Friday, October 20, 2017

#2,444. Digging Up the Marrow (2014)

Directed By: Adam Green

Starring: Ray Wise, Adam Green, Will Barratt

Tag line: "Just because you haven't seen them... doesn't mean they aren't there"

Trivia:  It took 5 years to complete this movie

Digging Up the Marrow may feature Adam Green (the creative mind behind Frozen and the Hatchet series) in the lead role, but it is only superficially about the writer/director making his next movie. At its heart, this 2014 faux documentary is about a lifelong fan of monsters (Green) trying to prove they actually exist, that the creatures he fell in love with as a child aren’t just figments of his imagination, and watching this particular quest unfold was enough to keep me on the edge of my seat.

Adam Green has received his share of fan mail over the years, but a package sent to him by a Mr. William Dekker (Ray Wise) contained something quite extraordinary. Dekker, a former private investigator from Boston, forwarded Green a notebook filled with drawings of strange creatures, all of which he claims are real and living in an underground society he calls “The Marrow”. 

Intrigued by the prospect of coming face-to-face with an honest-to-goodness monster, Green and his creative partner Will Barratt interview Dekker, believing that, even if his story doesn’t check out, he’ll at least be a great addition to their upcoming documentary.

Though definitely a bit odd, Dekker does, indeed, convince Green that he’s located the entrance to The Marrow, and while the rest of the world, including Barratt and Green’s wife Rileah (Vanderbilt), seems to think that Dekker is either insane or a skilled con man, Green believes he’s telling the truth, and sets up hidden cameras around the Marrow’s entrance in the hopes they’ll eventually reveal all of the secrets this fascinating new world might be hiding.

Though usually behind the camera, Green does a fine job as the star of Digging Up the Marrow, portraying an artist so fixated on what he’s deemed the discovery of a lifetime that he can’t concentrate on anything else (at one point, we sit in on a meeting where Sarah Elbert, the producer of the TV series Holliston, impatiently asks Green when he’ll be finished with the next season’s scripts, which he hasn’t started writing yet because he’s been too preoccupied with Dekker and his Marrow). Even the revelation that Dekker hasn’t been honest with him, which he discovers during a conversation with fellow director Tom Holland (Child’s Play, Fright Night) and writer Mick Garris (The Fly II, Hocus Pocus) at a horror convention, isn’t enough to damper Green’s enthusiasm, and his steadfast determination is what makes Digging Up the Marrow as engaging as it is.

There are some interesting cameos scattered throughout (Kane Hodder even shows up to view some of the footage that Barratt shot of the Marrow), and in those scenes when we do see them, the movie’s creatures (designed by Alex Pardee) are jarring, to say the least. But in the end, Digging Up the Marrow is a movie for horror fans by a horror fan. Having stirred the imaginations of thousands of people with his movies, Adam Green got his stirred a bit as well, and that is what makes Digging Up the Marrow such a satisfying experience.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

#2,443. The Devil Lives Here (2016)

Directed By: Rodrigo Gasparini, Dante Vescio

Starring: Pedro Caetano, Pedro Carvalho, Mariana Cortines

Trivia 1: Won the award for Best Villain at the 2016 Cinefantasy International Fantastic Cinema Festival

Trivia 2:  The movie was also released as The Fostering

Well over a hundred years ago, a ruthless Brazilian landowner / amateur beekeeper known as The Honey Baron (Ivo Müller) mistreated (and occasionally murdered) the slaves who worked on his estate. He was so cruel, in fact, that he even forced himself on the mother of his most trusted slave, Bento (Sidney Santiago), who soon after became pregnant with his child. 

But moments before giving birth, Bento’s mother, a master of the occult, murdered the Honey Baron and put a curse on his immortal soul. To strengthen this curse, Bento’s mother then sacrificed her newborn (the Honey Baron’s son) by driving a spike into its torso, thereby dooming both father and child to re-experience their own deaths for the rest of eternity.

Cut to modern day. The land once owned by the Honey Baron now belongs to Apolo (Pedro Carvalho) and his family, who nonetheless have agreed to vacate the premises one day every year so that Bento’s descendants can perform a ritual to keep the curse from fading away. 

