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With the end of the Halloween season rapidly approaching, we need to wrap-up this year’s 31 Days of Halloween, post haste! In that spirit, here’s Part Two of Week Three. Week Four and the two days of Week Five will follow shortly. Until then, however, feast your peepers on the goodness below!

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Observance

Slow-burn horror done right, Joseph Sims-Dennett’s Observance is easily one of the best horror films I’ve seen in 2016. Parker, a grief-stricken private investigator (the exceptional Lindsay Farris), takes a case that involves him spying on an unnamed woman, Subject 1, and reporting the dull minutae back to an unknown client. As the “easy money” of watching a stranger for a few days gradually morphs into a week of unrelenting tedium, Parker’s sanity slowly starts to show the tiniest spiderweb of cracks possible. Is there more to the assignment than meets the eye? Who is the mysterious woman and why, exactly, is he supposed to watch her? Who is his mysterious employer? Why does Parker keep having nightmares about the incident that cost him his young son? The answers may not always surprise but the execution and performances are flawless, leading to one of the most fully realized chillers of the year.

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Viral

With more zombie films than grains of sand on a beach, it’s a little difficult to truly stand out from the pack: while Viral might not be the most imaginative or “definitive” zombie flick out there, it more than holds its own in a ridiculously crowded field. Sisters Emma and Stacey (Sofia Black-D’Elia and Analeigh Tipton, respectively) are polar opposites, personality-wise, but are forced to become a cohesive unit when one of those ever-present zombie epidemics threatens to wipe out their little town (and the world at large, presumeably). Although there’s nothing here that hasn’t been seen before, the emotional beats all come across as overwhelmingly authentic and the consistently strong performances help sell the film as much more than another anonymous zombie flick. This may not win any awards for creativity but it takes a pretty standard story and executes it extremely well: that counts for something, in my book.

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Spookies

When I was a wee lad, I grew up in an extremely small, conservative, Texas border town, the kind of place where the school librarian routinely cut the “naughty” pictures out of National Geographic magazines before placing them on the shelf. One year, at a particularly ill-advised and ill-attended school Halloween party, a supremely misguided teacher ended up screening Spookies (on VHS, of course): suffice to say that I have never been the same since that fateful day.

Genuinely weird, disjointed and nonsensical (possibly due to it actually being two separate, unfinished films cut together to make one Frankenstein’s monster), Spookies is the kind of film that flourished in the ’80s but is all but nonexistent in these more enlightened times. Full of some of the strangest creatures ever committed to celluloid (the farting mud-monsters are instantly unforgettable, as is the cat-man/whatever), Spookies is similar to Phantasm in that it runs on complete dream/nightmare logic: not a damn thing makes sense (probably a natural result from cutting two unrelated films together) but the whole thing is so casually cool that true horror-heads won’t care. The stuff of my childhood and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Under the Shadow

Calling this the “Iranian Babadook” might seen a bit dismissive but trust me: that’s high praise, indeed. As someone who was genuinely impressed by that Australian neo-classic’s ability to weld a weighty tale of mother/son responsibility to a crowd-pleasing boogieman parable, I’ve eagerly awaited a parallel and writer-director Babak Anvari’s atmospheric chiller may just be that film. Set in Tehran, during the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-’88, the film concerns young mother, Shideh (the outstanding Narges Rashidi), as she cares for her young daughter, Dorsa, in their bombed-out apartment building. Shideh’s husband is off fighting in the war, leaving her to care for Dorsa amid constant Iraqi bombing and air raid sirens. When an unexploded missile crashes through the roof of the apartment above theirs, however, it seems to bring more with it than the omnipresent stench of death: it might bring ancient evil…the Djinn.

Another in a growing list of Repulsion-style “Are they/aren’t they bonkers” films, Under the Shadow is propelled into the winning column by virtue of its rock-solid performances, utterly oppressive atmosphere and concise, razor-sharp observations on post-Cultural War-era Iran. While there’s nothing here that hasn’t been seen/done before (at this point, this kind of post-modern “ghost story” is becoming almost as old hat as traditional zombie films, let’s face it), the execution is particularly skilled and the overt focus on female characters is refreshing, to say the very least. For those who continue to decry horror films as “empty, pointless garbage,” I handily point them in this direction and let the results speak for themselves.

