Monday, October 31, 2016

#2,238. Videodrome (1983)

Directed By: David Cronenberg

Starring: James Woods, Debbie Harry, Sonja Smits

Tag line: "A shocking new vision"

Trivia: Three different endings were filmed. The ending used in the film was James Woods's idea

Television is reality, and reality is less than television

With the help of special effects master Rick Baker, director David Cronenberg took his usual brand of body horror to an entirely new level with 1983’s Videodrome, a movie that also explores mankind’s love affair with television and the ultimate effect the medium has on our minds and personalities.

Max Renn (James Woods) is the managing director of channel 83, a small station that specializes in extreme entertainment (i.e. – sex and violence). One day, Harlan (Peter Dvorsky), the station’s top engineer, shows Max pirated footage of a series he recently stumbled upon, a program out of Pittsburgh titled Videodrome that features shocking images of torture and brutality. Intrigued, Max begins searching for the show’s originators in the hopes he can strike a deal to broadcast Videodrome on his station

It isn't long before Max and his new girlfriend, radio host Nikki Brand (Debbie Harry), have become addicted to the images they see in this violent program, and when he starts to experience hallucinations, Max is convinced they're somehow linked to Videodrome. Aided by Masha (Lynne Gorman), a talent agent he occasionally works with, Max discovers that Videodrome was the brainchild of professor / media specialist Brian O’Blivion (Jack Creley), who, according to O’Blivion's daughter Bianca (Sonja Smits), was also affected by the show.

As Max delves deeper into the mystery that is Videodrome, his hallucinations become even more intense, and he believes he’s losing his mind. But the truth of what's going on is actually much more frightening.

Fresh off the success of An American Werewolf in London (for which he won the first of his five Academy Awards), Rick Baker once again goes all out in Videodrome, creating make-up effects that are simultaneously amazing and repulsive. In one scene, Max, while holding a gun, notices a pocket has suddenly formed in his abdomen, which allows him to stick his hand completely inside his body. As troubling as this image is, it’s but one of many the film has to offer, and thanks to Baker, the body horror Cronenberg so loves is even more intense than usual.

On a deeper level, Videodrome is also an exposé on the power of television. “The movie goes into more than the relatively simple issue of morality”, Cronenberg said while discussing this film, “like the ways in which television does alter us physically. It’s what Marshall McLuhan was talking about – TV as an extension of our nervous systems and our senses”. We see this in Max, who is convinced Videodrome is causing his body to change, but it’s also there in Nikki Brand, who, shortly after watching Videodrome, burns her own chest with a cigarette, as if to experience the sensation of pain that was on display.

These are radical examples, to be sure, but then Cronenberg was always drawn to the extreme. And that’s exactly what he gives us throughout this brilliant, thought-provoking motion picture.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

#2,237. Dog Soldiers (2002) - The Films of Neil Marshall

Directed By: Neil Marshall

Starring: Sean Pertwee, Kevin McKidd, Emma Cleasby

Tag line: "Six soldiers. Full moon. No chance"

Trivia: Set in Scotland but filmed in Luxemborg

Years before he discovered underground creatures in The Descent and brought on the apocalypse in Doomsday, writer / director Neil Marshall sent a crack military unit up against some pretty nasty werewolves in 2002’s Dog Soldiers. Packed with wild action sequences and a few scenes of over-the-top gore, Dog Soldiers is a thrill-a-minute monster film, and one hell of a directorial debut.

A team of British soldiers travels deep into the Scottish Highlands to take part in what they believe will be a military exercise. But after discovering the bloody remains of a Special Forces unit the next morning, the squad, led by Sgt. Harry Wells (Sean Pertwee) and his second-in-command Pvt. Cooper (Kevin McKidd), realizes they’re suddenly facing an enemy that’s all too real. After rescuing Capt. Ryan (Liam Cunningham), the Special Forces commander and the only one to survive the attack, Wells and his men take off running, one step ahead of what appears to be a pack of enormous wolves.

Following a brief melee, during which one soldier is killed and Sgt. Wells is injured, the remaining troops make their way to the main road, where they’re picked up by a passing land rover driven by Megan (Emma Cleasby), a zoologist, who takes them to a secluded cottage. According to Megan, the wolves that the unit encountered aren’t animals at all; they’re werewolves. Worse than that, they’re hungry werewolves, and when these lycanthropic enemies surround the cottage later that evening, the result is a night of chaos that those lucky enough to survive won’t soon forget.

