The Devil Below (2021)

It’s always the right time for comfort-food horror, and in The Devil Below we are served up another doomed expedition searching for answers in a subterranean hellhole.

We’ll have a double helping of monsters, and don’t spare the giblets, please!

How can you screw up such a basic recipe? Director Bradley Parker and writers Eric Scherbarth and Stefan Jaworski manage to do so almost immediately and never really gain their balance.

The Devil Below is a rote, budget-strapped feature, which wouldn’t be so bad, except it also fails to register any decent gore or creature shocks, quite an unforgiveable sin in my book.

A ragtag team (is there any other kind?) of geologists guided by Alpha Gal Arianne (Maria Sanz) is tasked with investigating an Appalachian coal mine that’s been burning for decades.

They soon discover that the real cause for alarm is a race of tunneling trogs who can’t decide if they’re Lovecraftian (starfish face) or just mole people in baggy clothes.

It’s really hard to say, since we never get a proper look, but they do brandish a poison claw that immobilizes the victim. Shawn (Chinaza Uche), a soon-to-be late geologist hypothesizes that they’re a new species that colonizes, like insects, but that’s as far as the analysis goes.

Veteran character actor Will Patton is onboard as a grizzled mine owner trying to avenge his dead son, but despite everyone’s best intentions, we end up with a pale and bloodless version of The Descent, a movie that remains the undisputed high watermark in the Underground Horror genre.

With its modest body count and some of the vaguest monsters on the block, The Devil Below is below average viewing, and I’m stuck for a compelling reason to sit through it.

You have been warned.

V.F.W. (2019)

At first glance, VFW plays out like an ol’ time blood bath, somewhere along the lines of John Carpenter’s Assault On Precinct 13, as waves of drug addicts storm a little bar defended by a determined band of geezers.

Carpenter-esque synthesizer stabs punctuate the carnage and gang members are decked-out in faux-leather bodywear, as if they’d just returned from a Spandau Ballet video shoot.

The uber-violent skirmish gets rolling when street urchin Lizard (Sierra McCormick) rips off Boz (Travis Hammer), a theatrical drug-dealing psychopath, and seeks shelter at a local watering hole inhabited by combat veteran ass-kickers itching for a little action.

Boz and his ruthless bodyguard Gutter (Dora Madison) inflict some damage, but ultimately they underestimate the tenacity and loyalty of these ancient warriors, resulting in an explosive comeuppance.

The action is nonstop, the blood is plentiful and stylishly rendered. You need further recommendation? VFW is a Fangoria production, so don’t expect a whole lot of dialogue.

Even so, somewhere during the third act, Fred the bartender (Stephen Lang) yells “Come on, you lazy bastard!” at his old foxhole buddy Walter (William Sadler), who responds, “I’m coming, dammit!”

Not a super noticeable moment unless you’re a fan of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, but it demonstrates that director Joe Begos (Almost Human) and writers Max Brallios and Matthew McArdle know and respect their antecedents when it comes to movies about hopelessly outnumbered men fighting for a cause.

In addition to Lang and Sadler, the pedigreed supporting cast includes Martin Kove (The Karate Kid), Fred “The Hammer” Williamson (From Dusk Till Dawn), George Wendt (Cheers), and David Patrick Kelly (Twin Peaks, Commando), all of whom have swell screentime dismembering, impaling, and perforating platoons of savage tweakers.

Kelly, who distinguished himself as the evilest gang member ever in Walter Hill’s classic The Warriors, is particularly poignant as an old stoner on his last legs who chooses to die with his boots on.

Peckinpah would be proud of this bunch. Carpenter too, probably.

Things Heard and Seen (2021)

Originally published in Mystery and Suspense, July 4, 2021

The enchanting Amanda Seyfried does her doggone best as an unobservant wife coming to grips with her husband’s dark side in the Netflix production Things Heard and Seen. She is typically radiant, even in sweatshirt and jeans, and shows plenty of intestinal fortitude

Still, one wonders how bright she can be since her scheming husband George (James Norton) is about 96 percent dark side.

