Wicked Little Things (2006)

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The moral of Wicked Little Things is a little elusive, but upon my second viewing, this is what I came up with: If you have a terminally ill spouse, make sure you’ve got insurance up the wazoo. Just another horror movie where the real monster is corporate America…

Filmed in Bulgaria, but set in Pennsylvania mining country, Wicked Little Things opens with one of those sepia-toned flashbacks that explains the premise. In 1913, a heartless mine owner (See? A capitalist villain!) forces poor local children to work deep in the bowels of the earth. After an unplanned tectonic event, a bunch of the miserable waifs are buried alive. We are then magically transported to the present, where MILF Karen Tunney (Lori Heuring), and her two daughters, Sarah (Scout Taylor-Compton), a surly teen, and Emma (Chloe Moretz), an empathetic moppet, are relocating to this blighted area after the death of Karen’s husband. His long, withering illness ate up the family funds, so his dependents are forced to occupy a spacious, but dilapidated family home. Karen’s plans of flipping her fixer-upper are dashed when she finds out that she doesn’t actually own the house, and that the surrounding forest is chock-full of voracious zombie kids, who have emerged from their graves, dressed like cockney street urchins, in search of revenge and raw meat. Maybe they should have called the movie Hungry Little Things.

It’s not a work of art, but Wicked Little Things maintains a firm hand on mood and tension throughout. I’ve never thought children the least bit horrifying (unless I’m at a restaurant trying to enjoy a meal), but these zombie rug rats are a silent, relentless, and bloodthirsty band that makes mincemeat out of dependable character actor Geoffrey Lewis (Really? You don’t know Geoffrey Lewis?) and a host of bit players. The real tragedy is that the whole mess could have been avoided if Karen had a better insurance policy.

Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil (2010)

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For anyone, anywhere who relishes a hack-and-stack about nitwit kids and disastrous camping trips, this one’s your Apocalypse Now. Somehow, against all odds, Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil subverts the horror trope of teens-as-kindling and the vicious hillbillies who stalk them, and manages to be funny and charming, while still delivering the gory groceries.

As you’ve no doubt heard, the premise depicts Tucker (Alan Tudyk from Firefly) and Dale (Tyler Labine) as virtuous and kindly rural types who want nothing more than to fix up a little cabin in the woods so they can have a getaway for their fishing and beer-drinking weekends. Enter a carload of snotty college students led by paranoid and delusional Chad (Jesse Moss), who has the hots for sweet Allison (Katrina Bowden), and the stage is set for a riotous epic of blood, lethal misunderstandings, and even a sweet, timid romance. Surprise!

In lesser hands, this might have turned into a gimmicky, unfunny satire (see the Scary Movie franchise), but writer/director Eli Craig really digs deep to bring out the good-natured decency of the titular hillbillies, even while splashing the screen with enough viscera to appease hardcore genre hounds. Tudyk and Labine are funny and genuine as virtual innocents who have no idea why these preppy campers are freaking out and trying to kill each other—especially after they go to all the trouble of rescuing their friend Allison from drowning. What the hell’s wrong with kids today? As someone who generally roots for the killer in these films (Look, I hate teenagers!), Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil is a welcome variation on a theme.

See No Evil (2006)

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I know! Let’s give hulking wrestler Kane an axe and let him get medieval on a bunch of juvenile delinquents! That’s probably about all the pre-production that went into this paint-by-numbers stalk and chop entry. And for the most part, it’s enough.

A group of misfit misdemeanor offenders from the County Detention Center are assigned a work detail at the formerly swanky, now deserted, Hotel Blackwell. As is so often the case, they run afoul of a truculent tenant in the massive form of Jacob Goodnight (Kane) a brutish killer who plucks the eyes from his victims. Through a series of jittery flashbacks we learn that Jacob’s mother abused the poor lad, making him live in a cage for having the audacity to look at pornography. Her ranting and raving about “the eyes being the windows to the soul,” inspires the tormented kid to grow into an XXXL and kill loads and loads of people.

