There’s a million and one movies out there about Ouija boards and it’s potentially a great concept but most of them are pretty shit. Ouija: Origin Of Evil, however, is directed by Mike Flanagan who in my experience has never made a film that was anything less than terrific, and this is no exception. Ostensibly a prequel to a more modern set Ouija movie that I’ve only seen a trailer for, Origin backtracks to the late 60’s where a widow (Elizabeth Reaser) and her two daughters (Annaliese Basso and Lulu Wilson) run a seance scam out of their living room to pay bills and make ends meet. One day the older daughter decides a Ouija board would be a fun idea to throw into the mix (right?) and before they know her little sister has become a full on medium for communicating with the dead and whatever else is out there, but she has no filter for letting things in and pretty soon something dark and pissed off is hanging around the house with them. The daughter’s catholic school teacher (Henry Thomas) does what he can to help them out but the decades old secret that haunts their home threatens to annihilate them all. This is a solid horror film that relies on mounting tension, the use of space, sound design and ghostly possession to scare the viewer effectively, and never cheaply like a lot of horror films do. Flanagan in my eyes is a master of the genre akin to and on the same level as Carpenter, Craven and Argento, he’s that good. His stories are terrifying but there is *always* a discernible undercurrent of humanity and character development interwoven so that we actually care when people are being terrorized onscreen. Reaser, Basso and Wilson are terrific as the mother and daughters, as I love how Flanagan has his extensive ‘troupe’ of actors he keeps recasting in new projects, they become like recognizable totems of his work and I love seeing people this talented show up time and time again in different roles. This might be a bit slighter of a film when I look at my preferences regarding his career overall, but it’s no less well crafted, unearthly and thrillingly alive as the rest in his stable. Great stuff.
American movie studios are wild, man. They’ll remake Asian horror films, pump out a few sequels, and then once they get bored of that they (pauses, takes off glasses and rubs bridge of nose) remake their *own American remake* of the Asian horror like they forgot they even did the initial one in the first place. That’s not to say this bizarre behaviour can’t produce decent horror flicks as a rule but in the case of The Grudge (2020) I’d say they’ve done a pretty terrible job. The 2004 American Grudge film with Sarah Michelle Gellar scared the piss right down my leg at age 14 and despite being desensitized now that I’m older I’d still consider it a well made, effective chiller. But this new version is so all over the place and contains so little of what made the 2004 one so special it doesn’t even make sense to call it a Grudge film. So basically there’s two moody, hard boiled detectives played by the arbitrarily unlikely combo of Andrea Riseborough and Demien Bichir, who are investigating the classic case of a Grudge spirit hovering around a house and the unfortunate folks who are unlucky, stupid or morbidly curious enough to hang around it. There’s Lin Shaye in the Grace Zabriskie proxy role as the dementia ridden old woman who doesn’t know what planet she’s on, Frankie Faison as her desperate husband who enlists a lady (Jacki Weaver) who facilitates assisted suicides, John Cho and Betty Gilpin as a young couple trying for a baby that fall victim (in the film’s single, solitary effective scare, I might add), William Sadler as a disfigured, mentally disturbed former cop who ran afoul of the ghost and others. It has a huge big cast of talented, recognizable and engaging actors who run around in unnecessary subplots doing not much of anything. There’s barely any ‘classic Grudge moments’ and even when there are they feel somehow ‘off’ and not deserving of the franchise name. The single effective scare involving John Cho is a nicely shocking moment with a great choice of where to place the camera, but if your remake of your own remake only has one scary scene and not much else, I think it’s time to pitch the drawing board out the window and completely rethink your approach. It’s beyond me why they felt the need to do this, and make it so overloaded, needlessly elaborate and bereft of what made the initial Grudge film so good.
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.