Based on the novel All Things Cease to Appear by Elizabeth Brundage, Seyfried plays Catherine Claire, an urban sophisticate from Manhattan who packs up her life and daughter and relocates to a small, upstate town called Chosen, when her hubby lands a gig teaching art history at a nearby college.

Their new home is a former dairy farm, and Catherine throws herself into making the place livable, but confesses to a friend on the phone that she feels isolated in the close-knit scholastic hamlet. George, meanwhile, hits on a visiting student from Cornell (Natalia Dyer).

No surprise, George is a lying, cheating, sociopath, a fact that becomes painfully obvious to everyone except Catherine, and eventually even she grows wise to his machinations and gaslighting.

Things get paranormal as both Catherine and her daughter Franny sense the haunting presence of the previous lady of the house, who was murdered by her own husband. Apparently it’s a tradition that dates back to house’s construction.

To further complicate matters, the sons of the deceased woman show up and ask Catherine for jobs as farm hands! Catherine ends up making out with older brother Eddie (Alex Neustaeder) after gradually realizing her husband is an amoral monster.

There are loose ends a-plenty (you could knit a sweater), but none more clumsy than George’s obvious malevolence. He complains about Franny being scared of a real ghost and needing to sleep with her parents, thus denying him the opportunity to have relations with his comely wife.

There’s a chance that poor George is under the influence of several generations of wife-killers on this Dairy of the Damned, but like Jack Torrance, he doesn’t offer much in the way of resistance.

I confess to loving the ludicrous Biblical ending, which is straight out of a Wendy Webb novel. The last we see of villainous George is on a sinking sailboat to hell before the scene morphs into a George Innes painting that ties together a few of those loose ends I mentioned earlier.

I think writer-directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini crafted themselves a batty, but entertaining thriller. If you can accept a few gaping plot holes, Things Heard and Seen is definitely worth a gander.

Shadow in the Cloud (2020)

Who knew there was a Palm Springs Film Festival?

In any case, Roseanne Liang distinguished herself there as a “Director To Watch” based on critical reception to her Weird War horror-drama Shadow in the Cloud, currently showing on Hulu.

Set during the waning days of the Second World War, protagonist Maude Garrett (Chloe Grace Moretz) is a plucky pilot who’s managed to fast-talk her way onto a departing B-17, also known as a Flying Fortress, with some top secret cargo.

Maude is an attractive woman, so the male crew wastes no time in bitching about her presence on the plane, that is, when they’re not making lewd suggestions to her over the com-link.

Eventually their suspicions are justified, as Maude proves to be a stowaway with a baby tucked into her carry-on bag. Unfortunately, she’s not the only surprise passenger.

The crew’s original mission of tracking Japanese naval positions comes up now and then, but the real guts of the movie focus on Maude defying gravity in a slugfest with a nasty gremlin, a sabotage-minded creature that’s taken a fancy to her bambino.

Apparently, a top-secret mission wasn’t spicy enough. Let’s throw a monster in the mix! This is always a good idea.

Seriously though, the vertiginous scenes of a kick-ass mom rasslin’ on the wings of an airplane with a savage little monster sent my blood pressure through the ceiling. If you factor in a high-altitude juggling act with a baby stashed in a satchel, it’s practically panic inducing.

At this point in the film’s trajectory, Shadow in the Cloud abandons any pretense of earnest storytelling in favor of white-knuckle action, and I’m okay with that.

Moretz shines bright as Alpha Female on a Plane, protecting her identity, her child, and indeed, most of the sexist dickheads aboard.

All in a day’s work for a single mother with superior survival skills.

Shadow in the Cloud awkwardly jumps a few genre fences but the engine maintains a full head of steam screaming into Thrillsville Station.

