6/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 42% positive reviews: Metacritic: 45/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Bad Seed
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Outpost