"Black Narcissus" follows a young nun (Deborah Kerr) who is appointed the Sister Superior of a convent in the Himalayas in the mid-19th century. Along with her are several nuns, including a mentally-disturbed one (Kathleen Byron). The nuns' adaptation to their new environment--a dilapidated seraglio atop a mountain--proves difficult, and eventually, impossible.
If there is such as a thing as cinematic perfection, "Black Narcissus" is among the films that has come closest to reaching it (filmmaking duo Powell and Pressburger's "The Red Shoes" is another). It's a phenomenal meeting of breathtaking visuals and rich, taut drama--there is truly never a dull moment here. The landscapes, all of which were painstakingly hand-painted to create the illusion that these women are isolated atop a mountain peak, are as incredible today as they were when the film was first released.
Thematically, the film hits on a variety of topics, the central ones being isolation, sexual repression, and the related madness--and violence--that can be borne of it. The failure of man to adequately comport with any given natural environment is another core preoccupation here. The abandoned seraglio (a residence for concubines, ironically) is doomed before the nuns even arrive, as it was the site of a failed monastery. What reads as a portentous omen goes unnoticed by the characters, but the oppressiveness of the place quickly latches onto them like a ghost.
Deborah Kerr gives a nuanced performance as the nun who is in over her head, while Kathleen Byron is counterpoint in a terrifying performance as a woman quite literally losing her mind. David Farrar turns in an admirable performance as the virile, strapping young agent who becomes the focus of Byron's repressed desires, while Jean Simmons (playing an Indian girl) appears in a supporting part as a dancing local, along with Sabu, who portrays a prince-to-be receiving his education at the convent.
Overall, "Black Narcissus" is an indisputable classic, and is one of those films that earns its keep in the "needs to be seen to be believed" category. It is well-paced, well-acted, and expertly-shot. Shockingly, even amidst all the aesthetic beauty, the audience grows just as exasperated as the characters who cannot seem to shake the external environment--or their inner demons--from under the skin. 10/10.
Atmospheric, weird, and oddly naturalistic horror anthology
"Screams of a Winter Night" follows a group of ten college students who go to stay at a remote cabin on a lake in the dead of winter. There, one of them relays a story about the mysterious deaths of the family who built the cabin. Later, the group tell stories to pass the time, each more frightening than the last.
This is a film that seems to have acquired a gradual following through word-of-mouth on the internet, and when watching it, it isn't difficult to see why--it is one of those films that, for people of a certain age who saw it as adolescents or children, would leave an indelible impression. And even for those of us who never saw it as kids, it's still a mildly effective, and entertaining offering.
One of the more peculiar things about it is that the stories within feature the same actors in the wraparound who are telling the stories; what was probably a means of cutting costs actually turns out to be oddly appropriate, as it gives some connective tissue between each of the vignettes, and makes sense given that it's not atypical to imagine oneself in a story. Each of the stories here are fun in their own right--a creature in the woods, a haunted hotel with an ominous green light, a mad rape victim--each recall the time period quite richly, and feel like they could have been extracted from a glut of late-'70s made-for-TV horror flicks. The wraparound story is perhaps the most intriguing, and scariest. The unexpected finale turns out to be rather oppressive and frightening in tone, and is effectively shot and staged. The ramshackle cabin in which it takes place is also weirdly ominous and spooky looking, and predates Sam Raimi's "The Evil Dead."
The film also earns points for having a naturalistic flow to it, where the characters and their interactions (primarily in the wraparound story) feel fairly realistic; the humdrum quality of their "getaway" feels tangible and true to life. Overall, I found this film to be incredibly fun, and it made me recall all of the similar horror films I grew up renting from the video store. It is certainly offbeat, but in the best way a film like this can be. "Screams of a Winter Night," though not a masterpiece, is a moody, atmospheric anthology that is perfect viewing for a cold, dreary evening. 8/10.
"Ride with the Devil" follows a group of guerrilla confederate sympathizers (the Bushwhackers) in mid-19th-century Missouri who band together against Unionists during the Civil War. The film follows their travails as through a number of real historical events.
To be blunt, I am not a fan of Westerns in general, so I was unsure how I would take to this film; but Ang Lee's approach to this material truly made it stand out, and I was taken aback by how absorbing I found the film--not only because of the strength of the performances and cinematography, but also the fact that Lee allowed ample room for nuance. Lee never allows the material to become thematically bifurcated, and always gives it room to breathe; the complexities of character, cultural background, race, and the individuals' understandings of themselves within the setting are highly detailed.
One of the major complaints I've read about the film is that it doesn't spoon-feed its audience a history lesson, but I actually preferred it this way, as it makes room for the audience to sink into the situations. There is a tangibility that comes with this approach, and it draws the viewer in in a way that is truly engrossing. On a merely visual level, the film is astounding--beautiful shots of landscape and the period setting populate the film. Its approach to violence is also fascinating in that it presents it in a way that is both nonchalant and truly in-your-face; there is no glamor here, just the hard facts. Terrible things happen in the foreground as well as in the background, and the gravity of the violence seems to seep in from all corners.
