Scare Me (2020)

Originally published in Mystery and Suspense, January 28, 2021

In Scare Me, two writers stay up all night in a Catskills cabin during a thunderstorm, telling frightening stories by firelight. Unexpectedly, it proves to be an instructive, positive experience until one of them turns out to be too fragile for personal growth.

Fanny Addie (Aya Cash) is a successful horror novelist with a bestseller in the charts. Fred Banks (writer-director Josh Ruben) is an advertising copywriter with a vague sense of entitlement and zero credits.

During a power outage, the two are thrown together and neophyte writer Fred probes the famous author for anything he can use. His questions about her current project cause Fanny to assume a defensive posture. 

“I never discuss my ideas. Some people steal, especially desperate white dudes like you,” she tells him. This observation takes place while she’s showing him how to build a fire in a dark cabin in the woods.

Yes, this is a horror movie of our times, and white men are called out for making things generally shittier through their mulish obstinacy. Over the course of one enchanted evening in a single location, Fanny challenges wannabe author Fred to put up, or shut up in a storytelling showdown.

“Come on Fred, it’s story time,” she coaxes. “No judgies.”

To his credit, Fred soon learns that he’s out of his league, as Fanny dissects his lame attempts at a narrative about a werewolf, calling it “trodden.”

“Details!” she howls at Fred during his painfully amateurish recital, followed by a barrage of suggestions: Use your space, show me the shakes, how come the kid’s mom knows how to handle a gun so well?

Fanny schools the dilettante scribe and mocks his pedestrian oratorical skills, but she also forcefully demonstrates how to tell a better story, by telling him a better story, about a little girl and her creepy grandfather.

“School” is the operative word in Scare Me, and Professor Stephen King hovers like a ghost in the room. Fanny doesn’t care for King’s Silver Bullet (“childish, campy garbage”) but does agree with King’s assertion that reading other authors can improve one’s chops. (Also, a minor character looks and talks like Kathy Bates in Misery.)

After a shaky start, Fred gets the hang of it, and for a time, feels what it’s like to have his creative juices flow. At this point, Scare Me is running with a full head of steam, shifting mood and tone in cavalier fashion, which is not a characteristic that will endear the movie to linear thinkers.

It’s definitely a dark comedy, but it’s hard to tell where we’re headed.

Fred and Fanny share definite chemistry, bonding over their mutual love of horror, specifically the painful puns dispensed by TV’s Cryptkeeper. They duel, dance, and embellish each other’s tales, while Ruben, from the director’s chair, employs a deep bag of inventive camera moves to create space—and honest-to-goodness frights—on a small set. No blood, no carnage, no kidding.

Note: Spoilers ahead

There are vivid moments when the lighting, dancing shadow play, and perspective shifts are reminiscent of Jonathan Demme’s moving ingenuity with Spaulding Gray’s stories in Swimming To Cambodia.  

Sadly, the creative honeymoon comes to an end, and Fred, instead of being grateful for getting a crash course in how to tell a decent story, decides his feelings are hurt, and that his own efforts will never be any good. So he devises a cheesy, horror movie finale, because he’s jealous and can’t think of anything more original.

The final act devolves into stalker boilerplate, and Fanny wants nothing to do with it, calling Fred out for a “bullshit” ending.

“You want my life? Do the work, do the work, do the work,” she yells, but by this time Fred is committed to his own ending, and has picked up a nearby fireplace poker.

Scare Me has a lot of things going on, not all of them are successfully realized. The ending, though it makes sense, still fizzles. And there’s definitely some fat that could have been trimmed along the way. Even so, there is much to admire. It’s both entertainingly told and long on ideas, particularly the joys and terrors of storytelling. 

Aya Cash is a fast-talking dynamo as Fanny, a demanding woman who just wants to hear something scary. Filmmaker Ruben portrays a no-talent schmuck in Scare Me, but in reality he’s clearly an artist on the ascent. His character Fred would be both proud and envious. 

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Amulet (2020)

Originally published in Mystery and Suspense, January 12, 2021

Some old war wounds never heal. In fact, they were designed to become more painful over time. Written and masterfully directed by BBC actress Romola Garai, Amulet is a slow-burn Gothic noir, about a homeless soldier trying to put the past behind him.

Tomaz (Alec Secareanu), a severely traumatized veteran of some nameless Eastern European conflict, finds himself in need of a place to crash after his London squat goes up in flames. 

