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 Other Lamb


It’s all there in black and white.

(2019) Drama (IFC Midnight) Raffey Cassidy, Michael Huisman, Denise Gough, Eve Connolly, Kelly Campbell, Isabelle Connolly, Aibhe Cowley, Irene Kelleher, Jane Herbert, Charlotte Moore, Mallory Adams, David Khalid Fawaz, Zara Devlin, Eva Mullen, Juliette Crosbie. Directed by Malgorzata Szumowska

 

It is, for better or worse (mostly the latter), a man’s world. Men take women for granted, objectify them, abuse them and for generations, women have borne their cross with quiet grace. The thing is, you can only push someone to the wall for so long before they push back.

Selah (Cassidy) has been raised in one of those cults which time has forgotten. Run by the charismatic Shepherd (Huisman) – the only male member – he sets the women to working hard, tending sheep, cooking, cleaning and raising the children. He has divided his flock into two groups; sisters and wives. When one of his wives has a baby, it always seems to be female. He makes sure the women wear plain, homespun dresses. They lead a life the Amish would find rustic.

But Selah isn’t like the other cult members. She’s intelligent, headstrong and doesn’t accept everything at face value. She is warned by outcast wife Sarah (Gough) that Shepherd isn’t necessarily the loving and caring creature he makes himself out to be. And as the outside world begins to encroach on their wooded paradise, Shepherd decides to move his flock to an even more remote, pastoral location where he can continue to live life as he sees fit but Selah, on the cusp of her first period, soon realizes that Shepherd is keeping some mighty dark secrets from his flock.

This largely allegorical tale incorporates elements of The Handmaid’s Tale and The Apostle into a beautiful pastoral setting. Cinematographer Michal Englert is the unsung hero here, filming the misty Irish countryside with a kind of grey sheen that is both oppressive and beautiful at the same time. This is as beautiful a film as it is disturbing.

Huisman, looking every inch the WASP Jesus, has the charisma to pull off the role. Handsome and soft-spoken, it’s not hard to figure ot why the women fall for him as they do. Shepherd is a master manipulator, as many sexual predators are. There’s a scene in which the flock grows almost hysterical in their devotion, whipped into a frenzy by their love for Shepherd. But, as Chrissie Hynde once sang, there’s a thin line between love and hate.

Cassidy is absolutely revelatory here. Already haven distinguished herself with performances in Vox Lux and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, she knocks it out of the park here. It’s always telling when you realize that she really doesn’t have a lot of dialogue to utter; much of her performance is done facially and through body language. There is a scene with Huisman when she is initiated into wife-hood that is heartbreaking and makes you want to reach through the screen and rescue her.

It is one of several scenes of disturbing content, such as one where Selah encounters a lamb prematurely born, hairless and in terrible pain. This isn’t a horror film per se, but one can’t discount the elements in it as being horrific. In that sense, the film will chill you to the bone.

It’s not perfect, though. The film drags a little bit and there is a lack of context that makes it hard to follow the action, occasionally. Szumowska has stated that the film is “a dark cry against the patriarchy” and if ever something deserved a cacophony of banshee-like shrieks, it’s the patriarchy but in some ways it fees a bit manufactured; certainly we’ve seen enough films about cults and this doesn’t really add a lot to the overall “cults are bad” dialogue.

This is the kind of movie that demands your full attention. When you watch it, make sure your smart phone is put away, the shades are drawn and any distractions are set aside. You can’t watch this passively, or as background noise. Give it the benefit of your commitment. You’ll be glad you did.

REASONS TO SEE: Cassidy delivers a powerful performance. Creepy and foreboding throughout.
REASONS TO AVOID: Does the world need another “cults are bad” movie?
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images, some sudden and unexpected violence and much sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Three cast members (Kelly Campbell, Eve Connolly, Isabelle Connolly) have also appeared in the History Channel series Vikings.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/6/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 72% positive reviews, Metacritic: 68/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Martha Marcy May Marlene
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Creed II

Swallow


(2019) Psychological Horror (IFC MidnightHaley Bennett, Austin Stowell, Denis O’Hare, Elizabeth Marvel, David Rasche, Luna Lauren Velez, Zabryna Guevara, Laith Nakli, Babak Tafti, Nicole Kang, Olivia Perez, Kristi Kirk, Alyssa Bresnahan, Laura Dias, Elise Santora, Myra Lucretia Taylor, Nicholas M. Garofalo, Matthew Waiters, McGregory Frederique, Jackie Almonte, Mingjie Li, Sophie Max. Directed by Carlo Mirabella-Davis

 

A great movie tells a great or compelling story. We are taken from point A to point B and all the way to the end, watching the story unfold. That isn’t always the case, however. Sometimes, what makes a movie great are the things that are left unsaid.

