The Soul Collector (8) (2019)


Good men can still do bad things.

(2019) Horror (SHOUT! FactoryTshamano Sebe, Inge Beckmann, Keita Luna, Garth Breytenbach, Chris April, Luxolo Ndabedi, Owam Amey, Sindiwe Magona, Graham Clarke, Eve Maxagazo Andy Crawford, Jac Williams, Andres Brink. Directed by Harold Holscher

 

The South African film scene has been coming on lately, with several movies produced there getting international attention. The Soul Collector (which made the Festival rounds known as 8) is a horror movie with its roots in local traditions and mythology, certainly a heady and largely untapped source of inspiration for scare flicks.

William Ziel (Breytenbach) has been experiencing rough economic times, so he heads to the interior of South Africa to work his family farm after the death of his father (Clarke). He brings along his adopted daughter Mary (Luna), whose parents in addition to being William’s brother and sister-in-law are also dead, and his wife Sarah (Beckmann) who has demons of her own.

William knows next to nothing about farming, but help comes in the form of Lazarus (Sebe), a wise old black man who once worked the farm. However, local villagers, led by their one-eyed chief (April), are aware of the true nature of Lazarus; he collects souls for the demonic presence occupying his daughter’s (Amey) body. Lazarus, a good man driven to an act of madness by grief and desperation, has also befriended Mary, whom the demon is dead set on feeding upon.

First-time director Holscher has crafted a film that looks really nice; beautiful vistas of the rolling plains of South Africa, as well as in-camera effects that are as effective as any CGI. He also is given the richness of African legend to work from, but sadly, resorts to jump scares and horror tropes that end up taking his movie down a few notches.

That’s not to say that the movie is entirely without merit. There are some frank discussions on the intertwining of life and death (the figure 8 is used to denote the place where the mortal world and the next realm meet, which is where the living can communicate with the dead) and Sebe is an imposing presence; intimidating when he needs to be, but clearly conflicted over his fate and the bargain he made. It is hard not to feel for Lazarus and Sebe does a good job of making the character sympathetic.

The other characters are less so; William is stubborn, refusing to see any other reality but the one that he wants to see. He is going to make this farm work no matter what! For her part, Sarah is often bitchy and vindictive, mourning that she can’t have children of her own. As for Mary, she’s not the plucky heroine of most horror movies (which is refreshing) but she keeps silkworms in a music box that plays the “Swan Theme” from Swan Lake (which is used as a motif throughout the score, at times to distraction) and is in every sense, a little weird. Then again, she’s been through a lot.

I like seeing horror movies using the mythology of other cultures, be they Latin, Eastern European, or Asian; we so rarely get to see the rich folklore of Africa used cinematically that it’s refreshing when it happens. I just wish that the director had done a little more with it here.

REASONS TO SEE: Takes us to an environment not usually found in horror films.
REASONS TO AVOID: Plenty of horror tropes and jump scares.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of profanity, some images of terror and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Not related to the movie of the 1999 movie of the same name.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/13/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews, Metacritic: 37/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Golem
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Exit Plan

Escape Room (2019)


Did someone say “Poseidon Adventure”?

(2019) Horror (Columbia) Taylor Russell, Logan Miller, Jay Ellis, Tyler Labine, Deborah Ann Woll, Nick Dodani, Yorick van Wageningen, Cornelius Geaney Jr., Russell Crous, Bart Fouche, Jessica Sutton, Paul Hampshire, Vere Tindale, Kenneth Fok, Caely Jo Levy, Jamie-Lee Money, Jeremy Jess Boado, Carl Coetzee, Katheryn Griffiths, Gary Green, Raven Swart, Inge Beckmann. Directed by Adam Robitel

 

When a movie is dumped into a January release date, it could either be an Oscar-qualifying holdover looking to make a wide release (good), or a movie that the studio’s pretty sure is going to tank (bad). When it’s a horror movie, it generally means the studio thinks it can clean up against generally weak competition of Christmas holdovers and January bargain bin cinema.

Escape Room actually isn’t all that bad; it capitalizes on the escape room fad which was pretty much inevitable – Hollywood likes to capitalize on every fad. Escape rooms, for those not in the know, are group exercises in which a group is locked in a room and must solve clues scattered about the room to unlock the doors and escape. Normally, there’s a time limit. Normally, the room doesn’t kill anybody.

