Many werewolf films take place in the woods, mountains or various other rugged and elemental vistas that are inherently threatening and suit the mythos. But what about the urban jungle? How many werewolf films can you think of that place their action in a big city? Wolfen is one that does this and as such stands out in the genre for being a moody, eerie inner city horror about a gruff, unfriendly NYC police detective (Albert Finney) chasing down mysterious murderous hoodlums who he soon realizes are some kind of lycanthropic shapeshifters straight out of a Native legend. This leads him on a hushed yet bloody and quite atmospheric hunt through some of New York’s shadiest areas, made all the more spooky by the presence of these ferocious and quite stealthy cryptid hybrids. He’s helped and hindered by many in one eclectic cast that includes Diane Venora, James Tolkan, Rino Thunder, Edward James Olmos, Gregory Hines as a slick streetwise colleague, a very drunk and very brief Tom Waits and Tom Noonan as an ill fated ‘expert.’ This isn’t a very loud, snazzy or schlocky horror flick and in fact if memory serves it’s more of a mood piece type thing than any sort of thriller or shocker. Finney is sombre, muted, hard to read and even vaguely menacing, while the cast around him are sly, eccentric and always seem like they know more than they’re letting on. The werewolf attacks are hazy, dreamlike and terrifying in an otherworldly sort of way while still retaining enough gore and gristle, the special effects for the creatures themselves wonderful and the use of real wolves (or dogs, perhaps) adds to the earthen, folky aura that collides fascinatingly with this urban aesthetic. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen this (a rewatch is no doubt imminent) and I can’t recall everything except that it’s one strikingly distinctive, unique and very immersive big city horror cop flick amalgamation that is well worth checking out.
I think that seeing Daniel Baldwin yank vampires out of a boarded up hideout into the sunlight with a steel cable pulley winch mounted to his truck to get torched to death is one of the most satisfying scenarios in John Carpenter’s Vampires, and maybe the vampire genre overall. This is an amazingly fun, super imaginative, down n’ dirty vampire western in the tradition of stuff like From Dusk Till Dawn where the vamps are fearsome beasts, those who hunt and kill them are profane, volatile outsiders and the overall tone is the opposite of what you’d call subtle, an aesthetic I love. James Woods is Jack Crow, a vampire slaying guru who works as freelance mercenary for the Vatican along with his second in command Montoya (Baldwin) and a host of other badasses who all hilariously get killed off in the opening scenes of the film as nasty vamp kingpin Valek (Thomas Ian Griffith) raids their motel party and leaves everyone dead save for Jack, Montoya and ill fated hooker Katrina (Sheryl Lee) who has been bit and shares a handy psychic link with Valek but is also a time bomb now that she’ll turn soon. It’s basically the big opening shootout and then a series of dusty, bloody extended chase sequences across the southwest with Jack and Montoya shouting at each other, Katrina looking progressively more sinister and Valek flying around like a literal bat out of hell trying to bite them, and I loved spending time with these characters. The Vatican’s cantankerous top dog (Maximillian Schell) dispatches a twitchy rookie priest (Tim Guinee) to assist Jack but he mostly gets in the way and serves as cannon fodder for his offbeat sense of humour and strikingly unchecked rage issues. Carpenter’s score is a departure from his synthy super sonic work and has this twangy, grinding western vibe that I really liked as well. The film is loud, gory and pretty hectic but it somehow also manages to feel laid back and easygoing, with Lee stealing the show, Woods doing his blustery asshole shtick to a tee and Baldwin being pretty badass for a Baldwin that isn’t, ya know, Alec. Good times.
