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Cinéologist

Terrified


Terrified (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

Those who have low tolerance for horror should avoid watching “Terrified” at night. The majority of sequences are so well-executed that even the most standard setups, like a person waking up in the middle of night due to strange noises, possess a punchline or two so frightening, images are certain to linger in the mind for hours—days for the faint of heart. Writer-director Demián Rugna has crafted an inspired horror film with no intention other than to scare the viewers witless. The first hour is wall-to-wall old-fashioned scares. This is no ordinary haunting.

In most horror pictures involving possible paranormal phenomenon, there is one place of interest. The template: a family is terrorized by a ghost, demonic entity, or some sort of apparition. In this story, however, an entire street is haunted. Three homes, three families. There is no expository dialogue. Right from the opening scene we are dropped into a house where a woman, planning to cook dinner, finds herself hearing voices coming from the kitchen sink. But not just any voice—it is speaking to her, telling her it wishes to kill her. Hours later, she is dead. You will watch wide-eyed regarding the circumstances of her demise. One house down, two to go.

What makes the picture so effective is Rugna’s decision not to rely on jolts. There is an abundance of them—accompanied by a booming score. But look closer. A jolt is delivered—some thing appearing out of the darkness, for example—and then the scene goes on for an extended amount of time. We watch it crawl out from under the bed. We note the color of its skin, its texture, we imagine its stench. We stare at those glowing eyes and gaping mouth. Then we listen to how it sounds. We look at how it crawls, or slithers, or jumps across the room. A character encounters this strange entity during a most vulnerable time, what is typically a time for rest, sleeping, and dreaming. But we are in the room with him or her experiencing the nightmare of being trapped with something so inexplicable, ugly, and threatening.

This case, or series of cases, is assigned to Captain Funes (Maximiliano Ghione), a man who has a heart problem and a hearing problem, due to retire in two months. The bizarre and deadly occurrences on the street are so baffling that he asks the help of a former colleague named Jano (Norberto Gonzalo), a coroner who has had paranormal encounters with the corpses he’d examined. Since he is open to alternative explanations, perhaps he can make sense of what’s going on. Soon there are a total of three paranormal experts (Gonzalo, Elvira Onetto, George L. Lewis) on the scene. Their strategy is to explore one house each. They seem to know exactly what they’re doing and they do not look afraid. But perhaps they should be.

We observe the paranormal researchers perform their jobs. They take out curious instruments from their bags. Some involve liquids, others detect changes in magnetic fields. We are offered no explanation, but we can infer on how things work based on where the camera focuses on a specific part of an instrument and when. Showing rather than telling—an approach that prevents derailing pace and decreasing tension. Mainstream American horror pictures should take heed.

I wished the final fifteen minutes were as strong as the rest. Although still watchable, the resolution comes across as too bland for a movie of this caliber. While a definite explanation in regards to the central mystery is not required since we can make assumptions based on the rich pieces provided to us, a throwaway ending is inexcusable. The final scene is so uninspired, it borders on forgettable. Surely there is a better way to close out an otherwise terrific film.

Motel Hell


Motel Hell (1980)
★★★ / ★★★★

Kevin Connor’s eccentric “Motel Hell” is a satire of terrible people—siblings Vincent (Rory Calhoun) and Ida (Nancy Parsons)—who genuinely believe they are doing God’s work by helping out with our planet’s overpopulation problem and food shortages. Their solution: kidnap unsuspecting folks, plant their bodies until neck-deep in the ground, slash their vocal cords so they cannot scream, fatten them up for weeks, then slaughter them when their bodies are good and ready to be cleaned, smoked, and mixed into the pork. Human meat is the secret ingredient of Farmer Vincent’s smoked meat—exclusively sold within a hundred mile radius. This may already sound like plenty of information—but this does not even scratch the surface. Another target to be satirized: American capitalism. Impressive about this film is its level of detail.

For most, the horror may come in the form of something standard or expected like Vincent sabotaging a remote road so that unsuspecting drivers would lose control of their vehicle and then crash into a ditch. Or Ida scrubbing down corpses before limbs are chopped off. But for me, true horror comes in the form of the duo’s precise methods of preparing their “product” (which they’ve perfected over the course of thirty years), how they interact with heads spurting from the ground (which can only make unsettling gurgling noises), their friendly and welcoming demeanor around motel guests and townsfolk. It is the more chilling that Vincent and Ida look so ordinary—for this is their mask. Their real selves are revealed when it is time to do God’s work. It is no accident that Vincent and Ida are always watching or listening to televangelists. Every breath they take is dedicated to the Lord.

There are nifty details peppered throughout the picture’s running time. Screenwriters Robert and Steven-Charles Jaffe assume that viewers who choose to watch a movie entitled “Motel Hell” have seen plenty of macabre stories, particularly films surrounding serial killers and cannibalism. And so they play upon certain tropes, from introducing a potential final girl (Nina Axelrod) who lost a lover early on, the cop who has no idea what’s really going on in his own town (Paul Linke), to the hypotheses we make in regards to what should inevitably happen to the story’s antagonists. I enjoyed that we spend more time with Vincent and Ida inside and around the motel compared to anyone else. We grow familiar with the geography of the place. Combining these elements, an argument can be made that we become accomplices to the pair’s crimes.

