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.
Peter Masterson’s Blood Red is a fascinating film for many reasons and feels like a long lost relic that the sands of time have wrought forth unto the world of streaming and Blu Ray. Kind of like a classic, old school Hollywood historical melodrama with a bit of a Michael Cimino flavour, it tells the story of conflict and corruption in 1800’s California as an amoral Irish railroad tycoon (Dennis Hopper) tries to muscle an Italian vineyard owner (Giancarlo Giannini) out of his land to make way for development. The man refuses to sell or move which ignites a violent conflict between his hot blooded eldest son (Eric Roberts), a nasty enforcer (Burt Young) hired by Hopper to facilitate his goal by any means necessary and all the other local farmers who follow example and take up arms themselves. This isn’t a perfect film and editing feels a bit loose and unconstructed sometimes but I very much enjoyed and was swept up in the spectacle of it all, and any film with a cast this good deserves attention by default. Roberts has swagger and charisma as always, a very young Michael Madsen and Elias Koteas show up as cousins of his to assist in the ongoing skirmish, while Hopper is hammy and the only weak link in terms of acting and, as we know from his mad bomber film Ticker, he just *cannot* do anything *close* to a proper Irish accent and any attempts always take me right out of the scene in a fit of giggles. My favourite performance is from Julia Roberts, and this is the only film her and Eric have ever been in together and playing siblings no less, so it’s kind of a special thing for us fans of both. She’s terrific as his younger sister, showing true emotion and personality in a role that has barely any dialogue, but she’s present and very effective nonetheless. The film’s credits start and end with a slideshow of real black and white photos from that time period (similar to Malick’s Days Of Heaven) accompanied by a beautiful Italian song, and set up the atmosphere wonderfully. Much like this film details an important part of American history with its story, so too does this production mark a transitional period for much of its cast who were just getting started in their careers at the time and as such it’s a historical picture that is integral to both the history of the country overall and that of the Hollywood industry. Very strong film.
Are you a horror fan? Do you have Shudder? If the answers are yes to the former and no to the latter you should get on it, because the curators of this streaming service have delved deep into the genre mines to come up with some long buried gems that have probably escaped the sonar of even seasoned fans. Example: Tom McLoughlin’s One Dark Night, a film I would never have dreamed existed if I didn’t see it in the cue, is a brilliantly grotesque little slice of peak 80’s schlock that almost feels like a long lost John Carpenter film. Meg Tilly stars as a college girl who will do anything to join a stuck up sorority ran by a titanic bitch of a head sister (Robin Evans). In this case the initiation ritual happens to include spending one night alone in a spooky mausoleum, but this place just happens to be the final resting place of a notorious serial killer with the clairvoyant ability to reanimate the dead into unsettling shambling corpses. On top of that the bitch head sister sneaks in through a busted window and plays mean pranks on her too, while the killer’s harried widow (Melissa Newman) and her boyfriend (Adam West) arrive to try and put a stop to these supernatural shenanigans. This film is just so much fun for a number of reasons: Tilly is a gorgeous, exotic looking scream queen who is convincing, charismatic and very talented, the special effects for the corpses are horrifically slimy and disgusting and these hovering cadavers get, shall we say, uncomfortably close to our heroine. As soon as the dead killer wakes up and his otherworldly energy permeates the crypt, the film is bathed in a beautiful, Lovecraftian purple glow that enhances the visual aesthetic, supported by an atmospheric, creepy score by Bob Summers. One scene in particular is incredibly effective and legitimacy horrifying, where we observe the first few coffins open and the partially decomposed people come eerily floating out, slowly, with an anxiety inducing inevitability using the confined space, glacial but steady pacing and the terror of the actors. The corpses are interesting here because they aren’t zombies, they aren’t possessed like in Evil Dead, they aren’t sentient or leering or even capable of eye contact… they’re simply rotting dead bodies being moved by telekinesis, and somehow that was eternally more scary to me than zombies or anything else of the like. Anyways, if you like old school gooey horror in the tradition of Carpenter, Craven and Hooper with a neon purple infused, Colour Out Of Space sensibility then you’ll totally dig this. Get Shudder too while you’re at it, it’ll be the best streaming service splurge you’ll make.