Hunter (Bennett) would seem on the surface to have it made. She is married to a wealthy husband (Stowell), a rising star in his father’s (Rasche) firm. She lives in a gorgeous house her in-laws bought for the couple. To top it all off, she is newly pregnant. What’s not to like?

Plenty, as it turns out. As the movie progresses, we see that the in-laws, supportive and caring on the surface, pay only lip service to that persona. What they really are is condescending and controlling, particularly her mother-in-law (Marvel). Hunter has come to realize that she’s in a prison cell. A comfortable, beautiful prison cell but a prison cell nonetheless.

Her means of regaining control is by ingesting objects that aren’t edible, starting with marbles and dirt, ramping up to more dangerous items like batteries, pushpins and thumbtacks. Is she trying to off herself and/or the baby? Or is there something deeper at play here?

This squirm-inducing psychological body horror film is based on a real condition called pica. Mirabella-Davis takes the tactic of not answering all the questions; we are never given a definitive answer as to why Hunter is subjecting herself to this dangerous habit. Is it a means of courting danger and getting an adrenaline rush? Is it compensation for her past which is revealed during a conversation with her therapist (Dias). That past is dealt with eventually in a coda in which she establishes that she has a voice and is no longer content to be the submissive, mousy little housewife. The tone of the denouement is at odds with the rest of the movie which renders it much more effective.

Bennett is a revelation, delivering a mind-blowing performance that is terrifically layered, showing a surface persona that hides deep-seated anxieties and resentment. Despite Hunter’s often maddening submissive behavior, Bennett makes the character someone we can root for particularly in the last third of the movie.

The production design is also quite amazing; despite the modern conveniences (Hunter constantly plays video games on her smartphone), there is very much a 50’s/early 60’s vibe here, from Hunter’s perky blonde bob, her A-line skirt wardrobe and the 64 World’s Fair furnishings. Cinematographer Katelin Arizmendi impresses with shots bathed in lush primary colors. It’s visually a very striking film.

This isn’t for everyone. The scenes of her ingesting some of the items are cringe-inducing to say the least and the scenes of her retrieving the bloody objects from the toilet may send some straight for the exit. Still, this is a mesmerizing film that cinema buffs are going to appreciate and horror fans might just find compelling.

REASONS TO SEE: Bennett gives a bravura performance. Disturbing on in a good way on so many levels.
REASONS TO AVOID: Sometimes gets caught up in its own bizarre tone.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, plenty of sexuality and some truly disturbing behavior.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Mirabella-Davis’ first solo feature film; the movie was inspired by his grandmother’s institutionalization and eventual lobotomizing. During the film’s Tribeca screening, an audience member actually fainted during the thumbtack ingestion scene.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/13/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews: Metacritic: 67/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Teeth
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Los Ultimos Frikis

Disappearance at Clifton Hill


Trying to pretend an alien isn’t eavesdropping on their conversation.

(2019) Suspense (IFC Midnight) Tuppence Middleton, Hannah Gross, Eric Johnson, David Cronenberg, Marie-Josée Croze, Andy McQueen, Noah Reid, Dan Lett, Aaron Poole, Paulino Nunes, Elizabeth Saunders, Mikayla Radan, Addison Tymec, Tim Beresford, Janet Porter, Clyde Witham, Maxwell McCabe-Lokos, Kris Hagen, Connor Lucas-Loan, Devon Hauth, Alanis Peart. Directed by Albert Shin

 

Coming home again is never easy. It’s even harder after a beloved parent dies and you’re there to dispose of her worldlies. How difficult must it be on top of all that when it is the scene of a traumatic act that has shaped your entire life?

Abby (Middleton) is in that latter situation. Her mother is gone and her mom’s one asset, the Rainbow Hotel in the seedy tourist trap area of Niagara Falls known as Clifton Hill, needs to be sold to pay off debts. Fortunately, there’s a taker; Charles Lake III (Johnson), the head of the Charles Lake Corporation (a.k.a. CLC) which owns most of the run-down tourist attractions in town – hell, he owns the town!

