Deadwater (2008)

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Deadwater is not a very good film, but the presence of grizzled vet Lance Henricksen helps a bit. And at least director Roel Reiné took the time and energy to dress it up as a contemporary naval action thriller (not that there are abundant thrills to be had in this yawner) and include scenes of “advanced interrogation techniques.” Abu Ghraib is mentioned a few times. That’s about as timely as it gets, though.

Somewhere at sea near Iran or Iraq (forgot which), a U.S. crew operating a recommissioned WW II vessel is slaughtered under mysterious circumstances, which are mainly due to the poor lighting and spastic camera work. Old salt Col. John Willets (Henricksen) and his crack team of nobodies are sent to investigate. Lo and behold, one of the few survivors of the haunted holocaust is the colonel’s son, Colin Willets (played by Australian side-of-beef Gary Stretch, whose acting chops and resemblance to Henricksen are equally nonexistent). So what the hell happened?

There are approximately 863,111 movies in which a team of well-armed investigators boards a derelict ship or facility to find out what became of the previous occupants. This isn’t nearly as good as say, Ghost Ship, one of the better efforts in that genre. The threat remains mostly unseen (malevolent energy or something. Zzzzzzz.) and 95 percent of the movie consists of Henricksen and company moving stealthily through corridors and making ludicrous military hand gestures at each other. Save this one for Low Expectations Sunday. BTW, if you’re looking for it in Netflix, you’ll find it under the title Black Ops. My advice? Don’t look too hard.

The Shortcut (2009)

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“Some urban legends are real.” Yeah, real dull. I admit freely that I’m an optimist when it comes to horror movies. I always try to accentuate the positive, particularly when it comes to the works of novice filmmakers. Somewhere amidst the dreck and detritus, I can find something to praise, some aspect of the production that shows signs of promise. When it comes to The Shortcut, I’ve got my work cut out for me. It fails on so many levels, that it’s practically impossible to find anything that resembles a silver lining.

For one thing, it’s a “Happy Madison” production, which means that Adam Sandler’s people had a hand in it. The script was co-written by Scott Sandler, no doubt one of Adam’s poor relations who’s grown disillusioned with his future prospects in the food service industry. Beware the evil shadow of nepotism…

There’s nothing remotely terrifying or even mysterious about The Shortcut. A group of high school kids explore a path through the woods that’s earned a sinister reputation. They encounter a crazy old man (Raymond Barry), who was once the son of a very wealthy and prominent family. While searching for a missing dog, they find the man’s house and decide to break in. Some of the kids learn a valuable lesson about the consequences of their actions.

There’s very little gore, few killings, no nudity, and no supernatural elements. In other words,”Why bother?” I wish I could answer that. There’s a straight-outta-left-field plot twist at the very end of the movie, but by that time, you won’t give a shit. Writer Scott Sandler lacks even the most rudimentary of storytelling skills. I’ve seen pet food commercials that were fraught with more tension. Avoid at all costs.

Slaughter Night (2006)

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A handful of hard-partying Dutch kids take a tour of a mine where centuries (years?) before, a fiendish killer/sorcerer was executed. I know what you’re thinking. Why in the hell would a group of reasonably attractive young adults end up in a mine? As Bill Murray once said, “It just doesn’t matter.”

What does matter is that the spirit of the sorcerer is alive and kicking, and needs eight victims in order to … something or other. Become human again? Get out of hell? Get a free foot-long sub? See Murray quote. Oh, and I have some free advice to anyone who happens to find themselves trapped in a haunted mine. Do not play with a Ouija Board. And do not split up so you can cover more ground. Friggin’ amateurs.

Slaughter Night was produced in the Netherlands, and I will tip my hat to our Dutch Brothers for a well-acted, fast-paced blood-letter, with a goodly amount of decapitations. Once again, we have a case of overt Sam Raimi worship by writers/directors Frank van Geloven and Edwin Visser, as the possessed teens are dead ringers for Evil Dead‘s Deadites. Even so, things move along pretty well, and the mine provides a suitably creepy and claustrophobic setting. The film is also subtitled, which I actually prefer, as far too many horror flicks suffer from uneven sound. You know, where crucial dialogue is whispered by two characters, and you turn up the volume to compensate, right as the chainsaws and screaming start. And that’s when my girlfriend yells at me to “turn that screamy shit down.” So everybody’s happy.