The cast here is fantastic, and works as a quasi-ensemble, with no single "hero"--Toby Maguire is strong as the German American who finds himself joining the Bushwhackers, along with Skeet Ulrich, his friend and confidant. Jeffrey Wright gives a highly memorable, complicated performance as Holt, a former slave who has joined the pro-confederate movement along with Simon Baker's character, who granted him his freedom. Singer-songwriter Jewel Kilcher made her acting debut here as a widow who becomes friends with the motley true, and also gives a surprisingly moving, nuanced performance.
As someone who does not typically like Westerns, I found "Ride with the Devil" to be a truly moving film--at times harrowing, and at others, deeply poignant. If nothing else, it is a smart, nuanced take on the Civil War Western genre, and I think it is because of this that the film faltered when it was first released. In some ways, it is a "typical" Western, but in more ways, it is not--above all, though, it is an engrossing, challenging film. 10/10.
"The Temp" follows a young businessman (Timothy Hutton) who is recently divorced and struggling with extreme paranoia. The arrival of a new temp worker (Lara Flynn Boyle) in his office at first seems to be a help, but soon becomes a hindrance when a series of accidents and mishaps occur at the company.
From the plot summary, "The Temp" probably sounds like a fun, kitschy thriller in the best of '90s fashions--and in some ways, it is. The film is in the same vein as "Basic Instinct" or "Black Widow," but has far less twists and turns, which may be its biggest sin. The general setup here could have been mined for fantastic moments between Hutton's paranoid businessman and Boyle's mysterious femme fatale, but the screenplay unfortunately is slim on this. Director Tom Holland ("Child's Play," "Fright Night") does a solid job with what he has to work with, but there are tonal problems with the film that leave it feeling unbalanced at times--the sense of threat waxes and wanes, and at times it just feels like an office drama (which is not good for a thriller).
The performances here are solid, with Hutton making a likable leading man, and Boyle mildly effective and non-threatening (which I suppose is the point). Faye Dunaway plays Hutton's ruthless boss, and ranges from serviceable to utterly campy. The film is shot beautifully, and the locales are great--part of the reason I wanted to watch the film was that it was shot in my hometown, and it does serve as a time capsule of what the city looked like when I was a child.
Overall, "The Temp" is good fun if you take it on the terms of it being an artifact of glossy early '90s neo-noir revival films. It is well-shot and competently acted, although it suffers from a general lack of threat or surprise, so the stakes never really feel present. If you can accept its shallowness, it is a mildly fun popcorn movie. 6/10.
If David Lynch had not seen "Dementia" before he made "Eraserhead," I would be legitimately shocked. This low-budget fever dream follows a young woman and a series of bizarre encounters she has during one night in Los Angeles's skid row. There is not a plot here so to speak, but what one-time director John Parker crafts is a moody, thoroughly strange odyssey--a dark night of the soul, if there ever was one.
Parker wrote and directed the film (originally intended to be a short), based on a dream his secretary, Adrienne Barrett (who portrays the leading woman in the film) had. For all its budgetary limitations and novice talents behind (and in front of) the camera, "Dementia" is surprisingly well-made. Though the film contains absolutely no dialogue, the actors communicate the characters' thoughts with precision, and the lack of speech does nothing to hinder the proceedings.
Parker manages to incorporate subtle themes surrounding the nameless protagonist, all communicated via dream sequences and moments of pure uncanny. Is she a murderess? How did she end up on skid row? What has she done? What is she capable of? These questions are punctuated by a score that ranges from jazzy (during club scenes) to ominous and utterly threatening (during chase sequences and other moments of terror). It all builds to a crescendo, ramping up to a conclusion that is reminiscent of Herk Harvey's "Carnival of Souls" (which "Dementia" also predates).
After finishing "Dementia," I was somewhat gobsmacked--not necessarily because of its content, but rather because it seemed so clear to me that this little-movie-that-could had such a far-reaching influence on the horror genre, but has never really receive due credit. It manages to map out a formula that would come to be very popular and important in the genre, and it manages to perturb and perplex by turns. Likely a far more historically important film than we know it to be. 9/10.
"The Lighthouse," director Robert Eggers' second offering after 2016's remarkable "The Witch," follows two men in late-19th century New England who are left to man a lighthouse on a remote island for one month. What ensues is a descent into madness for the isolated rookie (Robert Pattinson) under the supervision of his aging supervisor (Willem Dafoe).
Taking "The Lighthouse" into account with aforementioned Eggers' directorial debut, it is clear that he excels as a filmmaker with small stories that, though localized in physical space and short on characters, are anything but shallow. Over its near-two-hour runtime, "The Lighthouse" bores deeper and deeper into nightmare imagery (and logic), mining the backstories and motivations of its two characters, from whom the horror really springs. Unlike in "The Witch," which was humorless, Eggers folds some dark humor into the proceedings here that works very nicely.
Dafoe's character is an enigma more or less, while Pattinson's comes into focus over the course of the film, and the entire feature's meditation on guilt grows clearer and clearer. Both Dafoe and Pattinson give tour-de-force performances, and are in all truth 80% of the why the film works. In the hands of the wrong performers, a screenplay like this implodes, but both are experts at these characters.
Eggers makes the most of the limited space in which the story is set, and it never grows dull--if anything, the oppressive atmosphere put on show leaves the viewers with a claustrophobia that occludes any potential boredom. The black and white photography is stark and beautifully done, and there are visual references that recall "The Night of the Hunter," as well as thematic ones that make obvious nods to Kubrick's "The Shining." Eggers' decision to present the film in fullscreen (cropped on the sides) only further adds to the closed-in world of the story.
