Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor

Lord help me, this is how you do filmmaking. I haven’t seen a SciFi horror this good since… who knows since when. Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor is a sensational, surreal, coldly animalistic, shockingly violent exercise in retro futurism, psychological netherworlds, jarring identity crises, lethal corporate espionage and unnerving body horror. Cronenberg, son of David, isn’t just a chip off the old block but outright surpasses most of his Pops’ work that I’ve seen with this stunningly original, unforgivingly oppressive piece. Andrea Riseborough gives a haunted, waif-like, primordial turn as Tasya Vos, a contract killer whose hunting ground is the mindscape, the price being she begins to lose her own mental footing amidst traversing that of others. She works for a shadowy firm run by spooky handler Girder, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh in another one off her increasingly unsettling, opaque turns. Tasya infiltrates the minds of chosen targets, takes over their cognition and motor function, using them as scapegoats to carry out high profile assassinations. Her newest target is a corporate pretty boy (Christopher Abbott) who is dating the daughter (Tuppence Middleton) of a powerful, mean spirited business magnate played by Sean Bean in some of the liveliest, boorish work I’ve seen from him in some time. This job proves difficult once Tasya’s mind begins to meld with her host’s, the lines blur and things get out of hand pretty quick. This is a punishingly violent film, and there’s a few genuine bury your face in someone’s shoulder moments, even for those with strong stomachs. Cronenberg flaunts the same fetishistic fixation on what practical effects can show in terms of physical decimation to the human body that run in the family, and the results of his creative exploration are nothing short of soul-disturbing. He also shows a flair for the surreal too, as you can see by the poster. There’s some otherworldly imagery, sound and tactility at play here that give this a nightmarish atmosphere that is pure and singular, thanks also given to a wonderful, elemental electronic score by Jim Williams. There are some themes that border on the taboo, or at least notions I’ve ever seen so bravely explored in horror, such as letting go of the familial/societal boundaries established in the modern world and reverting back to a predatory state of existence, I don’t know about you but that kinda makes my skin crawl in this context. I suppose my one issue would be that there are no characters to care about, the only one I felt sorry for was Tuppence Middleton’s unwitting girlfriend, her’s is the only performance with any warmth or genuine humanity in it. But I realize that’s kind of what Cronenberg & Co are going for here: this is a cold, pitiless piece of horror extremism that isn’t here to reinforce the core comforts of human nature, but rather to turn over every stone and dig up the long suppressed aspects of it that no one wants to admit are there. An arresting, darkly beautiful piece of trippy retro SciFi splatter bliss, and the best film of the year so far.

-Nate Hill

Mel Gibson in Force Of Nature

As we sat down to watch Mel Gibson’s latest direct to video flick Force Of Nature, we barely got halfway in before my roommate commented “whoever wrote this movie has serious cognitive issues.” I agree. This is a hurtin’ ass excuse for entertainment. It’s like one of those text posts where someone forces an algorithm bot to watch over fifty hours of any given genre or existing property and have it write its own skewed, bizarre version of said material. Well a bot would have done a better job writing a ‘hurricane heist cop thriller thing’ than whoever penned this. As a category 5 storm descends on Puerto Rico, various random characters with no sense of direction or personality converge around a waterlogged apartment complex, unable to leave, coexist or tell a story that makes sense. The world’s most sarcastic cop (Emile Hirsch) and his partner (Stephanie Cayo) are tasked with evacuating stragglers, including some dude caught trying to buy one hundred pounds of beef from a supermarket to feed a literal jaguar that lives in his closet. Meanwhile a gang of psychotic thieves led by a weirdo who calls himself John The Baptist (David Zayas from Dexter) prowl the building shooting anything that moves and looking for stolen Picasso paintings passed down through a family of nazis. Mel Gibson himself plays a super grumpy, terminally ill ex cop with an exaggerated Chicago accent who refuses to leave his apartment with his nurse daughter (Kate Bosworth). Everyone runs around chaotically from apartment to apartment doing nothing in particular, the rain pours outside but never really escalates beyond intense downpour into legit hurricane weather, and… fuck I dunno man, I don’t even feel like this deserves proper punctuation or attention in a review because it obviously doesn’t give two shits about it’s audience enough to even try. Nothing makes sense, it’s impossible to care about anything going on, all the plot points and characters beats are so off the wall and I found myself just really wondering why this thing was even made at all, much less why respectable folks like Hirsch, Zayas or Mel friggin Gibson would be attached. Bosworth at least has a sheepish excuse because she’s married to the director, but even then she’s pushing her luck. A solid contender for the worst film of the year and not something I recommend you waste ninety minutes of your precious life on. The only Force Of Nature to be found here is this thing’s compelling ability to make the viewer get up off the couch and leave the room.