But this being a January-released horror movie, you know that’s not going to be the case here. The six contestants, lured by the prospect of a $10,000 payday if they solve the puzzle and escape, are an introverted math whiz (Russell), an alcoholic loser (Miller), a cocky businessman (Ellis), a PTSD-afflicted veteran (Woll), a truck driver (Labine) and a puzzle nerd (Dodani) who may as well have been called “Mr. Exposition.”

The cast is serviceable and at least commit to playing parts which are largely one-dimensional. The rooms themselves are lavish and fiendish; try and check any sort of logic at the door and you’ll be okay. For the most part this is mildly entertaining if you like this sort of thing, but hardcore horror fans are going to bemoan the lack of gore (another studio going for the PG-13 crowd) while thriller fans might find this too simplistic. It did well enough to generate a sequel whose release has been held up by the COVID-19 outbreak.

REASONS TO SEE: Reasonably entertaining.
REASONS TO AVOID: Very much “been there, done that.”
FAMILY VALUES: There is lots of violence and profanity, perilous action, some sexually suggestive material and a few grisly images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second time that Robitel has directed the first nationwide release of a new year (he previously did in 2018 with Insidious: The Last Key).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Starz, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/27/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 51% positive reviews, Metacritic: 48/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Saw
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Vanishing

The Wretched


When a troubled teen comes to call, don’t always answer the door.

(2019) Horror (IFC Midnight)  John-Paul Howard, Piper Curda, Jamison Jones, Azie Tesfai, Zarah Mahler, Kevin Bigley, Gabriela Quezada Bloomgarden, Richard Ellis, Blane Cockarell, Judah Abner Paul, Ja’layah Washington, Amy Waller, Ross Kidder, Kasey Bell, Harry Burkey, Trudie Underhiill, Sydne Mikelle, Tug Coker, Madelynn Stunekel.  Directed by Brett Pierce and Drew T. Pierce

 

In this pandemic, we’ve focused on the most vulnerable members of our society – the elderly. However, we sometimes forget the other vulnerable side of society – the children. The Pierce brothers, who have assembled this slick horror yarn together, certainly haven’t.

In the 1980s, a hapless babysitter stumbles on the mother of her charge chowing down on her own kid. Faster than you ca say Dario Argento she ends up locked in the cellar with a hungry mama. Flash forward to now which is when sullen rebellious teen Ben (Howard) is forced to spend the summer with his Dad working the lakeside marina in Michigan with his Dad (Jones) after an incident left him with a broken arm and an exasperated mom.

The only consolation is the perky Mallory (Curda) who works at the marina with him, so Ben battens down the hatches for a rough summer squall, made even rougher when he gets the depressing news that his dad has a new girlfriend (Tesfai). However, that soon takes a back seat to the family next door, whose tattooed mom Sara (Mahler) has taken to scaring her young son (Cockarell) and butchering a deer she accidentally hits with her car on the way home from a walk in the woods. Unbeknownst to her, there was something hiding in the deer carcass, something that has designs on her but more to the point, to feed on her son.

Nobody believes Ben that there is something very sinister going on so in the finest plucky teen fashion he goes about trying to save the town from itself but it isn’t easy because nobody can remember the family next door having a child. That turns out to be really inconvenient – and puts the crosshairs right on Ben.

It’s no accident that the film’s prelude took place in the 80s, because the movie is rooted in the cinema of that era. There are elements of Steven Spielberg fantasy, with the broken family and the plucky kids; it’s an oeuvre that has become massively popular as of late thanks to the Netflix series Stranger Things but other than the intro, this film is also rooted firmly in modern horror.

To the credit of the Pierce Brothers and their cinematographer Conor Murphy, the movie looks like something that a major studio might have put out. Every technical aspect of the film works to perfection, from the mainly practical effects to the score to the sound to the set design. There are some really nice scares to be had here, although there’s a feeling that the Pierce Brothers realized that their budget was such that they couldn’t afford a really decent build-up so they skipped right to the climactic battle. For that reason, the pacing feels a bit off and the ending disappointing.

Still, this is an engaging and – dare I say it – fun summer-style horror film that makes for essential quarantine viewing, particularly for those who love the influences I mentioned. If anyone who loves the horror genre is looking for the next James Wan, we may have found them for you.

REASONS TO SEE: The horror sequences are well-done.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending feels a bit rushed.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, profanity, sexual situations, child peril and disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was shot in Northport, Michigan.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/1/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews: Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fright Night
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Aquaman

The Possession of Hannah Grace


The morgue is NOT the ideal place to hide from a demon.

