Stoker Hills


All tied up on a Saturday night.

(2020) Found Footage (Screen Media) Tony Todd, Steffani Brass, David Gridley, Vince Hill-Bedford, William Lee Scott, Tyler Clark, Eric Etebari, Danny Nucci, John Beasley, Thomas R. Martin, Maya Nucci, Joy McElveen, Jason Sweat, Michael Faulkner, Vinny O’Brien, Atticus Nations, Sara Friedman. Directed by Benjamin Louis

It wasn’t that long ago when found footage films were the bee’s knees in the horror genre. You couldn’t swing a dead cat without smacking a found footage film. But eventually, they fell out of favor – and to be truthful, the subgenre has always been kind of limiting (more on that in a minute), and these days, they tend to be pretty rare.

Ryan (Gridley), Jake (Hill-Bedford) and Erica (Brass) are film students in Professor Smith’s (Todd) class. The students are getting ready to begin work on their film projects for the class, and Jake is already filming everything he can – including Professor Smith’s class. Ryan and Jake are excited about the movie they are about to shoot – it’s called Streetwalkers and it’s about zombie hookers and tars Erica as a prostitute who becomes a zombie. Jake’s ex-girlfriend, Dani (Clark), who won the previous year’s student film of the year award, is skeptical about the project, adding fuel to the fire.

But on the first night of shooting, something unexpected occurs. A car pulls up alongside Erica, the bemused filmmakers believing that the driver thinks she’s an actual hooker…then without warning, grabs the screaming girl and throws her in the car, roaring away before the boys can catch up. Of course Jake continues filming as the boys give chase.

Sometime later, the camera is found along with a dead body, and police detectives Adams (Etebari) and Stafford (Scott) who watch the footage and realize that at least two of the three kids are still missing. A race against time ensues to find them, with only the clues in the camera to guide them. Given that there have been a number of unexplained disappearances lately, this could be the sign that something much more terrible is going on than a couple of kids making a movie that got out of hand.

One of the things (and there are many) that essentially derailed the found footage explosion is that the movies tend to be pretty much the same, generally but Stoker Hills twists that on its ear, by ot only using found footage but more conventional storyteliing techniques as well, utilizing the detectives watching the footage and taking the clues from it to find the missing kids. That much is innovative.

But one of the things that made found footage less viable than other horror subgenres is that you have to create a reason for the footage to exist and while in some cases it works (the Paranormal Activity films largely rely on security camera footage), that doesn’t always work as in this case; most people, chasing after someone who is in mortal peril, aren’t likely to keep filming. Their concentration is going to be on rescuing the person who is in trouble.

Tony Todd is the headliner here, but sadly he’s only on for a couple of scenes (including the very first) and doesn’t really play much of a role here, but he still command the screen in any case. The three young leads do pretty good work (and Brass does a fine job looking uncomfortable in the hyper-sexual outfit she’s forced to wear). The characters of the detectives are poorly written though; they look like a couple of guys who have watched way too many noir movies (one of them even wears a fedora and a trenchcoat) and they don’t act like any sort of competent police detective.

This movie is a bit of a contradiction. There are quite a few basic flaws here, but there’s also some real creativity. The two kind of counterbalance each other, leaving a fairly enjoyable horror-thriller with a fair amount of gore and enough interest in the plot to keep one watching until the very end.

REASONS TO SEE: The story is just compelling enough to be worthwhile.
REASONS TO AVOID: Too much formula, too much exposition, too many missteps in plot points.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, drug use, violence, gore and some sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although this is the third feature directed by the Haiti-born Louis, it is the first film he has directed since 2004.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/17/2022: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Creep
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Mr. Birthday

Autumn Road


Stop hearse-ing around.

(2021) Horror (Gravitas) Lorelei Linklater, Riley Cusick, Justin Meeks, Lar Park-Lincoln, George Welder, Maddy-Lea Hendrix, Ranger Lerway, Jonas Lerway, Jordan Wright, Kerry McCormick, Buddy Love, Maya Alexander, Sydney Aucerman, Matt Williams, Kenneth Fisher, Christian Baker, Rick Jezak, Gideon Bing, Damien Bannister, Madison Pine. Directed by Riley Cusick

 

One of the things many of us look forward to about October is the haunted house attraction. Walking through a maze of corridors, looking at scenes of disturbing violence (or the results of same), having actors leap out from dark corners to scare the bejeezus out of us, and the horrific (or sexy) costumes, not only of the staff but also of those in line to go through. It’s a familiar rite of autumn.