-Nate Hill

Stuart Gordon’s From Beyond

If Stuart Gordon’s From Beyond is beyond anything it’s the borders of good taste, for the most part anyways. This is a slimy, gooey, sleazy, schlocky piece of ooze that functions on an inherently terrific central premise, but drags it through the muck of lowbrow, lurid horror, and without apology. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, just not what I was expecting I guess, or not to that level. Gordon totem Jeffrey Combs plays a twitchy lab assistant whose piece of work boss (Ted Sorel) has patented a weird machine called the ‘resonator’ which uses psychic vibrations to enlarge the human pineal gland and open the doors of perception to whatever horrific beings lurk out there in other dimensions, which in this case is not as many as I’d hoped. A seemingly idealistic yet surprisingly corruptible psychologist (Barbara Crampton) and a cavalier police detective (the great Ken Foree) escort traumatized Combs back into the house where these experiments previously went berserk and wouldn’t you know it, someone pulls a whoopsie, turns the resonator thingie back on and it all goes berserk again! Thing is, I was expecting an impressive variety of ghoulies, icky aberrations and Lovecraftian hoo-hah to emerge and terrorize them, and the only thing that really does is a severely malformed new version of Combs’s boss, as you can see on the charming poster in my photo grid. He’s an admirably gross special effect, but where’s the variety, man? Where’s the whole zoo of disgusting unholy fuckers to rival something like… Carpenter’s In The Mouth Of Madness? Maybe this thing had budget constraints, lack of creative juices or what-have-ya, but I just felt like there could have been… more, given such a delicious setup. Also, there’s some trashy bits that were unnecessary, a weird, awkward S&M freak show vibe that didn’t need to be shoehorned in and take it from someone who appreciates the uber-kinky aura in something like Hellraiser (where it was appropriate) when I tell you… it was not necessary here, it cheapens and dilutes the potential for true otherworldly horror. By the film’s climax we get several folks running amok with their sentient pineal glands protruding from their foreheads like glistening head-penises and it lands squarely in WTF-ville. Anyways there’s scenes that are ok, with the neat 80’s effects, score and aesthetic, but something just feels… ‘off’ about this one. Like the freaky deaky aspects that are so much fun in other similar films just.. landed with a clunk here. I dunno, maybe it’s just me, but a film with such a cool concept just should have done more, and avoided being so trashy in certain key areas.

-Nate Hill

Issa Lopez’s Tigers Are Not Afraid

I love films that combine a childlike element of fairytale sensibility with the horrors of our world, and Issa Lopez’s Tigers Are Not Afraid does this almost flawlessly. Set in the slums of Mexico, recently orphaned Estrella (Paola Lara) navigates a run down part of town, pursued by the ruthless cartel gang that murdered her mother in cold blood and haunted by ghosts both literal and in her own mind. She joins up with a sort of Lost Boys troupe of fellow kids whose parents were also slaughtered, and together they face down the gang threat, survive by relying on each other’s trust and navigate a chapter of their lives that they are heartbreakingly too young to have to burden. This is a sensational film in every way, and I award it the elusive 10/10 rating, it fucking floored me more than I have words for. What makes it so special is how fluidly it blends genre, style and tone to the point where every element feels congruent with the rest and instead of a film discernibly fashioned together from different elements we get one that feels like it’s own lifeblood, free of comparison. The child actors are all brilliant, especially Lara who imbues Estrella with intuition and soul far beyond her years. She feels the spiritual presence of the dead around every corner, but the ghostly visions aren’t there for cheap scares, they have a very crucial part to play in our story and work seamlessly alongside and within her arc. The villains are a despicable breed, heinous cartel monsters and a brat political wannabe who calls their shots, brutalizing and breaking down this neighbourhood to the point of ruin and despair. But there’s hope! There must be hope, even in the darkest, most forgotten corners of the world. Estrella and her newfound friends are beacons of hope, resilience and the the unheard voices of the lost, the forgotten and the marginalized. Their voices and story are something so human, and so affecting I dreamt of this film last night after viewing it, as if it followed me into sleep with a few more narrative beats to give. It’s that important a piece, feeling at once like horror, fantasy and crime thriller but most importantly, a deeply character based, very personal story of human beings encountering unimaginable obstacles at the very start of their lives, and how their courage can find light even when things are darkest. Dare I say.. masterpiece.

