Tag: shudder

The Wolf House


The Wolf House (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

Those starved for new images should make it a priority to watch Cristobal León and Joaquín Cociña’s “La casa lobo,” a stop-motion animated horror film so bizarre that it is impossible not to stop, stare, and admire the visual acrobatics displayed on screen.

Without the proper context, a viewer might summarize the story this way: Fearing punishment, a girl named Maria (Amalia Kassai) runs away from her village and finds refuge in a house in the middle of the woods; she spends some time there and eventually decides to return home. But this unique film is inspired by an actual case of Colonia Dignidad (“Dignity Colony,” later renamed Villa Baviera), a cult founded by a German pedophile who emigrated to Chile. Residents were tortured and killed, males and females were segregated, children were sexually abused and drugged, and communication from the outside world was prohibited. Nazis and other war criminals were welcomed there.

The picture commands a specific perspective in that it is meant to be a tool for indoctrination. This can be supported by the opening and closing minutes. In the former, which is told using “live action” images, we get a sneak peek of the village. People appear to live simple lives; their lifestyle seems to be peaceful and inviting. The narrator emphasizes the community’s relationship with the earth, the animals, nature. But notice: Although we see people walking about, there are no close-ups of faces. Images are shot from a distance—far enough to hide or blur certain elements that may prove revealing. An illusion of tranquility is created.

In the latter, stop-motion animation on full throttle, the movie just… ends—unsettling in a different way because the happy ending comes out of nowhere. It feels wrong. This is purposeful; we are meant to be shocked, to question, to wonder what really happened. We cannot help but to feel lied to. Think of a fairy tale like “The Little Riding Hood” where the wolf eats the grandmother whole and suddenly a title card appears with the message, “And Little Red Riding Hood decides to turn back and head home.” Clearly, the screenwriters León, Cociña, and Alejandra Moffat put a lot of thought into what they wish for the viewers to feel and consider.

They also put a lot of thought, patience, and energy into the incredible animation. We are so used to stop-motion animation that comes across clean, sanitized, expensive. An animation studio like Laika, for instance, does an excellent job hiding strings and wires, making sure that camera movements feel smooth and natural, that themes and messages to be conveyed are fully ironed out. Naturally, the vibe behind the animation must appeal to children.

“The Wolf House” throws such expectations out the window and spits upon them. The story takes place mostly inside a house and so the filmmakers are forced to be creative. I loved it when characters are presented as paintings on walls. When they move—keeping in mind the stop-motion approach—we see the tracks and gradations of their movement; the more they move, the more we see painting spatters on the floor—elements that would be eliminated or hidden in a work designed to appeal to the mainstream. Another: when creepy 3D models are required to make either sudden or slow, carefully controlled movements, wires jutting from their bodies can be seen from the moon. Leaving out such “flaws” doesn’t matter because what counts is how convinced we are of the action once the wires are pulled.

The rawness of this film allows it to stand out among its contemporaries. At the same time, it made me appreciate the astonishing effort put into this type of animation regardless of whether the work is meant to appeal to millions or a select few. Sure, jump into it for its strange appeal. But it is likely that you’ll find yourself sticking with it for the small but wonderful details, both in terms of story subtext and execution on how best to engage us visually.

2D or 3D, observe how the characters’ eyes are always expressive. When you feel lost, and more than a handful will because the screenplay is uninterested in stating the obvious, look into the eyes. They are the anchor.

Hunted


Hunted (2020)
★★ / ★★★★

The revenge-thriller “Hunted” tells the story of a woman who meets an alluring man in a nightclub. When the flirtation is over, she believes they are about to head to his place. Goal. But no, they end up in the woods instead. You think you know where this is going—“revenge-thriller,” a random hook-up, “the woods”—and you’d be partly correct. You see, these elements must be present to get us to think a certain way and therefore expect specific plot developments to unfold.

It is a clever little tale, in parts, which opens with another woman—credited only as The Huntress (Simone Milsdochter)—telling her young boy (Vladimir Ryelandt, Ryan Brodie) about the woods they’re camping in. It is breathing, it is sentient, spirits reside in it. It is a protector of the innocent. Director Vincent Paronnaud, who co-wrote the screenplay with Léa Pernollet, leaves the gate with enthusiasm, vision, and a wonderful sense of visuals: The Huntress’ story is told through a curious mix of live-action and animation, like a comic book that’s alive. The bar is set so high, the rest of the picture, while peppered with inspired moments, struggles to catch up to it.

