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.
Usually American Horror Story is the first thing that comes to mind when you bring up ‘anthology horror series’ and I won’t get into my many issues with that mess of a show overall in this review but it amazes me more people aren’t aware of SyFy’s far superior Channel Zero, a flat out spectacular, mind blowing, thematically rich, devilishly scary, heart achingly beautiful and uniquely crafted quartet of seasons, each based (sometimes loosely, other times more directly) on popular internet ‘creepypasta’ stories. I debated doing four separate reviews for each of these seasons but I’d honestly end up spoiling too much so I’ll do four modest paragraphs here followed by a quick closing blurb:
Season one is called Candle Cove and it’s the weakest but still a wicked story, and if you know the creepypasta it’s based on you’ll know it’s about a mysterious kid’s TV show broadcast from a scrambled signal that plagued the minds of many youngsters in Iron Hill, Ohio and is always accompanied by gruesome child murders whenever it pops up on the air. One stoic child psychologist (Paul Schneider curiously underplays this role to the point of entropy yet still pulls it off somehow) returns home to this town and unravels the dark supernatural secret. This goes to some surreal places and is kind of like the warmup round for the next three seasons, which ditch the compass of convention and head straight off the map. Nods to Silent Hill permeate a super spooky environment and we get the unfortunate privilege of crossing paths with a monster made entirely of human teeth, a sight I won’t soon forget. A great dry run that isn’t perfect and stands as the least effective season yet still makes an impression.
Round two is my favourite, called ‘No End House’ and provides us exactly that, a notorious haunted house that attracts the hardcore crowd only to psychologically decimate them with horrors of the mind. One grieving daughter (Amy Forsyth) ventures in with a group of friends and because she is still mourning the loss of her father (the great John Carroll Lynch), the house takes full advantage of that and torments her no end. Reality shifts, time bends and the show runners really make it clear here they aren’t interested in telling generic stories here but rather going way outside the box. Forsyth and Lynch are utterly brilliant here as the father and daughter, bravely exploring themes of grief, suicide, sacrifice, the human soul and what it means to be a being on our plane versus one in the world the No End House has created.
Season 3 is called Butcher’s Block, it goes grand and baroque without losing sight of the intimate and personal, while also seems to have both the highest budget and conceptual ambitions of the four. The Block is one of many poor neighbourhoods in the US, struck by poverty and socioeconomic doldrums. Now it’s residents find themselves plagued by… something far worse, something with ties to former meat packing magnate Joseph Peach (Rutger Hauer is terrifyingly charismatic in one of his few gigs before he passed away) and his eerily aristocratic clan. Two troubled sisters (Olivia Luccardi and Holland Roden, both incredible) running from a past fraught with trauma and mental illness move into the area to recover and immediately find themselves pulled into this grim, diabolical and otherworldly story that starts with mystery staircases appearing in the woods on the outskirts of town and ends somewhere beyond time and space that I couldn’t possibly describe. Just a heads up this season will be tough for some viewers as it takes real world afflictions and turns them into surreal, trauma inspired monsters that literally chase our heroines around (keep an eye out for the schizophrenia entity that is now scarred into my mind forever). There’s also glorious Grand Guignol, grisly body horror, heartbreaking personal dilemmas played out against surreal backdrops and themes of class warfare and the invisibility and exploitation of poorer factions of society, prayed upon by those with wealth and extreme power. It’s certainly the most visually striking and ambitious season.
Season 4 is evocatively titled The Dream Door and is without a doubt the scariest of the four, as well as psychologically and thematically rewarding just like 2 and 3. The door in question is a mysterious portal found by newlyweds Jillian and Tom (Maria Sten and Brandon Scott) deep in their basement, with no known origin. When finally opened, out bounds a contortionist clown named Pretzel Jack who is one of the most fear inducing, eccentric, fascinating, hilarious and all round unique characters I’ve ever seen put to film. I won’t spoil his origins or why he was down there to begin with but this story has one hell of a cool premise, just as surreal as ever as it explores conjuring ones emotions into physical form, extensions of human subconscious into earthly beings, creatures from alternate dimensions and how our traumas leak into the real world, via metaphor or literal clashes with loved ones around us. Sten is phenomenal and I hope to see more of her around, she approaches the material with the kind emotional clarity often not actively put into horror protagonists.
