★ / ★★★★
High school students Rickie (Shiloh Fernandez) and JT (Noah Segan) decided to go to an abandoned mental hospital, drink a couple of beers, and throw some chairs around like most troubled teens do. But when they stumbled upon the lower levels of the building, they discovered a naked woman (Jenny Spain) covered in plastic and tied up in chains. They presumed her to be dead until she started moving. JT had a stupid idea: keep her there and use her as their sex slave. Rickie, the more sensitive of the two, softly disagreed. He would rather call the police. Later, JT, possessed by rage, accidentally snapped the girl’s neck. She didn’t die. He killed her two more times just to test his sick hypothesis. She was incapable of dying. The concept of “Deadgirl,” written by Trent Haaga, impressed me. There was something about hormonal teenagers dealing with a really complicated moral and ethical situation that fascinated me. However, the execution lacked focus and power. There were far too many scenes of Rickie pining over Joann (Candice Accola) from afar. It was creepy, not melancholy enough. They shared one kiss when they were twelve, presumably his first kiss, and he became desperately and hopelessly in love with her. Those scenes, designed to hammer in our heads the fact that he was a romantic, didn’t lead anywhere other than to buy time until the next cruel scene when the girl in chains was raped by JT and Wheeler (Eric Podnar), a fellow schoolmate and local druggie. His intense stares caught the attention of Joann’s boyfriend (Andrew DiPalma), a possible repressed homosexual, and took great pleasure, along with baseball star Dwyer (Nolan Gerard Funk) in beating Rickie to a pulp in the school parking lot. What bothered me most was no one asked the most obvious questions. Who left the girl in that basement and why? Was there some sicko who installed cameras around the room to watch what someone would do to the girl? How long had she been there? Did she have some kind of disease? The last question was especially important. The guys were more concerned about penetrating the same hole and sharing the same “pool” than the possible ramifications of their actions. Talk about thinking with their rods and not with their brains. Rickie, the one who we were supposed to root for, was too much of a wimp to stand up against his friends. I wished there was a character who had a stronger sense of self. I certainly wouldn’t have made the same choices Rickie did. The boys treated her like an object just because she wouldn’t die. They were blind to the fact that she was able to move, bleed, and react to the most rudimentary sensations. “Deadgirl,” directed by Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Harel, had a daring subject matter but it failed in exploring the deeper questions about torture. What could have been great felt exploitative and cheap.
★★ / ★★★★
Madeline (Jordan Ladd) and Michael (Stephen Park) had been trying to conceive but the baby didn’t make it full term twice. Madeline, who lived a strictly vegan diet, was pregnant for the third time and would like to try something different. Instead of going to a doctor (Malcolm Stewart), a friend of her controlling and judgmental mother-in-law (Gabrielle Rose), she insisted on going to a mid-wife (Samantha Ferris), Patricia, who also happened to be her friend back in the day. When the couple got in a car accident, the baby died in Madeline’s womb. However, Patricia decided that they weren’t going to induce delivery with respect to Madeline’s wishes. They were going to keep it inside Madeline for a couple of weeks until it came out of her naturally. It did and she somehow willed it to life. “Grace,” written and directed by Paul Solet, lacked two elements: common sense and characters we could root for. In Madeline’s desperation to have a baby, naming it Grace because she thought it was a miracle, she ignored all the creepy signs that there was something not quite right about her child. Babies are known to smell good but Grace smelled rotten. A bath couldn’t get rid of the stench. Flies gathered around her crib as if the baby was a corpse. When it did drink milk, it would vomit. The only thing it seemed to like drinking was human blood. Despite all the strange signs, Madeline wouldn’t see a doctor. Through her nipples, the monster she gave birth to eventually learned to suck her blood to the point where she became anemic. Even then she refused to see a doctor. She considered her obstinate nature as a sign of love. A normal person would considered it as a sign of stupidity. However, it was actually fun to see her go through great lengths to protect her dark secret. There was a balance between gore and suspense. The mother-in-law, a judge, wanted the baby for herself. She came up with ways for the law to consider Madeline as an unfit mother. It was only a matter of time until she found out about the blood-hungry baby. Ultimately, I considered “Grace” a missed opportunity. It had a fascinating bit about Madeline and Patricia being involved in a romantic relationship in the past. With a more focused script, Madeline’s increasingly desperate situation could have been a symbol of her fear of accepting her sexuality. When she made love with Michael, there was no passion. She just passively laid on the bed as he planted his seed. One could argue that she didn’t want a man, she wanted a baby. She used him as a tool. The baby did the same to her. “Grace” was disturbing but never exploitative. Although certainly not for everyone, no one can deny it had moments of creativity.
Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and Guy (John Cassavetes) decided to move into a New York City apartment with a strange past involving women who ate children. Rosemary was enamored with the decor and Guy thought the area was a premiere place for his career as a budding actor. They lived next to Minnie (Ruth Gordon) and Roman (Sidney Blackmer), an elderly couple with whom Rosemary and Guy quickly grew fond of because they were so friendly and accommodating. But the couple’s happy existence was shattered when Rosemary had a dream of being raped by Satan and learned some time later that she was pregnant. Based on a novel by Ira Levin and directed by Roman Polanski, “Rosemary’s Baby” was a masterful understated horror film with a possibility of witchcraft at its center. It worked in two ways: Either Rosemary’s suspicion that the apartment complex was full of devil worshippers was indeed correct or it was simply that Rosemary didn’t know how to handle her pregnancy (after all, it was her first child) so her mind succumbed to paranoia over a period of nine months. Its brilliance was in the fact that we didn’t know which possibility was true until the final few scenes. When we finally found out, it almost didn’t matter because Rosemary’s journey felt complete. The picture capitalized on expertly rendered scenes of increasing creepiness. It ranged from Rosemary hearing weird chanting from behind the walls of their bedroom, her husband’s increasingly suspicious behavior, to our protagonist actually eating raw meat without her conscious mind’s control. I loved the scenes when the very pregnant Rosemary ran around New York City in broad daylight yet so much tension and horror surrounded her. With most horror pictures being set at night, especially their climax, Polanski proved that being surrounded by people in the middle of the day could be as terrifying as long as the elements were perfectly aligned. When the main character was in a phone booth waiting for an important call, we felt right there with her, wishing the phone would ring as soon as possible. We cared for the main character because Farrow instilled a certain fragility in Rosemary, not just because she was carrying a child, but because it felt like everyone wanted to control her. This was clearly shown when Minnie would imposingly wait for Rosemary to drink a special brew she made using plants from her herbal garden. We felt, like Rosemary, that there was something seriously wrong especially when the obstetrician, Dr. Sapirstein (Ralph Bellamy), wouldn’t prescribe her any pills after months of feeling pain in her stomach. “Rosemary’s Baby” is a thinking person’s horror film and the rewards are found in the way we interpret the images we see and sounds we hear. Imagine looking at the portrait of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. You stare long enough and you get the unsettling feeling she might be staring back.