Twins Vincent (J. Lerway) and Charlie (R. Lerway) are the teenage sons of a man (Meeks) who has for years run such an attraction in a small Texas town. They are friends with Winnie (Hendrix), who has a crush on the shy and retiring Charlie. In turn the creepy and impulsive control-challenged Vincent likes Winnie but when it’s time to go trick-or-treating, Charlie bows out, remaining in the prop hearse in the front of the haunted house while Winnie and Vincent walk the town. Afterwards, Winnie goes into the hearse to chat with Charlie, and is never seen again. Did Charlie murder the girl, or did Vincent do it in a fit of jealous rage? I’m not telling.

Years later, Winnie’s little sister Laura (Linklater) returns to town after an abortive attempt to become an actress in Los Angeles is capped off with an unexpected and ghoulish tragedy. She’s not particularly eager to visit her mom (Lincoln), who fell apart after Winnie’s disappearance. At the local diner, she runs into Charlie and like her sister before her, takes a liking to the shy young man (Cusick), while feeling a little nervous about the still-creepy Vincent (also Cusick) who from time to time assaults patrons of the haunted house he and Charlie inherited. Her appearance triggers Vincent and Charlie, who have a secret to protect. But is it the secret you might think it is?

One has to admire the gumption of Cusick who not only wrote and directed the movie, but also starred in two critical roles. That’s a lot to take on – maybe too much, for the movie lacks a whole lot of focus, which had Cusick been less torn with all of the different roles he had to play for the film, he might have been able to see the movie with a bit more objectivity and correct some very basic problems.

One of the most glaring is the pacing. The movie is an hour and a half long, but feels much longer. Things take a very long time to develop and by the time we get to the climax, it’s more of a relief that you might feel after arriving at a service station after walking several miles to get there when your car breaks down. That’s not the feeling any director wants his audience to come away from his film with.

That’s not to say that the film is without merit. One place that Cusick does excel in is creating an evocative tone. Also worth noting is that there are some effective shocks, one taking place about 22 minutes in that will absolutely take your breath away. There are a lot of plot points that you never see coming, and that can be a good thing.

But there are also some plot points that are nonsensical, and some inconsistencies (like an employee of the haunted house who quits very forcefully and yet is back the next day without any sort of comment) and some characters whose behavior doesn’t make sense. Cusick the writer and Cusick the director could both do with a more judicious editor.

REASONS TO SEE: There is some genuine creepiness and some fairly shocking violence.
REASONS TO AVOID: The pacing is waaaaaaaaay ssssslllloooowwwwww.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images, profanity and scenes of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Linklater is the daughter of acclaimed filmmaker Richard Linklater.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/30/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hell Fest
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Infinite

The Feast


When Wales becomes wails.

(2021) Horror (IFC Midnight) Annes Elwy, Nia Roberts, Julian Lewis Jones, Steffan Cennydd, Sion Alun Davies, Rodri Mellir, Lisa Palfrey, Chris Gordon, Caroline Berry. Directed by Lee Haven Jones

 

Some horror movies are an adrenaline rush from start to finish, keeping one on the edge of the seat, pulses pounding, going from one scare to another with little let-up. Others are slow burns, building up a mood and tension, building up to an explosive climax that leaves the viewer feeling wrung-out and exhausted, like a wet dishrag.

The Feast is the latter kind of film. In the green Welsh countryside, a monstrosity of a house stands out like a sore thumb. It is owned by the Member of Parliament Gwyn (Jones), who is the kind of politician whose idea of service only encompasses his own bank account. His wife, Glenda (Roberts) – Gwyn and Glenda; I wonder if Jones and writer Roger Williams noted the similarity to the title of a classic Ed Wood film? – is from the countryside but yearns to be considered an urban sophisticate. She is supervising a dinner party to be thrown for a local farmer whom Gwyn is anxious to get to sell his mineral rights to a large mining company; it is a deal with the devil from which profit is king and the damage to the countryside not even a consideration.

But Glenda can’t do it all alone, so she has enlisted the aid of Cadi (Elwy), a local waitress who is happy to make a little extra cash at this side gig, but when she arrives, she’s strangely soaking wet and muddy and her whole personality seems a little…off. As we meet the two sons of the house – arrogant triathlete Gweirydd (Davies), and the family black sheep and drug addict Gweithiwr (Gordon), we begin to notice that there’s more than a little bit strange about Cadi and as she observes the family and their guests, it becomes clear that the family is headed for a reckoning, one they richly deserve. But who is Cadi, or perhaps more to the point, what?