So much for modest paragraphs. Anyways, bottom line and the reason I’m writing a mammoth review of this thing with a bunch of fanfare: this is the best horror television show I’ve ever seen, and that’s coming from someone who raved about Stranger Things, fell in love with Haunting Of Hill House, championed The Alienist, recommended The Terror and pined for more Hannibal. Channel Zero did more for me than any of those, as incredible as they are and I’m not even sure exactly why but the best I can do is a concoction of three elements: 1) the kind of unconventional, outside the box surreal storytelling that is like protein for my senses and few mainstream shows (outside of someone like David Lynch) are even allowed to attempt. 2) the fact that these are all based on urban myths and reflect that ethos in tone and mood which in turn elevated fear and 3) the horror comes not only from gore, creeping ghosts or the supernatural (of which there are plenty, not to worry) but is primarily born of character, psychology, human afflictions and characters relationships to each other. It’s an unbeatable mixture and makes for something so special I might even order a DVD set, which I almost never do with shows I know will be streaming on and off indefinitely. Masterpiece.
Isn’t it always kind of more fun when the protagonist of a film is an utter scumbag? I think so, and Brian Helgeland did too when writing Payback, my favourite Mel Gibson film (outside Mad Max of course, but that’s a high pedestal to breach). There’s something so engaging about Mel’s Porter, a street rat career criminal who’s betrayed by his treacherous partner (Gregg Henry) and junkie wife (Deborah Kara Unger), left for dead in an alley. After a rocky recovery he comes back with vengeance on the mind, hunting down those who fucked him over and anyone who profited from it. The first thing he does to set tone for his character is steal cash from a panhandling hobo, which is just about the starkest way to inform your audience of what’s to come. What does Porter want? He wants his 24k from the job he got shafted on, not a penny less and, hysterically, not a penny more either, which becomes the beloved running joke of the film as he prowls streets, poker rooms, titty bars and all kinds of lowlife establishments to get what’s his. Henry is off the rails as his former partner in crime, taking his usual brand of scenery chewing to new heights and picking fights with anyone who makes eye contact with him. He isn’t even the main villain either, that honour goes to a stone-faced Kris Kristofferson as the sadistic head of a shadowy mega crime syndicate who are soon alerted of Porter’s ongoing rampage. There’s uber corrupt cops (Bill Duke, Jack Conley), a weaselly bookie (David Paymer), a bureaucrat desk jockey villain (William Devane), a high class escort with a heart of gold (Maria Bello) who brings out the faintest of softer sides in Porter, a sneering assassin (the great John Glover) and others who all get caught up in the commotion this guy causes just to get his modest 24 grand. A young Lucy Liu also shows up as a sexy S&M hooker with ties to the Triads and enough scary attitude to either turn me on or freak me out, I’m still not sure. My favourite has to be James Coburn as another organized crime hotshot who seems more interested in his elaborate accessories than putting a step to Porter’s nonsense. “That’s just mean, man” he bawls after Mel puts a bullet in one of his designer alligator skin suitcases. So damn funny. This is the epitome of jet black humour, one of the meanest, gnarliest, bloodiest and most entertaining neo-noirs that Hollywood has ever produced. Mel has played so many heroes and upstanding family men that it’s refreshing to see him go for the contemptible asshole shtick, and I’ll be honest I’ve never rooted for one of his characters harder than I do for Porter and his deranged urban crusade every time I rewatch this, which is a lot. Fucking brilliant film.