Unlike most independent monster films, which tend to conceal their creatures until the very end, Dog Soldiers gives us a good look at its werewolves early on, and continues to do so throughout the movie. The reason for this is obvious: the werewolves, brought to life by special make-up effects supervisor Dave Bonneywell and his crew, look damn good, and the more we see them, the creepier they become (each is a few feet taller than their human adversaries, and their appetite for human flesh is never satiated). This leads to several violent encounters between the lycanthropes (which, like most hungry predators, attack frequently) and the soldiers (who transform the tiny cottage into an impressive stronghold), with each new assault more bloody than the last.

This, combined with a superb cast (especially Sean Pertwee as Sgt. Wells, who, during their first night in the wilderness, tells his men an unforgettable story) and a handful of gory scenes, helped make Dog Soldiers the first truly great werewolf film of the new millennium.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

#2,236. Let's Scare Jessica to Death (1971)

Directed By: John Hancock

Starring: Zohra Lampert, Barton Heyman, Kevin O'Connor

Tag line: "Something is after Jessica. Something very cold, very wet... and very dead..."

Trivia: The hearse used in the film was also used to transport the actors to the different filming locations

I sit here and I can’t believe that it happened. And yet I have to believe it. Dreams or nightmares… Madness or sanity… I don’t know which is which

These are the opening lines of 1971’s Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, a low-budget horror film directed by John Hancock that is either about a woman slowly losing her mind, or a vampire that controls a small Connecticut town.

It might even be a little of both.

Jessica (Zohra Lampert) has just been released from a New York City mental hospital, where she spent 6 months following a nervous breakdown. Looking to start anew, she and her husband Duncan (Barton Heyman), as well as their good friend Woody (Kevin O’Connor), move into a farmhouse in rural Connecticut, one situated next to a large, picturesque lake. When they first arrive, they find a girl named Emily (Mariclare Costello), who, believing the house abandoned, has been living there for some time. Realizing she has nowhere else to go, Jessica invites Emily to stay, and the two become fast friends.

In need of money, Duncan (who quit his job with the Philharmonic and spent their entire life savings to buy the house) and Jessica decide to drive into town to sell some of their new home’s more unusual knick-knacks, some of which they found in the attic. While the townsfolk are anything but friendly, the couple does eventually stumble upon an amiable antiques dealer (Alan Manson) who tells them the history of their house, which, in the late 1800’s belonged to the Bishop family. According to legend, young Abigail Bishop, days away from her wedding, drowned in the nearby lake. Because her body was never recovered, some believe she is not only still alive, but also a vampire, feasting on the blood of the locals!

Jessica, who has had several frightening experiences since moving into the house (including nearly drowning in the lake when a figure in white tried to pull her down), begins to believe these stories, and wonders why an old picture of Abigail Bishop so closely resembles Emily. But when she tells Duncan and Woody about what she’s seen, they don’t believe her, and fear that she may once again be losing her mind. Is the horror real, or is Jessica slipping into insanity?

Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is, by no means, a conventional horror film. The majority of it takes place during daylight, and the setting (an actual farm house) is idyllic, even beautiful at times (the opening shot of a rowboat on the lake at sunrise is striking). As for the scares, they are (for most of its run-time, anyway) of the subtle variety, and because of the lead character’s past issues, we’re not even sure if what’s going on is real (did Jessica see a figure in the water, or was it her mind playing tricks on her?).

Yet thanks to the way its director approaches the story, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is, indeed, an unsettling experience. By utilizing voiceover through much of the film, Hancock makes us privy to what Jessica is thinking, the voices in her head that sometimes reveal how she herself isn’t sure of what’s going on (in the opening scene, she spots a young girl decked out in white, played by Gretchen Corbett, walking through a cemetery, and, fearing that it’s all in her head, tells herself to keep what she’s seen quiet). Yet, as the movie progresses, Jessica starts to hear another voice, one that’s talking directly to her, saying Duncan no longer loves her and that she should stay in the house forever. Regardless of whether or not the voice is genuine or a figment of Jessica’s imagination, it’s enough to occasionally send a chill up your spine.

In addition, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death features two strong female characters, with each actress doing a fine job in their respective role. As Jessica, Zohra Lampert perfectly conveys her character’s frailty, as well as the uncertainty that haunts her every waking minute. Jessica does try to put on a happy face (especially at the outset), yet her self-doubt soon gets the better of her. Equal to her is Mariclare Costello as Emily, who is either an innocent house guest or an undead parasite. Her actions sometimes suggest there’s more to her than meets the eye; she attempts to seduce Duncan, and later on insists that Jessica join her down by the lake, resulting in what is easily the film’s most frightening moment. Yet, like Jessica, we’re not quite sure what to make of her. The mystery surrounding this character is eventually solved, but for the majority of the movie we’re as much in the dark as the title character.

