Stonehearst Asylum (2014)

An able cast saves the day!

Loosely based on Poe’s The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether, and directed by Brad Anderson (The Machinist, Session 9, Transsiberian), Stonehearst Asylum is a Victorian madhouse shocker in which the inmates literally take over the asylum.

Doctor Edward Newgate (Jim Sturgess), an idealistic, Oxford-trained physician lands a job at a remote English asylum for wealthy lunatics, where he is taken under the wing by its director Dr. Silas Lamb (Ben Kingsley).

Lamb chooses to leave the patients unmedicated and in some cases, even encourages them to pursue their delusions, as with the aristocrat who fancies himself a dog.

Newgate is drawn to Eliza Graves (Kate Beckinsale), a posh patient suffering from hysteria, and almost immediately begins devising escape methods on her behalf, even as she warns him to get his own ass outta town.

Stonehearst Asylum takes its sweet time about getting anywhere, but when you’ve got a cast that includes Kingsley, Michael Caine, Brendan Gleeson, and David Thewlis as Lamb’s psychotic bully boy, Mickey Finn, it’s probably best to let these guys ham it up a bit.

Same goes for the ever-enchanting Kate Beckinsale, the ideal template for the role of the beautiful, mysterious madwoman in peril, with whom Newgate has no choice but to fall in love and try to rescue.

Who is she? Who is Newgate? Who is Lamb? Who is anybody in this picture?

Joseph Gangemi’s script wanders like a hippie on an OG Kush bender, but Anderson somehow guides his players to a blazing finale when murderous Mickey Finn bursts into flame and sets the whole place on fire.

I would characterize Stonehearst Asylum not only as a goth-styled thriller, but existing in the same cinematic universe as Roger Corman’s Poe adaptations, and some of Hammer Films’ more outrageous period pieces, that likewise usually conclude with the house burning down.

I almost added Ken Russell to that group. Stonehearst Asylum stops short of achieving anything as stylistically unhinged as Russell’s maddest work, which is a tall order to be sure.

On the other hand, if you enjoy kooky costume drama with a first-rate cast attached, this is an Everything Bagel.

Umma (2022)

I swore I’d never be like my mother!”

It’s easy enough to say, and you can substitute “father” if you want. Mostly they’re just words, and they don’t help.

The central point of terror in Umma (Korean word for “Mama”) is the idea of inherited sin, and how kids are rotten fruit from a poison tree.

As conceived by Iris K. Shim, Umma is a ghost story about being haunted by your own family. Unlike the trend toward pitch-black horizons these days, Shim’s feature maintains its grace despite grim subject matter, and even offers a glimmer of hope.

Amanda (Sandra Oh), an agoraphobic beekeeper, raises her daughter Chris (Fivel Stewart) on a lovely, spacious farm, where electricity (phones, TVs, you name it) is forbidden.

Like all the other threads in the movie, it traces back to Amanda’s tortured childhood and the abuse she suffered at the hand of a mean, unstable mother (MeeWha Alana Lee).

Their idyllic existence gets upended by the arrival of a suitcase containing her mother’s remains, which coincides with the manifestation of her angry ghost, who proceeds to torment Amanda from the grave.

As if life weren’t stressful enough, she also discovers that Chris wants to leave the analog farm and go to college! The pressure to maintain her equilibrium overpowers Amanda, and that’s how the ghost gets in.

Filmmaker Shim isn’t afraid to tackle touchy subjects, and Amanda’s plight is pretty much universal, trying to shelter her own daughter from the worst family traits—even as she gains insight by subletting her soul to a mother’s rage.

In Umma, it isn’t curses or cannibalism that’s passed on, but fear and resentment. You know, real shit.

Pro Tip: Acceptance is your best option when confronted with an angry ghost.

Hellbender (2021)

If you recall the lavish amount of praise I heaped upon The Deeper You Dig, then you might have a clue of how stoked I was for Hellbender, the follow-up effort from the shockingly talented filmmaking Adams Family.