(2018) Horror (Screen GemsShay Mitchell, Grey Damon, Kirby Johnson, Nick Thune, Louis Herthum, Stana Katic, Max McNamara, Jacob Ming-Trent, James A. Watson Jr., Marianne Bayard, Adrian Mompoint, Matt Mings, Gijs Scholten van Aschat, Guy Clemens, Sean Burns, Andrea Lyman, George Vezina, Melissa McMeekin. Directed by Diederick van Rooijen

 

There is nothing fun or desirable about a trip to the morgue. So when a movie has that as a central premise, you have to hope that they do enough to make it interesting.

The movie starts with an exorcism (where many other horror movies end) that is performed on the luckless Hannah Grace (Johnson). When the ceremony turns into carnage, the girl’s loving father (Herthum) smothers her to death. But, as I said, the movie is only beginning.

Megan (Mitchell), an ex-cop battling alcoholism and inner demons, gets to battle an outer demon now as well. She’s starting a new job as an intake clerk at a hospital morgue which looks like it was designed by the same guys who do urban boutique hotels. Lots of concrete, lots of glass, and incongruously, cross-shaped lights inside the morgue itself. A little obvious, don’t-cha think?

In any case, it isn’t long before Hannah Grace’s corpse is deposited and we begin our “not-quite-dead-yet” shenanigans, although she is most decidedly dead, dead enough to inspire a Munchkin song. That’s bad news for the few workers who are present on the (appropriately) graveyard shift, including Megan’s pal Lisa (Katic) and AA sponsor who figures out too late that she’s not imagining things. Hannah’s got a hankering to rejoin the living and she’ll need some freshly dead folks to do that. Demons; can’t die with them, can’t die without ’em.

Essentially this is a standard haunted house flick set in a morgue and despite the title, there really isn’t much in the way of Satanic ritual other than in the opening minutes, so the truth in advertising thing is out the window. There isn’t a lot to the film that’s highly original, other than having the exorcism at the beginning. Van Rooijen doesn’t do a whole lot to work the tone, inserting a lot of jump scares and utilizing a whole lot of icky images of dead, rotting flesh. The mostly young, not-well-known cast (Mitchell is best known from Pretty Little Liars) does about how you’d expect given the limitations of the script.

It’s not surprising that the movie opened in the no-man’s land of the week after Thanksgiving. Not much was expected of it and it basically delivers on the “not much” department. It’s decent looking and the walking corpse effects are pretty good, although nothing particularly new, so this is a tepid recommendation at best. If you’re in the mood to be scared, there are so many better options to choose from.

REASONS TO SEE: The corpse effects are pretty good.
REASONS TO AVOID: A fairly standard haunted house-type film with many lapses in logic and lost scare opportunities.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of terror and some gruesome images throughout.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The exterior of the hospital is actually Boston City Hall.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Sling TV, Starz, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/15/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 19% positive reviews, Metacritic: 37/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Autopsy of Jane Doe
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Bias

By Day’s End


Any corridor is dangerous during the zombie apocalypse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Camp Cold Brook


Shooting a ghost hunt in an abandoned summer camp where a bunch of campers died? What could go wrong?

(2018) Horror (Shout!) Chad Michael Murray, Danielle Harris, Courtney Gains, Michael Eric Reid, Loren Ledesma, Jason Von Erman, Mary Kathryn Bryant, Candice De Visser, Cate Jones, Mary Fjelstad-Buss, Juliette Kida, Doug Van Liew, Dale Niehaus, Ketrick “Jazz” Copeland, Corbin Tyler, Chloe Blotter, Pamela Bell, Connor Scott Frank, Debbi Tucker, Katie Fairbanks.  Directed by Andy Palmer

 

The paranormal investigation TV show is a staple of entertainment over the last, I don’t know, ten years, let’s say. Setting one in a staple slasher film locale – the abandoned summer camp – would indicate a melding of the two sub-genres, a good idea whose time has come. Unfortunately, that’s not the idea the filmmakers went with.

Jack Wilson (Murray) is the ruggedly handsome host of a cable TV paranormal investigation show that is in the midst of filming its third season when Jack is summoned by a network executive to be told that there won’t be a fourth season. However, Jack convinces him that the group is about to film their biggest show yet, one that will conclusively prove the existence of life after death. Reluctantly, the exec gives them one more episode to air as a summer special. If the ratings warrant it, they can talk about renewing then.