Know going in that Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is a slow building horror film, and that there’s very little blood and no gore to speak of. That said, the movie does offer it share of chills, and the finale is just creepy enough to make what went before it worthwhile.

Friday, October 28, 2016

#2,235. Scanners (1981)

Directed By: David Cronenberg

Starring: Jennifer O'Neill, Stephen Lack, Patrick McGoohan

Tag line: "10 Seconds: The Pain Begins. 15 Seconds: You Can't Breathe. 20 Seconds: You Explode"

Trivia: Top-billed Jennifer O'Neill doesn't appear until the 37 minute mark

Blending a spy story with his own unique brand of body horror, writer / director David Cronenberg has, with his 1981 film Scanners, concocted an intriguing motion picture that those with a weak stomach may want to avoid.

After being identified as a “scanner” (a person with advanced telepathy, who is able to both read and control people’s minds), Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack) is taken into custody and delivered to Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan), who has dedicated his life to studying this unusual phenomenon. An employee of ConSec, a firm that specializes in high-tech security, Dr. Ruth believes that Scanners, if properly trained, would make formidable weapons. Not everyone agrees; the company’s new director, Braedon Keller (Lawrence Dane), feels Dr. Ruth’s research has failed to produce any results, and should therefore be shut down. So, to prove his theories are correct, the good doctor sends his star pupil, Stephen Vale, to infiltrate a group of rogue scanners, which, led by the volatile Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside), intends to use telekinesis to take over the world.

Along with uncovering the fact that Revok is directly involved in the manufacturing of the drug Ephemerol, which is used by scanners to control their telepathic powers, Vale also finds there’s a traitor in ConSec, who is leaking vital information to Revok’s group. Hoping to end the hostilities (which have grown more violent in recent days) between the two organizations , Vale convinces fellow scanner Kim Obrist (Jennifer O’Neill), a former associate of Revok’s, to talk with ConSec. But what Vale doesn’t yet realize is there’s more to this situation than meets the eye, and not everything is as it seems.

With its story of corporate espionage and world domination, Scanners sounds more like a James Bond movie than it does a horror film, and, to be sure, it does feature several exciting shoot-outs, as well as one very powerful scene in which Vale uses his scanning abilities to hack into ConSec’s computer (a sequence that ends with a bang.. literally). In addition, Scanners turns a critical eye towards the pharmaceutical industry, which, it contends, sometimes puts profits above all else (apparently, Ephemerol has been around for years, and wasn’t always used to suppress scanning). But, in true Cronenberg fashion, Scanners also has its share of body horror, some of which is quite disturbing (the infamous “head explosion” still packs a punch, yet even this pales in comparison to the film’s gruesome finale).

With strong performances by Michael Ironside and Patrick McGoohan, as well as a number of surprising plot twists, Scanners is an intense motion picture, and while it may not be the most horrific movie that Cronenberg ever directed, it’s certainly one of his most interesting.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

#2,234. It Follows (2014)

Directed By: David Robert Mitchell

Starring: Maika Monroe, Keir Gilchrist, Olivia Luccardi

Tag line: "It doesn't think. It doesn't feel. It doesn't give up"

Trivia: Shot mainly with wide-angle lenses to give the film a more expansive, intimidating feel

It’s out there, trying to get to you. 

It moves slowly… methodically… but it knows exactly where you are. 

And it’s coming… it’s always coming. 

If you drive a hundred miles away, you can buy yourself a little time, but it will eventually find you. 

You can send it after someone else, but once it catches that person (whoever it may be), it will start chasing you again. 

This is the basic concept behind writer / director David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows, as well as the reason it is such an incredibly unnerving horror film.

Jay (Maika Monroe), an average teenage girl from the suburbs of Detriot, has her life turned upside-down following  a single night of passion with her new boyfriend Hugh (Jake Weary). As it turns out, Hugh was being followed by a dangerous entity intent on killing him, and by having sex with Jay, he “passed” this entity (which is invisible to everybody else in the world) on to her! 

Hugh tells Jay that, if she wants to survive, she, too, will have to sleep with someone, and that she should do it sooner than later (if the creature should kill Jay before she does so, then it would again start chasing Hugh).

Though not initially convinced that Hugh is telling the truth, Jay soon discovers the threat is very real, and turns to her sister Kelly (Lili Sepe) and their friends Paul (Keir Gilchrist) and Yara (Olivia Luccardi) for help. 

