Thursday, October 22, 2020

Capsule Reviews - Nordic Horror

Five movies from Europe’s northern regions that will get your pulse pounding!

1. Antichrist (2009)

So what kind of movie is director Lars von Trier’s Antichrist? Well, to answer that question, let’s jump forward to the film’s end credits, specifically those relating to the “research assistants”. Each of von Trier’s researchers was apparently given a specific subject to explore, and among them are Heidi Laura, who researched misogyny; Thomas Christensen and Astra Wellejus, who delved into mythology and evil; Trine Breum studied horror films; Poel Lubicke explored the subject of Theology; and Simo Koppe had the pleasure of researching anxiety. So based on that credit grouping alone, you can guess that Antichrist is going to be a bleak, emotional film, which is exactly what von Trier delivers. Willem Defoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg are brilliant as the grieving couple who, to deal with a tragic loss, head into the woods, hoping the isolation of their cabin retreat will help them mend their failing marriage. But what they encounter instead might just destroy them forever. There’s a genuine chemistry between Dafoe and Gainsbourg, which makes where the story ultimately goes all the more troubling, and the black & white photography, coupled with von Trier’s use of slow motion, is breathtaking (even when what we’re seeing is so very disturbing). Antichrist is a dark, chilling movie about the nature of loss and grief, a beautiful motion picture that will shake you to your core. And I’ll never look at a piece of firewood in quite the same way again!
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

2. Day of Wrath (1943)

Though more an historical drama than a horror film, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Day of Wrath casts a spotlight on 17th century witch hunts, a subject most genre fans will likely find appealing. Anna (Lisbeth Movin) is the wife of local pastor Absalom Pedersson (Thorkild Roose), the lone priest in their tiny village. Anna’s mother was once accused of witchcraft, and as a reward for saving her mother’s life, Anna married Absalom (Absalom refused to condemn the old girl for witchcraft). Trouble arises, however, when Martin (Preben Lerdorff), Absalom’s adult son from a previous marriage, returns from abroad. The moment they meet, Anna and Martin are attracted to one another, and soon after they begin an affair. But is it love or something more sinister that has drawn them together? Dreyer, who also directed my all-time favorite silent movie The Passion of Joan of Arc, establishes an ominous tone right at the outset of Day of Wrath, which he then maintains for much of its running time. In addition, the character of Anna remains an enigma throughout; seemingly naïve and innocent as the film commences, she grows more manipulative, more daring, once Martin enters the picture, and because of this we’re never quite sure what’s motivating her. Does Anna love Martin, or is it witchcraft that caused this attraction? It’s here that Day of Wrath sets itself apart from movies like The Witchfinder General, Mark of the Devil and Haxan, films that clearly depict the witch hunters themselves - and not the so-called witches - as the true force of evil. In Day of Wrath, Dreyer looks at it from both sides, and we, the audience, are left to make our own judgments about what’s really happening. Like The Passion of Joan of Arc, Day of Wrath is a classic, and is not to be missed.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

3. Hour of the Wolf (1968)

Ingmar Bergman often delved into dark subject matter; his The Virgin Spring was remade by Wes Craven as The Last House on the Left, and his dramas occasionally crossed the line into horror-esque territory (Even Fanny and Alexander featured a handful of supernatural sequences). With Hour of the Wolf, the legendary director dives headfirst into full-blown horror, and true to form it’s psychological in nature. Artist Johan Borg (Max Von Sydow) and his pregnant wife Alma (Liv Ullmann) live on a small island. Johan has been experiencing terrifying visions as of late, but it isn’t until he meets some of the island’s other residents, including Baron Von Merkens (Erland Josephson), that he begins to comprehend the true nature of the horrors that haunt him night after night. The jarring camera movements and sudden cuts Bergman employs throughout Hour of the Wolf are unlike anything I’ve seen from him before (all of which enhance the horrific story he’s telling), and the director’s longtime cinematographer Sven Nykvist once again proves he’s a master of black & white, with startlingly beautiful shots and sequences. Add to this the superb performances by Bergman regulars Von Sydow, Ullmann, and Josephson and you have a must-see motion picture (though to be fair, I have yet to watch a Bergman film that wasn’t one).
Rating: 10 out of 10

4. Marianne (2011)

The most interesting aspect of director Filip Tegstedt’s 2011 film Marianne is its lead character, Krister (Thomas Hedengran), a teacher who, since the tragic death of his wife, has been having terrible nightmares, which may be the source of an evil entity that’s tormenting him as he sleeps. Played quite well by Hedengren, we sympathize with Krister through much of Marianne; on the surface, he seems like a nice guy. But as revealed in the opening sequence ( a flashback of 10 years or so), he’s also a bit of a heel; he cheated on his wife, and for a time left her and their young daughter Sandra, who, now that she’s a teenager (played by Sandra Larsson), resents the hell out of him. Krister did eventually return to his family, and in so doing spurned yet another longtime lover, the titular Marianne (Viktoria Satter)! So even as we root for Krister to reconcile with Sandra, we understand that he may very well deserve the terrors that the ghostly presence brings his way each and every night. The mystery of who or what this ghost is - and why it has been visiting Krister - is easily figured out well before the final reveal. Yet I’d still recommend you check out Marianne; it’s a slow burn that sometimes favors family drama over horror, but with enough creepy moments to keep you on your toes.
Rating: 8 out of 10