This year, however, Apolo has vowed to stay put, and invites his best friend Jorge (Diego Goulart) to spend the weekend with him. Joined by his girlfriend Alexandra (Mariana Cortines) and cousin Maria Augusta (Clara Verdier), Jorge makes the long journey into the country, oblivious to the danger that will befall him and the others should the curse on the Honey Baron somehow expire.

Released in 2016, The Devil Lives Here is a Brazilian horror / fantasy that takes the time to build its own mythology; along with several flashback sequences of the Honey Baron and Bento (which play at random intervals throughout the film), directors Rodrigo Gasparini and Dante Vescio also follow Sebastião (Pedro Caetano) and Luciano (Felipe Frazão), two of Bento’s descendants, as they prepare for the yearly ritual, unaware that the property will still be occupied when they attempt to perform it.

In addition, Jorge’s girlfriend Alexandra is a clairvoyant, and the moment she sets foot in the house she hears voices emanating from the basement, telling her to do whatever is necessary to sabotage the annual ceremony. Each one of these perspectives is interesting in its own right, but together they make the film’s central story of racism and the evil it breeds more poignant than it might otherwise have been.

The Devil Lives Here does begin to fall apart towards the end, when it plays fast and loose with its own rules (we’re never quite sure what actions are required to keep the Honey Baron from taking human form, and a late twist involving the supposed “reincarnation” of the baby doesn’t make a bit of sense), but for most of its 80-minute runtime it is a tense, atmospheric horror flick, and has me curious as to what other Brazilian genre films are out there for the taking.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

#2,442. Fear, Inc. (2016)

Directed By: Vincent Masciale

Starring: Lucas Neff, Caitlin Stasey, Chris Marquette

Tag line: "Making a killing one client at a time"

Trivia:  Based on a short film made by the same writer and director

Directed by Vincent Masciale, Fear, Inc. is an entertaining motion picture with a likable cast of characters and some nifty nods to the classic splatter films of yore. But with its ever-twisting story and preference for laughs over chills, there’s a good chance horror aficionados will walk away from this one disappointed.

Joe (Lucas Neff), an unemployed slacker who spends his days hanging out at the beautiful L.A. mansion owned by his Aussie girlfriend Lindsey (Caitlin Stasey), is a big-time fan of horror movies, and with the Halloween season is in full swing he visits a number of haunted attractions in the hopes of finding one that will scare the living hell out of him. Unfortunately, they all fall short of his expectations. Then, one night, he’s handed a card by a random stranger (played by Patrick Renna) advertising a company called “Fear, Inc.”, which guarantees its customers the most terrifying experience of their lives.

Joe’s best friend Ben (Chris Marquette), who recently arrived in town with his wife Ashleigh (Stephanie Drake), says that Fear, Inc. is bad news; rumor has it some of those who’ve called the service have never been heard from again. Intrigued by Ben’s warnings, Joe decides to give Fear, Inc. a try. But instead of a fun-filled evening of frights, Joe, Ben and the ladies are forced to play a deadly game of cat and mouse that could ultimately cost them their lives.

The entire cast of Fear, Inc. is strong (especially Chris Marquette, who was also good in both Infestation and Night of the Living Deb), but what makes it so much damn fun is Lucas Neff’s spirited turn as the naïve but hopeful Joe, a guy whose unbridled enthusiasm for all things horror lands him and his friends in some pretty hot water (to get the most out of his Fear, Inc. experience, Joe purposefully leaves a door unlocked so that a masked killer can walk right in; and he’s as giddy as a schoolboy when his neighbor Bill, played by Richard Riehle, is seemingly stabbed to death in the middle of the street, a murder that Joe believes was staged by the good people at Fear, Inc. Or was it?)