The charming man is never given a name. He is played by Arieh Worthalter. The performance reminded of a Jack Nicholson-lite, unafraid to look ugly, crazy, and savage as long as we are terrified. (And the performance would not be Nicholson-like if humor—dark humor—were completely removed.) Particularly interesting is when the man converses with other people and attempts to put on an act of normality. As hard as he tries, Worthalter portrays the man as incapable doing so, his mask of what he believes is a friendly person always on the verge of slipping. This psychopath is uncomfortable watch—which makes him a fascinating specimen.

The woman in danger is named Eve. Lucie Debay is given the more controlled performance of the two leads although there are instances when she is required to equal his insanity. I enjoyed that Debay’s Eve always has something going on in those eyes. We learn only a few details about Eve’s personal life during the exposition and, like most heroines in revenge-thrillers, she is written to make unwise decisions from time to time for the sake of building another opportunity for yet another extended chase sequence, but I felt annoyed of the protagonist. Like the antagonist, there is a curiosity in her. I wished their twisted relationship were explored further, outside of a classic cat-and-mouse game.

Paronnaud takes risks during the latter half. By then our expectations are in place and then he subverts it—not completely but just enough for some who remain hanging on for the ride to let go and get engorged in the pandemonium. There are symbolisms with animals, hallucinatory sequences, slow motion. Lodged in between are moments of violence: throat slashing, a finger in a gash that requires stitches, broken noses, hands around another’s throat.

Although I felt there is a rhythm to it, I never bought into the dance. I admired it, like I would a well-executed scientific experiment, but I did not feel connected—deeply—with all the goings-on. I smiled at the fact that the writer-director created a film that need not be made but he did anyway because perhaps he needed to exorcise something. Is the work making a feminist statement? Does it wish to comment on the corruption of sexuality between genders in modern times? Is the goal quite simply to create a lovechild between revenge-thriller and arthouse? I don’t know, and I don’t care. But I sure am I glad I sat through it.

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 Cleansing Hour


The Cleansing Hour (2019)
★ / ★★★★

Selling one’s soul in order to get recognition on social media is an idea worth exploring in “The Cleansing Hour,” based on the screenplay by Damien LeVeck (who directs) and Aaron Horwitz, but the picture is so bogged down by ostentatious exorcism tropes that it feels as though half of its running time is dedicated to showing what viewers expect, from objects being flung across the room to characters meeting gruesome fates, rather than delivering what is right for the story being told. What results is a work that gets mired in special and visual effects—empty, repetitive, tiresome—while its more notable ideas take a back seat.

The plot revolves around best friends Drew (Kyle Gallner) and Max (Ryan Guzman) who live stream fake exorcisms. Although they have a sizable audience who actually believe that such exorcisms are real, Drew, who works behind the camera, thinks they can draw in more people by expanding their toolkit outside of exorcisms. But Max, the star of the show, doesn’t care to do so; he is happy just to be recognized by fans, perhaps even sleep with them once in a while. He does, however, wish that he be verified on social media already—for that blue check is a mark of influence, of authority. You see, even on the level of character—money versus fame—there is something worth looking into. Yet the drama is never mined.

A movie like this is further evidence that exorcism movies can be deceptively simple. It is not about creepy demonic voices, learning a demon’s name so it could then be expelled from its host, or showing excessive gore and projectile vomiting. Successful exorcism movies are about our latent fears, desires, trauma embedded in our subconscious.

In this story, the heart of the picture is the friendship between Drew and Max. Flashbacks are employed to show us that the two have known each other since they were children and have endured various torment in school in the hands of a nun. Perhaps this trauma remains to be the glue that binds Drew and Max even though their friendship has become twisted, perverted, unhealthy, one-sided. Notice that without these flashbacks, there would be nothing of note about the duo. The actors share no believable chemistry nor does the screenplay bother to go out of its way to underscore that even though the relationship has been reduced to a business, the two would remain to have each other’s backs—just like when they were children.

And so there is no drama. When faced with a demon (Drew’s fiancée is used as a host, played by Alix Angelis), we simply sit back and watch Drew and Max scramble about, scream in horror, and look directly to camera as they confess their sins to their fans. Cue the fans’ concerned expressions. We are detached from their plight, knowing that it is only a matter of time until the demon goes about its usual bodily contortions and psychokinesis.