5. Thelma (2017)

Thelma (Eili Harboe), a repressed young woman who spent her entire life under the watchful eye of an ultra-religious father (Henrik Rafaelsen), moves to Oslo to attend University, and there befriends Anja (Kaya Wilkins), a fellow student. As their friendship grows, Thelma develops deeper feelings for Anja, an attraction that may account for the sudden reemergence of Thelma’s epileptic siezures, a childhood condition she thought was under control. But is this newfound love the true cause of Thelma’s physical ailment, or is it all in her mind? Despite its more horrific elements, 2017’s Thelma is a beautiful motion picture; kudos to director Joachim Trier and cinematographer Jakob Ihre, who employ numerous long shots throughout, perfectly establishing the sense of isolation that plagues their lead character through much of the movie. In addition, Thelma features a positively chilling opening sequence - set sometime in the past - where Thelma, as a child, accompanied her father on a hunt (this scene changes our perception of Thelma’s relationship with her dad, essentially clueing the audience in on something that even Thelma herself doesn’t know). Eili Harboe is amazing in the title role, portraying a shy, demure girl who slowly comes out of her social shell, yet feels nothing but guilt for doing so, all the while never realizing the awesome power she possesses. Thelma is not a fast-paced movie by any stretch, but is so incredibly engrossing, and told with such skill, that I was completely immersed in it.
Rating: 9 out of 10

Thursday, October 15, 2020

#2.519. Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural (1973)

Set during the depression and featuring gangsters, vampires, and an innocent girl at the center of it all, 1973’s Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural is a very strange - albeit hugely entertaining - motion picture.

Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural relates the story of Lila Lee (Cheryl Smith), the 13-year-old daughter of renowned gangster Alvin Lee (William Whitton). With her mother dead and her father on the run, Lila has been taken in by the local Reverend (played by writer / director Richard Blackburn), and every Sunday she sings like an angel during his church services.

Lila’s near-idyllic new life is turned upside-down, however, when she receives a letter in the mail telling her that her father is dying, and wants to make amends with his daughter before he passes. Believing it’s the right thing to do, Lila sneaks off one evening and makes her way to the town where her father is hiding out, only to find herself at the mercy of a vampire named Lemora (Lesley Gilb), who, with the help of her countless minions, plans to keep Lila prisoner for as long as she possibly can.

As directed by Blackburn, Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural has the look and feel of a made-for-TV picture, and at times even comes across like a Disney-esque feature (though more along the lines of Something Wicked This Way Comes than The Apple Dumpling Gang). Yet, despite this, I was still surprised to learn this fantasy / horror film was only rated PG. Aside from the bloody killing that opens the movie, when Alvin bursts into the bedroom and murders his wife and her lover, most of the men young Lila encounters (including the Reverend who acts as her guardian) lust after her, even though she’s only 13 years old! There’s also a frightening scene involving a bus ride (through a dark forest) that likely scared the hell out of kids who saw this movie back in 1973.

When all is said and done, Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural is a solid horror flick, with decent performances (especially Lesley Gilb’s turn as the title character), ominous set pieces, and a well-paced, engaging story. My only advice to the parents out there is that you take its PG rating with a grain of salt; there’s a good chance Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural will prove a little more than your youngsters can handle.
Rating: 7.5 out of 10 (A film horror fans will enjoy).

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Capsule Reviews - 2020 Horror Movies

This week, I review five movies that went into wide release in the U.S. in 2020

1. Baba Yaga: Terror of the Dark Forest (2020)

The story that drives this Russian horror film is similar to that of another 2020 release, The Wretched. Egor (Oleg Chugonov) and his family: father Alexsy (Aleksey Rozin), stepmother Yullya (Maryana Spivak) and baby sister Varya, have just moved to a new neighborhood. To help his wife adapt to the unfamiliar surroundings, Alexsy hires Tatyana (Svetlana Ustinova), a nanny, to watch over Varya. But there’s something unusual about this nanny, and when Varya disappears without a trace, Egor is shocked to discover his parents no longer remember his baby sister! With the help of new friends Dasha (Giafira Golubeva) and Anton (Artyom Zhigulin), Egor attempts to find Varya, who, it turns out, has been abducted by an ancient witch that goes by the name… Baba Yaga! Baba Yaga: Terror of the Dark Forest features some effective early scares (the best of which involves a nanny cam), and the young performers, led by Chugonov, do a fine job handling the bulk of the workload. That said, the movie does occasionally give off an It: Chapter One vibe (especially when Egor and his pals descend into an alternate reality to battle Baba Yaga), and like many low-budget films, the computer imagery is its weakest aspect (it’s especially distracting in the final scenes). Fortunately, the strengths of Baba Yaga: Terror of the Dark Forest outweigh its weaknesses, and more often than not this one delivers the goods.
Rating: 7 out of 10