Not too many films can claim to be as certifiably, outright insane as Brian De Palma’s Raising Cain. Crazy, off the wall, nuts, there’s plenty of that in Hollyweird,
but Cain is so thoroughly deranged that I’m curious how De Palma arrived at such a specific brand of left field lunacy when he sat down at his typewriter. Get this: John Lithgow pulls an overtime shift playing Dr. Carter Nix, a slightly disturbed child psychologist who shows an unnatural budding interest in his daughter’s upbringing, so much so that it unnerves his wife (Lolita Davidovitch) to a degree. I describe him as only slightly disturbed because his level of mania pales in comparison to his multiple emerging split personalities, which is where the trouble really begins. Carter’s father (also Lithgow) was a psychotic Norwegian doctor who had a habit of using children for bizarre mind control experiments, and it seems that one of Carter’s multiples has decided to take up his work. Soon there’s a rash of baby kidnappings in the area and all hell breaks loose. His wife is too busy having an adulterous affair with a hunk (steamy Steven Bauer) to really take control either. Sounds crazy in writing? The film takes it way further than you could ever imagine. Lithgow always seems a bit nuts, even when playing straight-laced characters we always get this vibe like he’s a court jester who has lost his marbles, and he revs that organic looniness into overdrive here. Frances Sternhagen is a hoot as the obligatory exposition here, a stern doctor who lays out Carter’s complex, condition to two cynical detectives (Tom Bower and Gregg Henry, both great) who try to keep up with this whole circus. I can understand why this film didn’t do too well, I mean… how do you even classify it? Almost everything about the subject matter is highly uncomfortable stuff that threatens to siege over into the lands of taboo, and there’s all kinds of freaky shit in this screaming haunted asylum of a flick. That’s the fun of though, if you’re able to have some. De Palmer has always had a gift for shocker material even when he’s not operating in the thriller genre. There’s a cold, caustic edge to this film that barely contains the sea of menace and mirth roiling beneath, which is an odd, off colour and chilling mix. See it for yourself.
Big. Loud. Dumb. Hollow. Notorious train wreck and box office failure. Ballistic: Ecks Vs. Sever is all of these things, and yet somehow I still got a kick out of it, albeit in the shallow end of the speedometer. I know what you’re thinking.. “wow, another turd that Nate is polishing up with multiple syllable words to make it seem like less of a piece of shit.” Well, you’re not wrong. I fully concede that this is one huge glorious, post Mexican food pile of shit, but there’s something about it that pulls me in every time it shows up on SyFy or some such channel. Maybe it’s the fact that it’s one of those rare films that not only is shot in my hometown of Vancouver, but actually set here too. Mostly Vancity just doubles for Chicago, New York or any other Yankee metropolis, but director Kaos (yes that’s his name) chose to tell the story right here in my little burg. Speaking of story, or lack thereof, it’s one big shredded mess of a plot involving Ecks (Antonio Banderas) and Sever (Lucy Liu) two former federal agents out to get each other, eventually working together and then both becoming chumps in some ludicrous government conspiracy involving arch villain Gant (Gregg Henry, hammy as ever). It makes little to no sense, it’s so convoluted it prompts the viewer to throw their hands up in exhausted defeat and give up hope on any cohesion, instead letting a wave of shitty early 2000’s special effects and over elaborate, unwarranted stunt work to wash over them like a tidal wave of rejected video game cutscenes. And poor Vancouver, looking like a ghost town, just gets blown to fucking smithereens by these trigger happy, matrix wardrobed, scowling lunatics. I’d probably stay off the streets too if Lucy Liu massacring hordes of VPD officers was in the forecast, or on second thought maybe not, that sounds kind of hot. I’m rambling, but any review of this film has the right to get sidetracked and ramble as much as this pile of wanton sound and fury does for the entirety of its scant runtime. It’s disastrous to be sure, but does that stop me picking up the remote and switching over to something else when it’s on? Not really. Plus, despite the actual film, this has to have one of the coolest looking DVD cover posters ever designed. I mean, look at it.