In addition, director Masciale and screenwriter Luke Barnett pay tribute to the horror movies of the ‘80s and ‘90s throughout Fear, Inc. Along with sequences that hearken back to both Friday the 13th and Scream, the story owes quite a bit to David Fincher’s The Game, and at one point Ben, Joe and their significant others discuss their favorite horror film kill scenes (Ashleigh chooses Johnny Depp’s blood-soaked demise in 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, while Ben is partial to the shower death in the original Final Destination).

Yet while moments such as these are sure to bring a smile to the face of any true genre fan, Fear, Inc. features one too many plot twists for its own good (I was pleasantly surprised by the first, but could figure some of the others out well before their big reveals), leaving Joe (and the rest of us) to wonder if what he’s seeing is real, or part of an elaborate hoax. And while the movie was genuinely funny at times, it wasn’t as frightening as it should have been. In fact, the film gets less scary with each successive scene (though the finale does, admittedly, pack a wallop).

Still, despite its weaknesses, I had fun watching Fear, Inc., and if you ever find yourself in the mood for a horror / comedy that’s light on the horror, I recommend giving this one a whirl.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

#2,441. Ava's Possessions (2015)

Directed By: Jordan Galland

Starring: Louisa Krause, Whitney Able, Deborah Rush

Tag line: "She can handle her spirits"

Trivia: The film had its world premiere on April 26, 2015 at the Dead by Dawn Horror Film Festival

This 2015 movie begins where most other possession-themed horror films end: with an exorcism.

A priest (John Ventimiglia), standing at the foot of a bed, is grasping his prayer book, ordering a demon to leave it’s host while the relatives of the possessed girl, whose name is Ava (Louisa Krause), stand silently in the background. Strapped to her bed, Ava growls and thrashes about uncontrollably as she drifts in and out of consciousness. The entire scene is shot POV, from Ava’s perspective, and moments before the priest finally banishes the evil entity back to hell, Ava (still under demonic control) turns towards a mirror, smiles at her reflection, and says “Hello, gorgeous!

Along with setting up the story, this opening lets us know that writer / director Jordan Ballard’s Ava’s Possessions is going to be as much a comedy as it is a horror film.

Now that the devil inside of her has been vanquished, Ava is ready to get on with her life. But a lot happened during her 28-day possession, most of which she doesn’t remember. For example, as a result of her recent erratic behavior, Ava’s friends are convinced she’s the queen bitch, and want nothing nore to do with her. Neither does her longtime boyfriend, who apparently dumped her for hooking up with another guy in front of him, and seeing as nobody called her in sick, poor Ava is probably unemployed.

What’s more, Ava is in trouble with the law (it seems she did some very bad things while under the influence of that demon), and could be looking at some serious jail time.

Her parents (Deborah Rush and William Sadler) tell Ava she should look at this whole possession episode as a “wake-up call”, while her sister Jillian (Whitney Able) and Jillian’s fiance Roger (Zachary Booth) do their best to support Ava in her time of need. Meanwhile, J.J. Samson (Dan Fogler), the lawyer hired by her parents, tells Ava that, if she wants to stay out of prison, she’ll have to join a support group for the recently possessed, which meets in a local community center once a week and is run by a guy named Tony (Wass Stevens).

But that’s not all; while cleaning her apartment one night, Ava finds a blood stain on her carpet, as well as a man’s watch with a name engraved on it. To try and determine what might have happened (and whose blood it is), she gets in touch with Ben (Lou Taylor Pucci), an art dealer and the son of the watch’s owner (alas, Ben has no idea where his father is, nor can he answer any of Ava’s questions).

Then, on top of everything else, the demon that possessed Ava is still hanging around, and doing everything in its power to “re-enter” her body. Can Eva fight off this evil spirit, or will she once again fall under its spell?

Ava’s Possessions is a clever, sometimes funny look at what happens to the possessed after the demon has been expelled, and features a solid performance by Louisa Krause as the title character, who tries to put what happened behind her while at the same time realizing nothing will ever be the same again. In addition, the movie has a few laugh out loud moments (most of which come courtesy of the support group Ava joins); a perplexing mystery (To figure out what happened in her living room, Ava is forced to visit some seedy areas of town); and a few legitimate scares (the one involving a little girl on a staircase sent a shiver down my spine).