All Jack needs is a killer show, but to date mostly the group has come up snake eyes when it comes to any sort of paranormal activity. They don’t want to film at places every other paranormal investigation show has done to death; they need someplace new and preferably with a gruesome past. Production assistant Emma (De Visser) suggests a summer camp in rural Oklahoma where 20 years earlier 28 young campers drowned. The church that owns the campsite has steadfastly refused to let anyone in since then.

By an amazing coincidence, Jack grew up not far from there (non-spoiler alert: that isn’t the last amazing coincidence the plot will utilize). His mother Esther (Fjelstad-Buss) is less than pleased that her son is going to that place. Same with the least-sheriff-looking sheriff ever (Van Liew) as well as assorted townspeople. You almost expect the Scooby Do gang to show up.

But into the camp they go, Jack and Emma and jaded cameraman Kevin (Reid) and producer Angela (Harris). The cameras are placed, the lights are lit and the four of them hunker down. Soon, it starts – the unexplained noises, the half-glimpsed figures. Then, fires light and extinguish by themselves. Objects move without anyone being there. Then, things start to get real. As it turns out, a local woman whose child was killed by a church transport van, needs the lives of 30 other children to resurrect her own child through witchcraft. 28 kids died that night and the witch disappeared. Now, maybe she’s back to finish the job?

The movie has some things going for it and other things going against it. For one thing, it’s a little light on scares and the plot is on the formulaic side. Most veteran horror fans will see just about every plot point coming, quite possibly including the twist ending which, while nifty enough, wasn’t particularly shocking.

Genre legend Joe Dante was one of the producers on this, and his participation is slyly referred to in a couple of places (for example, one of the show’s tag lines is “We make the illogical logical” which was also a line used by the dad in Gremlins to promote his business. I found those little Easter eggs endearing.

This isn’t a bad horror movie but it could have been better. A little less reliance on formula and a few more legitimate scares would have gone a long way. There is some potential here though and I have high hopes that may of the performers here both on and off camera have better things ahead of them.

REASONS TO SEE: Murray has some real leading man appeal.
REASONS TO AVOID: Somewhat formulaic and a little light on scares.
FAMILY VALUES: There are images of terror, profanity and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film made the rounds on the horror film festival circuit before getting a simultaneous streaming and limited theatrical release this weekend.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hoopla, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/16/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Grave Encounters
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Mid90s

Suspiria (2018)


Even the graceful may be made to look grotesque.

(2018) Horror (AmazonChloë Grace Moretz, Tilda Swinton, Doris Hick, Dakota Johnson, Mia Goth, Alek Wek, Jessica Harper, Renée Soutendijk, Malgosia Bela, Angela Winkler, Vanda Capriolo, Jessica Batut, Elena Fokina, Clementine Houdart, Ingrid Caven, Sylvie Testud, Fabrizia Sacchi, Brigitte Cuvelier, Christine Leboutte, Vincenza Modica, Halla Thordardottir. Directed by Luca Guadagnino

 

Those expecting to see a remake of the legendary Dario Argento 1977 horror classic of the same name will be very disappointed. Sure, there are a lot of elements in common with that film here.  But, as Guadagnino himself has said, this is more of an homage than a remake.

Susie (Johnson) is an American dancer, come to Berlin in 1977 to try out for a prestigious modern dance academy. The air in Berlin at the time is vibrant and terrifying; it is the era of the terrorism of the Baader-Meinhof gang, of the still-fresh scars of the Nazi regime, of the still-in-place Wall dividing the city and where David Bowie prowls around getting ready to record some of the most compelling work of his career.

The academy is cut off from all of that. Presided over by the icy Madame Blanc (Swinton), an acclaimed choreographer of modern dance who is preparing to present one of her most important postwar works, Volk and with her lead dancer, Patricia (Moretz) having had apparently a mental breakdown and disappeared, apparently into one of the radical groups floating around Berlin, Susie falls into that role. However, Patricia’s psychiatrist Dr. Klemperer (also played by Swinton, nearly unrecognizable under layers of latex and make-up) suspects that her delusions of magic and witchcraft are hiding something else just as sinister and goes about investigating her disappearance like an aging Ellery Queen.