What has haunted Abby her entire life was the occasion of seeing a terrified one-eyed boy beaten and kidnapped before her very eyes. When she tells her sister Laure (Gross) what she saw, Laure doesn’t believe her. Laure probes to be justified as Abby embarks on what could charitably be called a checkered life.

But now the events of that Thanksgiving weekend have resurfaced to haunt her and Abby is determined to get to the bottom of it and prove once and for all that she wasn’t crazy. She identifies the boy as Albert Moulin, the son of a pair of second-rate magicians (Nunes, Croze) who at the time were the big dogs in the small pond.

She finds an unlikely ally in Walter Bell (Cronenberg), a local historian/conspiracy theorist/podcaster/line cook at a local themed restaurant called the Flying Saucer Café. Walter also worked with a group called the Diving Bells who recovered bodies from the Falls. “Ever seen someone who jumped into the gorge?” he inquires in a soft but intense voice, “It’s like they swallowed a live hand grenade.”

Bell leads her in the direction of Lake, who has a checkered past of his own and an apparent taste for small boys. Abby is sure that Charles had Albert killed and decides to go out to prove it, which isn’t a very good idea considering that he owns the hotel her mother built and he has the police force and City Hall in his pocket. Still, Abby feels compelled to vindicate herself after all those years in the eyes of her sister, but the cost of vindication could be unbearably high.

Shin is a talented young Canadian director who is very clearly influenced by the work of fellow Canadian director Cronenberg. Casting him here was a stroke of genius because Cronenberg is actually a pretty talented actor as well. He plays Walter as quirky but never a parody of the paranoid conspiracy theorist. His laconic delivery is on the low-key side but it actually adds to the character’s allure.

Middleton, who most know from the Downton Abbey series (I wonder if the character’s name was an intentional in-joke or just a coincidence) gives Abby just the right amount of edge to make the audience call into question her veracity as a narrator. That is really at the heart of the movie; can a congenital liar be believed? Obviously, the audience is rooting for yes, but the final twists of the movie call into question even that.

The score by Alex Sowinsky and Leland Whitty is the kind of dissonant jazz that William S. Burroughs would have loved and serves to keep the audience off-balance. Shin excels at that and it is the movie’s greatest strength. On the weakness end, there are too many extraneous bits of business and characters refer to what are apparently important events that aren’t explained until later. It’s maddening and makes it feel like the filmmakers were winging it ore than they actually did.

All in all, though, it’s a pretty decent thriller that utilizes its Niagara Falls location excellently, even if we get no cliché shots of the famous “horseshoe” falls. Middleton makes an appealing lead and Cronenberg makes a compelling addition. If you’re looking for a good thriller, you could certainly do much worse than this.

REASONS TO SEE: Shin takes his cues from David Cronenberg’s early work; it’s therefore fitting that he cast the legendary director in his film.
REASONS TO AVOID: Gets a little bit jumbled, particularly towards the end.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity as well as some sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was originally titled Clifton Hill when it debuted at the Toronto Film Festival last year, but the name was changed when it was picked up by a distributor.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/1/20: Rotten Tomatoes:69% positive reviews: Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Deep End of the Ocean
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Maria by Callas

Knives and Skin


High school can be scary.

(2019) Thriller (IFC MidnightKate Arrington, Tim Hopper, Marika Engelhardt, James Vincent Meredith, Tony Fitzpatrick, Audrey Francis, Claire VanDerLinden, Alex Moss, Grace Smith, Ty Olwin, Marilyn Dodds Frank, Raven Whitley, Robert T. Cunningham, Kayla Carter, Jalen Gilbert, Genevieve Venjohnson, Aurora Real de Asua, Ireon Roach, Emma Ladji, Grace Etzkorn, Haley Bolithon. Directed by Jennifer Reeder

 

Small towns are microcosms. The people who live there have roles – some chosen, some assigned. Not everyone fits into or likes the role they have, but it’s part of an overall system that keeps things going. It doesn’t take much to throw the status quo completely out of whack. Add a new element – or remove an established one – and the whole dang thing can come tumbling down like a house of cards.

Young Carolyn Harper (Whitley) – a band nerd – snuck out of her house one night to meet a horny jock on the edge of town for clandestine sex. When she changes her mind at the last minute, a tussle ensues leaving her with a nasty gash on her forehead and her brand-new glasses still in the jock’s car as he drives away, leaving her in the middle of nowhere screaming for help.

