Girl Next


Some fates are worse than death.

(2021) Horror (Gravitas) Lacey Cofran, Marcus Jean Pirae, Paula Marcenaro Solinger, Rachel Alig, Larry Wade Carrell, Steve Joseph, Sammy Abdalla, Merry Dawn, Melissa Arras, Sarah Lingle, Kristen Marie Perry. Directed by Larry Wade Carrell

 

There is no doubt that sex trafficking is a worldwide problem. Young women are kidnapped on a regular basis and sold as sex slaves, forced to give up whatever hopes and dreams they might have had, ripped away from families who love them, to live a life as an object, nothing more. An entire existence to satisfy the animal lust of men who can afford the price.

Lorian West (Cofran) seems to have a good life going. Beautiful, well-educated, living near the top of her social ladder locally, she has driven her Mercedes to the grocery store to do some shopping when she is grabbed by some thugs in a white van who drag her out of the parking lot, screaming and struggling.

She is taken to the remote estate of Heinrich (Pirae), who has perfected a method of turning women from free-thinking independent-minded people into docile sex robots known only by their model name – Sophie, in this case, little more than dolls. He and his wife Misha (Solinger) use a variety of drugs, mental conditioning and physical torture to gain the desired state of compliance from the girls. Those who don’t take to the conditioning die somewhat horribly.

They are aided and abetted by the local sheriff (Carrell) who is also the contact of the people who actually conduct the sale. Heinrich feels that Lorian has the potential to start a brand new model type which would mean higher prices, but Lorian proves to be unusually stubborn and when the sheriff tries to take a little taste of her wares, is injured by the feisty captive. To make matters worse, Henrich is becoming somewhat psychotic, caused largely by the drugs he is taking. Lorian also receives aid from an unexpected place – Charlotte (Alig), who may or may not be the daughter or Heinrich and Misha, who teaches her how to break the training. But what is Charlotte’s angle? Can there be any escape from this nightmare?

I have said before and it bears repeating here; there’s a thin line between making a movie exploring self trafficking and aking a movie exploiting it I’m sad to say that this film falls into the latter category. While Lorian shows some inner strength, women here are either victims or they are crazy. There are no in-between characters. Also, the sexual abuse is shown on-screen which is at best uncomfortable and at worst can be triggering to some. Keep that in mind before renting this puppy.

The performances are mostly overwrought and ham-handed, while the special effects (essentially used to portray Heinrich’s mental deterioration) are largely unspectacular. While some of the images that Carrell conjures up are fascinating, the plot is so rote as to be something that could easily have been cribbed from a number of other films, from the corrupt small-town law enforcement to the characters who appear to be at least potential hallucinations, and then there’s the necrobilly (Joseph) who more or less has come in from a whole other movie.

When you strip all the extraneous elements out, this more or less becomes torture porn, and the rape scenes are almost more the latter. There is little redeeming about this movie and while I tend to not want to ascribe motives to the director and writer of this film, it is hard to miss the stench of misogyny that permeates the project.

REASONS TO SEE: There are occasionally some interesting visuals.
REASONS TO AVOID: Over-the-top and misogynistic. By-the-numbers direction and score.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, violence, sexual violence, rape, nudity and sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: If Carrell looks intimidating onscreen, it’s because he is 6’5” tall.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/17/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Women
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT:
Summertime

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It


Ed and Lorraine Warren hold each other against the darkness.

(2021) Horror (New Line) Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Ruairi O’Connor, Sarah Catherine Hook, Julian Hilliard, John Noble, Eugenie Bondurant, Shannon Kook, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Keith Arthur Bolden, Steve Coulter, Vince Pisani, Ingrid Bisu, Andrea Andrade, Ashley LeConte Campbell, Sterling Jerins, Paul Wilson, Charlene Amoia, Nick Massouh, Stella Doyle. Directed by Michael Chaves

 
The third Conjuring film (and the eighth in the franchise overall) is a bit of a seismic shift from the previous films. James Wan, who directed the first two Conjuring films, knows how to develop a good creepy atmosphere as well as a decent scare. He is sorely missed here.

The movie opens with demonologists Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Farmiga) presiding over the exorcism of 11-year-old David Glatzel (Hilliard), attended by David’s parents (Paul Wilson, Amoia), his sister Debbie (Hook) and her boyfriend Arne Cheyenne Johnson (O’Connor). Things get dicey and during the ritual, Ed suffers a massive heart attack. While he’s on the edge of consciousness, he witnesses Arne imploring the demonic presence to leave the boy’s body and come inside him, which the spirit does.