By the end of it all, "The Lighthouse" wraps itself up into a fitting conclusion. And for all its bleakness, there is enough dark humor and borderline-creature-feature weirdness on display to keep the audience perplexed, and horrified. As a portrait of madness, "The Lighthouse" is among the best of the 21st century thus far. 9/10.
Solid supernatural horror, held together by an understated performance from Lombard
In "Supernatural," Carole Lombard stars as an heiress being extorted by a charlatan psychic claiming he is in communication with her deceased twin brother. While his plot is phony, her subsequent possession by an executed heiress is not--and the heiress has a vendetta against this fraudulent psychic.
"Supernatural" apparently had a troubled production, largely because Lombard felt the material was unsuitable for her comedy chops; though you wouldn't know it, as the result is a solid supernatural horror-melodrama that is anchored in an understated (and unexpected) raw performance from Lombard. The film's plot is rather routine, and some elements are a bit ridiculous (and ostensibly were even in 1933), but the real success of the film is that it manages to draw the audience in with its quietness. There are several scenes that linger on Lombard's character alone in the frame, and her nonverbal acting is highly communicative and serves as further evidence of what her talents were. While Lombard herself felt horror was a mismatch for her, I'd politely disagree.
The film ramps up when her character schedules a followup seance with the fraud psychic and actually becomes possessed. It's all good fun, and peppered with some marginally spooky moments. The black-and-white photography is atmospheric and effective, and at times it reminded me (stylistically) of the Val Lewton horror films that would come the following decade. The "possessed by a serial killer" plot would rear its head in subsequent decades in such films as "Witchboard" (1986), and the similarities there are visible.
All in all, "Supernatural" is a rather underrated film in the horror canon, especially as far as pre-code films are concerned. It seems to have been relegated as a footnote in both the genre and in studies of Lombard's career, which is a shame because it is actually a well-made, formidably-acted, and generally impressive horror film. Its ability to turn small, quiet moments into grand gestures is something to behold, and Lombard's understated acting helps hold the drama and thrills together nicely. 8/10.
About as weighty as a scarecrow, but has flashes of brilliance
"Scarecrow" follows a group of mercenaries who steal three million dollars from an army base and flee by plane with a pilot and his teenage daughter as hostages. When one of their group defies them and parachutes out with the loot, they are forced to land the plane in a cornfield near a derelict farmhouse. Turns out the scarecrows in the field are more than just stuffed full of straw.
I saw this film years ago and did not care for it, but recently re-watched it and found some shimmers of brilliance; while it is clearly low-budget, you would not necessarily know from the production values, which are quite high. The special effects are gruesome and impressive, and the cinematography is high-grade. Where the film shows its weaknesses is in in its screenplay, which feels a bit underdeveloped at times; there are intrusive voiceovers intended to give us a window into some of the characters thoughts, and these don't really work. The film also begins in a bizarre, in medias res manner, and it is difficult to make sense of what is exactly happening.
As the film progresses, the situation quickly becomes clear, and the film allows its setup to play out in a host of gory and grotesque ways. There is a subtext regarding the farmhouse being somehow connected to demons, which frankly never fully makes sense; a photo of three farmers in the house is purportedly of the three spirits possessing the scarecrows, and the supernatural forces also work to animate the victims. It all feels a bit underdeveloped, but despite its oblique nature, there is still a good deal of fun in the last half of the film.
In the end, "Scarecrows" is a film that sort of wears its weaknesses on its sleeve, leaving some rather glaring plot holes that render it feeling a bit vague at times. But in terms of the visceral, it is an effective film that hits its marks as far as violence and atmosphere are concerned--and sometimes, that's enough. 6/10.
"The Invitation" follows a man and his girlfriend who, for some reason, accept an invitation by his ex-wife for a dinner party with her new boyfriend, at the house where their son died. Things are weird, and get weirder... I guess.
The rave reviews from this film was truly baffling, as it was one of the most soulless, dull films I've had the misfortune of sitting through in recent memory. Director Karyn Kusama was mildly effective with the tongue-in-cheek horror comedy "Jennifer's Body," but fails on all fronts with the more straight-laced, serious material. There is no sense of fear, no sense of unease, and no sense of threat--all because none of these people feel real or can be identified with.
The film's cardinal sin is that its writing is trite and utterly artificial-feeling; none of the characters ring true, none of the circumstances or interpersonal dynamics feel genuine, and none of the actors are strong enough to even slightly invigorate the anemic writing. In a film that is as slow-burn in approach as this is, the writing needs to be top-notch, but it is abjectly bad. The modes in which characters speak are laughable, and attempts to highlight "awkward social navigation" moments fall flat on their faces. The performances overall are only slightly above that of a high school drama production, though it's difficult to tell where it is the fault of the performers and where it is the fault of the abysmal dialogue.
While there are a couple of creepy moments peppered in, the film is a failure as a thriller, and not any better as a drama, nor a horror film. It does ramp up slightly in the last 20-30 minutes, but by that point, it's difficult to care what happens to these facsimiles of characters. "The Invitation" is soulless, trite, and devoid of any semblance of humanity. Truly one of the worst films I've seen in recent memory.