2. The Deeper You Dig (2019)

There was so much about The Deeper You Dig that impressed me, so much of it that worked, that it made those portions that didn’t work all the more frustrating. A tragic accident involving a 14-year-old girl (Zelda Adams) blurs the line between life and death for both the girl’s mother (Toby Poser) and a lonely stranger (John Adams).Written and directed by stars Poser and John Adams, The Deeper You Dig gets off to a great start; the introduction of its characters, the wintry setting, the event that sets the story in motion, all handled perfectly. I also loved how the movie utilized sound (even in those scenes where it was a bit of a distraction), and the main cast (including young Zelda Adams) delivers strong performances. Where the movie started to lose me was the way it approached its supernatural elements, some of which were occasionally intriguing (the mother’s journey into the seven circles resulted in a few cool scenes, but not enough to justify the subplot entirely) and others that were downright disappointing (especially the spectral visitations). Still, I would not discourage anyone from watching The Deeper You Dig; there’s a lot going on here, and even those moments that fell short for me were, at the very least, unique. And if you do check this movie out, be sure to let me know what you think of it; whether you love it or hate it, The Deeper You Dig is one you’re going to want to talk about!
Rating: 6 out of 10

3. The Dinner Party (2020)

How do you take a nearly two hour, dialogue heavy horror film and keep an audience’s interest throughout? You cast it well, which is exactly what director Miles Doleac has done with The Dinner Party. Jeff (Mike Mayhall), a playwright, and his wife Haley (Alli Hart) are the guests of honor at a dinner party thrown by several influential socialites, including Doctor Carmine (Bill Sage); opera aficionado Sebastian (Sawandi Wilson); best-selling author Agatha (Kamille McCuin); and investment banker Vincent (played by director Doleac). It’s Jeff’s hope that, by evening’s end, his hosts will have agreed to bankroll his newest play, but as he and his wife will soon discover, there’s more on the menu at this particular party than just wine and caviar. The Dinner Party is smartly written (the work of Doleac and his co-writer Michael Donovan Horn), but it’s the performances that really blew me away. Along with those mentioned above, Lindsey Anne Williams plays Sadie, a spiritualist, and Ritchie Montgomery has a brief but memorable role as a police deputy. In their more than capable hands, these performers deliver extended monologues about art, classical music, and opera in such a way that we’re hanging on their every word. The story itself is also good (though we realize before they do that Jeff and Haley are more than just dinner guests), but it’s the cast that makes this one memorable.
Rating: 8 out of 10

4. The Other Lamb (2019)

A cult-themed horror / drama directed by Malgorzata Szumowska, The Other Lamb tells the story of Selah (Raffey Cassidy), a teenage girl who has spent her entire life following the Shepherd (Michael Huisman), the only man in a commune of women and the self-appointed leader of his “flock”. Fast approaching the age of adulthood, at which point she will become one of the Shepherd’s wives, Selah finds her “faith” in the Shepherd waning, and feels more like a prisoner than one of his beloved followers. Cassidy, who also appeared in 2017’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer and 2018’s Vox Lux, delivers a magnificent performance as the confused young girl on the verge of becoming a woman. In addition, The Other Lamb is beautifully shot; cinematographer Michal Englert did a masterful job behind the camera (one scene in particular, where Selah is resting on top of a hill, took my breath away). Alas, The Other Lamb is a movie that approaches very dark subject matter, including male dominance and sexual abuse, yet spends most of its runtime dancing around them, rarely tackling these themes head-on. Though gorgeous, The Other Lamb is a slow burn-style horror film that never drives its point home as strongly as it should.
Rating: 5.5 out of 10

5. The Soul Collector (2019)

A horror film steeped in folklore, The Soul Collector (Originally titled 8) takes a fresh approach to the subject of grief, and how the loss of a loved one can drive a man to do the unthinkable. The year is 1977. Her parents deceased, Mary (Keita Luna) now lives with her Uncle William (Garth Breytenbach) and Aunt Sarah (Inge Beckmann), who recently moved into a farmhouse that William inherited from his father. While exploring the nearby woods, Mary meets Lazarus (Thsamano Sebe), a wanderer who volunteers to help William work the farm. But Lazarus is hiding a terrible secret, one that might ultimately put young Mary in the greatest of danger. Shot on-location in South Africa and inspired by a Zulu legend, The Soul Collector tells a harrowing tale of demons, death, and the eternal soul, weaving all of these elements together in a way that is entirely satisfying. As played by Sebe, Lazarus is both hero and villain, a generally decent man who has made a pact with an entity that demands fresh souls, and it’s the battle between good and evil inside of him that gives the movie its energy. If you’re in the mood for a unique spin on horror, look no further than The Soul Collector.
Rating: 8 out of 10

Thursday, October 1, 2020

#2,518. Pig Hunt (2008)

Based on the DVD artwork alone, I went into director James Isaac’s Pig Hunt expecting a creature feature horror film about a giant pig that runs amuck, causing all sorts of chaos. Well, I got that, but I also discovered, fairly quickly, that there was a lot more to this 2008 film than its cover was letting on.

John (Travis Aaron Wade) and his girlfriend Brooks (Tina Huang), along with John’s buddies Ben (Howard Johnson Jr.), Wayne (Rajiv Shah), and Quincy (Trevor Bullock), head to a remote area of the woods to do a little hunting. Setting up camp near a cabin once owned by John's uncle, the group soon encounters the Tibbs brothers, Jake (Jason Foster) and Ricky (Nick Tagas), who invite themselves along on the hunt. Having practically grown up at his uncle’s cabin, John knows the brothers well enough, and warns his companions how volatile the entire Tibbs family (which resides nearby) can be at times. But when a hunting accident leads to tragedy, John and his friends find themselves in serious hot water. Throw in the fact that the locals believe a 3,000 pound man-eating hog - nicknamed “The Ripper” - has been roaming the area for years, and you have a true recipe for disaster.

