Tag: horror


Antebellum (2020)
★★ / ★★★★

Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz’ “Antebellum” makes a statement that although African-American slavery is bound in history books, racism and racial inequality persist to this day, that systematic oppression of non-whites, especially the black community, is embedded in our nation’s marrow. While the intention speaks many painful and angering truths about where we are as a modern American society when it comes to race, it cannot be denied that the film is plagued by missed opportunities. For one, it relies too often on plot twists to shake the viewer out of ennui—ironic because it commands puissance when it simply focuses on how slaves are treated in a plantation run by Confederate soldiers (Eric Lange, Jack Huston, Robert Aramayo).

It is near impossible to describe the plot without giving anything away, but I will tread carefully. The thesis of the picture involves ghosts of the past having the power to linger and haunt the present. We follow Veronica (Janelle Monáe) in the plantation as she witnesses her neighbors being shot after having been captured for trying to escape, black bodies being cremated in a brick outhouse that’s smaller than a shack, whites exercising their power in every look, breath, and implication. Notice that during these moments the camera possesses a certain level of alertness, so much so that it brings attention unto its itself. But why?

This is because although the surface is a drama, there is something far more sinister at play here. It is a horror film because it holds up a mirror on who we are as a twenty-first century society. Black people may no longer be picking cottons in the field till their backs are raw, black people may be able to participate in elections and hold positions of power, and black people are no longer whipped unconscious for simply giving a white man a certain look. But it doesn’t mean racism has been uprooted. It’s just that oppression has evolved, took on a different form. And so the movie changes form, too. When it does (without giving anything away), intrigue is thrown out the window.

I found it has nothing compelling to say about race or race relations. People of color live and breathe images that are portrayed on screen and so there is nothing surprising or revealing about them. In other words, the screenwriters have failed to relate or connect the movie’s second form to its original state in a way that serves as a shock to the system. In fact, it does the opposite. The pacing gets mired in languor and the tone’s urgency is spirited away. It becomes a struggle to care. It shouldn’t be this way considering that fact that when you turn on the television these days, there is constant reminder that black lives are worth less than white lives.

“Antebellum” is a movie of the moment, but it lacks special insight that allows it to stand strong alongside, for example, Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” and Remi Weekes’ “His House.” Showing brutality is not enough nor is providing a clever plot twist or two. Although it showcases beautiful cinematography, particularly outdoor shots of the plantation, this alone isn’t enough either. The positive elements must be put together in a way that is rewarding and satisfying as a movie and as a statement piece, especially when its goal is to incite conversation.

The Pale Door

The Pale Door (2020)
★ / ★★★★

It looks and feels like everyone on screen simply puts on costumes of cowboys and witches, and somehow the fashion show is supposed to be enough to get us to care about its characters, to be curious of the mythos involving the American West and witchcraft, and to be entertained just because there is a body count. “The Pale Door” is an insult to the horror-western sub-genre; not only does it lack the fangs to compel the viewers into paying attention, it lacks the bite in order to allow the work to stand out from its contemporaries and leave a positive, long-lasting impression.

The screenplay by Cameron Burns, Aaron B. Koontz, and Keith Lansdale offers plot but no drama, dialogue but no conviction, conflict but no reason. It creates a depressing film, the kind that pushes you deeper and deeper into the couch until you nod off and dream about something else far more interesting. This is a positive alternative considering that being awake and trying to pay attention breeds confusion, frustration, anger, and—eventually—total surrender. As I turned off the television, I felt a pang of regret. “Why didn’t I turn it off halfway through?”

Still unconvinced? Then let’s go on. A gang of thieves, led by Duncan (Zachary Knighton), are hoping for a massive payday. According to their intel, in which Wylie (Pat Healy) is in charge of, a train is transporting a safe that houses great riches. But once the thieves manage to get aboard, there is no safe. Instead, there is a chest… and something appears to move inside.

This so-called train heist is executed so poorly, for a minute I had to convince myself it wasn’t a spoof. There is no energy, no excitement, no semblance of tension. We hear gunshots going off (with the occasional blood spatter on the window), but the film offers no discernible choreography. We have no idea from which angle the thieves are shooting from, for instance. Targets simply drop dead as if they had brain aneurisms. It’s so laughable and silly… until you realize there is more than an hour left of the picture.

It doesn’t get any better. Soon one of the thieves is gravely injured. They are informed there is a town a nearby. Perhaps there is a doctor there who can help. This is where the witches come in. Although I admired the look of their true form—diseased and rotting, as if they’ve been burnt, dumped in a well, and marinated there for weeks—there is nothing about them that’s unique or interesting. To make them modern-scary, these animalistic witches are capable of climbing walls and ceilings. But why? It isn’t enough that they do not die when shot in the head and the like. They are required to behave like zombies and Japanese ghosts. What is the inspiration for this drivel? It comes across as though the approach is simply to throw everything at the wall and see what sticks. But it is not done in a fun or joyful way; it reeks of lacking concrete ideas.