"Hex" follows a gang of bikers in the 1920s who stumble upon a rural farm in the Nebraska countryside. The men, who have one female among their group, accept the reluctant offer to spend the night at the farm, which is run by two Native American sisters. After one of the gang tries to rape the younger sister, the eldest takes to her deceased father's Native magical practices to enact revenge.
Though marketed as a horror film, "Hex" is really a mixture of genres, with some horror elements cobbled together with a period Western and the counterculture biker flick, e.g. "Easy Rider." Filmed on location in South Dakota, the film has a dreary, dusty feel, and is quite nicely photographed, giving the viewer the sense of actually being there.
The horror sequences come in spurts here, and are centered around the eldest sister (portrayed by Cristina Raines, who would later gain fame in the horror genre for her turn in "The Sentinel") practicing Native American magic as a means of getting back at the various members of the biker gang who have wronged her or transgressed the family's land. Among these is a particularly powerful, hallucinogenic sequence involving the female biker, who has a macabre vision brought on by a spell involving a toad.
A handsome Keith Carradine plays the sympathetic leader of the gang, and Scott Glenn and Gary Busey play two of the wayward gang members who are much more unseemly. The characters are mostly well-written, save a few of the bikers, and there is a goofy romantic subplot that nearly elicits laughter in certain awkward moments. The whole thing feels quite innocent in tone, which is at odds with the film's darker elements, but it somehow retains a made-for-TV-movie quality that is as perplexing as it is amusing. This is only accentuated by the ending, which defies logic but ties the story up in an appropriate way.
While it is not a perfect film, I found "Hex" to be quite enjoyable. As a horror film, it is quite mild, though it does deliver some psychedelic cinematography and a few creepy moments. More than that, it is just plain weird, and as a quasi-horror flick grafted onto the skeleton of "Easy Rider," it manages to be surprisingly memorable despite all odds. 7/10.
"The Evil" follows a doctor and his wife who move into a historic mansion where they prepare to open a rehabilitation center for drug addicts. Unfortunately for them, there is a portal to hell in the basement, and it's about to cause a whole lotta trouble.
This aptly-titled, New Mexico-filmed supernatural horror flick is a romp that is somewhat off the beaten path in terms of the genre; it is not a film that is much talked about, and not one I was even aware of until recently. The good? "The Evil" boasts a fantastic setting: The house in which it takes place is glorious, atmospheric, and has a "Scooby Doo" quality that is delightful. It's a menacing, beautiful house that gives the proceedings an ambiance. The film is also fairly heavy on gore, dispatching the group who become trapped inside the home in a number of ways. The special effects are top-notch for the era, and there is a fantastic poltergeist attack that is well-shot and choreographed.
The bad? "The Evil" is a bit predictable, and when it reaches its final act and the bodies start to pile up, it does begin to feel somewhat rote--not enough to weigh it down entirely, but there is a stiff by-the-numbers quality. The film's real cardinal sin as far as I'm concerned is that it goes to the length of visually representing the devil in a kitschy sequence in a white chamber, with Victor Buono portraying Lucifer himself. It's rather ridiculous, and strips the fear of the unknown that permeates up to that point; on the flip side, it does add to the silly "Scooby Doo" nature of the film. This somewhat ties in with a subplot regarding a Spanish colonel ancestor who haunts the house, but the connection here never feels fully-formed.
All in all, I found "The Evil" an amusing product of its time. In some ways, it feels like a hyper-gory made-for-TV movie, and it has a handful of inventive sequences paired with a fantastic, dark atmosphere accentuated by the sets. For genre fans who appreciate the supernatural horror films of yore, there is some legitimate (and at times outrageous) fun to be had here, despite its shortcomings. 6/10.
Genre favorites John Saxon and Lynda Day George star as a couple who move to the Philippines where they purchase a grand colonial mansion. Life seems great, but it turns out the house was built by a husband and wife who killed one another. The wife was an occultist, and she still happens to be looking for a living vessel to inhabit.
This kitschy supernatural horror movie takes cues from "The Exorcist" and a spat of other similar films, and predates "Mausoleum," which has a similar tone and premise. The good is that it has some nice cinematography, and there are a few moments throughout that evoke a sense of creepiness; Saxon and George are awoken in the middle of the night to odd voices; he finds her idly meditating over a fire in the fireplace; she sees the ghost of the deceased female occultist trying to possess her. The cinematography is also top-notch, especially for a low-budget feature.
The bad? The screenplay is rote in its procession. Saxon's character goes back and forth from his architect job, while George's character experiences increasingly odd supernatural experiences. A subplot involving a medicine man who lives next-door is woven in, and he is a source of all the knowledge regarding possession and the evil spirit in the couple's mansion. These events play out in a manner that is rather dull and predictable, and there isn't enough connective tissue to bind them together. The performances from Saxon and George do help amplify the proceedings, and both give admirable efforts in a screenplay that gives them limited options.
In the end, "Beyond Evil" is a slightly amusing genre picture (several reviewers have commented on the dated special effects, which are actually not all that terrible in comparison to other films of this ilk), but it does feel largely underwhelming. The horror scenes, when present, are well-executed, but the rote unspooling of the story leaves the film feeling by-the-numbers. There are no real surprises to be had here, but if you are willing to accept that, it is a notch above the standard television horror flick of its era. 5/10.