Once she realizes that the creature won’t stop following her, Jay wrestles with the idea of having sex with someone else. But can she, in good conscience, pass this curse on to an innocent person, or will Jay instead find a way to defeat the monster before it gets her?

Throughout It Follows, director Mitchell employs a number of long, uninterrupted shots designed to build up the tension in each scene. In the opening sequence, a young woman named Annie (Bailey Spry) darts out of her house and into the middle of the road. The camera doesn’t cut away; it stays with Annie as she looks around nervously, acting like she is running from something, and even though we see nothing chasing her, nor even have any idea what’s going on at this point in the movie, the panic in Annie’s eyes is enough to bring us to the edge of our seats.

The entire cast does a fine job, especially Maika Monroe as Jay, the teenager unwittingly tossed into a nightmare. Yet it’s the monster itself that makes It Follows such a creepy motion picture. Much like Jason in the Friday the 13th series, this entity is in no hurry. It walks - ever so slowly - towards its intended victim, taking the form of a different person each time, yet still moving in a manner that is unmistakably menacing. 

Even more unsettling is the fact it never stops chasing you. After one particularly close call, Jay, Kelly, and the others, along with Jay’s neighbor Greg (Danile Zovatto), head to a remote beach house, which, considering it took an entire night to get there, is presumably very far away. A few days pass, and Jay begins to let her guard down. As a result, she almost pays the ultimate price.

That is what makes It Follows such an unforgettable horror film: no matter how far you run, this creature is out there, and it is coming. Stylish and clever, It Follows is - from start to finish - a nerve-racking experience.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

#2,233. Lights Out (2016)

Directed By: David F. Sandberg

Starring: Teresa Palmer, Gabriel Bateman, Maria Bello

Tag line: "You were right to be afraid of the dark"

Trivia: Made back its entire production budget on its opening day at the box office

Like many kids, I was once afraid of the dark, and to alleviate my fears plenty of well-meaning adults would tell me that there was nothing in the dark that wasn’t also there during the day. I always knew that was BS, and Lights Out, a 2016 horror movie produced by James Wan, proves I was right.

It’s been some time since the tragic death of his father (Billy Burke), yet the family turmoil continues for young Martin (Gabriel Bateman), who hears his mother Sophie (Maria Bello) talking to herself for hours on end in the middle of the night. But upon investigation, Martin realizes his mom is not alone after all: a shadowy creature, which can only be seen when the lights are out, is with her. Sophie insists this entity is her friend, and refers to it as “Diana”, but Martin is so petrified that he can’t even sleep at night.

After falling asleep (once again) in class, Martin asks the school to call his older half-sister Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) to come pick him up. Though her relationship with their mother is strained (she left home years earlier, and has been living on her own for some time), Rebecca agrees to let Martin stay at her apartment. But to her dismay, “Diana” turns up as well, reminding her of a childhood encounter she herself had with the entity. In an effort to help her kid brother, Rebecca does a little research and uncovers some startling information regarding both her mother and Diana. Aided by her boyfriend Bret (Alexander DiPersia), Rebecca spends the evening at Sophie’s house in the hopes of ending this nightmare once and for all.

But Diana isn’t about to go quietly into the night.

Directed by David F. Sandberg, Lights Out is a very unique ghost story in that it gives us a malevolent spirit that can only be seen in the dark (it disappears completely when a light is turned on). As you can imagine, this leads to a good number of jump scares, and it’s to the filmmakers’ credit that, even when we know one is coming, these “surprises” are still damned unnerving. Lights Out also benefits from having one of the creepiest ghosts I’ve seen in some time; a tall, lanky being with no discernible features, Diana slinks in the shadows and hides in dark corners, waiting to pounce on those she views as a threat (which is pretty much anyone who might come between her and Sophie).

Even when we learn a little about Diana (including why she stays out of the light, and the reason she and Sophie share such a strong bond), it doesn’t reduce the film’s scare factor one iota. If anything, her backstory is so disturbing that it actually makes Diana even more frightening than she was before! In addition to its horror elements, Lights Out is also an effective family drama (along with looking out for each other, Rebecca and Martin try their darnedest to help Sophie) with a dash of romance thrown in for good measure (as the terror escalates the relationship between Rebecca and Bret grows stronger).

So, for anyone who is still afraid of the dark, don’t be ashamed to sleep with the lights on. After watching Lights Out, it may be the only way you’ll be able to get a little shut-eye!