The heart of the picture is supposed to be the relationship between two brothers, Duncan and Jake (Devin Druid), orphaned at a young age due to intruders having broken into their home in the middle of the night to kill their parents. However, neither of these characters are written in such a way that we feel their humanity during quiet moments. They speak of their dreams, their goals, and their love for one another, but not once do we get a chance to feel their resolution since the work does not possess the ability to show how drama unfolds. Just because there is something being shown on screen does not mean there is actually something occurring.

The Wolf of Snow Hollow

The Wolf of Snow Hollow (2020)
★★★★ / ★★★★

“The Wolf of Snow Hollow” tells the story of a man who struggles with a disease. When the beast takes over, he becomes unrecognizable even to those who are closest to him. When challenged and pushed to a corner, he retaliates by bringing on the hurt. And when he feels he is no longer in control, he proves to have a knack for going for the kill because he is observant and sensitive underneath the police uniform. Officer John Marshall (Jim Cummings) is an alcoholic. And his latest case involves having to hunt for a serial killer who is believed by some to be a werewolf.

Cummings writes, directs, and stars in this gem of a horror-comedy: riotously funny one minute, horrifyingly gruesome the next, and lodged in between are moments of genuine humanity. John is a father, a son, a police officer, and a man whom the town looks up to for leadership and assurance when things go horribly wrong. Although John has these roles, he is unable to fulfill or excel at them—not even a single one. And so, feeling most inadequate, he goes home and turns to what he knows best: being an alcoholic. Down he goes the rabbit hole. The next day begins and he finds himself a foot deeper into the unsolved case. The vicious cycle continues.

There is overt violence—women being stalked and attacked under a full moon, their severed body parts and eviscerated organs exposed in daylight as investigators gather evidence and the media fishes for juicy details in time for the six o’clock news—and there is the metaphorical variety described above. Wonderful about the picture is its zen in balancing both; one fails to shine without the other, just like how there can be no comedy without drama. There is never a one-dimensional moment, not even when the werewolf shows itself fully and goes for the jugular.

Alcoholic John is surrounded by people who love and care about him, from his seventeen-year-old daughter (Chloe East) who tries to be understanding even though it is apparent John has always put his job ahead of her, fellow officer Julia Robson (Riki Lindhomme) who always seems to bring a calm to his manic energy, to his father, Sheriff Hadley (Robert Forster), who insists on going to work even though his body is beginning to fail him. Through their eyes, we not only learn about our protagonist, we see him clearly when his own mind is invaded by fog. Like Cummings’ brilliant debut film “Thunder Road,” this film is a story of redemption. Despite the gruesome killings, it coruscates with optimism, humor, and pathos.

Particularly outstanding is its editing. The more pressure is inflicted upon John, the more fragmented the images are put together. It creates an impression that the subject is drowning, splashing about madly, desperately gasping for precious air. Yet, like a classic alcoholic, John fails to ask for help. Jokes are built upon John’s inadequacies, histrionics, and fears. But these jokes prove informative because there are deep truths to them. The screenplay tasks us to be like the trio who love and care for John: We must separate the monster from the man.

The Deeper You Dig

The Deeper You Dig (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

Here is a ghost story that doesn’t rely on apparitions popping out of corners to create entertainment. For the most part, the ghost is in the mind of the beholder. It is there when one sleeps, as he takes out the trash, as she sits on the porch while eating dinner. A ghost can be overwhelming sadness, indefatigable guilt, the nagging question of what actually happened to a loved one who simply vanished one day. “The Deeper You Dig” might have limited budget, but its vision is unchained. I wished its third act were as strong as what came before.

“The Deeper You Dig” is a two-fold story and it is co-written and co-directed by John Adams and Toby Poser. They star in it, too. The first perspective is through the eyes of a mother named Ivy (Poser) who appears to have—or have had—some connection to the paranormal. She makes a living as a fortuneteller. Not three hours since her daughter Echo (Zelda Adams) went missing, Ivy already knows something has gone wrong. The second frame of reference is through the experiences of Ivy’s neighbor named Kurt (Adams). While driving home after a night of drinking, his truck hits Echo while she was night sledding. Instead of taking responsibility for the fourteen-year-old, Kurt decides to hide the body.

Notice the filmmakers’ level of control. Take away all of the overt elements—floating spirits, bodies dissipating in black smoke, and the like—and the picture becomes more potent. The reason is because the emotional crux—knowing versus not knowing—is tethered in realism. Misery is drawn all over Ivy’s face as she searches desperately for answers. Meanwhile, Kurt is constantly under torment; he looks like the walking dead because although his body sleeps, his head is wide awake. No matter the perspective we adopt, a feeling of foreboding doesn’t let up. Big budget horror films can learn a thing or two from this family project.

The story is not without creepy moments. For instance, Ivy’s job is initially played for laughs. There is an older woman who wishes to communicate with her deceased husband. She so badly wants to talk to him that eventually she decides to put an extra fifty bucks on the table in order to inspire the psychic to try a little harder in establishing communication with the dead. We snicker… until our smiles are wiped off almost immediately when a whisper is heard. It is Echo’s voice. But she’s not dead. Clearly, the picture’s idea of a ghost is different from what typically expect. The film offers its own rules and so we try to figure them out. We’re engaged.