In a possible star-making turn, Zelda Adams absolutely smashes glass as Izzy, a mysterious teen who leads an isolated existence with her mother (Toby Poser) in the woods.

Izzy is not unhappy. Life with Mom rocks, in a modest way. The two create raw punk music together in a drums-bass duo called Hellbender. Mom is wise in the ways of the forest and teaches her daughter all about the forces of nature.

However, contact with the outside world is verboten. Mom tells Izzy she’s too sick to be around other people. Can this be true, or is there a more compelling reason for homeschooling such a bright pupil?

Written and directed by Adams, Poser, and John Adams, Hellbender is a bold, original movie told with fearless artistic flair. After a lightning strike moment, Izzy must adjust to severe growing pains when she accidentally meets a distant neighbor (Lulu Adams) who awakens all kinds of new, dangerous feelings.

It’s such a confident blend of folk horror and coming-of-age drama/trauma, that when Izzy begins to change, we truly see the world through her eyes, and it’s an unsettling trip. Her caterpillar stage has ended, and something more powerful is emerging, heralded by Izzy’s switch from a vegetarian diet to fresh, bloody meat.

It’s also quite a change for Mom, who recognizes that a new administration will soon be taking charge, and that it’s just the start of a new season.

Highly recommended. The collective vision, brains, and arboreal soul displayed by the Adams Clan in Hellbender is never less than spellbinding, and watching their unique ascension in the horror film landscape leaves me giddy with anticipation of future treasures.

I only hope they can maintain some measure of artistic control as the budgets get bigger and they ponder leaving the creepy bucolic comforts of their upstate New York headquarters. The energy this team brings to each project is somewhat feral, and perhaps shouldn’t be tamed by Big Business.

In any case, I’ll be there in the dark with eyes wide open.

Lantern’s Lane (2021)

True Confession. Role Playing Games once represented a huge part of my social life. Many’s the night we cast our dice to the wind playing Dungeons & Dragons, rolling up characters for some catastrophic quest or other, fortified by cheap beer and weak weed (and vice versa).

On the not-too-rare occasions when nobody really had their shit together enough to have an original adventure prepared, we relied on modules, or ready-made dungeons, that any half-bright game master could purchase at the local Nerd Boutique.

Lantern’s Lane, written and directed by Southern California filmmaker Justin LaReau, is a horror movie module. It’s a bare-bones slasher that hovers around the minimum requirement level in every department.

Nutshell: Homecoming Queen and all-around It Girl, Layla (Brooke Butler), returns to her hick hometown after graduating from college. She drops by the seedy saloon and reconnects with high-school chums Missy (Ashley Doris), a hottie waitress, Shana (Sydney Carvill), a former fat girl, and Jason (Andy Cohen, think Xander from Buffy The Vampire Slayer), the eunuch comic relief.

After a few shots of White Lightning, the onetime classmates drive out to Lantern’s Lane, a local hotspot for Urban Legends and paranormal activity, hoping to get a glimpse of the Old Lady with the Lantern, a tragic spook eternally searching for her dead hubby.

Instead, Layla and her mates end up stranded in an unfinished house, penned in by a knife-wielding psycho wearing a bug-eyed sack.

How basic can you get?

Sadly, most of the running time is devoted to devising escape plans that don’t work, and discussing how Layla is a bad friend for leaving their Podunk town and making a life for herself in the Big City.

By the time the maniac shows up, the characters have rehashed their petty grievances to the point that we’re hoping they get carved up like Christmas hams. No such luck, the body count is dismal and we get only trace amounts of viscera.

On top of all that, LaReau can’t write dialogue to save his life, seldom rising above “Let’s get out of here,” “I can’t do it,” and other throwaway panic phrases that come with the game setup.

The recurring problem with Lantern’s Lane is its lack of any distinctive characteristics. It isn’t scary, funny, bloody, sexy, or even atmospheric.