A bit of time is spent on a sort-of romance between Terry (Axelrod) and Bruce (Linke). I found the forced humor—which borders on slapstick at times—to be ineffective overall because the performers lack basic chemistry, but I appreciated the addition of this subplot since it adds a bit of humanism—and lightness—to the story. I found the angle surrounding Terry having discovered an attraction to Vincent, who is at least twice her age, to be the more intriguing relationship. Vincent’s responses to Terry’s advances are certainly more amusing than Bruce’s lame attempts to get Terry to notice him under a more intimate light. This isn’t to suggest that Terry is interesting on her own. On the contrary, I found her to be tedious outside of her attraction to a murderer. I felt the writers’ struggle in establishing a strong female protagonist.

Regardless, there is plenty to enjoy in “Motel Hell,” from the set decor of the secret garden where humans are planted and fattened, its incredible use of puns no matter the situation, to the consistency of its jovial and enthusiastic energy despite a morbid subject matter. It wears its influences on its sleeve such as Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” and Tobe Hooper’s “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” but never parodying them; it honors them by remaining true to its own path. Those with a taste for bizarre and forgotten films are likely to have a campy good time.

The Bridge Curse


The Bridge Curse (2020)
★ / ★★★★

Sigh. A movie like “The Bridge Curse” is not even worth a few keystrokes. It goes to show that mediocrity in the horror genre can be encountered across continents. Although this film is from Taiwan, it possesses the blandness American terror flicks in which the found footage style is employed without any regard on how to use it effectively to tell a specific story. In the end, we are forced to follow a group of cardboard cutouts who run around screaming due to the slightest strange noise from the bushes and falling at the most inopportune times. Are you bored yet?

But this is no slasher flick. It is a ghost story… involving a woman with long black hair wearing a white gown. Her name is not Samara or Sadako. But it might as well be because they look nearly identical. The supposedly scary figure here is so nondescript that she isn’t even given a name. We learn close to nothing about her background. Only rumors about the circumstances of her death. So why should we be scared of her exactly? Writers Keng-Ming Chang and Po-Hsiang Hao fail to provide the antagonist an intriguing mythos. More effort is put into what happens when a person enters a dark room. Cue the expected jump scares.

The basic plot is this: Four years prior, university students died following a “courage test” gone wrong. According to urban legend, the so-called Female Ghost Bridge is such a hotspot for paranormal activity that the thirteen steps located right alongside the lake becomes fourteen at the stroke of midnight. Should a person find himself or herself turning around for whatever reason while on the fourteenth step, he or she would be cursed. The students who died (J.C. Lin, Chang Ning, Vera Yen, Joe Hsieh)—all ruled suicide via drowning… even though most of the corpses were found nowhere near a body of water—committed exactly what they were warned not to do. A news reporter (Summer Meng) decides to investigate further.

And so we follow two timelines: the students who will not make it through the night and the reporter who suspects details might have been overlooked. The problem with the former is that since we already know the fates of the characters, it is critical that their experiences be so pregnant with tension that at times we forget they’re already doomed. But the exact opposite happens. Because they are written to be dumb, there are constant reminders of their fate. Worse, their deaths are so lacking in energy and creativity that each one simply drags.

The reporter angle is no better. We spend so little time with her that we never get a sense of her personality. Sure, she takes it upon herself to look into the strange “suicides.” Other than to get to the truth or further her career, what is it about this case that attracts her, compels her to dive deeper and deeper? There is no specificity. In Hideo Nakata’s “Ringu,” for example, the reporter dives into the case because it is her job but that motivation evolves when the curse finds its way to her son’s life. That is a character worth following because she eventually fights for something bigger than herself. In this film, there is none of the beautiful, tragic, or poetic details.

Expository and redundant, “The Bridge Curse” fails to do anything special that allows it to stand out as a supernatural horror. Its approach is to recycle the same old templates from better films that made their marks, including the clichés, with minimal energy. It is content in showing characters being scared without actually scaring the audience. What is the point of it?

Ringu


Ringu (1998)
★★★ / ★★★★

Hideo Nakata’s “Ringu,” based on the novel by Kôji Suzuki, is a horror film more interested in telling a strong story and establishing a consistent feeling of doom than delivering standard scares in which viewers are compelled to jump out of their seats. What results is a work that one cannot help but peer into, like gazing inside a crystal ball where a number of figures can be discerned but making sense of their meaning requires patience and an appreciation of how, for instance, a person’s trauma can have a ripple effect throughout one’s inner circle and eventually one’s community.

The plot revolves around a “weird video” in which, according to high school gossip, those who watch it have seven days left to live. Journalist Reiko Asakawa (Nanako Matsushima) decides to investigate if the urban legend is true considering that her own niece was supposed to have seen the video in question along with three friends—all of them died on the same day, exactly a week later since their trip up in the mountains. The expository sequences are fascinating because every scene provides curious information—necessary foundation to be able to ask the right questions which may then help to solve the mystery at hand. In a way, it is a classic detective story in that our protagonist must meet and talk to all sorts of people so that she—and we—can try to put together some puzzle pieces before the story goes into full gear during the second act.