Occasionally horror films come along with many layers designed to make you think and this is one of those films. It has polarized audiences and critics alike; there were several perfect scores given to the film on Metacritic and at least one zero. There is a definitely feminine viewpoint here; there are almost no male roles and the main one is played by a woman (Dr. Klemperer). The academy is a microcosm of divided Berlin, with two distinct camps – one led by Madame Blanc, the other by the equally mysterious Madame Markos (Swinton, again) with divergent points of view of how things ought to be run. The movie may be perceived to be feminist by some, and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree, but the feminism is less overt than you might think. Female bodies are not ogled over here and the movie is virtually sexless other than a few odd comments here and there. However, there is no mistaking the stance the film takes on the violence (both physical and otherwise) forced upon women by society, and the objectification of them in general.

There is violence here and some of it is intense. There is a scene in which Susie is rehearsing a scene from the piece while in another room, her movements are visited upon a dancer who has fallen out of favor (Fokina) in nauseating extremes; bones crack, tendons rip, organs are perforated. The sequence goes on for awhile and may be found to be excessive or even unendurable for those who are sensitive to such things.

There are some real nice touches here. Thom Yorke’s score is absolutely superb, one of the best I’ve heard in quite a while. The production design is also quite impressive, diametrically opposed to the original film, eschewing the vibrant color palate of the 1977 film for a more muted, almost drab and cold look. It works nicely given the tone of the film. There is also a cameo by Jessica Harper, star of the 1977 film, as the psychiatrist’s wife near the end of the film that adds a touch of grace.

However, the 2018 version is almost exactly an hour longer than the original and I really can’t find a justification for it. It also begins to go off the rails a bit in the third act although I suspect that many who would be offended by the arthouse aspect of it might have switched off long before then. That would be a shame though; this is a movie that looks at the experience of being a woman in an unflinching and sometimes brutal manner; it’s the kind of movie I would expect that someone like Rose McGowan would make. And maybe, should.

REASONS TO SEE: Gorgeous set design. Thom Yorke’s autumnal score is incredible.
REASONS TO AVOID: Gets a bit artsy-fartsy towards the end.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some graphic nudity and ritualistic violence including one death scene that is nauseatingly graphic, as well as some profanity including sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Yorke becomes the third member of Radiohead to segue into film scoring, following Jonny Greenwood and Phil Selway.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/12/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews: Metacritic: 72/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Uninvited
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Toxic Beauty

The Sonata


Candlelight can be romantic – or terrifying.

(2018) Horror (Screen Media) Freya Tingley, Simon Abkarian, James Faulkner, Rutger Hauer, Catherine Schaub-Abkarian, Matt Barber, Christopher Brand, James Kermack, Myster Jo, Aurélija Pronina, Andrejs Zikovs, Maija Cipste, Artürs Ghoss, Laine Ligere Stegrévica, Janis Libietis, Jurijs Krüze, Atis Afréds Brasmanis, Olga Svecova, Aleksandrs Mihailovs, Alina Vasiljeva. Directed by Andrew Desmond

Music has an almost mystical hold on our imaginations. We define ourselves by it, link it to memories both dark and lovely, use it to buoy our spirits or help us carry out repetitive or boring tasks. We arrange ourselves into tribes according to the kind of music we like. Music is essential to who we are.

Rose Fisher (Tingley) is a concert violinist who may have a brilliant career ahead of her. She has yet to achieve her full potential which has led to a rift between her and her manager Charles (Abkarian), who is a recovering alcoholic. When the news that Rose’s estranged father has died, she fields the news with the same frosty demeanor that you’d adopt if you were told that you’re short change for the bus.

Charles is surprised to discover that Rose’s pa is none other than Richard Marlowe (Hauer), once a composer who was poised to remake classical music with his brilliant compositions – until he essentially withdrew from public life to a run-down French chateau. His name had sunk into obscurity – those who even knew who he was had assumed he had been dead for years. However, Marlowe had been busy in the last years of his life, creating a violin sonata that apparently was written with Rose in mind and might be his most brilliant work yet.

He also left Rose the aforementioned chateau with the obligatory nosy housekeeper (Schaub-Abkarian) which Rose doesn’t really want; she is much more interested in selling the Gothic abomination. However, when she discovers the new sonata, she also discovers a mystery; the sonata is dotted with strange symbols and appears only half-completed. As Rose looks into the piece, she discovers to her dismay that the symbols are Satanic in origin and as she begins to have horrific nightmares and unexplained occurrences make her waking hours no picnic either, she realizes that dear old dad had a much more sinister purpose with his piece than just tormenting his daughter with it.