One character wants to know, the other wishes to forget. This duality is curious and so events that transpire during the final twenty minutes is quite disappointing. We already know that Kurt and Ivy must clash eventually. But must it involve having to wrestle on the ground as they clamor for weapons? Because the rest of the work is elevated, surely the creative team could have found a way to end their piece in a manner that is equal to or worthy of their ambition. Regardless, because of its efforts and the chances it is willing to take, I am giving the picture a marginal recommendation.

House of 1000 Corpses

House of 1000 Corpses (2003)
★★ / ★★★★

Rob Zombie’s debut picture is not unlike most first-time features in that the writer-director attempts to include everything but the kitchen sink into the project just in case he never got a chance to make another one. It shows: the work is propelled by a mix of electric and morbid energy; it is amusing and satirical in parts; and the grotesque, disgusting, frightening, and strangely addictive images demand to be examined by a magnifying glass. I felt like I was on a high end house of horrors tour. And yet the picture does not work as a whole.

One of the film’s key shortcomings is a lack of a defined hero or heroine. Naturally, since the work is a throwback to ‘70s horror and exploitation movies, the group of friends on a cross-country tour must run out of gas in the middle of nowhere. On top of that, they must be driven to learn more about a local serial killer called Dr. Satan. Third strike: They choose to pick up a hitchhiker on a rainy night. Some might say they’re asking for trouble. They’re in for a long night.

We are introduced to Jerry (Chris Hardwick), Bill (Rainn Wilson), Mary (Jennifer Jostlyn), and Denise (Erin Daniels) and although they talk non-stop (especially the men), we are not provided at least one standout or interesting detail about each of them. It doesn’t help that the women look (and act) rather similar. Notice when Mary and Denise are covered in goop and blood later on, it becomes a challenge to tell them apart. The screenplay fails to provide good reasons why these four should survive other than the fact that they are prey to the backwoods oddballs.

Another limitation is a lack of range when it comes to the scares. It almost always relies upon violence to shock or disturb. While some may defend this approach because it is a slasher film after all, the project is supposed to be a love letter to a specific decade and a certain sub-genre of movies. Based on this fact and looking upon what’s provided on screen, I got the impression that the writer-director fixated on one way to entertain: in-your-face, gory shlock—disappointing because horror classics and exploitation pictures from the ‘70s are not at all one-note. At their best (and their worst), they take on so much risk that at times certain projects lean toward experimental.

So it is ironic that although “House of 1000 Corpses” offers hundreds of eye-catching (and, to me, beautiful) shots of severed body parts, lived-in rooms filled with tools for torture and blood rags, sequences of people being scalped while awake, a scene involving human fetus in a jar, cannibalism, and the like, it lacks the willingness to stretch the definition of horror outside of the images. Thus, the longer the film goes on, the more we feel restless; eventually the stench of staleness begins to overpower the picture’s enthusiastic energy.

There is one standout performance. No, it is not by Karen Black, veteran actress who specializes on portraying women with questionable ideals and morals. (She plays Mother Firefly, the matriarch serial murderer.) To me, she overacts and outstays her welcome. The title goes to Sid Haig who plays the clown and gas station attendant named Captain Spaulding. His presence and ways of line delivery reminded me of a tank: imposing and powerful. Captain Spaulding need not try to be scary. He just is. Those eyes can paralyze you. The rest of the crazies might have benefited from toning down the cartoonish vibe.

Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula

Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula (2020)
★★ / ★★★★

There is an abundance of claims that “Peninsula” is so different than “Train to Busan” that it fails to come across as a natural extension of what made the predecessor memorable. That is not my issue with the sequel. On the contrary, I think it is too similar. There is not one thematic element—whether the material is making a statement about what it means to be a parent or parent-like figure, dealing with guilt after having faced an impossible situation, individualism versus collectivism, or that the living is in fact worse than the twitching dead—that stands strong against the original which could give the follow-up a chance to become, at the very least, equally interesting.

As a result, Yeon Sang-ho’s feature is a mere exercise in redundancy. And it doesn’t stop in terms of context either. The visuals, too, are uninspired. Certainly they can be rather extreme like how members of a rogue militia not only force their starving and outnumbered captives to survive against the rabid dead in a caged arena, they place bets on who would live each round; how vehicles crash and pierce through hordes of zombies as a bowling ball would to a bunch of bowling pins; or how shootouts unfold almost in a cartoonish fashion whether the target is still a person or a living dead. These ostentatious sequences are busy and clearly made to inspire awe, but they possess a commonality. They are often loud; the approach is so consistently one-note to the point where the visuals’ extreme nature becomes diluted well before the final act. Yes, just like “Busan,” the final minutes is drenched in sentimentality.

But the waterworks is less earned here. The central plot revolves around four South Koreans who escaped to Hong Kong but are hated there out of fear that they may carry the zombie virus. (The screenplay by Park Joo-Suk and Yeon does not strive to be subtle, as you may have already guessed.) They are hired to go back to their country of origin to locate a truck that contains twenty million dollars. They are promised that should they make it back safely with the money bags, each person would be awarded two-and-a-half million—more than enough to start a new life. One of the four is a former Marine, Jung-seok (Gang Dong-won), who left his sister to perish with her son in a room infested with recently turned zombies. Predictably, the final act must fuse movie spectacle and the man’s grief.