There’s even a scene in which Ava helps Hazel (Annabelle Dexter-Jones), a fellow member of her support group, get back in touch with the demon that once controlled her. Ever since her possession ended, Hazel has felt like something was missing form her life, and is convinced that she and her malevolent spirit were meant to be together. By looking at demonic possession from many different angles, Ava’s Possessions manages to distinguish itself in a subgenre that, in recent years, has been done to death.

Alas, Ava’s Possessions ultimately bites off more than it can chew (along with the comedy and horror, Ava has a brief romantic fling with Ben) and when the end credits roll some of the film’s subplots are left hanging. But as a unique spin on the possession subgenre, Ava’s Possessions has plenty to offer, and is guaranteed to entertain.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

#2,440. A Dark Song (2016)

Directed By: Liam Gavin

Starring: Catherine Walker, Steve Oram, Nathan Vos

Tag line: "Not everything can be forgiven"

Trivia: Director Liam Gavin only had 20 days to film inside the house

A Dark Song, the 2016 horror / drama by writer / director Liam Gavin, is in no particular hurry to get around to its more horrific elements, yet I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a “slow burn”. That term suggests a movie that is gradually building towards something, which, in a way, this film is; a woman, unable to deal with a tragic event from her past, enlists the help of an occultist to bridge the gap between the living and the dead, all to ask a favor that only Gods or demons could possibly grant her. As you can imagine, the ritual to accomplish this amazing feat is quite involved, and takes months (as well as a decent portion of the movie) to complete.

But from its very first scene, director Gavin infuses the film with a sense of dread that remains constant throughout. So as we’re waiting for its supernatural elements to come into play, A Dark Song still manages to keep us on the edge of our seats.

Sophia Howard (Catherine Walker) is reeling from the death of her only son, and with the help of Joseph Solomon (Steve Oram), a well-respected master of the occult, she is hoping the spirits will allow her to once again speak with her deceased child. Armed with a detailed list of specifications (which Solomon provided), Sophia rents a house in Wales and prepares herself, physically and emotionally, for a ceremony that, if successful, will grant her unusual request.

Despite Solomon’s numerous warnings that the ritual will be long and unpleasant, and that they will be tampering with very dark forces, Sophia remains steadfast in her determination to see it through to the end. But as the weeks drag on, Sophia begins to wonder if Solomon sold her a bill of goods, and is unable to contact the netherworld as promised, while Solomon himself becomes increasingly convinced that Sophia’s true intentions are much more sinister than she’s letting on.

For the majority of its runtime, A Dark Song is a two-person show, and as such a lot was riding on the performances delivered by its stars. Luckily, both were up to the challenge. Walker is excellent as Sophia, the strong-willed woman who nonetheless turns herself over, body and soul, to a man she hardly knows, while Oram is pitch-perfect as the wise but ultimately flawed Solomon (an accomplished master of the dark arts, he is also an alcoholic, something he himself admits could hinder his ability to complete the ritual; and at one point Solomon even lets his sexual urges get the better of him, resulting in what is undoubtedly the movie’s most uncomfortable scene). The love-hate relationship that develops between the two characters proves quite fascinating, giving A Dark Song a dramatic flair you don’t find in many horror films.

In addition, the tonal score composed by Ray Harman helps to build, and then maintain the movie’s ominous mood; and once the ritual is in full-swing, A Dark Song takes a few unexpected, yet ultimately creepy turns, combining more “traditional” ghostly elements (mysterious voices, doors opening on their own, etc) with some that are quite unique. 

The one issue I had with A Dark Song was its climax. I give writer/director Nevin points for creativity (it’s not a finale you’ll see coming), but when you take into account all that went before it the ending came across as a bit too tidy. 

Fortunately, it’s not enough to ruin what is an otherwise exceptional film, and thanks to the stellar performances delivered by its two leads A Dark Song is one horror movie I’m anxious to check out again in the near future.

