Donner Pass (2012)

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A little R&R in the heart of cannibal country? What a great idea! Donner Pass may have a teeny weeny budget, but I have grudging admiration for director and co-writer Elise Robertson’s commitment to blood-and-guts filmmaking and her insistence on adding a few surprise ingredients to the (human) stew.

A quartet of students in search of a winter’s idyll take up residence in a remote snowbound cabin. Sure, it sounds innocent enough, until a truckload of their drunken buddies crash the party and a partially devoured body count ensues. Apparently the rumors of cannibal pioneer George Donner haunting the hills in search of a little warm flesh have some basis in fact. You just can’t keep a good man down!

Although she’s playing with well-worn tropes (e.g., should they leave the cabin and try to get help during a blizzard or sit tight and await the dinner bell? Decisions, decisions …), Robertson gamely tries to instill some believable humanity in her doomed characters—a bold gambit considering we’re not tuning in to see if Kayley (Desiree Hall) and Mike (Colley Bailey) can work out their relationship difficulties or if reluctant host Thomas (Erik Stocklin) is going to get in trouble with his parents for having a rowdy soiree in their absence.

Although the trail of misdirection that leads to the hungry mastermind isn’t exactly revelatory, it’s got a pinch of panache and a dollop of entertainment value. There’s also a straight out of left-field date-rape revenge subplot that has no reason to exist beyond padding the movie’s scanty 80-minute run time.

All things being equal, I’m going to give Donner Pass a cautious recommendation. Robertson and her amateur cohorts display enough dexterity and creative moxie with these frozen leftovers to warrant a watch—but only if you’ve finished your chores and walked the dog.

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7 Below (2012)

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A luke-warm, paint-by-numbers haunted house entry mainly notable for the presence of Ving Rhames and a doughy Val Kilmer. Rhames tries his best, but 7 Below never achieves a compelling moment.

After a bus accident and the threat of bad weather, seven uninteresting people take refuge with the mysterious Jack (Rhames) in a house where 100 years ago an evil little boy sliced and diced his kinfolk. It’s slow, contains little gore and no nudity, and by the time the final scene washes up on the beach, just barely alive, you’ll probably have switched it over to ESPN. I watched it so you don’t have to. You’re welcome.

Beast Beneath (2011)

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Another case of the cover art being scarier than the film. If you’re in the mood for a low-budget, slow-paced monster matinee, I guess you could do worse than Beast Beneath. But you’d have to try pretty goddamn hard.

Seated beside a campfire, a father tells his bored teenage son the true (?) story of Griffith Park (their present location) in Los Angeles. Seems the family that once owned this prime piece of real estate was cheated out of it by a trio of unscrupulous douches. The offenders and the land itself are cursed, and now the ghost of the family patriarch and his demonic dog haunt the premises. Sounds good on paper, but Beast Beneath never transcends the restraints imposed by its humble budget, and instead of inspired amateurism, we merely get amateurism.

Of note to followers of “Where Are They Now?” trivia. Jimmy Buffet-esque one-hit singer Bertie Higgins (“Key Largo,” 1982) cowrote and stars in Beast Beneath. His son Julian is the director. Hope they didn’t sink their own money into this project.

Mama (2013)

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For the first three-quarters of Mama, I was absolutely transfixed. Executive producer Guillermo del Toro imbues the action with his trademark otherworldly finesse, though the overall feel of the film, courtesy of co-writer/director Andres Muschietti, seems more like Sam Raimi with a splash of Sleepy Hollow-era Tim Burton. It’s an eerie, heartfelt, and stylish fairy tale, featuring a fiercely maternal ghost that will probably be guest-starring in my nightmares for years to come. And yet the foot comes off the gas pedal when Muschietti endeavors to make the ghost more human, more of an actual character, toward the conclusion.

Mama opens with a bang as a deranged father (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), fresh off a killing spree, snatches his two young daughters, Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lily (Isabelle Nelisse) and heads for tall timber. He drives off a snowy road, crashes the car, and herds his frightened children to an abandoned house in the woods. Five years later, the now-feral girls are discovered by hunters searching the wilderness in the employ of their Uncle Lucas (Coster-Waldau, again).

The girls are bathed and brought back to civilization under the watchful eye of Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash), and are given over to Lucas and his hot (though not particularly maternal) girlfriend Annabelle (Jessica Chastain) who plays bass in a Muffs-style pop-punk band. The question is, how did two young girls survive five years in the woods on their own? Answer: With the help of a madwoman’s ghost who leapt from a nearby cliff with her own baby more than a century before.

