What Keeps You Alive (2018)

Talk about a relationship with serious obstacles.

Jules (Brittany Allen) and Jackie (Hannah Anderson) are a married gay couple who go off for a romantic weekend to a well-appointed house in rural Canada that belongs to Jackie’s family.

In horror movies, romantic weekends are second only to make-out pot parties as an invitation to trauma. What Keeps You Alive is no exception.

What’s different here is the source of the threat. Soon after their arrival, the couple is visited by Sarah (Martha MacIsaac), a local who recognizes Jackie, but calls her by the name “Megan.”

The next morning Jackie tries to murder Jules by pushing her off a cliff. This unexpected development caused my friend Kaja to remark, “I guess she fell for the wrong girl.”

Jules does not die in the fall, so Jackie begins tracking her, shouting conciliatory messages about sorry she is, and that she wants to take Jules home.

The single scariest moment in What Keeps You Alive is when Jules, hiding behind a tree from Jackie, sees her wife’s flat emotionless face while she’s yelling endearments.

Presently, Jackie gets tired of playing the concerned mate and informs the unseen Jules that she knows the woods like the back of her hand and escape is impossible.

The sexual dynamic between the two lovers hovers over the carnage, occasionally referenced in flashback, as writer-director Colin Minihan explores the depths of betrayal that Jackie has orchestrated.

There’s plenty of nail-biting action, including a riveting rowboat chase across the lake, that will keep you close to the panic button.

Minihan alternates between closeups of injured and frightened Jules running through the house, and long establishing shots of the unforgiving terrain, effectively adding weight to the already considerable tension.

There are enough twists and reversals to keep even the most astute thriller fan off balance, and both Allen and Anderson bring everything they have to their respective roles.

We’re predisposed to root for Jules, who proves tougher than she looks, but Jackie’s unfolding madness is spellbinding. She shifts and sheds personalities seemingly at will to keep Jules on the defensive. Whether she’s cajoling, cursing, or crying it’s hard to get an accurate reading on Jackie.

Mercenary? Maniac? Misunderstood?

At one point Jules demands an answer. “What happened to you? Was it your father? Did he do something to you?” she asks.

“It was nature, not nurture,” Jackie answers deadpan.

Definitely worth your time.

Willy’s Wonderland (2021)

S’okay.

Granted, Willy’s Wonderland is an entertaining movie, but director Kevin Lewis and writer G. O. Parsons ultimately underdeliver on the fright front. Yes, Nicolas Cage gives a spirited performance as a mute janitor battling Satanic forces inside a cursed restaurant, but much of the action feels like missed opportunity.

A man of few words (Cage) blows a couple tires while traveling the backroads of the country. Local entrepreneur Tex Macadoo (Ric Reitz) and his tow-truck driving flunky (Chris Warner) take charge of the situation, offering to fix the stranger’s bitchin’ car in exchange for a night’s work, cleaning up Willy’s Wonderland, a former family eatery (think Chuck E. Cheese) inhabited by evil mascots who made a deal with the devil.

Cage agrees to the terms, and thus embarks on an earnest quest to restore the decaying fun zone to its former pristine condition. There are even inspired montage sequences that feature serious deep cleaning by NC that made me laugh.

The squad of evil automatons (a gorilla, an alligator, a Mexican bandit, a fairy, a knight, and a weasel) are one of those aforementioned wasted opportunities, as they turn out to be easily disposed of by the industrious janitor.

The only thing keeping Cage from really cleaning house, is a recurring gag that has him taking breaks in the middle of combat, where he guzzles an energy drink and plays pinball for a while. The bit gets tiresome and momentum grinds to a halt.

Comic actress Beth Grant (The Mindy Project) is on hand as a corrupt sheriff keeping the town’s dirty secret, and she provides a level of energy and commitment that compensates for some of the script shortcomings.

Willy’s Wonderland has moments of divine lunacy. There could and should have been more.

Last Shift (2014)

It’s been firmly established in horror that a police station is no longer a safe space. Assault on Precinct 13, The Terminator, and Jeepers Creepers are just a few examples of cop shops under siege, and now we can add Last Shift to the list.

Rookie policewoman Jess Loren (Juliana Harkavy) is assigned closing night desk duty at a soon-to-be-shuttered precinct house. Her mission is to wait for a Hazmat team to show up and cart off some hazardous waste material that ended up as evidence.

While awaiting the arrival of the cleanup crew, Loren is visited by a homeless man who pees on her floor, a gabby hooker, and the ghost of an officer who died alongside her father (also a cop) when they apprehended John Michael Payman (Joshua Mikel), a Manson-ish cult leader exactly one year before.

Whew! That’s a helluva lot of backstory for one shift!