Monday, October 9, 2017

#2,439. Under the Shadow (2016)

Directed By: Babak Anvari

Starring: Narges Rashidi, Avin Manshadi, Bobby Naderi

Tagline: "Fear Will Find You"

Trivia: The film was actually shot in Jordan

I’m definitely a “list” guy. I love movie lists of all kinds, and am especially fond of yearly top 10 lists, where critics and fans alike clue us in as to which films were their favorites of that particular year. Of course, there’s a downside to compiling such a list: odds are you missed a few of the movies released over the previous 12 months, and it’s possible that a film you haven’t seen might have cracked your top 10 had you watched it in time. Such is the case with the 2016 horror flick Under the Shadow. Simply put, it is a tremendous picture, and had I caught up with it there’s no doubt it would have made my Top 10 Horror Films of that year.

In fact, Under the Shadow is so good that it may have filled a spot on my Overall Top-10 as well.

Tehran, 1988. The Iran-Iraq war rages on, and has now reached the city (Iraq pelts the Iranian capital with missiles on an almost daily basis). After being refused a chance to continue her medical training (due to her past political activism), Shideh (Narges Rashidi) slips into the role of a housewife, and when her husband Iraj (Bobby Naderi) is drafted into the army, she and their daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) find themselves all alone in a spacious apartment (for their safety, Iraj begs his wife to take Dorsa and move in with his family in the country, but the stubborn Shideh refuses to abandon her home).

As the days pass, Dorsa begins to complain that she’s afraid, and doesn’t want to be left alone or sleep in her own bed at night. When Shideh asks her why, the young girl confesses that one of her playmates, the nephew of their landlord, told her that a Djinn, a malevolent spirit that haunts the living, has found its way into their building, and is looking for someone to torment. Shideh tries to calm her daughter’s fears by explaining that ghosts are a myth, but when Dorsa’s favorite doll goes missing, the poor girl is convinced it was taken by the Djinn.

Try as she might, Shideh cannot find the doll, and after a few creepy experiences of her own, she begins to wonder if Dorsa’s Djinn is, in fact, make-believe, or if it is very real.

Over the years, I’ve grown weary of jump scares, especially when they're combined with a dream sequence. Yet writer / director Babak Anvari has managed to incorporate both of these now-tired clichés into Under the Shadow and make them damn effective to boot (I jumped each and every time I was supposed to, and because the film’s overall style remains consistent throughout we’re never quite sure when Shideh is awake and when she is dreaming).

The war also plays an integral part in the story, bringing an added level of tension to what is ultimately a very intense situation. To escape the bombings, the building’s other residents temporarily move away, leaving Shideh and her daughter to fend for themselves (Shideh has promised Dorsa they won’t leave until they’ve found her beloved doll). In addition, one of the film’s most memorable scenes involves an unexploded missile that crashes into the upstairs apartment, leaving a crack in Shideh’s ceiling that takes center stage once the supernatural thrills are in full swing.

Also worth noting is the film’s strong central character (wonderfully portrayed by Narges Rashidi), and when you take into account the setting and the time period in which this tale is set, the fact that the character is female is doubly impressive. I’m not sure if the laws have relaxed over the years, but in the ‘80s all Iranian women were required to wear a chador in public, and after a particularly harrowing encounter with the Djinn, Shideh grabs her daughter and rushes outside, only to be taken into custody by the military and threatened with a whipping (because she didn’t cover her head before leaving the apartment). The Djinn proves to be a formidable foe throughout Under the Shadow, but for progressive-minded women in 1980’s Iran, tradition and law could sometimes be just as frightening.

That said, the most notable aspect of Under the Shadow is undoubtedly the entity that haunts both mother and daughter. Over the course of the film, we do learn a little about the Djinn; according to legend, it moves with the wind, and there’s no telling where it will turn up or who it will bother. Also, Djinns supposedly steal a prized possession from the person or persons they’ve focused their attention on, and until that item is recovered the Djinn will be able to track their victim’s every move (it can follow them to the ends of the earth, if necessary). 