It is not effective because we are not given a chance to learn about the more intimate details of the Jung-seok character. He is wracked with guilt, yes, but what else? There is nothing else, you see, and that is precisely the problem. We follow a cardboard cutout traipse around the peninsula; he shoots guns good, he is good at feeling bad, he gets into the good graces of another survivor he wronged in the past. He is dead dull and compound that with a screenplay that is begging for an electric shock, it becomes numbing.

In the middle of it, I wondered if there was another character whose life story is more worthy in terms of perspective or angle that best tells this supposedly new tale. I became nearly convinced that it might have been better to follow Min-jung (Lee Jung-hyun), mother of two who had crossed paths with Jung-seok four years prior, when the virus was just beginning to spread all over the country. I say “nearly” because we aren’t provided rich details about the character either, but I found the performer to be more expressive. At least when I looked into her eyes, I felt specific emotions and her thoughts across her face made me want to ask questions.

I enjoyed some of the night sequences in “Peninsula,” especially in how sprinting zombies burst out of the dark to take a bite of their warm prey who stupidly made a loud noise heard from a mile away. It is usually pitch black mere yards from the nearest light source that it dares viewers to imagine what lies beyond. It is moments like this that the film needs more of. Clearly it is capable of genuine entertainment. Instead, the action is amplified to the point where, for instance, it feels like we are watching Justin Lin’s “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift” given all the preposterous, physics-defying vehicular acrobatics. At least in that film, it is all within context. Here, it is fish out of water. It is an excellent example of a sequel trying to outdo the original but not when it comes to elements that actually matter.

The Innkeepers

The Innkeepers (2011)
★★ / ★★★★

The Yankee Pedlar Inn is no Overlook Hotel, but writer-director Ti West succeeds in making us feel as though we are regulars of the one-hundred-year-old hotel that’s about to go out of business. We learn how it looks from the outside and its neighboring businesses, the location of the front door relative to the front desk, the distance from the staircase to the haunted basement, and the varying vibes between the second and third floors. The filmmaker, who clearly loves horror movies, wishes to familiarize us in this creepy hotel so that when chaos is finally unboxed, we know precisely where characters should run toward for a chance at survival.

Divided into three acts, the middle portion lags. The exposition is a light comedy. We meet hotel attendants Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) as they deal with guests with minimal enthusiasm. When there isn’t much to do, particularly at night, they investigate possible paranormal phenomena in the hotel. Luke runs a website that brings to mind Geocities and Angelfire webpages: nostalgic, funny (clipart and all), and curious (it contains videos of objects, like doors, moving on their own). Claire is happy to help gather content by means of recording strange noises. Word has it that a woman named Madeline O’Malley killed herself at the inn when her fiancé left her at the altar. Naturally, Claire finds her way to the basement.

This section of the picture is quite charming. Although Claire and Luke give off slacker vibes, they are never one-note. I felt the performers’ fondness for their characters, especially when the two relate not just as co-workers but friends. It is also enjoyable to meet the guests: the angry mother (Alison Barlett) and her young child (Jake Ryan), an actress-turned-psychic named Lee (Kelly McGillis), and a sad old man who looks as though he can drop dead at any minute (George Riddle). These supporting characters are memorable not because there are few of them but due to the fact that they are given something interesting to say or do at some point.

However, the second act—the rising action—is mostly a slog to sit through. This is a death sentence for most horror pictures. It isn’t that there is a lack of craft behind the moments that lead up to false alarms and genuine scares. Problematic is a lack of urgency when characters are required to move from one part of the hotel to the other, for instance. Not only do our protagonists move slowly, there is a lack of tension in their bodies. When performers utter lines, the tone is deadpan comic rather than comic on the verge of freaking out. At least three scenes needed to be reshot in order to get the vibe just right. Or perhaps it is also a script issue. There is a way to write funny dialogue when a character is scared. What’s at offer here isn’t it. Furthermore, other than the urban legend, we learn nothing new about O’Malley and the other spirits in the hotel. At times I felt bored.

It is a shame because the third act—the payoff—is strong. Clearly inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining,” I was surprised that although insanity is unfolding, I found my eyes still taking note of the details of the carpet, the wallpapers, the black and white photographs hanging on walls. There is a mesmerizing feeling about it. I found that West is in complete control of the eye-widening visuals, the pulse-pounding score, and the tension that grips us by the throat. It is impossible to look away. Why is this level of filmmaking largely absent during the second act?

I give “The Innkeepers” a marginal recommendation despite its glaring shortcomings. The main reason is there are good scares to be had here. I admired the bitter ending—it doesn’t just end, it lingers. Like a stench. The secondary reason is that love I felt from those in front and behind the camera. When somebody enjoys what they’re doing, it really shows; it makes you want to root for the movie to be better than it ends up being sometimes. Lovers of the horror genre will find something to appreciate here. As for casual audiences, maybe not as much.

