Thursday, October 20, 2016

#2,227. The Neighbor (2016)

Directed By: Marcus Dunstan

Starring: Josh Stewart, Luke Edwards, Alex Essoe

Tag line: "We all have our secrets"

Trivia: In Germany this film had the added title The Horror is Waiting Next Door

John (Josh Stewart), the main protagonist of writer / director Marcus Dunstan’s 2016 movie The Neighbor, is a decent guy who’s trying to save up so that he and his girlfriend Rosie (Alex Essoe) can retire to a beach in Mexico. But in order to do that, John has to work for his sleaze ball of an Uncle (Skipp Sudduth), whose “profession” is drug trafficking. John and Rosie are but two of several characters in this hard-hitting film that blur the line between hero and villain, and before the movie is over most will do some terrible things to ensure their own survival.

The job is simple: cars roll up to John’s secluded house and pull into a makeshift garage, where he and Rosie grab a bag of money from the trunk and replace it with a “package”. After that, they change the vehicle’s license plate and send the drivers on their way. As it stands, the two lovebirds are days away from having enough cash to make a break for it, and while John knows that his uncle won’t be too happy to see him go, he plans to drop off every cent he owes the old bastard before they skip town.

Then John meets Troy (Bill Engvall), his next-door neighbor, who wonders why John was poking around his property earlier that day (while driving back from his Uncle’s, John noticed Troy’s trash can in the middle of the street and, like a good neighbor, brought it to the top of his driveway for him). Based on their short exchange, it’s obvious that, like John and Rosie, Troy has something to hide, and while John would just as soon forget it, a curious Rosie can’t help but peer out the window with her trusty telescope, trying to figure out what Troy and his grown sons Cooper (Luke Edwards) and Harley (Ronnie Gene Blevins) are up to. But when she sees something she shouldn’t have, Rosie finds herself in a world of trouble, and John (who made one last trip to his Uncle’s) returns home to discover that his girlfriend has disappeared without a trace. When he goes looking for her, he’ll uncover more than he ever thought possible.

Their questionable profession aside, our sympathies lie with John and Rosie throughout The Neighbor, and as things spiral out of control we’re pulling for them the entire time. But, interestingly enough, director Dunstan doesn’t completely demonize Troy or his sons, and despite the horrors that John finds when he first sneaks into their basement, we eventually realize Troy et al are more like John and Rosie than we initially thought. In addition, when the final showdown is underway, each and every character in The Neighbor will do whatever is necessary to make it out alive. For some of them, the realization of what they’re capable of will shake them to their very soul, and even though their life will go on, it will never be the same for them again.

An intense, sometimes shockingly violent motion picture with solid performances all around (especially Alex Essoe, who was also impressive in 2014’s Starry Eyes), The Neighbor is a jarring horror film in which the real terror comes just as much from within as it does the world outside.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

#2,226. Panzer Chocolate (2013)

Directed By: Robert Figueras

Starring: Melina Matthews, Geraldine Chaplin, Ariadna Cabrol

Tag line: "The darkest Nazi secret... is about to be revealed!"

Trivia: After parking the car, when Joe is showing them their location in the woods, the finger on the map is the Director's finger. His cameo in the movie

2013’s Panzer Chocolate has been billed as the 1st interactive & transmedia horror film. A brief intro at the start of the movie tells of how you can download an App that, when synced with the film, will enhance the experience of watching it, offering extra scenes and additional background on its characters and story. The trailer for Panzer Chocolate further informs us that, in addition to the App, there’s a video game as well as a comic book that delve even deeper into this intriguing world of Nazi hideaways and stolen treasure.

But I didn’t bother with any of that crap. I wanted to watch a movie, and was sure that Panzer Chocolate the motion picture, despite all that extra mumbo-jumbo, would stand on its own. That makes sense, right?


Hoping to prove her theory that Spanish artwork stolen by the Nazis during World War II is still being held in a secret underground bunker (which the Nazis called “Valhalla”), Madrid-area college student Julie Levinson (Melina Matthews) seeks out a book written by a Professor named Von Juntz (Josep Segui), which offers insight into Nazi history and practices while also predicting that a “Fourth Reich” is on its way. With the help of volunteer librarian Joe Brown (Tony Corvilla), Julie locates the book in a secluded section of the University’s library, and even though an interview with the Professor himself proves fruitless (he talks of nothing but German chocolate, which was dispensed to the troops guarding the bunker), his book provides the clues needed to locate the elusive Valhalla.