-Nate Hill

Richard Franklin’s Road Games

The premise of Richard Franklin’s Road Games is a delicious one: a laidback, eccentric long haul truck driver (Stacy Keach) and the free spirited young hitchhiker he picks up (Jamie Lee Curtis) spend a bit too much time people watching and suspect the driver of a mysterious green van in a string of serial killings. Did I mention it’s set in the Australian outback? What you have there is a recipe for perfect horror thriller material and yet… the film comes across more as a leisurely paced, quirky, cavalier, character based road movie with some horror elements thrown in almost as an afterthought. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it, I thought it was an excellent film, I fell in love with both main characters as they’re so well written and acted, the score and setting are to die for, the photography gorgeous, and Keach even has an actual dingo dog named Boswell as his sidekick, so really what’s not to love? His character is such a rare used archetype, and one I’ve come across in my working life more than once: the charismatic, well read renaissance man who happens to be working in a labor job usually populated by, let’s say, less intellectually inclined people. “Just because I drive a truck does not make me a truck driver” he proudly announces, considers himself an aristocrat and we believe him because the character is so well written and acted by the always awesome Keach, he feels like a dude you could run into in real life and not some caricature. Curtis is terrific as the hitchhiker he calls ‘Hitch’ (one of the numerous and deliberate Hitchcock references), a fiercely independent, strong willed girl who is blunt when discussing herself, sex, the highway murders and nonchalantly psychoanalyzes Keach which makes for stimulating banter and enjoyable chemistry between the two. There are a few scenes of killing, suspense, car chases, tension and violence but they’re put there to service plot and in this film it’s not plot that matters or immerses us most, it’s character. The scenes that I got the most enjoyment from and will stay with me aren’t killer related but rather Keach driving down the highway talking to his beloved dog, playing a harmonica, playing ‘I Spy’ to pass the time and sitting around a cozy campfire with Curtis talking about everything from politics to bunny rabbits. I was completely ok with the fact that this is more a laidback character piece than a thriller, and I enjoyed the horror elements as a sort of cherry on top as well. Just don’t go in expecting a full on white knuckle horror show or you’re gonna be hella disappointed. I greatly enjoyed this curious, ragtag little film and it’s comforting to me that there was a buddy road movie out there starring Keach and Curtis that in my 20 odd years of watching films I’d never come across, because now I wonder what other hidden gems are out there in the Outback of cinematic history I’ve yet to discover. Good times.

-Nate Hill

Roger Spottiswoode’s Terror Train

I never realized just how many slasher flicks Jamie Lee Curtis did back in the late 70’s/early 80’s. Well, she only did four, but that’s still two more than I was recently aware of and I probably never would have stumbled upon Terror Train if Prime hadn’t put it top of the queue for awhile. It’s a decent enough horror exercise that is of course no match for Halloween, but has it’s moments. Curtis and a whole pack of rambunctious college partygoers are living it up aboard a train that’s barrelling though rural Quebec in the dead of night. Several of these people were involved in a very nasty prank a few years before and the person they preyed on has returned to prey on them, in the slow build, one by one, gruesome slaughter fashion we’re used to seeing in these types of flicks. It’s essentially your garden variety slasher flick set on a train and is entertaining enough, although never close to anything you might call scary. Curtis is good as the one in their group with the strongest moral compass, who realizes quick that their past isn’t done with them yet. Infamous magician David Copperfield shows up here playing, you guessed it, a magician who entertains these college kids when they’re not drinking or getting hacked to pieces. There’s a salty old train conductor (Ben Johnson) who begins to figure out something is wrong pretty quick, and I enjoyed his keen awareness because usually the slasher lore dictates that any staff or fringe players are clueless until the hammer eventually comes down on them. Pay close attention to certain scenes where the killer is hiding in very plain sight and see if you can tell who it is (it was fairly obvious to me), they picked a very weird, kinda ‘evil pixie’ looking individual whose creepy appearance goes a long way. It’s not a horror classic by any standards, but gets the job done for fans of the retro aesthetic, plus movies set on trains always have that going for them by default.