These bits of ghostly trivia aside, we know nothing about the spirit that has settled in Shideh’s apartment building, including what form it will take (mostly seen as a floating chador, it can also resemble people they know) or why it chose Shideh and Dorsa as its prime targets. From start to finish, the Djinn at the center of Under the Shadow remains an enigma, and this makes it all the more terrifying.

As we mentioned in our year-end show on Horror Movie Podcast, some truly excellent horror films were released in 2016, which made compiling a top-10 for that episode a bit of a challenge. Still, I have no doubt I could have found room for Under the Shadow on my list had I seen it in time.

My Overall Top 10, though (which includes all genres), is another matter entirely. 

Right now, The Witch is resting comfortably in the 10 spot on my 2016 list, and while I really enjoyed Under the Shadow, I can’t say with any degree of certainty that I prefer it to director Robert Eggers’ indie sensation. 

One day in the near future, I hope to watch both The Witch and Under the Shadow back-to-back, to decide once and for all which movie will fill that final spot on my 2016 list.

But regardless of which one I ultimately choose, The Witch is an extraordinary motion picture.

And so, for that matter, is Under the Shadow.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

#2,438. Raw (2016)

Directed By: Julia Ducournau

Starring: Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf, Rabah Nait Oufella

Tagline: "What are you hungry for?"

Trivia: Supposedly, over 30 people left the cinema when this movie was shown in Sweden. Two people fainted and a few others threw up

It’s been ten years since the release of Inside, and nine since Martyrs hit the scene, but with 2016’s Raw writer / director Julia Ducournau has proven the French still have an “appetite” for the extreme (pun intended… and my apologies).

Justine (Garance Marillier), a lifelong vegetarian, is one of many new students at a prestigious veterinary school, the very institution her older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) now attends. At first, Justine, who is incredibly smart and a little shy, has a hard time fitting in; aside from her gay roommate Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella), she hasn’t been able to make any friends. 

Then, during a freshman hazing ritual, Justine is forced to eat a raw rabbit liver. Having never consumed meat before, she has an allergic reaction and breaks out in a nasty rash. But this tiny piece of liver does more than make her itch; it changes her life. All at once, Justine develops a yearning for meat (mostly raw), and it isn’t long before her newfound appetite takes her down a disturbing path.

Is Justine truly a freak of nature (as she believes), or did she come by her bizarre new cravings honestly?

Raw is a visceral genre film of the highest order, a picture drenched in blood and dripping with carnage. But like Inside and Martyrs before it, Raw is much more than the sum of its gore sequences; whereas Inside was ultimately about dealing with loss, and Martyrs presented a search for a higher truth, Raw tells the story of a girl who has found her true self. Having escaped the strict regimen imposed on her by her vegetarian parents, Justine consumes meat for the first time, and it has an overwhelming effect on her.

Suddenly, Justine can’t get enough raw meat, whether human or otherwise (a scene involving a severed finger is arguably the most uncomfortable in the entire film). But it’s more than just the food she now eats. Justine’s personality also evolves; the withdrawn, demure girl who arrived at school gradually disappears, and an outgoing young woman exploring her own sexuality takes her place (Justine even manages to lure the openly gay Adrien into her bed). Eating meat hasn’t just expanded her dietary options; it’s unlocked her true potential, and as we will discover later in the film the cravings Justine now experiences have had a similar effect on others.

Ella Rumpf delivers a solid performance as Alexia, the elder sibling who tries (and more often than not fails) to take Justine under her wing, but it’s Garance Marillier’s turn as Justine, the frightened teenager forced to confront some unpleasant truths about herself, who steals the show. Early on, we sympathize with Justine, a brilliant but reserved student whose experience with raw meat sparks an emotional evolution within, transforming her from a girl into a young woman ready to face the world. Marillier perfectly conveys these two extremes of her character’s personality (introvert and self-confident party girl), and despite her abnormal “appetites” Justine remains, at all times, the film’s most sympathetic character.

Simultaneously savage and unflinching, Raw is guaranteed to give your gag reflex a workout. But it also relates what could very well be the most unique coming-of-age tale ever conceived, and this particular aspect of the movie will, I’m sure, prove every bit as memorable as the moments that will make you turn away in disgust.