Not only is there terrific patience in storytelling, the film is not afraid to envelop us in silence. The niece’s funeral scene is a standout. From the moment Reiko and her young son (Rikiya Ôtaka) step into the funeral, there is no score. We barely hear shuffling of bodies moving about. We do not even hear the cries of mourners. When people speak, they tend to whisper—as if going above a certain decibel might wake or disturb the dead. It is very creepy, but at the same time it underscores the sadness of—and trauma from—lives taken way too soon. It genuinely feels like we are in a place of grief. Even when Reiko’s son makes his way upstairs, notice the picture does not revert to cheap scares. The emphasis is on how much the boy misses his cousin. He looks at her room differently now that she’s no longer alive.

Another important player in the story is Reiko’s ex-husband, Ryûji (Hiroyuki Sanada), who possesses a sixth sense when it comes to detecting surrounding auras. I admired screenwriter Hiroshi Takahashi’s decision in downplaying the idea that the likely reason Reiko and Ryûji divorced is due to his gift (or curse—depending on how one looks at it). There is a poetry shared between this man’s personal torment and the person responsible for the cursed VHS tape. I enjoyed the small moments when Ryûji finds himself relating to those who possessed special abilities but found themselves being rejected by society. “Ringu” is a story of outcasts.

The film can be criticized for lacking overt action. Its minimalism is precisely what I liked about it, which reminded me of the most humble but extremely well-written episodes of “The X-Files.” To inject chases, apparitions making direct contact with the living, a parade of jump scares, and the like would have taken away from the ruminative tone of the project. How can these elements fit when the point is to consider how one’s tragic pain can lead to lashing out at others? It asks us to empathize with “evil,” if that’s what it really is. That’s challenging. There is a confidence and focus to this work that not many horror films from the west can offer.

32 Malasaña Street


32 Malasaña Street (2020)
★★ / ★★★★

Not twenty-four hours have passed since having moved to Madrid when members of the Olmedo family begin to experience strange happenings in their flat, former residence of an old woman (Almudena Salort) who died in 1972. It has been four years since her passing and yet when the new owners move in, it appears as though the deceased hasn’t yet perished. Her personal belongings—clothes in the closet, appliances on kitchen counters, record player in the living room—remain where they were. The only difference between 1972 and 1976 is the dust that settled on surfaces. It is supposed to be a new start for the humble Olmedos, who come from a farming village, but they have no idea about the nightmare they just walked into.

Albert Pintó’s “32 Malasaña Street” is a proud old-school supernatural horror. Although there are jump scares executed in a modern fashion, quick cuts and all, these rarely function as punchlines. Instead, actual scares root themselves in highly vulnerable situations—like lying in bed and suspecting that something from a few feet away is moving about in the darkness or looking at grandpa (José Luis de Madariaga) and suspecting it’s not really him or that a simple thing like taking your eyes off a five-year-old in order to take care of something urgent could lead to a life or death situation—these are milked until breaking point. This is not an ordinary haunting in which the solution lies in simply moving out.

The picture brings to mind James Wan’s “Insidious” and “The Conjuring” in that Pintó attempts to tell a story in a slow and methodical manner coupled with genuine humanity in its center. Notice that after the required ten-minute move-in scene, it is wall-to-wall scares, one event leading to another until a big revelation in the end (a curiosity but not explored enough). At the same time, the familiar template is a double-edged sword: Why see this this film when its aforementioned contemporaries are not only more potent story-wise but also the craft behind such scares are far more creative and realized? Here is a movie that neglects to offer an excellent reason why it is special on its own.

I enjoyed the performances, particularly by Begoña Vargas as the protective eldest sister named Amparo and Iván Renedo as the vulnerable spectacled youngster Rafi. We spend so much time with these two, particularly Amparo who yearns to get job that would take her away from her family, that we believe the strength of their bond despite the age difference. I wished, however, that the middle sibling, Pepe (Sergio Castellanos), is given more to do than to send and receive notes via clotheslines. There appears to be a girl living in the apartment across the street, but we see only glimpses of her—which is almost never a good sign.

There are a few standout sequences that showcase Pintó’s skill as a storyteller: Rafi sitting in front of the television as the puppet on screen begins to talk to him, the remaining Olmedos breaking into a vacant flat to search for a missing family member, and the family realizing that their dream home is in fact diseased. In each of these scenes, when the camera moves and it is utterly silent, we cannot help but to hold our breaths. We already know what’s coming… and yet we allow ourselves to be manipulated into being scared.

Island Zero


Island Zero (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

I wish more modest horror movies were like “Island Zero.” It is aware of its budgetary limitations, but it works hard to circumvent common problems that plague the genre in order to create an experience that inspires the viewer to want to stick with the curious story it has to tell. Mood and atmosphere over the usual arm-chomping and brain-bashing. The film is written by Tess Gerritsen and directed by Josh Gerritsen—names I wish to remember because I believe they have a lot more to give. This is a pretty good trial run, not for everyone but willing to engage and entertain; and I can’t wait to see what else they have to offer.

In the past few weeks, fishermen have ventured into the water and caught nothing, not even a guppy. It were as if all the fish, crabs, and lobsters have migrated from the area. But that is only one of the problems in this island, located 40 miles from Maine. Those who take their boat in the water end up disappearing, too. It has gotten so bad lately that those who wish to get out of the island have no one to transport them. It is winter, almost Christmas, and food is quickly running out. Diesel is in demand in order to keep generators running. Desperation is in the air.