Literally, the biggest thing See No Evil has going for it is Kane, a 7-foot, bald behemoth who doesn’t need special effects to look menacing. Yet, he’s got a little bit of confusion and sorrow that plays across his features from time to time, which makes him just a wee bit sympathetic. Also, Final Girls Christine (Christine Vidol) and Kira (Samantha Noble, daughter of Fringe‘s John Noble) are both tough as nails and hold up well under extreme duress. The violence is gung-ho over the top, and there are some particularly tasty demises, including that of Melissa (Penny McNamee), a hippie animal rights activist who ends up as a screaming plate of kibble for a pack of wild dogs.

There’s nothing radically innovative going on here, but if you’re simply in the mood for some first-rate mayhem, you could do a lot worse.

The Legend of Bloody Jack (2007)

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If the cover blurb, “Based on the the terrifying true events behind America’s scariest campfire story,” is accurate, then I must confess that I’m really out of the loop on my lumberjack legends. Is there really a ghost story about an axe-wielding hayseed who practices black magic? I must have missed that one. If the campfire tale is anything like this low-budget lump of shit, I’m glad I did.

A pair of quickly dispatched investigators summon the spirit of the swinging sorcerer. Two days later, a van bearing seven soon-to-be-butchered mannequins from Abercrombie & Fitch arrives for one of those idyllic camping trips that never seems to materialize.

Whether it’s the abysmal acting, the seemingly random and feckless decision-making of the characters, or an irritatingly banter-filled screenplay that sounds like it was written by a miserably untalented college freshman, there’s plenty of blame to be shared for this stinkbomb—but since it was written and directed by Todd Portugal, the lion’s share of brickbats should be reserved for him. The questions accumulate as the action (I guess you could call it “action”) slowly unravels like a third-generation Santa sweater. Why are the doomed 35-year-old kids who are trapped at the cabin in the woods waving flashlights around? The entire film takes place in bright sunlight. How come when Tom (Josh Evans) disappears, his supposed “best friend” Nick (Craig Bonacorsi) won’t go look for him because “it’s too dangerous,” but later he decides that they should go in search of Deputy Vince (Jeremy Flynn), whom they saw drive away in a truck about 15 minutes before? Why is Lisa (Jessica Szabo) so blasé after seeing her boyfriend George hacked into jerky? Why? Why? Why?

On the positive side of the street, the gore is plentiful (though amateurish), and there are three nude scenes by the 30-minute mark. That’s about it. There’s also a nitwitted “surprise” ending that feels like it was hurriedly tacked on after Todd Portugal looked at his footage and smelled the dead fish. And what the hell is up with the title? Unless I was really asleep at the switch, I didn’t hear a single mention of anyone called Jack, bloody or otherwise, during the interminable 84-minute running time.

Spiderhole (2010)

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Four reasonably attractive English art students decide that paying rent is for suckers, so they take up residence in a creepy, boarded up old mansion. Sure, squatting seems glamorous, but there are always unforeseen obstacles. Like no running water or electricity. Mysterious sounds in the night. And let’s not forget about the possibility of sharing the premises with a deranged surgeon who periodically gasses his new guests, straps them to an operating table, and removes their body parts—while the latter scream, curse, and plead.

It’s a well-dressed effort by writer/director Daniel Simpson (the setting is suitably bleak and dreary), but Spiderhole is neither gory or excruciating enough to be torture porn, and it’s too damn slow to be a haunted-house hack ’em up. Simpson valiantly tries to tie several gossamer-thin plot points together, but fails, as if finally throwing up his hands and admitting, “To hell with the story, let’s get back to cutting up the kids.” He haphazardly chooses to reintroduce a minor subplot about a girl who’s been missing for 10 years (who cares?!) at the very end of the film, but by then the viewer has forgotten all about this earlier allusion that really amounts to nothing, anyway.

The same pointless nihilism that (to me, anyway) makes Hostel and all those Saw movies so uninteresting is at work here. Simply binding a victim and hurting them while they struggle and cry (and maybe even escape a time or two), is skull-crushingly dull, unless there’s a reasonable explanation for doing so. Otherwise, you have, what exactly? Shrieking? Not scary, but very annoying, to be sure. Call me old fashioned, but I want to know why the victims are screaming and what they did to deserve it.