The script lets slip only tantalizing tidbits of information, keeping the audience in the dark until the very final act when the true nature of what’s happening is revealed. By then, it’s far too late for the victims, and also for the less patient viewer who may give up on the movie much earlier than that. That would be a mistake; the payoff is pretty satisfying, and while there are no characters who are really going to grab your rooting interest for survival, at least there is some grim satisfaction in seeing some despicable people get made examples of. It’s not justice – unless you believe in the extreme sort – but there is something deeply satisfying with seeing people who put greed and profit above everything else be made to pay big time.

Most of the violence occurs off-screen, although the director Lee Haven Jones doesn’t shy away from showing the results of the violence. The atmospheric cinematography by Bjorn Ståle Bratberg does much to establish the uneasy tone that builds throughout the film. The actors, mostly known for appearances on British television shows and movies, go about their business professionally and keep their performances subtle and centered.

This is not the kind of movie that feels like a roller coaster ride, but it IS the kind of movie that will give you nightmares and leave you feeling creeped out long after you’ve seen it. This is a very striking and solid horror experience that is going to take a few folks by surprise; definitely seek it out if you’re looking to spend the rest of the night jumping at every sound in your house.

REASONS TO SEE: Starts out unsettling and the discomfort only grows from there. A bit of a comment on privilege and class distinctions.
REASONS TO AVOID: May be a little too long in developing for the impatient.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, violence, sexuality and some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One of the few films whose entire dialogue is in Welsh.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/23/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Beatriz at Dinner
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
King Richard

13 Fanboy


Bubble baths can be a dangerous place in a slasher movie.

(2021) Horror (Deskpop) Dee Wallace, Hayley Reece Greenbauer, Corey Feldman, Kane Hodder, Lar Park-Lincoln, Judie Aronson, Tracie Savage, Jennifer Banko, C.J. Graham, Drew Leighty, Ron Sloan, Debra Sullivan, Poppy Gillett, Kaylee Hall, Hayley Duncan, Taylor Rodriguez, Nigel Lawes, Caslin Rose, Darren Barcomb, Tiffany Helm, James Cantu, Deborah Voorhees, Liana Cockfield. Directed by Deborah Voorhees

 

For folks my age and a bit younger, the Eighties were a magic time for both movies and music; it was morning in America, and the multiplexes – something fairly new at the time – were filled with low-budget slasher movies and cheapo horror. It isn’t hard to look back on those days with fondness. It seemed that every other week there was a new movie guaranteed to make your date cram her head into your shoulder – or put his protective arm around you. There were franchises a-plenty to keep us interested in our latest indestructible serial killer.

One of those franchises was the Friday the 13th franchise, with hockey masked killer Jason Voorhees at the center. If you’re wondering why no new movies have been made in that particular series since 2009 when the Marcus Nispel-directed reboot was made. Since then, the rights have been tied up in a lawsuit that was only recently decided over who earned the copyright, although as it turns out, things still remain complicated; original writer Victor Miller was awarded domestic rights in the lawsuit, but original director Sean S. Cunningham retains the international rights. It seems as though it will still be a very long time before Jason dons the hockey mask once again.

But until then, we have 13 Fanboy. Co-written and directed by Deborah Voorhees (no relation to Jason), who played Tina in Friday the 13th: A New Beginning, this is as much a love letter to fans as it is a visceral horror movie playing on the fears of actresses regarding the sometimes-toxic obsession of fans. The movie has a cast of actors from the franchise (and a few who weren’t) playing versions f themselves. Dee Wallace, the mom from E.T. and the heroine of The Howling, was good friends with Deborah Voorhees, but pooh-poohs her fears about an obsessed fan. The stalker then stabbed Voorhees to death on her ranch, witnessed by her granddaughter Kelsie (Gillett).

13 years after the murder (I’m sure the amount of time elapsed wasn’t chosen randomly), Dee still feels guilty about not believing her friend. She has kept close contact with Kelsie (Greenbauer), a budding actress who also teaches a self-defense class and has had a successful career as an MMA fighter as well. Kelsie also notices that actresses from the movie series are being picked off, one by one, and the police seem apathetic to it. Could this be the same killer who took her grandmother away all those years ago?