Joined by Joe as well as her roommate Rask (Ariadna Cabrol) and boyfriend / reporter Micky Allen (Mark Schardan), Julie follows the map and, in the middle of nowhere in the Pyrenees mountain range, finds what she’s been looking for. But by doing so, the group also awakens the Guardian of Valhalla: a gargantuan humanoid in a Nazi uniform whose only purpose is to kill all trespassers. Having come so close to her ultimate goal, will Julie uncover the secrets of Valhalla, or instead fall victim to a psychotic killer?

At the outset, Panzer Chocolate is a fascinating motion picture, with a number of mysteries that, when pieced together, lead its characters directly to the hidden bunker. There’s excitement in the air as Julie and the others try to solve these various puzzles, and I was caught up in it. Later on, when the guardian shows up and starts chasing everybody, Panzer Chocolate switches things up a bit, becoming a standard slasher flick with a few creepy moments. Even these scenes have their charms (one kill is particularly gory), but, unfortunately, the big reveal at the end is a major letdown. With all its early talk of history, cartography, buried treasure and the Fourth Reich, Panzer Chocolate gave me the impression it was going to be a thinking person’s horror film. Once we learn what’s actually going on, this “intelligent, thought-provoking” picture falls apart at the seams. And the less said about the final scene, the better (to be fair, the App supposedly contains the “real” ending, and while I haven’t watched it yet, it couldn’t possibly be any worse than what is in the movie).

Both Melina Matthews and Ariadna Cabrol do a fantastic job as the leading ladies, and as I said, the film’s first two-thirds are something special. But if I ever decide to watch Panzer Chocolate again, I think I’ll buy the App, because the movie’s finale definitely needs a little help.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

#2,225. The Linda Vista Project (2015)

Directed By: JJ Rogers

Starring: Whitney Anderson, Yeniffer Behrens, Mauricio Mendoza

Tag line: "Your bed is ready"

Trivia: JJ Rogers and his wife investigated the hospital as the Rated-P Team for several years before JJ wrote the story outline

I realize there’s been an influx of paranormal research-themed horror films in recent years, but I have to admit that, when they’re done right, I still have a soft spot for them. Movies like Grave Encounters and Final Prayer impressed the hell out of me, and even when I find one that’s not quite up to snuff (Atrocious, Documenting the Grey Man), it doesn’t weaken my resolve.

The Linda Vista Project was inspired not only by a real place (Linda Vista Community Hospital, an abandoned facility in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, California) but an actual investigation (director JJ Rogers headed up the “Rated-P” paranormal research team, which spent several years looking into claims that Linda Vista was one of the most haunted places in the United States). A low budget affair, The Linda Vista Project gets off to a promising start, but loses its way well before the final act is over.

After taking time out to help a couple (Mauricio Mendoza and Yeniffer Behrens) rescue their late daughter’s spirit, which was being harassed on a nightly basis by an unknown demonic force, researcher Emily Strand (Whitney Anderson) and her assistants, Cassy (Kara Luiz) and Chase (Paul Dietz), continue their ongoing investigation into the paranormal happenings at the old Linda Vista Community Hospital, which closed its doors for good over 20 years earlier. Unfortunately, their time at Linda Vista is coming to an end; the building was recently sold, and the new owners (who are none too happy with Emily’s insistence that the location is haunted) plan to turn the property into a senior living facility.

Dawson (Christopher Allen-Nelson), who represents the new owners, is sent in to take some pictures of the hospital, and Emily invites him to join in on that evening’s investigation. Though skeptical at first, Dawson soon sees enough to convince him that Linda Vista is, indeed, home to many spirits, including one particularly evil entity that, for some reason, is more active than it’s ever been before. This being is so agitated, in fact, that Emily and the others fear they may not survive the night.

The opening scene, in which Emily rescues the little girl’s spirit from the force that’s been tormenting it, gets The Linda Vista Project off to an interesting start (even though the sequence itself is a bit anti-climactic). But it’s the early scenes in the hospital that are the film’s strongest, with Emily and the others explaining the finer points of paranormal investigation to a cynical Dawson as they take him along on their nightly walk. There are a few laughs (especially when Dawson starts getting creeped out by what he’s experiencing) as well as a jump scare or two, and while it’s basically a commercial for Paranormal research (gadgets and phenomenon are covered in detail) that relies a little too heavily on digital effects, this entire section of the film is good fun.