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The Blackout Experiments

Purportedly a documentary (although I now have my doubts), The Blackout Experiments follows the participants of a particularly heinous extreme horror simulation called Blackout, a simulation which involves signed waivers, humiliation, forced nudity and, at one point, waterboarding. We meet the various folks who’ve decided to subject themselves to this self-inflicted torment, most of whom seem rather conflicted or, in some cases, a little crazy. Some of the individuals go through the torturous process multiple times, all in the name of finding themselves, pushing themselves, testing their limits, et al…but never, of course, because they’ve become obsessed by the whole process. What begins as an intriguing premise quickly boils down to a bunch of damaged people paying total strangers to abuse and debase them: even at 80 minutes, the film (which, to be honest, is just okay) wears tissue-paper-thin. By the end, we get no real revelations save one: the world is full of people, some of them very strange, indeed.

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31

Looking back on schlock-rock icon Rob Zombie’s filmography, there are really only two of his directorial efforts that I can actually stand: The Devil’s Rejects (still one of the leanest, meanest and nastiest pieces of work out there) and The Haunted World of El Superbeasto (easily one of my favorite animated films). Other than that, I’ve had pretty much a “leave it” reaction to the rest of his films: even his debut, House of 1000 Corpses, completely fell apart after I re-watched it, years later, and that one used to be a personal favorite. Suffice to say that I like the idea of Rob Zombie and his “twisted” world just fine. The reality? Not so much.

Zombie’s newest movie, 31, manages to fall just about in the middle of my personal scale: much better than either his hackneyed Halloween films or his ill-advised Fulci homage, The Lords of Salem, but nowhere near the feral genius of Devil’s Rejects. Plotwise, this is just Rob Zombie remaking The Running Man, for better or worse. The set-up is suitably silly (a group of carnies is kidnapped by a bunch of rich assholes who dress up like turn-of-the-century British dandies and are forced to fight a bunch of maniacal clowns to the death in an abandoned warehouse), the action is constant and fairly well-staged and the heroes (for the first time) aren’t seriously detestable cannon fodder. Sure, the whole thing is overwhelmingly dumb and your forehead will be tender from all the slapping. That being said, the whole thing is almost worth it, alone, for Richard Brake’s magnificent performance as philosophical sociopath Doom-Head: he gets all the film’s best lines and monologues, as befits all the best sociopaths in Zombie’s canon.

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Lake Nowhere

I’m a little hesitant to call Lake Nowhere one of the best horror films of 2016 but not for any quality issues: it’s easily one of my favorite films of the year, hands down. No, I’m a bit hesitant simply for the fact that the film, proper, only runs about 44 minutes. Sure, there are another six minutes or so of rather amazing fake trailers and beer commercials (the one for the giallo looks sweet but the eco-horror-themed Harvest Man looks fucking essential) that kick it off but that still brings us well below an hour, which isn’t close to full length territory. With another 30 minutes of footage (more commercials and trailers, even), this thing would be an automatic shoe-in for cult classic status: easily the most authentic-looking and feeling faux ’80s slasher I’ve yet to see, Lake Nowhere is an instant dose of warming nostalgia for all VHS horror fans.

The practical effects are pretty astounding, considering the budget, and the script is incredibly smart and inventive. Instead of another dull satire about slashers and the horror genre, Lake Nowhere actually takes tropes from the genre (cabin in the woods, slasher POV, horny teens, final girl, masked killer, possession, etc) and puts a little twist on them, all while keeping the basic framework intact. This isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel so much as approximate what a really good, really smart ’80s-era slasher would have looked like. Throw in a finale that manages to be creepy, thought-provoking and cool, in equal measures, and this little sucker is a keeper.

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Night of the Living Deb

Based on the punny title and fact that this was yet another indie zombie film, I really wasn’t sure what to expect from Kyle Rankin’s Night of the Living Deb, although my expectations weren’t particularly high. Awkward, socially-impaired, but otherwise rather awesome, Deb (played with just the right amount of quirk by Maria Thayer), meets the hunkiest guy ever at a bar and wakes up in his apartment the next morning. Everything would be swell, if not for a few minor details: Ryan (Michael Cassidy, displaying a gift for comic timing) is actually not interested in her, since he already has a socialite fiancee; they didn’t actually have a one-night stand so much as a one-night pass-out; and the town has been overrun by zombies created by the environmentally-unsound water treatment plant, run by Ryan’s louse of a dad (the constantly amazing Ray Wise, genre MVP). As the pair race to connect with their loved ones, will they discover love, as well, or is the spark as dead as a…you know.

High-energy, full of great performances and constantly fun and light-hearted, Night of the Living Deb is a pretty easy film to like. Thayer and Cassidy have fantastic chemistry, together, but she’s easily capable of carrying the film on her twitchy shoulders, which she often does. None of the zombie stuff is anything to write home about but this is a good example of focusing on your strengths: consider this a rom-com that’s been infected by a good ol’ dose of zom-com mayhem.