Pig Hunt does, indeed, have a creature, and we get a few early indications that this beast is more than a local legend (the opening scene features a hunter being torn apart by an unseen animal), and there are several POV shots (from the monster’s perspective) littered throughout the movie, just to remind us there’s something out there. But Pig Hunt is more than just a creature feature; John, the lead character played close to the vest by Travis Aaron Wade, is an experienced hunter and former backwoods yokel who managed to break free of that existence, yet still bears the mental scars of this early lifestyle (including the tragic, unexplained death of the uncle that raised him). We figure out early on (almost at the same time his girlfriend Brooks does) that John is a complex dude, and being back in these woods has stirred something inside of him. If the movie has a weakness it’s that John is ultimately left underexplored. But thanks to Wade’s performance we get a taste of the demons that creep up on his character every once in a while.

In addition, Pig Hunt features a bloody showdown between the main characters and the Tibbs clan (which escalates when Ben does something very, very stupid), and their clashes result in some of the film’s grislier moments (though, on the violence scale, the creature attacks are much bloodier). And then there’s the hippie commune, home to one man (played by Bryonn Bain) and a bevy of beauties. This seemingly peaceful bunch spends their days growing marijuana and raising emus, though their true reason for being out there might be a little more sinister.

As you can tell, there’s a lot going on in Pig Hunt, and for a time I was a bit concerned that the filmmakers may have bitten off more than they could chew, taking the story in too many directions. Fortunately, director Isaacs and screenwriters Robert & Zack Anderson managed to tie everything together in the end, leading to a finale that was as satisfying as it was insane.

And Pig Hunt is, without a doubt, an insane motion picture, but in a very good way. I had a great time watching it.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10 (watch it as soon as you can)

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Capsule Reviews - Sept. 24, 2020

A random selection of films

1. Come And See (1985)

This 1985 Russian film is a masterpiece in every sense of the word. Set in the Belarus region during World War II, Come and See introduces us to Flyora (Aleksey Kravchenko), a young boy who finds a rifle and joins an underground regiment to fight the Nazis. Skillfully directed by Elem Klimov and beautifully shot by Aleksey Rodionov (who employs a number of uninterrupted – and highly effective - long takes), Come and See is nonetheless a harrowing depiction of warfare and the effect it has on the individual (hopeful and vibrant at the outset, Flyora looks as if he’s aged 15 years by the end of the movie), and a late sequence in which the Nazis terrorize a small village is among the most disturbing I’ve ever seen. Ranks right up there with All Quiet on the Western Front and Paths of Glory as one of the cinema’s all-time best anti-war films.
Rating: 10 out of 10

2. The Editor (2014)

Written and directed by the gang at Astron-6 (the creative minds behind 2011’s ultra-entertaining Father’s Day), The Editor is a crazy, often hilarious spoof of Italian horror films of the ‘70s and ‘80s. The dialogue is so incredibly over-the-top that you can’t help but laugh, and affectionate jabs are taken at movies like Fulci’s The Beyond (tarantulas turn up throughout, for no good reason), Hitch Hike (there’s a fireside rape scene), and The New York Ripper (a dog playing fetch retrieves a severed hand). The Editor also features tons of nudity, plenty of nods to the Giallo subgenre (including a killer with black gloves), and blood and gore aplenty (in one very funny scene, a woman at an aerobics studio has her entire face ripped off). Put it all together and toss in Paz de la Huerta (as the lead character’s wife) and Udo Kier (as a bizarre doctor) and you have a movie you won’t want to miss. The Editor is an absolute blast!
Rating: 9 out of 10

3. Next Door (2005)

Wow, does this movie mess with your head! John (Kristoffer Joner), recently dumped by his girlfriend (Anna Bache-Wiig), is drawn into the bizarre world of next-door neighbors Anne (Cecilie Mosli) and Kim (Julia Schacht), a pair of promiscuous sisters intent on making his life a living hell. The theme of sexual violence runs rampant throughout Next Door, and often crosses lines that might make some audience members uncomfortable (especially a scene where John is seduced by one of the sisters), yet the ever-growing mystery that envelops the lead character is intriguing enough to keep even the easily shocked on the edge of their seat. This, along with its strong performances and a story that remains a fascinating enigma through much of its runtime, lifts Next Door to a level above that of simple exploitation.
Rating: 8 out of 10

4. Spider Forest (2004)

Spider Forest is a nifty whodunit-that also works as a horror film. Kang Min (Kam Woo-sung) believes he’s stumbled upon a murder scene in the middle of a forest and gives chase to the suspected killer, only to be struck by a car and left for dead. He ends up in the hospital, yet even in his weakened state is drawn to this mystery. With the police convinced he himself is the killer, Kang-Min decides to conduct his own investigation, but is he prepared to uncover the real truth behind these strange murders? The story eventually branches off in a number of different directions, though I never had a problem following along (thanks in no small part to Song Il-Gon’s solid direction), and while the final reveal wasn’t much of a surprise, the journey to get there - coupled with a handful of very brutal scenes - makes Spider Forest a mystery / horror hybrid that’s well worth your time.
Rating: 7.5 out of 10