The chateau makes for an excellent supernatural horror film setting, with plenty of sinister cherubic statues, appropriately foggy woods, and dark corners for apparitions to leap out of. Desmond gives us a concept that has all sorts of fascinating connotations; using music as a conduit to other realms. It makes sense if you understand how a really great musician is transported when in the midst of playing, and transports us along with them. There is power in that, a kind of power that sadly goes largely unexplored here.

Tingley, best known for TV series Hemlock Grove and Once Upon a Time, isn’t given a whole lot to work with. Rose is at various turns arrogant, cold, obsessive and vulnerable. She’s not really a damsel in distress, but she’s not really a terribly strong woman either. When we first meet her, she is informed of her father’s death and has a reaction that is guaranteed to be the very opposite of endearing. To make matters worse, Tingley gives us a rather stiff performance, making me theorize that she was uncomfortable with the role. That’s just conjecture, of course.

This is one of the great Rutger Hauer’s final performances and it is a brief one; he mostly appears in brief snatches – pointing to the woods, glimpsed in mirrors and around corners, and has no dialogue other than during a vintage interview. It really is rather a waste because he has more presence than anyone else in the film. I wish the filmmakers had utilized him better.

A film about music needs a good score and fortunately this film has one. Composer Alexis Mangaud makes a suitably creepy tone but also makes the music lovely for the most part – some of it is atonal and dissonant but by the film’s end it’s hard not to be mesmerized by the music, even if you’re not a classical music aficionado.

The film suffers from some rookie mistakes; an over-reliance on jump scares, plot points that lead nowhere, and generally unlikable characters who have little depth to them. Still, there’s enough here to make this a fairly solid horror opus perfect for rainy nights, autumn afternoons as the sun is dying in the sky, or just to creep you out when you’re alone in the house. Sometimes, that’s all a movie really needs to be.

REASONS TO SEE: A truly fascinating idea.
REASONS TO AVOID: Tingley gives a fairly stiff performance.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some unsettling adult themes, gruesome images, terror, profanity, and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Desmond’s feature film debut; it is also the second-to-last film from the late Rutger Hauer to see the light of day (there’s one more coming out later this year).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: AppleTV, Fandango Now, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/9/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rosemary’s Baby
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Papillon (2018)

Overlord (2018)


War is literally hell.

(2018) Horror (Paramount) Jovan Adepo, Wyatt Russell, Mathilde Olivier, Pilou Asbæk, John Magaro, Iain de Caestecker, Jacob Anderson, Dominic Applewhite, Glanny Taufer, Joseph Quin, Bokeem Woodbine, Erich Redman, Mark McKenna, Hayley Carmichael, Marc Rissmann, Meg Foster, Sarah Finigan, Gunther Wurger, Bart Lambert, Michael Epp, Alison Thea-Skot. Directed by Julius Avery

 

War is hell, but some wars are more hellish than others. The evil that was Nazi Germany makes for fertile ground for all sorts of horrors, both real and imagined.

The 101st Airborne Division parachutes into occupied France in preparation for D-Day. Their mission is to take out a radio tower that will mess up Nazi communications and help the Allies when the troops hit the beach. The survivors of the drop have to find their way to the church upon which the tower sits. They are led by Corporal Ford (Russell), who inherited the job when everyone above him in rank bought the farm during the drop, and Private Boyce (Adepo), a young naive recruit seeing his first action of the war. They are aided by scavenger Chloe (Olivier) who leads them to the village where the church is.

Unfortunately for the good guys, the church is also a place where the Nazis are conducting unspeakable medical experiments, trying to create super-soldiers for their thousand-year Reich, and they are succeeding in their attempts. It will be up to the Americans to not only take out the tower but the research facility if the Allies are to have any hope of winning the war.

This film moves in fits and starts, with some sequences of almost impossible intensity (like the opening when paratroopers desperately leap out of a shot-up, crashing plane through flames and gunfire) while other sequences allow the audience to catch their breath. The filmmakers opted for practical effects over CGI in most cases and that serves the movie well.

However when we finally get to the super-soldiers, they are a bit on the disappointing side. They are very much “been there seen that.” The mainly little-known cast also doesn’t particularly distinguish themselves (Adepo and Russell are exceptions, and Asbæk does make a mighty hissable villain) and the plot at times feels like we’ve seen it all before.