The Possession of Hannah Grace

The Possession of Hannah Grace (2018)
★ / ★★★★

It seems that every year an exorcism or demonic possession movie is released and it is called “The Possession of [insert name here].” They are so forgettable, one can take random scenes from these movies, shuffle them around, and I wouldn’t be able to tell which scene came from which picture. What they have in common is a lack of originality, a strong vision, and an execution so defined that common tropes can come across fresh in the moment of experiencing the story. “Hannah Grace,” written by Brian Sieve and directed by Diederik van Rooijen, is no exception. It had a budget of around 8 million dollars. It made 43 million. No wonder they keep making more of the same.

Despite an awful, CGI-heavy pre-title sequence that involves an exorcism gone wrong, I remained open to being entertained. The protagonist is named Megan (Shay Mitchell), a former cop with a recent history of drug addiction. She turned to chemicals to escape the guilt of her inability to protect her partner while on the job which resulted in his demise. Mitchell approaches the character, who had just gotten out of rehab, with a convincing level of solemnity and so I wanted to know more about her. It helps that the manner in which the performer walks and talks is similar to that of law enforcement. But facing criminals is one thing. How would she fare—or could she fare?—when faced with the supernatural?

And so we follow her get hooked up with a job in the Boston Metro Hospital as an overnight intake assistant, a person who receives corpses from ambulances and takes the bodies for further processing (taking photographs, scanning fingerprints, and the like). I enjoyed that we get a quick tour of the position and so we have an idea what is required of Megan when she is left on her own from 11 at night to 7 in the morning. She works in a morgue—down in the basement—and so there is an inherent creepiness to the place. It is only a matter of time until Megan is handed the body of a girl we see “die” in first scene (Kirby Johnson).

This is when the picture goes downhill at an alarming rate. Although we get the opportunity to get close to the cadaver possessed by evil, not one scene holds a candle against André Øvredal’s “The Autopsy of Jane Doe”—where the body in question is also not just a body. Sure, we see Hannah’s contorted figure, deep lacerations and bruises on her body, including an ominous blue color on her irises (Hannah’s natural eye color is brown), but none of these details are especially curious or chilling. van Rooijen employs the camera as is instead of using it as a device to tell a story of this body on a platter.

The corpse is provided telekinetic powers. (This is shown during the opening scene.) You read that correctly. It is not a joke. It’s a mistake to give the antagonist this ability—especially when Hannah can already crawl on walls and ceilings as if she were Spider-man. It’s simply too much. So instead of being horrified, we laugh at the movie crossing the line. And because our laughter does not come from a place of catharsis, we grow increasingly disconnected from the film. By the time the third act—as badly conceived as it is—rolls around, we no longer care what will happen. We’ve checked out.

“The Possession of Hannah Grace” and its ilk do not understand the value of restraint. There must always be something jumping from the darkness, or a creepy crawler coming out of a crevice, or a deafening score is used at the tiniest hint of something unexpected. One gets the impression that these writers and directors have not done the most basic homework: studying elements that make William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist” so thoroughly effective and finding ways to improve upon them.

Urban Legend

Urban Legend (1998)
★★★ / ★★★★

You’ve got to hand it to Jamie Blanks’ post-“Scream” slasher “Urban Legend”: It tries so, so hard to keep the identity of the killer hidden even though it is blatantly obvious who is wearing the hooded parka about halfway through. What results is a final act that is amusing more than horrifying—yet, strangely, the movie still works because it is able to maintain the high level of energy it introduces right from the opening sequence which involves a university student (Natasha Gregson Wagner) who finds out too late that there is an axe-wielding killer hiding in the backseat of her car. Yes, the picture is silly. But it delivers upon the promise of a good time.

There is an awareness to the film that is not quite as meta as Wes Craven’s aforementioned 1996 modern classic. In a way, it must be self-aware considering the fact that the murders—well, most of them anyway—are inspired by urban legends, from the grandmother who dries her dog in the microwave, a person waking up in the bathtub to discover that one of his or her kidneys had been taken, to the ankle slasher hiding under the car. Some urban legends can easily be missed. A few others are allowed to unfold in a most elaborate fashion, like a young couple being attacked in a wooded area and the man ending up hanging from a tree.

It is a shame that the characters are not written as smart as the picture’s premise. They’re outspoken and physically attractive but not especially sharp. Out of the group of friends, we meet Brenda first (Rebecca Gayheart). We assume she is the main character because her face is front and center following the tragic opening sequence and she takes contemporary folklores passed as true stories—urban legends—with a grain of salt. She thinks it’s all for a laugh. One night, she takes a friend in front of an abandoned hall—one that is said to have a history of murder back in 1973—and they dare each other to say, “Bloody Mary” five times. The friend, Natalie (Alicia Witt), turns out to be the central character—a left-field move considering she’s blander than her best friend. But Natalie is no typical “good girl.”