5. Visiting Hours (1982)

A Canadian horror flick with a solid cast; Lee Grant plays a TV newscaster who is being stalked by a killer, and William Shatner appears briefly as her boss. The highlight, though, is Michael Ironside’s amazing turn as the psychopath at the center of it all, a truly despicable guy who enjoys torturing women and photographing his victims while they lay dying. As its title suggests, the majority of Visiting Hours is set in a hospital (where Grant is recuperating from a run-in with Ironside), and there are some effectively creepy scenes. But as the story progressed, and Ironside continued his killing spree, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes at the complete incompetency of the hospital’s security force (which included a strong police presence). Even when the authorities knew he was coming (and where he was going), Ironside’s killer had no problem taking out patients and nurses alike. After a while, it was almost laughable, and actually detracted from the movie’s overall effectiveness (with security forces running in every direction and never finding anything, there were times when Visiting Hours looked more like a Mack Sennett Keystone Kops short than it did a horror film). Still, Ironside’s performance is reason enough to see it
Rating: 6 out of 10

Thursday, September 17, 2020

#2,517. The Villainess (2017)

The opening sequence of director Byung-gil Jung’s The Villainess is a straight-up adrenaline rush; the lead character, Sook Hee (Ok-bin Kim), is hopping mad, and has taken the fight to an entire building full of baddies (the opening moments are shot from her perspective, as if we were watching one of those first-person videogames). From hallway to hallway, and room to room, she battles guards, scientists, and a few skilled martial artists, leaving a trail of bodies in her wake. It’s one crazy skirmish after another, and even when the point-of-view shifts from first to third person, this opening never loses an ounce of energy. 

Once the battle is over, Sook Hee, who was trained from an early age by the underworld to be a world-class fighter, is taken into police custody. But instead of throwing her in jail, the authorities turn Sook Hee over to the National Intelligence Service, which immediately “recruits” her into their ranks. 

Promised that she would eventually gain her freedom, Sook Hee follows orders well - carrying out one mission after another - until she is given a top-priority assignment. With a new identity, she moves into an apartment complex, and even becomes romantically involved with her neighbor Hyun-Soo (Jun Sung). But as she awaits more details about the mission, Sook Hee begins to realize that not everyone around her can be trusted, and that her past may have caught up with her in a big, big way. 

Ok-bin Kim delivers a strong performance as the film’s lead, handling both the physical aspects of the role (she’s a convincing badass) as well as the emotional (Sook Hee is shy and demure when she first meets Hyun Soo, and is the perfect mother to her young child, who is permitted to stay with her as she carries out her assignment). But what makes The Villainess such an extraordinary motion picture are the action scenes, from the tense-as-hell opening to Sook-Hee’s first mission (a violent swordfight that transforms into a pulse-pounding motorcycle chase through some city streets), all leading to a final 15 minutes that you’ll have to see to believe. 

South Korea has turned out its share of excellent horror films in recent years (Bedevilled, The Wailing, Train to Busan, etc), and with The Villainess they’ve given the world an amazing action flick. Combining aspects of La Femme Nikita with the first Kill Bill and infusing it with a hell of a lot of style, The Villainess is one movie you won’t want to miss. 
Rating: 9.5 out of 10 - Buy it and watch it over and over

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Capsule Reviews - South Korea

In recent years, South Korea has turned out some tremendous genre films.  Here are a few of them...

1. Bluebeard (2017)

Directed by Lee Soo-yeun, Bluebeard is a gripping psychological horror / thriller about a doctor (Jin-woong Cho) who is convinced the landlords of his apartment building (played by Dae-Myung Kim and Goo-Shin), proprietors of a butcher shop on the first floor, are serial killers. Bluebeard never once lost my interest, with excellent performances throughout and, more importantly, a few unexpected twists that continuously caught me off-guard. And those surprises kept right on coming until the end credits finally rolled. The horror in Bluebeard, though effective, is definitely more psychological than visceral. Still, I think this is a movie that all fans of the genre - regardless of their tastes or preferences - will ultimately enjoy.
Rating: 9 out of 10

2. Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum (2018)

Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum is a found footage style movie about a team of investigators intent on spending an entire night inside the asylum in Gonjiam - ranked as one of the creepiest places on earth - and recording the experience for their internet show. To this end, the group sets up cameras throughout the facility, hoping to capture some supernatural events during the night, but as you might expect, they get a lot more than they bargained for. It’s a basic premise, and with the glut of found-footage movies released in the wake of The Blair Witch Project we’ve seen this sort of story before (Grave Encounters is one example that leaps to mind). And yet, somehow, Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum still managed to feel fresh, and provided genuine ghostly thrills and some nail-biting sequences, including an ending that’s particularly unsettling. 2019’s Heilstatten: Haunted Hospital copied the premise of this movie, but wasn’t nearly as effective. I highly recommend this one.
Rating: 8 out of 10

3. Mother (2009)

Bong Joon-Ho’s Mother is a crime/mystery with splashes of comedy, and it is extraordinary. A widow (Kim Hye-ja) sets out to prove that her son (Won Bin), who is mentally backward, has been wrongly accused of murder, and the real killer is still on the loose. Kim Hye-ja delivers a superb performance as the title character, who is ready to do whatever is necessary to clear her son’s name. But it’s the twists and turns in the story, some of which are particularly dark (a late sequence, where the widow questions a homeless junk collector, is especially tough to watch), that make Mother such an outstanding film. Bong Joon-Ho won an Oscar in 2019 for the excellent Parasite, but he could have just as easily been nominated for this movie. Mother will stay with you for days!
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