This New Zealand-shot slasher film follows a local cop in a small Illinois town attempting to solve a series of bizarre stabbing murders, each perpetrated by apparently different people. He suspects them to be linked to a laboratory in the local university where his late wife worked; little does he know, his son has signed up to be one of the lab rats.
"Strange Behavior" is a throwback to pulp horror of "The Twilight Zone" ilk, except it's far darker and far more violent. It toes the line of being a science fiction film, but has large spats where it functions as a straightforward slasher film, complete with "Halloween"-esque POV shots and a dour, downbeat atmosphere. There are some shockingly gory death scenes here, accompanied by the central mystery surrounding the university and its oblique experiments that may be linked to the string of killings. The cinematography and production values are top-notch, and the locations very much look like small-town USA despite the fact that filming occurred in New Zealand.
The film boasts solid characters who are likable and well-drawn, and the cast is mostly solid here. Louise Fletcher appears as the protagonist, Pete's future stepmom, and though her character is minor, she is very good. Dan Shor makes a likable lead as Pete, while Fiona Lewis is appropriately icy and menacing as the professor heading the experiments. The weak link here is Michael Murphy, who is painfully rote and wooden in his performance, but aside from that, the cast does a solid job.
The finale is actually well-played and it is then that the film feels most "'sixties-made-for-TV-movie"-ish, but it's all in good fun. The twist is mildly clever, though the film does end a bit abruptly with its appropriately Norman Rockwell conclusion. All in all, "Strange Behavior" is a solid quasi-slasher/quasi-sci-fi flick that boasts good gore effects, a largely capable cast, and a compelling story that recalls the mad scientist flicks of the '50s as much as it does "Halloween" or "Friday the 13th." Not perfect, but definitely a worthy installment in the genre. 8/10.
"Blood Song" follows a teenager in a coastal Oregon town who finds herself stalked by a man whose blood she received through a transfusion; turns out the man is a psychotic killer who plays a wooden flute (yes, you read that right), and he has a psychic connection drawing him nearer to her.
All things considered, "Blood Song" is a pretty typical slasher flick aside from the weird flourishing touches, such as the killer who plays a small wooden flute gifted to him by his father who committed a murder-suicide with his wife; did I mention that '60s singer Frankie Avalon portrays the madman? Those two reasons alone make this film stand out from its peers, though, depending on who you ask, will be either to its detriment or success.
TV actress Donna Wilkes portrays the lead/final girl who is hobbled by a leg injury through most of the film, making her even more helpless; to make matters worse, her mother (Antoinette Bower of "Prom Night") and she are under the abusive power of her alcoholic father (a character that has strange incestuous undertones, I might add). The film is not conventionally scary, as the killer is no masked villain or elusive psycho; the audience sees and gets to know the goofy character from the outset, so that element of terror is stripped from the proceedings here. The film does feel like a made-for-TV movie, and has an innocence about it that belies its bloodier moments. The atmosphere is nicely established as well, and it's nice to see the coast of my home state get some representation in '80s horror.
In the end, "Blood Song" is a rather silly slasher flick that plays up its goofiness with no shame, even in its final moments. The whole thing is rather ridiculous, but if you can take it at face value, the offering here is amusing, slightly trashy, and utterly bizarre-it almost feels as though David Lynch attempted to make a slasher movie. Do with it what you will, but it's just weird enough to warrant a viewing from genre fans. 6/10.
"Killer Party" follows three young female college students who decide to pledge at a sorority, which entails a hazing at an abandoned fraternity house where a young pledge died decades prior. Turns out he was an occultist, and soon enough, the girls find themselves in deep trouble. At an April Fool's Day dance held in the house, pandemonium and possession break loose.
Having read some of the reviews here, I am baffled by the amount of dislike for this film. While it is far from original, "Killer Party" is a well-made, audacious, and fun mixture of possession horror and the slasher film. It takes cues from supernatural horror films like "The Evil Dead" and "The Exorcist," and blends them with college slashers such as "Hell Night" and "The Initiation." If you enjoyed any of those films, chances are you will find "Killer Party" an enjoyable (if not campy) offering.
One of the main strengths here is William Fruet's direction, paired with the atmospheric locations. The photography is quite classy, and the production values are high; this is not an evidently low-budget slasher flick by any means. The second strong suit is the characters, which are well-rounded and likable. Sherry Willis-Burch, who appeared in the underrated slasher "Final Exam," portrays the quirky nerdy girl of the bunch, while Ralph Seymour (of "Just Before Dawn") is her male counterpart. Joanna Johnson plays the principal lead and is formidable as the leading lady. Hunky Martin Hewitt, fresh off "Endless Love," plays the attractive love interest of Johnson. There is a bit of college humor peppered in, though I'd certainly not call it a comedy film, and it adds to the hunky-dory sensibility.
My sole criticism of the film is that when it really kicks into slasher territory in the finale, characters are dispatched in such rapid succession that it leaves the film feeling a bit tired. That being said, the murders are still handled effectively, and the last 10 minutes are bonkers, off-the-wall fun. In any event, "Killer Party" is an aptly-made possession/slasher flick that may be an unsung minor classic of the genre. Bonus points for the double-meta opening scene (and music video!) with some of the most eighties set pieces you'll ever see. 8/10.
"Don't Go Near the Park" follows a pair of siblings (one male, one female) who have been roving the earth for 12,000 years after their mother cursed them in ancient times. To avoid aging, they feast on the entrails of youth in order to absorb their lifeforce. Once the moratorium on the curse has lifted, the brother mates with a woman and gives birth to a daughter intended as a virgin sacrifice that will give he and his sister immortality.