Shortly thereafter, Arne gets into a dispute with his landlord (Blevins) and stabs him together. As Ed recovers and tells Lorraine what happened, the police arrest a stunned Arne who suspects he’s done something terrible. The Warrens convince Arne’s lawyer that Arne wasn’t responsible for his actions; literally, the devil made him do it. It’s one thing to claim that, and another to prove it. They consult a leading expert, Father Kastner (Noble) who leads them down an unexpected path where a malevolent occultist (Bondurant) awaits.

The first half of the movie is largely focused on Arne, Debbie and David, turning to the Warrens once the grisly crime is committed. The film’s strength is in the performances of Farmiga and Patrick Wilson, who effectively capture the deep affection, mutual respect and abiding love – not to mention Catholic spiritualism – of the couple. There are those who believe the Warrens were con artists; I won’t make a judgment one way or the other, but the two actors portray the Warrens as we would like them to have been (they’ve both since passed on).

Like the other films in the series, the story is only loosely based on what actually happened. In real life, the presiding judge immediately rejected the plea of not guilty by reason of demonic possession, stating (quite correctly) that it wasn’t provable. Johnson and his lawyer instead offered a self-defense plea and eventually ended up convicted of manslaughter and served five years of a ten to twenty year sentence before being paroled. Both Arne and his wife Debbie, who are still married today, confirm the Warrens’ version, although other members of the family have disputed this, most notably Carl Jr., David’s brother, who doesn’t appear in the film, who sued the author of the book The Devil in Connecticut for defamation of character and invasion of privacy. The author, Gerald Brittle, who received much input from the Warrens and whose book is listed as the basis for the film. Regardless of who you believe, you do know that things get embellished in these movies to make them more cinematic, right?

Chaves continues to develop the relationship between Ed and Lorraine but he isn’t as adept as Wan at creating tension and delivering on genuine scares. He relies a great deal on jump scares and at the end of the day, those are the cheapest of all, the horror equivalent of tripping on a banana peel. Plus, the movie just feels unfocused, as if the director’s mind was on his grocery shopping list more than on the film. Also, the big bad – the Occultist – isn’t fleshed out very much. She’s just EE-VILLE and the somewhat monotonous delivery of Bondurant doesn’t help matters. This is the weakest film of the trilogy by far to date; hopefully they can convince Wan to return and direct the next one – if indeed there is a next one.

REASONS TO SEE: Farmiga and Wilson continue to make an effective pair.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not as focused as previous entries in the franchise.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images, scenes of terror and brief violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Chaves previously directed The Curse of La Llorona which is peripherally related to the Conjuring universe.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Max (until July 4)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/28/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 56% positive reviews; Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: God Told Me To
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Super Frenchie

Censor


Some doors shouldn’t be opened.

(2021) Horror (Magnet) Niamh Algar, Michael Smiley, Nicholas Burns, Vincent Franklin, Sophia La Porta, Adrian Schiller, Clare Holman, Andrew Havill, Felicity Montagu, Danny Lee Wynter, Clare Perkins, Guillaume Delaunay, Richard Glover, Erin Shanagher, Beau Gadsdon, Amelie Child-Villiers, Matthew Earley, Richard Renton, Bo Bragason, Amelia Craighill, Madeleine Hutchins. Directed by Prano Bailey-Bond

 
We all have different tolerances for horror movies. Some of us delight in them, loving the thrill ride feeling of being scared. Others may find the feeling uncomfortable and shy away from horror films. Still others, who carry past traumas like demons that are summoned at the flicker of a screen, can find a horror movie to be something of a time bomb.

Enid Baines (Algar) is a tightly-wound British film censor back in the 1980s during an age of horror films that are looked back upon fondly by aficionados of the genre. Called “video nasties” by the tabloid press and right-wing politicians, the moral outcry was because the new technology of VCRs would allow movies like The Driller Killer and I Spit on Your Grave into the home where children could be exposed to them without supervision. It is her task to determine what sort of cuts needed to be made in order to bring a film up to code, or whether to ban a film outright. She takes her job seriously.