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.
I’ve had graver, more memorable encounters in the horror genre than I did with The Vicious Brothers’ Grave Encounters, a film that’s much hyped up in the horror community but just sadly didn’t do much for me overall. I’m all for found footage horror if it’s done well and effectively and there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the way this film is crafted, it’s just it spends way too much time building up to the scares that are few and far between when they finally do show up near the end. Like.. a cheapie, self aware faux ghost hunting comedy farce like this should be packed to the gills with scares from stem to stern and not try and attempt the slow burn buildup thing, that’s for horror that takes itself seriously. This is a silly film that should have pulled the ripcord of ridiculousness a way harder and way sooner and went full on nuts in the way stuff like The Evil Dead did, but it feels frustratingly restrained and reined in for much of the runtime, and by the time a few leering spectres and ghouls do show up, it’s a classic case of too little too late. The characters are a mixed bag and mostly bland except for Mackenzie Gray as a hilarious, charlatan dime-store psychic out of his depth. It’s shot in Coquitlam’s abandoned Riverview hospital (but what isn’t) and there’s a few eerie moments when the camera crew find themselves lost in never-ending corridors, but overall this just feels like a big missed opportunity. Perhaps the sequel goes for broke a bit more but if this one is any indication.. then perhaps not.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from Daniel Isn’t Real and based on the synopsis it seemed like your classic case of ‘dark elements of one’s psyche’ manifesting themselves into physical form’, in this case an imaginary friend. But there was something.. *off* about the poster artwork, an esoteric colour scheme and title font that intuitively said “no, there’s more than that here.” Yeah, a whole lot more. This is one of the most visually unafraid, thematically complex and stylistically bizarre horror films I’ve ever seen and my hat is several miles off to its audacity, vision and immersive realm crafting. Director Adam Egypt Mortimer says he was inspired by Adrian Lyne’s classic horror film Jacob’s Ladder, which makes sense in casting Tim Robbins’ own son Miles as quiet, disturbed college student Luke. He witnessed an unthinkably violent event when he was just a boy and has been dealing with his severely mentally ill mother (Mary Stuart Masterson) his entire life and in coping with that trauma he has employed the companionship and assistance of a mysterious imaginary friend named Daniel (Patrick Schwarzenegger). Daniel is cucumber cool, adept in socially murky situations and always knows just what to do. He’s a stalwart ally and handy to have around, yet of course is only a facet of Luke’s own fragile mind… or is he? That’s where the film gets really fun and not so easy to pin down. Daniel is only a friend when things go his way, and when the hereditary tentacles of illness plaguing his mother come for Luke as well, things get downright scary. Daniel becomes reckless, selfish, sociopathic and wholly destructive, especially when Luke meets a feisty art major (Sasha Lane) he has genuine feelings for. I don’t want to reveal to much because this is so much more than just what you read in synopses as far as premise goes. This is deep, philosophical filmmaking full of dark psychological unrest, chilling ambiguity and disturbing metaphysical implications that still have me pondering the overall experience over a week later. There are some truly soul disturbing visuals once things get hallucinatory and otherworldly for the characters, made real by terrifying practical effects that look like something straight out of a literal nightmare. There are elements that reminded me of SyFy’s brilliant anthology series Channel Zero in terms of unconventional, cerebral storytelling that takes what could have been a run of the mill horror concept and elevates it to stratospheric heights using form, sound, menacing visual abstractions and unfiltered artistic expression to plant us into a world we won’t soon forget. I could not recommend this film enough to people who enjoy challenging, unabashedly dark meta-psychological horror and lots of it.