Helpful nun Sister Claire (Imelda Staunton) offers him a peachy situation: Free room and board in a dank, shadowy old house, in exchange for handyman duties. Tomaz is initially reticent, but finds himself irresistibly drawn to Magda (Carla Juri), the sweet, nervous girl who lives in the house, caring for a surprisingly ferocious invalid mother (Anah Ruddin).

The house itself has passed the state of disrepair and is well into a spiral of decay rivaling the ancestral home of Roderick Usher. There is almost no light, and the camera lands on the abundant mold and water stains like a lazy fly on the wall. The hazy air itself has a bilious green hue, as if infected with something terminal.

When Tomaz tries to sleep, he dreams of the war, apparently stationed in a remote forest outpost. There, his lonely routine gets interrupted by the arrival of Miriam (Angeliki Papoulia), a refugee mother in search of her child.

Tomaz allows her to stay and the seeds of tragedy are sown. He only wanted to help. He tried to help.

Spoiler Alert: The waking and sleeping narratives are connected. This means bad news for the young soldier. 

Our sympathy for Tomaz is never exactly on solid ground. His unspecified wartime trauma erupts in nightly terrors, and his desire to liberate the long-suffering Magda, bound to serve a dangerous and unstable mother, is evidently sincere.

Tomaz pauses in his work one day to watch Magda wrap a bandage around a fresh bite wound on her arm. As the cliché goes, no good deed goes unpunished. In this instance, his instinct to come to a woman’s aid is the worst possible course of action a man can take. There are abundant horrors to be mined in the aftermath of military service. Amulet demonstrates that the most terrible is the false hope of redemption.

Tomaz is a haunted man, brought back from the brink of despair by the vague idea that he can atone for a misdeed, through an act of sacrifice. It’s that distant, faint illusion of hope that cuts the deepest, much like the illusion of being “a good man” that’s eventually ripped from Tomaz like old skin.

The forces at work here are as old as the avenging Furies of Greek Tragedy, and they haven’t lost any power to punish transgressors with brutal clarity. Like Oedipus the doomed king of Thebes (or Mickey Rourke in Angel Heart, for that matter), Tomaz can’t identify himself as the cause of his own misery until it’s far too late to escape an awful fate, one that befits an unforgiveable crime.

Amulet is seriously grim going—though handsomely filmed—and includes interludes of body horror that would give David Cronenberg the willies. It also progresses at a snail’s pace, which works to the film’s advantage, allowing the viewer to gradually get acclimated to the accursed atmosphere.

Even so, when we’re finally able to consider the grand scale of justice served at the conclusion of Romola Garai’s vivid and terrible revenge tale, the effect is breathtaking—and should not be missed.

Death Of Me (2020)

This is a classic Good News/Bad News situation.

The Good News is that Death Of Me is tourist trauma at its most heinous, so if you dig watching Yuppies circle the drain for 94 minutes, tormented at every turn by language barriers and hallucinations, this is your ticket.

Christine (Maggie Q) and Neil (Luke Hemsworth) wake up hungover in their Thai B&B, with scant memories of the night before. Christine’s passport and phone are missing, and there’s a major typhoon headed for the little island.

Fortunately, Neil’s phone has a two-hour video that explains the missing hours. Apparently, after getting dosed on “Island Magic” and tripping their brains out, Neil and Christine engaged in rough sex. Then Neil strangles Christine and buries her body.

Just to add a touch of verisimilitude, Christine vomits up dirt and grass while watching footage of her own murder.

The film primarily consists of Christine losing track of time (and husband), before regaining consciousness in a succession of locations.

The couple gradually deduce that Christine has been selected as a sacrifice to heathen gods in order to insure that the island remains safe from impending bad weather.

Holding his cell phone, Neil asks Christine, “Who did the guy in The Wicker Man call?”

“Nobody,” she replies. “He got burned to death.”

At least someone is in on the joke.

While Death Of Me contains exotic scenery and the pace fairly gallops, we now come to the Bad News. The word “half-baked” comes to mind.

My theory is director Darren Lynn Bousman (Repo! The Genetic Opera, Saw II) was vacationing on a beautiful island off the coast of Thailand, and the combination of good weed and charming local culture resulted in a “Eureka” moment.

As previously mentioned, the resemblance to The Wicker Man is even remarked upon by poor Neil and Christine themselves. Throw in a little Rosemary’s Baby, and you’ve got a serviceable horror happening.

Honest opinion? Death Of Me doesn’t add up to much, and none of the actors break a sweat, dramatically speaking.

