The Graves (2009)

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Ah, beware of roadside attractions, because as we all know, they’re just fronts for bloodthirsty cults in search of sacrificial offerings. The Graves is a dirt-cheap, low-budget fright feature that nonetheless delivers a bit of gore and sinister atmosphere. It also boasts a pair of hot and snarky rocker chicks getting chased all over the Arizona landscape by some horror film veterans, including Bill Moseley (Texas Chainsaw Massacre II, The Devil’s Rejects) and Tony Todd (Candyman, Hatchet II).

Megan Graves (Clare Grant) and her little sister Abby (Jillian Murray) are comely aficionados of comic books, heavy metal, and schlock culture. In search of a good time they happen upon Skull City, a ghost town tourist trap that turns out to be a death trap. Under the direction of Reverend Stockton (Todd), sightseers are routinely captured and sacrificed to a disappointingly unseen demon that provides for the townsfolk of nearby Unity, Arizona. Megan and Abby are pursued, grabbed, escape, and then pursued some more by a bunch of desert-dwelling wackos, many of whom are killed by the surprisingly resourceful sisters.

The Graves isn’t a great movie; it isn’t even a pretty good movie. But once again we have a writer/director, in this case Brian Pulido, who shows promise. And if he had more than a few hundred bucks in his bank account he could probably make a heckuva film. Kickstarter?

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The Conjuring (2013)

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The most recent production from Saw-teur James Wan reaped over $130 million at the box office—and with good reason. The Conjuring is a ripping ghost yarn that is subtle and suggestive in its creepiness and, when necessary, opens the taps into a full-tilt Good vs Evil battle royal (in the Judeo-Christian tradition) culminating in a no-holds-barred exorcism showdown. It also re-introduces fright fans to Ed and Lorraine Warren, a formidable tag-team of real-life ghostbusters, played here by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga.

This particular haunted house party takes place in 1971, in the 19th century Rhode Island home of Roger and Carolyn Perron (Ron Livingstone and Lili Taylor). The Perrons and their five daughters get tossed around by sinister forces, necessitating the intervention of the Warrens, who set up cameras, tape recorders, and other vintage ghost-hunting paraphernalia. Lorraine deduces that the central spook is a witch that tried to sacrifice her baby to Satan before hanging herself some 150 years prior, and whose modus operandi is to possess the mother and compel her to kill her child. In this case, Carolyn Perron has five to choose from!

The Conjuring doesn’t break any new ground, but it serves up all your favorite ghost tropes piping hot, with top-notch special effects, a great cast, and expert escalation of terror. Here, the haunting is like a vicious tar baby, ensnaring any poor fool that comes along. Even the Warrens, who are professionals and should know better, get swept up in a Satanic tsunami that poses a direct threat to their own daughter, who the couple left at home in the care of Grandma.

Speaking of which, the Warrens’ story is worth investigating. They’re the founders of the New England Society for Psychic Research, and claim to have been involved in “10,000” haunting adventures. Ol’ Sharky says check ’em out!

Jug Face (2013)

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“There’s some weird shit going on in the woods out there.”

I’m very impressed with Jug Face, an absorbing and shockingly original jolt of indie-horror from writer-director Chad Crawford Kinkle. I would almost venture to call it “magical realism” but that term fails to capture the profound depths of despair plumbed by teen protagonist Ada (Lauren Ashley Carter) as she tries desperately to escape her awful fate as a sacrificial offering to a nameless creature that lives in a nearby pit and serves as a protector to a bunch of moonshine-brewing hillbillies.

Jug Face is indeed mighty grim stuff. Somewhere in the Appalachians, a degenerate community of yokels lives off the grid, dependent on sales of white lightning and dutifully tending the thing in the pit to maintain their squalid existence. Ada, who has an arranged marriage to a doughy village boy in her future, is in love with her sullen brother Jessaby (Daniel Manche) who knocks up the unlucky lass whilst they’re cavorting in the woods.

