Thursday, July 24, 2014

Some Mini-Reviews Since Time Flew By

Yeesh, I had no idea it had been that long since I'd posted anything.  I've got to stop getting distracted by shiny objects.

Let's get caught up with some "mini-reviews," shall we?

Almost Human (2013) - Definitely a shoestring budget and an attempt to recreate the magic of 80's VHS horror and slasher flicks.  It tells the story of what happens when a UFO abductee returns years later and has gone from kindly bearded fellow to homicidal maniac with some new alien body parts.  Good effort but the execution fell a bit short.  Any intrigue melted away and it needed more story.  Nice practical effects, though.

Red State (2011) - Kevin Smith takes an effective journey into non-comedy with a suspense thriller about sees some local boys run afoul of the town's crazy church/cult leader that oddly seems like the funeral-protesting wack-a-doos in real life.  Not as talky as a lot of Smith's other offerings, and don't look for a cameo by Jay and Silent Bob.  Tense storytelling and good performances, especially from Michael Parks as the frustratingly smug leader.

Haunter (2013) - A pleasant surprise, this haunted house mystery sees the story told from the ghost's point of view, much like the awesome I Am A Ghost.  In this case, Abagail Breslin turns in a great performance as the ghost of a murdered girl who comes to the realization that she's dead and tries to awaken her family to the fact as well as prevent an evil spirit from his eternal murder spree.  Good tension and a good story.

Jug Face (2013) - This one really started off on the right foot but didn't go as far as I hoped.  It's the story of a young girl who's part of a backwoods community that worships a pit that has healing properties but also demands a sacrifice.   The likeness of who is to be sacrificed is carved onto a clay jug, but when the girl hides hers, the pit expresses its displeasure.  Fine acting and a creepy vibe made it good but the story felt like it lost steam.

Frankenstein's Army (2013) - A crazy Dutch-American-Czech production set in World War II that follows a group of weary Russian soldiers who follow a distress signal to a small town.  What they find there is insanity as the descendent of Victor Frankenstein says "the hell with it" and sets his insane creations on Ally and Axis alike.  The monster design is tremendous and there's no shortage of blood and guts as the movie descends more and more into utter madness.  I dug it because it wanted to be nuts and it got its wish.

My Bloody Valentine (1981) - Remade just a few years ago, this cult classic came from the old school of matching psychotic killers with holidays.  The residents of a town relive an old nightmare that took place on February 14 when grisly murders pile up as the day grows closer.  Add to that the Eternally Doomed Teen Party and you know the body count rises.  Good 80's wackiness and a murder mystery to boot.

Insidious: Chapter 2 (2013) - While I felt the first one went off the rails a bit, yet still told an intriguing story, I felt the second chapter was a little stronger.  The poor Lambert family is back and just when they think they dodged an astral bullet, it's the father who becomes the center of a spiritual attack.  Just the right amount of ghostly and strange, I enjoyed it like I usually enjoy seeing Rose Byrne.

+1 (2013) - An interesting take on a sci-fi standard of what duplicates would do if they met.  A meteor crashes, causing a nearby party to experience a little glitch in the matrix.  Time splits and people meet themselves from a few seconds behind.  An interesting story set on a strange premise with decent performances.  Not a bad choice if you like being weirded out by time and space.

Hellbenders (2012) - With a good cast and a premise that borders on sacrilege, this movie was more fun than it had a right to be.  The Augustine Interfaith Order of Hellbound Saints are a ragtag group of badasses who also happen to be priests of various faiths that sin on purpose on orders of The Pope so that if a demon possesses them during an exorcism, they can kill themselves and drag the demon to Hell.  Good guys who do bad things to prevent the really bad things.  In this flick, they have to stop a runaway Norse demon from pulling Hell up around the world.  Funny and with a touch of honor, the cast is headed by the reliable Clifton Collins Jr. and Clancy Brown.

Willow Creek (2013) - Oh, Willow Creek, how I wanted to like you.  A good director in Bobcat Goldthwait and some really suspenseful moments still added up to a movie that was a hair below "OK."  It's a found footage style movie about a couple setting out to make a documentary about the Patterson Bigfoot sighting and getting much more than they bargained for.  Admittedly, the tent scene is suspense at its best, but the ending left me feeling like the whole thing was meant to be a tongue-in-cheek joke.  Maybe it was, but I was hoping for a little more.