Forget Me Not (2009)

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I kept avoiding this one on the Netflix cue, and I’m not entirely sure why. Perhaps it sounded overly adolescent? But after reading an enthusiastic review at Horror Movie A Day (horror-movie-a-day.blogspot.com), I decided to pull the trigger. I’m glad I did, because Forget Me Not is an absorbing film that pivots gracefully from a story of childhood betrayal into a gripping revenge-from-beyond thriller.

Sandy (Carly Schroeder) is the smartest, hottest, and most popular girl in school. She and her brother Eli (Cody Linley) are both going to Stanford on academic scholarships. Along with their sock drawer of goofy friends and lovers (slightly better than stock-character teens) they engage in some post-graduation drinking, smoking, and screwing, before deciding to hit the graveyard for one final game of “Ghost.” It’s like hide-and-seek except if the person designated as the ghost finds you, you become a ghost too. Last one alive wins.

The seemingly innocent game opens up a nasty can of worms from their past about a cruel prank they once played on orphan girl Angela years before during a game. And when Sandy’s friends start dying, she’s only one who can remember that they ever existed at all. As her circle of friends becomes smaller and smaller, Sandy’s enviable life gets progressively crappier. Her now deceased friends return from the grave as shimmying, contorting demons that look a bit like dancing Michael Jacksons. Moral of the story: Don’t play vicious pranks on orphans.

Forget Me Not is a very limber horror tale. When the group turns on orphan girl Angela, it’s really heart-wrenching, but totally believable. Who doesn’t have an episode from childhood where a new, cool group of friends becomes more important than someone whom circumstances threw you together with? Remember the Seinfeld episode when Jerry has to break up with an odious chum from childhood because the only reason they were friends in the first place was because the kid had a ping-pong table? It’s a morality play that loudly warns against even the most casual cruelty, as it can come back and bite us (painfully) on the ass. And “youthful indiscretions” are not excused.

Sam’s Lake (2006)

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I’m really on the fence about Sam’s Lake. It’s a slow-burner, but it’s got gorgeous scenery. The body count is low, but the story is fairly intriguing. There’s no bloodletting till around the 43 minute mark, and the carnage is minimal. Despite all this, I felt compelled to see it through.

Sam (super-cute Fay Masterson, who refuses to take her damn clothes off!) brings a carload of her friends up to a remote cabin on the lake where she grew up. Once ensconced, Sam’s childhood pal and local garage mechanic Jessie (William Gregory Lee) drops in to share a chilling campfire story about a kid who escaped from a nearby mental hospital (there’s always a nearby mental hospital) and wasted his entire family (with a pointy stick). As luck would have it, this tall tale is no legend, as the campers, to their horror, soon discover.

The “twist” in Sam’s Lake isn’t very twisted, especially since it’s pretty damn obvious from the get-go that Jessie’s a 24-carat weirdo. Even so, the buildup is well constructed and the eventual showdown has a few genuine surprises. And Fay Masterson delivers a sterling performance as a very deceptive main character. On the down side, not much gore and no nudity. If you don’t watch it, you haven’t missed anything. If you give it a chance, your patience will be slightly rewarded.

Night of the Scarecrow (1995)

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Call it a by-product of living in accelerated times. It’s getting to the point where I look at movies made before the turn of the century as “quaint.” I’m sure this happens to everybody on our relentless trek to the boneyard, but it seems when I watch perfectly good horror films from the 80s and even the 90s now, they look like relics from another world that I’ve forgotten.

“OMG, look at that poodle hair! Is that a Members Only jacket? Ned’s Atomic Dustbin?”