Ted Geoghegan’s We Are Still Here is a blissfully simple yet tremendously rewarding exercise in dark comedy/horror that hits the mark incredibly well by castling well known faces that are already totems in the genre, employing sidesplitting situational comedy that hovers on the edge of droll and a script that anchors it all with a well written confidence, not to mention a cool retro visual palette that brings to mind minimal yet affecting stuff like Rosemary’s Baby, The Evil Dead and others from back in the day. A middle aged couple (Andrew Sensenig and Barbara Crampton) have moved into a rural house and are still grieving the loss of their son but this house, naturally, is spectacularly haunted and they find themselves and their friends plagued by a vicious dark force emanating from the basement. The life of the party is Larry Fessenden and the gorgeous Lisa Marie as their avant-garde hippie friends who arrive for a seance and get way more than they bargained for. Fessenden has a way of delivering dialogue that just had me holding my sides even when he wasn’t trying to be funny, while Marie is an ethereally beautiful presence who has mostly shown up in various Tim Burton films over the years and not much else, but it’s lovely to see her branch out. The special effects are gruesomely tactile, the scares genuinely unsettling and the story, albeit scant and simple, works very well in servicing some intensely gory mayhem in the third act after a blessedly slow burn getting there. This may be an uncomplicated, super traditional exercise in genre horror that doesn’t necessarily bring anything we haven’t seen before to the table but what it does set out to do, it does exceedingly well and I had a great time with it.
Indie horror can go a lot of ways, but it’s always life affirming when you find a real hidden gem, and Hunter Adams’ Dig Two Graves is just that, a morally complex, atmospherically beautiful, unpredictable modern fable with horror hues woven in and, most important in any production, believable human characters that you can actually empathize with and take a journey alongside. Young girl Jake (Samantha Isler) loses her brother one day in a cliff jump gone wrong, or he appears to be missing anyways. She lives in a small Illinois county with her parents and loving grandfather (Ted Levine) who is also the sheriff. She finds herself stalked by three mysterious men who have a vaguely occult aura, and they tell her they have the power to bring her brother back, but at a heinously dark price. This is only the surface level premise of the film and I don’t want to spoil much because it’s truly a beautifully unpredictable narrative. Ted Levine has spent most of his career in memorable but sidelined supporting roles, he gets a lead here and is wonderful as the conflicted, caring grandfather who has sin, guilt and violence in his past but will do anything to protect the granddaughter he fiercely loves. This is a small film with a huge emotional impact as we see the karmic cost of revenge, sins of the past refusing to be forgotten and, as we’re reminded by Levine’s character, that no person is just one thing, there aren’t heroes or villains but simply choices human beings make both negative and positive, left the rest of their lives to reconcile them. Fantastic folk horror family drama revenge saga with gothic undertones, beautiful cinematography and a story worth investing one’s time and emotion into.
If you’re going to bill your film as a ‘biblical horror version of Assault On Precinct 13’ you’d better make damn sure that the thing lives up to that legacy and is a worthwhile experience, and Let Us Prey is a terrible one from icky start to unpleasant finish and all the way in between. One day a mysterious stranger called 6 (Liam Cunningham) literally walks out of the ocean along the coast and ends up in county lockup under the collective watch of Scotland’s sleaziest small town police force. He then makes everyone’s life literally hell by forcing the cops and fellow prisoners alike to confront their sins and… well die, I guess, his motivations never seem too clear. The staff consists of deviants, killers and violent sexual offenders to the point I wondered how the fuck there weren’t proper background checks in the academy, but oh well. Cunningham is a terrific actor and does all he can playing what’s clearly supposed to be the devil, but the film is so murky, muddled and disorganized that not even his slick performance and a sometimes witty script can do anything to pull it out of the quicksand of haggis it wilfully wanders into. The characters are mostly vile, idiotic, psychopathic and very annoying characters, their dark deeds shown in flashbacks that are needlessly gratuitous, cruelly exploitative and explicitly show extreme violence and sexual torture inflicted on children, which I could have done without and I’d warn anyone who gets easily upset by that to keep a wide berth. Pollyanna Mackintosh as the precinct’s only good cop is also the only character with any redeeming qualities but she spends the film so terrified and traumatized it’s tough to root for her beyond wishing her character would pack up and leave for a less tasteless, bitter hearted film. Cunningham’s Satan is charismatic and almost likeable in a sardonic way but he’s just doing his job I suppose, and Liam has a way of making any character resonate no matter the quality of the film. It’s got an intense, stylized opening credits sequence but beyond that, this is needlessly excessive trash with a barely discernible storyline and far too much ill advised gore, nihilistic barbarism and crass inhumanity. Fucken waste of time.