OK, that should just about do it for now.  I gotta stop taking so long between reviews.  Maybe some caffeine would help.

Until next time!

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Sacrament (2013) Ripples of Jonestown

If you know the story of Jonestown, then you'll know the story of Ti West's intense The Sacrament.

For those who have no idea about the real-life horror that was Jonestown, here it is in a nutshell:  in 1978 paranoid cult leader Jim Jones creates a "utopia" in Guyana (with armed guards and restrictions on leaving), and when he feels threatened, he murders investigators and coerces his own followers to commit mass suicide.  Over 900 people - men, women, children - died whether they wanted to or not.  It's a chilling chapter in world history that should never be repeated.

Director Ti West is a modern master of suspense.  His horror films tend to be disturbing on a less visceral level because he has mastered the slow build, as he demonstrated with The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers. You know what's going to happen in the case of The Sacrament, but you're powerless to stop it from taking place.  It's a modern retelling of the actual incident, told through the lens of the found footage genre as a documentary piece for the edgy Vice news series.

Vice documentary makers Sam and Jake (horror superstars A. J. Bowen and Joe Swanberg) decide it would be a great story to accompany their friend and photographer Patrick (Kentucker Audley) to Eden Parish, a secluded commune in an unnamed country.  His sister, Caroline (Amy Seimetz), a recovering drug addict, has beckoned him to come and visit, to see how her life has turned around.  From the moment the three gentlemen arrive, they're dubious.  The tour guides have guns and seem suspicious of outsiders.  Caroline meets them at the gate, and everything seems better on the inside.  People are happy and thankful, hardworking and making no bones about their love for the commune's founder, known only as "Father" (Gene Jones).  An interview is arranged with Father, and the congregation is excited.  Well, most of them anyway.  One mother and her daughter don't exactly seem as crazy about the place as others, but show definite fear.  Sam's interview with Father is reserved, strange, and a little off-putting.  It's clear to Sam and his colleagues that they're being manipulated.  The congregation holds a party for the guys, but things don't seem right:  the woman and her child plead to be taken out of the commune, Patrick disappears with two girls who were basically commanded to initiate a little orgy with him, Caroline has her own dark side.  Of course, at the center of it all:  Father.  After a tense night, everything unravels in the morning as the guys decide they need to leave and Sam wants to take some of the congregation with him.  Everything seriously unravels in a Jonestown sort of way.

It's a familiar story, but West has made this movie his own.  Sure, we know the story before we hit "play," but it's how West tells it.  He paces the tension so expertly, and is complemented by his friends and cohorts Bowen and Swanberg - a lot of same-thinking people helped make this movie.  Tying the film together is Jones' performance as the charismatic "holy man" with a pleasant Southern drawl and a grandfatherly chuckle.  He's disarming and creepy all at once, playing a new version of Jim Jones with reserved dread.  The hold he has on these people - using religion as a whip - is frightening and yet something seen all too much in the real world. Thrown in great performances by Audley, Seimetz, and several members of the congregation who came off as real, desperate people.

It's not an easy movie to watch.  The plot is rooted in real life with no ghosts or demons, except for the ones that haunt people every day.  Chilling and well-crafted, be prepared to watch a palette-cleanser afterwards - and that's a compliment!

Meanwhile, here's the trailer:

Monday, April 28, 2014

Banshee Chapter (2013) Modern Lovecraftian Hijincks

A couple things that creep me out are Lovecraftian-style stories and number stations.  You know, number stations...those mysterious shortwave signals of people talking or reciting numbers or other repeated gibberish?  Creepy.

And stories in the vein of H. P. Lovecraft, in which unspeakable horrors always lay just on the outskirts of perception, waiting to scrap through into our world and drive us mad?  Also creepy.

In the sort-of found footage flick Banshee Chapter, you get all that and more.  Like Ted Levine as a Hunter S. Thompson pastiche.