It shouldn’t be much of a spoiler to tell you that it is, and that Dee and Kelsie will have to be smarter and tougher than the killer if they are to survive. The movie gives us an intimate view of fan culture as well as the bond between the actresses whose moments of glory came in films like Friday the 13th and its successors. The filmmakers utilize practical effects throughout rather than digital – they couldn’t have had much of a budget – but they did spring for graphics identifying each actor and the role they played in the series. There are some exceptions; former teen heartthrob Corey Feldman (who did play Tommy in Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter in 1984, plays ultra-sleazy producer Mike Merryman here, overacting shamelessly, and why not? Voorhees seems to be making this for the fans as much as exorcising her own fears here. That does give the movie a kind of schizophrenia that makes you wonder if it had been originally intended to be a serious examination of fan obsession, but the ending – with too many twists to be satisfying – seems to indicate that it wasn’t ever intended to be that way. Still, it makes one wonder “what if” in a good way.

There is a scene which might remind viewers uncomfortably of the recent events on the set of the film Rust, although here it is a prop knife that is switched and a stunt double is accidentally killed. The fact that the film within a film was being shot in New Mexico is an eerie coincidence, but one that perhaps takes us a bit out of this film. That’s just one of those bizarre things that sometimes happens in life.

The thing to remember here is that this really is going to be delightful for those who love the original movies and take part in convention culture. In that sense, the movie is a rousing success; it does celebrate the love between the fans and the actors and gives some actors, many of whom are likely missing the loss of convention income during the pandemic, a chance to shine in the sun once again, and some do. Kane Hodder gets an uncharacteristic monologue that actually was quite effective, while Tracie Savage shows she can still be a scream queen with the best of them. There is also a fight late in the film between former Jason C.J. Graham and the masked killer in which C.J. bellows “You want a shot at the title?” which gets the blood pumping nicely. All in all, this is a nifty little film that is flawed perhaps but ultimately a satisfying work, particularly for fans.

REASONS TO SEE: Really fan-friendly.
REASONS TO AVOID: Too many plot twists mar the ending.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, profanity, brief nudity and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This is the first release by new distributor Deskpop Entertainment.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/5/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: New Nightmare
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Gig is Up

A Quiet Place Part II


There is no hiding when you can’t make a sound.

(2020) Sci-Fi Horror (Paramount) Emily Blunt, John Krasinski, Millicent Simmonds, Noah Jupe, Cillian Murphy, Djimon Hounsou, Okieriete Onaodowan, Scoot McNairy, Zachary Golinger, Blake DeLong, Stefanie Warwick, Alycia Ripley, Cristalis Bonilla, Domonic Taggart, Silas Pereira-Olson, Alice Malyukova, Ashley Dyke, Dean Woodward, Barbara Singer, Michaela Juliann Pace. Directed by John Krasinski

 

After theaters began to reopen this past spring, one of the first blockbusters to return was this sequel to the surprise hit by former Office star Krasinski. It was kind of an appropriate choice; social distancing was still very much in force, and the forced isolation of the survivors in the film mirrored that which all of us went through – and are still going through, in some cases.

The movie begins with a flashback to the first day of the alien invasion. Krasinski as Lee Abbott appears here as he copes with the first appearance of the aliens, trying to protect his son Marcus (Jupe) as he tries to find his wife Evelyn (Blunt) who is with their deaf daughter Regan (Simmonds). It’s a harrowing scene full of noise and terror.

Then we return to the place where the first film ended, 473 days afterwards, with the survivors of the Abbott family leaving their flooded and burned out homestead. With a newborn baby to carry – newborns aren’t noted for their silence – it is a journey fraught with danger as the family try to apply their hard-won knowledge, including the means of killing the creature, something that they didn’t have earlier. They run into a trap set by one of their former neighbors, Emmett (Murphy) who has been through a hell of his own, but he at least has a sanctuary – a soundproof furnace in an industrial plant. The problem with it is that if you wait too long inside it, you run the risk of suffocating. By this time Marcus has been badly injured, an Evelyn needs to go into town and find medicine which he desperately needs. Regan has struck out on her own and Emmett agrees to go after her, but the two end up running into the sort of humans that would survive an alien apocalypse and find their way to an island which is cut off from the mainland – and the aliens. They need to go back and get Evelyn, Marcus and the baby…and the aliens have also unfortunately discovered away to do some hunting on the island…

Fans of the first film will notice the diminished role that Krasinski plays here, and the movie is less because of it. On the plus side, though, Simmonds blossoms here, making this a showcase role for her. Blunt remains steadfast, but as with the first movie she is not utilized as well as she might be. Murphy is one of those actors who does a good job every time out but doesn’t get enough credit for it, and he is definitely a high point here.