I’m going to join with the good citizens of Palm Springs in their enthusiasm for the emerging talents of Roseanne Liang. *Golf clap*

Psycho Goreman (2020)

Originally published in Mystery and Suspense, May 22, 2021

Surely there is a universe where Psycho Goreman would be considered family friendly entertainment. 

You know, like E.T.? Maybe? Sorta?

The latest spectacle by Canadian makeup artist-turned-filmmaker Steven Kostanski, (see also 2016’s cosmic-horror blood bath The Void), Psycho Goreman is indeed the story of a family, but they’re not very friendly.

More like a Dysfunctional Family Circus, as conceived by Spielberg in a rare subversive mood. 

Let’s start with Dad. Greg (Adam Brooks) is one of the worst fathers ever committed to celluloid. A lazy, resentful nitwit, he’s married to Susan (Alexis Kara Hancey), the primary breadwinner, who does her best to keep the clan operational. 

Daughter Mimi (Nita-Josee Hanna) is a hotheaded Narcissist, and calls all the shots in this house. Her long-suffering brother Luke (Owen Myre) is an occasional co-conspirator, but more often than not, an easily bullied opponent.

The balance of power is further tipped in Mimi’s favor when Luke finds an ancient amulet that contains a monstrous alien warlord (Matthew Ninaber), imprisoned several millennia beforehand for trying to conquer the galaxy. 

Luke discovers the artifact while digging his own grave. Mimi reminds him that he lost their most recent game of Crazy Ball, so he gets buried alive. 

Side Note: Crazy Ball is an unfathomable form of dodge ball that is the most sacred game in Mimi and Luke’s world, as well as their primary activity. And rules are rules. 

Since she won at Crazy Ball (she always does), Mimi takes ownership of the talisman and thus controls the most powerful being in existence.

“Do you have a name, monster man?” Mimi asks the towering gargoyle.  

My enemies sometimes refer to me as the archduke of nightmares,” the giant says, in a basso profundo arch-villain voice. 

“Well, that sucks.” Mia replies unfazed. “Never mind, we can workshop this.” The kids subsequently dub him Psycho Goreman (or PG), after watching him dismember a street gang. 

Psycho Goreman writer-director Kostanski artfully creates hilarious rubberized havoc in the style of Japan’s Tokosatsu movement—better known as Campy Superhero Versus Monster TV Shows (e.g., UltramanMighty Morphin Power Rangers)—that dates all the way back to the middle 20th century. 

And much like the juvenile delinquents over at Troma Entertainment (Toxic Avenger etc.), Kostanski loves blood, guts, and sick monster suits. Yet somehow the action here never degenerates into mere schlock, and we find ourselves rooting for a vicious villain against the forces that come his way. 

As PG faces off against a barrage of interstellar assassins and vengeful demigods that want him out of the picture, we see an evil soulless creature learn just a little bit about love and human compassion. This observation applies principally to Mimi, but also to PG, who comes to appreciate terrestrial pleasures like magazines, hunky boys, and television from his prepubescent captors. 

Slick fight choreography, brilliant character designs, and outrageous dialogue keep our higher senses engaged, while our lizard brains wallow in vivid onscreen pandemonium.  

Sprinkled into all the frenetic mayhem is a sneaky anti-moralist message, one that’s the exact opposite of heroic, as Mimi decides that all the responsibility and power is kind of a pain. 

Eventually, she gives PG his freedom so he can continue his mission to destroy the universe. 

Except for the part Mimi and her family live in. So heartwarming. So wrong. 

Sator (2019)

Filmmaker Jordan Graham’s docu-horror Sator is an odd hybrid creature that really digs in its claws. Graham is responsible for every detail, including building a desolate cabin in the woods near Santa Cruz, which explains why the movie spent six years in preproduction.

Sator is partially the (real) story of Graham’s grandmother Nani (June Peterson) who appears in the movie as herself, discussing her history of channeling a guardian spirit called Sator. She’s written hundreds of pages inspired by the woodland entity that, she claims, controls the rural world that surrounds her.