More like Lantern’s Lame, if you ask me.

Editor’s Note: Find additional content at facebook.com/horrificflicks

We’re All Going to the World’s Fair (2021)

It’s definitely an immersive experience and most definitely a horror film.

Writer-director Jane Schoenbrun has found a fresh fear angle in We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, forging sinister and frightening links in a story told largely online.

Casey (Anna Cobb) is the personification of teen restlessness. With establishing shots revealing a dreary anonymous urban nowhere, little wonder that she seeks stimulation and community on the web.

And so the web snares another fly as bored blogger Casey creates laptop videos of herself charting her progress through a horror-themed Online Role Playing Game called The World’s Fair.

To enter the game, a player must bleed. Not sure what kind of port you use for upload.

It’s a plot that cooks over a slow fire, but WAGttWF hums with a steadily climbing anxiety level. Our concern for Casey’s welfare deepens as we realize she’s not the only one playing, and the tone of her video posts get darker.

Casey mentions her father’s rifle. She knows where it is.

All kinds of red flags and warning bells go off, but Casey proves capable of mastering her game emotions, even if her opponent (Michael J. Rogers) does not.

Rogers portrays one of those super creepy concern troll that lurks under every virtual bridge. Switching to his perspective, Schoenbrum daringly gives us a nervous glimpse into his painfully shameful world—and that’s more than enough.

We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is a minefield of a movie about a very real war between the sexes. You read about it every day: A lonely wretch goes bananas and kills people because they are psychologically incapable of real-life interaction.

These are the ones I’m warning you about. They are a cause for concern.

Alligator (1980)

Alligator is the correct and proper way to make a giant critter movie. People create the monster. Monster eats people.

A vacationing couple and their daughter watch an alligator nearly bite a man’s leg off at a hick circus in Missouri. Struck by the wonder of this magic moment, they buy their little girl her own baby gator from a nearby huckster.

Soon after the family’s return to Chicago, Dad flushes the little lizard down the crapper. See you later, alligator.

Fast forward 12 years and there’s a monster-sized alligator in the sewer.

While we could blame the irresponsible father who bought the damn thing in the first place, John Sayles’ civic conspiracy-minded script points the guilty finger at Slade (Dean Jagger), a cadaverous old CEO whose company’s clandestine experiments with growth hormones have dramatically affected the local food chain.

Troubled-but-honest cop David Madison (Robert Forester) is the detective saddled with the thankless job of going into the sewer and capturing the rampaging reptile. Through his frustrating quest, Sayles and director Lewis Teague reveal that corrupt politicians and muckraking journalists are no help whatsoever, and deserve to be eaten.

Madison enlists the help of gorgeous herpetologist Marisa Kendall (Robin Riker) in an effort to get inside the lizard brain, while the mayor (Jack Carter) brings in famous big game hunter Colonel Brock (Henry Silva) to slay the beast.

When Madison’s investigation gets too close to Slade Industries, the spineless mayor has him fired, removing the one competent person in Chicago that’s committed to stopping the creature.

Soon the alligator is popping up all over the place. A backyard swimming pool, a nearby canal, dark alleys, and eventually the posh wedding at Slade Mansion, where the monster eats its fill of the elite guest list and dispenses justice at the same time.

The reason Alligator is revered as a classic of the genre, is usually attributed to the presence of Sayles, who went on to direct lauded art-house fare like Matewan, Lone Star, and Passion Fish, making him a favorite among the well-heeled brie and festival crowd.

It doesn’t hurt that plot and characters mirror the Jaws template, even twisting the knife a little deeper into the culpability of swinish local officials.

The cast of marvelous professionals, including Forester, Riker, Silva, and Michael Gazzo as a beleaguered police chief, really nail the story in place and bring it to life. Every actor, from top to bottom, brings humor and humanity to their roles, and that gives the production a big lift.

Even ancient faces like Jagger and Mike Mazurki get a little screen time!