4. Thirst (2009)

Thirst is a fantastic take on the vampire mythos! Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho), a well-meaning Catholic priest, volunteers to act as a guinea pig to find a cure for a deadly virus - by becoming infected himself. But whereas the other 499 volunteers died from the illness, Sang-hyun recovers. At first, his survival is attributed to prayer, and many consider him a walking miracle. But it isn’t long before Sang-hyun learns the truth: while trying to save his life, the doctors gave him a blood transfusion, and the blood he received was “donated” by a vampire! His newfound vigor has also sparked Sang-hyun libido; he lusts after Tae-ju (Kim Ok-bin), the pretty wife of his boyhood chum Kang-woo (Shin Ha-kyun), and Tae-ju, bored with her marriage, is only too happy to oblige! I was blown away by Thirst, so much so that it now ranks alongside Nosferatu and 1931’s Dracula as one of my favorite vampire films of all-time. Writer / director Park Chan-wook infuses the movie with just the right amount of gore and employs some cool special effects as well, all working in unison to make Thirst a fun watch. But it’s the characters themselves, played wonderfully by Song Kang-ho and Kim Ok-bin, that remain the focus of the film, and the changes they undergo throughout are what make Thirst a motion picture you won’t soon forget.
Rating: 10 out of 10

5. Train to Busan (2016)

Directed by Sang-ho Yeun, Train to Busan is, hands-down, my favorite horror film of the 2010’s. Banker Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) and his young daughter Su-an (Kim Su-an) board the KTX-101 train in Seoul, en route to Busan. Unbeknownst to them, a zombie outbreak is sweeping the country, and before they reach their destination, they and a handful of others will be fighting for their lives as - one by one - their fellow passengers succumb to the virus. Along with being a great zombie film, Train to Busan is a thrill ride from start to absolute (and I mean absolute) finish, with the action cranked up to 11. At one point, the train stops at the Daejoon station, which the survivors are told is a safe haven controlled by the army. This entire sequence is so intense, so exciting, it will have you poised on the edge of your seat. On top of the thrills, every character in Train to Busan has depth and, in many cases, their own story arch. Along with Seok-woo and Su-an, there’s Sang-hwa (Ma Dong-seok) and his wife Seong-kyeong (Jung Yu-mi), who are expecting their first child, and because we care about these characters, we root like hell for each and every one to survive. Bottom Line: I love Train to Busan, and I intend to revisit it at least once a year.
Rating: 10 out of 10

Thursday, September 3, 2020

#2,516. C.H.U.D. (1984)

People are disappearing in New York City, and the few witnesses who have come forward claim that underground monsters are responsible for this sudden rash of missing persons. 

 Wilson (George Martin), who heads up the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, knows more than he’s letting on but is refusing to talk. So it’s up to a local precinct Captain (Christopher Curry), a fashion photographer (John Heard), and a “Reverend” who runs a soup kitchen (Daniel Stern) to figure out what it is that’s lurking deep beneath the city. And what they find is more terrifying than they ever imagined.

C.H.U.D. (which is short for Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers) is a slick sci-fi / monster movie shot on location in the Big Apple. Director Douglas Cheek does a fine job keeping his creatures under wraps for the first 2/3’s of the film, giving us nothing more than brief glimpses of them (like 1980’s Humanoids form the Deep, the monsters in C.H.U.D. are of the men-in-costume variety), and by the time they become more prevalent, we’re already invested in the characters and their story. 

The acting in C.H.U.D. is above-average for this type of film (with Daniel Stern delivering a particularly strong performance) and there are a handful of creepy scenes (an early sequence involving a Geiger counter is our first clue that something very sinister is prowling New York’s sewer system). Throw in some well-done practical effects (many featuring bloody body parts) and cameos by John Goodman and Jay Thomas (as two cops in the wrong place at the wrong time) and you have a monster flick that’s definitely worth checking out. 
Rating: 9 out of 10 (Buy it if you can)

Thursday, August 27, 2020

#2,515. Flavia the Heretic (1974)

Flavia the Heretic, a 1974 Italian film directed by Gianfranco Mingozzi, fits neatly into the nunsploitation subgenre, with sex and violence aplenty, but takes things a step further than most by presenting the story of a woman who has grown weary of living in a male-dominated society and decides to do something about it.  

Puglia, Italy, circa 1400: after angering her father by taking a lover, Flavia (Florinda Bolkan) is sent to a convent, where she witnesses a number of atrocities committed against women by the local men. Shocked and angered, Flavia risks her position as well as her life by siding with an invading Muslim army, hoping to use them to take her revenge against those who have wronged her and her fellow “sisters”. 

Flavia the Heretic has a rough-around-the-edges look and feel, which, seeing as its story takes place in the early part of the 15th century, works in its favor (you fully accept that you’re watching events set hundreds of years in the past). The film’s real strength, though, lies in the performance delivered by Florinda Bolkan, and the fact that her character is bold enough to do something most women of this time period (or, indeed, most leads in a typical nunsploitation film) wouldn’t dream of doing: hitting back against those who mistreat her, and fighting for her independence regardless of the consequences. 

