I’m not sure why the general reception to Mathieu Kassovitz’s Gothika was bad bordering on hostile and I have nothing to say to people who hate this film other than I love it and really don’t see what the huge issues with it are. This is an atmospheric, expressionistic horror film made by a European director who favours image, sound, stylistic viscera, trippy nightmare logic and frightening tonal discordance over plot mechanisms, which is just fine by me. Halle Berry plays an expert psychiatrist at a scary Arkham Asylum looking facility where a disturbed patient (Penelope Cruz) whispers of unseen terrors that haunt her. One day Berry wakes up as a patient in her own ward, told by her colleague (Robert Downey Jr) that she’s guilty of killing her husband (Charles S. Dutton). She has no memory of the night in question except meeting a mysterious, ghostlike girl (Kathleen Mackey) on the road right before the alleged crime. Others including the local sheriff (John Carroll Lynch) and the facility’s director (Bernard Hill, always fantastic) try to get to the bottom of this supernaturally drenched murder mystery while Berry struggles to keep her sanity as she’s plagued by terrifying visions, waking nightmares and the ominous presence of the ghost girl. Look, not everything in this film’s plot makes the most sense, but it’s clear enough to serve as narrative framework for one of the most darkly evocative, visually eerie and audibly menacing auras in a horror film. It’s essentially a haunted house flick with a very real (and very horrific) murder/rape conspiracy playing alongside, as Berry wanders the stylized grounds of the asylum pursued by noises, grotesque deformations, tactile hallucinations and that persistent ghost girl who demonstrates the most effective and chilling use of the “jerky, otherworldly backwards ghost walk” I’ve probably ever seen. Berry and Downey Jr are terrific while Cruz does some very scary, against type work as the extremely disturbed trauma victim who holds secrets to the mystery she guards cryptically. I love this film, I love its weird, borderline surreal vibes, I love how lurid and gruesome the murder mystery is, how the production and sound design stimulate every sense and the film draws me into its world spectacularly every time.
80’s Amblin nostalgia fuses together with classic Hammer horror characters in The Monster Squad, a film I never even knew existed until it was brought to my attention by twitter peeps the other day, but after one viewing I’m immediately in love. This exists in the same cherished vein of stuff like The Goonies, Flight Of The Navigator, Gremlins etc and the aesthetic is always irresistible no matter what, then throw in this classic horror flavour too and you’re pretty much guaranteed to win me over. Monsters are loose in small town Americana, and that’s pretty much all you need to known plot-wise in a review. A band of local kids who call themselves The Monster Squad because they’ve always been prepping to fight imaginary beasties finds themselves hurled into a very real fight against a very real posse of them lead by Dracula himself (Duncan Regehr). There’s also a nervous Wolfman (Jon Gries), a mummy (Michael Reid Mackay) and a surprisingly benign Frankenstein’s monster played by the great Tom Noonan. It’s all very playful, loosely structured and down to earth, the child characters emblazoned with the kind of aggressively cute, profane yet ultimately sweet personalities that only the deepest of 80’s cuts in cinema could offer. The best part of the film for me was the warm-hearted, touching friendship between one of the squad’s baby sister (Ashley Bank) and Noonan’s monster who are both unbearably adorable. Blessedly prosthetic monster effects, a campy yet very smartly written tone and vivid, memorable characters make this an absolute treasure.
Now this is how you do a monster movie. Blood Glacier is a terrific Euro-Schlock horror about scientists at a remote research station in the snowy Austrian Alps who discover a spectacularly troublesome micro-organism that arrives in the glacial thaw and stirs up all kinds of cryptozoological shit. The thawing out of creatures from ice, research station and gooey prosthetic effects will draw obvious comparisons to John Carpenter’s The Thing which are of course fair, but the biological modus operandi of the organism differs from that of The Thing and this film finds its own suitable groove. Here’s the hook: this life-force invades the cells of multiple creatures at once, stores the genetic data and creates multifaceted hybrid creatures, so you get a big ass fox/beetle cross, a strange goat/human fucker and wood-bug lice things the size of basketballs that attach themselves to humans like face-huggers and devour their heads. The special effects are obviously limited somewhat by budget but are still incredibly creative, blessedly free of CGI and elaborately slimy enough to be aesthetically pleasing. The human actors/characters are an interesting bunch, as the research scientists join forces with a German family unlucky enough to be hiking in the area and go postal on these pseudo-Lovecraft aberrations which Mother Nature has hurled forth at them. A word of caution though: if you have trouble watching animals in pain, getting hurt or killed onscreen you may want to think twice. The research camp has a dog (similar situation to The Thing) that passes away in the kind of heart wrenching, hyper-emotional sequence I haven’t seen the likes of since Will Smith sang his pupper to permanent sleep in I Am Legend, it’s a tough scene for animal lovers to fight through. This is an impressive effort though with a very cool premise, extremely creative monster effects and a cool wintry atmosphere to boot. God times.