-Nate Hill

J.D. Dillard’s Sweetheart

Blumhouse has been very inconsistent with their recent horror output (I’m looking at you, Fantasy Island) but I’m happy to report an absolute winner in J.D. Dillard’s Sweetheart, a terrific little monster movie that plays like LOST meets Cast Away by way of All Is Lost with a touch of Creature From The Black Lagoon, the black lagoon in this case being the blue waters of the South Pacific. For the record, I don’t mean to cheapen any original price of art by comparing it to other films that from which inspiration is drawn or call attention to the fact too much but I find that doing a quick mood board like that can be a handy way of drawing folks in to my review and, more importantly, the film itself. Anywho, this one sees a lone girl (Kiersey Clemons) wash up on the tropical shores of Fiji after some sort of shipwreck. She does her best to survive and gather food but when night falls she realizes she’s not alone, and there’s a weird ocean dwelling creature that snoops around after dark looking for prey. So begins a frenzied fight for survival and a battle for her life against this aquatic freak show that only gets more complicated when two former friends (Emory Cohen and Hanna Mangan Lawrence) arrive on a floaty raft. This is her story though and Kiersey gives a sensational performance full of life, organic vitality and genuine spirit even when there are long stretches with no dialogue. The creature is a hulking, slimy beast that just won’t relent, the special effects makeup used effectively to create a tactile, biologically believable… thing. Dillard makes his debut here and I commend him for incredibly strong work. There’s a brilliant and utterly terrifying scene involving an emergency flare lighting up the night horizon that nearly had my running out of the room, conceived and directed with great innovation. There’s a beautifully synthy score by Charles Scott IV that reminded me of Stranger Things, kicking into gear in all the right places to bring the action alive. It’s a terrific horror film with a fierce emotional core thanks to Kiersey’s performance, genuine thrills and a slick sense of wonder. I’ll end with a quote from our main character that stuck in my mind and proves that an 80 minute monster flick can have all the depth and introspect in script as any Hollywood drama: “For a lot of my life, I’ve struggled with being believed. The truth doesn’t always come with a receipt. Sometimes all we have is our word.” One of the year’s best films so far.

-Nate Hill

William Malone’s FearDotCom

I’ve written about this film before a few years ago and absolutely trashed it, but after a revisit is realize that I was either too harsh or my tastes shifted, because FearDotCom, although a narrative catastrophe, is a stylistic and artistic wellspring of morbidly beautiful visual excess. It almost doesn’t even belong in a movie theatre or home screen but in some avant garde museum as an experimental piece of video. The plot, as far as I could swing it: Two detectives (Stephen Dorff and Natascha McElhone) in one of those constantly rainy, impossibly bleak inner cities investigate a string of murders tied to a strange website and carried out by a sadistic, monotone lunatic (Stephen Rea). Both the website and the murders are apparently linked to the ghost of a creepy little hemophiliac girl with a bouncy ball, but how or why remains a mystery because the film doesn’t feel the need to coherently explain any of its plot points. The cops, the killer, other various oddballs, the website, none of it is strung together with any kind of proper storytelling adhesive or logic and there’s simply no piecing it together in a way that makes sense. That leaves you to give up and let the film wash over you as a sort of sensory experience, an expressionist’s dream of eerie sound, striking viscera, abstract visuals and potent atmosphere. The film works on that level, if you can compromise story for ambience. This is one of those cities like in The Crow, Dark City or Seven where it’s always raining, always nighttime, all the light fixtures swing and strobe uneasily, every subway station is abandoned, smokestacks and power plant silos stand sentiment across the horizon and the residential buildings look like they’re limping along after a severe earthquake. It was filmed in Luxembourg and Montreal but is obstinately set in NYC which leads to hilarious contradictions in architectural landmarks. The ghostly images and horror elements look like they’re inspired by everything from Murnau to Merhige and are at times truly inspired. The cast, although hailing from various genre paths, all somehow seem suited to something this weird. Dorff comes from horror roots and has perfected this angry, brooding aura to a science, McElhone seems to handpick the strangest projects and is always an ethereal presence in whatever she shows up in, Irish character player Rea mostly stars in Neil Jordan stuff and is no stranger to the bizarre while genre legend Udo Kier shows up in the most random, wordless cameo of his career. The visual aspect is almost indescribable until you’re neck deep in it, picture the stark stylistic choices from The Matrix with some serious Silent Hill vibes and a very ‘Euro’ flavour to the whole thing. It’s interesting that an American studio horror flick about stuff like cops hunting a serial killer and some murder website ended up looking, feeling and sounding like something from a literal other dimension, and that kind of outcome can’t be written off as simply a bad film in every way but viewed as a messy yet provocative experimental curio. It’s just a shame the story got fatally shredded somewhere between conception and execution, or this could have been something really great. Oh and fun fact: the producers couldn’t secure the web domain name ‘fear.com’ because whoever owned it wouldn’t sell *for any price*, so in the film when we see the actual site it’s ‘feardotcom.com’ which is so hilarious to me and just adds to the overall weirdness even more.

