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Offbeat quasi-witchcraft horror film
"Hex" follows a gang of bikers in the 1920s who stumble upon a rural farm in the Nebraska countryside. The men, who have one female among their group, accept the reluctant offer to spend the night at the farm, which is run by two Native American sisters. After one of the gang tries to rape the younger sister, the eldest takes to her deceased father's Native magical practices to enact revenge.
Though marketed as a horror film, "Hex" is really a mixture of genres, with some horror elements cobbled together with a period Western and the counterculture biker flick, e.g. "Easy Rider." Filmed on location in South Dakota, the film has a dreary, dusty feel, and is quite nicely photographed, giving the viewer the sense of actually being there.
The horror sequences come in spurts here, and are centered around the eldest sister (portrayed by Cristina Raines, who would later gain fame in the horror genre for her turn in "The Sentinel") practicing Native American magic as a means of getting back at the various members of the biker gang who have wronged her or transgressed the family's land. Among these is a particularly powerful, hallucinogenic sequence involving the female biker, who has a macabre vision brought on by a spell involving a toad.
A handsome Keith Carradine plays the sympathetic leader of the gang, and Scott Glenn and Gary Busey play two of the wayward gang members who are much more unseemly. The characters are mostly well-written, save a few of the bikers, and there is a goofy romantic subplot that nearly elicits laughter in certain awkward moments. The whole thing feels quite innocent in tone, which is at odds with the film's darker elements, but it somehow retains a made-for-TV-movie quality that is as perplexing as it is amusing. This is only accentuated by the ending, which defies logic but ties the story up in an appropriate way.
While it is not a perfect film, I found "Hex" to be quite enjoyable. As a horror film, it is quite mild, though it does deliver some psychedelic cinematography and a few creepy moments. More than that, it is just plain weird, and as a quasi-horror flick grafted onto the skeleton of "Easy Rider," it manages to be surprisingly memorable despite all odds. 7/10.
The Evil (1978)
Heavy on atmosphere, heavy on silliness
"The Evil" follows a doctor and his wife who move into a historic mansion where they prepare to open a rehabilitation center for drug addicts. Unfortunately for them, there is a portal to hell in the basement, and it's about to cause a whole lotta trouble.
This aptly-titled, New Mexico-filmed supernatural horror flick is a romp that is somewhat off the beaten path in terms of the genre; it is not a film that is much talked about, and not one I was even aware of until recently. The good? "The Evil" boasts a fantastic setting: The house in which it takes place is glorious, atmospheric, and has a "Scooby Doo" quality that is delightful. It's a menacing, beautiful house that gives the proceedings an ambiance. The film is also fairly heavy on gore, dispatching the group who become trapped inside the home in a number of ways. The special effects are top-notch for the era, and there is a fantastic poltergeist attack that is well-shot and choreographed.
The bad? "The Evil" is a bit predictable, and when it reaches its final act and the bodies start to pile up, it does begin to feel somewhat rote--not enough to weigh it down entirely, but there is a stiff by-the-numbers quality. The film's real cardinal sin as far as I'm concerned is that it goes to the length of visually representing the devil in a kitschy sequence in a white chamber, with Victor Buono portraying Lucifer himself. It's rather ridiculous, and strips the fear of the unknown that permeates up to that point; on the flip side, it does add to the silly "Scooby Doo" nature of the film. This somewhat ties in with a subplot regarding a Spanish colonel ancestor who haunts the house, but the connection here never feels fully-formed.
All in all, I found "The Evil" an amusing product of its time. In some ways, it feels like a hyper-gory made-for-TV movie, and it has a handful of inventive sequences paired with a fantastic, dark atmosphere accentuated by the sets. For genre fans who appreciate the supernatural horror films of yore, there is some legitimate (and at times outrageous) fun to be had here, despite its shortcomings. 6/10.
Beyond Evil (1980)
Rote possession film
Genre favorites John Saxon and Lynda Day George star as a couple who move to the Philippines where they purchase a grand colonial mansion. Life seems great, but it turns out the house was built by a husband and wife who killed one another. The wife was an occultist, and she still happens to be looking for a living vessel to inhabit.
This kitschy supernatural horror movie takes cues from "The Exorcist" and a spat of other similar films, and predates "Mausoleum," which has a similar tone and premise. The good is that it has some nice cinematography, and there are a few moments throughout that evoke a sense of creepiness; Saxon and George are awoken in the middle of the night to odd voices; he finds her idly meditating over a fire in the fireplace; she sees the ghost of the deceased female occultist trying to possess her. The cinematography is also top-notch, especially for a low-budget feature.
The bad? The screenplay is rote in its procession. Saxon's character goes back and forth from his architect job, while George's character experiences increasingly odd supernatural experiences. A subplot involving a medicine man who lives next-door is woven in, and he is a source of all the knowledge regarding possession and the evil spirit in the couple's mansion. These events play out in a manner that is rather dull and predictable, and there isn't enough connective tissue to bind them together. The performances from Saxon and George do help amplify the proceedings, and both give admirable efforts in a screenplay that gives them limited options.
In the end, "Beyond Evil" is a slightly amusing genre picture (several reviewers have commented on the dated special effects, which are actually not all that terrible in comparison to other films of this ilk), but it does feel largely underwhelming. The horror scenes, when present, are well-executed, but the rote unspooling of the story leaves the film feeling by-the-numbers. There are no real surprises to be had here, but if you are willing to accept that, it is a notch above the standard television horror flick of its era. 5/10.
Strange Behavior (1981)
Dour, underrated quasi-slasher
This New Zealand-shot slasher film follows a local cop in a small Illinois town attempting to solve a series of bizarre stabbing murders, each perpetrated by apparently different people. He suspects them to be linked to a laboratory in the local university where his late wife worked; little does he know, his son has signed up to be one of the lab rats.