Alas, the final 1/3 of The Linda Vista Project goes completely off the rail, giving us everything but the kitchen sink (a battle between good and evil; a satanic ritual; chase scenes, and even a little family drama, including an explanation of sorts as to why Emily became a researcher in the first place). As a result, what had been a nifty ghost story in a creepy hospital setting buckles under the weight of far too many plot twists.

Even if JJ Rogers and his crew had stayed the course, odds are The Linda Vista Project would have been little more than a mildly entertaining diversion. But as it stands, it’s a decent concept that tries to do too much, and doesn’t live up to its early potential.

Monday, October 17, 2016

#2,224. ClownTown (2016)

Directed By: Tom Nagel

Starring: Brian Nagel, Lauren Compton, Andrew Staton

Tag line: "They'll Rip Out Your Funny Bone"

Trivia: The house on fire in the clown montage is not an effect. The cast and crew were on their way back to base for lunch when a couple of them noticed a "flicker" off down the road

The pre-title sequence for ClownTown, a 2016 horror film directed by Tom Nagel, is a tribute to John Carpenter’s Halloween. After a brief shot of a house (the mailbox has the name “Strode” on it), the action shifts to the backyard, where a babysitter in a bikini (Kaitlyn Sapp) is sitting by the pool, reading a bedtime story to youngsters Megan (Ava Joy Anselmo) and Ricky (Nathan D. Goins). Megan is a lively, outgoing young girl, but Ricky is withdrawn, and never so much as utters a word. Shortly after tucking the two kids in for the night, the babysitter receives a call from their parents, telling her there’s been a train derailment nearby, and that they’re on their way home. Moments later, the babysitter is startled by a sound, and upon investigating finds Ricky, out of bed and dressed in a clown costume. In an attempt to catch him, the babysitter follows Ricky upstairs, where she has an unfortunate run-in with the business end of a meat cleaver.

The nods to Halloween are obvious, and it’s possible that ClownTown was designed to show audiences what might have happened if, instead of centering on a serial killer named Michael Myers, Carpenter took his classic film in another direction, focusing on killer clowns that take over a small Ohio town. Having just now finished ClownTown, I can tell you, in no uncertain terms, that there’s a damn good reason Carpenter went the route he did; ClownTown is a bad movie.

The film next jumps ahead 15 years. Two couples: Brad (Brian Nagel) and Sarah (Laure Compton), and Mike (Andrew Staton) and Jill (Katie Keene), stop at a roadside diner to ask for directions (because they’re in the middle of nowhere, neither their phones nor their GPS are working properly… surprise, surprise). Once they have the information they need, the good friends hit the open road, only to find a short time later that Jill left her cell phone back at the diner. When Sarah calls the missing phone, a man answers and tells them to meet him in the nearby town of Clinton, where he’ll gladly return Jill’s property. But instead of a Good Samaritan, the couples find themselves being stalked by several well-armed, psychotic clowns. Joining forces with two locals, and with the help of a slightly deranged guy named Frank (Greg Violand), Brad, Jill and the others are hopeful that they might survive this terrifying ordeal. But the clowns have no intention of letting their prey escape without a fight.

Supposedly inspired by a 2014 incident in Bakersfield, California, when a group of people dressed up as clowns and went around scaring the locals, ClownTown suffers from a number of problems, including sub-par performances and an over-reliance on some of the genre’s more tiresome clichés (seriously, doesn’t anyone in these films have a decent cell phone provider?). In addition, the entire mid-section of the movie features a lot of running and hiding, and little else besides. to get away from the clowns, our heroes duck inside an old school bus in the middle of a field. Convinced the coast is clear, they next sprint to an abandoned trailer, where they hide once again; and later, while scurrying around a deserted warehouse, they do their damnedest to avoid a pair of clowns. These repetitive scenes might have worked if they’d generated even the slightest bit of tension. But they don’t; and as a result the movie spins its wheels for a fair portion of its runtime.

The head clown (played by David Greathouse) is definitely creepy, and the film features a couple of well-executed kill scenes (including one involving a crowbar to the face), but as far as positives go, that’s all that ClownTown has to offer. In fact, the movie is so lackluster that I doubt it will even scare those with a pre-existing phobia of clowns!