She never makes it home that night and her disappearance ripples through the midwestern town of Big River like an electromagnetic pulse. Carolyn’s mother (Engelhardt) understandably begins to unravel. Her friends Joanna (Smith), Charlotte (Roach) and Laurel (Carter) – all from disparate cliques in school – grow closer together and discover in their grief that they have strength in consent. The word “no” – often given in the form of an apology. They soon discover how empowering “no” can be.

It is the teens of the town who show maturity, resiliency and strength as the adults soon begin to revert back to the secrets and failings that characterized their lives before the disappearance, only acting out more vigorously. It is up to the teens to remind the adults that there is still someone missing – but it is also the teens who seem more likely to move on.

Reeder takes a bundle of trendy influences, from David Lynch to Harmony Korine to Chantal Akerman and crafts a kind of pastiche, a movie that’s equal parts Riverdale and Twin Peaks with a dash of Neon Demon thrown in. This is a town full of quirky people and the young people are no more and no less quirky than the rest.

There is a very definite post #MeToo feminist tone here as the young girls explore their sexuality and soon begin rejecting the roles that have been assigned them, developing into powerful, strong young women. In many ways it’s heartening to watch but in other ways it’s a depressing reminder of how young high school-age girls are caught in a terrible bind when it comes to their roles in life.

Cinematographer Christopher Rejano bathes the screen in neon blues, greens and pinks which give the film a modern feel, but be warned that this kind of palate is nothing new and while it’s eye-catching, it isn’t particularly inventive. However, Rejano (and Reeder) also do a masterful job of framing their shots, using foregrounds and backgrounds effectively. There is also a propulsive electronic score that brings to mind 80s films but the music you will doubtlessly remember is the dirge-like choral renderings of pop songs by the Go-Go’s, Cyndi Lauper and others.

This may come off as a high school version of Twin Peaks and while that isn’t necessarily inaccurate, it is also over-simplifying it. I suspect that this is being aimed at girls the age of those being played in the film, or slightly older but the pacing here is surprisingly slow and methodical which doesn’t bode well for post-Millennial attention spans. In any case, this is something that’s a little different than the holiday films out there; while it is also getting a brief limited theatrical release, you can also catch it on VOD if you’re of a mind to.

REASONS TO SEE: Beautifully shot and scored.
REASONS TO AVOID: Paced a little too slowly for its target audience.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s profanity, violence and sexual situations, mostly involving teens.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Seagal and DMX previously appeared together in the 2001 film Exit Wounds.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/10/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews: Metacritic: 55/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Twin Peaks
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Grand Isle

Radioflash


The production went underwater quickly.

(2019) Suspense (IFC Midnight) Brighton Sharbino, Dominic Monaghan, Will Patton, Fionnula Flanagan, Miles Anderson, Michael Filipowich, Kyle Collin, Sean Cook, Arden Myrin, Max Adler, Lance Valentine Butler, Juli Erickson, CJ Legare, Shawn Law, Jerry Basham, Amir Abdullah, Ryan Shrime, Eryn Rea. Directed by Ben McPherson

 

There’s no doubt that our society functions on technology. It is both a blessing and a curse; it has allowed us to lead lives more comfortable than any of our predecessors but at the same time, what would become of society if all our technology suddenly was no longer available to us?

Nothing good, posits this film. Reese (Sharbino) is a bright teenage girl with superior problem-solving skills. She lives with her dad (Monaghan): both are still grieving the death of Reese’s mom from cancer a year earlier. When the power flickers out, it’s no big whoop at first. After all, power outages are a function of life as our devices suck more and more juice from the grid.

But the power doesn’t come back on and soon it becomes apparent that it won’t anytime soon. Reese’s survivalist grandpa (Patton) has been preparing for this all his life and he urges Reese and her pa to gather up as much gas as they can get hold of and head out to his place in the mountains before things turn to anarchy back in the city. They are just shy of too late.

At that point, the movie goes off the rails as Reese is kidnapped by Maw (Flanagan) and her brutish son Bill (Filipowich) and grandson Quinn (Collin) and the film takes a wide left into The Hills Have Eyes territory. The movie seemed really promising at first, with Reese being set up as a modern heroine who is smart, savvy and strong but she is essentially reduced to a typical damsel in distressed, trussed up in a burlap sack or locked in a basement. Her problem-solving skills we see early on are nowhere to be found.