"Strange Behavior" is a throwback to pulp horror of "The Twilight Zone" ilk, except it's far darker and far more violent. It toes the line of being a science fiction film, but has large spats where it functions as a straightforward slasher film, complete with "Halloween"-esque POV shots and a dour, downbeat atmosphere. There are some shockingly gory death scenes here, accompanied by the central mystery surrounding the university and its oblique experiments that may be linked to the string of killings. The cinematography and production values are top-notch, and the locations very much look like small-town USA despite the fact that filming occurred in New Zealand.
The film boasts solid characters who are likable and well-drawn, and the cast is mostly solid here. Louise Fletcher appears as the protagonist, Pete's future stepmom, and though her character is minor, she is very good. Dan Shor makes a likable lead as Pete, while Fiona Lewis is appropriately icy and menacing as the professor heading the experiments. The weak link here is Michael Murphy, who is painfully rote and wooden in his performance, but aside from that, the cast does a solid job.
The finale is actually well-played and it is then that the film feels most "'sixties-made-for-TV-movie"-ish, but it's all in good fun. The twist is mildly clever, though the film does end a bit abruptly with its appropriately Norman Rockwell conclusion. All in all, "Strange Behavior" is a solid quasi-slasher/quasi-sci-fi flick that boasts good gore effects, a largely capable cast, and a compelling story that recalls the mad scientist flicks of the '50s as much as it does "Halloween" or "Friday the 13th." Not perfect, but definitely a worthy installment in the genre. 8/10.
Blood Song (1982)
Goofy slasher oddity
"Blood Song" follows a teenager in a coastal Oregon town who finds herself stalked by a man whose blood she received through a transfusion; turns out the man is a psychotic killer who plays a wooden flute (yes, you read that right), and he has a psychic connection drawing him nearer to her.
All things considered, "Blood Song" is a pretty typical slasher flick aside from the weird flourishing touches, such as the killer who plays a small wooden flute gifted to him by his father who committed a murder-suicide with his wife; did I mention that '60s singer Frankie Avalon portrays the madman? Those two reasons alone make this film stand out from its peers, though, depending on who you ask, will be either to its detriment or success.
TV actress Donna Wilkes portrays the lead/final girl who is hobbled by a leg injury through most of the film, making her even more helpless; to make matters worse, her mother (Antoinette Bower of "Prom Night") and she are under the abusive power of her alcoholic father (a character that has strange incestuous undertones, I might add). The film is not conventionally scary, as the killer is no masked villain or elusive psycho; the audience sees and gets to know the goofy character from the outset, so that element of terror is stripped from the proceedings here. The film does feel like a made-for-TV movie, and has an innocence about it that belies its bloodier moments. The atmosphere is nicely established as well, and it's nice to see the coast of my home state get some representation in '80s horror.
In the end, "Blood Song" is a rather silly slasher flick that plays up its goofiness with no shame, even in its final moments. The whole thing is rather ridiculous, but if you can take it at face value, the offering here is amusing, slightly trashy, and utterly bizarre-it almost feels as though David Lynch attempted to make a slasher movie. Do with it what you will, but it's just weird enough to warrant a viewing from genre fans. 6/10.
Killer Party (1986)
Fantastic possession-themed slasher
"Killer Party" follows three young female college students who decide to pledge at a sorority, which entails a hazing at an abandoned fraternity house where a young pledge died decades prior. Turns out he was an occultist, and soon enough, the girls find themselves in deep trouble. At an April Fool's Day dance held in the house, pandemonium and possession break loose.
Having read some of the reviews here, I am baffled by the amount of dislike for this film. While it is far from original, "Killer Party" is a well-made, audacious, and fun mixture of possession horror and the slasher film. It takes cues from supernatural horror films like "The Evil Dead" and "The Exorcist," and blends them with college slashers such as "Hell Night" and "The Initiation." If you enjoyed any of those films, chances are you will find "Killer Party" an enjoyable (if not campy) offering.
One of the main strengths here is William Fruet's direction, paired with the atmospheric locations. The photography is quite classy, and the production values are high; this is not an evidently low-budget slasher flick by any means. The second strong suit is the characters, which are well-rounded and likable. Sherry Willis-Burch, who appeared in the underrated slasher "Final Exam," portrays the quirky nerdy girl of the bunch, while Ralph Seymour (of "Just Before Dawn") is her male counterpart. Joanna Johnson plays the principal lead and is formidable as the leading lady. Hunky Martin Hewitt, fresh off "Endless Love," plays the attractive love interest of Johnson. There is a bit of college humor peppered in, though I'd certainly not call it a comedy film, and it adds to the hunky-dory sensibility.
My sole criticism of the film is that when it really kicks into slasher territory in the finale, characters are dispatched in such rapid succession that it leaves the film feeling a bit tired. That being said, the murders are still handled effectively, and the last 10 minutes are bonkers, off-the-wall fun. In any event, "Killer Party" is an aptly-made possession/slasher flick that may be an unsung minor classic of the genre. Bonus points for the double-meta opening scene (and music video!) with some of the most eighties set pieces you'll ever see. 8/10.
Don't Go Near the Park (1979)
Indubitably the strangest of the "video nasties"
"Don't Go Near the Park" follows a pair of siblings (one male, one female) who have been roving the earth for 12,000 years after their mother cursed them in ancient times. To avoid aging, they feast on the entrails of youth in order to absorb their lifeforce. Once the moratorium on the curse has lifted, the brother mates with a woman and gives birth to a daughter intended as a virgin sacrifice that will give he and his sister immortality.
This utter oddity was helmed by a 19-year-old filmmaker, which, even considering the film's shortcomings (and there are many), is rather impressive. "Don't Go Near the Park" blends elements of vampires and zombie films with cannibal horror and fantasy; it's a heady, odd concoction that is unlike anything I've seen.
