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

Kaali Khuhi


Above all, family.

(2020) Horror (NetflixRiva Arora, Sanjeeda Sheikh, Shabana Amzi, Satyadeep Misra, Leela Samson, Jatinder Kaur, Hetvi Bhanushall, Rose Rathod, Sukhwinder Virk, Pooja Sharma, Samuel John, Amita Sharma, Dishika Verma, Inder Bajwa, Nirmal Jeet Kaur, Pritpal Singh, Tejinder Kour, Seema Agarwal, Kashmir Singh, Anil Kumar, Chand Rani, Pallavi Kumari. Directed by Terrie Samundra

Our past has a tendency to catch up to us. Da Queen was known to tell our son when he sought to hide misdeeds he had done from us “Your sins will find you out.” Sometimes, though, it takes a generation or two for them to get there.

In this direct-to-Netflix horror film from India, a family returns to the village of a young father, whose own mother is very sick. His wife is not happy at being dragged along, but then again, she seems to be unhappy with just about everything, including (and especially) daughter Shivangi (Arora) who is a frequent target of her wrath.

But it turns out it isn’t just the grandmother of Shivangi who has been affected with this mysterious illness; others are getting sick as well, and as it turns out, much of this has to do with cruelty perpetrated by villagers years ago, leading to vengeful spirits stalking the living. It will be up to Shivangi to stand up to the supernatural elements if she is to protect those she loves from a gruesome demise.

The plot is slow-moving and a bit convoluted, at least compared to American horror films. While this one seems to be influenced by American-style horror, this is definitely not one of those. Nor is it a Bollywood film; nobody is going to burst into a song and dance routine. Not every Indian film is like that, you know.

Where Samundra is successful is in creating a creepy atmosphere, where things lurk in the shadows and fog hides other nasty surprises. A village well is shot with such sinister glee, it’s hard to believe that there wouldn’t be supernatural goings-on there.

The acting here is a little weak, at least in the way that Americans look at performing on-camera. The cinematography is occasionally splendid particularly in capturing the rural Indian countryside, but it can get murky from time to time. There are some really effective scares here, and when the movie gets going, it really gets going, but the final climax is a bit of a disappointment. Still, there’s tons of atmosphere and as horror films go, this one isn’t too bad, but I am not sure a lot of American horror fans will have the patience to wade through the subtitles.

REASONS TO SEE: Very atmospheric.
REASONS TO AVOID: The climax is eminently forgettable.
FAMILY VALUES: This is some mild profanity, some violence and scary, terrifying images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the debut feature for Samundra, who has worked on several short films previous to this.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/1820: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Village of the Damned
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Calendar Girl

The Blair Witch Project


Fear and regret are not enough to assuage evil.

(1999) Horror (ArtisanHeather Donahue, Michael C. Williams, Joshua Leonard, Bob Griffin, Jim King, Sandra Sanchez, Ed Swanson, Patricia DeCou, Mark Mason, Jackie Hallex. Directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez

Some movies are victims of their own success. The Blair Witch Project was the forerunner of the “found footage” horror film craze that dominated the horror scene in the early part of the first decade of the century. The movie became so imitated that it has become a cliché in retrospect. Perhaps that is the ultimate honor for a movie; after all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

By now, most folks know the basics about the movie; three student filmmakers venture into the Maryland woods to make a documentary about the legendary Blair Witch. They vanish from the face of the Earth until a year later, when the unsettling footage is found. The marketing campaign for the movie was so brilliant – really, it was the first successful viral marketing campaign in history – that many people, myself included, thought that both the legend and the story of the filmmakers were real. The mother of actress Heather Donahue received sympathy cards from friends and acquaintances who thought her daughter was really missing.

The production, shot for less than $90K (and would return nearly $250 million at the box office, making it one of the most profitable films ever made to this day), wisely refrains from showing us the actual Blair Witch, or anything supernatural. Everything happens off-camera. Much of the sense of dread and fear comes from sounds in the dark; of the sensation that the hapless kids are being stalked by something in the woods. Our imagination fills in the blanks.

Does it hold up to repeated viewings? That’s another question entirely. I’ve rewatched the film several times since first seeing it in a theater back in 1999 when it came out and to be honest, the experience doesn’t quite measure up to the one of a theater full of people seeing the movie for the first time. I would guess that it would be hard to re-create that environment nowadays, even with reduced capacities in the theaters due to the pandemic. I think much of the power of the film comes from the nagging feeling that what you are seeing actually happened and that the three kids that you’re watching fall apart in the woods are real kids who are no longer with us. That adds an emotional wallop that no amount of CGI can duplicate.