Faring slightly better is Monaghan who plays the dad well; we’ve seen him as a irresponsible hobbit and a drug-addled rock star but he excels here as a devoted but sad-eyed dad. The film is bolstered by some beautiful Northwestern vistas, often mist-shrouded but McPherson is unable to generate a whole lot of excitement or suspense, leaving audiences indifferent to the fate of the characters. Considering the introduction he gave Reese, it’s a damn shame; I would have liked to have seen her less in peril and more in charge. Patton, a veteran character actor, is given little to do, showing up in brief moments to show concern and worry, for the most part.

This is one of those frustrating films where you see that if the filmmakers had just taken a certain direction that the movie had tons of potential to be something more than it turned out to be. While there are some worthwhile elements here, overall it ends up being a mediocre thriller that doesn’t quite do the job it’s supposed to do.

REASONS TO SEE: Monaghan does a crackerjack job in a type of role he’s not known for.
REASONS TO AVOID: Doesn’t really generate a lot of excitement.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and violence herein.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: McPherson has partnered with the Conservative View and Glenn Beck on short film projects, and co-writer Matt Redhawk is the founder of a survivalist supply company.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/20/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 0% positive reviews: Metacritic: 34/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Walking Out
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Synonyms

Depraved (2019)


Give yourself a hand

(2019) Horror (IFC MidnightDavid Call, Joshua Leonard, Alex Breaux, Ana Kayne, Maria Dizzia, Chloe Levine, Owen Campbell, Addison Timlin, Chris O’Connor, Alice Barrett, Andrew Lasky, Jack Fessenden, James Tam, Zilong Zee, Noah Le Gros, John Speredakos, Stormi Maya, Hope Blackstock, Rev Love, Hannah Townsend. Directed by Larry Fessenden

 

The classic novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelley was originally the result of a competition between herself, her husband poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and the Romantic poet Lord Byron to write a ghost story. Only the tale of a man reanimated, reconstructed from the body parts of other men has withstood the test of time.

Alex (Campbell) is having an argument with his girlfriend Lucy (Levine) whose only crime was to compliment him on what a good father he’d make. Alex sees it as putting undue pressure on him to become a husband and father, neither of which he’s ready for. He grabs his hipster beret and stalks out into the night – only to run into a murderous mugger. Face to black, Alex.

Only Alex isn’t completely gone. Adam (Breaux) wakes up on an operating table in a Brooklyn loft, not knowing who he is or even what he is. He is literally a tabula rasa, a blank slate. Henry (Call), an Army doctor who served in Iraq and came back home with a massive case of PTSD for his trouble, calms the confused Adam down. Eventually he begins to teach him the basics of motor skills and human speech, which eventually Adam begins to develop as a self-aware human being.

Covered in scars, Adam doesn’t understand why he is different than other people nor does he know that he is a pawn in a game being played by Polidori (Leonard), a would-be pharmaceutical billionaire who is eager to market the drug that aided Henry in the revivication process. As Adam grows more self-aware, some of his memories as Alex begin to resurface, confusing him further. As anyone who has ever seen a Frankenstein movie or read the book will tell you, the path for Adam will lead inexorably towards bloodshed.

Fessenden, who has carved a niche in indie horror with strong, character-driven films, utilizes camera effects to give audiences a sense of the confusion Adam is feeling and how his memories as Alex begin to overlap with his own. There isn’t an awful lot of gore in the film other than some in the initial going as Alex meets his fate, and as with most Frankenstein adaptations, most of the blood flows in the final reel. Horror fans who crave lots of gore might be disappointed with this one, although there is plenty for my own taste.

While some have labeled this an update of the original Shelley novel, I think it’s far more accurate to call this a deconstruction, taking the elements of Shelley’s novel, updating the location and time and then creating something entirely new with it. This is much more of a psychological horror piece than a gothic one.

There is an awful lot of dialogue here – maybe too much. There are some moments in the film that drag a bit too much and the movie would have benefited, in the immortal words of Elvis, with “a little less talk and a little more action.” Still, the movie is much smarter than the average horror film and looks in a meaningful way with out own fear of mortality, much as Shelley’s original novel did but putting it in terms that are more modern and understandable.

This isn’t destined to be a horror classic. For one thing, most people familiar with the story of Frankenstein are going to find the plot somewhat predictable despite the updated setting; Depraved is essentially in that sense an updated remake. It’s in the places where it strays from the source material that the movie has its best moments. Many movie critics will tell you that we are currently experiencing a renaissance of the horror genre; while this movie isn’t on the leading edge of that wave, it certainly is a solid entry into the genre as an early entry into the Halloween sweepstakes for 2019.