I enjoyed how the story unfolds like a Stephen King novel. Here we are in an isolated community where everyone is friendly and familiar. We visit the usual hangout areas: a diner, a hotel, the docks. It is so intimate, wonderfully capturing a sense of isolation, that I couldn’t help but smile at the sight of antsy residents walking to the dock, luggages in tow, instead of taking a cab or car. The island is so small, it feels like every point of interest is within walking distance. The filmmakers know that for us to believe this community, there must be memorable, perhaps quirky, details. It is not enough for the characters to share certain accents or to sport a certain look. We must get a real sense of how they live—and later survive.

We come to know Sam (Adam Wade McLaughlin), a marine biologist who has long suspected this island will experience a sudden drop in marine population. He and his deceased wife, also a marine biologist, believe that there is an undiscovered apex predator out there in the ocean. There is the island doctor, Maggie (Laila Robins), who looks forward to leaving the island over the holidays and… spend some time alone with a good book. Although a good physician, there is a coldness to her that I found to be fascinating during the latter half of the story. And there is Jessie (Joanna Clarke), a server who has never left the island, currently crushing on a novelist, Titus (Matthew Wilkas), who has an appointment in New York City regarding the publishing of his latest book, the island of interest being the main source of inspiration. When asked what kind of story he’s writing, “It’s a love story,” he tells her. Uh huh. She knows what he means.

The movie provides extended exposition—which will undoubtedly frustrate many. I was, too, for a time, because there is a creature (or creatures) out there in the water but instead we are asked to sit through a whole lot of talking among the residents, oftentimes saying the same thing like how much they wish to get out of the island before resources run dry. However, it proves to be a smart move because the exchanges are meant to let our guards down. While this is happening, clues are being dropped left and right about what is actually going on. This isn’t to suggest there’s a big twist waiting. But certain revelations in the final half make sense in retrospect.

I liked the look of the creature. (Its body is shown about two-thirds of the way through—so patience is required.) Although not terribly original (it reminded me of a Pixar character), the film made me want to examine it whole, slice its limbs (does it have limbs?), and put its organs (if any) under a microscope. We are given information on how the organism hunts, what time of day, what it is attracted to, what repels it. We even get to see the color of its blood and hear suggestion on why it is like that. In many creature-feature films, especially those with sizable budgets, these are considered insignificant information. What matters is the violence and the gore. Not here. Although not particularly exciting, I found it to be refreshing.

The picture’s most critical shortcoming is the final ten minutes. I felt as though the filmmakers threw away what they worked so hard for by rushing through the fates of some of our protagonists. As a result, what should have been dramatic exits end up as mere footnotes. For a story that exercises a whole lot of patience, the resolution lacks precisely this element. If only it were able to hold its breath for a little while longer.

Hostel


Hostel (2005)
★★★ / ★★★★

I think the goal of Eli Roth’s “Hostel” is to make the viewers so uncomfortable that somewhere during its descent to hell they find their heads pulling away from the screen without thinking about it. As ugly, gory, and violent as the film is, an argument can be made that it is true horror in a sense that it elicits a response so visceral and so powerful that by the end it leaves one enraged, drained, or wallowing in disquiet. I found it to be entertaining from beginning to end; the story is propelled with great energy combined with a “Look what I can do!” gall.

Those who consider only the surface of the picture will be quick to label the work as “torture porn.” I’m not so sure it qualifies. Consider the extended scene in which we find one of our three backpackers—Paxton (Jay Hernandez), Josh (Derek Richardson), and Oli (Eythor Gudjonsson)—handcuffed to a chair. From the moment the physical torture begins, the camera fixates on his face. We are there with him the first time a drill punctures his skin, as he shrieks in pain, begs for help and to be released. If the purpose were to excite the viewer, the camera would have focused on the tormentor’s facial and body expressions throughout the ordeal. But no—physical suffering and desperate screaming are front and center. By framing the face just so, there is no escape; we are forced to sympathize with the doomed character.

The picture begins like a comedy—a stereotypical comedy surrounding two Americans (Hernandez, Richardson) and one Icelander (Gudjonsson) being boisterous, rude, always on the lookout for weed and women who wish to sleep with them. I was amused by their shenanigans because the performers do a good job in looking and sounding the part. They share chemistry, and what elevates the comedy is the precise phrasings, looks they give to one another, and timing in terms of when to go for hyperbole versus when to downplay. It is not until forty-five minutes into the picture when we finally encounter something especially gruesome.

There is a creative idea here. Rich folks from all over the world pay to torture and kill unsuspecting individuals. To be able to do whatever they wish to an American, it costs $25,000. Considering the film was released post 9/11, there is merit to claims that a) the movie is made for Americans and b) it wishes to make a statement about what Americans consider to be their place in the world following that tragic day. But I go further. I think the writer-director wants to show his American audience that we as a society are not blameless for 9/11.

Like the characters in this film, we go into other people’s countries and act like we own the place, sometimes forcing them to adopt our values and morality—a modern day invasion. To make that point is brave and Roth opens himself—as a filmmaker, as an American, or just any other person—for censure. And yet to do so is a very American thing to do. To criticize ourselves for what we are doing wrong is, in my eyes, patriotic. Clearly, there is substance in “Hostel” should one bother to wade through the warm blood, shredded organs, and fatty tissues.

Splinter


Splinter (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★

Here is a zombie picture that has nothing to do with a virus. Written by Ian Shorr and Kai Barry, the imaginative and suspenseful “Splinter” takes on a straightforward, no subplot approach of focusing on four characters trying to survive a night of horrors—first on the road and then inside a gas station. Sure, the frights are familiar and there are more than a few instances in which the jolts can be anticipated down to the split-second, but there is no denying that the execution gets the job done. It is creepy, efficient, and riotously watchable. As a genre piece, it works.

Polly (Jill Wagner) and Seth (Paulo Costanzo), a couple celebrating their anniversary, are stopped by a wanted man (Shea Whigham) and his drug addicted girlfriend (Rachel Kerbs), on the run to Mexico, while on their way to a motel. But this is no ordinary hostage situation. The four must team up quickly to try to outsmart and outlive an organism that takes over corpses and “eats” or metabolizes nutrients. These four personalities are indeed archetypes (the brain, the tough chick, the criminal, the drug addict), but the performances are enthusiastic enough and the impossible situation is terrifying enough for us to be able to overlook the more recognizable aspects of the screenplay.

The makeup and creature effects are inspired. In a way, the organism in question does not have a defined form. So the specialists are forced to be creative. We see ominous-looking spikes protruding from its hosts, but this is only a defense mechanism. When touched, for instance, these spikes can easily embed themselves on the skin and taking over the host begins. Although there is a trope involving one of the survivors having to keep secret that he or she has been infected, I didn’t mind so much because the overall situation’s tension keeps increasing. I enjoyed that there is a discovery to be made every fifteen minutes or so. Clearly, the material does not lack confidence.

The organism is capable of putting together dead bodies from various sources so the appearance of the enemy likens that of Frankenstein’s monster. It is strong, it moves quickly, and the camera is tickled to show us how ugly it looks when it lunges for an attack. It is unclear whether it feels pain or suffering. I’m inclined to believe it does not. To increase the ante, the organism can also live in an excised body part and control it to move. There is a funny and terrifying bit with a hand in an enclosed space. Good stuff.

“Splinter” is directed by Toby Wilkins and it functions on pure forward momentum. Coupled with a screenplay that assumes viewers have seen a number of zombie films, there are a number of instances here where expectations are subverted and played for uncomfortable laughs. Then just around the corner the real horror awaits.

Living Dark: The Story of Ted the Caver


Living Dark: The Story of Ted the Caver (2013)
★★ / ★★★★

Based on the internet legend Ted the Caver—a man who kept an online journal of the virgin cave he came across but whose posts completely stopped following an entry involving one last descent—“Living Dark,” based on the screenplay by David L. Hunt (who directs) and Kevin Brown, is an effective suspense picture that is able to accomplish plenty of mixed frights despite a very tight budget. However, instead of embracing a focused visceral horror experience, it is hindered by a sad story of two brothers named Ted (Chris Cleveland) and Brad (Matthew Alan) who are reunited after their father’s passing. Although I admired the filmmakers’ attempt in getting us to care for the characters outside of the box of survival horror, it is clear that the dialogue is not the material’s forté.

Cleveland and Alan, who share believable chemistry, are up to the task of establishing a meaningful connection between brothers who, despite being only two years apart, have never felt all that close. Ted begrudges Brad for having a habit of doing his own thing even though there are times when he is needed back home; Brad thinks Ted is so rooted in their hometown and family that his elder brother never got a chance to truly live. On a conceptual level, it works. I think most of us would be able to relate and empathize with these characters.

But during the more dramatic moments—for example, when the siblings unearth a memory but one does not remember at all or recalls quite differently—I could feel the actors making an effort to let the words on the script flow a little better, to make the lines sound like phrases that actual people would say. These moments of pain and humanity should come across natural, but instead I found myself distracted due to the occasionally unpolished script. Instead of appreciating emotions or considering what someone might be thinking due to what is expressed (or not expressed), I focused on the subjects’ behavior. And at times these do not match of the words being uttered. There is a disconnect which took me out of the moment.

The exploration is two-fold: Ted and Brad’s rocky relationship and the obsession they develop to discover what’s hidden inside the cave. A case can be made that the two elements must be effective in order to have a thorough appreciation of what will transpire during the third act. As a whole, I found the former to be somewhat crippled in parts while the latter holds its own.

The horror-thriller elements are done rather well. I enjoyed how it employs slow build-up like when the brothers discover a small hole that leads to another room. Not only is there a breeze coming from there… there are indiscernible noises, too. It’s strange at first that no matter what is done to the hole—sledgehammer, pickaxe, drills—it just won’t get any bigger. For a long while we wonder if the cave itself is supernatural. Further, the picture has an eye for truly claustrophobic scenes such as a body squeezing through a crawlspace. There is a wonderful balance of the camera fixating on a terrified face as well as body parts being taken over by panic. So, you see, the threat is not only what’s waiting deep in the cave. It knows that sometimes what goes on in our minds can be far scarier than what faces us.