Here’s a hypothetical for you: let’s say you’re a middle aged male widower mourning the loss of your severely mentally ill wife who shot herself mere months ago, in front of your two young children no less. You’re grieving, your kids are all kinds of fucked up, and you’ve decided to date again. Your new young girlfriend has recently been rescued from a whacked out, abusive doomsday cult and is adjusting to normal life again with utmost fragility. You take a vacation to a secluded ski lodge in the winter, thinking it will be nice for your equally traumatized children and girlfriend to get some bonding time in. Now… in this scenario, all things considered, how would it be responsible, intuitively practical or remotely advisable in any way whatsoever to take off and leave your kids alone with this girl for an extended period of time? The Lodge is based around this premise and while it’s very well acted, shot and quite atmospheric, the entire film didn’t work for me because I just couldn’t bring myself to take stock in such a ludicrous narrative gambit such as this. Richard Armitage is solidly haunted as the father, Riley Keogh an unsettling porcelain waif as the disturbed new girlfriend, Jaeden Martell and Lia McHugh capable as the two kids. Alicia Silverstone (of all people) gives the best performance of the film in her quick turn as the ailing mother, I didn’t think I’d ever give high dramatic praise to the Clueless girl but here we are, she owns her cameo with disconcerting resolve. This film’s issues aren’t with acting, cinematography or even music, which are all exemplary. It’s the script that doesn’t ring true, and offsets the entire thing. Besides the dad leaving them alone together (facepalm), the kids pull some weird shit on the girlfriend that spurs the horrific final act into motion. I mean I know these kids aren’t in their right minds, they’re grappling with life and death at a young age etc etc, but they *still* should have intuitively known better, on a deep level, than to pull the kind of cruel, damaging stunt they do here. I think every beat in the story after the mom’s suicide just felt false, discernibly orchestrated and hollow to me, and the film majorly loses its way before it even has a chance to get going past the prologue. Misfire overall.
You think your family has dysfunctional issues around Christmas, try spending a supernatural road trip to nowhere with the Harringtons in the hidden gem holiday horror flick Dead End, a clever, gory, darkly hilarious and altogether deranged piece that should have gotten way more attention. This family has packed up to head to the in-laws for Christmas dinner and headed out onto a shortcut off the interstate that proves to be anything but convenient. In fact it doesn’t seem to lead anywhere except in one never ending straight line cutting through a vast forest, and soon they are preyed upon by a mysterious lady in white (Amber Smith) and a sinister black hearse that glides through the night. Mom and dad Harrington (Ray Wise & Lin Shaye) constantly bicker about nothing in particular, their son and daughter (Mick Cain & Alexandra Holden) are also at each other’s throats and soon the rising tension of being lost in an endless netherworld of road and trees really starts to put a collective damper on this clan’s capacity for Yuletide cheer. This is low budget and as such has a down to earth, tactile and modest feel to the special effects but where it really excels is in script and acting. The dialogue is impossibly juicy, intimidatingly sarcastic and relentlessly funny. Each cast member goes through a complete mental breakdown at some point in the story and the manic meltdowns one might experience in a heightened situation like that eerily mirror those of simply being forced to eat Christmas dinner sat with your relatives. Ray Wise and Lin Shaye are old pros and have a blast going absolutely holiday bonkers in their roles, they are both known for being kind of larger than life and outlandish in their portrayals (he works for David Lynch frequently, she’s a longtime Farrelly brothers collaborator) but this little unknown indie horror might just showcase both at the height of their scenery chewing glory. It’s a spooky, atmospheric little piece that has just the right amount of holiday themed black comedy without veering into actual Christmas movie territory and still retaining a mostly horror-centric flavour. Great film.