Nonetheless the movie is a ride indeed, and those who like rides are going to enjoy this one. There is a ton of gore and the really squeamish might feel their gorge rise a bit, but the viscera never overwhelms the viewer. This makes for some great popcorn viewing, whether at Halloween time or whenever you’re in the mood for a fun romp through monster-infested Nazi Germany.

REASONS TO SEE: Very much a roller coaster ride.
REASONS TO AVOID: The monsters are underwhelming.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of strong bloody violence throughout, a fair amount of profanity, some disturbing images and brief sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rumors to the contrary, this film is not a part of the Cloverfield universe.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Hulu, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/3/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews: Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Frankenstein’s Army
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
White Boy Rick

Rabid (2019)


She’s got a bit of an overbite.

(2019) Horror (Shout! FactoryLaura Vandervoort, Benjamin Hollingsworth, Ted Atherton, Hanneke Talbot, Stephen Huszar, Mackenzie Gray, Stephen McHattie, Kevin Hanchard, Heidi von Palleske, Joel Labelle, C.M. Punk, Edie Inksetter, Tristan Risk, Sylvia Soska, Jen Soska, Vanessa Jackson, Joe Bostick, Troy James, Greg Bryk, A.J. Mendez, Dion Karas, Amanda Zhou. Directed by Jen and Sylvia Soska

 

The Soska sisters are a pair of Canadian identical twins who have turned into promising horror directors. Their latest, a remake of an early classic by their countryman David Cronenberg, walks a fine line between modernizing a classic and overpraising it.

Rose (Vandervoort) is a mousy wannabe fashion designer who works for the insufferable Euro-trash designer Gunter (Gray) who regularly bullies her. Her BFF Chelsea (Talbot) convinces her to come to the company party that night where hottie photographer Brad (Hollingsworth) flirts with her. When she discovers that Chelsea put him up to it, Rose storms out of the party, gets on her scooter and promptly gets into a horrific accident.

With part of her intestine missing and her face marred by a ghastly mutilation, she is certain her career is over. However, Dr. Burroughs (Atherton) proposes a radical new treatment – stem cell manipulation – that will restore her beauty and repair her injuries. It sounds too good to be true but what does she have to lose?

The treatment goes better than she would dare hope. Dr. Burroughs’ promises are kept and more; when Rose gets back to work, she does so with new-found confidence that impresses Gunter to the point that he invites her to work on his new collection. She’s living the dream now.

But not so much since it turns out there are side effects. You see, Rose has a massive craving for blood and a weird appendage growing out of her armpit. And it turns out that Rose is now carrying a kind of super-rabies that is spreading throughout the city. Living the dream has turned into a living nightmare.

This is a fairly faithful remake of the original which is best-known for being porn star Marilyn Chambers’ first legitimate screen role. There is a smattering of social satire here that is welcome and a few in-jokes; early on, an employee of Gunter’s wonders about his new line “Why are we remaking old trends?” The level of self-awareness in the film is clever and subtle.

Unfortunately, a lot of good ideas here go undeveloped and the Sisters – whose earlier films didn’t shy away from the gore, certainly seem to be a bit tamer here. There are a few gruesome scenes – the injuries to Rose’s face, as depicted above, among them – but for the most part, there is a curious lack of over-the-top gore which might have benefitted the film.

A little judicious editing might have always helped. The movie is 20 minutes longer than the original and feels long; by the time the movie reaches its denouement it feels more like a marathon than a sprint. A good horror film requires brevity. There’s none of that here.

Vandervoort, best known for her time on Smallville, does a fairly decent job although quite frankly when compared with Chambers that’s not a high bar to reach for. She shows some nice horror chops here and although I don’t think that a further career as a scream queen is necessarily in the cards for her but if she chose to go that route I think she could make some real inroads.

I had high hopes for this one given the pedigree of the Soska sisters and the original material so I was mildly disappointed. It’s still worth seeing, particularly if you’re into body manipulation horror, but this is far from essential. Still, I do believe the Soska sisters are on the verge of becoming big players in the horror genre.

REASONS TO SEE: Occasionally delves into social satire which it does with welcome subtlety.
REASONS TO AVOID: Way too long.
FAMILY VALUES: There is extreme and often horrific violence, disturbing images, drug use, sexuality and nudity not to mention plenty of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Producer Paul Lalonde is best known for his work o the Left Behind film franchise. This is his first non-faith-based film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/21/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 57% positive reviews: Metacritic: 41/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: World War Z
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
And Two If By Sea