This utter oddity was helmed by a 19-year-old filmmaker, which, even considering the film's shortcomings (and there are many), is rather impressive. "Don't Go Near the Park" blends elements of vampires and zombie films with cannibal horror and fantasy; it's a heady, odd concoction that is unlike anything I've seen.
To say that the plot is far-fetched would be a gross understatement-it's absolutely insane, but it does stick true to its own logic on most levels. The film ended up on the BBFC's "video nasty" list and was successfully prosecuted for obscenity due to its gore sequences, which almost exclusively consist of gross-out disembowelments in which people have their innard torn open by the hands of the flesh-feasting siblings. Some of these scenes are still disturbing to this day, bright-red blood aside. The production values here are low and the whole thing feels very TV-movie-esque, but this quality lends a certain charm. The acting is subpar and the special effects quite silly (there are some laser scenes and aging montages in the finale that are dated and silly), while the editing is choppy and leaves something to be desired. Aldo Ray has a minor role as a random writer who takes one of the main characters-a young orphan-under his wing, while horror favorite Linnea Quigley appears briefly as the mother of the virgin sacrifice (her character storms out of the house off-screen, exclusively through voice-over, in an incredibly silly scene).
Even despite its shortcomings, I found myself enjoying "Don't Go Near the Park" immensely. Low production values aside, the filmmakers here managed to do some interesting things, and the zany plot is truly one-of-a-kind. For fans of offbeat B or Z-grade cinema, there is plenty of fun (and entrails!) to be had here. 6/10.
I was and remain a massive fan of Bryan Bertino's directorial debut, "The Strangers," which I saw in theaters when it was released in 2008. To date it remains one of my favorite films of the 21st century. Given that I am not a fan of creature features, I went into "The Monster" with low expectations despite my previous love for Bertino's work, and came out mildly surprised.
This is not ordinary monster movie; it's really an allegory on monstrous parents, and the ways that they can (and do) inflict damage on children. The plot follows a troubled, abusive ex-addict mother who winds up stranded on a country road late one night with her precocious daughter; as they wait for help to arrive, a monstrous creature accosts their car.
When "The Monster" excels, it does so gracefully; it is beautifully shot and lit in a way that makes the singular location quite gorgeous. Shots of the light coming through the trees amidst the pouring rain recall photography of the forests in "Suspiria," and the creature in the film is surprisingly well-crafted with practical effects. Though not necessarily scary, it is menacing and well-conceived. The acting also elevates the material considerably. Zoe Kazan hits all the right notes, portraying the mother in a way that is human and believably flawed; as terrible as she is to her daughter (their tumultuous relationship is dispensed to the audience in flashback vignettes), we, just as her child, retain an affection and sympathy for her. Ella Ballentine plays counterpoint as her mature daughter, who is more of a parent to Kazan's character than Kazan is to her.
I think "The Monster" will likely resonate with people who have tumultuous and/or co-dependent relationships with their own mothers (or fathers), as that really is the core theme Bertino is meditating on here. Where the film falls somewhat short is in its one-note nature; the setup here is the stuff of standard horror fare, and there are technical inconsistencies that go ignored, but are more or less forgivable given that the film overall has a fairytale feel to it. The plot does at times feel threadbare, but fortunately there is enough tension to keep the audience reeled in. As far as contemporary monster movies go, this is a strong one, and, in this case at least, there is some redemption for at least one of the monsters. 7/10.
"The Chill Factor" follows a group of snowmobilers stranded at an abandoned religious camp where they uncover a strange ouija-like game, and proceed to unleash demonic spirits that start taking hold of them one-by-one.
This utter oddity was filmed in the late-1980s but went unreleased until several years later when it surfaced on video under the title "Demon Possessed." Make no bones about it, this is a low-budget flick, and has all the hallmarks of a cheap horror flick: Bad acting (especially from the extras), silly gore effects, and a plot that seems to have been invented on the fly (a voice-over narration from an apparently chain-smoking grandmother attempts to tie up the loose ends). Even with its pitfalls, however, I found myself enjoying "The Chill Factor" for what it is.
The film's greatest strength is that it's quite atmospheric, and recalls other snow-set horror films such as "Curtains" or "Ghostkeeper," which feel like distant cousins. Conceptually, the plot has potential, and is just weird enough to be attention-grabbing; the execution, however, is not quite up to speed, but one can see the seeds of something ominous buried underneath all the ineptitude. I won't attempt to make a case for "The Chill Factor" being a good film, because it isn't, but it is so bizarre and so wonky that one cannot help but get somewhat absorbed in it. There are a handful of decent death sequences, and the finale boasts a snowmobiling showdown that is ridiculous but somehow not out of place.
"The Chill Factor" is worth a watch for horror purists who enjoy cheapjack possession horror flicks; it melds the demon film with the slasher, and packages it in a late-'80s aesthetic that is as perplexing as it is amusing in all its weirdness. 5/10.
...and that's not necessarily a bad thing. "Slaughterhouse" follows an aging abattoir owner and his obese, mentally-disabled son, who are fighting off the business's closure at the hands of upgraded, mechanized forms of pig slaughtering. The unhinged father soon begins retaliating against city officials, police, and soon enough, a group of teenagers, who step foot on the property, dispatching them via his ogrous son.