To say that the plot is far-fetched would be a gross understatement-it's absolutely insane, but it does stick true to its own logic on most levels. The film ended up on the BBFC's "video nasty" list and was successfully prosecuted for obscenity due to its gore sequences, which almost exclusively consist of gross-out disembowelments in which people have their innard torn open by the hands of the flesh-feasting siblings. Some of these scenes are still disturbing to this day, bright-red blood aside. The production values here are low and the whole thing feels very TV-movie-esque, but this quality lends a certain charm. The acting is subpar and the special effects quite silly (there are some laser scenes and aging montages in the finale that are dated and silly), while the editing is choppy and leaves something to be desired. Aldo Ray has a minor role as a random writer who takes one of the main characters-a young orphan-under his wing, while horror favorite Linnea Quigley appears briefly as the mother of the virgin sacrifice (her character storms out of the house off-screen, exclusively through voice-over, in an incredibly silly scene).
Even despite its shortcomings, I found myself enjoying "Don't Go Near the Park" immensely. Low production values aside, the filmmakers here managed to do some interesting things, and the zany plot is truly one-of-a-kind. For fans of offbeat B or Z-grade cinema, there is plenty of fun (and entrails!) to be had here. 6/10.
The Monster (2016)
Monstrous creatures, monstrous parents
I was and remain a massive fan of Bryan Bertino's directorial debut, "The Strangers," which I saw in theaters when it was released in 2008. To date it remains one of my favorite films of the 21st century. Given that I am not a fan of creature features, I went into "The Monster" with low expectations despite my previous love for Bertino's work, and came out mildly surprised.
This is not ordinary monster movie; it's really an allegory on monstrous parents, and the ways that they can (and do) inflict damage on children. The plot follows a troubled, abusive ex-addict mother who winds up stranded on a country road late one night with her precocious daughter; as they wait for help to arrive, a monstrous creature accosts their car.
When "The Monster" excels, it does so gracefully; it is beautifully shot and lit in a way that makes the singular location quite gorgeous. Shots of the light coming through the trees amidst the pouring rain recall photography of the forests in "Suspiria," and the creature in the film is surprisingly well-crafted with practical effects. Though not necessarily scary, it is menacing and well-conceived. The acting also elevates the material considerably. Zoe Kazan hits all the right notes, portraying the mother in a way that is human and believably flawed; as terrible as she is to her daughter (their tumultuous relationship is dispensed to the audience in flashback vignettes), we, just as her child, retain an affection and sympathy for her. Ella Ballentine plays counterpoint as her mature daughter, who is more of a parent to Kazan's character than Kazan is to her.
I think "The Monster" will likely resonate with people who have tumultuous and/or co-dependent relationships with their own mothers (or fathers), as that really is the core theme Bertino is meditating on here. Where the film falls somewhat short is in its one-note nature; the setup here is the stuff of standard horror fare, and there are technical inconsistencies that go ignored, but are more or less forgivable given that the film overall has a fairytale feel to it. The plot does at times feel threadbare, but fortunately there is enough tension to keep the audience reeled in. As far as contemporary monster movies go, this is a strong one, and, in this case at least, there is some redemption for at least one of the monsters. 7/10.
Demon Possessed (1993)
Cheap but atmospheric oddity
"The Chill Factor" follows a group of snowmobilers stranded at an abandoned religious camp where they uncover a strange ouija-like game, and proceed to unleash demonic spirits that start taking hold of them one-by-one.
This utter oddity was filmed in the late-1980s but went unreleased until several years later when it surfaced on video under the title "Demon Possessed." Make no bones about it, this is a low-budget flick, and has all the hallmarks of a cheap horror flick: Bad acting (especially from the extras), silly gore effects, and a plot that seems to have been invented on the fly (a voice-over narration from an apparently chain-smoking grandmother attempts to tie up the loose ends). Even with its pitfalls, however, I found myself enjoying "The Chill Factor" for what it is.
The film's greatest strength is that it's quite atmospheric, and recalls other snow-set horror films such as "Curtains" or "Ghostkeeper," which feel like distant cousins. Conceptually, the plot has potential, and is just weird enough to be attention-grabbing; the execution, however, is not quite up to speed, but one can see the seeds of something ominous buried underneath all the ineptitude. I won't attempt to make a case for "The Chill Factor" being a good film, because it isn't, but it is so bizarre and so wonky that one cannot help but get somewhat absorbed in it. There are a handful of decent death sequences, and the finale boasts a snowmobiling showdown that is ridiculous but somehow not out of place.
"The Chill Factor" is worth a watch for horror purists who enjoy cheapjack possession horror flicks; it melds the demon film with the slasher, and packages it in a late-'80s aesthetic that is as perplexing as it is amusing in all its weirdness. 5/10.
Formulaic, brainless, and bloody
...and that's not necessarily a bad thing. "Slaughterhouse" follows an aging abattoir owner and his obese, mentally-disabled son, who are fighting off the business's closure at the hands of upgraded, mechanized forms of pig slaughtering. The unhinged father soon begins retaliating against city officials, police, and soon enough, a group of teenagers, who step foot on the property, dispatching them via his ogrous son.
It's quite clear while watching "Slaughterhouse" that the filmmakers were riffing heavily on "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre," and, more often than not, "Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2," given the goofy demeanor the film possesses. Despite this, "Slaughterhouse" also manages to be alternately dark, dingy, and grim at times, so the film offers the audience a little bit of everything-and somehow, it sort of works.
The plot is formulaic as can be, and the set-ups and devices here are well-worn for anyone who has seen a slasher movie. The film threads two narratives together; one of the father and son running the slaughterhouse, and another on a group of teens who eventually end up attending a party that lands them at the slaughterhouse to...well, be slaughtered. It's mindless fun, and is surprisingly quite gory, boasting pretty solid special effects, and crisp, professional cinematography. The acting is decent and appropriately goofy, with Sherry Bendorf providing a likable lead, for as much as the audience is able to be acquainted with her at least.