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Where the Devil Dwells

I was so positive that this zero-budget shocker would be a stinker, based on the first few minutes, that I was absolutely shocked when the film ended and I kind of loved it: talk about working hard to win me over! This is cheap but endlessly inventive filmmaking, full of surprises and one genuinely amazing performance among a slew of decent ones. Set during the ‘Satanic Panic’ craze of the late ’80s, the film involves Lenard (Walter Pena, completely understated and mostly effective), the adult son of a notorious, dead serial killer, who has been placed under house arrest in the old family homestead after attacking someone and going to the looney bin. The Sheriff (wildly OTT Scott Anthony Leet) wants him to make one wrong move, so he can send him back to the asylum, but poor Lenard just wants to get his life back on track. When he starts to see visions of dear, ol’ Oren (aka ‘The Butcher,’ aka ‘Dad) around the house, however, Lenard is forced to confront the fact that he might not be as sane as he hoped.

One of the rare films to constantly pull the rug out from under me, I’d be a jerk to spoil anything for potential viewers. I will go on the record as saying, however, that David O’Hara’s towering performance as Oren is, without a doubt, the single most frightening display of massive misanthropy since Robert Mitchum slimed his way through Cape Fear. He’s so good that he elevates the entire film, whenever he’s on-screen: when he’s not, Where the Devil Dwells manages to stay the course, for the most part, but it becomes something else entirely when he’s around. This is the kind of indie, direct-to-video horror film that makes theatrically-released films look poor, by comparison.

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Lights Out

Perfectly serviceable, albeit rather run-of-the-mill, David F. Sandberg’s Lights Out (based on his short film of the same name) reminded me a lot of films like Mama, Insidious and The Conjuring: polished, professional and atmospheric, if short on anything really unique or awe-inspiring. This involves a creature that can only move around when the lights are off, leading to the expected moments when faulty lighting leads to something creeping ever closer and closer to its intended victim. For a change, I actually really liked the backstory and explanation for events, even if Maria Bello’s character was so frustratingly obtuse as to come across as a virtual plot-point.

My main problem with this, as with a lot of megaplex horror, is that everything is too familiar: the creature design is similar to Mama and the Waniverse…the setpieces are similar to films like Pitch Black…the character dynamics are similar to any of a dozen modern horror films…and on and on. There’s nothing particularly wrong with Lights Out, to be fair, and there are moments in the film that work spectacularly well. That being said, there was also nothing that walloped me upside the head or made me think about it for days (or even hours) later. This is pretty much the epitome of a popcorn flick, despite its deep themes about abandonment and mental health issues. Again, not bad, by any definition, but I doubt I’ll remember it come Thanksgiving.

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Fear, Inc.

Coming across a bit like a cross between David Fincher’s The Game and another film I screened this week, The Blackout Experiments, Vincent Masciale’s Fear, Inc is a thoroughly entertaining, if slightly predictable (minus a wallop of a twist ending) horror-comedy that should definitely appeal to genre fans. Slightly obnoxious horror fanboy and manbaby Joe (fantastically realized by Raising Hope’s Lucas Neff, who should do much more of this kind of thing) only wants one thing for his birthday: he wants to go through the Fear, Inc. tailor-made horror experience. His loving and long-suffering girlfriend, Lindsey (Caitlin Stasey) and best friends, Ben (Chris Marquette) and Ashleigh (Stephanie Drake) are only too happy to oblige, even if Ben cautions that he’s heard “bad things” about the deviants behind Fear, Inc. When something goes tragicomically wrong, the group will find out what, exactly, happens when you cross Fear, Inc…and it ain’t pretty.

Lots of fun, if occasionally too manic and on-the-nose, Fear, Inc. makes the most of an incredibly game cast and strong script, coming up with some pretty daffy, horror-inspired scenarios. There are plenty of nods to classic horror films, both covert and ridiculously in-your-face, leading fans to play a refreshing game of “Spot the Reference,” ala Scream. The comedy aspects are particularly strong, with a script chockablock with quotable one-liners and snide throwaway comments, most of which belong to Neff’s kind of/sort of lovable asshole. The genius twist (foreshadowed expertly by one throwaway line much earlier in the film) really ends this on a high note but everything before manages to maintain a pretty decent cruising altitude, as well. If you’re looking for a smart, gory, self-referential horror-comedy, Fear, Inc. may just be calling your name.

Stay tuned for the final installments: coming soon!

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