The Thai folk-horror ritual elements conjure some intense, eerie moments, but they’re few and far between.

Keep your passport in the drawer and stay home.

The Platform (2019)

Welcome to The Platform, a dystopian future where a prison sentence becomes a daily feeding frenzy or a grim kick in the guts, depending on what level of the prison you’re incarcerated.

Somewhere in Europe there is an immense tower with hundreds of floors. Called a Vertical Self-Management Center (or simply “the hole”), the tower has two prisoners per floor.

Once a day a platform with the remains of a grand feast is lowered to each floor, and famished convicts shovel as much food as they can into their mouths, caring not one whit for the unfortunates beneath them.

Prisoners on the highest floor gorge themselves, while those below Level 50 or so, find less and less to eat.

And if you’re on Level 172? Improvise.

Lest we think this set-up perpetually favors the higher floors, there’s a catch. After one month, the prisoners are put to sleep and moved to another level. So one day, you might be fine dining on prime rib, the next, your cellmate.

If you guessed that this is a brutal allegory of class warfare, give yourself a star.

The protagonist, Goreng (Ivan Massague), awakens in the tower, with vicious little cellmate Trimagasi (Zorion Eguileor) as his only company. Gradually, he gets used to the ugly routine, watching as Trimagasi literally pisses on the prisoners housed below them.

As Goreng serves his time, whether starving or stuffed, he attempts to talk to those above and below about a means of cooperation to feed everyone in the prison. Though his efforts are routinely scorned, he sees a bigger picture in the small solidarity movement.

Director Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia (The Platform is in Spanish with subtitles) has created his own Stanford Prison Experiment, where guards are only necessary once a month. The inmates provide their own cruelty, happily spilling blood over a chicken leg or an extra mouthful of wine.

Goreng, a fundamentally decent fellow who only wants to help, is forced into several violent confrontations with fellow prisoners. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it’s all rather harsh sledding and not intended for the squeamish, especially if cannibalism is a trigger.

As concepts go, “Eat or Be Eaten” isn’t especially profound. Fortunately, Gaztelu-Urrutia is an ambitious, inventive visual stylist, painstakingly painting a nightmare society that is literally devouring itself.

The Platform isn’t the least bit subtle. Sometimes a sledgehammer is the best tool for the job.

Mayhem (2017)

For every miserable corporate cog subjected to the petty tyranny of a jagoff boss, there is Mayhem. Watch and laugh yourself silly as chaos and cruelty erupt in the bowels of a Fortune 500 company. (Ewww)

Derek Cho (Steven Yeun, from The Walking Dead) is an up-and-coming financial analyst working for a mega-corp overseen by cokehead asshole John Towers (Steven Brand).

When Towers conspires to have Derek take the fall for a botched account, the young financier vows vengeance—and gets an opportunity almost immediately thanks to an airborne virus that’s causing citizens to forget their inhibitions and act out violent thoughts and impulses.

Now there’s a stroke of luck!

With the skyscraper under quarantine, Derek scales the corporate ladder in a rage of bloodlust, accompanied by an angry client (Samara Weaving, who’s building an impressive genre resume) with a nail gun and her own ax to grind.

Director Joe Lynch (Wrong Turn 2) douses Mayhem in bloody waves of comic gore, following Derek’s rise to the top and revenge against treacherous co-workers. Lynch takes the Jewish mother approach to doling out the carnage, and the effects are wickedly clever.

The action is fierce, funny, and fast, with tight fight choreography and no unnecessary character development. We get exactly what we want: Ascending floors of hi-octane slaughter, whereh any sharp or blunt object within reach comes into play.

Lynch and writer Mattias Caruso pull back just a smidgen from complete anarchy by instilling in Derek a deep streak of decency that even a raging virus can’t overcome.

Ultimately, Mayhem strikes a huge sympathetic chord familiar to the working wounded everywhere. Who hasn’t fantasized about going nuclear on the boss? Or your meathead co-workers? Or the zombies in HR?

And who the hell took Derek’s coffee cup?

Offload those feelings of negativity that are affecting your productivity. Take stock of your potential and join us for a short morale meeting. If you fully appreciate the soul-crushing mundanity of Office Space, then Mayhem could be a life-changing cathartic event.

As Above, So Below (2014)

Hey gang, who’s up for some tomb raiding?