ClownTown is just… blah

Sunday, October 16, 2016

#2,223. The Dead Room (2015)

Directed By: Jason Stutter

Starring: Jed Brophy, Jeffrey Thomas, Laura Petersen

Tag line: "There is an intruder. It's you"

Trivia: This movie was inspired by a New Zealand suburban legend, surrounding an historic farmhouse in central Otago

The Dead Room, a 2015 supernatural thriller from New Zealand, is a perfectly adequate ghost story, with a number of creepy scenes and a surprise-laden finale that wraps things up nicely. But for years now, the horror genre has been inundated with “adequate” supernatural thrillers, and therein lies the problem: The Dead Room does what it sets out to do, and nothing more. It is not a movie that will linger long in your mind.

When a family claims that a ghost has driven them from their home, the insurance company sends in a trio of paranormal investigators: Scott (Jeffrey Thomas), Liam (Jed Brophy) and Holly (Laura Petersen), to see if the house is, indeed, haunted. To their surprise, it actually is: at 3 a.m. every morning, a spirit walks up and down the dwelling’s long hallway, opening doors and knocking into low-hanging chandeliers.

Holly, who has a sixth sense, is the only one who can see this entity, which she describes as a very tall, very angry man who doesn’t seem to want them there. In fact, each successive night that they remain in the house, the ghost’s behavior becomes more erratic. Following a particularly spooky encounter, Liam and Holly decide it’s time to leave, but are talked into staying one more night by Scott, who believes he’s developed an electronic device that, when switched on, is powerful enough to eliminate any nearby spirits. But as the three will soon discover, trying to get rid of a ghost can sometimes be more dangerous than living with one.

Like a good many supernatural films, The Dead Room relies on such time-honored effects as self-opening doors and footsteps to get its audience’s pulse pounding. And, to be fair, this approach is marginally successful in the early scenes (the second evening there, the trio is awakened by a loud thump that shakes the entire house, which is as jarring to us as it is to them). To add to the mystery, Holly and the others find that the ghost refuses to enter the back room, making it the house’s lone safe haven while also raising the question as to why it avoids this area.

Unfortunately, the malevolent spirit remains invisible throughout; each night, Holly has to tell the others where it is in the room, and what its attitude is (based on what she’s saying, this is one pissed-off ghost). And while the attacks do become more intense as the days drag on, there’s never a moment when we feel the main characters are in any sort of real danger. Things do change in the final 10 minutes, but before then, the scares in The Dead Room are, for the most part, generic.

Over the past five years, a number of supernatural thrillers have managed to distinguish themselves from the rest, including The Conjuring, The Innkeepers, and Insidious, just to name a few. Even if you don’t count yourself as a fan of these films, at the very least you remember them. Though competently made and sporadically chilling, The Dead Room will not leave a lasting impression, and six months later, when someone asks if you’ve seen it, you’ll have to think for a moment to recall whether or not you did.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

#2,222. Green Room (2015)

Directed By: Jeremy Saulnier

Starring: Anton Yelchin, Imogen Poots, Alia Shawkat

Tag line: "Now. Whatever you saw or did. Is no longer my concern. But let's be clear. It won't end well"

Trivia: The stance of the machete wielder in the poster references The Clash's "London Calling" album cover

From its brutality violent tale of survival to the unnerving performance delivered by Patrick Stewart, director Jeremy Saulnier’s 2015 movie Green Room has quite a bit going for it. Yet what impressed me the most was the almost organic way its story unfolded, revealing, in a very disturbing manner, just how suddenly and unexpectedly a life-or-death situation can creep up on you.

The Ain’t Rights, a punk rock band featuring the collective talents of bassist Pat (Anton Yelchin), guitarist Sam (Alia Shawkat), drummer Reece (Joe Cole) and lead singer Tiger (Callum Turner), is on tour, and having a miserable time. When a gig arranged by college radio host Tad (David W. Thompson) fizzles out, the band decides to end the tour and go home. However, Tad manages to talk them into playing one final venue: a Neo-Nazi Skinhead bar located in Portland, Oregon. In desperate need of cash, the band agrees, and after being greeted by Tad’s cousin Daniel (Mark Webber), who works at the bar, the Ain’t Rights hit the stage, and despite a rocky start, they soon win the crowd over.