Some films just place you right into the action without a moments setup, exposition or prologue, they just ruthlessly air drop you right into a furious bedlam of urgency and incident with nary a moment of narrative foreplay or warmup and I love them for it. Ted Geoghegan’s Mohawk is a breathless, unconventional and altogether brilliant horror/western hybrid (my favourite genre amalgamation) that tells the tale of young Mohawk woman Okwaho (Kaniehtiio Horn) fighting alongside her two lovers against a vicious regiment of American soldiers hellbent on her destruction as her Mohawk elders try to retain the tribes neutrality amidst a nasty personal vendetta on both sides. Peace and neutrality unfortunately just weren’t in the cards for the early days of America and the hatred, rage, violence and conflict of it all are reflected in this lean, mean, taught, streamlined and spectacularly thrilling piece of esoteric escapist exploitation that I have fallen in love with and immediately ordered the DVD. Horn is actually part Mohawk herself and owns the role with intimidating physicality and stoic yet emotional resolve, I’ve seen her work in Letterkenny and noticed her in Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor earlier this year, she’s one to watch out for. Okwaho’s two lovers are a fierce fellow Mohawk named Two Rivers (Justin Rain) and young British officer Joshua (Eamon Farron, who we remember as the evil Richard Horne in Twin Peaks: The Return). She does her best to protect them and the entire time she’s forced to run, fight and survive she is also with child, which makes for one intense character arc. The American soldiers are a mottled, complex bunch led by a cold, hard bastard of a captain played by the otherworldly looking Ezzra Buzzington in a performance of terrifying sadism, unabashedly verbose fury and curiously contradictory rationality that makes him a believable character with dimensions as opposed to a villain composed simply of leering caricature. This is in contrast to his second in command who is a gruff, racist asshole with headgear that Ichabod Crane would be proud of, played by Robert Longstreet who was so good as the groundskeeper in Haunting Of Hill House. I’ll be honest, not everyone is going to love this film: it’s severely low budget which is noticeable, it does this tightrope walk between brutal splatter horror sensibilities and eerie, surreal mysticism that might not work for every viewer and it may just be too much of a nerve wracking gauntlet for some to get through and keep up with the pace, violence and mile-a-minute sociopolitical flourishes peppered into the colourful, detailed dialogue. The things I’ve mentioned are all part of what made me appreciate this film though; the stirring opening credits scooped me up and threw me right into the action, the emotional core of Okwaho and her two lovers kept me caring for them even when action took over for character development a bit, the dastardly nature of the soldiers and preening theatricality of Buzzington’s villain was engaging, the audaciously unapologetic violence and surging momentum literally had me putting down my phone and hovering on the edge of my seat in rapturous tension. Not to mention the gorgeous, propulsive, dark-synth laden score by Wojciech Golczewski that keeps mood, atmosphere, menace and emotion thrillingly alive and pulls the slack shockingly tight for the duration of the film until it’s unbelievably fearsome climax. If you love sweeping, emotional stuff like Last Of The Mohicans but you also appreciate mean, fucked up, grisly horror tinged westerns like Bone Tomahawk you’ll dig this absolutely terrific film.