Perhaps that’s because her job is essentially all she has. Her relationship with her mum (Holman) and Dad (Havill) is strained at the moment – that’s because they have elected to declare her sister Nina, who disappeared twenty years earlier, dead. Enid sees this as a betrayal, largely because of the guilt feelings that she has because she was present when Nina disappeared and can’t remember any details.

Then, when reviewing a film called Don’t Go In the Church by cult film director Frederick North (Schiller) whose sleazy producer Doug Smart (Smiley) puts the moves on the increasingly agitated Enid, she notices that the actress Alice Lee (La Porta) looks very much the way Nina might as an adult. Also, she notices that the events of the film – in which two little girls enter a deserted cabin in the middle of the woods – mirror the fractured memories of her sister’s disappearance to an uncomfortable degree.

This sends Enid, convinced that the red-headed actress IS her sister, down a spiral as she looks into the films of Frederick North, including the one he’s currently filming, in an effort to rescue her long-lost sister and bring her home. Is Enid right, and is she about to solve a mystery that has haunted her for 20 years? Or has the years of watching massive amounts of violence and mayhem ultimately unhinged her?

First-time feature director Bailey-Bond has a self-assured hand on the tiller, and together with cinematographer Annika Summerson has nicely recreated the look of horror movies from the 80s with neon-glow lighting, earthtoned costumes and dull, drab office spaces. She does a good job building up the tension, aided by the sound designer Tim Harrison whose use of electronic pulses, barely audible screams and loud thumps keeps the viewer off-balance. Although the movie goes a bit off the rails near the end when the director gets, in my opinion, a bit self-indulgent, she immediately makes up for it with an ending that is absolutely amazing, one that left me grinning ear to ear, not something that happens often at the conclusion of a film.

Algar, an up and coming Irish actress, does a mesmerizing job, evolving Enid from a buttoned-down schoolmarm-ish sort and unraveling into someone whose entire world has been shattered and doesn’t know which end is up or down any longer. It’s the kind of performance that bodes well for us seeing more of her in the future in higher profile films.

This is more or less a psychological horror film with a nod to British horror films of the 60s made in the style of the video nasties of the 80s. While there is a good deal of gore on the screen, it largely comes from the clips that Enid is reviewing, mostly from actual films of the era (the Frederick North films are the exception). This is a solid debut that horror fans should be keeping an eye out for when it hits streaming platforms this Friday – until then, check your local listings for the nearest theater in which it’s playing.

REASONS TO SEE: An exceptionally clever ending. The use of sound to create an unsettling atmosphere is masterful.
REASONS TO AVOID: Does go off the rails a little bit.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of violence and profanity – a true video nasty!
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Algar is probably best-known to American audiences as Sue in the Apple TV Ridley Scott sci-fi series Raised By Wolves.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/16/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews; Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Peeping Tom
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Those Who Wish Me Dead

An Amityville Poltergeist


Parris Bates is feeling blue.

(2020) Horror (Breaking Glass) Parris Bates, Rebecca Kimble, Conor Austin, Airisa Durand, Jon Ashley Hall, Natalie Lucia (voice), Calvin Morie McCarthy, Alex Onda, Jason Reynolds, Sydney Winbush. Directed by Calvin Morie McCarthy

 

Making a movie is no easy task. It is a collaborative effort, requiring many hands of talented technicians, imaginative creative people and of course wonderful actors. Movie sets can be a battleground where egos run rampant, or a carnival where the absurd reigns supreme. Sometimes, a movie set can be incredible fun when everything is clicking. They can also be unbridled chaos when everything is not.

Jim (Bates) is a college student who, like most college students, is in dire need of an infusion of cold, hard cash. His best friend, stoner Collin (Austin) recommends he sell his own blood plasma which neelde-phobic Jim is loathe to do, Instead, he gets a job housesitting for $500 a day, which seems a little excessive for sitting around the house. It sure beats working.

However, the elderly homeowner, Eunice (Kimble) warns Jim that she’s not concerned with people breaking in to the old house. She’s much more worried about what’s already inside. As her son (Hall) takes her away for a brief hospitalization, one wonders if the old lady might better be served with a different kind of hospital. However, as Jim starts to hear inexplicable noises, he realizes the old lady might not be as crazy as she sounds – and as the incidents grow more frightening and more violnt, he also realizes that $500 per night was way not worth it.