Graham utilizes these interviews with Nani to extrapolate an eerie, dreary tale about her grandson Adam (Gabe Nicholson), a solitary forest dweller who (very) slowly gets drawn in by the machinations of Sator. Or perhaps he’s afflicted with the same mental illness that consumed his mother and grandmother. Or both.

On one of his periodic visits, his brother Pete (Michael Daniel) asks Adam if he’s hearing voices. He replies in the affirmative, as if this is all familiar territory to these damaged siblings. When Adam’s dog disappears, he is effectively untethered and falls even harder.

Sator is a humble, terrifying slice of folk horror that succeeds because Graham has left nothing to chance. It’s clearly a labor of love that generated its own momentum, and Graham took the time to carefully blend the real with the unreal. Each frame is a brooding still-life, with the encroaching nature photography especially menacing, as if there truly were a malevolent figure lurking behind the nearest shrub. Watching. You.

Graham’s visual style can best be described as Nature Noir, with overhanging trees choking off any trace of light in the lives of this blighted family. Graham’s camera shifts from color to black and white, following a hopeless trajectory of impending doom.

Not all genre devotees will have the patience for Sator, a movie floating in foreboding, but with little in the way of dialogue and action. I’m recommending that you stay and watch.

If you have the bandwidth to soak up even a fraction of the dread depicted onscreen, it should prove a transformative experience. Good luck, whatever you decide.

Hunter Hunter (2020)

Originally published in Mystery and Suspense, April 25, 2021

A backwoods survivalist pursues a rogue wolf that threatens his family—and finds something infinitely worse, in Shawn Linden’s Hunter Hunter

Somewhere in the wilds of Manitoba, Joseph Mersault (Devon Sawa), his wife Anne (Camille Sullivan), and daughter Renee (Summer Howell), grind out a primitive existence by trapping critters and selling their pelts. 

While this lifestyle is ideal for Joseph, a laconic hunter and woodsman, Anne is tired of hauling furs to the store to bargain for food, and communicating with her husband via Walkie Talkie. Most of all, she wants Renee to go to school and have real friends.

Joseph has been arduously training his daughter to be self-reliant in nature, so Anne’s pitch for a return to civilization doesn’t mesh with his mission. 

“We don’t run from our problems,” he reminds her. 

“You’re scared of people,” she counters.

“This is our home,” Joseph declares. “And nothing pushes us out of our home.”

Future plans are put on hold when Joseph finds carcass evidence of a vicious wolf stealing from their trap lines. As expected, Joseph, the seasoned hunter, disappears into the forest primeval to track the animal and kill it. A solid plan except for one detail: He doesn’t return. 

“Joseph, are you there?” Anne despondently asks her Walkie Talkie, as hours turn into days.

In his absence, Anne nervously tries to put food on the table, relying on Renee’s advice on skinning a fawn for their evening meal. Eventually, Anne hears someone calling for help in the darkness. Instead of the long-missing Joseph, she comes upon Lou (Nick Stahl), a badly injured stranger. Anne loads Lou onto her sled, brings him back to the cabin, and nurses his wounds. 

Renee doesn’t see the point. “He’s a stranger. Dad says we’re not supposed to trust strangers.”

“We’re helping him because that’s what you do when you find someone who needs help,” her mother explains.

But where’s Joseph? And who is Lou?

Writer-director Shawn Linden brings the great outdoors down around the viewer like a shroud. He employs his camera as a stealthy tracker shadowing Joseph, Anne, and Renee through the woods blurring the line between stalker and quarry.

Linden is unsentimental and straight forward in his depiction of frontier living, which includes knowing the correct way to skin and dress prey, so that it won’t ruin the food that’s necessary for survival. 

Anne is not as skilled as her husband and daughter, but she understands necessity.

Hunter Hunter maintains a heady tension for the duration of the film, which builds to a shockingly bloody conclusion. Anne’s final confrontation with the dangerous predator is not as a hunter, but a terrible avenger, and it will leave a mark on your psyche. 