It’s too bad that similar tricks are not employed with supporting characters like Paul (Jared Leto), an aspiring journalist who is always hungry for the next big story; Damon (Joshua Jackson), the jokester of the group; Sasha (Tara Reid), the sexy late-night talkshow host; and Parker (Michael Rosenbaum), Sasha’s boyfriend who’s a bit up himself. These are memorable faces and personalities. They possess a certain presence. Surely the screenplay by Silvio Horta ought to have strived more by, for example, giving every character a reason to want to enact such grisly murders. Fame, popularity, ratings, the Pulitzer, or simply for laughs—had the writer been more ambitious and creative, it wouldn’t have been so easy to guess the identity of the killer.

Humor is peppered outside of the core group. I enjoyed Loretta Devine as the sole campus security who idolizes Pam Grier’s blaxploitation flicks. She brings fire to a straightforward role. Another is Robert Englund who plays a professor who teaches a course about urban legends. He is frustratingly underused. But when he is front and center, notice his timing, sense of humor, and irony. His character feels at home in this movie… Maybe that makes him a suspect.

“Urban Legend” offers a consistent forward momentum. Characters may make dumb choices more than half the time, but those who get into the picture’s groove will find themselves wondering about the next urban legend to be tackled—and changed just a bit so that it fits the college setting and lifestyles. Here is a slasher film in which stabbing, gore, and the like are secondary to the gimmick, atmosphere, and guessing games. It’s fun in spite of typical horror elements.

Night of the Living Dead

Night of the Living Dead (1990)
★★ / ★★★★

Tom Savini’s “Night of the Living Dead” is a passable but far from a compelling remake of George A. Romero’s classic. Given that the director is a wizard in creating prosthetic makeup, combined with a more sizable budget, the look of the undead here is superior to the original. Some zombies look like they died mere hours ago while others appear as though they’ve been rotting in their graves for weeks. When the camera fixates on a gash or a severed limb, we can appreciate the insides glisten with blood. Even facial deformities are gross yet inviting. On the basis of visuals, the picture delivers. However, Romero, serving as screenwriter, is hit-or-miss when it comes to making what is essentially the same plot—a group of survivors seeking refuge in a farmhouse next to a cemetery—feel contemporary. Although I prefer this mentally strong and badass Barbara (Patricia Tallman) as opposed to the original Barbara who spends the majority of the story in a state of fragility, arguments between Ben (Tony Todd), a survivor who snaps our heroine into shape, and Harry (Tom Towles), a cowardly man who prefers to hide in the cellar with his wife (McKee Anderson) and ailing daughter (Heather Mazur), are reduced into screaming matches without convincing emotion behind them. We are shown that the noise due to hammering from inside the house (it is decided that windows must be boarded up) ends up attracting the undead, but I’m convinced it is due to the senseless and interminable yelling and screaming. The most pronounced deviation from the original is the third act. Racial and political statements are stripped away. Surely racism existed in the ‘90s and is very much alive today. So why not take the opportunity to discern racism between the late ‘60s and early ‘90s? Instead, it leans on general observations when it comes to the living’s monstrous nature toward things we do not fully understand or appreciate. It bears no teeth let alone bite.

The Grudge

The Grudge (2020)
★ / ★★★★

Nicolas Pesce’s “The Grudge” is a most tepid a remake of Takashi Shimizu’s “Ju-on.” It is so uninspired that in the middle of it, I was compelled to check if this writer-director was the same person who helmed “The Eyes of My Mother,” a terrific debut film about how crippling loneliness and deep trauma can destroy the soul of a person. This remake, on the other hand, is not about anything—of substance or value. It contains plot, characters, and lame attempts to scare but it is hollow inside. Who is this movie for? Other than to make money, what is the point of it? Who can be proud of putting this junk out there and wasting people’s time and money?

We learn nothing about the vengeful ghost other than it possesses the ability latch onto a person once that individual visits the place it is haunting. In the opening scene, which takes place in 2004, we meet a terrified Tokyo-based American nurse (Tara Westwood) who calls home to inform her family that she’ll be returning. In 2006, we meet Detective Muldoon (Andrea Riseborough) who moves to Pennsylvania following her husband’s death due to cancer. She is assigned to work with Detective Goodman (Demián Bichir) and soon they visit a possible crime scene involving an abandoned car with a rotting corpse inside. They find an address in the glove compartment: 44 Reyburn Drive. Another cop mentions the Landers case and soon the curious Detective Muldoon becomes obsessed in learning more about the triple homicide.

We meet almost a dozen characters between its 2004 and 2006 timelines. Although they are played by the likes of John Cho, Frankie Faison, Betty Gilpin, and Lin Shaye, these performers are given nothing substantive to work with. And so, in order to create a semblance of intrigue, a few of them rely on histrionics, from yelling to extreme behaviors, and the rest utter lines in a most robotic fashion. Even they are unable to mask their boredom despite being in the movie—and being paid. It is clear that the problem lies in the screenplay. It commands no tension.