Written and directed by Blair Erickson, this part found footage, part regular point-of-view movie takes both of those tropes above and tries out a new spin on the Lovecraft story From Beyond (also a fun 80's cult film).  Author James and his pal Renny are in the midst of researching for a book that will delve into the mind-altering drug experiments that the U.S. Government allegedly inflicted on citizens.  James claims that he has a sample of the drug they were given and gets on with his own experiment.  The moment he drinks the sample, strange things start happening, including shadows outside the windows and a mysterious broadcast emanating from the radio.  Renny follows James to investigate, but is suddenly faced by a horrifically-changed James before his camera blacks out.  James' girlfriend, investigative reporter Anne (Katia Winter), makes it her mission to find out what happened to James and Renny, who even though he survived his encounter has now disappeared.  Anne tracks down eccentric author Thomas Blackburn (Levine), who says he has evidence and proof that could lead her to James' whereabouts.  At his desert getaway, Thomas and chemist Callie, take the drug and insist that Anne has taken it as well.  Strange noises and shadows fall over the house and Callie is changed in a similar way to James before she disappears.  Anne and Thomas track down Callie, which eventually leads them to a remote outpost in the desert - seemingly the source of the strange broadcasts.  Of course, what they find in there isn't exactly the truth they wanted.  And that's where I'll stop the synopsis because, you know, spoilers.

Balancing creepiness with occasional jump scares, Banshee Chapter finds itself in the upper echelon of found footage movies, in my opinion.  It features a compelling story with incredibly tense moments and fine acting from Winter and Levine.  There are moments where the scares are right in your face, and others where they're on the outskirts of your perception - much like a Lovecraft story.  Moments like Renny running into James and Thomas' disturbing seizure in the car added to the mystery and urgency of the story.

I've always been a little fascinated with strange signals coming through on shortwave radio, but after seeing this movie, I'm not so sure I want to uncover more about these number stations.  Unless they're broadcasting winning lotto numbers, then hey, I'm all ears.

Until next time, here's this movie's trailer:

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (2014) Weird Neighbors and Eye Hairs

Yep, the Paranormal Activity train just keeps rolling along.

Usually when sequels go on and on, the quality of a product lessens.  I suppose that's true of the Paranormal Activity series, as I honestly found this installment to be the least scary.  That's not to say it was bad.  It held my interest and added some new wrinkles to the mythology.  It relied less on the atmospheric build to jump scares and more on strengthening the underlying story.

In this story written and directed by Christopher B. Landon, the action takes place in 2012 as bright young high school student Jesse and his friends Marisol and Hector get into all sorts of summer mischief with a camcorder in the urban Los Angeles neighborhood of Oxnard.  Jesse and Hector live in a nice little apartment complex where everyone knows everyone, except for one woman named Anna, whom they all label as being a witch.  When Jesse and Hector catch some weird goings-on in Anna's apartment on tape, they're even more sure - the woman paints some strange symbol on a young woman's torso.  Not only that, one of their esteemed classmates was seen storming out of Anna's apartment.

One night, after seeing their classmate fleeing in the night, Jesse and his friends discover that Anna was murdered.  Of course, they don't leave well enough alone and figure it would be a good idea to check out her apartment.  Surely nothing bad will happen.  They find a run-down, messy apartment but nothing too far out of the ordinary.  But then strange things begin happening to Jesse:  bad dreams, bite marks on his arm, occasional bouts of invulnerability, EYE HAIRS. After discovering a basement in Anna's apartment, the weird meter gets turned up to 11 as Jesse encounters ghostly women (including young versions of previous movies' characters) and a mysterious figure that charges him.  When he finally emerges, he's just a little...different.  Darker.  Meaner.  More likely to laugh at people falling down.  It's now up to Hector and Marisol to cleanse their friend, but you know that's not going to go as planned.  No sitcom freeze-frame laugh as the credits roll.  They seek the diverse help of the survivor of the second film, and the gangbanger brother of the kid who killed Anna as they travel to a house that should be familiar to those who have seen every installment.  From there, it boils down to a confrontation with the residents of the house...sort of.  There's also a run-in with poor, doomed Jesse and a bit of a visit to the early days of the franchise.

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones didn't have the creeping threat that the other movies had.  It expanded the mythology by showing there's a wider conspiracy, and the viewer is privy to some actual supernatural methods employed by the coven that we all know.  Nothing about the movie is really bad, but nothing really jumped out at me.  The ending was interesting, and of course, there are more questions to answer - which leads to more movies.  Although this installment was the least successful, this franchise is a consistent money-maker so there are sure to be more movies and more layers to the story.

And I'm sure I'll watch them.