Phantom of the Paradise (1974)

One of the great overlooked rock ‘n’ roll movies of the ages, Phantom of the Paradise has heart, soul, and everything else going for it. If you’ve not had the pleasure, you should rectify that situation.

Written and directed by Brian DePalma, with a score by star Paul Williams, it’s a fabulous ’70s freakout on The Phantom of the Opera, with sensational songs, staging, and costumes that positively revel in the pageantry of those high, hedonistic times.

Williams plays Swan, a seemingly ageless music industry Svengali who needs a new sound to open his ultimate rock palace, The Paradise.

At a show featuring one of his bands, Swan happens to catch the opening act, a nobody singer-songwriter named Winslow Leach (William Finley). Swan sends his agent, Philbin (George Memmoli), to bamboozle the hapless composer out of his entire song catalogue—and set him up to take a fall for dealing heroin, just for good measure.

Sentenced to life in Sing Sing Prison, Leach vows revenge against Swan, manages to escape, and becomes hideously disfigured in a record press accident while destroying Swan’s property.

Now a scarred mute monster, Leach returns to The Paradise, steals a really awesome costume and begins his life as the Phantom, orchestrating a terror campaign against Swan, who is busy trying to arrange Leach’s rock opera to be performed by Beef (Gerritt Graham, who steals the show), a Frank N. Furter-esque Glamazon.

Swan tracks down the Phantom/Leach and puts him under contract to write songs for Phoenix (Jessica Harper), a beautiful backup singer that’s captured his fancy.

The innocent and naive Phoenix is being groomed for success, but Leach doesn’t trust Swan and tries his best to protect her from the malevolent mogul’s diabolical reach.

Brian DePalma (The Untouchables, Dressed To Kill, Body Double) is at the height of his considerable cinematic powers, utilizing snappy split-screen and multi-screen perspectives to keep tabs on several characters at once.

This camera tactic becomes increasingly important as we approach the finale, a gloriously staged wedding extravaganza that culminates with a live assassination on the air.

I could go on for days about the variety of catchy tunes (“Upholstery/Where my baby sits up close to me/That’s supposed to be what life is all about!”), Williams’s masterful turn as Swan, and all the jaundiced observations about show business that still hold true today.

However, I would rather not deprive you of your own dive into this terrific time capsule. The 1970s ruled. Here’s the evidence.

We Summon The Darkness (2019)

Three metal chicks meet three metal dudes at a metal show. When they take the party back to Alexis’s (Alexandra Daddario) posh country house, things go horribly wrong in We Summon The Darkness, a cautionary tale of our times, if it were still 1988.

Alexis, Val (Maddie Hasson), and Beverly (Amy Forsyth), a trio of leather-clad hotties are on a road trip to a heavy metal concert in the late 1980s. Despite televised warnings of murder and Satanic corruption from an outraged preacher (Johnny Knoxville), the girls just want to have fun.

When they fall in with Mark (Keean Johnson), Ivan (Austin Swift), and Kovacs (Logan Miller), the two threesomes decide to pair off. Alexis suggests her nearby mansion for the after-party, and the boys eagerly follow them for implied good times, which needless to say, never materialize.

Instead, the lads are drugged and trussed up, unwilling participants in one of those Satanic rituals that nervous parents are always reading about.

Will a hero emerge? Depends on your definition of the word. The tables get turned, some people switch sides, and there’s a surprise reveal. There’s bloody murder and burning heads, which helps compensate for the lack of supernatural sizzle.

Written by Alan Trezza and directed by Marc Meyers, We Summon The Darkness meets the minimum requirements of a dark-comic slasher. As cinematic events unfold, we learn there isn’t a compelling reason for it to exist in a bygone decade, as opportunities to lampoon ’80s culture are mostly ignored.

Fair enough, but WSTD could have used some pepping up. The young actors, particularly Daddario and Hasson, acquit themselves in noble fashion and tension is made available, but there’s not much popping here in the way of style points or zippy dialogue.