Consider: we already know the fates of most of the characters given that Detective Muldoon has a police file in hand. (While Westwood tries her best in looking thoughtful while staring at the photos, notice her character’s detective work is minimal at best. We do not get a sense of her intelligence, resourcefulness, and attitude toward her line of work.) And so it is most critical to present intriguing details specific to the unsolved case. Every scene must function as a step forward to a conclusion that’s sensical within the story’s universe despite its supernatural elements. You guessed it: This is a horror film so generic that mere ten minutes into it, one can surmise that it will offer a non-ending. It assumes that viewers are stupid enough to mistake its laziness for being chilling. This is most pessimistic filmmaking.

Even the special, visual, and make-up effects are not at all memorable. For example, when a figure pops out of the corner of the screen, it is so instantaneous that we never get a chance to appreciate the performance behind the would-be scary facade, the minute touches on dirty or bloody clothing, the look of death or anger on their faces. It gives the impression that the filmmakers themselves are not proud of their work. This “Grudge” lacks energy, an eye for what makes a scary situation effectively, basic pacing, and a distinctive vision. A cheap haunted house walkthrough is scarier than this. And a lot shorter.

Blood Vessel

Blood Vessel (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

One of the problems with the Nazis-messing-with-the-occult-yet-again story of “Blood Vessel” is a lack of forward momentum. There is a simple plot, characters whose sole purpose is to be slaughtered, and neat practical effects, but the first half is such a trial to be endured that most viewers will be compelled to check out before the undead in the coffin wakes. Why is it that in this day and age of horror films, screenwriters still think it is a good idea to require the audience to endure a barrage of wooden personalities arguing with what to do next after finding themselves in a life-or-death situation? How is that fun for us?

The reason, I think, is that arguments—superficial ones—are easy to write. Yelling creates an illusion of conflict. In this story, which takes place during the tail end of World War II, Americans, British, Australian, and Russians are added into the mix. They clash, decibels increase, and glaring intensifies—yet there is a heavy gloom of boredom. This is a film in which it is not a good idea to keep the monster hidden for so long because the characters are given nothing interesting to say or do. Why not simply cut to the chase?

Notice that as folks are killed off, there is an improvement in the flow of the movie. I wished to know more about the Teplov the Russian sniper (Alex Cooke), particularly the stories behind his scars, from bullet wounds, knife fights, to animal attacks; Jane (Alyssa Sutherland) and her motherly nature, even toward the cowardly spook that no one trusts (John Lloyd Fillingham); and how Sinclair (Nathan Phillips) becomes the de facto leader of the group when things go from bad to worse. Still, the script’s ear for dialogue, written by Justin Dix (who directs) and Jordan Prosser, could have used more polishing. The performers seem up to the task.

The Nazi vessel commands minimal personality. In the middle of it, I was reminded of Rob Hedden’s “Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan” because although that sequel is silly as hell, it is actually enjoyable to watch doomed characters running around that ship. We get a sense of geography, there are kills that take place in confined and open spaces, walls are slashed, doors are broken, glass windows shatter. In this film, characters touch objects as if they were in a museum. Are the props that fragile or expensive? There is a lack of rawness in the action. And so a level of urgency is sacrificed, too.

The living dead—whose precise nature I will not describe—looks good. I appreciated that heavy masks are employed to underscore the feral and otherworldly nature of the villains. Their powers are not new or surprising, but they get the job done. I would have loved to learn more about their history. A case can be made that, like the human characters, they are simply trying to survive. So is it fair to label them as monsters?

“Blood Vessel” fails to offer engaging content that would have allowed it to rise above its contemporaries. With its curious setting, a few badass protagonists (Teplov deserves his own movie), and formidable antagonists, clearly basic elements are present to make a superior work. But the magic proves to be in the details yet again. The writers made the mistake of putting more effort into creating shallow drama instead of enriching the story’s lore and mystique.

May the Devil Take You Too

May the Devil Take You Too (2020)
★★ / ★★★★

Writer-director Timo Tjahjanto takes his sequel to “May the Devil Take You” in an interesting direction: Underscore the relationship between Alfie (Chelsea Islan)—our heroine and one of the survivors from the first feature—and the Devil in a way that promises there will more terrors to come after this installment. The reason why this chapter must exist is clear. Alfie has had extensive experience in dealing with what’s beyond the human realm. Such encounters tend to stick to her like a curse. She can save herself, her family, and strangers who ask for help. Although she is able to triumph in individual battles, is there actually a chance for her to win the war?

I enjoyed this follow-up a bit more than the original because I felt it is more ambitious with its ideas. Alfie is no longer the girl who just so happens to have a father who sacrificed his daughter’s soul to quench his greed. She is now a symbol, an example, and perhaps even hope of outsmarting the Devil in its own twisted game. Islan’s Alfie here is not only more confident, she is a fighter: for herself, for her little sister Nara (Hadijah Shahab), and everyone else who find themselves haunted by the beyond due to an adult figure making a similar deal with the Devil.

The setup is perfunctory but it does the job. A group of young adults who used to reside in the same orphanage kidnap Alfie and Nara. Some of them are convinced that Alfie may be able to stop an evil spirit from claiming their souls. The apparition is named Ayub (Tri Hariono) and he craves revenge. The children he abused murdered him and left his body in the cellar. Just like the previous film, this story unfolds in one place—an orphanage of physical, mental, and sexual trauma. None of the characters are well-adjusted; they’re barely even functional.

