Michael Sarnoski’s Pig

Nicolas Cage just wants his beloved pet Pig back in a film that’s a lot more subdued, moody, rainy and melancholic than you might think, a Pacific Northwest tone poem about loss, grief, commerce, loneliness and truffles. It’s a strange brew of genre and tonal elements, but director Michael Sarnoski (in his feature debut, no less) spins them all together like the best chefs for a sensory experience and cinematic recipe that is something masterful, weird, eerily lingering and so deeply, deeply sad I had to watch some South Park afterwards before bed just so the heartbreaking, soul shaking beats of this narrative wouldn’t follow me into my dreams. Cage’s former legendary chef lives a hushed, reverent existence, haunting a stretch of rugged Oregon mountain country and dwelling in a simple shack with his pig, foraging and selling truffles to a cocky industry upstart (Alex Wolff, brilliant) from the city for a meagre living. When his pig is snatched in the night by poachers, he journeys back to Portland to a life and a restaurant scene he thought he left behind to find her, and along with her the last remaining ray of dim hope left in his broken, weary soul. This isn’t just about losing a pig, or finding a pig once again you see, it’s about loss overall, that of Cage’s character and that of the other two principal characters in the story, Wolff’s wayward young “entrepreneur” who has lost the favour of his restaurant mafia kingpin father (Adam Arkin, never scarier nor more bitterly pitiful) who has lost something so deep that he can’t even articulate it in words, and it takes involuntary sense memory to even get him to acknowledge it to *himself*. Sarnoski presents the Portland food scene as a frightening, clandestine mob underworld, a choice that could have easily come across as parody or tongue in cheek but the solemn atmosphere and deadly serious writing make it freakishly believable, I’ve spent time with people who work in that industry and it’s really not a far cry or embellishment from how it actually is. Cage’s performance is one of staggering vulnerability and shaggy, end-of-the-road resolve, a once worshipped god of cuisine reduced to a shambling ghost of greatness, made so by a tragedy he never speaks about and the film only carefully hints at. The poor lost Pig is indeed really his pet, whom he loves dearly, but she serves to represent that which we have all lost at onetime or another, that hidden thing that’s hard to talk about and sometimes makes us want to disappear into the woods of the northwest, live in a cabin and never see another human face again. This is a courageous film for allowing an actor like Cage to explore these painful, challenging themes against a backdrop of food, rain, trees and austere hierarchical czars and barons of fine cookery, a realm that is as fascinating as it is unsettling. Just be careful though man, because to be perfectly candid this film is sad as fuck, like maybe the most thoroughly spirit-dampening experience I’ve had in cinema for awhile, it took me a good hour to shake off the hopeless feeling it leaves you with, such is it’s power. It’s essential viewing for many many reasons, more than I’ve touched on here, but it should be wielded carefully, especially if you have issues with depression or immediate grief. I look forward to whatever comes next from Sarnoski, who has quietly ushered himself onto the scene with a stunningly powerful first feature, and provided Cage with what might be the role of his career so far. An absolute showstopper of a film.

-Nate Hill

Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes

Jack Clayton’s Something Wicked This Way Comes is Disney at its darkest and is a ton of spooky fun. Based on a novel by the great Ray Bradbury, here adapting his own work for the screen, it tells of a sleepy, picturesque Vermont town sometime in the 40’s, a place where not much of anything really happens until a mysterious travelling carnival shows up one night via train with little notice, as if borne on the very October wind that howls over the region itself. Their arrival peaks the interest of many townsfolk, especially two young boys who grow quickly suspicious of this outfit, especially its outwardly affable yet intangibly sinister ringmaster, a fellow called Mr. Dark (Jonathan Pryce). Pryce is an actor who has mastered the art of coming across as nervous, stressed and vaguely sympathetic but guards an untapped darkness beneath his terse half smile and he’s positively terrifying here, another sterling villain in his rogue’s gallery of a career. I won’t spoil what this carnival is really up to, but suffice to say it isn’t just to hand out cotton candy and wow the locals with their sideshows and Ferris wheels. There’s an innate, elemental supernatural force at work in each of these carnies, they’re like a pack of ravenous wolves that feed on the human element of both wish and wonder, collecting souls in the process. Most malicious of their group is a mute, animalistic sorceress called the ‘Dust Witch’, played by the always awesome Pam Grier in the kind of dark, fairytale oriented role that she doesn’t get casted in too often, she’s scary, sexy and severely compelling. Also terrific is Jason Robards as one of the boy’s father, his deep, clear speaking voice goes a long way with Bradbury’s wonderfully ornate poetic, prose. It’s a dark, sumptuous jewel of a spooky season watch, with heavy, hazy small town nostalgia captured in elegiac, wistful words by this legendary author and a genuine sense of both eerie wonder and horrifyingly immediate danger. Great stuff.