Slimy, icky, yucky and gooey don’t even begin to cover James Gunn’s Slither, a corrosively funny low budget schlock-fest that took the genre by storm a decade ago, charmed horror fans all over and put him squarely on the map. A throwback to many mindless low budget creature features of yore, but still with enough brains in its head (and some splattering the wall) to have decently written characters and a monster that doesn’t feel lame or copied and pasted. When a strange asteroid lands in the forests outside small town USA, it’s only a matter of time before someone stumbles across whatever it contains and becomes infected. That someone happens to be Michael Rooker, here playing the deftly named Grant Grant, local bigwig and proud husband to trophy wife Elizabeth Banks. There’s a deadly parasite with the rock, one that takes him over, turns him into a giant disgusting inbred octopus, and has apocalyptic plans for our planet. Nathan Fillion, who is in literally every Gunn film, does a sly and charming turn as the local Sheriff, never losing his cool long enough to let up with the attitude, and backed up by his trusty deputy (the lovely Jennifer Copping). Gregg Henry, another Gunn veteran, steals the show as the town’s sleazy, foul mouthed mayor who laments “I’ve never seen anything like this before, and I watch Animal Planet all the fuckin time!!!”. Rooker is a champ for sitting through all the makeup, as most of his scenes are him whipping around tentacles that chop people up and covered in a deluge of slimy deformations. There’s slug like parasites that’ll make you suirm (careful getting in that bathtub), morbid obesity to hilarious lengths, gore galore and a tongue in cheek attitude that’s irresistible. What more do you need from a horror comedy?
Before James Gunn got all famous and whatnot in the Marvel universe, he made a few dark, perverse little gems that aren’t for everybody, but have to be seen by those with the right sense of humour. Slither was his low budget, brilliant schlocker, and here with Super he takes a stab (literally) at the superhero genre, albeit in his own off kilter and unsettling way. Rainn Wilson, who is off kilter and unsettling himself, is our sad sack protagonist, a dreary nebbish named Frank Darbo, married to a troubled hottie (Liv Tyler) who is way out of his league and adorned with baggage. We soon learn that Frank is very disturbed, when his favourite TV superhero (Nathan Fillion in a brief cameo) informs him he must adorn cape and costume himself in order to fight the injustice in the world. His name? The Crimson Bolt. His weapon of choice? A great big crescent wrench, which he uses very generously to dole out his own extreme brand of justice. His motto? “Shut up, crime!!” (I laughed every time). He’s an unconventional ‘hero’ to say the least, most of his good deeds consisting of brutally attacking citizens with said wrench for minor infractions like butting in line at the cinema, an uproarious scene if your sensibility is twisted enough, but then that’s the jist of the whole thing. His longterm goal is to get Tyler back from the clutches of evil drug kingpin Jacques (a hilariously chatty Kevin Bacon), and prevent as many crimes as he can along the way. He ends up causing far more damage than he means to fix though, an awkwardly psychotic tornado of unwarranted violence and delusions of grandeur. Things get more out of hand when he aquires a spitfire of a sidekick named Bolty, played by Ellen Page in a performance that’s right out to lunch and then some. Page plays her to the deranged hilt, cackling like a maniac at her own violent antics and getting super uncomfortable with Wilson in the bedroom (seriously… one messed up scene). Gunn can always be counted on to hire interesting actors, so be on the lookout for Linda Cardellini, Andre Royo, Gregg Henry and Michael Rooker as Bacon’s lead thug. A lot of what happens here is awkward, cringey stuff, the chronicle of a misplaced and sad little man under the impression that his life has some preordained meaning, as delineated by the red suit. It’s a thin shroud to hide the worthless and pathetic existence he has lead so far, and as such it’s kind of a depressing thing to bear witness to. But rejoice in how darkly hilarious it is as well, because there’s plenty of pitch black humour and perfectly timed comedic moments that spice it up. Gunn understands people and the way they talk (a trait so often lacking in writers), and even with concepts so out in the stratosphere beyond normality, his characters still have their feet on the ground and seem realistic. A treat, if a sourly bittersweet one.