The film's finale is where the mayhem really lets loose and Buddy, the hulking son, gets to claim some virgin (and non-virgin) blood. The ending caught me off guard a bit, but serves as a fitting conclusion to a film that is full of multitudes. In the end, "Slaughterhouse" is well-made as far as late '80s slasher films go. It is certainly not high art, but it's slickly-made and eccentric enough to warrant interest from fans well-acquainted with the genre. 6/10.
Under the Silver Lake (2018)
A treat for film buffs and conspiracy connoisseurs, but that's about it
I am a major fan of David Robert Mitchell's last film, "It Follows," which struck a fine balance between reality and the uncanny that we rarely see in films anymore. This film is less concerned with the uncanny (though it is still present to some degree) and more concerned with the paranoid, using popular conspiracy theories as plot devices that propel the lead character, Sam-a thirtysomething burnout-through a series of encounters and occurrences as he tries to find a woman who has abruptly vanished from his apartment building.
The film has a languid tone and paints a vivid picture of Los Angeles, in the tradition of the great L.A.-set film noirs. It is also brimming with intertext, using dozens of tropes, images, and allusions to other films, which itself plays on the conspiracy angle through its repetition of popular cultural images. While the references are too many to count, the film reminded me most of Robert Aldrich's "Kiss Me Deadly," another paranoid, off-kilter film noir set in Los Angeles; like in that film,the lead character of "Under the Silver Lake" moves from one bizarre situation to another while trying to uncover the fate of a woman he hardly knows.
Because of the vast film history and tradition it draws on, "Under the Silver Lake" is a real treat for people who are film buffs, especially those who have an affinity for film noir. It will also appeal to a certain faction of millennial conspiracy theorists who adhere to the oft-repeated theories regarding the illuminati, Satanic messages on backward-spun vinyl, and the various "codes" that go unnoticed to all of us who are "in the matrix."
While I enjoyed the film quite a bit, its one pitfall in my opinion was that it never quite manages to ramp up; where I expected there to be a fever pitch in the last act, the film instead unceremoniously plods along through the bizarre conclusion that rather loosely ties up the central mystery of the plot. That being said, there are a handful of weird and creepy moments throughout that somewhat off-set this lack of tension in the finale. All in all, the film is an enjoyable acid-trip journey through the L.A. underworlds of lore. 8/10.
The Collector (1965)
An actor's thriller
"The Collector" follows an eccentric, psychopathic entomologist who stalks a London art student before kidnapping her and holding her captive in his cavernous cellar. What ensues is a battle of wits, in which she makes valiant efforts to escape.
John Fowles's novel on which this film is based is among my favorite books-a truly disturbing and unrelenting look into the mind of a psychopath. It is like anything I've ever read. The novle is split into two sections, one told from the point of view of Freddie, the captor, and the second from the captive, Miranda, told in epistolary form via her diary entries. This narrative technique is really one of the few things the film loses that the novel possessed-and for obvious reasons, as something like this cannot translate in a visual medium.
That aside, this adaptation under William Wyler's direction is stellar in just about every way possible. Because the film is anchored to a single place and features really only two characters, "The Collector" is very much an actor's film. The success of it hinges entirely on the performances, as 99% of the film consists of their interactions together, and Wyler made smart casting decisions here. Terence Stamp makes for a formidable villain who is at times sympathetic, and at others sadistic and cruel, while Samantha Eggar plays Miranda with a precision that is astounding; her muted fear and franticness lay behind her eyes for much of the film, and she carries it as the character the audience is meant to identify with.
I've read that the film's producers wanted to change the ending from that of the novel, and thank God they didn't, as it would have tarnished the film as a whole. Overall, this is a strong adaptation that I can't recommend enough, and it succeeds mainly because Stamp and Eggar have such a firm grasp on the material. The atmospheric, claustrophobic sets and farmhouse add to the ambiance, but the film would be nothing without the strength of its actors. 9/10.
Violent Midnight (1963)
Pulpy b-movie proto-slasher
"Violent Midnight" follows a troubled veteran-turned-artist who lives off his family's large inheritance in a small Connecticut town. After one of his portrait models is viciously stabbed to death, he, along with her abusive boyfriend, become the prime suspects.
This effort from producer Del Tenney plays out very much like the dimestore suspense novels of the 1960s, chock full of sensuality, illicit romances, and vicious killings plaguing a small town. It also shares similarities with the giallos of this era, particularly with the first-person POV cinematography of the killer, as well as the shots of the assailant's gloved hands and knife. While it has been likened to "Psycho," it is not quite as egregious a facsimile as something like, say, William Castle's "Homicidal," and is much more concerned with the romantic relationships between the characters which amp up the steam factor. There is quite a bit of nudity in the film, which is surprising for the era, and gives it an extra edge of salaciousness.
One of the film's strong suits is its stark cinematography, which reaches a zenith in the final scene, which takes place in a dark mansion during a violent thunderstorm. The black-and-white photography makes use of shadows skillfully, and the murder sequences (one in a bedroom, the other at a lake) are atmospheric and frightening. The performances here are decent for the type of film this is; James Farentino in particular gives a fun performance as a greaser who can't keep it in his pants. Sylvia Miles makes an appearance as one of Farentino's abused girlfriends.
All in all, this is a relatively amusing period picture that very much embodies the era in which it was made. It plays out like a cheap dimestore thriller paperback, but there is a nasty edge to it that rears its head during the murder sequences which makes it stand out from many of its peers. The atmospheric locations and cinematography also add a sense of foreboding to the proceedings, and the finale, as odd as it is, manages to give the audience a few small surprises. Not high art, but art nonetheless. 7/10.