Meanwhile, take a peek at the trailer:


Friday, April 11, 2014

The Bay (2012) That'll Put Me Off Swimming

If you look back at the early, rock-n-roll days of this blog, you'll find an entry in which I wrote a list of things that skeeve me out.  One of those things that skeeve me out is an object just under the surface of the water (boats, old buildings, skeletons) as well as things you know are there, but can't see (sharks, bigger boats, Cthulhu).

Well, you might was well add sea bugs to that list because The Bay did its share to do it for me.

The Bay is an interesting film even before you start watching it.  Released to little fanfare, it's made in the found footage style and it's an eco-horror film directed by none other than Barry Levinson (Diner, Rain Man, Avalon).  It doesn't seem like the type of movie one would expect from Levinson, but good directors often take chances.  For the most part, he scored quite well with this increasingly creepy movie with a message.

In a small, idyllic Maryland town, a celebration of its history on Chesapeake Bay brings the town together.  But there's a bit of a dark underside.  There's high levels of toxicity in the water thanks to a huge chicken processing plant and a cutting-corners filtration plant installed by the mayor to give the illusion of safety.  Two researchers know this, but are dead from a mysterious malady before they can turn in the proper proof.  Slowly, through the eyes of several security cameras, phones, news cameras, and video conferences, it's obvious that something is happening in the town.  People are getting violently sick, developing ugly sores on their bodies.  They begin to react violently or irrationally.  Then it all just goes downhill from there.  Our various emotions are toyed with as we see this horrifying epidemic unfold through a young reporter's tapes, town security cams, a young girl's iPhone, police dash cams, and the one that builds the most tension:  the video camera of a young family oblivious of what's happening taking a boat to the town.

Using a cast of talented unknowns, Levinson adds some meat to the bones of the found footage genre.  He uses some good jump scares here and there, but it's the creepy atmosphere that slowly builds over time that really made the film something good.  The town at the beginning is the town you want to live in, and the town at the end looks like something out of a Romero film.  This all happens in such a short amount of time, you wonder how anyone can get out of it or how they could possibly survive.  The tension and atmosphere are on display here.

Some viewers may applaud or bemoan the message of pollution and pollution regulation that sits behind the main face of horror here.  Keep in mind:  this is just a story.  It's fiction.  It's the fictional story of a fictional situation happening to fictional people because of some other fictional situation.  Relax.  Personally, I think pollution is pretty much bad all around.  I don't want to go swimming in unfiltered chicken poop, and I certainly don't want mutant sea bugs burrowing into my skin and giving me boils the size of dinner plates.

Enjoy the trailer:

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Babysitter Wanted (2008) Depends On Whose Baby

I was lucky working in college.  The highlight of my employment then was working in a video store (VHS, baby!), with the worst scenario being that some Lothario maybe got pissed because he couldn't impress his date since all of the copies of 9 1/2 Weeks were rented out.  I never had to babysit.  And after watching Babysitter Wanted, I count myself fairly lucky.

It was also that bygone decade, the crazy 80s that all the kids are talking about these days, when I attended my first college.  Long story.  In recent years, I've noticed a trend:  some horror movies are trying to reflect the look and ambiance of the 70s and 80s.  There's been a widespread return to the grindhouse and VHS days of old, and I gotta say that I really like it.  Sure, there are going to be some misses among the hits.  Law of averages.  But many of the recent ones I've seen have been on the "hit" side.

Babysitter Wanted falls on the "hit" side, but it did take me a minute to warm up to it.  Written by Jonas Barnes, and directed by Barnes along with Michael Manasseri, it tells the story of sweet, wholesome Angie (Sarah Thompson) and her first foray into college life.  Angie is devoutly religious and completely innocent of the underbelly of college.  Heading to Adams College (sorry, no nerds seen taking revenge), she moves in with a hard-partying but not unkind roommate and is forced to sleep on the crusty couch, since the previous tenant had sold the bed.  Looking for work, Angie grabs one of those phone number strips advertising a babysitting job.  She secures an interview, but becomes skittish when she realizes someone is following her around campus.  The sheriff (the always-great Bill Moseley) can't do much without more proof, but assures her that he'll come if called.  On the bright side, she meets nice guy Rick (Matt Dallas), whose intentions seem as pure as Angie's own heart.  Angie meets the Stanton couple (Bruce Thomas and Kristen Dalton) and their little tyke, Sam (Kai Caster).  Sam's a shy kid who always wears a cowboy outfit that his parents claim he never takes off.  Once the friendly Stantons leave, that's when the fun begins.  The mysterious figure stalking Angie shows up, and interrupts Sam's meal of meat and sauce to break into the house.