Really, Mama is one of the most impressive “ghost” movies I’ve seen in years. The ending drags a bit, and the vengeful spirit becomes less awesome the more we see of her, but these are minor quibbles. Drop your knitting and get on it; you just might discover (as I did) that this is the sort of thoughtful, wondrous, and best of all, frightening, ghost story that you’ve been hankering for.

Killer Mountain (2011)

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Hey! Aaron Douglas from The Killing is the lead! He was the nicer of the two prison guards that watched over Death Row inmate Ray Seward. That’s about it for my list of recommendations as far as Killer Mountain goes, other than it’s another made-for-SyFy shoestring operation from writer-director Sheldon Wilson (Shallow Ground).

Douglas plays world-famous mountaineer Ward Donovan, a chunky bloke who gets coaxed out of retirement by a mysterious plutocrat (Andrew Airlie) in need of a rescue mission leader. The mogul’s first team, including Donovan’s partner (and presumed love interest) Kate Pratt (Emmanuelle Vauiger), disappeared on the face of forbidden Gangkhar Puensum (“Killer Mountain”) in Bhutan. It’s a sacred place to the locals, considered the gods’ mountain, and woe unto anyone that dares blah, blah, blah…

The gods turn out to be poorly constructed CGI critters that resemble unscary spider/iguana chimeras, and soon after, when you discover the idiotic reason everyone’s risking their lives climbing this stupid peak, you’ll know you’ve been played for a sucker. Spoiler alert: The plutocrat has cancer and has reason to believe Shambala or Shangri-La exists in this accursed location, offering the key to immortality or some shit.

Look, just don’t bother and you can thank me later.

Grim (1995)

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Since when does a movie made in the 90s look like a movie made in the 70s? When it’s made in England, pretending to be Virginia! It certainly helps explain the abundance of denim jackets in this thing, that’s for sure.

Nutshell: Rob (Emmanuel Xuereb—he’s good in anything!) is a mining expert inspecting a series of tunnels and caves under a housing in development in “Virginia” (actually, Coleford, Gloucestershire) where folks have been disappearing. He and a bunch of concerned homeowners go spelunking into the bowels of the earth and are set upon by a magic troll-like being who can walk through walls.

The creature (Peter Tregloan) is the best thing about this SPoS—a toothy brute who bites and kills some of his victims, while others are imprisoned, presumably to be scarfed at a future date. By the way, the monster is initially summoned by some bored New Age suburbanites playing with a homemade Ouija board.

Grim is an idiotic film, but it’s the right kind of idiotic, as writer-director Paul Matthews leaves plenty of lengthy silences in the script so viewers can hurl snarky comments with impunity (a perfect movie for MST3K-style riffing). The story also gets increasingly (and I would argue “winningly”) bizarre, contains a decent amount of bloodletting, and leads to a WTF finale, with a minor character helplessly snared in a completely FUBAR situation. Grim is an amusing time-waster with an OK monster—nothing more, nothing less.

Shallow Ground (2004)

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A screwy mish-mash of elements somehow makes for a modestly entertaining melange of mayhem. Even though the overall execution is just slightly north of made-for-TV and the performances indicate that the actors were given perhaps an hour to familiarize themselves with the script, Shallow Ground managed to keep me engaged. Never underestimate the value of abundant gore and the occasional unclothed actress, I suppose.

The story reveals itself in very haphazard, what-the-hell fashion, as if a team of lemurs was busily typing out new scenes even as the cameras commenced rolling. In a middle-of-nowhere rural community called Shallow Valley, a tiny police department is in the midst of disbanding when a naked young man (Rocky Marquette) covered in blood makes an unwelcome appearance. Apparently, the townspeople are packing up after the completion of a nearby dam (don’t ask why, they just are), and Sheriff Jack Shepherd (a gaunt, haunted, and inexplicably Irish Timothy V. Murphy), still tormented by an unsolved murder from a year before, has to deal with a new string of deaths that are somehow connected to the presence of the mysterious blood-splattered adolescent.

The conclusion of Shallow Ground is clumsy and confused as writer-director Sheldon Wilson, another enthusiastic Sam Raimi acolyte, requests that the viewer obligingly stitch together several disparate story lines: the accidental death of a local man and his daughter during the dam’s construction, the subsequent disappearances of several people connected with the dam project, a crooked deputy (Stan Kirsch) who murders a drug dealer in a nearby large city (huh?), and a vengeful hausfrau (Patty McCormack from The Bad Seed!) with an axe to grind. It doesn’t coalesce in any meaningful way, but in this case the sum of Shallow Ground‘s grisly parts are (barely) enough to sustain us to the hastily constructed finale. You will have questions. For me, it was why is the incidental tension music so shitty and stupidly applied?