“Living Dark: The Story of Ted the Caver” deserves a marginal recommendation. I appreciated the effort put into it despite the lack of ear for dialogue and a few supporting characters—Uncle Charlie (Mark Hayter) and Joe the gas station attendant/enthusiastic cave explorer (Circus-Szalewski)—that should have gotten more time on the spotlight. (They have a lot of personality.) The work is elevated by a good enough understanding of what makes certain situations scary. And scares do not always have to involve creatures in the dark. Sometimes a strange noise outside of one’s window in the middle of the night (digital clock shows 3:32 AM) is enough to slap our eyes wide open.

The Town That Dreaded Sundown


The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976)
★★★ / ★★★★

The pseudo-documentary approach of “The Town That Dreaded Sundown,” written for the screen by Earl E. Smith and directed by Charles B. Pierce (who also co-stars as the dimwitted Patrolman A.C. “Sparkplug” Benson), works in this particular story because the killer is never identified or caught. The plot is loosely based on the Texarkana Moonlight Murders of 1946 and it makes for an interesting watch as a crime picture and a genre exercise: it establishes a convincing setting of a post-World War II border town living in every day terror and it is not constrained by the usual trappings of the modern slasher horror since it was made before the slasher sub-genre took off.

We are greeted with a creepy but matter-of-fact narration by Vern Stierman. It does not waste any time in establishing the stakes and convincing the viewers why this tale is worth telling. By showing us around the usual hangouts in Texarkana—bars, movie theaters, churches—and the people living in it, typical establishing shots usually treated as throwaways in modern horror stories, it creates a genuine aura of foreboding. If the murders can happen in this town with these regular Americans, it can just as well happen to you and me.

We follow Deputy Norman Ramsey (Andrew Prine) and Captain J.D. Morales (Ben Johnson), a local cop and a Texas Ranger, visit crime scenes and gather clues as the strong, tall, and white-masked Phantom Killer (Bud Davis) slaughters unsuspecting couples in their vehicles every twenty-one days. Prine and Johnson share a curious chemistry, perhaps because they play their characters’ personalities as opposites or that it is entirely apparent they are performers in a horror movie more than capable of delivering subtlety, although the material does not bother to delve deeply into their differing approaches when it comes to police work. They are shown as capable and smart, so we recognize why they are the best hands and minds to try to apprehend the killer. There are hints of a solid procedural here.

The killings are not shown in a cinematic way—which I felt to be the correct approach. They are messy, ugly, and sad. There is not one effective jump scare. Instead, it tasks us to wallow in the violence and consider the torment the victims are going through. Therein lies its horror. Particularly memorable is the third couple, a pair of musicians, who are brutalized in such an unblinking fashion, especially the woman (Cindy Butler), that I caught my eyes moving away from the screen in order to take a breath. Our empathy is always with the victim, never the killer. And so when the scene reaches the inevitable climax, the defeat is all the more impactful. This is when The Phantom Killer is at his most confident and… creative. We desperately wish for him to make a mistake so that Ramsey and Morales could get closer to his tracks.

Although peppered with comic moments (all scenes involving Sparkplug being slow but quite earnest to execute his assignments the best he can), “The Town That Dreaded Sundown” is not created to make the audience feel good—at least not in a traditional sense. It is meant to horrify and remind that taking another person’s life is quite the chore, maybe even requiring discipline. For instance, how is it possible that The Phantom Killer was so successful in not leaving meaningful evidence when every single crime scene shows great struggle? Perhaps the killer is ahead of his time.

Vampires vs. the Bronx


Vampires vs. the Bronx (2020)
★★ / ★★★★

Gentrification is vampirism appears to be the message in “Vampires vs. the Bronx,” a family-friendly horror-comedy that could have used a handful more scares to become memorable. It proves capable of milking key moments, like when a wooden coffin is opened and a sleeping bloodsucker suddenly wakes, how cameras and mirrors cannot capture their image, when their white faces turn thick and rubbery right before they go for the kill. These elements are not new, but they are executed rather well. But in terms of delivering consistent thrills, it is an area of improvement. When you’ve got nothing new to offer, make sure viewers overlook it.

Miguel (Jaden Michael), Bobby (Gerald W. Jones III), and Luis (Gregory Diaz IV) are best friends who discover that vampires are surreptitiously taking over their neighborhood. They are written as affable, level-headed teenagers who grew up in a diverse, working-class community; immediately we see how important The Bronx is to them not through their words but actions. For instance, they notice local businesses being bought and closed down as of late. They make their stand by trying to raise enough funds so that Tony’s bodega (Joel “The Kid Mero” Martinez)—a convenience store that welcomed them to hang out inside rather than outside where they might get into trouble with gangs and drug dealers—might avoid meeting the same fate.

The screenplay by Oz Rodriguez (who directs) and Blaise Hemingway is efficient in establishing a sense of place and community. The Bronx is a melting pot of food, cultures, ethnicities, languages. We feel the strength and tightness of this community. But it is not without dangers. Bobby, for instance, is being recruited by a known drug dealer (Jeremie Harris) to join his crew. Curiously, Bobby considers enlisting despite knowing that his father was killed precisely because he was involved in selling drugs. Clearly, the creatures of the night are not the only antagonists here. I enjoyed that at one point, however brief, vampires and drug dealers end up working together. Because, in a way, their endgame is the same: to suck the life of a community, to kill its potential, its future.