I have to be honest; I’m generally a sucker for a good haunted house movie. This isn’t one. For one thing, I have to admit that I was not thrilled that the movie has nothing whatsoever to do with the Amityville franchise – it’s not even set there – and there isn’t a poltergeist in the film (not really). Then again, if truth in advertising laws were applied to movie marketing, there’d be a lot of Hollywood executives with criminal records.

For some reason, the filmmakers filmed the movie as if it were filmed in perpetual twilight. Even the scenes set at night have a bluish tinge to them, like the only lighting came from a TV screen. The film photo above isn’t from a brief moment in the film – the entire movie is lit like that. I don’t know if it was a conscious decision to do that or sheer incompetence, but either way, I suspect most will get tired of the effect and tune out quickly. If the lighting doesn’t get you, though, the writing will. The plot is difficult to follow with way too many flashbacks, and while I’m guessing the screenwriters (Hall, who played the son, and McCarthy, who directed, co-wrote the script) were trying to blur the line between dreams and reality, they blurred it a little too much and after awhile I wouldn’t be surprised if some give up on the film long before the final credits run.

That isn’t to say that the movie is entirely without merit. The makeup effects by Zach Smith are pretty good, and Parris Bates has some potential, although his character is a bit on the whiny side. But the movie feels awfully amateurish, and while horror fans tend to be a bit more forgiving about such things, they do require some big scares and there just aren’t any.

I take no joy out of savaging a film like this. Generally, I wouldn’t run a review for a movie I disliked as much as this one because I generally feel that making a movie requires passion and commitment and I don’t doubt that the filmmakers have both of those things, and as I said, there are some redeeming features here so it isn’t entirely a waste of your time, but if you’re looking for a real good haunted house movie, there are just too many excellent ones out there (including The Amityville Horror and Poltergeist as well as literally dozens of fine indie budget films) to make it easy to recommend this at all.

REASONS TO SEE: Bates has a certain amount of appeal.
REASONS TO AVOID: Underlit throughout with a curiously blue tint. Poorly acted and terribly written.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, some nudity, a fair amount of drug use and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director McCarthy makes a cameo appearance as a pizza delivery guy early in the film.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/31/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Turning
FINAL RATING: 3/10
NEXT:
The Mitchells vs. the Machines

The Djinn


There are some things you don’t want to see in your flashlight beam.

(2021) Horror (IFC Midnight) Ezra Dewey, Rob Brownstein, Tevy Poe, John Erickson, Donald Pitts, Jilbert Daniel, Isaiah Dell, Colin Joe, Omaryus Luckett. Directed by David Charbonier and Justin Powell

 

One of those old truisms that you don’t need to complete the sentence to understand its meaning: “Be careful what you wish for.” As this film posits, also be careful who you make your wish from.

Dylan (Dewey) is a mute 12-year-old boy reeling from a family tragedy. His dad (Brownstein) is a late night DJ who is working a double shift on what the title card describes as a pleasant summer night in 1989. The two men have moved into a new house in a new town and Dylan will be on his own until Dad comes home. The bond between them is strong but Dylan wonders, using American Sign Language, “Would Mom have left if I weren’t…different?” While Dad assures him that he’s perfect the way he is, Dylan isn’t so sure.

Dylan also confirms that the previous resident, an old man (Pitts), indeed died there. He thoughtfully left behind a framed portrait of himself, as well as The Book of Shadows in a burlap sack for Dylan to find, complete with instructions on how to summon a Djinn who would grant whichever wish Dylan makes – so long as he survives an hour alone with the Djinn and so longas he does’t extinguish the candle he has lit for the ceremony before midnight. Those Djinn, they’re sticklers for the rules.

Most of the film is of a terrified Dylan fleeing and hiding from the Djinn (Erickson) while having flashbacks of his sad, disturbed mom (Poe). The Djinn can take a number of different forms and it does so throughout the short running time of the film, giving Dylan a different horror to deal with. All of this is done with virtually no dialogue; what dialogue there is occurs at a dinner table scene at the beginning of the film and is spoken by Dylan’s Dad. There is also a recording of the instructions for summoning the Djinn, although whether that is in Dylan’s head or not is up to your interpretation.