With the passing of time the cultural signposts of eras passed start to get a little blurry. I have younger friends who are into movies and they usually won’t rent something more than 10 years old, claiming “it looks cheap and weird,” and “the FX are gonna suck.” I’m still adjusting to being the “old guy” in these situations.

So Night of the Scarecrow is a film fossil from 16 years ago. It’s good. Satisfying, even. It’s like dinner at an old-school steak house after having nothing but rice and tofu for a month. There are no surprises but everything is served just the way you like it; meat and potatoes, a stiff drink, and no sass. What I appreciate most is that it’s a movie that doesn’t dilly-dally; the plot races along like Richard Petty at Daytona. Within, oh, 15 minutes or so, we know all the characters who live in the nice little town of Hanford—the one with the dark secret. Over 100 years prior, the town fathers made a deal with a passing warlock (I guess there were warlocks roaming the west during the Ulysses Grant administration). In exchange for fertile soil and a temperate climate, the warlock could do whatever he pleased in Hanford. So natch, he starts organizing orgies and key parties and such, luring the town women into awesome episodes of debauchery. The menfolk decide that ain’t cool, drug the warlock, and crucify him in the cornfield.

Cut to “modern” times. The warlock, now in the guise of a button-eyed, sack-headed scarecrow, starts slaughtering the Goodmans, descendants of the guy who betrayed him and stole his book of spells. These include brothers George (Dirk Blocker), Thaddeus (Bruce Glover, Crispin’s dad) and William (Gary Lockwood), who all perish in ghastly fashion, while William’s daughter Claire (Elizabeth Barondes), and her mimbo Dillon (John Mese, who looks like a stand-in for Scott Bakula) try to find the spell that will banish the malevolent mage.

A better-than-average cast helps. Stephen Root (O Brother Where Art Thou, Red State) plays another incompetent sheriff, while John Hawkes (Deadwood, Winter’s Bone) delivers the goods as the asshole delinquent who unwittingly frees the warlock. But the real scene-stealer is Glover, chewing the scenery like a hungry goat as a weak-willed preacher with a hot-to-trot daughter that gets defiled by Hawkes’ town rowdy. Seriously, Glover’s overacting is almost operatic, maybe a notch below bad Shakespeare. And it’s just another reason to watch this unexpectedly satisfying sleeper.

The Ward (2011)

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Talk about a filmmaker who’s dropped off the radar. John Carpenter is an undisputed genre master, responsible for some of the coolest horror/fantasy films of the 20th century, with a tremendous body of work that puts him in some very select cinematic company. I mean, come on! This guy gave us Halloween, The Fog, Big Trouble in Little China, The Thing, and Escape From New York, not to mention exemplary lesser efforts like They Live, Dark Star, In The Mouth of Madness, Starman, Christine, and Assault on Precinct 13. (For completists, his 1979 made-for-TV biopic Elvis with Kurt Russell is sensational). That said, Carpenter hasn’t exactly been pushing himself lately. Since 2001’s uneven Ghosts of Mars, he’s mostly been collecting residual checks for all the lame remakes of his earlier films.

The Ward isn’t a spectacular return to form, but it ain’t bad. It’s a modest little fright film that plays out like a cross between Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor and something decidedly more Hitchcockian. Set in “North Bend, Oregon in 1958,” (Editor’s note: I used to live one town over from North Bend. This wasn’t it.) Kristen (Amber Heard) is a runaway who can’t remember her earlier life or why she burned down a farmhouse. The kindly authorities stick her in an asylum run by the mysterious Dr. Stringer (Jared Harris, from Fringe, Dead Man, and Happiness, among other things) and peopled by an oddball assortment of young lady lunatics. Not only is Kristen forced to endure some unsavory psychiatric ordeals (“Here. Bite down on this or you’ll bite your tongue off.”) but she and her fellow inmates end up getting stalked by the vengeful ghost of Alice, a former patient.

You’ve seen this sort of thing before, and there are probably a few plot twists too many, but it’s good to see Carpenter, every bit the craftsman his name implies, doing what he does so well in The Ward, namely exiling the viewer to a darkly menacing world where no one can be trusted.

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