-Nate Hill

Sean Penn’s Flag Day

Sean Penn has always been one of the most fascinating, honest and down to earth filmmakers in terms of tone, style and theme and his latest father daughter drama Flag Day is a magnificently acted, deeply sorrowful piece of work that shows us this artist still has a lot to give and to say in his medium. It tells the autobiographical tale of Jennifer Vogel (Dylan Penn, his real life daughter), a teenage runaway with a painfully tumultuous family life whose mother (Kathryn Winnick) is married to an abusive prick and is blind to his ways and whose father (Penn) is a degenerate con artist and perennial fuck-up who tries to do right by his family but seems star crossed with his own self destruction. I’m not sure if the real Jennifer Vogel had it *this* bad (I guess I should read the book) but it’s a testament to this girl’s spirit, bravery and resilience that after abuses, years on the road, hopelessly dysfunctional family life and unspeakable hardships she came out on top as a successful college graduate and influential journalist, here chronicled in wistful, hazy, fragmented episodic memories that have a genuine disarray and scattered quality to them, the same way memory feels to us when we try to recall things in a straight line and our minds grasp at keystone moments out of space and time for a recollection that isn’t always coherent. The strongest quality and beacon of light the film has is Dylan Penn, daughter of Sean and Robin Wright in her first lead role. She is unbelievably talented, emotionally truthful and intuitive in her craft and her performance is jaw dropping, for starters. Sean Penn himself is great, playing a character that’s very hard to like and bringing heart to his scenes with her but she is positively on another level with her performance here, selling the hurt, strength, feeling of being betrayed by her own parents and her eventual arc from scared, lost teen girl to assured, battle hardened young woman with a grace, ease and flow that has to be seen to be believed, the best female performance this year easily. The film itself is your call, I loved it but the marketing makes it seem like this “father and daughter against the world” thing when in truth it’s daughter against the world, including her father, mother and most around her who are either absent, untrustworthy or not up to the task of being in her life. Only a kind, sympathetic uncle (a brief Josh Brolin) is anything close to a constructive influence on her journey. Penn has always made challenging, melancholic films about human beings going through unimaginable changes and sometimes taking pretty devastating falls, from The Indian Runner to The Crossing Guard to Into The Wild to The Pledge (my personal favourite), he always has an uncanny eye for the middle class, the people that don’t often get their voices heard in majorly produced scripts, the ones who tend to fall by the wayside unless someone is willing to tell their story. In this case Vogel took it upon herself to tell her own story and Penn has adapted it in a beautiful, moving, incredibly depressing but ultimately very human story, giving his daughter a voice and a canvas to paint her masterful portrayal of one girl who, despite everything, made it to a better life. Phenomenal film.

-Nate Hill

Joe Carnahan’s CopShop

It’s always cool when one of my favourite filmmakers not only puts out two films in the same year, but that they both end up being ones I absolutely love. Joe Carnahan gave us the knockout action SciFi Boss Level earlier in 2021 (highly recommended) and now we have CopShop, a tough as shit, gritty as fuck, funny as hell homage to the lower budget, one location cop thrillers of the 70’s, particularly one I need not name drop but pretty much set the bar, and whose influences are there. Hitting new collaborative notes in his ongoing working relationship with Carnahan is Frank Grillo, who also headlined Boss Level and here plays greasy, self centred mob fixer Teddy, wanted by several hitman including gruff, violent Bob Viddick (Gerard Butler) and off the chain mega-psychopath Anthony Lamb (Toby Huss). Teddy deliberately gets himself thrown into county lockup which he thinks will be safe, but both contract killers follow him there for a bloody showdown as cops are picked off one by one, a cat and mouse game ensues and we gradually learn more about these characters. Grillo uses his hair as an asset to performance here and it’s hilarious to the point where one character makes fun of it in reference to a Tom Cruise flick. Butler is mean, efficient and darkly sarcastic while Huss, never an actor to back down from a challenge, is a terrifying nightmare tornado of perverse looney toons energy, a seriously diabolical, constantly hilarious and severely scary villain for the ages. As great as these three actors are, the real star of the show and my favourite character is Alexis Louder as Valerie, the toughest cop in the county and the real protagonist amidst this stable of shady scumbags. She’s terrifically resilient and charismatic, owning the emotional grounding, dark humour and lethal physicality of her role to the point where I wanted to see a sequel with just her pitted against a whole new roster of baddies. The film has Carnahan’s typically realistic, candid dialogue that I always appreciate so much and a kinetic, propulsive forward momentum that is reminiscent of his excellent 2006 Smokin Aces, although much lower in pitch, tone and budget. I enjoyed the morally sticky, ambiguous nature of Butler and Grillo’s characters who are genuinely hard to read and predict, while Huss’s mad dog cavorts around the precinct like a bull in a CopShop. This was a ton of fun for what it was, and I love seeing mean, unapologetically brutal, off the cuff genre efforts still surface in this day and age. Great times.

-Nate Hill

The Shed

The Shed is as simple a concept as they come: a teenage boy lives with his horribly abusive grandpa and suffers nasty high school bullies all the time until he one day discovers that a vicious vampire lives in the shed out back of his house, a creature that’s bound to stay in there but will happily devour anyone that’s tricked or convinced into wandering in. The young boy is a reasonably well balanced lad who isn’t too inclined to send people to their deaths and reacts with shock to the situation, but the problem is he has a buddy who is far more traumatized from the bullies, doesn’t have quite the mental fortitude of his friend and will happily abandon all moral compass and send anyone who looks at him wrong into the shed to be mauled by this thing. It’s a neat little flick with some great gore and although the performances sometimes reach a volume and intensity that’s a fever pitch beyond what was needed, they’re still enthusiastic, written with humour and performed with style and charisma. You barely ever see the vamp but he’s played by Frank Whaley from stuff like Pulp Fiction and Vacancy, he’s a good veteran talent who’s been around forever and makes the creature stand out. The poster font, synth score and teen vs monster vibe is blessedly reminiscent of the 80’s without being too heavy-handed in paying homage to its influences. It’s nothing special or too memorable, but if you’re looking for a retro feeling flick with practical effects about a vampire who lives in a shed out back, well this is your ticket. Streaming now on Shudder.

-Nate Hill

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