And that's when it takes a left turn I honestly didn't see coming.

Of course, you know I'm not going to spoil it here.  Nothing is what it seems, and Angie is seriously in for the fight of her life as her faith and sense of reality are shaken to the core.

The movie is good fun, filmed in the vein of early- to mid-80s slasher movies with an over-the-top secret.  It looks like something you might find on VHS, and that's a compliment.  I enjoyed how it looked.  The acting is solid throughout, especially by Thompson as Angie.  She plays innocent, scared, and determined all in one, even if she is a slight (intentional) caricature.  Kyle XY alums Dallas and Thomas are also good as well as Dalton as the mother.  I'm a Bill Moseley fan, so obviously I'll say he was good, too.  Oddly enough, he didn't play a villain, but rather a kindly, concerned sheriff.

It was definitely a fun little movie, sure to please the gore fans as well.  There were a lot of bloody shots, and they carefully didn't show what was surely the most wince-inducing "cuts."

So be careful about that babysitting job.  Not everyone can have an adventure like Elizabeth Shue.

Here's the trailer:

Sunday, March 23, 2014

I Am A Ghost (2012) Why I Love Indie Horror Films

One of the joys I have of writing this blog is spreading the word of various horror movies:  classic, new, big budget, indie, strange, subtle...well, you get the idea.  It's a genre I love, and I like to put my thoughts out there.  One of the bigger joys is touching base with independent filmmakers and performers.  I always feel like if I can get at least a few more people to see their work based on an article I write, then I'm happy with that.  It's fun for me, and I've been able to meet some really nice, talented people.

This brings me to the fun I had watching I Am A Ghost, an incredibly impressive independent horror film written and directed by H. P. Mendoza.  I'd been aware of the film for a while, and when I was made aware that the film was available on video-on-demand, I had to check it out.  Having been in touch with the filmmakers before, I was excited to see what they had created.

I was not sorry.

Boy, was I not sorry!  What I got to see was an ambitious, carefully-crafted thriller that looked great and featured an excellent performance from a leading lady, and taut suspense that wound up right until the final frame.  I love indie filmmaking because of the energy and the outside-the-box creativity and the hunger to craft a great film with sometimes very little in the way of resources.  "Working with what you got," some would say.  I Am A Ghost works with what it has, and then some.

Anna Ishida plays Emily, the title character.  It's no surprise that she's a ghost going through a mundane daily routine in a huge, beautiful house.  There are some things that seem a little off, such as Emily's breakfast time and the moments where she cries in pain and confusion in front of a mirror.  In one certain room, she hears a disembodied voice calling her name:  a medium named Sylvia (Jeannie Baroga in an unseen role).  Sylvia tries to help Emily leave the house, but some unknown factor keeps her there.  As the film unfolds, Emily struggles to uncover the mystery of how she died and how she can finally move on to the afterlife.

The film has a 60's and 70's look to it, right from the title card (and you know how I love those).  The screen borders are curved throughout, creating a unique point of view.  Despite the spaciousness of the house, there is a sense of claustrophobia.  Something is happening with poor Emily, and we're not quite sure what yet, although it becomes clear as the movie builds towards a horrifying climax.  Mendoza has built an intriguing, great-looking film that he expertly guides you through.  His is a voice and vision I'm excited to see grow from this already-strong base. In terms of performance, Ishida owns the screen.  Her Emily is scared, confused, complicated - and Ishida gracefully brings each of those facets to the forefront.  She is the face of the movie, and she is more than up to the task.

I've had the opportunity to see and review quite a few great independent horror features, and in communicating with the filmmakers and performers, I'm always happy to see the passion and the excitement they have in creating something new and something unlike the paint-by-numbers too often seen in big studio fare.  I'm excited to see what these creative people having coming down the pike, and really hope to see more from Mendoza and Ishida.

I Am A Ghost is available on DVD and VOD, and if you'd like more information, check out their website right here.

In the meantime, check out the trailer: