B Movie Glory: Route 666

I was a bit disappointed that at no point during a film about a haunted highway did the song “Highway To Hell” play on the soundtrack, especially a horror flick with the sort of shoot ‘em up, classic rock vibes that Route 666 has, but oh well. This is a mostly silly, sometimes entertaining bit of B trash with a fantastic premise that doesn’t quite get the mileage it may have in a better film. Lou Diamond Phillips and Lori Petty are a charismatic pair of US Marshals escorting a fugitive mob informant (Steven Williams, The X Files, True Detective, Jason Goes To Hell) from some heat scorched, one horse desert town into LA to testify against some very bad people. What they don’t know is that the particular stretch of desolate interstate they’ve picked for a shortcut is home to the ghosts of some even worse people, who have noticed them trespassing on their road and are now out for blood. If this simple concept had been stripped bare and milked for all its worth in blessed Grindhouse simplicity I feel like the film would have fared better, but there’s just so many dangling subplots including a Russian hitman dispatched to kill them, rival federal agents they clash with over jurisdiction and even an indigenous shaman (Gary Farmer) with supernatural powers who guides Phillips hotshot gunslinger into the path of his Native American lineage, which ties into the ghost convicts who were in an ill fated chain gang decades before. Then there’s the great L.Q. Jones as a very untrustworthy county sheriff who get involved in the whole mess too, and it all feels like wanton clutter orbiting a concept that could have stood rock solid on its own and feels like it would have made an awesome episode of Tales From The Crypt back in the day. While the shootouts are mostly lame, distended sequences that feel too long, not kinetic enough and filled with dingy, lethargic soundtrack choices, the special effects and editing used to bring the ghost convicts alive really fascinated me. Unconventional techniques, strange fade in/fade outs, surprisingly artistic makeup and just the way they move and interact with their surroundings had me thinking of the otherworldly Woodsman in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks The Return and it wouldn’t surprise me if the guy saw this random little horror flick and took sneaky inspiration. I’ll also say that Lori Petty absolutely rocks and I wish she’d had a more prolific career, she can take any role, no matter how creatively limited it’s written and give it this down to earth, punky personality that just radiates forth, she’s truly a wondrous talent. It’s a decent enough B flick with a great premise that gets a bit muddled, but has enough to entertain.

-Nate Hill

Hellraiser 8: Hellworld

And now we arrive at the final Hellraiser sequel, or the last one to star Doug Bradley as Pinhead anyways, so it may as well be a good a place as any to stop. Hellworld is the eighth, and silliest iteration of this story, a script that tries to properly usher the franchise into the cyber age with a sort of meta narrative that turns the Hellraiser characters and movies into an online game that college kids get hooked on. So with this one the movies exist, like this takes place outside the canon in a way, like Wes Craven’s New Nightmare took Freddy Krueger out of his own fictional narrative and placed him in the real world, except that it’s far less effective and properly utilized of a concept in this franchise. The main reason this one doesn’t fall into thorough mediocrity is Lance Henriksen, it doesn’t matter how shitty your sequel, threequel or eight-quel is in any given series, you cast him and immediately there’s a level of pedigree by default alone. He plays a mysterious rich dude who hosts a party at his remote, spooky mansion where players of the once popular online RPG game Hellworld can live out their gaming fantasies one more time. Of course, Pinhead and his buddies break the fabric of time, space and fiction to make their night a literal world of hell, facilitated by Henriksen’s treacherous collector/socialite. It’s a fun enough time, the actors who plays the teens are a silly bunch, but it was neat to see a very young Henry Cavill in their bunch. Decent kills too. One thing I did appreciate is that Henriksen’s character could have easily just been like, a nondescript cyber host type archetype or temporary avatar for Pinhead, as they sometimes do in these films. He’s a very real human character himself with his own fascinating arc and that at least gives the film some narrative fibre, as does his solid, creepy performance. Not the best, but also not the worst in this canon.

-Nate Hill

Neill Blomkamp’s Demonic

People really love to rag on Neil Blomkamp don’t they.. do you think it’s super fun being that miserable? Anyway he has a new horror film out this year called Demonic, his first feature since 2015’s Chappie. People are kind of tearing it apart in reviews, unreasonably so in my opinion because I had an absolute blast with it and one of the most fun time with a horror so far this year. It’s like this sort of odd, multi-genre amalgamation of different tones and ideas, so much so that one can’t really get a proper idea of it from trailers, posters or even word of mouth alone, which means you’re onto something already. It stars the excellent Carly Pope as a troubled woman who is dealing with residual pain of a mother who committed really, really horrible crimes when she was just a kid, and has been institutionalized in a coma ever since. She’s trying her best to forget, until two mysterious sleep tech researchers from a clandestine organization ask her help with a very strange experiment: be put under into REM sleep, enter the unconscious mind of her mother and establish communication within the dream world of both of their subconscious minds, linked via technology that feels simultaneously futuristic and sleek yet retro, analog and VHS themed as well. What are these researchers looking for, you may ask? Well that’s the fun, and that’s all I’ll say about the plot here, it’s a diabolically twisty game of horrors that spill out from the dream world into real life and this girl discovers much, much more about her mother’s state of mind, and whatever else may be in there with her. The film is not only shot but actually (for real this time, not just me stubbornly insisting so) set in and around Vancouver, with some of the story taking place near Kelowna on Lake Okanagan. I’m pretty sure that Blomkamp has seen Panos Cosmatos’s Beyond The Black Rainbow because one of the researchers is played by Vancouver actor Michael Rogers, who was the terrifying antagonist Dr. Barry Nyle in that and there are shades to his performance here that feel directly referential, which was a really nice touch. The film covers a LOT of ground in only 90 minutes, in terms of genre, and maybe it felt too rushed or hectic for some people but I just can’t wrap my head around the negative responses to it. It’s absolutely horrifying in some scenes, incredibly imaginative in an almost tongue in cheek way and stylistically so damn cool, it has the feel of a balls out, conceptually audacious type of horror SciFi flick you’d see in the 90’s. Picture something like The Cell meets The Exorcist meets Virtuosity meets Ghostbusters but still it’s own fiercely original creation. Great film, don’t listen to the haters, see it for yourself and form you own honest opinion. Mine is that it fucking rocks.

-Nate Hill

Hellraiser 7: Deader

After the dreary disappointment that was Hellseeker, I’m excited to report that Hellraiser 7: Deader is a wonderful, wicked return to form and one of the strongest sequels in the canon so far, trying some bold new ideas on for size and going to some shockingly depraved new places in the universe. This one shifts the action over to the UK where an American journalist (Kari Wuhrur) is sent by her boss (Simon Kunz, the adorable butler from The Parent Trap) over to Romania to investigate a mysterious cult called the ‘Deaders’, who are rumoured to have certain abilities that transcend the boundaries between life and death, our world and others beyond. Not much sooner after stepping off the plane she starts getting into trouble after she’s led by chance to the evil puzzle box, whereupon Pinhead and his gang show up and she has to juggle them plus the dodgy cult leader who is out to get her too. This one has a neat spin, I liked the cult angle as it ties in succinctly to the Cenobite mythology and feels organically developed. This is the most fucked up of the sequels too, because of one sequence involving a rogue subway train that barrels through the Bucharest underground system, with newspapers plastering its windows. At one point she has to get on it to gain information from a sort of darkweb contact, and let me tell you the kind of bizarre, hedonistic, vomit inducing euro-trash rave taboo horrifying WTF shenanigans going on inside this thing aren’t images I’ll soon forget, and careful watching that sequence because it’s among the most disquieting things I’ve ever seen in a film and may cause the more sensitive viewers to get upset. That’s a testament to the film’s effectiveness though because so few horror sequels are able to successfully push the envelope beyond what the first film established and be scary in new, innovative ways, but this baby pulls it off spectacularly. I’ve always loved Kari Wuhrur, she’s in a lot of edgy, cult horror type stuff, is gorgeous and super charismatic with an angelic tomboy presence that I vibe with whenever she shows up, she’s great here. This is the strongest Hellraiser film since Bloodline (the fourth) and one that gets positively shocking, down n’ dirty and reworks the motifs for something fresh, unsettling and dark as fuck. Solid stuff.

-Nate Hill

Just Before Dawn

You know in slasher flicks where the vacationing teens arrive in some godforsaken bumpkin-ville headed inevitably to slaughter and jokingly refer to the rural folk as ‘inbred’? Well most of the time they’re just mocking them but in the case of Just Before Dawn the pair of demented killers are legitimately inbred drooling simpletons, big lumbering… I’ll get in trouble if I use the ‘R word’ lol but… yeah. This is a creaky old horror flick from way back when that is surprisingly effective in creating atmosphere, suspense and some well placed gore. The story couldn’t be simpler: a bunch of teens on summer break drive their Winnebago a bit too far into a dense, remote Oregon mountain range mostly cut off from civilization and run afoul of two twin killers who hunt them down, with hilariously stealthy and tactical methods I might add, given their rotund stature and, uh, sunny dispositions. George Kennedy is fun as a salty old park ranger with a few quirks (he keeps bonsai trees) who saddles up his horse and goes looking for the teens once they don’t come back. The always awesome Gregg Henry gives a good early career turn as the ringleader of the group, so the cast has some pedigree to it. The film is shot on location in Silver Falls State Park, Oregon, so the lush, gorgeous, sprawling and overgrown PNW scenery is the strongest quality. Mighty rivers, thundering waterfalls, shadowy forests, deep ravines and treacherous mountain crests are the environment both the teens and the killers tread through here and it’s a terrifically rugged, high stakes setting for a slasher to take place in. I joke about the inbred thing because it’s funny, but I do feel like the film could have had another angle than just that, there’s not much imagination in the concept, but other than that this is a solid effort. Some thick, dreamy wildernesses atmosphere complete with eerie sound design that samples odd warps, warbles and spooky bird calls adds a lot too, with considerable suspense thanks to the elemental nature of the setting. Streaming now on Shudder.

-Nate Hill

Hellraiser 5: Hellseeker

The fifth Hellraiser sequel, Hellseeker, is nowhere near as fun or inspired as the fourth, sad to say. It’s hard to follow up a sequel that includes journeys into both French Revolution times and outer space, but even so this is a pretty dreary attempt other than the fact that it brings back Ashley Lawrence’s Kirsty from the first two films, albeit all too briefly. Most of the film focuses on her husband played by Dean Winters who seems out of place here and who I can never see as anyone else but the human personification of the OnStar navigation guide thing ever since he did those commercials. Kirsty is mostly out of the picture and he’s wandering listlessly through a drab desk job, a philandering lifestyle full of cheating and lying and strange memories of a hazy car accident where she apparently died, but he can’t quite get the facts or the recollections straight. Grisly murders start to happen in the city, crime scenes that he’s always conveniently around, and soon two suspicious detectives are on his trail, then slowly but surely Pinhead and his gang start to make themselves known. The first two thirds of the film are interminable, as it tries to be a noirish character study of this guy but I just. Didn’t. Care. He’s less than non-interesting and even a guy with Winters’s natural charisma just cannot bring him to life. Then the third act happens and there’s some sparks of life, with a twist that, although fascinating and unexpected, sort of negates the whole silly stream of events we see before with his character and kinda made me go WTF. This is by far the weakest story of the seven sequels I’ve seen so far. Not much in the way of memorable kills, gore, atmosphere or effects, a muddy, murky story, flatlined protagonist and a serious lack of screen time for Doug Bradley, who was all up in the fourth one like a scene stealing mad dog. This one can be avoided and skipped over for the sixth one, which is a fantastic return to form and I’ll get to reviewing tomorrow.

-Nate Hill

Robert Harmon’s Highwaymen

I love horror movies set on the road, it’s such a great breeding ground for paranoia, vehicular mayhem and fear of the great unknown. Setting out on a road trip is always an amazing feeling of freedom, but the vast interlacing network of desolate highways that lie just outside the structured, familiar peripheries of any big city ways have an innate, sleeping menace to them; anyone, or anything could be out there. Some of the best films in horror overall come from this idea, including Joyride, The Hitcher, Steven Spielberg’s Duel, Tarantino’s Death Proof, Roadgames and so many more. I finally got a chance to check out Robert Harmon’s Highwaymen and I can’t believe I didn’t sooner because it’s an absolute banger, and one that has always gotten terrible reviews and buzz, which to me is inexplicable. This has the hazy, moody early 2000’s thriller feel, an atmospheric yarn about a terrifying serial killer (Colm Feore) who murders woman with his souped up, rampaging Cadillac El Dorado and the lone man (Jim Caviesel) whose wife once fell under his tires, has now made it his quest to bring the monster down. He spends his days attentively scanning CB radio stations and trawling the vast nebula of backroads looking for any sign of this guy resurfacing, and when he does rear his hood ornament once again, the chase is on. An innocent woman (Rhona Mitra) and her ill fated friend (Andrea Roth) find themselves in the crosshairs of his malicious intent and Caviesel takes full advantage of the situation to try and stop him, with the help of an intrepid rogue traffic authority officer (Frankie R. Faison). Feore is intense as ever as the truly vile killer but what makes the character so fascinating is that without his car he is useless; So many years of disastrous collisions have left him a mangled multiple amputee who is wheelchair bound and uses fearsome homemade steel appendages to operate steering wheel, pedals and gearshift, giving him the appearance of some demented crippled cyborg, it’s quite the character choice for a villain. Director Harmon also did the original 1986 Hitcher film which is a classic and while there are shades of his original vision at work here, this is a different beast altogether. It’s moody, shot in deep saturated colours to illustrate the dusty days and inky black nights that hover over the rural roadmap, has a dark, portentous score by Mark Isham (also composed for Hitcher’86), tons of atmospheric unrest and profoundly brutal, stunningly reckless car chases that constantly threaten to spin wildly out of control into outright carnage and keep the viewer on edge splendidly. Powerful horror film.

-Nate Hill

Hellraiser 4: Bloodline

I recently binge watched all the Hellraiser sequels and man, they are one wild ride. One of my favourites is the fourth one, titled Bloodline, that traces a family lineage from French silly wig times where a toymaker first crafts the evil puzzle box for a dark magician, who initially conjures up Pinhead and his homies. The film traces this genesis into the 90’s art-world scene in a big city where the cube has been embedded into the architectural foundation of a skyscraper where it causes havoc, and then yet another timeline far, far into the future where a scientist on a massive deep space station experiments on the box, trying to put a stop to Pinhead and close the hellish portal for good. It’s an ambitious, wildly entertaining, boundlessly imaginative sequel that covers thousands of years and many characters including a sultry demon princess (Valentina Vargas) who is first summoned in French silly wig era by a very young Adam Scott, who wishes he never met her. She’s terrific and adds a sort of supernatural femme fatale aesthetic to the mythos. Doug Bradley is off the chain here and this is by far my favourite of his Pinhead turns in any of the films. He gets a whopping amount of screen time (often not the case in these sequels) and is a terrifying, antagonistic asshole who feels like an actual tangible threat here instead of his sometimes illusory, half-there half-not theatrical presence. I appreciate such ambition in horror sequels, where the same retread or motifs aren’t just tiredly recycled through new characters and settings, but actual innovation is employed and new lore is pioneered into the canon. The outer space stuff is a fucking blast, as the team of mercenaries played by recognizable faces (Christine Harnos & Pat Skipper are awesome) race against time to find the scientist before all hell breaks loose where no one can hear you scream. The finale is a jaw dropper and one of the most creative moments in the entire franchise as the space station becomes… something more, it’s a slow-clap moment of adrenaline pumping sound and fury and, in a way, the final narrative beat of the entire Hellraiser legacy, despite the fact that there are many more films to come. I would say this is tied with the second film, Hellbound, as my favourite in the series, it’s so well structured, gory as ever, creatively inspired and just so much fun. Oh yeah and there’s a Cenobite dog, too! So badass.

-Nate Hill

Frank LaLoggia’s Lady In White

Lady In White is one in a handful of films I like to think of as the “child oriented yet still pretty terrifying live action horror” sub-genre, it sits alongside a few ones that Disney did like Watcher In The Woods, Something Wicked This Way Comes and the British produced Afraid Of The Dark. They’re geared towards younger audiences in a sense, but they still have dark, macabre, uncompromising themes and seriously spooky aspects. It’s taken me a long time to find this one but it was worth that wait as it’s pretty much the best of the bunch, a sensational ghost story/mystery/serial killer procedural with wonderful performances all across the board, some gorgeous upstate New York autumnal vibes and warmhearted Italian American family dynamics sold splendidly by all among the cast. As a grownup writer from the city (Frank LaLoggia, also the immensely talented writer/director) revisits his childhood home in the country, he recounts, in blessedly hushed campfire tones, a few years in his life as a boy (played by Lukas Haas) where he encountered several ghosts in a hair raising series of events. As an elusive child murderer plagued their township and the surrounding area eluding police for years, the boy is visited by the wandering spirit of one of his victims (Joelle Jacobi, unsettling and sympathetic in the same beat) who can’t find her way to the other side until her killer is caught. So begins a rousing tale of fright and menace as the murderer, lurking in plain sight, is slowly sought by the living and the dead alike in spectral collaboration. A lot of time is spent with the boy and his family, and one gets the sense of a realistic, loving, hectic atmosphere of growing up in that era. Alex Rocco from The Godfather is sensational as the boy’s father, who has a tough guy exterior but a very vulnerable heart underneath. The film exudes genuine warmth and affection between the human beings who are alive, truly authentic sadness and melancholic longing for those that are not and offers some of the most severely frightening ghost encounters I’ve seen in film, particularly a sequence where the boy observes a flashback in real time of the exact moment the girl was murdered that is soul shaking in its blunt, disturbing honesty and raw performance from the young actress. Lots of time passes in the story so not only do we get to see a chilly, bucolic Halloween pass by in this lovely little county, we also see Christmas come for some bonus holiday vibes. It’s a brilliant film, full of grand set pieces, down to earth characters, a sense of dark realism that doesn’t sugarcoat the more unpleasant realities in life, an absolutely horrifying villain, effective special effects for the ghosts, tons of shadowy, elemental, earthen atmosphere and a showstopper of a climax set atop windy bluffs overlooking stark, deadly cliffs high above the ocean below. About as close as you can come to a perfect spooky season film.

-Nate Hill

Denis Villeneuve’s Dune

It’s been a long wait for Dune, but it’s finally here and let me tell you it was worth it. I didn’t get to see it in theatres because my country has gone collectively insane for a minute (hopefully a temporary situation) but it’s a strong testament to Denis Villeneuve and his entire creative team that even on my modest 55” TV with a JBL soundbar, this thing is one powerful spectacle of immense, grandiose science fiction storytelling, a Shakespearean space opera for the ages and the culmination of this filmmaker’s work so far reaching a fever pitch of visual creative energy, motion and sound. Obvious comparisons will be drawn between this and David Lynch’s notorious 1980’s version of Frank Herbert’s novel, but I won’t be making any other than to say I deeply love both films for different reasons, and they are so far removed from one another in style, tone and essence I can’t even place them on the shelf next to one another. The story is told in broad, sweeping strokes with an elemental momentum to both the set pieces of thundering action and soulful, dialogue driven character interaction. Keystone sequences like the Harkonnen invasion, the spice harvester rescue and the Atreides house triumphantly arriving on Arrakis are handled with massive scope, vision, beautiful world building and breathtaking, dreamlike production design. Hans Zimmer’s reliably supersonic score is a bass soaked deep space lullaby, a trancelike composition that echoes his work in Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 while organically blasting into new neural pathways of what is possible in music for film. I thought that Timothee Chalamet might annoy me as Paul, but he’s stellar, almost underplaying the enigmatic budding hero with a layered introspection and genuinely discernible arc from naive youngling prince to rough, rugged desert wanderer. All of the other actors are superb and imbue the characters with a subdued, mesmeric and haunted aura that adds to the spacey atmosphere, apart from Jason Momoa as fierce warrior Duncan Idaho, his performance is lively, brusque and the closest any of the actors get to down to earth. Stellan Skarsgard gives the same sort of villainous turn here as he did in Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur, a wistful, distant and detached yet quietly malicious and rotten bastard of a Baron, like an evil floating Humpty Dumpty, but in a good way. My favourite performance of the film goes to an unassuming Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica, a character not featured all that heavily in the marketing but one that comes across as the desperate soul of the film, a loving mother torn between her fealty to a strange sisterhood of weird nun magicians and her love for Paul and Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac is superb) and her people. Ferguson is eerie, wide eyed and charismatic in the type of way that holds you attention raptly, the only performance in this film that feels like it might be at home in Lynch’s version of Dune. The world presented here is tangible, tactile, the special effects are a seamless blend of CGI and practical, the baroque design of dragonfly winged spacecrafts, mammoth ancient pyramids, impossibly detailed metallic frescoes depicting the lore and history of these civilizations are a magisterial tapestry of woven visual creativity, costume design, detailed wildlife and anthropological wonder that will sweep you away into this realm. My only complaint is that, because this is only part one, the air gets sucked out of the room narratively speaking when this thing ends and I felt an aching yearn for the continuation of the story, which it looks like we will now indeed get and I understand that Villeneuve made a wise choice splitting the novel up to let the story breathe, but it still finishes on an airy exhale that leaves you craving more. I’m excited for part two, there are several characters that *are* featured a lot in marketing that only show up for like, five minutes or less, I want to see this story develop further so that I may get to know them, experience more brilliant performances and sink deeper into this gorgeous, hypnotic, mythologically rich universe. Great film.

-Nate Hill