Meanwhile, the thing in the pit is unhappy and Dwai (Sean Bridgers), the village idiot savant/high priest can’t figure out what’s wrong. Normally, when the god is restless, Dwai is compelled to bake a jug that looks like one of the villagers, who is then sacrificed to the deity. So not only is Ada facing a loveless marriage while carrying her brother’s baby, but it appears she’s next on the pit parade.

The filth and blind ignorance in this hick settlement is so thick you’d need a weed whacker to get through it. And it’s the act of “committing a sin” in such a terrible, unforgiving environment that accounts for the real horror in Jug Face, more so than the angry Lovecraftian god in their midst. Poor Ada tries everything she can think of to avoid the pit, but the superstitious ties that bind (and strangle) these slack-jawed citizens are simply too strong.

Reminiscent of Winter’s Bone, another film about an isolated community with its own strict code of behavior, Jug Face is like an anthropological field trip—or a bad dream induced by a late-night order of pepperoni pizza. In either case, you’ll be very grateful to wake up safe and sound in your own bed.

The Uninvited (2009)

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Based on the 2003 Korean ghost story A Tale of Two Sisters, The Uninvited is a taut, effective spook show that’s told with admirable restraint and subtle finesse, with an ending that will likely pull the rug out from under you. Yes, you’ll be able to figure out some of the plot twists, but probably not all of them.

Traumatized teen Anna (Emily Browning, who’s excellent) is released from a mental hospital almost a year after the night her bedridden mother died in a fire at the boat house of her family’s ocean-view estate. Upon her return, her older sister Alex (Arielle Kebbel) fills her in on current events, namely, that their writer father Steven (David Strathairn) is knocking boots with Mom’s former caregiver Rachel (Elizabeth Banks). The sisters suspect Rachel had a hand in their mother’s fiery demise, and set about proving it, before the wicked nurse can become their wicked stepmother.

There’s nothing revolutionary going on in The Uninvited; it’s an Asian-flavored family fright-fest that never bogs down. The ghosts are suitably frightening, the actors tackle their roles with bravado, and in the end we’re left to piece together a tragic story that’s considerably more than meets the eye. It’s old-school scary and a good choice for a mixed audience of genre diehards and those who under most circumstances don’t dig the whole “horror thing.”

Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell (1973)

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This oddball entry was the last movie in Hammer Films’ Frankenstein cycle that starred the incomparable Peter Cushing as the most infamous mad scientist of all. Judging by the sets and the sketchy monster makeup, it was certainly a low-budget affair, but for sheer audacity and inspired lunacy, Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell deserves a place alongside better-known examples of Hammer/Cushing greatness like Curse of Frankenstein and Evil of Frankenstein. Seriously, give it a chance.

Young surgeon Simon Helder (played by bored Sting lookalike Shane Briant—by far the most emotionally blasé mad scientist that I can recall) is sentenced to an insane asylum for experimenting on corpses and discovers that the man in charge is none other than his mentor in madness, Victor Frankenstein (Cushing). Together they make use of body parts donated by expired inmates and fashion a creature that resembles a simian drag queen version of George “The Animal” Steel. The pitiful “monster from hell” does very little to earn such a fearsome sobriquet, and it’s really up to Cushing in a foppish blond wig to carry the movie—which he does admirably.

Seldom has this dignified and methodical actor behaved in such a delightfully giddy, unhinged manner. When his plans for the monster—which include mating it with his beautiful mute assistant (Madeline Smith)—come to light, even the normally listless Helder is forced to acknowledge, “But surely you’re mad.” To which Cushing’s doctor replies without missing a beat, “Yes, perhaps. But I’ve never felt more elated.”

Despite the low horror quotient, veteran director Terrence Fisher doubles down on the atmosphere, including a fairly excruciating brain-transplant sequence that gives Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell some much-needed shock value. It’s no triumph, but for acolytes of Cushing and the Frankenstein oeuvre, it shouldn’t be missed.

Note: The monster is played by none other than David Prowse, who would ascend to immortality as the man in the Darth Vader suit in a series of films conceived by George Lucas.