The best thing about the movie is the aliens themselves. Their design is absolutely marvelous, a picture of logic and aggressive behavior. They make perfect movie monsters. Hardcore horror fans will notice that the gore is pretty minimal here, which may irritate some. Of more concern are some of the plot holes that make no sense. The Abbotts, for example seem to have an unlimited supply of batteries. Where are they getting them?

Nonetheless, this is one of those horror films that keeps the tension high throughout. Thanks to outstanding performances by Murphy, Blunt and in particular Simmonds, it is easy to invest emotionally in the main characters. It was a fitting return of movies to the theaters and it’s getting a re-release in some markets even as we speak. Definitely worth seeking out, whether on VOD, streaming on Paramount Plus or in theaters.

REASONS TO SEE: Simmonds does a crackerjack job. Superb creature design.
REASONS TO AVOID: Suffers from Krasinski’s absence. A few general plot holes.
FAMILY VALUES:There is violence a’plenty, some bloody and/or disgusting images, and scenes of terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film made it’s New York premiere date but the COVID outbreak caused its general release to be postponed almost a year.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Alamo On Demand, Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Paramount Plus, Redbox, Spectrum, Vudu, <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch As of 10/29/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews; Metacritic: 71/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Signs
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The penultimate entry in this year’s Six Days of Darkness!

Black Christmas (2019)


Snow angels aren’t necessarily a good thing when there’s a killer on the loose.

(2019) Horror (Blumhouse/Universal) Imogen Poots, Aleyse Shannon, Lily Donoghue, Brittany O’Grady, Caleb Eberhardt, Cary Elwes, Simon Mead, Madeleine Adams, Nathalie Morris, Ben Black, Zoë Robins, Ryan McIntyre, Mark Nelson, Jonny McBride, Lucy Currey. Directed by Sophia Takal

 

In the #MeToo era when we are beginning to turn away from tropes and customs that have proven to be historically damaging to women and that have contributed to a culture of rape and toxic masculinity, it is interesting to consider what remakes of classic slasher films would look like through that lens. Now, wonder no longer.

As Hawthorn College approaches the winter break, sorority sister Riley (Poots) – a quiet girl who had been sexually assaulted three years earlier by a member of a frat – prepares to celebrate the holidays with her sisters in the Mu Kappa Epsilon sorority; activist/feminist Kris (Shannon) who politicizes absolutely everything – student/athlete Marty (Donoghue) and sweet-natured Jesse (O’Grady). As their sisters head home for the holidays, there’s a bit of tension as the girls perform a pointed song at a notorious talent show at their brother fraternity DKO that holds their feet to the fire for their antics. This doesn’t sit well, to say the least.

Meanwhile, young Lindsay (Currey) is stalked by a masked figure while walking home in the dark on a well-lit street. Let’s just say Lindsay won’t be opening any presents this year. And as the girls are stalked and murdered one by one, the rush to find out who is behind the disappearances of the girls with no help from the campus police, who are sure the girls have taken off to be with boyfriends, is a life-or-death venture.

Takal, who co-wrote the script with April Wolfe, inspired by the 1974 original (which was also remade in 2006), has given the film a definite feminist slant which may make a certain segment of horror fans a bit uncomfortable. The tone can get strident at time, but it brings up some salient points about the portrayal of women as targets. The problem, though, is that in pointing out the inherent misogyny of slasher films, they utilize the trope of attractive young women being stalked and terrorized before being slaughtered. It seems at best a bit cynical and at worst pandering to the core demographic of horror movies. They seem to be defeating their own purpose.

That said, Takal made sure that the film trimmed enough to receive a PG-13 rating in order to appeal to young women who might not necessarily be horror film fans, but this is something of a tactical mistake. The movie lacks any kind of edge or bite that a little gore might have provided. It is curiously bloodless; a co-ed who’d been stabbed through the chest with an icicle and is then dragged through the snow leaving a kind of macabre snow angel behind her, bleeds not at all. That doesn’t fly. It doesn’t help matters that none of the murders are particularly inventive, contributing to the film’s overall blandness.