Another disappointment: For a story that places emphasis on social media, the camera does not linger long enough on the stream of comments being submitted by fans. There is a disconnect. We see faces of select concerned viewers—from Washington D.C., South Korea, to Israel—but some of the comments (from what I gathered between quick glimpses) are quite negative, relishing on the violence that’s unfolding. Why not also show the faces of those who thrive on schadenfreude—regardless of whether they believe a real exorcism is happening? Even on this basic level, the work fails to paint a fuller picture.

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.

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.

The Nightshifter


The Nightshifter (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

Dennison Ramalho’s “The Nightshifter” tells the story of an assistant coroner named Stênio (Daniel de Oliviera) who possesses the ability to talk to the dead. We do not go through the standard motions of the man discovering he has such a gift nor is it revealed to us that he does anything particularly special with it. To him, communicating with the flesh of those who’ve passed is like breathing; he does not even blink at the fact when the meat lying on the metal table—no matter how deformed or rotten—begins a conversation. It is most frustrating then that screenwriters Cláudia Jouvin and Dennison Ramalho fail to take such a terrific (and fun) premise in interesting and memorable directions.

About a third of the way through, it is reduced to just another story that involves a haunting. While some may claim that since the film is based upon the novel by Marco de Castro, it is tethered to follow the content within the source of material. This is incorrect. Those who pen the screenplay are responsible for ensuring that the movie rendition is fresh—even if it means jutting off in unexpected directions. Consider the landscape of horror films that touch upon hauntings. The list runs for about a mile. Now consider a protagonist who has accepted the fact that he can share words, feelings, ideas, and secrets with the dead. How many films come to mind?

When reduced to its most elementary parts, “Morto Não Fala” is a cautionary tale of jealousy. Stênio discovers that his wife (Fabiula Nascimento) is having an affair with a baker (Marco Ricca) and so the assistant coroner uses information—a secret—revealed by a corpse, who was a member of a gang, to his advantage. The overworked and underpaid Stênio believes that by getting rid of his competition, the way Odete sees him—and therefore their marriage—will improve. Stênio is dead wrong on all accounts. Naturally, his plan backfires.

The practical effects of cadavers being cut open and organs being stripped out are realistic and beautiful. I am tickled every time there’s a new body being delivered which means it is time to make that V-shaped incision and let the blood gush out. Effects involving corpses coming to “life” is a curiosity. It is a challenge to discern at times whether the face is actually moving or if CGI is employed. It looks off—but in a good way. A level of uneasiness is created when the dead body is moving its mouth. Stênio remains unperturbed.

The spooky happenings inside Stênio’s house command no excitement. It is especially lame when some ostentatious event—like Stênio waking up in the middle of the night and discovering that a room is completely covered with razor-sharp kite strings—is actually just a figment of our protagonist’s imagination. Burnt looking figures appear. And furnitures move on their own. The lives of Stênio’s children are threatened. A kind neighbor named Lara (Bianca Comparato) gets involved eventually. She’s dedicated to protecting the kids. And no one sits down to have a serious conversation about the supernatural goings-on they’ve just witnessed. So they never get a chance to move forward together and actually attack the problem in an effective way. It is all so pedestrian. These loud scenes not only drag, they do not reveal or underscore details regarding Stênio’s double-edged gift.

“The Nightshifter” begins with an exclamation point but ends with a barely a whisper. It is sad to experience the trajectory of what could have been a strong film that can be both horrifying and darkly comic and have its potential be thrown away to quench audience expectations. This also could have been an effective character study of a man who has a family but is quite lonely because his wife despises him and his son does not respect him. Couple that with a job that requires nighttime isolation—he is surrounded by the shells of what once were people who laughed, cried, got angry, exercised kindness and at times cruelty. Maybe a movie of that caliber will be made one day—hopefully by filmmakers who are so courageous and confident with the material that they approach their project without compromise.

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.

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.

Rabbit


Rabbit (2017)
★★ / ★★★★

Luke Shanahan’s ambitious but undercooked debut film “Rabbit” is one of those movies that’s near impossible to talk about completely, should one choose to be mindful of providing spoilers, given that it pivots so out of left-field just about halfway through. It begins as a seemingly ordinary abduction story. A desperate woman (Adelaide Clemens) sprints through the woods and hooded figures in black stalk her. She is captured and we cut to her twin, Maude (also played by Clemens), who is living overseas as a medical student. Maude suspects that something is wrong. However, this is not the kicker.