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

#2,232. Prince of Darkness (1987)

Directed By: John Carpenter

Starring: Donald Pleasence, Lisa Blount, Jameson Parker

Tag line: "Before man walked the slept for centuries. It is evil. It is real. It is awakening"

Trivia: Rock singer Alice Cooper is among the hordes of homeless people that surround the church during the film

John Carpenter is no stranger to horror aficionados, and some of his films (specifically Halloween and The Thing) continue to appear on many fans’ All-Time Top-10 lists (mine included). 

Released in 1987, Prince of Darkness sees Carpenter operating on an entirely different level, combining religion and science to relate an ominous tale of the apocalypse and - in so doing - creating a motion picture as thought-provoking as it is frightening.

A dark secret is being stored in the basement of Saint Goddard’s church in downtown Los Angeles. A Catholic priest (Donald Pleasance), who only just found it himself, learns that, for centuries, an organization known as The Brotherhood of Sleep has been guarding a large cylinder (situated in this basement) that they believe houses pure evil (in liquid form). 

In an effort to prove to the world that this is a very real danger, the priest contacts University Professor Howard Birack (Victor Wong), who teaches a course on subatomic particles, and asks him to conduct a series of experiments on the cylinder. 

Realizing the importance of this find, Birack and several of his students, including Brian Marsh (Jameson Parker), Catherine Danforth (Lisa Blount), and Walter (Dennis Dun), agree to spend the weekend in the abandoned church, studying this strange phenomenon. They are joined by about a half-dozen others, including micro-biologist Dr. Paul Leahy (Peter Jason); and Lisa (Ann yen), a Theology student specializing in archaic languages, who is brought in to interpret an ancient book recently discovered near the site.

And what this book contains is quite extraordinary. 

The force encased inside the cylinder is, in fact, a sentient being, the so-called son of an “Anti-God” that exists in a universe mirroring our own (according to this book, Jesus was, in reality, an extraterrestrial sent to earth to warn us of the danger). 

It is foretold that the Anti-God's Son will clear the way for his father’s arrival on earth, and to everyone’s dismay, the time for the son’s manifestation is upon them; the liquid inside the cylinder has been surprisingly active (spewing out mathematical formulas so complex that Catherine can’t identify them), and a large collection of homeless people (clearly under the control of an otherworldly force) have massed outside the church, where - led by a particularly psychotic vagrant (rocker Alice Cooper) - they attack anyone trying to leave. 

To add to the mystery of it all is a “dream” that everyone experiences, a warning of sorts that may have been sent from the future, asking those who receive it to do whatever is necessary to prevent the end of days. 

As you can imagine, this in and of itself is enough to put the researchers on edge, but is nothing compared to what happens when the liquid starts escaping from the cylinder… 

In typical John Carpenter fashion, Prince of Darkness features a number of eerie scenes, from the slightly disturbing (the recurring dream sequence appears to be a grainy video taken outside the church, revealing a cloaked figure lurking in the shadows) to the straight-up terrifying (the most intense moment in the entire film has one character trapped in a closet, while several of his colleagues, all of whom have been possessed by the evil, lurk just outside). 

Yet what makes Prince of Darkness so consistently effective is the sense of dread that permeates throughout, that feeling of impending doom that neither the characters nor the audience can shake. The musical score, composed by Carpenter himself (with an assist from Alan Howarth), enhances the inherent creepiness, and this dark, gloomy story only gets darker and gloomier as it progresses. 

I had seen Prince of Darkness several times before, yet for some reason this latest viewing really struck a nerve with me, revealing the film’s many qualities and drawing me deeper into its tragic story than it ever has before. I’ve been turning it over and over in my head for hours now, and the more I think about it, the more I realize just how impressive it is. 

In fact, it’s so good that it has me re-thinking my list of top 10 horror films.

Prince of Darkness is a horror masterpiece, and with all due respect to Halloween and The Thing, it might just be John Carpenter’s masterpiece as well.

Monday, October 24, 2016

#2,231. The Cabin in the Woods (2012)

Directed By: Drew Goddard

Starring: Kristen Connolly, Chris Hemsworth, Anna Hutchison

Tag line: "We work with what we have"

Trivia: Won five 2012 Fright Meter Awards, including Best Horror Movie, Best Director, and Best Screenplay

There are those who think that 2012’s The Cabin the Woods is a straight-up spoof of the horror genre, and I have no doubt that - at least to some degree - writer Joss Whedon and director Drew Goddard were going for this very thing when they made it. But it’s also a loving tribute to the horror movies of old, taking the clichés that have been well-established over the years and turning them on their heads. The result is a very original, highly entertaining motion picture.