Payman and two of his rabid followers hung themselves at this very station and apparently their very evil sprits are still bedeviling the premises, moving things around, flicking the lights, and changing the TV to Payman Per View.

Does Officer Loren have the right stuff to keep the ghosts at bay and finish her shift? All I can say is perhaps she should have listened to her guidance counselor and gone to veterinary school.

Last Shift has a skinny budget, but director-writer Anthony DiBlasi stuffs gruesome thrills and shocks into his plot like a cheapskate packing for a long trip.

Harkavy emotes convincingly as the protagonist who’s having a really bad day at work, melting down in fairly realistic fashion as the nasty ghosts finally get a foothold in her head.

The ending is decidedly downbeat, but the action is brisk and unpredictable, and at times, genuinely frightening. Recommended.

One Dark Night (1982)

The dueling subplots in One Dark Night don’t actually connect until about three-quarters of the way through the movie, but when they do, something magical happens. The big subplot eats the little subplot.

Welcome back to the 1980s when teenagers were actually much older than they look. Golden boy Steve (David Mason Daniels) has got to be pushing 30, and his Queen Bee Bitch ex-girlfriend Carol (Robin Evans) is from a similar demongraphic.

Carol is the leader of a girl gang imaginatively named The Sisters, comprised of Leslie (E.G. Daily, forever known as Dottie, from Pee Wee’s Big Adventure) and Kitty (Leslie Speights), a sassy black teen with a toothbrush in her mouth.

Hmmph. Three girls. Some gang.

The latest initiate into The Sisters, Julie (Meg Tilly, in her debut), is Steve’s new flame, so Carol cruelly demands that she spend an entire night in a mausoleum!

To add to her discomfort, Kitty gives Julie Demarol, a powerful painkiller, instead of the sleeping pills she promised. All the better for her to be in a tripped-out state of mind when the other girls sneak back into the mausoleum to frighten her with their lame ghost costumes.

Mean girls. Always been a thing.

The other narrative involves the death of a famous Russian psychic named Raymar, recently discovered alongside a pile of dead girls. The psychic’s daughter Olivia (Melissa Newman) is warned by a mysterious albino (Donald Hotton) that her father had figured out how to drain “bio energy” from people and save it up to return from the grave.

Which he does.

By the time Raymar, crackling with psychic energy, kicks his way out of the crypt, Julie is high as a kite and her tormentors are getting mobbed by freshly revived corpses.

Coffins come springing out of the walls revealing folks in various states of decomposition who quickly dogpile on Kitty and Carol, smothering them in rotting flesh. Ewwww!

It’s this twisted, nightmarish conclusion to One Dark Night that rescues a small-scale, perfunctory movie that’s also bereft of blood and guts. A modest round of applause goes to writer-director Tom McLaughlin for successfully pulling his fat out of the fire.

Moral of the Story: Even if you’re a budget-strapped director with maxed-out credit cards, you need to deliver on some horrific level to get respect around these part.

Editor’s Note: Fans of 60s-era Batman will be disappointed in the amount of screen time allotted to Adam West, as Olivia’s husband. He doesn’t get to do shit.

The Beach House (2020)

Turns out an extinction event is no day at the beach.

Two couples get acquainted over wine and weed edibles at a sweet shack by the seashore during an atmospheric catastrophe, after which everything changes for the worse.

Written and directed by Jeffrey A. Brown, The Beach House conjures scare scenarios along the same lines as The Block Island Sound and Color Out Of Space, a pair of recent cosmic horror entries that are also long on tension and short on answers.

College sweethearts in crisis, Randall (Noah Le Gros) and Emily (Liana Liberato), take a break from academia to spend the weekend at Randall’s family beach house.

It all looks promising until another pair of beachcombers arrive with a reservation for the same weekend. Awkward!

Mitch (Jake Weber) and Jane (Maryann Nagel), a distantly recognized, slightly older couple, are amiable and open to suggestions. The newly formed quartet agree to share quarters and a dinner party becomes the order of the day.

Like all civilized people, we welcome members into our tribe with barbecued meat, wine, and really potent edibles. Old records are played, dreams discussed, and for a short time these strangers relax in each other’s company in a beautiful home by the sea.

As a curiously glittered fog descends, Jane winds her way down to the beach.

It’s not a spoiler to say that everything falls apart, because it does so in such an artfully considered way. The Beach House depicts a low-key apocalypse that implodes an idyllic weekend getaway, and offers four stagnant souls an opportunity to embrace real change.

Writer-director Brown is an avowed fan of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (every iteration), and he creates perpetual nervousness by keeping the camera affixed to on-the-move Emily, who’s becomes the pivotal character forced to witness Jane’s uncanny transformation and Randall’s inability to adapt to a changing landscape.