Alright, the Bruce Willis space movie. Breach (aka AntiLife) isn’t terrible, it’s just not super inspired or original and if you go in with your nose already turned up at it, well that’s on you bud, you silly cinephile you. However, if you’re a periodically undemanding moviegoer who enjoys a nice schlocktastic cheapie once in a while you may just get a kick out of it. This thing riffs on everything from Doom to The Thing to Pandorum and if you don’t have expectations higher than Bruce Willis and Johnny Messner clearly got while filming their scenes then you’ll have just as much fun as the two of them clearly did. So it’s sometime in the future and earth has been all but decimated by a plague, the remnants of humanity are packed into a giant space station and hurtled towards a distant exoplanet called ‘New Earth’ under the stern, hambone stewardship of The Admiral (Thomas Jane). Most of the passengers slumber in tranquil cryogenic sleep save for a barebones maintenance crew managed by Willis’s once great colonel turned disgraced alcoholic janitor. They’re watched like a hawk by a military man (Timothy V. Murphy) that Willis literally refers to as a ‘space Nazi’ (to his face), but somehow a doomsday zealot manages to smuggle some freaky alien parasite onboard which quickly begins infecting the crew and turning them into ink spewing, putrefied space zombies. Willis and his team that includes Cody Kearsely, Corey Large, Callab Mulvey, Continuum’s Rachel Nichols and scene stealing Messner are stuck fighting off legions of what I suppose would count as the undead in a way but they’re more like a hive minded organism, really. Willis is cool here and actually looks like he’s having a modicum of fun compared to other B flicks he’s recently done. He also plays against type as kind of a reverse action hero and I never thought I’d see the day he plays a character that gets referred to as a ‘lover, not a fighter.’ Jane only has a few atypical military A-hole scenes but he fires off his lines with glib, cavalier flair and I find it hysterical how intensely he insists on wearing his pitch dark tinted aviator shades *indoors*, in a dimly lit spaceship no less. Look, it’s junk, I won’t call pretend it’s a great film, but as an avid lover of cinematic junk food it did the trick for me, and I had fun with it.
I doubt you’ll see a more gruesome, harrowing, WTF horror film this year than Shawn Linden’s Hunter Hunter, a sly deconstruction of several sub-genres including the wilderness creature feature, breathless survival thriller and serial killer suspense tale. It’s orchestrated around a simple premise that evolves into something not so simple until the final act takes a battering ram to the audience’s nerves and expectations alike and you sit there as the credits roll frantically looking for your heart pills before you slide off the couch in full coronary. Somewhere out in the bush a man (Devon Sawa), his wife (Camille Sullivan) and their daughter (Summer H. Howell) live a rugged, simple life as off the grid fur trapper survivalists. One year a rogue wolf returns to their line and threatens to eat both them and their livelihood unless they can track, hunt and kill it before it does the same to them. Only thing is, there’s something way worse than wolves out in those woods, something each family member will come face to face with in a series of white knuckle horror sequences that generate true suspense thanks to nervy, close quarters editing, tension soaked acting from all especially Sullivan and a spooky, atmospherically earthy score by Kevin Cronin. Most of the film is a clever blend of chills, dark humour, scenery and mystery… until that ending rolls around and it goes completely berserk, hog-wild, deranged and etches a fucked up, primally violent conclusion into the viewer’s psyche. Not many films have the big ol’ nuts to pull an ending like this off, but this one does it with grinding, cheerless yet stylish confidence set to a soundtrack song I can’t find on google, but it’s a cool one. Director Linden is responsible for one of my favourite hidden gem films, a metaphysical, Dark City-esque noir from circa 2007 called Nobody, and I always wondered what he’d follow it up with, if ever. Hunter is a lean, mean, bleak, pitilessly cruel picture in all the best ways, and quite the effective, aesthetically pleasing horror film. Just bring your barf bag and your anxiety meds and you’re all set.
I admire ghost stories that set their story around an already troubled region of period of conflict because it raises the stakes unbearably high. If a haunting occurs in tranquil North American suburbia it’s bad enough but can be dealt with on its own terms, but let’s say a ghost or demon shows up during an especially stressful time, in the case of Babak Anvari’s Under The Shadow the Iraq/Iran conflict of the 1980’s, there is an extra level of horror the protagonists must go through on top of their already considerable suffering and it can be incredibly effective in getting you to invest paramount interest and sympathy in the story. In war-torn Tehran, young mother Shideh (Narges Rashidi) struggles when her husband (Bobby Naderi) is drafted in the military and she’s left alone with her young daughter (Avin Mashadi) in a creaky tenement building as air raid sirens signal incoming bomb threats and the mounting tensions get closer to home. One day an actual literal bomb does drop in through the roof of the apartment complex and although doesn’t detonate, sits there like some ugly reminder of the potential violence just outside their walls. Her daughter is convinced that something else came along with it though, something evil and supernatural that rode the same winds that carried the bomb to them and is now tormenting her with night terrors, waking visions and feverish apparitions. There are some flat out terrifying scares in this film, the acting is all terrific and the mythology surrounding the ghost is utterly fascinating. What really makes it a winner though is the atmosphere that Anvari conjures up, a suffocating cloak of wartime dread and bleak apprehension that is completely immersive and will root you to your couch. I love films that start off with a brief written summary on black background like “The year is 1980. Conflict rages across so and so, as one family struggles etc etc.” It’s an incredibly powerful way to begin your story if you choose the right music and lead-in to follow and this film is darkly captivating from the moment those words show up on screen and the first scene fades in. This is streaming on Netflix (at least here in Canada, anyway) and I highly recommend it for fans of chilling atmospheric horror with a grounded human core.