Five college friends: the virginal Dana (Kristen Connolly); uber-jock Curt (Chris Hemsworth); party girl Jules (Anna Hutchinson); the pot-smoking Marty (Fran Kranz); and Holden (Jesse Williams), a newcomer to the group, head deep into the woods for a weekend getaway at a cabin owned by Curt’s cousin. This cabin is well off the beaten path. In fact, according to an incredibly rude local gas station attendant (Tim DeZarn), the cabin has changed hands many times, and after what’s happened to some of its previous occupants, nobody stays there anymore.

Undeterred by the warning, the group eventually arrives at their destination, and while unpacking discover a few strange things about the place (including a one-way mirror that separates Holden’s room from Dana’s). But they are determined to have a good time, which is exactly how the weekend goes until later that first night, when the wind blows open a hatch in the floor, revealing a basement filled with an assortment of oddly creepy knick-knacks. 

The one that catches Dana’s eye is a diary from 1906, written by a girl named Patience Buckner, whose family was clearly into some terrible stuff (including torture and murder). The diary’s final entry is a phrase written entirely in Latin. Fearing the worst, Marty begs Dana not to read the passage aloud, but to no avail. And sure enough, those few words trigger a chain of events that could spell doom for all of them.

But what these five don’t know is that a pair of technicians, Gary Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) and Steve Hadley (Bradley Whitford), are watching this all play out from the comfort on an underground bunker, and are using high-tech equipment and hidden cameras to track the friends every move. Sitterson and Hadley are members of an organization that, for reasons unknown, is very interested in what happens to Dana, Curt, and the others. What’s more, these two gentlemen, and all of their compatriots, have clearly done this before, and, despite their occasionally flippant attitude, something very important is at the center of it all.

It’s how these two very different scenarios blend together that makes The Cabin the Woods so unique, and an absolute blast.

There is comedy in The Cabin the Woods, most of which comes courtesy of Sitterson and Hadley, who, despite the horrors that are descending upon the college chums, seem to view the entire thing as a party. They even operate a betting pool that is somehow tied to the cabin and its occupants (to explain this connection any further would be a spoiler), and every department that works in this bunker (maintenance, R&D, security, etc.) gets in on the action. 

As for the five college friends, they are, in many ways, typical of the characters/victims you’d find in a horror movie: young, cocky, sexually active, and a little careless. But as the film progresses, they become even more stereotypical than they were at the outset, and exactly how (and why) that happens adds yet another layer of intrigue to an already compelling story.

As for the horror, it’s effective and bloody, and what starts as an homage to both slashers and zombie movies soon expands to include many, many sub genres (all of which contribute to the film’s wild and crazy finale). So even if The Cabin the Woods does take the occasional light-hearted jab at the genre we know and love, it's at least clever about it. And after watching the film, I get the distinct impression that Whedon and Goddard "know and love" horror just as much as the rest of us!

Sunday, October 23, 2016

#2,230. Contracted (2013)

Directed By: Eric England

Starring: Najarra Townsend, Caroline Williams, Alice Macdonald

Tag line: "Don't touch anyone"

Trivia: A sequel titled Contracted: Phase II was released September 4, 2015

When done properly, Body Horror can be one very disturbing subgenre. Over the years, directors such as David Cronenberg (Videodrome, The Brood, The Fly) and Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator, From Beyond) proved themselves masters of body horror, while movies like Altered States, Street Trash, Body Melt, and The Human Centipede have taken it in stylish - and occasionally quite disgusting - new directions

With 2013’s Contracted, writer / director Eric England throws his hat into the Body Horror ring by relating the unusual story of a woman who, after contracting a disease during unprotected sex, must deal with the terrifying reality that her body is disintegrating.

It all begins when Samantha (Najarra Townsend), trying to get her mind off her troubled romance with Nikki (Katie Stegman), attends a party thrown by her good friend Alice (Alice Macdonald). While there, Samantha is drugged by a guy who says his name is “B.J.” (Simon Barrett), and before she knows what’s hit her, she is in a car having sex with this mysterious predator. Over the next several days, Samantha suffers the consequences of this encounter when her body begins to fall apart.

Her mother (Caroline Williams) is convinced that Samantha is back on drugs (a habit she kicked some time earlier), while the doctor (Ruben Pla) has no idea what to make of her sudden deterioration. What’s worse, Samantha learns that the police are searching for B.J., as well as anyone who may have come into contact with him. Frightened and confused, Samantha tries everything from ski caps to make-up to hide her condition, all the while wondering if there’s a cure for what appears to be a life-or-death struggle against her own body.