★ / ★★★★
Three friends (Brian Presley, Rider Strong, Jake Muxworthy) who were about to graduate from college decided to take a trip to Mexico so they could get laid and get stoned. While they were high on hallucinogens, one of them decided to visit a prostitute he met earlier that day. While wandering the dangerous streets of Mexico, Phil was abducted by a group of satanists looking for the perfect human sacrifice. Directed by Zev Berman, “Borderland” failed to determine the difference between disgust and horror. Based on a true story, I felt anger when it paid so much attention to the violence instead actually attempting to convince us why the story was worth telling. I didn’t need to see a man’s eyeballs being plucked in such a slow and gratuitous fashion. However, I was interested in the film’s anti-American undertones. The three Americans were portrayed as complete idiots. I found no reason for them to be friends. After all, what kind of people would allow their friend to walk in dark alleys by himself while intoxicated by ‘shrooms? Phil, son of a priest, was desperate to lose his virginity that he was willing to pay money for sex. He often gave into peer pressure from Henry, a deluded brat who believed that people were poor because they chose to be poor. And just when I thought Ed was the one worth rooting for, his set of ideals, though noble, was highly influenced by those around him. Instead of focusing more on the satanists that terrorized the community, much of the picture’s running time was dedicated to the trio acting like they’ve never been outside of their protected bubbles. They weren’t smart enough to recognize that the rules they’ve grown accustomed to live by no longer applied to their current and increasingly horrifying predicament. A cop named Ulises (Damián Alcázar), which I believe should have had more screen time, after a year since his partner was murdered by the satanists, became obsessed with finding out more about their practices. Ulises’ endgame was to expose them and find some sort of justice for those kidnapped, mutilated, and killed. If we saw the story through his eyes, the story would have been much more involving because he had access to resources that the three unsuspecting Americans lacked. Two of the three couldn’t even speak Spanish. At least one of them had to survive to tell the story but I found it ironic that they were almost irrelevant. “Borderland” borderlined exploitation. It had absolutely no intention in exploring the history, even very loosely, of the religious cult and their fixation for human sacrifice. It was generic torture porn that had the potential to become so much more.
The Cottage (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
David (Andy Serkis) and Peter (Reece Shearsmith) kidnapped Tracey (Jennifer Ellison), a daughter of a successful businessman, and took her in a house out in the country. If Andrew (Steven O’Donnell), Tracey’s brother, delivered the money on time, it was promised that Tracey would be released without question. But when the four realized that the disfigured farmer who lived closest to the house they occupied had a penchant for killing and mutilating his victims’ bodies, the four had no choice but to team up if they wanted to keep their lives. “The Cottage,” written and directed by Paul Andrew Williams, was a creative exercise in horror and comedy. David and Peter were probably two of the most incompetent kidnappers I’ve had the pleasure to watch on screen. There was a formula that led up to the funny moments. When David told Peter what not to do, Peter promised he would obey. But since Peter was inexperienced in committing crimes, somehow he managed to do exactly the opposite of what he wasn’t supposed to do. It got to the point where Tracey, a big-breasted blonde who could easily take down her captors, found out David’s name because Peter was so nervous around her. We even found out that Peter’s biggest fear was moths. But the film gradually changed in tone as it went on. The middle portion had a high creepiness factor, notably when Peter and Tracey investigated a seemingly abandoned house. There was a putrid smell coming from the closet, hands were nicely stacked in the freezer, and there were metallic noises underneath the trap door. I loved the fact that horror came in not only when the murderer appeared but when the characters, often as a pair, discovered something while occupying different rooms. One character faced a false alarm, while the other faced true horror. When a new pair entered the creepy house, the room which gave us a false alarm earlier was completely changed. There was a sense of continuation and it was easy to tell that the writer-director considered it important for his material to have cohesion, intelligence, and a spice of cheekiness. What I thought the film could have used less was the two Asian hit-men (Logan Wong, Jonathan Chan-Pensley). The way in which their accents were used for the sake of humor was borderline offensive to me. I was aware that offense was not Williams’ intention but it sometimes came across as exploitative. The duo could have easily have been played with Asians without “funny accents” and the final product would have been the same. “The Cottage” is a solid example of why I love independent movies. It wasn’t afraid to experiment with its tone. I was amused with the way it effortlessly switched from one type of humor to another while still dealing with the macabre. Since it was so confident with what it was doing, its out of left field ending actually carved a smile on my face.