REASONS TO SEE: A deconstruction of the Frankenstein mythos, set in Brooklyn.
REASONS TO AVOID: A bit tedious in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, sexuality, some violence and horrifying images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fessenden has a cameo in the film as Ratso.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/18/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews: Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Frankenstein (1931)
FINAL RATING: 6,5.10
NEXT:
Ant-Man and the Wasp

The Wind (2018)


Some books you CAN judge by their cover.

(2018) Thriller (IFC Midnight) Caitlin Gerard, Julia Goldani Telles, Ashley Zuckerman, Dylan McTee, Miles Anderson, Martin C. Patterson. Directed by Emma Tammi

 

When we think of the early settlers of the West, we think of covered wagons, saloons, small towns with good hard-working people in them and undoubtedly all of the above were there. However, many pioneers were on their own, alone in an unforgiving land, relying on what they themselves could accomplish in order to survive.

Isaac (Zuckerman) and Lizzy Macklin (Gerard) are just such pioneers. They live alone on a deserted prairie with town more than a day’s ride away. The journey to town wasn’t without peril, so generally Isaac would go, whether to pick up supplies or to bring in what produce and animals he could sell. While Isaac is gone, Lizzy is alone; in fact, Lizzy is alone much of the day. She doesn’t seem to mind much, other than the whisper of the ever-present wind which some nights grows to a deafening howl.

Into their world comes Gideon (McTee) and Emma (Telles) Harper; they are “neighbors” if a walk of several hours can be called a neighborhood. They are young and perhaps a bit green; Emma’s skills as a cook are pretty weak and the more “worldly” Lizzy offers to teach her how to improve. In turn, Gideon has a lot to learn about working a farm and the generous Isaac is often at the Harper place helping Gideon get by.

Naturally Lizzy and Emma become friends, and when Emma becomes with child, Lizzy promises to help in every way she can. Emma though is growing frightened; how is she going to give birth and raise a child so far from civilization? And in the sound of the wind she begins to hear other things and she becomes absolutely convinced that there is something out there. Gideon is sure that Emma is imagining things and at first Lizzy is too. Then she begins to hear them.

After tragedy strikes the Harper family, Lizzy is more alone than ever but now she is sure that there is something out there too. Isaac is as skeptical as Gideon was but Lizzy is adamant. While Isaac is away returning Gideon to civilization, things come to a head with Lizzy and the dweller of the prairie but is it real? Or has Lizzy gone mad?

Tammi, heretofore a director of documentaries, acquits herself honorably on her first narrative feature. She manages to create a real sense that there’s something not quite right going on, that the environment is far from benevolent and that the people in it are highly vulnerable. She also does a great job of realistically portraying the pioneer life; the women work as hard if not harder than the men (I’d wager most women would agree with me that some things haven’t changed).There are no modern conveniences; laundry must be hand-washed and hung to dry in the wind; if she wanted bread with dinner, she had to make it and often meals consisted of whatever they had on hand which was often not much.

The heart and soul of this movie is Lizzy and Tammi cast Gerard wisely. The actress isn’t a household name – yet – but she carries the movie effortlessly, her haunted eyes and stretched face telling the story. The movie begins moments after the Harper tragedy occurs and we see Lizzy emerging, zombie-like. It’s a powerful moment and we have no explanation as to what happened. Gradually, through flashbacks, we learn what happened in the cabin until the audience catches up with the story, after which we resume with Lizzy’s own ordeal.

Although many are categorizing this as a horror film, I’d prefer to describe it as a psychological thriller with elements of horror. There’s enough gore and disturbing images to satisfy horror fans as well as some fairly interesting special effects that give us some insight as to what Lizzy is imagining (or experiencing – we’re never really sure). The budget on this probably wouldn’t cover the electrical tape budget on any of the Conjuring series movies but Tammi makes effective use of every penny.

On the technical side, the movie makes a wonderful use of sound, from the whistling, howling and whispering of the wind to the unearthly shrieks that emanate from the prairie, helping to create that atmosphere I referred to earlier. Cinematographer Lyn Moncrief makes excellent use of light and shadow, keeping that feeling of something menacing in the darkness. There aren’t really any jump scares here so the horror comes honestly.