It’s the actors, and the lunacy that ensues after all the cards are on the table that rescues We Summon The Darkness. I admit, the scenes of metalhead boys reduced to whimpering victims and hiding from lethal women were oddly satisfying. Probably because in 99.9 percent of all horror movies, a reversed gender dynamic is the predictable norm.

Movie-wise, it’s an itch that needs scratching.

The Block Island Sound (2021)

Originally published in Mystery and Suspense, April 4, 2021

Can a Rhode Island fishing family avoid ending up as Catch of the Day? That is the question posed in The Block Island Sound, an ominous maritime mystery conceived by Matthew and Kevin McManus, previously noted for writing several episodes of Netflix true-crime mockumentary American Vandal. 

This is a movie that only reluctantly divulges information, and the dangling possibilities we’re left with are not the least bit comforting. If you dig ambivalence and an atmosphere of constant dread, you’ll be hooked like a mackerel in no time. 

Consequently, viewers who prefer plausible scenarios may not have the patience to navigate these treacherous waters.

Tom Lynch (Neville Archambault), a hard-drinking boat captain, and his son Harry (Chris Sheffield), make their livings pulling fish from the Atlantic Ocean that surrounds their Block Island home. 

About the same time that Tom starts sleepwalking and blacking out, dead fish wash up on the beaches in record numbers. Tom’s daughter, Audry (Michaela McManus), a single mom who works for the EPA, arrives on the island—with her own kid (Matilda Lawler) in tow—to investigate the phenomenon.

It doesn’t take Audry long to notice that something is amiss with both the marine life and her pappy. Her daughter Emily wakes up screaming with Tom looming over her in the darkness. Tom subsequently disappears at sea and his boat is found abandoned. 

Be advised that the Brothers McManus do their best to distract and mislead the viewer by dropping plenty of red herrings, such as having the local police chief (Willie Carpenter) suggest to Harry that his father was no stranger to booze cruises.

When Harry experiences his own black-out symptoms, Audry and her less-pleasant sister Jen (Heidi Niedermeyer) discuss the notion that madness may run in the family—and that something will have to be done about it. 

The middle section of The Block Island Sound takes a tonal detour, concerning itself with the mundane details of mourning the family patriarch, and the further disintegration of Harry. The formerly stoic fisherman has become extremely agitated by nocturnal visits from the recently deceased Tom, commanding him to bring domestic and wild animals to the boat, and not in a nice, orderly, Noah’s Ark manner. 

Like his father before him, Harry awakens out at sea with nary a clue. Audry and Jen worry about their brother’s erratic behavior but are at a loss for solutions.

Whenever Harry starts doubting his own sanity, his drinking buddy Dale (Jim Cummings) appears to aggregate all the weird stuff that’s happening right under their noses on Block Island. Top-secret experiments, the presence of nearby wind turbines, sea monsters, government agents, weather anomalies, all get a day in conspiracy court. 

Later, Audry meets Kurt (Jeremy Horn), a reclusive local who shares her brother’s time-loss affliction. He in turn points her in a completely different direction, and urges Audry to grab her family and leave the island.

Instead, everyone ends up on the boat.  

Strangely enough, the closest thing to a reasonable explanation comes when Audry reassures Emily about the necessity of environmental research.

“Most of the fish we take out of the water, we put right back in just a few days later,” Audry tells her daughter. “We’re studying them so we can get to know them better. So we can help them better.

Emily protests that some fish don’t survive the experience.

“By taking some brave fish out of the water and learning about them, we can eventually help all the other fish,” Audrey concludes. “It’s a good thing we’re doing.”

Evidently, we’re not the only ones conducting experiments in the universe. As mentioned, the exact nature of the menace, whether aquatic, extra-terrestrial, or weirdly scientific, is never specified. 

But the implications offered by The Block Island Sound are more than enough to take seafood off the menu for a while.