Contracted has its share of repugnant scenes, all of which center on the lead’s “illness”. The morning after the party, Samantha awakens in a dazed state, with no idea how she got back home, and is further concerned by the discovery of a pool of blood under the covers. This is nothing, however, compared to the terror that awaits her.  A later scene where her eyeballs start to bleed is troubling enough, but pales in comparison to what Samantha finds while applying a lotion to a rash between her legs. To his credit, director England ensures that we witness every nauseating detail of Samantha's decline.

Najarra Townsend delivers a passionate performance as Samantha, who over the course of the movie must deal with emotional issues as well as physical trauma. Even as her body is crumbling, Samantha’s desire to reconnect with Nikki is never far from her mind. Caroline Williams is equally good as the mother who can’t seem to resist judging her daughter’s every action, and while some may have issues with the lead’s questionable behavior towards the end of the film, Contracted is, at all times, a fine example of Body Horror at its most gruesome.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

#2,229. Night of the Living Deb (2015)

Directed By: Kyle Rankin

Starring: Syd Wilder, Maria Thayer, Ray Wise

Line from the film: "Joe, why are you eating a foot?"

Trivia: Had its U.S. premiere at the Spooky Movie Film Festival in Oct., 2015

I was a big fan of director Kyle Rankin’s Infestation, a horror / comedy / apocalyptic film from 2009 in which mankind’s existence was threatened by an invasion of giant bugs. So when I saw that Mr. Rankin was also responsible for 2015’s Night of the Living Deb, my hopes were high. But while Infestation drew me in almost immediately with its humor and special effects, it took a while for me to warm up to the director’s latest offering, and its title character was the reason why.

Take, for instance, the opening few scenes. While relaxing in a bar with her good friend Ruby (Julie Brister), Deb Clarington (Maria Thayer), who works for a local news station in Portland, Maine, spots a cute guy across the room and, cheered on by Ruby, gathers up the courage to talk to him. The guy is Ryan Waverly (Michael Cassidy), who’s in the midst of having a fight with his fiancée Stacy (Syd Wilder).

Jump ahead to the next morning, when a confused Deb wakes up, all alone, in Ryan’s bed! Ryan is actually in the next room, chatting with his brother on the phone and trying to figure out a way to get Deb to leave as quickly as possible. Deb overhears this, but pretends she’s been asleep until Ryan finally walks in. With a big smile on her face, Deb talks of spending the day (which is July 4th, a holiday) with Ryan and his family, acting as if they’re already a couple. At first I thought she was having some fun at Ryan's expense, but the problem is she doesn’t let up, and a few minutes later what might have been funny is… well, kinda creepy. At this point, I had no idea what to make of this film’s quirky lead character.

I wasn’t crazy about Deb at the outset, but I have to admit I warmed up to her as the movie progressed, and by the time the final credits rolled, I absolutely loved her.

Shortly after parting ways, Deb and Ryan have a few frightening encounters on the streets of Portland, and before long realize that, at some point during the night, a quick-moving disease transformed most of the town’s citizens into bloodthirsty zombies. Luckily, the two are able to make their way back to Ryan’s apartment, where they formulate a plan to collect their loved ones and head for safety. Hopping into Deb’s car, they first stop to check in on Ruby (who has already “turned”), then rush over to pick up Ryan’s gun-loving brother Chaz (Chris Marquette) as well as his father (Ray Wise), a self-made millionaire who controls the entire town’s water supply. Ryan is also relieved to learn that Stacy spent the night with his family, and wants to make up with him.

As it turns out, Ryan’s dad is the one responsible for the zombie outbreak (an experimental chemical was accidentally released into the town’s drinking water). Still, despite his role in this disaster, Ryan’s dad has enough pull with the Governor to order a helicopter that will lift them all to safety. But, unbeknownst to Ryan, dear old dad has no intention of bringing Deb along. Will Ryan risk his neck for a girl he barely knows, or will he save himself instead?

One of the strengths of Night of the Living Deb is its cast. Marquette and Wise (both of whom also had major roles in Infestation) play Ryan’s corrupt dad and gun-crazy brother, and have their share of entertaining scenes (Marquette is especially hilarious as the imbecile you can’t help but like). In addition, Syd Wilder is both sultry and aggravating as Ryan’s overbearing fiance Stacy, taking what is basically a one-note character and breathing as much life into her as possible.