There are a couple of drawbacks. The editing is at times ragged and jarring. Also, some of the performances (other than Gerard) were a mite stiff at times. However, those are largely sins that don’t disrupt the overall enjoyment of the movie and it is enjoyable, not just for horror fans. The last 20 minutes of the movie incidentally will have you white-knuckled and trying not to jump out of your own skin. The “twist” isn’t a game-changer but it does fit nicely.

All in all, this is the kind of movie that should be celebrated by cinephiles and horror fans alike. Indie horror movies have been extremely strong of late and The Wind is right up there with some of the best of them, even if strictly speaking it’s not completely a horror movie. Still, this is a movie well worth your time and effort.

REASONS TO SEE: The last 20 minutes are gut-wrenching. Tammi elicits a real sense of unease, that something is off. The filmmakers use light and darkness effectively as well as sound effects and the soundtrack.
REASONS TO AVOID: The acting is a bit stiff in places and some of the editing is a bit abrupt.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some gruesome images, gore, violence, partial nudity and sexuality,
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is based on the 1928 silent film The Wind which starred Lillian Gish.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/7/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 72% positive reviews: Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Centennial Episode 11: The Winds of Death
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Storm Boy

Pledge


The cast of a raunchy teenage sex comedy suddenly realizes they’re in a horror movie.

(2018) Horror/Thriller (IFC Midnight) Zachery Byrd, Phillip Andre Botello, Aaron Dalla Villa, Zack Weiner, Erica Boozer, Cameron Cowperthwaite, Jesse Pimentel, Jean-Louis Droulers, Joe Gallagher, Melanie Rothman, Jim Calello, Steve Lipman, Billy Thomas Myott, Sam Naismith, Jason Polinsky, Max Schuster, Emerald Toller, Keith Weiss, Natalie Walsh, Jackie Taylor. Directed by Daniel Robbins

 

Part of the college experience is rush week. Various fraternities and sororities try to lure potential members with parties, free booze and the promise of social acceptance and lifetime friendships. Of course, in some cases there is always the implied promise of a college career full of debauchery but that’s not always the case. However, those that do choose to pledge generally have to go through a series of tests that will test their limits, often to the breaking point.

Not everyone is accepted though. In the case of Ethan (Botello), Justin (Byrd) and David (Weiner), they have gone to party after party, often not even getting in the door. The three are freshmen who not only are socially awkward they wouldn’t seem out of place at either a sci-fi convention – or a raunchy sex comedy.

Disillusioned (although hope springs eternal for David), they are walking back to their dorm, with Ethan and Justin ready to spend the night there drinking when they meet Rachel (Boozer), a gorgeous and sexy coed who invites them to a party at a house somewhat more remote than the others they’ve seen. When they get there, they are treated to a party of well-dressed preppy sorts, and wonder of wonders the three (and two other seemingly less socially awkward guys) are accepted into the frat – excuse me, it’s a social club, not a frat – and the hazing begins.

Except the hazing starts with actual branding and goes downhill from there. The three pledges realize that they are in a world of hurt and in way above their heads. The three frat brothers – I mean, club members – diminutive Max (Dalla Villa), intimidating Bret (Pimentel) and enigmatic Ricky (Cowperthwaite) don’t seem disposed to letting anyone out the door but out the door the boys must go if they are to survive the night.

Frat hazing gone wrong movies are not in and of themselves anything particularly new. Sometimes these movies are fairly tame when considering the actual shenanigans that go on in college campuses nationwide. Weiner, who wrote the movie and conceived it along with Robbins and executive producer Matthew Barrett, seems to have based the lead characters on himself, Robbins and Barrett. However, their role model for the social club seems to be more Skull and Bones society rather than Greek.

The acting is solid if unspectacular and the violence here is occasionally unnerving. Robbins proves to be an adept director who does a lot with very little budget; every penny looks to be onscreen, and Robbins doesn’t waste a moment with unnecessary dialogue or exposition. He introduces the characters by showing how they are perceived by the frat brothers of the various fraternities they visit and eventually we get the sense that while their main character traits are pretty standard (overweight guy, minority and eager but clueless ringleader) Ethan and Justin show some pain at the way they are treated. They just don’t laugh it off. In fact while there are some decent comedic moments, the movie is pretty much played with a straight face.

Unfortunately, that’s where the real innovation ends. For the most part it’s a standard slasher film with a side of torture porn. It’s not going to rewrite the horror book – but it is pretty entertainment and most horror buffs should end up appreciating it. Those who are a bit more discerning may find it overly familiar.