The trouble begins moments after the band leaves the stage, when Pat goes back to the green room (where the musicians relax before their performances) to retrieve Sam’s cell phone. What he finds, instead, is a murdered girl (Taylor Tunes) lying on the floor, and the victim’s friend Amber (Imogen Poots) asking him to call the police. Because he’s seen too much, Gabe (Macon Blair) ushers Pat and the other members of the band back into the Green Room and has the club’s bouncer, Big Justin (Eric Edelstein), hold them there at gunpoint. 

A few minutes later, the head honcho of the skinheads (and the club’s owner), Darcy Banker (Stewart), shows up, and decides it would be best to silence the Ain’t Rights permanently. This leads to a stand-off between the band (who refuse to unlock the green room door until the police arrive) and Darcy’s skinheads (who have already ensured that the law won’t be getting involved), and before it’s over, a number of people will be dead.

Patrick Stewart delivers a stellar performance as the leader whose direct, almost clinical approach to murder will send a chill up your spine. He is, at all times, cold and calculated, and when he’s talking with Pat through a closed door, trying to convince him and his friends to end this impasse, we can't shake the feeling he’s done this sort of thing before. In addition, the film boasts quite a bit of violence, some of which will shock you because the carnage is so sudden; one particular scene, which occurred soon after Darcy took over the negotiations, featured two brutally violent moments, and a few later sequences involving trained attack dogs will have you squirming in your seat.

What truly shook me, though, was how arbitrary the whole situation seemed, and how quickly the standoff between the band and Darcy’s skinheads escalated. The “wrong place at the wrong time” scenario has played out in hundreds of movies over the years (Hitchcock was a master at it), but never have I experienced a film like Green Room, where we have absolutely no advanced warning of what’s to come. All at once, four people who simply wanted to play a little music are in a fight for their lives, and nothing they say or do is going to change that. 

Many things occur over the course of Green Room that will pull you deeper into its story, but it’s the staggering unpredictability of it all that I won’t soon forget.

Friday, October 14, 2016

#2,221. The Horde (2009)

Directed By: Yannick Dahan, Benjamin Rocher

Starring: Claude Perron, Jean-Pierre Martins, Eriq Ebouaney

Awards: Won for Best Screenplay & Best Cinematography at the 2010 Fantasporto Awards

Trivia: Shown as the closing film at Leeds International Film Festival's "Day Of The Dead" horror film marathon on 7th November, 2009

Early on in George Romero’s 1978 film Dawn of the Dead, there’s a scene in which a Philadelphia SWAT team raids an apartment complex, and are immediately fired upon by some of its residents. It isn’t long, though, before the dead come back to life, forcing both the police and the criminals to turn their attention (and their fire power) towards this new, but incredibly lethal, threat.

This is but one of many engaging sequences in this classic film, and runs for approximately 5-10 minutes. In the 2009 French horror movie The Horde, directors Yannick Dahan and Benjamin Rocher stretch this same scenario into a feature length motion picture, and with its wall-to-wall action and bloodshed it proves to be a heck of a wild ride.

Looking to avenge the murder of one of their own, a group of vigilante cops, including Aurore (Claude Perron), Quessem (Jean-Pierre Martins) and Jimenez (Aurélien Recoing), raid the Paris tenement building that houses the notorious Markudi brothers, Adewale (Eriq Ebouaney) and Bola (Doudou Masta), and their posse of drug dealers. A shootout ensues, and when the smoke clears, the Markudis have killed several policemen and take the rest prisoner.

But their victory is short-lived, because moments after the melee ends, the gang is attacked by a handful of ravenous zombies! From the looks of it, the entire building has been overrun by the living dead, and both the Markudi brothers and the remaining cops realize that, to survive this terrifying ordeal, they’re going to have to team up.

For every single one of its 90 minutes, The Horde is in an all-out adrenaline rush. The opening firefight between the cops and the bad guys is plenty intense, but pales in comparison to the insanity that follows soon after. Borrowing a page from the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead, the undead masses in The Horde move pretty fast, which makes trying to stay ahead of them that much more difficult. And, of course, when the zombies do grab a hold of someone, the blood flies in every direction.

As if all this wasn’t crazy enough, there’s the added layer of tension that exists between the police and the Markudi gang, whose uneasy alliance is always hanging by a thread. Throw in a heavily-armed middle aged-maniac named René (Yves Pignot), who joins the fun at about the movie’s midway point, and you have an action-packed zombie film that rarely stops to take a breath.