Maude and her family are already aware that Cleo has gone missing. Enough time has passed that their parents decided to hold a funeral for their daughter. As the picture goes through the expository sequences, there is a constant foreboding feeling that something is going to go awry at any moment. There is expert use of silence, from Maude being picked up by her sister’s fiancé, Ralph (Alex Russell) at the airport to the extremely uncomfortable dinner with her parents. The father remains angry due to the fact that Maude refused to attend Cleo’s funeral. The silence is so heavy and emotions are so stifled that we actually hear the cutlery scraping the plate. It is incredibly sad to look at what this family has been reduced to.

Meanwhile, Maude’s nightmares are intensifying to the point where she begins to believe that the images in her head are visions of what is actually happening to her twin in real time. This is the point when Clemens truly shines. I appreciated that there is a precise but subtle moment when the character realizes she needs to act quickly if she were to have a chance of rescuing her sister. Clemens possesses a vulnerability and a determination about her just underneath desperation. I watched her sometimes convinced that Maude is a ticking time bomb. She, along with Ralph the fiancé, visit the backwoods where Cleo was last seen.

The screenplay gently takes our hand then violently pulls us into a remote forest where a poor community resides. It employs the usual creepy images, from the glaring rural folks who look unkempt and unwashed to beautiful wide shots of dominating pine trees that seem to stretch for miles. It is communicated to us that once an outsider steps on this land, escaping becomes near impossible. But there has to be a reason why Maude is the heroine… right? Surely she must be an exception.

Doubt is cast right from the moment the screen is filled with a red title card. No text. No other color. Just blood red and the screeching score that brings to mind a descent into a rabbit hole. I refuse to reveal anything beyond this point. But I will say this: I admired its willingness to deliver something different—less overt scares and more… increasingly alarming situations. The introduction of the second half is like a veil slowly being lifted from our faces. It is not always effective. But it sure is fascinating.

I felt great disappointment with this picture’s denouement. After having learned of everything that transpires in the community, viewers have worked up so much anger that we demand catharsis for the countless inhumane punishments the characters have endured. (No, it does not involve in-your-face torture scenes. Plenty is left for the imagination.) We deserve a release of emotions, to feel that the long journey is worthwhile. But the writer-director chooses to withhold. It is a curious choice; perhaps this avenue is taken to avoid cliché. But the final ten to fifteen minutes just does not feel right. There is a way to be ambiguous without us being hung out to dry.

Scare Me


Scare Me (2020)
★★ / ★★★★

Writer-director Josh Ruben takes a simple premise of two people telling each other scary stories and builds a story around it. But this is no ordinary horror-comedy in which we jump in and out of scenarios where colorful characters are played by different actors and settings change depending on the story being told. No, it takes place in one cabin. And the two leads—Ruben who plays Fred and Aya Cash who plays Fanny—embody their characters’ own creations: young, old, human male, human female, monsters. They even mimic movie-like sound effects in order to enhance their storytelling. Because, you see, although Fred and Fanny are strangers who have become somewhat friendly, they are in competition—two writers, the former aspiring and the other renowned, who wish to prove he or she is the better storyteller than the other.

We meet Fred first. He is driven up the Overlook Mountain (the work provides a chockfull of references to other films) by Bettina (Rebecca Drysdale), a self-proclaimed writer herself. From the moment we lay eyes on Fred there is a sadness about him, an unhappiness he finds himself unable to crawl out from. Fred tells Bettina he wishes to get away from the city so he can write his werewolf novel. But there’s something missing. When he speaks of what he is about to create, there is no passion, no hunger in those eyes. The driver seems to be more excited about it than he does. And so we ask ourselves: Why is this man, who works in advertising, heading up the mountains—really? Maybe he does wish to write. But why? The premise intrigues.

While out for a jog, Fred meets Fanny, a writer whose novel titled “Venus” has been lauded as one of the scariest works of all time by The New York Times and other literary outlets. Fred is genuinely excited to meet a successful writer; perhaps she could show him some pointers. Fanny is sarcastic, dismissive, lacking humility, wary but curious enough about the stranger. Later that night during a power outage, she comes over to his cabin. We wonder why. He showered her with positive attention during their one-sided meet-cute. Clearly, she relishes attention. What she did not expect is to be challenged. When pushed just enough, notice how she makes a nasty habit of referring to Fred as just another emasculated white man. Still, perhaps she has a point. Fanny may be abrasive at times but she’s observant.