Leaves the audience quietly sweating in their seats
Psychologically-fragile American college student Dani attends a celebratory midsommar festival in northern Sweden with her graduate student boyfriend, Christian, and his cohorts Josh and Mark. They are invited by Pelle, an exchange student who was raised in an isolated commune there; he explains the celebration occurs only once every ninety years. The festivities are initially harmless, but soon ramp up to disturbing proportions.
Ari Aster's follow-up to "Hereditary," "Midsommar" marks a significant tonal shift for the director, but it is in truth a much more aesthetically rich film. Thematically, it is less dense, but the film heaps on hallucinogenic visuals in a manner that leaves the audience feeling as intoxicated as its chemically-induced characters.
When the film hits, it hits hard, and its only real downfall is that it fails to reach a true fever pitch, despite appearing to be heading in that direction. Instead, the dread slowly builds as the film plods toward its dour conclusion. Fans of the classic "The Wicker Man" will see plenty in common with this film, and it stands as an obvious reference point for Aster. Part of the film's failure to reach a fever pitch may be due to the relatively unclear motivations of the protagonist, specifically in the final act; while it's clear why she makes the decisions she does, the emotional groundwork for them feels underserved, resulting in a finale that seems slightly shallow.
Despite this downfall, Aster manages to present a lush and intoxicating film that induces dread in a manner that is oppressive and subtly terrifying, leaving the audience quietly sweating in their seats. 8/10.
Demon Wind (1990)
Offbeat monster romp boasts extreme special effects
"Demon Wind" follows a group of people led by a young man, who go to stay at his grandparents' ancestral home in the desert where they succumbed to malevolent forces that turned one of them into a monstrous demon. The group arrive, get settled in, and soon enough, all hell (literally) breaks loose after a mysterious fog is blown over the premises.
Anyone who is slightly familiar with horror will see the clear riffs here on "The Evil Dead" and John Carpenter's "The Fog", to which "Demon Wind" owes significant debts. The set-up here is routine, the reason for the characters even being at the remote location even more dubious (the protagonist's reasons for visiting the ramshackle desert abode are not really made clear; what exactly is he going to figure out?), and the performances range from mostly ho-hum to downright bad.
So, what is the appeal? Well, for fans of bad late-'80s slashers and monster flicks, there is plenty of fun to be had with "Demon Wind." Although an obviously low-budget endeavor, the last half of it bolsters some genuinely gross, rather extensive practical special effects that are over-the-top, to put it lightly. Fans who appreciate these kinds of latex and karo syrup shenanigans will find this fairly entertaining. Additionally, the film does manage to evoke an intoxicating desert-Gothic atmosphere that makes for an appropriate, spooky setting for the proceedings.
In the end, while the plot is threadbare and the acting mediocre, there are moments of genuine amusement in "Demon Wind." It's a curio of a film, and not something most audiences will find palatable, but for fans of '80s monster gore flicks, it's a decent trip. 6/10.
Gritty, amateurish character study/psychodrama
"The Witch Who Came from the Sea" follows Molly, a woman living with her sister in Los Angeles, suffering from severe psychological trauma resulting from her father's incestuous relationship with her. As a result, she snaps and embarks on a killing and castration spree.
While its title is literally misleading (but metaphorically apt), "The Witch Who Came from the Sea" is an oddball psychological horror film that is not so much scary as it is sad. The film has a downbeat tone that is remarkable from the first scenes, and it chugs along at this languid, downtempo pace for much of its runtime. While some descriptions make it sound like a serial killer film, it's in actuality a character study of someone living with severe PTSD stemming from child sex abuse.
The content here is disturbing in nature, though the screenplay feels lopsided in the sense that Molly's pathology registers as a bit too on-the-nose. Where the film excels is in its visuals, and the cinematography captures a gothic sort of 1970s California, particularly the trash-ridden, empty streets of Venice Beach. Millie Perkins is decent as the lead, Molly, though none of the performances here are particularly great. There are odd moments of humor brought by the likes of Peggy Feury that are off-center but amusing. The film's conclusion is unsurprisingly dour, but thematically fitting. Though a bit of a shallow character study, "The Witch Who Came from the Sea" has some startling visuals and is reasonably well-made given its obvious budget limitations. Worthwhile for fans of gritty psychological dramas, particularly of this era. 6/10.
American Woman (2018)
A character study of living in (and beyond) the fallout of a void
"American Woman" follows Debra, a thirty-something single mother in small-town Pennsylvania, whose young adult daughter, Bridget, disappears mysteriously. Debra is left to raise Bridget's infant son, Jesse. A volatile and reckless personality as it is, Debra does not take Bridget's disappearance easily, and finds comfort in her older sister, Katherine, who lives across the street from her. The film charts the family's lives together over the next eleven years.
One of the better dramas I've seen in recent years, "American Woman" is a well-written and evenly paced character study that follows a woman in the precarious situation of having her child go missing. Surprisingly, though, that is only halfway what this film is really about. The bulk of the script's weight lay in the fallout of the disappearance, and the ways Debra navigates life and raises her grandson.
In the wrong hands, this kind of story could easily go sideways, but the writing here is strong, and the performances are stellar. Sienna Miller brilliantly portrays the small-town wild-child mother who begins the film as a drunken, chain-smoking grocery store worker, and finds her in a much different state by the conclusion. The character arc is fraught with emotion, and Miller handles it beautifully. Playing counterpoint (also brilliantly) is Christina Hendricks, who has a softer presence as Debra's regimented, responsible sister. Pat Healy and Aaron Paul portray two of Debra's troubled lovers, while Sky Ferreira appears as Bridget, who is only in several scenes in the beginning, but whose presence haunts the film like a ghost. What is truly great about the film is that it captures human relationships in a manner that feels authentic; everything from the dynamics between the family members, to Debra's small-town ennui, to her various relationships with men feel true. If you aren't one of these people, you know one of them, and the slice-of-life nature of the film never manages to devolve into caricature or cliche.