Sarah Adina Smith’s Buster’s Mal Heart is one of the best, most striking and unique films I have seen in some time for exactly the reasons it might be one of the most frustrating, maddening experience for other viewers. This film is like a Rubik’s Cube except it’s not square, all the pieces are the same colour and they’re all in different time zones. It’s a complex, dreamy, intangible, non-traditional narrative full of idiosyncratic asides, shifting plane storytelling, non linear abstraction and all sorts of brilliant filmmaking wizardry and it cast a spell on me I can’t quite describe in writing. Rami Malek and his perpetually glazed faraway gaze play Buster, a deeply troubled family man who works night shift at a desolate highway motel, the perfect breeding ground for psychological unrest to creep in and do some real damage. What *does* creep in is a mysterious stranger who calls himself The Last Free Man, played by eternally boyish, gnome looking curio DJ Qualls. This guy pays in cash to stay off the grid, raves about impending Y2K and foretells an event called the Inversion, which will forever alter time and space as we know it. Fast forward some years and Buster is a maniacal bearded homeless waif who breaks into empty vacation homes in the Montana mountains and tries to piece together his identity, his past and future to no avail as authorities close in. You can’t really describe this film in terms of plot because it’s not about that, it’s about mood, feeling, disorientation and atmosphere, all of which are my cup of tea over logic and plot structure. Director Sarah Adina Smith is a brilliant artist who uses strange, otherworldly editing techniques, coaxes bizarre, darkly humorous performances from her actors and whips up a world from which there is no cognitive escape for the duration of your stay. The positively extraterrestrial original score by Mister Squinter is amazing too. This isn’t a film to be understood though, it is one to be felt and later deciphered. You know when you wake up from a particularly elaborate and thoroughly profound dream, then you sit there trying to collect pieces of it using conscious thought processes and you simply cannot get them in line because they are not of this world? That’s how I felt immediately after this film, as the experience washed over me and although I knew deep down where it’s essential what this film means, I couldn’t explain it in waking terms or paint that meaning in anything outside subconscious awareness. If you enjoy challenging stuff like the work of David Lynch, Guy Maddin or other artists who successfully employ dream logic in cinema (not an easy thing to do) then you’ll love this enigmatic, indistinct yet achingly specific gem.
There’s Something About Mary, and there’s also just something about The Farrelly Brothers, something about the way they make bad taste seem passable and almost classy, something about how they make incredibly silly shit come across as utterly hilarious. This is a film that would never get made these days, it would get hounded out of the office halfway through the pitch, which is deliciously ironic when you consider that one of these two screwball directors nabbed an Oscar this past year for a film that couldn’t be a farther cry from stuff like this. There’s so much to laugh at here you barely get breaks in between, and while any hope of actual pathos crumbles in the face of relentless comic rumpus time, it never lags or slows down either. Ben Stiller is Ted, hapless sap who tracks down his old high school sweetheart Mary (Cameron Diaz) because he just can’t let her go. Only problem is, half the rest of the state falls for her too including ultra sleazy private eye Healy (Matt Dillon is a force of nature here) and others that I dare not spoil here. The plot is essentially really creepy and peppered with all kinds of questionable shit, but the visual gags, situational humour and just plain slapstick madness somehow work so well. Not to mention the cameos, including Jeffrey Tambor as Healy’s cokehead pal, Richard Jenkins as a therapist who’s bored out of his mind, Keith David as Mary’s gregarious stepfather and standup comic Harland Williams as the man with the seven minute abs idea. You couldn’t make this shit up, but the Farrellys somehow did and it’s one of the funniest fucking things I’ve ever seen. Stiller is an inherently pesky actor you’re never sure if you should like or just be mad at simply for existing, but it works for the role here. Dillon uses that pithy, laconic drawl to maximum effect and I don’t think you could dream up a sleazier character if you tried. Diaz is a ray of pure sunshine in anything and she reaches the closest thing you could call to actual ‘acting’ that anyone gets to here, bringing a good natured sweetness that goes a long way. Scrotums caught in zippers, a dog on fire, a horde of disabled folks played for laughs, semen used as hair gel, a hacked up corpse in a gym bag, these are the down n’ dirty things the Farrellys peddle in, and when it comes to them, it’s only the finest from this duo. Between this, Dumb & Dumber and Me, Myself & Irene you kind of get a holy trinity of there distilled comedic aesthetic, one that remains hilarious to this day.