But this isn’t to suggest that the material takes a heavy-handed approach. No, not even when it appears that the boys lack father figures at home or that every white person we encounter is suspicious at the very least. For the most part, the mood is light, the pacing breezes by, and there is constant forward momentum. Even when vampire basics are introduced (what they are, the rules they must follow, what slows them down, what kills them), it never feels laborious. There is an effortlessness that’s quite refreshing. There isn’t a whiff of forced dialogue.

There is room for creative scares. For instance, the vampire in charge seems to have unlimited funds and can purchase entire buildings at a drop of a hat. That rule about the bloodsuckers having to be invited in is thrown out the window when they actually own the apartment complex. Although this idea is introduced, it’s disappointing that nothing is actually done to execute it. It’s the perfect setup for an all-you-can-eat-buffet. Another idea: Have the cops—or one cop—actually do something. There is a joke or two about them being useless in a neighborhood like The Bronx. Why not add dimension to the joke or perhaps even upend it? Surely these ideas are not too complex or too scary, even for a horror-comedy intended for the whole family.

Extraterrestrial


Extraterrestrial (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★

It begins with a group of friends driving to a cabin in the woods. I can feel you rolling your eyes. Another one of those movies? Yes… and no. Colin Minihan’s sci-fi horror “Extraterrestrial” may not introduce new elements to the (not so little) green men terrorizing humans sub-genre, but it is apparent right from the first act that its goal is to entertain the viewers helpless. It is not one of those alien movies in which the only source of entertainment is flashing lights and visual effects. In fact, there are great stretches here that inspires the audience to glue their eyes to screen. It is ambitious, energetic, and respectful toward the horror and science fiction genres. On this level, the movie works.

Here is a story in which characters have an awareness of unidentified flying objects, aliens, and government cover-ups. Because they are young and have probably seen a lot of movies and television shows about extraterrestrials, they do not act dumb when faced with a spacecraft that crash landed. They approach the ship out of morbid curiosity but do not try to open it because they know what tends to happen when creatures inside there are not friendly. And since these characters are given at least minimal knowledge of the situation they’re in, they’re all the more enjoyable to watch. This group, led by April (Brittany Allen), is leagues ahead of similar packs in less intelligent killer alien movies.

Small decisions are made that go a long way. For example, in this picture, an alien abduction can be recorded using a cell phone or CCTV and footages do not malfunction or disappear suddenly the second it is shown to another person who doubts that there really are aliens running around the forest. Another example, which put a smile on my face, is in the matter-of-fact way the filmmakers choose to portray flying saucers and ETs. All of us have a general expectation of how they look based on popular culture and this movie delivers exactly that. They don’t bother to change the color of the aliens or the shape of their heads, nor do they alter the cliché look of the craft. They just… are and there’s something incredibly freeing about it. I felt as though Minihan and his team had more important things to accomplish—like how to make a hunt between predator and prey feel full of tension or how to achieve creative payoffs.

Alien attacks are executed with panache. Its practical effects are impressive and yet so much is hidden within or just outside shadows. Rain and lightning storms are used not just to create a creepy environment, but to make it a harder to see what’s beyond several feet away. This approach can also be used to highlight a figure standing right behind somebody—especially in regards to the timing of the lightning. There are jump scares, certainly. But there are other types of scares, too. It seems to enjoy showing us how terrified characters feel when they know with absolute certainty that no matter what they do, they will be abducted. Scream as they might, quite often there is a sense of surrender in their eyes.

The work follows a defined three-arc structure. What I liked most is that the third arc takes risks, especially now that so many horror movies these days do not even bother to offer a resolution. I hate it when the climax is reached and then the screen simply fades to black. Not here. I know, for instance, that the director is a fan of “The X-Files” because so many episodes of that wonderful show ends just like this movie: all at once it can be sad, funny, satirical, and ironic. There is a punchline; it gives us clear reasons why the writer-director (Stuart Ortiz co-writes) felt the need to tell this story. Fans of the genre will get a kick out of this independent gem.

The Mortuary Collection


The Mortuary Collection (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

The opening credits sequence of Ryan Spindell’s horror anthology shows terrific promise. We follow a paper boy making his usual early deliveries across the small island town of Raven’s End, a place so drenched in fog and humble simplicity that stories of Stephen King could fit right in. In between moments offer strange details: tentacles caught in a fish net, missing persons posters, a report of a killer having escaped from a mental asylum. Here is a place that’s beautiful on the outside, but look a little closer and realize that something sinister is afoot.

Upon first glance, it looks like a love letter to horror fans. It is all the more disappointing to discover that the deeper we get into its viscera, the material does not offer much freshness. In the middle of it, particularly the first segment involving a pickpocket (way too short and sans convincing tension) and the third segment which tells the story of a man who decides to murder his comatose wife (more on this in a bit), I caught myself thinking that I’ve seen far creepier “Goosebumps” and “Tales from the Crypt” episodes. At least in those shows, they are not afraid to embrace extremes, particularly when horror verges on comedy. In this anthology, punches are held back for the sake of winning over audiences instead of challenging them.