Another surprise here is that the film is genuinely moving. The last thirty minutes contain several moments that are fraught with emotion, including one that had me fighting tears. I am not someone who tends to cry during films (in fact, it's only happened with one other), but the emotional thrust of the film snuck up on me without my really seeing it coming. Several reviews have complained that the film sidelines the missing person/crime plot in favor of exploring other components of Miller's character, but I think those people are missing the point here; this is not a "missing person" film, but rather a drama about people who experience having a missing family member. We tend to forget that the lives of families of missing persons go on, albeit under the pressure of the past resurfacing at any moment. When it does, it brings the audience to their knees as much as it does Miller's character. I think it precisely because the film follows this chronological, true-to-life trajectory that it manages to strike an emotional nerve.
As well-done as the film is, I unfortunately don't believe it will get the audience it deserves. It appears to have received essentially zero marketing, and has been quietly dumped in theaters at the beginning of the summer blockbuster season. The title is also a bit misfitting for the film, which doesn't help either. It's truly a shame, as "American Woman" is a moving, brilliantly-acted drama that finds human truth more often than many of its counterparts. 8/10.
The Dead Don't Die (2019)
Downbeat, atmospheric, and wry take on the zombie genre
In "The Dead Don't Die", a trio of small-town police officers (Bill Murray, Adam Driver, and Chloë Sevigny) attempt to battle a zombie plague of dubious origins. Along with them for this end-of-the-world party are a cast of odd characters, including a nerdy shop proprietor (Caleb Landry Jones), a backward farmer (Steve Buscemi), a kindly hardware store owner (Danny Glover), an unearthly eccentric funeral parlor director (Tilda Swinton), and a group of out-of-town teens led by none other than Selena Gomez.
Inarguably Jim Jarmusch's most mainstream effort to date, "The Dead Don't Die" is unfortunately not going to appeal to mainstream audiences. Fans of "The Walking Dead" will be bored into zombiedom themselves. However, audiences who have the palate for Jarmusch's unique brand of wry humor, and/or are students/fans of the zombie genre at large, will have some mild fun here.
Note the qualifier "mild"; this is not a fast-paced film, nor is it an action flick. It is downbeat, and the thrills and spills here are of an unflashy nature. As I watched it, I felt that perhaps its greatest success was that it managed to perfectly evoke the atmospheric trappings of the zombie films of the '60s and '70s. It goes without saying that "Night of the Living Dead" is the chief influence here, but there are moments that recall the feel of lesser-known zombie films such as "Let Sleeping Corpses Lie." Jarmusch wears his influences on his sleeve, and there are in-jokes everywhere, ranging from cheeky nods to George Romero, to headstones bearing the likes of Samuel Fuller. The film is self-reflexive and silly, playing with the diegesis in audacious ways.
While there is humor in Jarmusch's self-aware cheekiness, a great portion of the laughs come from the offbeat dialogue and the performances from his large and impressive cast. Murray essentially does his signature impression of himself, while Adam Driver matches him with deadpan delivery; and Chloë Sevigny is the anxiety-ridden voice of reason who isn't quite as "in on the joke" as her male counterparts. Without a doubt, though, Tilda Swinton wrings more humor out of her scenes than anyone else here, and hers are really the funniest moments of the film. Gomez plays her dream girl part aptly, and we get splashes of Buscemi's signature humor as well as an understated nice-guy performance from Danny Glover. The likes of Carol Kane and Iggy Pop make cameos, and Tom Waits portrays the town hermit who delivers a grim (albeit philosophically overwrought) soliloquy in the finale.
In the end, this is a film that is sure to alienate much of its audience, but film nerds and appreciators of Jarmusch's sandpapery humor and/or the zombie genre as an artistic enterprise will find slight but effective amusements. 7/10.
The Corpse (1971)
Dreary and rather dull riff on "Les diaboliques"
"Crucible of Horror," or "The Corpse," as it was originally known, follows a mother and daughter who hatch a plan to dispose of their sadistic, sexist husband/father, who deals them both physical and sexual abuse while preening his son. Their plot, however, does not go as planned.
This little-seen Gothic horror flick is as British as all get-out, complete with a gloomy manor, foggy landscapes, and dreary, oppressive interior photography. It feels very much like many of the psychological England-set horrors of the period, which may or may not be a good thing depending on the audience. It has some similarities to the works of Jimmy Sangster ("Fear in the Night" has a similar vibe), though it's remarkably less thrilling than anything in Sangster's catalogue.
The crux of the plot is a blatant riff on the French classic "Les diaboliques," to the point that the screenplay borderline plagiarizes. Michael Gough turns in an appropriately cold performance as the sadist father, while Yvonne Mitchell and Sharon Gurney are sympathetic as his tortured female family members. The film burns slowly toward a conclusion that is ambiguous and frankly silly, but it is more or less in accordance with the rest of the dreary proceedings. All in all, a minorly entertaining psychological thriller with a few eerie moments, but it doesn't really have any tricks up its sleeve, so to speak, especially if you've seen "Les diabolique." 6/10.
The House That Cried Murder (1973)
Offbeat and atmospheric shoestring horror flick
"The Bride" follows a vengeful young woman whose husband cheats on her on their wedding day with an ex-flame. The bride disappears, but her beau and his recent indiscretion find their lives tormented.
Written by John Grissmer, who later directed the offbeat thriller "Scalpel" (1977) and the utterly bonkers gorefest "Blood Rage" (1987), "The Bride" is a swift, surreal, and all-around entertaining horror flick that is very much of its era. While it was obviously a low-budget effort, there is some fantastic cinematography on display, and a jarring guitar-based score that amps up the proceedings.