But Night of the Living Deb is all about Deb and Ryan, and how a zombie outbreak brought them closer together. Both Thayer and Cassidy do a fine job as the mismatched couple (she is spontaneous and unpredictable but lacks self-confidence; he is an ecology nut who turned his back on his family’s fortune, yet doesn’t have the strength to stand up to his father or brother when the chips are down). Yes: there have been hundreds, if not thousands, of movies in which a man and a woman, from different sides of the tracks, fall desperately in love. But how many were set during a zombie apocalypse?

Ultimately, Night of the Living Deb doesn’t quite work as a horror movie; aside from a few close calls with the undead early on, there’s not much here to get your pulse pounding. As for the comedy, it’s slightly more effective, due mostly to the film’s witty dialogue (while looking through Ryan’s fridge for some snacks to take on their journey, Deb instead finds nothing but health food. “Coconut milk?” she says sarcastically, “Are we in Portland or on Gilligan’s Island?”). I also liked how the film played fast and loose with the accepted rules of a zombie apocalypse (from what started the outbreak to the manner in which its spread), which is sure to give zombie aficionados a few chuckles. 

But this is not the kind of movie that will consistently crack you up. What sets Night of the Living Deb apart from all the others is the love affair that develops between its two leads, and while that’s not exactly what genre fans want to hear, I think the film’s charms may just win them over in the end.

At least that’s how it was with me.

Friday, October 21, 2016

#2,228. The Invitation (2015)

Directed By: Karyn Kusama

Starring: Logan Marshall-Green, Emayatzy Corinealdi, Michiel Huisman

Tag line: "There's a plan for us"

Trivia: Initially, Luke Wilson was cast to play a major role in this film

In the pre-title sequence of director Karyn Kusama’s 2015 horror film The Invitation, Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and his girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) are on their way to a dinner party when they accidentally hit a coyote, which darted in front of their car. Though badly injured, the coyote is not dead, so Will decides to put the poor thing out of it misery by hitting it on the head with a tire iron. By the very manner in which its presented, we know this accident is no random event: whether directly or simply thematically, this scene will prove important later on, and like everything else that occurs during this extraordinarily engaging movie, it will take some time for us to realize its significance.

The dinner party is being hosted by Will’s ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and her new husband David (Michiel Huisman). It has been two years since Will last saw Eden or visited the house they once shared, and when he and Kira finally arrive, Will is surprised to learn that six old friends have also been invited: Miguel (Jordi Vilasuso), Tommy (Mike Doyle), Ben (Jar Larson), Choi (Karl Yune), Gina (Michelle Krusiec) and Claire (Marieh Delfino). Though glad to be reunited with his former pals, Will can’t shake the feeling that there’s something unusual about this party, a hunch that only gets stronger when Sadie (Lindsay Burdge), and Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch), who he had never met before, also turn up.

Still, despite the tragedy that ripped their marriage apart (from which Will himself has not yet fully recovered), Eden appears to be very happy, and tells of how she and David, during a recent trip to Mexico, joined a “group” that changed their lives for the better. This organization (some call it a cult), headed up by a man named Dr. Joseph (Toby Huss), supposedly teaches people how to get past their pain and suffering. Sadie and Pruitt are also members, and at first the party seems to be some sort of recruiting session, designed to convince Will and the others to join as well. But as the evening wears on, Will suspects there’s something much more dangerous at play, and if he and Kira don’t leave soon, they may never get a chance to walk away again,

Thanks in large part to the fine performances delivered by its cast, every character in The Invitation feels 100% genuine, and we enjoy the time we spend with them. Yet it’s the meticulous manner in which director Kusama peels away the layers of this emotionally-charged story that truly impressed me. With each passing scene, we learn a little more about these characters, including the heartbreaking event that tore Will and Eden apart, and what it was that caused Eden to go searching for a way to end her pain.

To reveal more would be unforgivable; The Invitation is such an expertly crafted mystery that it earns our patience, and I was perfectly happy to let it play out at its own pace. Even in those scenes that are dialogue heavy, every moment in The Invitation feels important. It is not often you can say that about a horror movie (or, indeed, any film).

But then, The Invitation isn’t your average fright fest, and when all of its mysteries have been revealed, you’ll be damn glad you sat through it.

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, all of them 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, returned it). 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. By the time John returns home (he made one last trip to his Uncle’s), she's disappeared without a trace, and when he goes looking for her, he uncovers 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. Their life will go on, but 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 outside world.

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 in 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. Will Julie uncover the secrets of Valhalla, or 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 suddenly 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, where 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 if 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), 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 paranormal investigator 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. The babysitter then 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 then 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 hope to 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 has 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 run time.

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.