The movie is a bit of a hot mess – the introduction of a supernatural element in the denouement is unwelcome and a bit of a cop-out – but there are some fine actresses here, even if their characters aren’t particularly well-fleshed out. The dialogue also sounds a lot like conversations college-aged women might have – ot that I’m privy to any conversations of college-aged women. This is a horror movie whose heart is in the right place, but is ultimately failed by poor execution.

REASONS TO SEE: Points for taking on the patriarchy.
REASONS TO AVOID: Pretty much standard slasher fare.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a goodly amount of violence, sexual content, profanity, teen drinking, and a plot element involving a sexual assault.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The address of the sorority house is 1974 Elm Road, a reference to the year the original Black Christmas came out.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, HBO Max, Microsoft, Redbox, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/27/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 39% positive reviews; Metacritic: 49/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sorority House Massacre
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness in yo’ face!

Halloween Kills


For Michael Myers, Hell is home.

(2021) Horror (Blumhouse) Jamie Lee Curtis, Judy Greer, Andi Matichak, James Jude Courtney, Nick Castle, Airon Armstrong, Will Patton, Thomas Mann, Jim Cummings, Dylan Arnold, Robert Longstreet, Anthony Michael Hall, Charles Cyphers, Scott MacArthur, Michael McDonald, Ross Bacon, Kyle Richards, Nancy Stephens, Diva Tyler. Directed by David Gordon Green

 

Of the iconic screen horror slashers, only Leatherface predates Michael Myers, who made his first appearance in the 1978 classic Halloween. Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, Chucky and Jigsaw all followed in his bootsteps. But forty years have elapsed since his first appearance and Michael is getting a bit long in the tooth, right?

The movie picks up immediately where 2018’s acclaimed reboot left off. Michael (Courtney) has been left to die in the basement of a burning house. Laurie Strode (Curtis), his sister and the babysitter he went after back in 1978, is being rushed to the hospital with abdominal stab wounds. Officer Hawkins (Patton) is on his way there, bleeding from a stab wound in the neck.

But as firefighters battle the blaze, they discover the one cardinal rule of any horror franchise; the killer isn’t quite dead yet. Michael emerges from the flames and immediately takes out a fire brigade, then exits stage left to commit more mayhem, ostensibly to people both random and convenient. He does have a bit of a plan – to go to his old house, currently occupied by gay couple Big John (MacArthur) and Little John (McDonald) who have tastefully decorated the old homestead which means they are due to be shish kabobbed.

At a Haddonfield bar, Tommy Doyle (Hall) shares his recollections of that fateful night. He was the boy Laurie was babysitting, and the night has left him scarred for life. So he doesn’t react well when the news arrives that Michael is still on the loose. Tommy organizes a lynch mob and leads them into the streets to find Michael, chanting ‘Evil dies tonight,” which makes a mighty fine tagline for a movie poster. It turns out to be the most incompetent mob in history, although I do wonder if there’s any such thing as a “competent mob.”

While Laurie’s daughter Karen (Greer) and granddaughter Allyson (Matichak) fret over telling Laurie that the boogeyman still lives, they both grieve for the departed in their own way (Greer has a particularly poignant scene early on in which she washes blood from her hands, scrubbing around her wedding ring). In the meantime, the body count grows and the mob howls for blood (although they occasionally seem to be pointed at the wrong Michael Myers), will a united mob be able to finally put Michael down…or will this Halloween continue unabated?

Well, considering there’s another sequel in the works for next October, I think you can do the math. This is clearly the middle chapter in a trilogy and it has a feel of non-resolution to it. The ending is supposed to be a bit of a shocker (and it is), but what precedes it is a series of kill scenes that really don’t show a ton of originality or flair, with few exceptions (one of the firemen gets eviscerated by his own saw). While Green’s 2018 reboot showed how the 1978 murders affected Strode and her family, the sequel expands to show how it affected all of Haddonfield. That’s admirable, and I think it provides a little social commentary at how deeply stressed out the country has become, but I don’t think that the mob is supposed to be a stand-in for the Capitol insurrection mob. That seems to be a bit of a stretch to me.

The problem with Halloween Kills is a lack of imagination. Forty-odd years on after John Carpenter yelled “action,” slasher movies have run their course and there isn’t a lot of ways to slice and dice a human body. It becomes predictable – and that’s the last thing you want a horror movie to be. Sure, there are plenty of kids who may be new to the genre who might be impressed, but I would be surprised if they hadn’t already seen the classic slasher films by this point and to be fair, this doesn’t compete well with them. It does have its moments, and Jamie Lee Curtis is always a welcome name on a marquee, but she really doesn’t get to do very much, leaving Greer, Patton, Matichak and Hall to do most of the heavy lifting and they do it with varying degrees of success.