-Nate Hill

Stephen King’s Desperation

Stephen King’s Desperation is a decent enough TV-movie adaptation made perversely, hysterically memorable by one actor’s performance, which I’ll get to in a moment. It’s based on one of of two Nevada desert set books (the other being The Regulators) he wrote under his pseudonym ‘Richard Bachmann’ that exist in the same demonic dustbowl timeline and they are two of the best things he has written, just not quite as notorious as, you know, books that actually say ‘Stephen King’ on the cover. This is a grainy, leisurely paced but often quite brutal tale of various highway travellers terrorized, imprisoned and killed by a rogue sheriff who may be something more than human. They include an arrogant travel writer (Tom Skerritt), the cavalier roadie in his employ (Steven Weber), a spunky hitchhiker (Kelly Overton), a stranded couple (Henry Thomas and Annabeth Gish), a boozy old timer (Charles Durning) and others. The sheriff is played by Ron Perlman and he is the life of the fucking party here, a completely bonkers, unpredictably psychotic hoot who steals scenes and tramples over scenery like there’s no tomorrow. He’s got some truly perplexing one liners (“I love Lord Of The Rings!”) that make sense once you see that King himself wrote the screenplay for this and kept much of his trademark, pop culture laced bizarro dialogue intact. There’s spooky mythology at work here including haunted mining shafts, demon possession and legions of desert wildlife turning against our band of human survivors in the kind of well staged sequences that would have an army of animal wranglers working overtime. The film is about fifteen minutes too long and lags in places, and has the obvious look, budget and pacing of a very TV affair, but as a grisly little slice of oddball B movie fun, it works and there’s some inspired, Terry Gilliam style camera work that adds to the wonky vibe. It wouldn’t be half as fun without Ron Perlman though, who gives a deliciously deranged turn as one of the weirdest, wildest villains out there and deserves some sort of award, if not his own spinoff film. Good times.

-Nate Hill

Tom Holland’s Fright Night

It took me a while to finally get around to seeing 1985’s vampire classic Fright Night and I’m glad I did because this is one gorgeous, blissfully 80’s soaked aesthetic pieces of shock pop art and I fell in love with every disco fever, harlequin romance tinged, Hammer Horror inspired, gothic erotica, glistening prosthetic effects laced second of it. I think I was apprehensive because I sat through that godawful 2011 Colin Farrell remake a while back and needed to cleanse my palette of such nonsense before doubling back and going for the real thing. This is a spectacular horror film built around a ‘vampire next door’ motif in which a high strung teenager (William Ragsdale) suspects his suave new neighbour (Chris Sarandon) of being a bloodsucking monster. He’s right, of course, but no one believes him and he finds himself in a furious fight for survival, to protect his mom and girlfriend and ward off this cunning, charismatic and very evil dude. He’s also aided by a hammy Van Helsing type out of work actor played by the incomparable Roddy McDowell in a performances great spirit, gusto and theatricality. The only acting that doesn’t feel quite right is Stephen Geoffreys as the main character’s twitchy, borderline spectrum friend who I guess is supposed to just be an oddball but every choice from him feels tone deaf and awkward. Chris Sarandon is so damn good as Jerry the vampire he deserves his own spinoff franchise though, what a mesmerizing villain. He’s a super good looking dude and a terrific actor who has kind of been ‘here and there’ for decades (he was a cop in the first Chucky film and Humperdinck in Princess Bride) but I’ve always felt he’s been underused and deserved a way more prolific career. Anyways he knocks it out of the park here and has immense presence, making Jerry the kind of laidback, sardonic, low key menacing alpha male villain that just steals the damn show. The film looks, sounds and feels incredible in every way. The special effects are gruesome, tactile and worthy of the 80’s horror time capsule, I truly miss the days of slimy practical effects every time I catch up with an oldie like this. The score by Brad Fiedel is so airy, synth-soaked, ambient and uneasy in all the right places. Director Tom Holland and cinematographer Jan Kiesser have a ball photographing this thing and make the aesthetic this sort of ‘pastel suburbia’ vibe with window curtains billowing sensually in the summer wind, blood spilling elegantly when necks are bitten, sneaky flourishes of kinky voyeurism and savage vampire makeup brimming with fangs, blood and the most exaggerated, hellish contact lenses a production budget could ever hope to get. This is just so much fun, one of the sexiest, schlockiest, most deliciously tongue in cheek and opulent vamp flicks to come out of that glorious decade of horror that shall never be topped.

-Nate Hill