It’s in the air. It’s in the water. It’s in you.

With the same respect for bourgeois leisure time as New Wave bosses like Luis Buñuel and Jean-Luc Godard, Brown pops his peeps into a pressure cooker beyond their control and reduces them to essential salts.

Speaking of waves, Mitch seems to have disappeared into them.

Characterizing some of the recurring elements here as “Lovecraftian,” isn’t misleading, but the term is becoming a convenient marketing junk drawer. It should remind us that the reclusive Rhode Islander doesn’t hold creative claim to the entire universe.

The nightmare evolution taking place in The Beach House could be accidental or inevitable; environmental or extra-terrestrial. In the end, it doesn’t matter. The scary thing is, it’s happening.

Vampires vs The Bronx (2020)

And they’d have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for those meddling kids. It’s a long-standing tradition that the biggest threat to imminent world domination is nosy teenagers.

Writer-director and Saturday Night Live alum Oz Rodriguez has a blast with villainous bloodsuckers disguised as real estate developers in Vampires vs The Bronx, a fast-paced, family fang feature from Netflix.

All over The Bronx businesses are closing down or getting bought out by Murnau Properties, a real estate firm with a logo depicting Vlad The Impaler. Gotta say one thing for those vampires, they’re a subtle bunch.

The nerds that save the day are a charismatic crew. Miguel, better known as Lil Mayor (Jaden Michael) is the golden boy, a community organizer/hustler who wants nothing more than to save his beloved Bodega from the wrecking ball.

Along with his friends Luis (Gregory Diaz) and Tommy (Gerald Jones), Miguel stumbles onto a vampire-driven plot to gentrify the neighborhood, but finds that it’s hard to get people to believe your story when the newcomers are affluent white folks throwing money around.

Besides, who’s going to listen to some stupid kids?

Jordan Peele correctly identified Class War Horror as a hot topic, and Rodriguez makes the most of his turn at bat. Cleverly setting the threat of Caucasian expansion in a comic-horror milieu, Rodriguez leaves us with no hard ethical decisions to make. Real estate developers bad. Neighborhood scalawags good.

Now let’s all forget our differences and drive out the suckheads!

The cast is 100 percent delightful (including Method Man as a priest!), the action is frequent and not too messy. Naturally, there will be valuable lessons for everyone. It’s not every day we get a vampire adventure fit for all ages, so get it while it’s hot.

False Positive (2021)

Thinking of starting a family? Maybe give this one a miss if you’re on the fence. False Positive is possibly the cringiest horror movie about childbirth since David Cronenberg’s The Brood.

Writer-director John Lee and writer-actress Ilana Glazer (no romantic comedy debut for this Broad City veteran) have delivered a bouncing bloody shocker about an expectant mother who becomes highly suspicious of both her baby doctor and her baby daddy.

Advertising exec Lucy (Glazer) and surgeon Adrian (Justin Theroux) are an affluent New York couple unable to conceive their own bundle of joy.

As luck would have it, Adrian’s old friend and mentor Dr. John Hindle (Pierce Brosnan, in a deviously dark comic role) is one of the best fertility doctors on the planet! Lucy soon finds herself cooling her heels in the stirrups at Hindle’s posh clinic.

“It’s the one thing as a woman I’m supposed to be able to do,” Lucy complains. “And I can’t do it.”

From this seed of insecurity comes a forest of paranoia.

After a few uncomfortable treatments Lucy successfully gets a bun in the oven, as well as a case of cold feet. She just can’t shake the feeling that people are conspiring against her, particularly Adrian and Hindle, who seem to have their own scientific agenda for the little nipper(s).

Lucy’s concerns are dismissed with buckets of condescension by everyone, who blame the effects of Mommy Brain, a catch-all for the doubts and dark thoughts that come with the arrival of the stork.

When she’s given the choice between birthing twin sons or a single girl, Lucy opts for the latter. Adrian and Hindle openly express hostility with her decision.

By this point, it’s Mom Vs The World, and Lucy is no shrinking violet. Her attempts to gain control of her “birth story” by consulting an African midwife (Zainab Jah) are disastrous, however. The viewer is left to sort out Lucy’s eventual freakout and rampage, and whether or not her women’s intuition has any grounds in reality.

The short answer? Both are possible and plausible. The long answer? Buckle up, Buttercup. Even when she transforms into an avenging fury, our sympathies remain firmly in Lucy’s corner as she lashes out at the sinister men in her life.

Ilana Glazer is a dramatic bulldozer (and rather frightening) as a furious mom driven to extreme measures to keep her body and her baby beyond the reach of the patriarchy.

You’ve come a long way, Rosemary’s Baby.

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 academic 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.