So the long and the short of it is that Halloween Kills doesn’t measure up even to the 2018 predecessor. That’s a shame because I can see what the filmmakers were going for; they just didn’t quite get there.

REASONS TO SEE: A respectable attempt to provide some social commentary on the state of things, 2021.
REASONS TO AVOID: A real letdown after the 2018 reboot.
FAMILY VALUES: As you would expect, there’s a ton of violence (much of it gory), some grisly images, a fair amount of profanity and a bit of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: With her appearance here as Laurie Strode (her sixth), Jamie Lee Curtis passes Donald Pleasance for the most appearances in the franchise as the same character – he appeared five times as Dr. Loomis. The Dr. Loomis who appears in the flashback sequences here is played by Tom Jones Jr., with the voice supplied by Colin Mahan. Pleasance passed away in 1995.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Peacock
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/26/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 39% positive reviews; Metacritic: 42/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Halloween H20: 20 Years Later
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness, the Sequel!

The Secret of Sinchanee


This is one serious dude.

(2021) Horror (Vertical) Tamara Austin, Steven Grayhm, Nate Boyer, Laila Lockhart Kraner, Rudy Reyes, Chris Neville, Margarita Reyes, Mark Oliver (voice), Kathleen Kenny, Skylar Schanen, Elena Capaldi, Ricky Barksdale, Jacob Schick, TJ Millard, Don McAlister, Emmett Spriggs, Bryanna Nadeau, Jesse Goddard, Trystyn Roberts, Donna Tierney-Jones. Directed by Steven Grayhm

 

It is a shameful fact that the Europeans who came to colonize the Americas often clashed with the Natives who were here first. The interlopers behaved deplorably, making promises they had no intention of keeping, spreading diseases among the native indigenous population and when all else failed, massacring them outright. Not all Europeans treated the first nations poorly, of course, but enough did to create a schism between original inhabitants and colonists that has continued for morethan four hundred years.

Will Stark (Grayhm) is a tow truck driver who suffers from insomnia. He has returned to his home in Massachusetts to dispose of his father’s property, after his father passed away. However, selling the house is no easy task; it is a house, as they say, with a past, and an unsavory one at that – Will witnessed the murder of his mother and sister in that house when he was a child. The townsfolk consider him an odd duck; his father had schizophrenia and Will is showing signs of the condition as well, experiencing strange visions. Of course, the lack of sleep might account for that, too.

But there are other disturbing things going on. A woman for unknown reasons abandons her car in the middle of a cold night and wanders out into the snow to freeze to death. When her body is discovered, it appears as if she has been branded with peculiar symbols. Detectives Carrie Donovan (Austin) and Drew Carter (Boyer) are investigating the case, and they, like Will’s house, have a history – they also have a child together, young Ava (Kraner).

As Will begins experiencing more strange occurrences in the house, Detective Donovan is finding that the case of the murdered woman is leading her increasingly towards the supernatural. She finally meets with a Native American shaman named Solomon Goodblood (Reyes) who tells her about the Sinchanee, a tribe that lived in the area that had shown remarkable resistance to the diseases that the white settlers brought to the area. This apparently annoyed the heck out of a pagan cult called the Atlantow who were bound and determined to destroy the Sinanchee and turned their death spirit against them. The Atlantow will not be satisfied until every last remaining Sinchanee is wiped out. Guess who has Sinchanee blood running in their veins? Yup…Will, Carrie…and Ava.

First-time filmmaker Grayhm opts to tell Will and Carrie’s stories concurrently. This is a tactical error, as it lengthens the film unnecessarily. There’s also an awful lot of unnecessary business in the movie, which takes a long time to get going and once it does, doesn’t really pack the kind of excitement that the slow buildup would required as a payoff. Grayhm, who also wrote the film, uses a lot of horror movie tropes which don’t add luster to the story.

The cinematography by Logan Fulton is very scenic in a wintery way and does make the movie look good. Grayhm also does a good job of creating a tone for the movie, which is right about two hours long and should have been at least a half hour less. One way he might have accomplished this is by combining the two storylines, having Carrie and Will working together. It might have streamlined the story which is badly in need of it.