Scarlett (Perdita Weeks) is a beautiful and fearless archaeologist searching for the fabled Philosopher’s Stone, an alchemical instrument of great power, stashed amongst the bone-strewn catacombs beneath Paris.

Too bad the road to riches leads perilously close to the gates of Hell. Next time, stay with the tour, lady!

Written and directed by John Erick Dowdle, As Above, So Below is part Blair Witch Project with a splash of Indiana Jones, combining found-footage of claustrophobic exploration with a deadly descent into a haunted underworld from which escape seems a faint possibility.

The pace spasms between breakneck thrills, sudden horrifying obstacles, and episodes of hieroglyphic dexterity, as Scarlett shepherd’s her team through a booby trapped limbo where fragments of their collective past keep biting them on the ass.

The found-footage aspect of the production is handled efficiently, not calling undue attention to itself, making the periodic explosions of paranormal terror and graphic violence even more trauma inducing.

The words of a minor character become the company mantra: “The only way out is down.”

Perdita Weeks is a capable and headstrong heroine, energizing Scarlett with proficiency as well as a complicated set of emotions, as she tries to finish the life’s work that drove her father to suicide.

Not only that, but she might be developing serious feelings for her linguist friend, George (Ben Feldman).

My critic’s cap is off to Dowdle, who fuses furious frights and exhilarating mayhem in one satisfying adventure. It’s a dark, intense quest, but ultimately we’re the better for having seen it through.

Happy Death Day (2017)

Can beleaguered sorority girl Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) solve her own murder on her birthday?

Happy Death Day swipes the central motif from Bill Murray’s romantic comedy Groundhog Day, and sticks a knife in it, as Tree gets to relive the same day over and over, concluding with her vicious murder at the hands of a baby masked maniac.

Tree begins her recurring day by waking up in the dorm room bed of Carter (Israel Broussard), a dorky, but genuinely nice guy.

From there, she stumbles past a collection of local collegiate color, blows off a former date, ignores a birthday cupcake, dodges her dad on the phone, goes to a lunch meeting with house Big Sister Danielle (Rachel Matthews), makes out with her handsome (married) professor (Charles Aitken), and attends her own surprise party.

As in Groundhog’s Day, Tree gradually realizes that she’s been a selfish bitch, and uses her birthday mulligan to mend fences with Dad (Jason Bayle), roommate Laurie (Ruby Modine), and Carter, to whom she’s grown quite attached.

Tree even contrives to knock off a serial killer (Rob Mello) that’s in the vicinity, but to no avail. Someone keeps murdering her.

Director Chris Landon (son of Little House papa Michael Landon, and director of Freaky) and writer Scott Lobdell cram a ton of entertainment into a borrowed concept, giving equal time to solving Tree’s murder and improving her interpersonal skills.

Jessica Rothe demonstrates grace under fire (except when she’s losing her shit), evolving from a reckless bimbo to a quick-thinking warrior who won’t let go of her seemingly endless lives without a fight.

Happy Death Day is surprisingly funny and moving, inspiring a sequel two years later, as well as plans for a third film.

I’ll let you know how it all plays out.

Note: The Netflix miniseries Russian Doll, created by Natasha Lyonne and Amy Poehler, has a similar Do Over Death Day angle. Just sayin’.

Stage Fright (1987)

The lead dancer (Barbara Cupisti) in a theater company sprains her ankle and goes to a nearby mental hospital to get it treated. She catches the eye of notorious serial killer Irving Wallace (Clain Parker), who promptly escapes and hitches a ride back to rehearsal.

Congratulations are in order to the creative triumvirate of director Michele Soavi, and writers Sheila Goldberg and George Eastman, for coming up with the flimsiest pretext ever for a bloody rampage!

When the company wardrobe mistress (Ulrike Schwerk) gets a pick ax through the eye in the theater parking lot, enterprising director Peter (David Brandon) decides to rewrite the script and make it about Wallace, the very maniac currently making hash out of the cast and crew.

You have to admire Peter’s ability to pivot, but seriously?

Director Soavi (Cemetery Man) has collaborated with the likes of Dario Argento, Terry Gilliam, and Lucio Fucli, so we’re in good hands from a visual standpoint. In Stage Fright, he devises splashy, theatrical kills, most notably the chainsaw bifurcation of dancer Sybil (Jo Ann Smith).

Note: Her sad guts are later nibbled on by Lucifer, the theater cat. Naughty kitty!