And let’s not forget the titular terror. There’s no CGI here, just miniature sets and strong practical effects that emphasize flailing bodies in the gator’s mouth, with blood gushing, and bones crunching.

As it should be. People getting eaten by monsters is, perhaps, the highest form of cinema.

A Lonely Place To Die (2011)

It’s really more of a thriller than a horror movie, but there’s no mistaking the blinding terror faced by the principals in A Lonely Place To Die, written and directed by British filmmaker Julian Gilbey.

Five friends meet up for a weekend of rock climbing in the Scottish Highlands. While negotiating some tricky cliff business, they stumble upon Anna (Holly Boyd), a kidnapped Serbian girl who’s been buried alive in a small chamber.

Rob (Alec Newman) and Alison (Melissa George), the group’s best climbers, take off to fetch help, leaving Ed (Ed Speelers), Alex (Garry Sweeney), and Jenny (Kate Magowan) to mind the child.

Nearby, Mr. Kidd (Sean Harris) and Mr. McRae (Stephen McCole), the ruthless criminals responsible for the abduction, start killing everyone they meet, working their way through a couple of hapless poachers before cutting Rob’s rope as he dangles off a precipice known as “Devil’s Drop.”

Then they break out rifles and set their sites on the rest of the party.

Julian Gilbey does an excellent job of distributing his threats in A Lonely Place To Die. We get vertiginous mountain-climbing spectacle, causing characters to stop and muse how long it would take them to reach the ground after falling.

Anna’s burial in such a remote area is an indication that the villains are cold and cruel, not even bothering to check on the little girl’s scant water supply while she’s in the ground.

Indeed, this turns out to be the case, as Kidd plays the quiet sociopath to McRae’s raging and reckless killer.

The finale takes place in a small Scottish village during a riotous Beltane festival, the perfect cover for a violent skirmish between desperate foes. Gilbey deftly orchestrates the havoc, switching point of view from hunters to hunted, to different hunters hunting the hunters.

Sorry, there’s nothing supernatural going on in A Lonely Place To Die, but the pace, pursuit, and payoff are so far up our alley, we’re going to make room.

The Requin (2022)

What the hell is a “Requin?”

Oh, it’s French for shark. Seems odd to name the movie after a character that doesn’t even show up for the first hour.

Prior to the shark’s arrival, we get Alicia Silverstone emoting all over the place as a woman on a tropical vacation with her husband (James Tupper).

Jaelyn (Silverstone) is having trouble getting her groove back after a recent bloody miscarriage. She and hubby Kyle take an exotic trip to coastal Vietnam, where a recuperative idyl is interrupted by a storm so fierce, their little hut on the beach is pulled out to sea.

As if they didn’t face enough obstacles as a couple.

The bickering duo spend a few months adrift (it sure feels like it, anyway) until the signal fire they build to attract planes and ships burns up their raft.

Still no shark.

Kyle and Jaelyn eventually reach a place in their relationship (and in the ocean) where they’re comfortable forgiving each other and working together to achieve mutual goals.

It’s at this point, about an hour into the movie, that director Le-Van Kiet finds the key to the shark cage. Suddenly the water is full of fins, despite the fact Kyle has been gushing Type O since Day One.

Rather than continue to listen to his batty wife, Kyle manages to get his legs eaten, effectively freeing his soul to go anywhere else.

I would like to offer a modest round of applause to Kyle, who never stops being a supportive, caring spouse, even after many hours spent floating in a water tank with a cranky costar. His ability to crack jokes in an effort to buoy his wife’s ever-changing moods is nothing less than heroic.

“I’m going to ask for a discount on the room,” he quips, earning him a brief smile.

As for Miss Silverstone, she endures mounting misery in true Perils Of Pauline fashion. One shark in particular (they named the movie after him!) pursues Jaelyn and devours the Vietnamese fisherman (Danny Chung) who rescues her, because no good deed goes unpunished.