★ / ★★★★
Clark Stevens (Joshua Leonard) recently got accepted as an intern in the Cunningham Mental Hospital. While some gave him a warm welcome like Sarah (Jordan Ladd), a fellow intern, others like the head nurse of the facility (Dendrie Taylor) gave him the stink eye. While Clark awaited to meet Dr. Franks (Lance Henriksen), the director of the hospital, he noticed something strange. It looked like Dr. Franks was researching about paranormal phenomena in psychiatric facilities. Assigned to live in the upper floors, Clark eventually started to see ghosts of a little boy, a first sign that maybe something was very wrong about the place. Written by William Butler and Aaron Strongoni, directed by the former, “Madhouse” was effective in terms of building a creepy atmosphere but it didn’t quite know how to deliver scares that audiences would remember. The editing was partly to blame. Whenever the film wanted to show something scary, manic editing overshadowed the tension. Images of snakes, blood, and shadows were shown but none of them were ever explained. Without explaining to us the significance of the symbols, there was no reason for us to be scared of them. Instead of focusing on the gruesome kills, the editing became distracting and annoying. The director should have allowed us to absorb the horror of what was happening to the ill-fated characters. Speaking of characters, none of them were fully developed. The staff performed unethical practices, which I’m sure held some truth in actual mental hospitals, but I’m afraid the picture didn’t highlight enough positive elements of such places. The staff were simply cardboard cutouts for the sake of being a horror movie. In doing so, the material failed to challenge us by showing us a glimmer of reality. Sometimes we get scared the most of we knew that what we were seeing could potentially happen in actuality. If the writers wanted us to feel like the mental facility was a real place, they should have added depth by highlighting the pros and cons of rehabilitation centers. If the writing and direction, with enough skill and luck, were synergistic, the place itself could have been a character. There’s a difference between simplicity and somnolence. Unfortunately, “Madhouse” teetered toward the latter. With such an unbelievable ending, I got the impression that Butler and Strongoni had no idea how to end their story so they took the easy (and lazy) way out by writing a “shocking” ending. I thought it cheated and that was unforgivable. I enjoyed Leonard’s performance because he had a certain vulnerability about him. I wished the material he had to work with was more worthy.
Shallow Ground (2004)
★ / ★★★★
When a boy, naked and covered in blood, appeared at the police station with a knife, the three officers (Timothy V. Murphy, Stan Kirsch, Lindsey Stoddart) in charge of the small town suspected he had committed murder. But when a medic (Natalie Avital) looked at the blood sample, she discovered that the blood had come from three or four different people and the cells had been dead for about a year. “Shallow Ground,” written and directed by Sheldon Wilson, was a horror movie that made no sense. It didn’t know whether to be a slasher film or a supernatural thriller; it ended up a hybrid of both but the story was too weak to sustain our attention. There were hints that the events that were happening in the small town were happening in the city as well. Was there some kind of virus that plagued certain areas? Maybe the strange events were triggered by something alien like in George A. Romero’s zombie flicks. Instead of taking advantage of our curiosity and exploring that angle, there was a barrage of painfully unnecessary flashbacks involving a girl that one of the cops failed to rescue from a hooded, knife-wielding killer. One or two flashbacks would have sufficed but there were about ten. None of them served to push the story forward. The writer-director just wanted to hammer the fact that the cop was plagued by guilt and that was the reason we should root for him to survive. Furthermore, the picture relied too often on false alarms aided by its obnoxious music. Due to its formulaic use of scary music, we grew accustomed to its techniques. We knew exactly when something would pop out of the dark corner so there was no tension in the kills. The eerie whispers, rustling leaves, doors opening and shutting were simply not scary. The movie also tried to scare us with blood. It was almost amusing how much blood was used to the point where I managed to put them in groups. One type of blood was the kind that moved as if it had a mind of its own. It reminded me of the very inspired Black Oil saga from Chris Carter’s “The X-Files.” When touched, it gave someone a jolt and the person was able to see another’s darkest secrets. It helped to drive people to kill “the sinner.” The second type of blood was, like the film’s pacing, stagnant. It did no harm to the person who happened to touch it. I called it “regular blood.” Both types looked incredibly fake and neither generated scares. Weren’t the filmmakers aware of the fact that blood by itself didn’t necessarily equal to a good horror movie? Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” was scary because the shark ate people and then we could see blood in the water. Blood was a byproduct of something horrific, not the element that caused the terror. “Shallow Ground” failed because it tried to be too many things at once. Jack of all trades, master of none.