Stage Fright (Italian title Deliria) is a gaudy product of first-generation MTV aesthetics with a side of giallo, as Soavi’s staccato pulse of quick takes drives home the doomed plight of actors in various stages of distress, pursued by a savage killer in an owl costume.

Trust me, it’s creepy from any angle.

With its New Wave zoom cutting and blaring wall of Rick Wakeman-style synthesizer, Stage Fright is a lurid, fleshy artifact that gyrates at a brisk clip and doesn’t skimp on the carnage.

I call that time well spent.

His House (2020)

Yes, you should watch His House. It’s captivating and terrifying from the opening scene and never looks back.

London filmmaker Remi Weekes makes a stunning debut with a ghost story about Sudanese refugees trying to start a new life in England. But you know it’s going to take them a while to unpack all that trauma.

Bol Majur (Sope Dirisu) and his wife Rial (Wunmi Mosaku) have survived multiple tragedies escaping their war-torn homeland, leaving behind a deceased daughter and rival tribes with guns bent on annihilating each other.

In England, the Majurs are assigned a shabby government house and their lives are overseen by grumbling official Mark Essworth (Matt Smith), who seems peeved that the refugees aren’t grateful enough.

The Majurs are warned in no uncertain terms that they must stay in their assigned unit and observe innumerable conditions or they will be sent back to Sudan (and certain death).

The new abode comes with faulty wiring, peeling wallpaper, and plenty of ghosts, led by their seething daughter Nyagak (Malaika Wakoli-Abigaba), who has not passed on peacefully.

Bol tries to rationalize and pretend everything is fine, but slowly begins to lose his grip as the pressure of appearing happy and grateful in a haunted house takes its toll, and he freaks out in front of Essworth.

Rial wants to go back home, but Bol digs in and confronts their tormentor—and a deal is struck.

His House demands a thorough investigation for which you’ll be amply rewarded. Remi Weekes is a major talent with superb cinematic instincts.

With Bol and Rial trapped inside their house, Weekes tightens into claustrophobic closeups, and we’re practically a fly on the wall, witnessing encounters with the undead that grow increasingly disturbing.

Outside, the landscape is ruined, desolate, and confusing. When Rial asks for directions, she’s told by a rambunctious bunch of Black English schoolboys to “Go back to Africa.”

Weekes adds unlikely racism to a mounting list of stressors bedeviling a determined couple who’ve already been through hell, thank you very much.

Yet, as we all know, you can’t have a new beginning until old accounts have been settled. Somehow.

Blood Vessel (2019)

It’s a clever touch.

Blood Vessel is obviously a movie about vampires on board a ship, but the title also refers to the doomed crew’s containment effort to stop a terrible blood-borne infection from reaching port.

Nutshell: A veritable United Nations of lifeboat survivors from a torpedoed hospital ship are hopelessly adrift somewhere in the water during the waning days of World War II.

There’s two Australians (Nathan Phillips, Alyssa Sutherland), a whiny British spook (John Lloyd Fillingham), a taciturn Russian (Alex Cooke), and a pair of Americans: a useful black sailor (Lydell Jackson), and a surly Italian cook (Mark Diaco) from the mean streets of Central Casting.

The improbable company hops aboard a derelict German ship and spends about 45 minutes exploring its innards, discovering burned, mutilated sailors, priceless art treasures, and an anemic child (Ruby Isobell Hall).

I realize that seems like quite a bit of action, but when spread over the entirety of the running time (a tidy 93 minutes), the pace is almost geologic.

As written and directed by Australian special effects maestro Justin Dix, Blood Vessel is mostly stuff we’ve seen before, wrapping Nazis in occult robes for another spin around the block.

Despite a fondness for familiar tropes, Dix has some inspired moments. His depiction of an Old World vampire clan that does most of its damage from a distance by psychically manipulating the infected sailors, is a fresh idea.

The hands-off approach to slaughter however, somewhat dilutes the impact of these powerful undead beings, though the creature concept and monstrous makeup are on point.

It’s too bad the vampires don’t get more screen time. Instead we learn personal details about members of the doomed crew so that past tragedies can still inform the present—especially when bloodsuckers start messing with their heads.

And with all the bad accents flying around, we’re having enough trouble remembering the parade of nations on display. Fortunately, the Australian speaks German, and the Russian understands Romanian.

With a structural resemblance to Aliens, minus the tension, spendy effects, and brilliant cast, Blood Vessel is serviceable entertainment at best, which doesn’t mean there’s no fun to be had.

There’s just not enough to go around.