Are Fred and Fanny’s stories scary? Not at all. Contents of such stories are boring and formulaic—a notable shortcoming because they are meant to be scary on top of being comic. The best horror story of the bunch—precisely because it brings to mind Edgar Allan Poe—involves a little girl who is terrified of her grandfather and the way his oxygen tank creaks when it is being dragged across a surface. No green-eyed monster popping out of the swamp. No masked serial killer wielding a machete. Just a child who possesses minimal understanding of mortality and even lesser appreciation for guilt. When a story is rooted in humanity, there is power behind it.

Humor, which I found to be more effective, is secondary to the stories and stems from the performances themselves. I felt Ruben and Cash’ passion for this project. They are not afraid to look silly, ugly, or wrong as long as they are able to emulate specific sounds and voices that fit their stories or jokes they hope to land—sometimes voices from popular media, from Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” to William Gaines and Steven Dodd’s “Tales from the Crypt.” There is a joy to their facial exaggeration and body contortions; I caught myself smiling and grinning due to the sheer energy emanating from the screen. I wished the horror aspects were as admirable.

There are delightful qualities to be found in “Scare Me,” but scare me it did not. Especially weak is the final showdown between tyro and professional writers which I found to be a cop-out. There is so much setup and accumulated tension between the two that we expect an explosion. Instead, it goes out with barely a whimper. The final fifteen minutes might have benefited from a rewrite.

Spiral


Spiral (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

When Kurtis David Harder’s “Spiral” is at its best, it is reminiscent of Jordan Peele’s “Get Out.” From the moment same-sex couple Malik and Aaron (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman, Ari Cohen), along with their teenage daughter Kayla (Jennifer Laporte), arrive in the unnamed small town, the paranoia in the air is palpable; it is too clean, too quiet, too suburban. This is a much-needed change of pace from what the trio is used to. Malik, a black man who remains traumatized from a hate crime he experienced when he was a teenager, suspects something is off. Soon a welcoming white neighbor comes to visit and claims, “Nothing ever changes around here.”

The minimalistic approach feels right in a movie like this. We get the usual events like a character waking up in the middle of the night due to a noise coming from downstairs (naturally, he is compelled to investigate), looking out one’s window and witnessing a bizarre sort of gathering (could a cult be afoot?), and penetrating looks from neighbors as a new face—a black face—jogs down the street. But when the picture gets specific—like when Malik comes home and discovers that someone had broken into their home and spray painted “FAGGOT” on the wall—this is when the work is most powerful—and immediate—because it is a specific attack. It is so personal and so hurtful that the N-word might as well have been spray painted, too. “People don’t change,” Malik tells Aaron, who is white, “They just get better at hiding [their hatred].”

But is there something sinister going on or is Malik simply hallucinating? Eventually, Malik begins to see ghostly figures (which I find to be lame attempts at jump scares). He even exhibits problems with processing time. Aaron believes everything is fine, that his partner is simply having trouble adjusting to their new life. (Aaron leaves for work early while Malik works at home as a ghostwriter. Perhaps Malik has been too cooped up in the house of increasing horrors.) Meanwhile, Kayla has found a friend (or maybe more) in Tyler (Ty Wood), a charming teenager who lives across the street with his parents, Marshal and Tiffany (Lochlyn Munro, Chandra West). The screenplay by Colin Minihan and John Poliquin takes far too long to provide a definitive answer—which comes with a cost.

The work’s exposition and rising action slap viewers into paying attention. And so it is critical that we are provided a climax that delivers—preferably one that surpasses expectations. We are given neither. The climax is creepy but expected and nothing special—a disappointment because there are numerous instances that point to the community’s fear of The Other. The Other, in this case, is a same-sex couple whereby half is a black man. The big reveal offers minimal flavor despite the meat of the film having marinated for so long. Why isn’t it more specific? It would have been a perfect opportunity to tap into the zeitgeist of the ‘90s when gay men were feared not only for their sexuality and lifestyles but also the possibility of them having AIDS.

Even events after the revelations come across rushed. There are ways to make viewers want to know more without the material being reduced to an incomplete story. It comes across as though the writers forgot that this is Malik’s story and so the denouement must be specific to him. We follow him, and so his desire becomes our desire; his needs, our needs. Malik’s trauma, sadness, and anger for having been a victim of hate crime in the ‘80s propel him to discover and, if possible, expose then uproot a potential nefarious plot. The picture goes for a haunting ending but it is not at all satisfying.