He’s back, baby. God it’s so good to see Jason Bourne doing his thing on the big screen again, especially in a flick that’s every bit as excellent as the original trilogy in all the old, good ways, while adding a few twists of its own that suit the digital age we have progressed into, and the concerns which go hand in hand with it. It’s been sometime since Jason swam away out of frame as an unsure news report claimed that his body was never recovered, and a slow smirk spread over Nicky Parson’s (Julia Stiles) face as she observed on TV. With ex CIA director Kramer (Scott Glenn) no doubt incarcerated, the agency is headed up by the worst apple of the bunch so far, Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones), a surveillance hound dog who has ties to Bourne’s past and wants to use a record breaking social media app to illegally spy on users for ‘national security’ purposes (heard that one before). Scary stuff, but simply a backdrop for Bourne to come speeding back onto their radar and make hell for them, after Nicky hacks the database and spurs him on. Damon is beefed up, weathered and has never been more furious as Bourne, and if you thought his revenge rampage in Supremacy was something to behold, just wait til you see these fireworks. It feels a bit more intimate than the last three, with a lot of time spent on Bourne, and less agency types howling in control rooms and backstabbing each other, save for Dewey and his eager beaver protégé Heather Lee, played by Alicia Vikander in a slightly perplexing character arc that I’m still trying to think through. She has her own agenda, clashing with that of a ruthless rogue asset (Vincent Cassel is going grey, but damn he can still run around like nobody’s business) that Dewey foolishly sends after Jason. Paul Greengrass is back in the director’s chair again, and after this chapter I can honestly say I think he’s the best captain to ever sit at the helm of a Bourne flick. He just has this way with action that never feels too stylized or obviously cinematic, while still delivering a pure rush of thrills that exist in a realistic space. There’s an early scene taking place in Greece during a dangerous riot that feels like they just dropped the cast and crew in the midst of a real life police skirmish and started shooting, in more ways than one. My favourite has to be a thundering car chase down the Vegas Strip in which a SWAT tank causes a jaw dropping bout of vehicular Armageddon. Sounds too over the top for a Bourne flick, right? You’d think, but somehow they just make the thing work and stay within the parameters of this world. I had this fear that they wouldn’t be able sneak another Bourne movie onto the back end of an already perfect trilogy without it feeling out of place. While it certainly is different than it’s predecessors (we live in a radically different time), it still has that magic, feverish rush that I love so much and that has carried the franchise along on wings of adrenaline. A blast. Cue Moby’s Extreme Ways to play out my review.
Sin is known as the B movie that Gary Oldman did, and he himself has bad mouthed it on occasion. Back then though, this was the only kind of movie like that he had to explain away. These days he has quite a few more of this type in his filmography, so he can’t really talk. It really isn’t the best movie, and functions as well as its limited budget and mediocre script will allow, but I must say there are a few moments, ones with stars Oldman and Rhames, that are just killer, and one in fact that borders on greatness. Rhames plays Eddie Burns, an ex cop or military man who lives estranged in the country, until the organized gang rape of his sister (Kerry Washington) coaxes him back into Reno Nevada. This heinous crime (a scene which borders on exploitation, to be honest) is orchestrated by Charlie Strom (Oldman), a nasty pornographer and drug kingpin who has a decades old bone to pick with Eddie. The film has some lonely atmospherics to it, the eventual confrontation between the two playing out in a poetic, if contrived fashion. For all the two bit moments in the script (and there are a lot), there’s one showstopper of a scene between Rhames and Oldman, that is reminiscent of Michael Mann’s Heat, and is quietly but surely affecting in its sadness. Brian Cox blusters through as Eddie’s former police boss, Bill Sage hangs out for a bit as a detective, and the one, the only Gregg Henry appears as a sleazy informant who feeds Rhames Intel. He also gets the best line of the film, exclaiming “I haven’t even had my morning fattie” after being rudely awakened Rhames. Watch for Alicia Coppola, Daniel Dae Kim and Arie Verveen as well. There’s some genuine ambition in the script, delving into the complex moral conundrum that exists between protagonist and antagonist, and how the two archetypes aren’t always so clear cut. Conscience and lack thereof is explored as well, with surprising results. I won’t lie and say it isn’t just a trashy b movie, but I won’t pretend there wasn’t some moments and aspects which I greatly enjoyed. It’s somewhere right in the middle.