In these politically correct times of woke expectations, I wonder about using Native American legends as a framework for a horror movie, even if the legends are spun from whole cloth. There might be some who take offense to it…but then again, basically we’re in an era where everything causes offense by one person or another; so, what are you gonna do? I get the sense that Grayhm was fairly respectful of Native American culture in general, although that’s not really for me to say – not being of that ethnic group. But I think it would have been more respectful to make a better movie about native mythology just as a general rule of thumb.

REASONS TO SEE: Does a good job of creating a tone.
REASONS TO AVOID: Should have streamlined the story considerably.
=FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, violence and some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The company Will works for in the movie actually exists in Massachusetts, although that is not their office used in the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Redbox, Vudu
=CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/9/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wendigo
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Many Saints of Newark

Malignant


Sweet dreams.

(2021) Horror (New Line) Annabelle Wallis, Maddie Hasson, George Young, Michole Briana White, Jean Louise Kelly, Susanna Thompson, Jake Abel, Jacqueline McKenzie, Christian Clemenson, Amir AboulEla, Mercedes Colon, Ingrid Bisu, Ruben Pla, Jon Lee Brody, Paula Marshall, Zoe Bell, Dan Ramos, Shaunte Johnson, Natallia Safran. Directed by James Wan

 

For those who love horror movies, James Wan is a name that is spoken with reverence. He is responsible for three of the most successful – and influential – franchises of modern horror; Saw, Insidious and The Conjuring. Of late his time has been spent branching out into big-budget action and superhero movies, but in between Aquaman installments he found time to return to the place where his heart really is.

Maddie (Wallis) has had a lot to deal with in her life. Adopted early on, she has put up with an abusive husband (Abel) and numerous miscarriages. After yet another unwarranted assault by her husband, she locks herself in her room and falls asleep. When she wakes up, he has been brutally murdered by someone with nearly superhuman strength. The detectives assigned to the case, the improbably-named Kekoa Shaw (Young) and the Wanda Sykes-channeling Regina Moss (White), are sympathetic but they are also dealing with some other murders in the Seattle area, including two retired doctors (McKenzie, Clemonson).

The trouble is that Maddie has been having vivid visions of the murders as they are happening. Her adopted sister Sydney (Hasson) is providing moral support, as well as physical care for the battered woman, but the more awful carnage that Maddie sees, the more she realizes that the killer – a spectral being calling himself Gabriel – has a deep and disturbing connection to her own past.

While it is good to see Wan back in the genre that he has been such an integral part of for decades, this isn’t his best work. The good news is that even the lesser entries in his filmography are still worth seeing. While Gabriel is unlikely to enter the pantheon of horror movie icons like Freddie Krueger, Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, Chucky – or even Jigsaw – his supernatural strength and control of electricity (he communicates through electronic devices like radios, cell phones and loudspeakers) he is a formidable opponent. He doesn’t have the personality to be truly memorable, but the performances – when he makes his emergence in the latter half of the film is truly spectacular – but he suffices.

Wallis, who has worked in Wan’s universe in Annabelle, is also not quite memorable as Madison which is largely a fault of the writing. Faring better is Maddie Hasson as Sydney, providing occasional comic relief but just showing a bit more energy than Wallis. What’s truly memorable about the movie, though, are the technical aspects. There are some set pieces near the end that are as good as any that have been filmed for a horror movie, particularly one set in a holding cell. The gore is spectacularly done and effects, most of which are practical, well-integrated. Watching Madison’s reality melt into her vision is particularly nifty.

There are a fair number of odd plot choices, which is not uncommon for movies like this and which generally can be overlooked, but one thing that can’t is that the movie is paced a little too slowly for the first two thirds. Madison and Sydney spend a ton of time looking at case files and doing the kind of exposition that have people reaching for the fast-forward button. One thing that the script gets absolutely right is the reveal of Gabriel and who he is; it’s a knockout. Eliminate some of the research scenes and you would have a classic here. Even as is, this is an entertaining movie that is going to leave most horror buffs with a smile on their faces.

REASONS TO SEE: Terrific gore and special effects with some cringe-inducing body movements.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some may find the pace a bit too slow.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity and lots of violence – much of it bloody and disturbing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Three separate people play various aspects of Gabriel; Ray Chase supplies the voice, (no spoiler) the body, and Marina Mazepa does the contortion effects.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Max (through October 10)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/22/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews; Metacritic: 50/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Basket Case
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Magnificent Meyersons

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