While the film excels visually, its budget limitations instead show themselves in the sparseness of the plot and the overall short runtime (barely an hour and fifteen minutes). There are really only a handful of scenes and settings, and four characters, so it's a small affair (no pun intended); it seems like the production attempted to stretch the material as far as they could with what they had. While I think the plot the could have been thickened up a bit, there are still a handful of twists and turns packed into the swift runtime. Future soap star Robin Strasser plays the lead unhinged bride with audacious flair, while John Beal understatedly potrays her wealthy father. The other two actors portraying the groom and his ex-girlfriend are also solid. The finale of the film is well-done, and there is some truly nightmarish cinematography inside the half-finished estate that the titular bride was building for herself and her lover.
All in all, "The Bride" is a sturdy, small film that is effective in its conciseness. There is not a lot to it, but the filmmakers make off well with what is there. It's similar in tone to another short, low-budget horror flick from the era: 1977's "Axe." An appreciable, genuinely weird film. 7/10.
"Mortuary" follows a young woman, Christie (Mary McDonough) whose psychologist father has recently died in an apparent accident, and whose mother has just begun dating the local mortician. Oddly enough, one of Christie's boyfriend's friends has vanished from the mortuary warehouse after observing an occult ritual there. To make matters worse, it seems Christie is now being stalked by a cloaked assailant with a trocar who wants her (and everyone around her) dead.
This is a film that has been on my bucket list for years, and now having watched it, I can say that it is absolutely nothing like what I expected. Don't be fooled; "Mortuary" is no supernatural slasher or quasi-zombie flick (nor is it nearly as bonkers as its 1983 peer "Mausoleum"). Really, it's hardly a slasher, and more a giallo thriller of sorts--it even has visual references to show for it, and a slow motion glass-shattering sequence that may have inspired a similar scene in Dario Argento's "Phenomena." While it did not match my expectations in content, it didn't necessarily fall short in terms of value. Truth be told, this is actually quite a fun horror flick.
For a horror film of this era, "Mortuary" has surprisingly high production values, and Gary Graver's cinematography is quite lush and atmospheric. The Southern California locales, particularly the secluded Malibu estate where the protagonist resides, are atmospheric and at times eerie despite their sunny disposition. The film also offers some adequate scares, with a handful of jolting appearances of our cloaked villain as he torments poor Mary McDonough.
There is still a definite "Scooby Doo" quality to the proceedings, and the plotting of the film feels odd at times, though it does manage to drop plenty of red herrings for the viewers to gnaw on before the inevitable (and frankly rather obvious) reveal. Rounding out the cast with McDonough is Lynda Day George (of the outrageous "Pieces," made several years prior) as her mother, and Christopher Day George as the mortician. Bill Paxton, in of his first major roles, turns in a fantastically over-the-top performance as the mortician's eccentric son.
In the end, "Mortuary" is an all-around good time for fans of '80s horror. It's a technically well-made film that offers plenty of atmosphere and a handful of memorable sequences. McDonough, coming off her adolescent longtime role on the wholesome "The Waltons," makes for a likable heroine here, and the finale, as silly and "Texas Chainsaw Massacre"-esque as it is, remains in good spirits. 8/10.
Quiet, devastating, and ultimately uplifting
"Heavy" focuses on Victor Modino, an overweight, thirty-something cook who lives a quiet life running a roadhouse with his mother in upstate New York. His small world is turned upside down when Callie, a beautiful, kind young woman, comes to work in the restaurant. What ensues is a rich intersection of emotion, yearning, and ennui between the cast of characters running the establishment.
Perhaps one of the most underrated (and under-viewed) films of the 1990s, "Heavy" is a quiet, small film that pulls the emotional strings of the audience with a gentleness that is endearing and that manages to avoid erring into unabashed pathos. The protagonist, brilliantly acted by Pruitt Taylor Vince, is a man of few words, riddled with buried insecurity and social anxiety. Playing opposite Vince is a fresh-faced Liv Tyler, appearing as an unassuming, genuine young woman attempting to find her footing in the world. The emotional core of the film lay between these two characters, and both Vince and Tyler play them with precise skillfulness. Debbie Harry is equally impressive as a cynical longtime waitress, while Shelley Winters turns in a characteristically eccentric performance as the ailing matriarch of the restaurant.
What is perhaps most staggering about "Heavy" is that it rings eerily true to the locale in which it is set. The characters each feel like people we've seen in real life in anywhere, USA--small town ,working class people facing off their demons and failed aspirations. Director James Mangold (in his feature debut) captures a restlessness in each that is authentic, and the narrative is supported by atmospheric cinematography and a lush, sometimes unearthly score by Thurston Moore.
Some audiences seeking emotional (or literal ) fireworks may be bored to death by it, but for cinema lovers who appreciate character portraits and feelings of places, "Heavy" is an absolute gem. It's a quiet, small film full of quiet, small moments, but each of them have a ring of truthfulness that is difficult to ignore. Mangold manages to string these moments together with grace, leaving us an authentic, sparse narrative that still manages to uplift without drenching us in syrupy poignancy. Each of his characters, as embittered as they might be, are not entirely forsaken. 10/10.
High Life (2018)
Bleak anti-character character study
"High Life" follows a group of criminals cast out into space on an mission searching for alternative energy forms. Among them are Monte, a young man serving a life sentence for murder; Dibs, a corrupt doctor who manipulates the passengers hoping to conceive a child; Boyse, an ex-crack addict; and Tcherny, a convict who has left his wife and son on earth. As the mission moves forward, the interpersonal dynamics between the passengers begin to putrefy.