As mentioned above, Flavia the Heretic has plenty of nudity and violence; the film features a graphic rape scene (set in - of all places - a pig pen), and when the sexual passions of Flavia’s friend Sister Livia (Raika Juri) are ignited by a visiting Tarantula cult (one of the movie’s most memorable scenes), the poor nun is punished for her “transgression” by being tied to a table, stripped naked, and having hot oil poured onto her breast. 

Flavia The Heretic does lose its way towards the end, when Flavia is in full revenge mode; after she leads the Muslim army into the convent, the nuns are made to drink an elixir that stimulates their libido, leading to what I can only describe as a drug-induced orgy (with a dash of cannibalism thrown in for good measure). Though certainly unique, this sequence feels out of place with what has gone before it. 

Still, as nunsploitation flicks go, this one is more interesting than the standard fare. Be warned, though: Flavia the Heretic is an often brutal motion picture (with its most disturbing bit of violence coming right at the end), so if you’re squeamish, you might want to think twice before sitting down and watching it. But by straddling the line between straight-up exploitation and historical drama as well as it does, I was ultimately impressed with the results. 
Rating: 7 out of 10 (worth watching if you think you can stomach it) 

Thursday, August 20, 2020

#2,514. The Draughtsman's Contract (1982)

Director Peter Greenaway’s 1982 film The Draughtsman’s Contract is set in a bygone era (1690’s England, to be exact), and follows the exploits of the upper class, some of whom we meet at the outset as they’re attending a dinner party. Everyone is dressed elegantly, yet the various conversations we’re privy to are anything but graceful. There’s plenty of not-too-subtle sexual innuendo, and Mrs. Clement (Lynda La Plante) even tells a story from her childhood, about how her father, petrified of a fire breaking out in his posh estate, kept hundreds of water buckets in a small room to fight any potential blaze. During the course of the conversation, Mrs. Clement confesses that she and her brothers, when the need would arise, often urinated in these buckets.  

"Those buckets were filled before my mother died”, she says, “I expect them to be still there, with the same water of thirty years ago, I shouldn't wonder - mixed with a little of myself, of course. I used to pee like a horse. I still do”.  

As we see throughout The Draughtsman’s Contract, the 17th-century aristocracy, in spite of their titles and wealth, were not above scandal, intrigue, gossip, and, yes, even a little toilet humor.  

In an effort to win back the attentions of her estranged husband (Dave Hill), who is more impressed with his property than his family, Mrs. Herbert (Janet Suzman) commissions noted draughtsman and amateur artist Mr. Neville (Anthony Higgins) to create a series of landscape drawings of the family’s estate while her husband is abroad. Mr. Neville, who fears he may be called away by another employer at any time, refuses at first, only to agree when Mrs. Herbert succumbs to his demands that she, in turn, provide him with room and board for the duration, and meet with him privately each and every day for sexual favors.  

Though it causes her some emotional distress, Mrs. Herbert acquiesces. As for the rest of the Herbert household, Mr. Talmann (Hugh Fraser), the Herbert’s son-in-law, objects to Neville’s abrasive manner, while his wife - Mrs. Herbert’s beloved daughter – Mrs. Talmann (Anne-Louise Lambert), is agreeable to the situation. But as Mr. Neville draws, he notices several garments scattered around the grounds, all of which may point to the fact that Mrs. Herbert’s husband never made it out of town. In fact, he may very well have been murdered, and it’s anyone’s guess as to who it was that finished him off.  

The Draughtsman’s Contract is quite funny (along with the often-witty dialogue, there’s a recurring joke involving a naked man - painted head to toe to look like a statue - who appears in the background of numerous scenes), and the movie is also tastefully presented (Mr. Neville’s instructions to the household, telling them which portions of the estate they must avoid during the time he is drawing, are as precise as they are condescending). Then, when the potential murder mystery takes shape, the story grows a bit more complex, mostly because anyone and everyone, including Mr. Neville, had both opportunity and motive to kill Mr. Herbert.  

How it plays out was shocking, to say the least, and once all was said and done, I found The Draughtsman’s Contract to be a very satisfying motion picture experience. 
Rating: 9.5 out of 10 (buy it and watch it several times)  

Thursday, August 13, 2020

#2,513. Deluge (1933)

A pre-code disaster film with some astounding special effects (including the total destruction of New York City), 1933’s Deluge stars Sidney Blackmer (who years later played Roman Castevet in 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby) as Martin, a man who loses his entire family when unexplained meteorological events bring about the near-destruction of the entire planet.  

Convinced that his wife Helen (Lois Wilson) and their two children perished during the cataclysmic event, Martin eventually meets and falls in love with Claire (Peggy Shannon), a professional swimmer.  But can the two avoid a roving gang of thugs, one of whom (played by Fred Kohler) is bound and determined to make Claire his wife? 

Directed by Felix E. Feist, Deluge gets off to a quick start (the world is all but destroyed by the 15-minute mark) and features scenes that, even today, are a bit shocking (at one point, Martin stumbles upon the body of a young girl, and the inference is that she was raped and killed by the gang that’s harassing Claire). 

The cast is serviceable (Peggy Shannon delivers the strongest performance), and the post-apocalyptic storyline is good for a few thrills, but it’s the special effects, complete with a tsunami that obliterates the Statue of Liberty (a la The Day After Tomorrow), that make Deluge a must-see for classic movie aficionados.
Rating 8 out of 10 (watch it now!) 