It's quite clear while watching "Slaughterhouse" that the filmmakers were riffing heavily on "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre," and, more often than not, "Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2," given the goofy demeanor the film possesses. Despite this, "Slaughterhouse" also manages to be alternately dark, dingy, and grim at times, so the film offers the audience a little bit of everything-and somehow, it sort of works.
The plot is formulaic as can be, and the set-ups and devices here are well-worn for anyone who has seen a slasher movie. The film threads two narratives together; one of the father and son running the slaughterhouse, and another on a group of teens who eventually end up attending a party that lands them at the slaughterhouse to...well, be slaughtered. It's mindless fun, and is surprisingly quite gory, boasting pretty solid special effects, and crisp, professional cinematography. The acting is decent and appropriately goofy, with Sherry Bendorf providing a likable lead, for as much as the audience is able to be acquainted with her at least.
The film's finale is where the mayhem really lets loose and Buddy, the hulking son, gets to claim some virgin (and non-virgin) blood. The ending caught me off guard a bit, but serves as a fitting conclusion to a film that is full of multitudes. In the end, "Slaughterhouse" is well-made as far as late '80s slasher films go. It is certainly not high art, but it's slickly-made and eccentric enough to warrant interest from fans well-acquainted with the genre. 6/10.
A treat for film buffs and conspiracy connoisseurs, but that's about it
I am a major fan of David Robert Mitchell's last film, "It Follows," which struck a fine balance between reality and the uncanny that we rarely see in films anymore. This film is less concerned with the uncanny (though it is still present to some degree) and more concerned with the paranoid, using popular conspiracy theories as plot devices that propel the lead character, Sam-a thirtysomething burnout-through a series of encounters and occurrences as he tries to find a woman who has abruptly vanished from his apartment building.
The film has a languid tone and paints a vivid picture of Los Angeles, in the tradition of the great L.A.-set film noirs. It is also brimming with intertext, using dozens of tropes, images, and allusions to other films, which itself plays on the conspiracy angle through its repetition of popular cultural images. While the references are too many to count, the film reminded me most of Robert Aldrich's "Kiss Me Deadly," another paranoid, off-kilter film noir set in Los Angeles; like in that film,the lead character of "Under the Silver Lake" moves from one bizarre situation to another while trying to uncover the fate of a woman he hardly knows.
Because of the vast film history and tradition it draws on, "Under the Silver Lake" is a real treat for people who are film buffs, especially those who have an affinity for film noir. It will also appeal to a certain faction of millennial conspiracy theorists who adhere to the oft-repeated theories regarding the illuminati, Satanic messages on backward-spun vinyl, and the various "codes" that go unnoticed to all of us who are "in the matrix."
While I enjoyed the film quite a bit, its one pitfall in my opinion was that it never quite manages to ramp up; where I expected there to be a fever pitch in the last act, the film instead unceremoniously plods along through the bizarre conclusion that rather loosely ties up the central mystery of the plot. That being said, there are a handful of weird and creepy moments throughout that somewhat off-set this lack of tension in the finale. All in all, the film is an enjoyable acid-trip journey through the L.A. underworlds of lore. 8/10.
"The Collector" follows an eccentric, psychopathic entomologist who stalks a London art student before kidnapping her and holding her captive in his cavernous cellar. What ensues is a battle of wits, in which she makes valiant efforts to escape.
John Fowles's novel on which this film is based is among my favorite books-a truly disturbing and unrelenting look into the mind of a psychopath. It is like anything I've ever read. The novle is split into two sections, one told from the point of view of Freddie, the captor, and the second from the captive, Miranda, told in epistolary form via her diary entries. This narrative technique is really one of the few things the film loses that the novel possessed-and for obvious reasons, as something like this cannot translate in a visual medium.
That aside, this adaptation under William Wyler's direction is stellar in just about every way possible. Because the film is anchored to a single place and features really only two characters, "The Collector" is very much an actor's film. The success of it hinges entirely on the performances, as 99% of the film consists of their interactions together, and Wyler made smart casting decisions here. Terence Stamp makes for a formidable villain who is at times sympathetic, and at others sadistic and cruel, while Samantha Eggar plays Miranda with a precision that is astounding; her muted fear and franticness lay behind her eyes for much of the film, and she carries it as the character the audience is meant to identify with.
I've read that the film's producers wanted to change the ending from that of the novel, and thank God they didn't, as it would have tarnished the film as a whole. Overall, this is a strong adaptation that I can't recommend enough, and it succeeds mainly because Stamp and Eggar have such a firm grasp on the material. The atmospheric, claustrophobic sets and farmhouse add to the ambiance, but the film would be nothing without the strength of its actors. 9/10.
"Violent Midnight" follows a troubled veteran-turned-artist who lives off his family's large inheritance in a small Connecticut town. After one of his portrait models is viciously stabbed to death, he, along with her abusive boyfriend, become the prime suspects.
This effort from producer Del Tenney plays out very much like the dimestore suspense novels of the 1960s, chock full of sensuality, illicit romances, and vicious killings plaguing a small town. It also shares similarities with the giallos of this era, particularly with the first-person POV cinematography of the killer, as well as the shots of the assailant's gloved hands and knife. While it has been likened to "Psycho," it is not quite as egregious a facsimile as something like, say, William Castle's "Homicidal," and is much more concerned with the romantic relationships between the characters which amp up the steam factor. There is quite a bit of nudity in the film, which is surprising for the era, and gives it an extra edge of salaciousness.