Dylan Dog: Dead of Night (2011)

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This is going to date me, but I still think the coolest paranormal investigator of all time is Carl Kolchak. For quick thinking, wit, and chutzpah, you’re not going to do any better than Darren McGavin. Give me a wisecracking cynic with no superpowers over brooding bores from beyond like John Constantine and Dylan Dog, any ol’ time. (Note: I’m referring to the cinematic characters. No knock on the graphic novel originals, whom I’m certain are fine fellows, indeed.) It’s a wide-open field: I can’t point to a successful paranormal investigation franchise at the moment. X-Files had a good run. And you can’t go wrong with Ghostbusters. But I seriously doubt that Brandon Routh’s watery portrayal of Dylan Dog will inspire a sequel, much less the devotion afforded a true genre icon like, say, Scooby Doo, who is an actual dog, if you’re keeping score.

Dylan Dog is a mildly superpowered human who serves as kind of a paranormal peacekeeper between vampires, zombies, werewolves and other assorted boogiemen. That is, until his beloved wife is murdered by vampires, which inspires an episode of vigilante justice. After that, he becomes a private eye, restricting his investigations to cheating spouses and insurance fraud. But it’s a small world and Dylan’s demonic past catches up with him, and, to paraphrase Al Pacino, they drag him back in.

The plot, a search for an artifact that will resurrect the demon Belial, is half-baked at best; as a McGuffin it’s pretty weak tea. And former Superman washout Brandon Routh is badly miscast (as an actor). The whole hard-boiled gumshoe guise never fits, the guy is just too bland and featureless. Seriously, after a while, I thought I was watching Grand Theft Auto—or a Macy’s commercial. Sam Worthington, who’s gone on to bigger things (like Avatar), tries hard to pick up the slack as Dylan’s deceased sidekick/comedy relief Marcus, but he ain’t got the chops. Lots of opportunities for gruesome black humor, and most of them are squandered.

It’s the bit players who deliver the best performances. Peter Stormare is pitch-perfect as crime boss/werewolf Gabriel. It makes my heart burst into song when a proper actor can make a smallish part blossom, and Stormare is up to the task. Taye Diggs is charismatic and devious as a vampire trying to move his way up the crime-family ranks, and Anita Briem is reasonably convincing as the frosty ass-kicking chick with questionable ethics. Sadly, they can’t compensate for Brandon Routh in the title role. How bad is he? Let’s put it this way: he makes Keanu Reeves look like DeNiro. Good news for Keanu, I suppose, but not for anyone in search of a memorable character.

Scarecrows (1988)

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Hmmm. I saw this one more than 20 years ago and I seem to remember it being a better movie. Memories can play such cruel tricks… Still in all, it’s not half bad, but since it was made in the 1980s you’ll have to overlook some goofy haircuts.

Five military trained crooks make off with 3.5 million bucks from Camp Pendleton’s payroll department. The movie opens with the bad guys being flown to Mexico by a pilot and his daughter who are held at gunpoint. No honor among thieves with this bunch, as one of the robbers, turncoat Bert (B.J. Turner), grabs the loot and bails out, landing in a creepy deserted cornfield. Deserted by everyone, that is, except for the titular murderous scarecrows, who come to life and bag their limit.

Only the vaguest of reasons are given to explain why the scarecrows rise up and go on a killing spree, so if you’re a stickler for motivation, this won’t be your cup of grue. Suffice to say, the previous tenants of the family farm were into something devilish. You might notice, too, that Bert’s dialogue seems to come out of nowhere, since we hear it while his lips clearly aren’t moving. Is he thinking out loud or is he a practicing ventriloquist? Whatever the case, it’s distracting.  Also, the rest of the characters, in their quest to avoid being gutted and nailed to a pole, engage in some monumentally stupid behavior, which tends to suggest that their prowess as paramilitary bandits was more like a momentary stroke of luck. To give writer-director William Wesley some credit, the cornfield setting is reasonably spooky and the scarecrows themselves are a pretty nasty bunch. But Scarecrows isn’t the action-packed fright fest that I remember, either. Must have seen it during my drinking days—which should come to an end sooner or later.

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