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

#2,512. The Captain (2017)

Written and directed by Robert Schwentke, 2017’s The Captain is a Black and White German film set during the final weeks of World War II. 

While trying to escape the authorities, a German army deserter, Willi Herold (played to perfection by Max Hubacher), stumbles upon an abandoned vehicle containing a Nazi captain's uniform. 

Initially, Herold puts on the uniform to hide from his pursuers, but it isn’t long before he starts acting the part, assembling a band of thieves as his own personal army and ordering them to accompany him to a nearby prisoner camp. Claiming he has direct authority from Hitler himself, Herold seizes control of the camp, inflicting harsh punishment on the German soldiers held there, all of whom (like Herold himself) have been accused of desertion. 

Expertly crafted by director Schwentke, The Captain is a brooding, often brutal motion picture about the corruptible influence of power (Herold not only joins the ranks of those who were after him, but becomes the very man he himself had feared the most). Yet what is most disturbing about this 2017 film isn’t the violence (which is plentiful), but the fact that it is based on the true story of a man history has dubbed the Executioner of Emsland! 

Hard-hitting and unflinching in its approach, The Captain features moments every bit as shocking as those Spielberg gave us in Schindler’s List. Believe me when I tell you this is a film you won’t soon forget. 
Rating: 9.5 out of 10 (Watch it now!)

Saturday, August 1, 2020

#2,511. Blinded by the Light (2019)

Now here’s a little gem from 2019 that took me by surprise! 

Based on a true story and set in 1987, Blinded By the Light whisks us to Luton, England, where Javed (Viveik Kalra), a Pakistani teen, changes his entire outlook on life after discovering the music of Bruce Springsteen. Not only do the Boss’s lyrics help him find the courage to stand up to his father (Kulvinder Ghir), a stubborn traditionalist, but Javed also learns how to deal with the racism and bigotry he and his family face on an almost daily basis. 

Kalra is strong in the lead role, and watching his character transform from a shy introvert into a confident young man will surely bring a smile to your face. But it’s the musical numbers, set to the rock ballads of The Boss himself, Bruce Springsteen, that make Blinded By The Light such a life-affirming experience (the Born to Run scene, where Javed and his friend Roops, played by Aaron Phagura, invade their high school’s radio station now ranks right up there with the street dance in 1980’s Fame as one of my all-time favorite musical sequences). 

Directed with plenty of style - and a lot of heart - by Gurinder Chadha, Blinded By The Light is a coming-of-age tale you won’t want to miss. Highly recommended! 
Rating: 9 out of 10 (watch it more than once)

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

#2,510. Timecop (1994)

Telling you to ‘check your brain at the door’ before watching a Jean Claude Van Damme movie may seem like an obvious piece of advice, but it’s something you’ll definitely want to do before venturing into 1994’s Timecop

Van Damme stars as Max Walker, a U.S. Federal officer whose primary task is to regulate time travel (a reality in the film’s futuristic setting) and ensure that the technology isn’t used for criminal purposes. 

Walker meets his match, however, in Sen. McComb (Ron Silver), an ambitious politician running for President. To secure victory for himself, McComb and his band of thugs travel to various points in the past, using modern weapons to rob, plunder, and - yes - sometimes even kill. 

Can Walker stop McComb, who may be responsible for the death of Walker’s beloved wife Melissa (Mia Sara) years earlier, or will the greedy politician win out in the end?

Timecop raises more questions about the nature of time travel than it could ever answer (like why do some of Walker’s trips to the past cause changes in the future, while others don’t?), but hey, it’s a Van Damme action flick, with generous doses of sci-fi and even a little mystery thrown in for good measure (not to mention the occasionally over-the-top performance by Silver, whose slimeball Senator is, more often than not, the most interesting character in the movie). So don’t try to make sense of it all… that will only spoil the fun! 
Rating 6 out of 10 (worth a watch).

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

#2,509. Event Horizon (1997)

Event Horizon is a creepy, gory sci-fi / horror mash-up from director Paul W.S. Anderson that’s much better than the critics would lead you to believe.  

Sam Neill plays Dr. Billy Weir, a scientist who, years earlier, built and designed a spaceship known as the Event Horizon.  A vessel equipped with a device that could ‘bend’ space (thus allowing it to travel anywhere in the galaxy in a matter of seconds), the Event Horizon disappeared during its maiden voyage and was never heard from again.  

Jump to seven years later, and the ship has suddenly resurfaced, orbiting Neptune. Hoping to discover what happened to his beloved creation, Dr. Weir and the crew of the rescues vessel the Lewis and Clark, commanded by Captain Miller (Laurence Fishburne), travel into deep space to rendezvous with the seemingly abandoned Event Horizon, only to discover it brought something sinister back from its journey into the unknown. 

Neill is quite good as the determined scientist, willing to do whatever it takes to salvage his ship, yet it’s Laurence Fishburne as the surly, smart Captain Miller who steals the show. The special effects are solid - if a bit dated - and the film’s more horrific scenes, which include ample doses of blood and gore, are sure to leave a lasting impression (a brief video signal that the Lewis and Clark manages to retrieve from the Event Horizon, showing the fate that befell its original crew, will send shivers up your spine). 

If you’re looking for some effective sci-fi inspired thrills and chills, you can do a lot worse than Event Horizon.  
Rating 7 out of 10 (worth a watch)