REASONS TO GO: Robbins packs a lot of tension into the short run time; not a moment is wasted.
REASONS TO STAY: This film really doesn’t add anything to the subgenre.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of violence, much profanity, some sexuality and plenty of teen drinking..
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The producers found the house they used as a filming location through AirBnB.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/12/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews: Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hell Night
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Rockaway

Rust Creek


Kentucky back roads are full of unusual roadkill.

(2018) Thriller (IFC Midnight) Hermione Corfield, Jay Paulson, Micah Hauptman, Sean O’Bryan, Daniel R. Hill, John Marshall Jones, Jeremy Glazer, Jake Kidwell, Denise Dal Vera, Laura Guzman, Virginia Schneider. Directed by Jen McGowan

 

Road trips are a favorite of mine. There’s no better way to see the countryside, to get a feel for those who live there. However, there are some roads that are best not traveled upon.

Sawyer (Corfield) is one of those college students who are popping up everywhere – bright, ambitious, and fiercely determined to follow the road they’ve mapped out for themselves. Yes, that spells “irritating” for us older folks who once were bright, ambitious and fiercely determined to follow the road we mapped out for ourselves but somehow took a wrong turn.

Sawyer has also made a wrong turn. She’s driving through the backwoods of Kentucky during Thanksgiving week to get to Washington DC for a job interview and not just any job interview – one for her dream job. The Interstate is literally bumper to bumper with holiday traffic so she decides to take a road less traveled. Her GPS turns out to be unhelpful to say the least – sending her down roads that don’t exist or in dubious directions. Hopelessly lost, she stops to get her bearings and consult an actual paper map.

That’s when she gets the attention of Hollister (Hauptman) and Buck (Hill), a couple of locals – brothers and from an inbred family, judging from appearances. Things quickly get creepy and before you can say “isn’t that the kid from Deliverance?” she’s saying “you’re making me uncomfortable” and one of them makes a try for a Presidential pussy grab which goes over about as well as you’d expect. Things escalate and both of the Backwoods Boys get stabbed but unfortunately so does our heroine.

She escapes into the woods though, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. She’s bleeding and the Kentucky woods are no joke in November. She eventually passes out and finds herself awake and in restraint in a trailer that looks like its seen better days. So too has the guy living there, Josh (Kidwell) who to make matters worse is a meth cooker and brother to both Hollister and Buck.

But Josh is different and he knows what the score is; why the Sheriff (O’Bryan) seems unconcerned with an abandoned car and missing persons report, and what Buck and Hollister were up to. Sawyer knows she’s in over her head but if she’s going to get out of this alive she’s going to have to be even tougher than she’s ever been.

Sawyer is one of the strongest and fiercest female characters in a low budget thriller to come along in a long time and Corfield does her justice. She could well be a 21st century Ripley, but strangely during the second half of the film her character’s strength seems to be sapped and she is almost waiting for Josh to save her. I can understand that a character as traumatized as she is during the course of the movie might lose some of her steam but I think the film would have been better served had Sawyer been more of a force throughout. I could see her being a role model but then….well, not so much.

Cinematographer Michelle Lawler gets to play in the Kentucky woods and she hits it out of the park, turning this into as beautifully shot a thriller as you are likely to see anytime soon. The woods are deceptively beautiful, the bad guys notwithstanding and it almost gives me thoughts of moving there someday. Almost.

The movie is a little bit on the long side as we learn more about meth cooking than I think most of us will ever want to know. Also Buck and Hollister are so stereotypical that the state of Kentucky might seriously think of protesting the film for perpetuating those stereotypes. I’m not saying that guys like his don’t exist, but they’re given not a lick of character development and that, too, hurts the film.

Still, this is a solid and eminently watchable thriller that has some really high points but just misses on others. It’s out in theaters for a limited run and also on VOD if it’s not playing in a theater convenient to you. As January films go, this one isn’t half-bad.

REASONS TO GO: Corfield is one of the strongest and fiercest scream queens to come along in years. The Kentucky scenery is gorgeous.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is somewhat long. The villains are for the most part stereotypical rednecks.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, profanity and some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The production company, Lunacy, has a mandate to support female filmmakers; thus most of the key behind the camera roles have been filled by women, including director, writer, director of photography, production designer, sound mixer and colorist.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/7/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews: Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Archer
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Christmas Chronicles