For all its flaws, The Blair Witch Project stands as a watershed horror film, the kind that comes along once in a generation. Likely we won’t see the like again for a long time, the kind of film that changes the game for horror films in general. In fact, the movie would shift horror films away from the torture porn that dominated horror box office at the time to lower budget atmospheric horror movies that made a connection to the real world that the viewer lives in. The true horror is not in monsters and demons and ghosts; the true horror comes from This could happen.

REASONS TO SEE: The rare occasion where a marketing campaign enhanced a movie. The three then-unknown actors were all perfectly believable. Genuinely terrifying.
REASONS TO AVOID:  Original premise, although it hasn’t held up largely because it was so oft-imitated.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and scenes of terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie proved to be so popular that it nearly ruined the area’s 1999-2000 hunting season due to so many fans flocking to the woods to shoot their own documentaries.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Sling TV, TBS, TNT, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/31/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Paranormal Activity
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Yellow Rose

Ma


Everyone ready to party with Ma?

(2020) Horror (Blumhouse/UniversalOctavia Spencer, Diana Silvers, Juliette Lewis, McKaley Miller, Corey Fogelmanis, Gianni Paolo, Dante Brown, Tanyell Waivers, Dominic Burgess, Heather Marie Pete, Tate Taylor, Luke Evans, Margaret Fegan, Missi Pyle, Allison Janney, Kyanna Simone Simpson, Matthew Welch, Skyler Joy, Nicole Carpenter. Directed by Tate Taylor

High school is a time when we find ourselves, or at least begin to. One of the things we explore is alcohol. It’s illegal – forbidden – so naturally, we have to check it out. Teenagers are natural contrarians to begin with, so telling them they can’t do something is tantamount to giving them incentive to do just that. A friend of mine who fancied himself a wag once said that the only way to get his teenage daughter to do her homework was tell her she wasn’t allowed to do it.

Young Maggie (Silvers) has moved to a small town in Ohio with her freshly-divorced Mom (Lewis). Her mother grew up there and still has a lot of her friends living there. Maggie is a bit on the shy side, but quickly makes a bunch of friends and just as quickly finds out that there’s not a lot for kids her age to do in town other than to score some alcohol and find a place to party, mainly in places that are probably not ideal for a bunch of drunk kids to hang out in.

Trying to get an adult to buy some liquor for them proves to be difficult until along comes Sue Ann (Spencer), a veterinary assistant who remembers what it’s like to be young. She offers her basement for the young people to party in, once she buys the laundry list of liquor that they provide her. She just has a few ground rules; no spitting on the floor, no taking the Lord’s name in vain, and under NO circumstances are the kids to go upstairs.

At first, the situation seems to be ideal – a safe place to get hammered, and Sue Ann turns out to be a fun party thrower. She gets everyone to refer to her as Ma, and soon she starts to become more and more entwined in their lives. It starts to get more than a little creepy and when the kids start to push back, they start to realize there’s something seriously wrong with Sue Ann.

Spencer won her Oscar under the direction of Taylor, so it’s no surprise that she turns in another brilliant performance here. Sue Ann is a complicated emotional creature and often her moods spin on a dime, from motherly to sexual to full-on rage-aholic. Sue Ann isn’t completely evil; there’s some pathos to her story and Spencer makes the audience believe that here is a seriously wounded psyche. We feel bad for her – until she snaps.

The problem here is that the most relatable character here is Sue Ann. The teenage kids with the possible exception of Maggie are all seriously self-absorbed and borderline cruel. Most of them are pretty much interchangeable. The adult roles have some strong actors, including Janney, having a ball as a bossy vet, and Lewis who for my money has been criminally underrated throughout her career.

The movie takes a while to get moving, but once it does Taylor knows what to do with it. Spencer is definitely the reason to see this, but she’s got some decent support – although not enough to elevate this out of middlin’.

REASONS TO SEE: Spencer gives her usual strong performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: Hard to root for anybody in this typical “teens in trouble” romp.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence – some of it brutal – as well as sexual content, teen drinking and drug use, profanity throughout, and some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Taylor previously directed Spencer and Janey in The Help.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Max Go, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/30/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 55% positive reviews; Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Uncle Peckerhead
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness concludes!

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