Remember when cell phones were just that, phones and not the pocket computers of today? Cellular remembers, and did a bang up job of crafting a thriller around the concept back in 2004 when the age of the smartphone had yet to enter and we still had those glorious Nokia flippers. Based on a story by B-Movie guru Larry Cohen, it’s a breakneck paced, Bourne-lite action flick that works surprisingly well and offers engaging work from a young Chris Evans, a frantic Kim Basinger, a lovably intrepid William H. Macy and an especially nasty Jason Statham. Basinger is a Santa Monica housewife kidnapped by Statham and his band of thugs for reasons slowly revealed. Keeping her in a locked attic, he makes a violent ceremony of busting up the landline phone with a baseball bat, so naturally when she tries to dial what’s left of it in a panic, there a ghost of a signal and she’s able to make one random call. Evans’ beach bum college kid picks up the other line and is caught up in the intrigue, staging an impromptu search and rescue for her with the help of Macy’s dogged detective. It works well thanks to taut pacing, convincing performances (especially Statham) and editing that jars yet keeps it fluid. The main quartet are supported by the likes of Eric Christian Olsen, Noah Emmerich, Richard Burgi, Al Sapienza, Lin Shaye and Jessica Biel, but I gotta give a shoutout to Suits’ Rick Hoffman in a precious cameo as the world’s most obnoxious lawyer, who finds himself at the wrong end of a carjacking on Evans’ part, fuck can that guy ever mug the camera and effortlessly play for laughs. Cohen also wrote the story that ended up being Joel Schumacher’s Phonebooth, intending it to be the antithesis of that single location premise, the two films work nicely as a double feature tied together by similar concepts. It’s nice to see Statham in a straight up, no nonsense villain role, his stoic glowering and brutal physicality goes a long way in drumming up palpable menace. Further personality is given by a slick remix of Nina Simone’s Sinner Man worked in over the credits, too. Fun stuff.
Hoboken Hollow is a sallow, unpleasant, off putting Texas Chainsaw clone that captures none of the schlocky charm that something like this should have. It’s brutal, gross, peppered with famous genre faces who don’t do much of anything, and drawn out scenes of lame, tension free horror violence that has no impact beyond being solely icky. The true story it’s ‘based on’ is probably a lot less lurid and exploitive than what happens on screen here, but that’s the horror genre for you. Supposedly based on a hellish slave camp in Texas from back in the 79’s, it abandons dutiful facts for a dingy parade of torture porn and boring cliches, starting with a tormented war veteran (Jason Connery) drifting through the backroads of Texas who happens upon this weirdo ranch and wishes he hadn’t. It’s an inbred Pickton-esque shithole run by dementia ridden Lin Shaye and psycho hick C. Thomas Howell, an actor who’s fallen a long way since his The Hitcher and The Outsiders 80’s heyday. Dennis Hopper wanders around as a clueless local Sheriff, Michael Madsen slums it as a real estate tycoon who wants to buy the ranch but shows little actual interest in what’s going on on the property, and I’ll be honest this was so dull that all I remember are vague details and famous faces embarrassing themselves for a paycheque. That includes Robert Carradine, who I don’t even remember but apparently is in it thanks to IMDB. Avoid it like the plague.
You want a romantic werewolf flick that rises above the vomitus of Twilight and gives you nostalgic pangs for stuff like The Howling and Bad Moon? Dark Moon Rising is your ticket, and proves that you don’t need heaps of PG-13 gloss, mopey teen bottom feeder ‘actors’ and a vacuous script to make a young adult oriented horror film. This one is admittedly low budget and feels just south of finished in spots, but it’s well crafted, made with love and bereft of CGI. The story couldn’t be simpler: a small town girl (Ginny Weirick), her stern Sheriff father (Chris Mulkey) and the new boy in town (Chris Delvecchio) who just happens to be a werewolf. Young love is always just a stone’s throw away from danger, which arrives in the form of the boy’s dangerous, monstrous father Bender (Max Ryan) who also happens to be a werewolf. You can imagine how it goes: steamy New Mexico supernatural melodrama with a few buckets of gore tossed in and a handful of super cool genre actors. Sid Haig, Lin Shaye and Maria Conchita Alonso have wonderful extended cameos, but the standout is Billy Drago, a staple villain actor who gets to do something different here. Blessed with a reptilian visage that just demands evil behaviour from him, he’s given a sympathetic detective role here, a heartbroken lawman on the hunt for Bender to appease personal anguish. The makeup and prosthetics are terrific, retro latex nightmares that made me miss the good old days before I was born when every horror flick had to rely on the ingenuity of a hardworking team of gorehounds. Despite a few weird pacing issues (tighter editing would have been appreciated), this one is a little indie horror well worth your time.