I find irony in this because in the wraparound story, we meet a mortician named Montgomery Dark (Clancy Brown) who has a penchant not only for storytelling but also for the messages imbedded in such stories. After a boy’s funeral, he meets Sam (Caitlin Custer), a young woman who wishes to gain employment. During the tour of the creepy funeral home, we learn of her confidence, zeal, and curiosity. She, too, is quite fond of scary stories. She cannot help but to ask about the books that line his office walls. Mr. Dark tells her that each one is actually a record of stories involving residents who lived on the island: how they died and, more importantly, why.

The four segments are cautionary tales imbued with social commentary. But a question: How can they be truly effective when power behind such stories are held back for the sake of digestibility? Consider the aforementioned third segment. There is an inherent sadness to this story. Wendell (Barak Hardley) is tired—not just in the body but also in the spirit—of taking care of his spouse who can no longer move, communicate, and reciprocate the love he gives her. We get the impression that he’d been taking care of her while in this state for years. But instead of genuinely engaging in the controversial—and sensitive—topic that is euthanasia, notice how it is eventually reduced to yet another segment involving chopped up bodies, having to get rid of it, and the like. It takes a potentially beautiful segment with something genuine to say about our own humanity—our limits—and reduces it to just another “He lost his mind” cliché.

Perhaps best of the four is the second segment—precisely because it pushes far enough for the story to be memorable. Frat Boy Jake (Jacob Elordi) meets Nice Girl Sandra (Ema Horvath). She is invited to attend a party. She accepts. They meet later that night and end up in his room. She asks him to wear a condom during sex. He accepts, reluctantly. But he can’t seem to perform with it on and so… he takes it off without her knowledge. The next morning, he finds… well, something unexpected. This segment is without a doubt a cautionary tale and it is pregnant with social commentary: gender, sex, role reversal, patriarchy, disease, responsibility. And guess what else? It is both scary and riotously funny, from initial situation up until its eye-popping, gross-out denouement.

The rest of the collection fails to follow its example. Although it introduces the possibility of a sequel, I am not entirely optimistic because Segment 2 comes across as an outlier instead of the norm. But if I were optimistic, I would say that at least the writer-director has proven to be capable of delivering on a high level. Cheers to a darker, leaner, and meaner follow-up. This one doesn’t have enough bite. No, not even the Tooth Fairy story.

Primeval


Primeval (2007)
★ / ★★★★

Even if you choose to turn off your brain, Michael Katleman’s creature feature “Primeval” is still an awful movie, bogged down by political commentary that has no place in a gory monster film. As a result, the work is a strange mix of two pictures, the former wanting to be taken seriously and the latter aspiring to be campy fun. It doesn’t work because the two sides are so extreme. For example, in one scene, we are witnessing an execution of an entire family. In the next, a wisecracking cameraman is attempting to outrun a massive crocodile in an open field.

Journalist Tim Manfrey (Dominic Purcell) is assigned to cover a story involving a man-eating crocodile that has recently taken the life of a British anthropologist in war-ravaged Burundi. Tim scoffs at the idea because the story isn’t exactly Pulitzer material; he wishes to cover “real stories” instead. But that’s not all, according to his boss. Tim must capture the giant croc named Gustave—alive—with the help of a herpetologist (Gideon Emery). The news station must get exclusive rights for such a phenomenal and profitable story. This satirical angle regarding corporate greed and sensationalism ought to have been explored further. Camp and satire can make an effective and savagely entertaining combination. For instance, writers John Bracanto and Michael Ferris, if ambition were actually on the table, might have chosen to connect the ravenous mainstream media to the insatiable stomach of the crocodile.

But when Tim and his crew get to Africa, the story gets stuck in endless exposition—and cliché. Here is a movie that consistently shows Burundi as poor, backwards, and desperate. The one African character we meet that is a nice guy wishes to go to America—no matter the cost. The other black characters are killers, shamans, victims of black-on-black crime. It’s ironic that the material wishes to make left-leaning political statements, but the material itself suffocates in its traditionalism. Its heart is in the right place, but what actually matters is the final product. Subtlety is not the work’s strong point. And so why not simply focus on providing suspense and thrills surrounding the news crew and the apex predator?

The more grisly scenes leave a lot to be desired. Due to its limited budget, the CGI is not first-rate. Notice that action sequences involving the crocodile take place mostly during the night. And that’s all right. What matters more is the build-up before the croc attack. Well, it fails to deliver on that front either. Because there are far too many characters running around, panicking, and yelling over one another, tension diffuses just as the score begins to soar. Observe how there is not one extended moment when a person must be extremely quiet in order to avoid being detected by the crocodile. Because from the director’s point of view, the shot of a person being bit and thrown about holds more significance.

Forget science. You won’t get even a whiff of that in this movie. There is a gargantuan crocodile living in the waters alongside people who fish in order to make a living—and yet there is not one mention of decreasing marine populations or how the croc has impacted the local economy. Instead, we get banter between Tim the journalist and Aviva the reporter (Brooke Langton) which centers around the latter being beautiful physically and so it must mean she doesn’t have to work hard for her accomplishments. The more I think about how the film is written, the more embarrassing it becomes. Imagine sitting through this fluff for an hour and thirty minutes.