One of the film's strong suits is its stark cinematography, which reaches a zenith in the final scene, which takes place in a dark mansion during a violent thunderstorm. The black-and-white photography makes use of shadows skillfully, and the murder sequences (one in a bedroom, the other at a lake) are atmospheric and frightening. The performances here are decent for the type of film this is; James Farentino in particular gives a fun performance as a greaser who can't keep it in his pants. Sylvia Miles makes an appearance as one of Farentino's abused girlfriends.
All in all, this is a relatively amusing period picture that very much embodies the era in which it was made. It plays out like a cheap dimestore thriller paperback, but there is a nasty edge to it that rears its head during the murder sequences which makes it stand out from many of its peers. The atmospheric locations and cinematography also add a sense of foreboding to the proceedings, and the finale, as odd as it is, manages to give the audience a few small surprises. Not high art, but art nonetheless. 7/10.
Leaves the audience quietly sweating in their seats
Psychologically-fragile American college student Dani attends a celebratory midsommar festival in northern Sweden with her graduate student boyfriend, Christian, and his cohorts Josh and Mark. They are invited by Pelle, an exchange student who was raised in an isolated commune there; he explains the celebration occurs only once every ninety years. The festivities are initially harmless, but soon ramp up to disturbing proportions.
Ari Aster's follow-up to "Hereditary," "Midsommar" marks a significant tonal shift for the director, but it is in truth a much more aesthetically rich film. Thematically, it is less dense, but the film heaps on hallucinogenic visuals in a manner that leaves the audience feeling as intoxicated as its chemically-induced characters.
When the film hits, it hits hard, and its only real downfall is that it fails to reach a true fever pitch, despite appearing to be heading in that direction. Instead, the dread slowly builds as the film plods toward its dour conclusion. Fans of the classic "The Wicker Man" will see plenty in common with this film, and it stands as an obvious reference point for Aster. Part of the film's failure to reach a fever pitch may be due to the relatively unclear motivations of the protagonist, specifically in the final act; while it's clear why she makes the decisions she does, the emotional groundwork for them feels underserved, resulting in a finale that seems slightly shallow.
Despite this downfall, Aster manages to present a lush and intoxicating film that induces dread in a manner that is oppressive and subtly terrifying, leaving the audience quietly sweating in their seats. 8/10.
Offbeat monster romp boasts extreme special effects
"Demon Wind" follows a group of people led by a young man, who go to stay at his grandparents' ancestral home in the desert where they succumbed to malevolent forces that turned one of them into a monstrous demon. The group arrive, get settled in, and soon enough, all hell (literally) breaks loose after a mysterious fog is blown over the premises.
Anyone who is slightly familiar with horror will see the clear riffs here on "The Evil Dead" and John Carpenter's "The Fog", to which "Demon Wind" owes significant debts. The set-up here is routine, the reason for the characters even being at the remote location even more dubious (the protagonist's reasons for visiting the ramshackle desert abode are not really made clear; what exactly is he going to figure out?), and the performances range from mostly ho-hum to downright bad.
So, what is the appeal? Well, for fans of bad late-'80s slashers and monster flicks, there is plenty of fun to be had with "Demon Wind." Although an obviously low-budget endeavor, the last half of it bolsters some genuinely gross, rather extensive practical special effects that are over-the-top, to put it lightly. Fans who appreciate these kinds of latex and karo syrup shenanigans will find this fairly entertaining. Additionally, the film does manage to evoke an intoxicating desert-Gothic atmosphere that makes for an appropriate, spooky setting for the proceedings.
In the end, while the plot is threadbare and the acting mediocre, there are moments of genuine amusement in "Demon Wind." It's a curio of a film, and not something most audiences will find palatable, but for fans of '80s monster gore flicks, it's a decent trip. 6/10.
"The Witch Who Came from the Sea" follows Molly, a woman living with her sister in Los Angeles, suffering from severe psychological trauma resulting from her father's incestuous relationship with her. As a result, she snaps and embarks on a killing and castration spree.
While its title is literally misleading (but metaphorically apt), "The Witch Who Came from the Sea" is an oddball psychological horror film that is not so much scary as it is sad. The film has a downbeat tone that is remarkable from the first scenes, and it chugs along at this languid, downtempo pace for much of its runtime. While some descriptions make it sound like a serial killer film, it's in actuality a character study of someone living with severe PTSD stemming from child sex abuse.
The content here is disturbing in nature, though the screenplay feels lopsided in the sense that Molly's pathology registers as a bit too on-the-nose. Where the film excels is in its visuals, and the cinematography captures a gothic sort of 1970s California, particularly the trash-ridden, empty streets of Venice Beach. Millie Perkins is decent as the lead, Molly, though none of the performances here are particularly great. There are odd moments of humor brought by the likes of Peggy Feury that are off-center but amusing. The film's conclusion is unsurprisingly dour, but thematically fitting. Though a bit of a shallow character study, "The Witch Who Came from the Sea" has some startling visuals and is reasonably well-made given its obvious budget limitations. Worthwhile for fans of gritty psychological dramas, particularly of this era. 6/10.