It is quite astounding that there is only a two-year gap between the release of the original and the sequel because the special, visual, and cosmetics effects are far more advanced here. Perhaps it is due to having a higher budget, but I wouldn’t put money on it. We’ve seen time and again that all the money in the world is no substitute for old-fashioned craft. I think Tjahjanto studied the first outing closely and took notes of elements that could be improved upon.

For instance, women with long, black hair wearing white gowns is so often used in Asian horror. At this point, it’s tired and dated. But look at how Tjahjanto handles them here. Instead of placing emphasis on the whole body, how it moves down hallways and the like, focus is from the chest upwards. The horrifying make-up, occasionally mixed with CGI, coupled with exaggerated facial expressions create terrifying, claustrophobic encounters. This is also a bit quieter than the original so there is more room for creepy, goosebump-inducing moments.

What prevents the picture from functioning on another level is, like the predecessor, a lack of convincing human connections. For example, Alfie and Nara’s interactions are often shallow reminders that they’re sisters. But we already know that. What else is there to their bond? How has their relationship evolved ever since the events in the first movie?

As for the orphans, there are far too many of them. Although we get the sense that a few are closer than others (like Budi and Leo, the suicidal and the alcoholic played by Baskara Mahendra and Arya Vasco, respectively), it is never shown to us how close they are as a collective. In a horror movie with a handful of characters introduced at once, it is paramount that the screenplay be thoroughly efficient in getting us to care about as many of them as possible. Otherwise, they’re just sheep to be gutted. At least majority of the practical effects are on point.

May the Devil Take You

May the Devil Take You (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

In the middle of this overlong supernatural horror film from Indonesia, I couldn’t help but admire Timo Tjahjanto’s willingness to put every trick he’s learned from ‘70s and ‘80s terror flicks into a blender and then force the mixture down our throats until we grow sick of it. It cannot be denied that the writer-director of “May the Devil Take You” loves both horror movies and horror images. But it also cannot be denied that the screenplay lacks critical details that would allow the story being told to stand out from its classic inspirations (Sam Raimi’s “The Evil Dead,” William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist,” to name a few) and modern contemporaries.

It starts off with great potential. Lesmana (Ray Sahetapy) is desperate to become rich and so he makes a deal with the Devil through one of its priestesses (Ruth Marini). The opening sequence is inspired because it feels specific to a culture. Sure, we get the usual blood sacrifice, circle of magic with a star in the middle, and creepy incantations. But what witchery involves, for instance, having to consume a lock of hair? It gets stranger from there. It is near impossible not to watch wide-eyed as bizarre images flood the screen. The introduction promises freshness, boundless energy, a good time.

But it is a nosedive from there. For years, Lesmana experienced financial success, particularly in making investments, but when he is required to pay the second time, he finds himself unable to deliver. Years pass and Lesmana is on his deathbed with a mysterious illness. His biological daughter, Alfie (Chelsea Islan), who he has not seen for a decade, decides to visit, perhaps to say goodbye. But Alfie is not the only visitor. From the moment she stepped into the hospital elevator, she feels there is a presence. Initially she chalks it up to exhaustion, her mind playing tricks on her. But then it appears again behind a hospital curtain, right next to her father.

And so we go through the oft traverse parabola of a loved one visiting a mysterious place out in the country in hopes of finding answers. In this case, Alfie goes to her father’s abandoned villa to find something that might help to cure Lesmana’s affliction. There is a curious angle to be had here. Unlike Alfie, Lesmana’s second wife, a former actress (Karina Suwandhi—quite villainous but ultimately underused), and his three stepchildren (Pevita Pearce, Sam Rafael, Hadijah Shahab) are already on the scene—not to find answers but to acquire valuable items they could sell. It is obvious that this is not just a story about having to fight the Devil.

It is also about biological and adoptive children finding commonalities through tragedy. A few questions worth considering: What does Lesmana mean to Alfie when he hasn’t been a father to her for a decade? What does Lesmana mean to his stepchildren when it is apparent that their mother loves his money more than the man? And how might the children move forward should Lesmana die? It doesn’t work because the dramatic foundations are largely absent.

More effort is put into how to make human levitation look convincing, how to make a possessed person crawling up the walls as creepy as possible, how to make breaking or cutting limbs look extremely gross and painful. While these horror images are given appropriate love and care, and some of them are quite impressive, it’s a challenge to become emotionally invested in the story when a similar level of effort is not given to character details and relationships. When new bonds are formed and then broken later on, notice it is a struggle to feel a thing. So then what is the point of telling this particular story? It might as well not have been told at all.

“May the Devil Take You” shows that just because inspirations are there doesn’t necessarily mean a picture is able to stand strong on its own. While it isn’t a requirement to be original, the human factor must be well-defined, it must possess a certain flow so that we buy into the changes the characters undergo, and it must make sense from an outsider’s point of view so we are able to sympathize and empathize with whatever is going on. Here, somewhere along the way the human element becomes an afterthought.