Want something *really* weird? The Caller is an old Empire Pictures flick starring Madolyn Smith as a young woman alone in some forest cabin and Malcolm McDowell as a sinister stranger who knocks at her door asking to use the phone. This film is so rare you couldn’t even find it on VHS or DVD for decades until boutique, niche distribution label Vinegar Syndrome recently did a Blu Ray. The transfer looks terrific, McDowell and Smith handle the strange, talky, stage-play esque roles given to them by the script as best they can but the film overall is a monotonous, repetitive drag.. until the final five minutes when it goes so thoroughly and dementedly off the rails you just have to sit up straight on the couch after being lulled into a coma by the first eighty minutes and go “what even in the fuck?” The film is structured around a Hitchcockian premise where these two are strangers, alone together in the wilderness and both them and us aren’t sure who might be the potentially dangerous one, but their dialogue and interactions are so inane, random and bizarre we get a sense of neither backstory, character traits or motives for either. It’s simply a brain melting extended vignette of two people talking in circles about nothing until the certifiably bonkers ending that although is flashy, shocking and out of left field, does little to explain the hefty, dense several acres of tin drum dialogue that preceded it. This is an Indiana Jones artifact of sorts for me as a DVD collector, I’m a huge Malcolm McDowell fan and this has always been somewhat out of my reach so I’m glad I finally nabbed it but I wouldn’t really recommend this to casual viewers, it’s too unwieldy and inconsistent. Empire Pictures was momentarily famous for grainy, low-fi retro science fiction horror like the Trancers franchise, and this one only fits that mold in the final few minutes when it goes ape shit, while the rest is chamber piece drivel that desperately needed story and structure that the script just couldn’t provide it with.
So before I write a review gushing about a horror remake I’ll say I’m well aware of the fact that MGM viciously plagiarized their own sacred content to produce a Child’s Play ‘reimagining’ that no one asked for, wanted or even knew was coming until a few months out. Hell, the original franchise is still technically going. Why did they do this? Well it has to do with rights and who holds them, a dumb and always pointless red tape hurdle that now means there will be two Chucky franchises operating simultaneously, both vaguely owned by the same studio but also kinda not? It’s weird, but needless to say the fans weren’t happy and I it’s important to know this behind the scenes shit going in because this is a very different Chucky movie than you might be used to. Now that that’s out of the way, is the film itself good? Yes! It’s a lot of fun and makes its departure from the original series in several key ways, the most obvious being Chucky himself, who is now voiced by Mark Hamill instead of Brad Dourif. He isn’t some voodoo doll inhabited by the spirit of a serial killer either, he starts off as a normal Buddi doll off the assembly line who has all his violence inhibitors, social boundaries and conscience features disabled by a very disgruntled Vietnamese factory worker before being sent stateside to be bought by a single mom (Aubrey Plaza) for her kid (Ben Daon) who doesn’t have too many friends. The ‘Buddi’ doll is at first kind of a blank slate until his AI capabilities kick in, the dysfunctional household and hectic neighbourhood around him augment settings and, you guessed it, he becomes a homicidal little bastard with Mark Hamill’s voice cackling out of him. The cast are all great including Brian Tyree Henry as a cop who lives next door, Tim Matheson as the oily toy company CEO and David Lewis as Plaza’s shitty asshole garbage boyfriend who meets the film’s stickiest and most hilarious end thanks to Chucky. This is a fun, imaginative, very gory flick filled with dark humour and gruesome kills. One of the ways it breaks new ground is seeing how Chucky’s Bluetooth capabilities allow him to control various other electronic devices in his vicinity for maximum carnage including a fleet of deadly drones. All because of a pissed off asian factory worker, a priceless plot detail that had me laughing right off the bat. This is a ton of fun if you can wrestle past the fact that it’s not the most necessary remake an enjoy it as a standalone of sorts.