The Requin is a big bucket of smelly chum with Amateur Hour special effects, but you kind of want to see it through—if only to find out how much worse things get for Alicia Silverstone, who is clearly having a real bad year.

La Llorona (2019)

You can’t keep a good ghost down. Not when there’s justice to be meted out.

The titular spirit, who typically wanders the seaside mourning her deceased children in Mexican folklore, becomes a powerful avenger in the hands of Guatemalan filmmaker Jayro Bustamante.

In La Llorona, the vengeful ghost not only seeks retribution for the death of her offspring, but for entire villages of Guatemalan natives slaughtered and enslaved in the 1980s by General Enrique Monteverde (Julio Diaz), a military strongman currently on trial for genocide.

Now a delusional old paranoid, Enrique holes up in a spacious villa while outside the streets are stuffed with protestors, whose singing and chanting are a constant reminder of half-remembered atrocities.

Enrique’s sleep is troubled and he frequently sleepwalks through the house with a loaded pistol.

His steely wife Carmen (Margarita Kenefic) is determined to stand by her man, but their daughter Natalia (Sabrina de la Hoz), a doctor, is having doubts about her papa’s innocence.

With the arrival of Alma (Maria Mercedes Coroy), a beguiling Mayan maid, the stage is set and the Monteverde house is ready for its fall. Enrique is fascinated and troubled by the quiet girl with the long black hair, because she’s a dead ringer for one of his dead victims.

La Llorona is a riveting slow burner that draws substantial power from Bustamante’s steady-frame approach. Once he establishes a visually arresting tableau, he locks it down. There is almost no camera movement in the house and scenes run long with minimal dialogue.

This lack of flow effectively imprisons the viewer in the pressure cooker alongside the guilty parties, and it’s an unnerving experience.

After all, we’re not on trial here.

A House on the Bayou (2021)

Now here’s a movie that skips the main course and gets right to the Just Desserts.

As is so often the case these days, A House in the Bayou focuses on a family unit in turmoil, caused by a patriarch who can’t keep it in his pants.

John Chambers (Paul Schneider, from Parks & Recreation) is the unfaithful husband and father. His real estate agent wife, Jessica (Angela Sarafyan), is super pissed but doesn’t want to break-up the family.

Daughter Anna (Lia McHugh) is fearful of a divorce and having to attend separate Christmas dinners. I just assumed the last part.

Jessica packs her contentious clan off to bayou country in the hopes of getting past all the unpleasantness with a surprise vacation to a palatial plantation.

What a great idea!

Upon arrival, Anna meets Isaac (Jacob Lofland), a creepy boy who hangs out at the general store run by Grandpappy (Doug Van Liew), a creepy old geezer. Next thing you know, Isaac and Grandpappy are invited to dinner and hell can proceed to break loose.

Isaac is aptly named, because he has a similar vibe of righteousness as the leader of Stephen King’s Corn kids, not to mention access to a great deal of personal information for a hick from the sticks.

The clever teen also performs “magic tricks” like lighting candles without a match and bringing the family cat back to life.

Grandpappy tells the Chambers’ that Isaac “appeared out of the swamp one day” and the local rubes have been following his lead ever since.

This isn’t good news for a family starting over and learning to trust each other. “The Devil is watching you,” Grandpappy warns John.

Whether or not there are supernatural forces at work in A House on the Bayou, is a back-and-forth situation, but eventually lands squarely in the affirmative camp, with a clear-cut case of pagan idolatry unfolding in modern day Louisiana.

Feel free to use your spare time to figure out Isaac’s origin story. I’m sure it’s a whopper.

Writer-director Alex McAulay shuffles his clue cards with sufficient dexterity to keep a reasonably bright viewer guessing. The ending comes from deep left field, but even so, you probably won’t ask for your money back.

Editor’s Note: Cheating husband John is considering leaving his stunningly gorgeous wife in favor of a less attractive candidate. Doesn’t ring true, sorry.