I think it’s safe to say there’s an over saturation of killer/haunted doll movies these days, I mean just ask Chucky, who has a lot of competition in this era as the top dog. It’s refreshing then to find an entry like The Boy, which on the surface appears to be another chomp at the evil doll bit but, without revealing too much, has more going on than one might think and although it doesn’t quite keep the viewer genuinely guessing or break the mould of predictability, certainly has more than a few moments of genuine suspense and chills. Lauren Cohan plays an American nanny hired by a plummy old British couple to watch their young son Brahms while they go on holidays. These two are apparently senile old goats though because Brahms turns out to be an especially creepy little porcelain doll who they literally treat like a human child, and expect their recently hired nanny to as well. Her amusement quickly sours into terror and paranoia when she’s left alone with Brahms and… weird shit starts to happen. Her only human contact is with the house handyman (Rupert Evans) and eventually her abusive maniac ex boyfriend (Ben Robson) who has followed her across the pond. I really can’t say much but you may end up guessing pretty quick what’s really happening in the house, and then again you may not because the answer, although evidently logical, isn’t exactly presented super obviously. The film has enough scares, atmosphere and suspense to be worth a solid viewing, but it’s not too original or noteworthy. The big reveal in the third act is done really well though and is the most effectively skin crawling moment in the film. Also, I gotta say that Cohan is a strikingly terrific actress with natural charisma, beauty and presence, I love seeing her in lead roles and I honestly hope she gets to give that tiresome Walking Dead crap the slip soon so she can focus on some more film roles.
I feel like the Underworld films don’t get proper credit for just how visually magnificent and stylistically sumptuous they are. I mean sure the stories are often a muddle of faux Shakespearean shifting alliances and paranormal melodrama that are impossible to decipher but if you just approach them overall as the story of an ongoing war between vampires and werewolves with lots of preening politics, an abundance of beautifully gory, darkly balletic action sequences and the occasional splash of forbidden romance then you’re good, and don’t need to engage the brain much further. Take Underworld: Rise Of The Lycans, for example, which best I could figure is some kind of prequel to the first film where we see what went down between the two species hundreds of years before. Bill Nighy gives the word overacting new meaning here but is a lot of fun as Viktor, king of the vampire nation who has effectively enslaved all the werewolves for his own work/war effort and forces them to hunt down their own kind who rebel. His daughter Sonja (Rhona Mitra) does some rebelling of her own by constantly defying daddy’s orders and carrying out a secret romance with Lycan leader Lucian (Michael Sheen). This overall unrest leads to the werewolf uprising and eventual incursion that will start a centuries long war. That’s all you need for story, trust me. What works best about this film is the resplendently beautiful production design and what makes it stand out in the initial trilogy is that it’s set far in the past so the uproarious gunfights become ruthless swordplay, the nocturnal urban atmosphere becomes a moonlit medieval castle aesthetic and never before has the franchise felt this gothic. Mitra is a beauty and then some, and while she’s not quite as lithe or physically distinctive as Beckinsale and her leather trench coat, she suits the ancient warrior aesthetic and does the Underworld name proud. Nighy is so far over the top I wanted him to calm down a bit before he had a stroke or something, he’s about as arch and theatrical as it gets but it suits the role and tone of the film nicely. Much of the film is sound, fury, blood and metal under inky black moonlight and some may have trouble deciphering the specifics of choreography under such a dim cloak of a visual palette but trust me it’s all there and it’s all *very* well done. This franchise has some of the most gorgeous, anatomically and aesthetically satisfying werewolves I’ve personally seen in horror, just great big bastards that look like they could rip a cow in half and are deadly in their speed, physicality and agility despite their hefty size. The Vamps have this eerie aristocracy to them and always seem calmly observant and deviously in charge, with help from the iridescent, creepy contact lenses the actors get to wear. The fight scenes are brutal and relentless, packed with gore and stylish weaponry and staged against spatially striking castle, river, forest and mountain vistas. There’s a shamelessly lurid sex scene between Sonja and Lucian where they’re literally writhing in slow motion on the edge of an impossibly baroque cliffside that is quite possibly one of the most arousing, breathtaking sex scenes I’ve ever seen on film. Say what you want about these movies man, and maybe I’m just a whore for visually stimulating horror films and am too generous on the ones that rely on the style over substance play, which is quite possibly the case, and I own that. However, I’m sitting there watching all of this play out and I’m in raptures about it, totally and completely entertained and pleased in my experience, and if that be the case, well I’m more than okay with all style and little substance, provided the style is as bounteous and well crafted as is the case here. *Great* looking film, if not a great one overall.
Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark would have been more effective if they’d kept the film adaptation as scary, and as dark as the famed book series and I understand that some cohesion in plot and script continuity was needed to give us a feature film, but I kind of wish they’d gone the artsy, surreal route and just adapted each story in an independent black & white ether from one another instead of trying to make them ‘make sense’ logically and have this… YA, Stranger Things teen angst template laid overtop, which really just sucks the spooky air out of the room. That’s not to say this is a bad film, there are some nicely terrifying set pieces, unnervingly tactile practical effects and thrillingly suspenseful sequences.. it’s just the framework that didn’t quite do it for me. The original book series was blissfully simple: just a bunch of random horror fables, independent of one another. The film makes up this cockamamie jargon about some Necronomicon-Lite book that has power over each monster from each respective tale, a book which a cliche ridden group of local kids must destroy as its contents come after them after the reading of each chapter. It’s complete with the small town vibe, bully, love triangle thing and all the rest, which I’m not sure was the right way to go, but like I said, I understand the decision to do so. Having said that, the special effects team has done wonderful work with the monsters and made them about as visually true to the books as possible without quite retaining the stark, ghostly potency of the illustrations we know so well. The contorting Jangly Man is an unholy terror and quite effective, especially as he storms a nearly deserted police station and scares the piss out of its disbelieving Sheriff (Gil Bellows). Harold the Scarecrow is eerie enough but doesn’t get a whole lot to do, while the shambling corpse looking for its Big Toe is pretty darn fucked up and uncomfortable. Most effective is the unnerving Pale Girl, who terrorizes a teen in the abandoned hallways of an asylum from all sides in a sequence that’s the closest the film comes to downright terrifying and, for a time, successfully lives up to the legacy of the books. Producer Guillermo Del Toro’s aura is felt here in the wonderful monster design and director André Øvredal (who helmed the brilliant and far scarier Autopsy Of Jane Doe) keeps the stylistics and suspense going nicely, if not always consistently. Sometimes the switch from the Black & White of the books to a colour palette here can feel a bit demystifying and less otherworldly, I wish they had just gone the Sin City route and done a complete monochrome wash with the odd splash of colour here and there, would have been much more evocative. It’s a decent enough horror film with some truly great monsters, creepy moments and immersive atmosphere… I just could have done without the teen drama subplots, expository connective tissue and this ever present need to *explain* everything and give every horror concept a ‘backstory’ instead of just trusting the source material to be enough on its own and just filming *that* without a bunch of silly narrative bells and whistles that feel familiar and stale.
The whole ‘creepy little kid has creepy imaginary friend’ thing has been done so many times in the horror genre we can almost sleepwalk our way through the beats, but that doesn’t mean a vicious, streamlined little effort like Brandon Christensen’s Z can’t come along and scare the shit out of me, which it did. This film doesn’t really do anything new or revolutionary for the formula but rather tells a simple, effective, no frills tale of one kid (Jett Klyne) and his imaginary friend Z, who no one but him can see, and us as we frequently catch unnerving split second sightings of and know he is in fact, very real. His dad (Sean Rogerson) is cavalier and doesn’t think much of it while his mom (Keegan Connor Tracy, excellent performance) is more intuitive and senses that Z is a real presence, not to mention catches fleeting and very disturbing glimpses of him. The boy’s keen psychiatrist (the ever charismatic Stephen McHattie) recognizes a pattern in this chain of events that harkens to a dark hereditary history within the family tree and tries to stop the cycle, but Z is a cunning, devious and very dangerous force. I’m not gonna lie, this film scared the absolute piss out of me; there are several extremely well orchestrated jump scares that are punishingly effective, including one that is so shocking I sat upright in bed and gasped hard enough to induce a coma. The filmmakers also realize that less is more when showing what Z is up to, and although we only ever get very quick peeks at what he, she or it looks like, the anatomical specifics are chilling and otherworldly enough to have the viewer squirming in discomfort. My only complaint is the plot could have been a bit more fleshed out, the mythology clearly delineated and there could have just been… more, overall? It’s a rare complaint as most films seem to divulge too much and go too far over the top while this one employs hefty restraint. This one is a hell of a horror film though, and does enough with dark corners, shadows and negative space to have you turning on all the lights and checking every closet before bed. Excellent film, streaming on Shudder.
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.
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.