Told in vaguely non-linear shreds of time, "High Life" begins with a series of plodding, quiet moments between a father and his infant daughter, before splintering into the past and future, exposing the sources of the characters' current situations by the means of their pasts. Time is, unsurprisingly, a key theme in the film, although in an atypical way; this manifests most prominently in Monte, the protagonist, whose past on earth returns to him even light years away from it.
Director Claire Denis presents her story in small moments, some of which are poignant, and others which are revulsive. Human sexuality and violence are equally presented in their most stripped-down, primal forms, which can perturb a more sentimental audience. This sort of sterile bleakness pervades the entire narrative, and the individual characters are sketched in a way that betrays Denis' storytelling mode; this results in a film that is ultimately structured as a character study, but which does little in exploring (or exposing) its characters. They remain vague, and ultimately, suspended. This is perhaps the most frustrating thing about the film, be it an intentional move on Denis' part or not.
Aside from this, the performances here are strong, with Robert Pattinson proving himself a formidable, thoughtful character actor, and Juliette Binoche playing the doctor who oscillates between a vulnerable woman and an outright siren. Mia Goth makes another great turn here as a free-spirited addict who finds herself tormented by the situation, and André Benjamin portrays perhaps the most reflective, grounded individual onboard.
The film, as I saw it, ends on a surprisingly optimistic note, though Denis is certainly playing with a double entendre here that can be read two ways. In the end, I felt the film works best at providing the audience windows into the characters' pasts as well as their mundane lives aboard the mission, as these allows the audience to get closer; however, Denis denies us too much closeness, and in the end there is a space between the viewer and the characters that is frustratingly palpable. We never quite get there, but that is possibly what Denis wanted. 7/10.
Traditional stalker fare upheld by the commitment of its performers
"Greta" follows naive, goodhearted Frances (Chloë Grace Moretz), a young woman who has moved to New York City to live with her friend Erica (Maika Monroe). On the subway one day, she finds a bag whose contents indicate it belongs to Greta Hideg, a French woman who lives in Brooklyn. Frances takes a liking to Greta, but soon finds their mother-daughter-esque relationship to be much more than she bargained for.
In many ways, "Greta" strikes as a 21st-century return to the stalker fare of the 1990s, ala "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle" or "Single White Female," and for that reason alone it is an adequately fun, all-around entertaining thrill ride. This subgenre of films, although not necessarily known for its grips on reality, has always been a source of great amusement. This is perhaps the most singular thing about "Greta" that audiences need heed before going into it, because it will divide its audience; those who enjoy these films for what they are will get a kick out of it, while those expecting something more innovative will be disappointed.
As someone who finds stalker films of this calibre to be typically enjoyable, I took "Greta" on its own terms and found it a consistent, well-acted popcorn movie. It's implausible in more ways than it's not, its millennial characters live lives that make little sense (how many twenty-somethings live in a chic, 1,000+ square-foot loft in Tribeca?), and the threat of the film's titular Greta relies largely on tropes well-worn. So, why does the film work? Largely, or perhaps entirely, because of the commitment of its performers to the material. Chloë Moretz is believable as the well-meaning Frances, and Isabelle Huppert is unrelenting as the villain. Both actresses throw themselves at the material with so much earnestness that it's difficult not to buy it, no matter how implausible, silly, or frivolous the circumstances. Maika Monroe provides enjoyable comic relief as Moretz's out-of-touch friend, while Stephen Rea makes a minor appearance as a private investigator who arrives in a rather stilted manner near the climax.
Taken on its own terms, "Greta" is a hoot; it's a throwback done well, and is one of the better popcorn thrillers I've seen in the last decade. This doesn't mean it's innovative or particularly intriguing, but it is engrossing in a way that is familiar, and it's fun enough to draw most audiences in. The material itself is well-worn at this point and the audience more or less knows the routine, but Moretz and Huppert's performances are the keys that turn the machine like clockwork. 7/10.
The Prodigy (2019)
Downbeat, contemporary take on the "bad seed" movie; manages to engage with genre tropes without coming off as trite
"The Prodigy" has Taylor Schilling playing a young mother who, along with her husband, begins noticing behavioral shifts in their eight-year-old savant son, Miles, that may be more than a mere child psychologist can handle.
I went into this film was half-hearted expectations, as the "bad seed" setup has been done to death, and based on the premise of the film, I was hyperaware that things could go sideways here; fortunately, they don't. "The Prodigy" does not reinvent the wheel, but it knows how to spin it with ample proficiency. The plot is standard in this genre, taking cues from "The Exorcist" and "The Bad Seed," and handing out stylistic nods to "The Omen," but it's not exactly any one of those films; it's not a standard possession or Satanic-kid film, nor is it a clear-cut killer kid movie.
The film is well-shot and atmospheric, and there are some unexpected scares here, save the one that appeared in the trailer (which is an unabashed Mario Bava ripoff from "Shock"). There were a couple instances of jump scares that actually got me hook, line, and sinker, and it was after those moments that I realized the film was doing something successfully. The performances are strong, and Schilling makes for a solid lead here, playing a character torn at the seams between saving her son and saving those around her (and herself). One of the singular flaws I found was that the filmmakers (or possibly the studio's talking heads) at times undermine the audience's intellect; there are a handful of moments where excessive explanatory dialogue is inserted which feels far too "beat them over the head with it," but it's a fairly forgivable distraction.
The last act is surprisingly nerve-wracking and dark, and the film unwinds in a place that I never expected it to. By the end of it, I was pleasantly surprised by it as a whole. It is inarguably derivative, but it works within its own wheelhouse quite nicely, exuding flair and a handful of truly effective moments. I went into the theater bracing myself for a potential "killer kid" hackjob flick, but was rewarded with something at least mildly thoughtful, and perhaps more importantly, just plain fun. "The Prodigy" manages to, for the most part, engage with genre tropes in a way that doesn't come across as unbearably trite or dated, so for that I have to give credit. 7/10.