For a film like this to work you need a child actor who can express a variety of emotions (mainly fear) almost completely through body language and facial expression, and the filmmakers found one in Dewey. He does a remarkable job carrying the film on his frail shoulders, although the filmmakers tendency to use extreme close-ups of his face in a rictus of terror doesn’t do him any favors. However, for a role like this they coud have done much, much worse.

The monster itself isn’t super terrifying although it does the trick for the most part. There is an overuse of jump scares, particularly a central air unit that kicks off with an apocalyptic thud that would fray the nerves of any homeowner after not too long.

There are a fair amount of horror tropes here and the filmmakers wisely don’t try to reinvent the wheel. What they do is provide a basic, no-frills horror film off of an interesting premise and deliver it in a compact amount of time without an overabundance of filler. These days, that’s something of an accomplishment.

REASONS TO SEE: Different in a good way. Some nice world building.
REASONS TO AVOID: Relies a bit too much on jump scares.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some frightening violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In Islamic/Arabic mythology, a djinn is a highly intelligent spirit who is neither good nor evil, but is capable of mimicking any form and occasionally can possess human beings.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/16/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews; Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Witchboard
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Inhabitants: An Indigenous Perspective

Sweet River


There are few things more beautiful than a mother smiling at her child.

(2020) Horror (Gravitas) Lisa Kay, Martin Sacks, Genevieve Lemon, Rob Carlton, Eddie Baroo, Chris Haywood, Charlotte Stent, Jordan Shields, Cymone Rose (voice), Bryan Probets, Jack Ellis, Jeremy Waters, Sam Parsonson, James McGregor (voice), Jayden McGinlay, Ario De Beer, Kate Dodd, Kelly Joyce, Hamish Cleary, Kerry Blakeman, Ashley McLeod. Directed by Justin McMillan

 

In the face of unthinkable tragedy, we have a tendency to pull ourselves into a protective shell, admitting only those we trust absolutely. When that tragedy is accompanied by unimaginable horror, that shell often leaves us unable to escape.

The town of Billins in the sugar cane country of Tweed Valley has had more than their share of tragedy. A school bus crash into the Tweed River resulted in the drowning of a good portion of the town’s children. Some of those that remained as well as a few visitors fell victim to a serial killer (Ellis) who eventually, wracked by guilt, hung himself.

Hanna (Kay) comes to Billins after all these events have occurred, renting a worker’s cottage on the edge of the cane fields. Unbeknownst to her, James Lipton – the man (Waters) who rented her the cottage – has met with an untimely end but his neighbor John Drake (Sacks) honors their rental agreement, although his wife Eleanor (Lemon) is less neighborly. It’s hard to blame her – the couple are mourning the death of their daughter Violet (Stent) – more on that later.

Hanna can relate, because she is in mourning as well – her son Joey disappeared, a presumed victim of the serial killer although his body was never recovered. In fact, Hanna believes Joey’s body is somewhere in the cane fields and while the local constable (Carlton) tries to persuade her to leave, she is adamant; she’s not going anywhere until Joey’s remains are found and properly laid to rest.

But something else is going on in the town. The children may be dead but they are surely not gone; many of the townspeople can see them and there is some comfort in that. The fact that Lipton had boasted that he was going to harvest the cane field the night he died is not insignificant. The dearly departed may not always be completely gone.

This Aussie film doesn’t lack for ambition, although it doesn’t seem as if director Justin McMillan absolutely knows what he wants his film to be. At times it is a supernatural horror film that is rife with haunted house tropes (things that go bang in the night, half-seen figures of giggling children and so on), while at other times it is a sober look at the effects of grief on a small town a la The Sweet Hereafter, which it appears heavily influenced this film (then again, so did Children of the Corn).

The movie is constructed a bit awkwardly, with a ton of sub-threads and flashbacks that make it a confusing watch at times. That’s a shame, because a lot of the elements here work from Kay’s heartfelt performance to the slow build-up of tension to some of the more horrific elements. At the end of the day, McMillan tries to make this more intricate than it needed to be and his ambitions outstripped the film’s ability to deliver. It’s a bit on the unsatisfying side particularly because there are so many elements that work well, but still worth a look.

REASONS TO SEE: A slow burner of a thriller.
REASONS TO AVOID: Lots of good elements but an unsatisfying whole.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, violence and some terrifying images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Tweed Valley, where this was filmed, is located in New South Wales, Australia.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/11/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: In the Tall Grass
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Mandibles

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