Devil’s Pass (2013)

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With a found-footage narrative similar to The Frankenstein Theory—film crew blunders into a frozen hell searching for answers to an unsolved mystery—Devil’s Pass provides sufficient diversions for an afternoon of chilly thrills. Plus, it’s directed by former A-list filmmaker Renny Harlin (Cliffhanger, Die Hard 2, The Long Kiss Goodnight) who seems to have fallen off the map as of late.

A five-person film crew from the University of Oregon (Woooot! Ducks represent!) retraces the steps of the Dyatlov Expedition, a Russian ski team that perished under mysterious circumstances in the Ural Mountains in 1959. Why anyone would want to follow the path of a doomed expedition defies comprehension, but as team leader Holly King (Holly Goss) notes gleefully on camera, “We got a grant!” Once they land in the former Soviet Union, the crew is bedeviled by a failing GPS navigator, huge footprints in the snow that randomly appear and disappear, and some scary sounds in the night. All this leads to the discovery of a huge door in the mountainside and hints that the Russian military was messing around with alien technology.

The finale of Devil’s Pass makes a passable attempt at explaining all the questions that have emerged during the movie’s running time, but it’s still kind of a train wreck. So instead of yeti we get teleporting ghouls that maybe used to be human? Sure, ok, whatever. The bottom line is that it’s a grueling and unpredictable trip that’s worth taking—just watch out for a few plot holes along the way.

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Maniac (2012)

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I distinctly remember seeing the original Maniac (1980) at the drive-in the year it came out. It was an especially garish example of grindhouse sleazery directed by William Lustig (Maniac Cop, Vigilante), with splashy gore effects by the great Tom Savini, and starring Joe Spinell (The Godfather II, Taxi Driver) as Frank Zito, a lumpy schlub on a murderous rampage. Whether he was obliterating necking teens with a shotgun, strangling hookers, or scalping his victims in order to dress up his mannequin collection, Zito proved a memorably demented protagonist. For this slick, slightly less lurid remake, Lustig teamed with Franco fiends Alexandre Aja, Gregory Levasseur (writers) and Franck Khalfoun (director) to recast Frodo Bag… er, Elijah Wood as the prolific psycho with the crippling Mommy issues.

Frank Zito (Wood) is a rodentish owner of a vintage mannequin store obsessed with Anna (Nora Arnezeder), a beautiful photographer, who happens by his shop to admire his magnificent collection of dress forms. When Frank isn’t awkwardly wooing Anna, he’s out skewering, strangling, slicing, and scalping a string of unlucky ladies who remind him of his horribly skanky mother. Can the love of a good woman redeem a savage killer? No, of course not. What a ridiculous idea.

Director Khalfoun charts the action with a very aggressive POV camera (Wood is seen mostly in reflections), that straps us into the driver’s seat of considerable carnage—a feverish perspective that most viewers should find deeply unsettling. Wood portrays Zito as a shaky mess of neuroses and unchecked rage, a rather alarming change from the mild-mannered hobbit that we followed through three epic movies on his sojourn to Mount Doom. Here, Wood’s character is on a different kind of quest; trying to annihilate the memories of the woman responsible for making him the man(iac) he is today. Needless to say, not for squeamish or sensitive souls.

Beneath Loch Ness (2002)

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I hate to repeat myself, but I’m going to say it again: If you don’t have a halfway decent onscreen monster, your monster movie is doomed. Doomed I tell you! In the case of Beneath Loch Ness, the best that director and co-writer Chuck Comisky can manage with Nessie, the ill-tempered plesiosaur that occasionally wreaks havoc on local fishermen and scuba-diving scientists, is some dreadful animation that would shame a high school computer lab.

While seeking photographic evidence of prehistoric critters, a team of researchers in the employ of a cable TV adventure network loses its leader down a freshly opened trench at the bottom of the loch. Enter the team’s former honcho, Case Howells (Brian Wimmer) who arrives fresh from the Middle East to wrangle the beast, soon followed by his ex-wife Elizabeth (Lysette Anthony) a pushy producer from the network. The cartoon creature kills some more people so Howells teams up with Blay (Patrick Bergin—say whatever happened to him?) an obsessed local who lost his son to the monster several years before. In his kilt, William Wallace makeup and Captain Ahab harpoon, Blay is easily the most compelling thing about Beneath Loch Ness. That, and some arresting footage of rural Scotland.

The animated Loch Ness Monster here is a thing of no scale or substance—so how could it frighten anyone? Even the guys sweating their asses off in rubber monster suits at Toho Studios understand this. Look, if I want cartoon entertainment I’ll stick with The Venture Brothers or Metalocalypse, thanks. Let this one return to the depths from whence it came.

Werewolf: The Beast Among Us (2012)

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If, like me, you always viewed the Hugh Jackman vehicle Van Helsing as mere brain-dead spectacle, then be of good cheer. Werewolf: The Beast Among Us is an efficient example of how to perform genre gene splicing without relying on a bombardment of cheesy CGI to impress the yokels in the third row. It’s sort of a rollicking Eastern European cowboy version of John Carpenter’s Vampires with a few wink-worthy nods to Jaws, steampunk fashion and the original Wolf Man—including a reprise of Maria Ouspenskia’s famous gypsy poem (“Even a man that’s pure of heart/And says his prayers by night…”).

Somewhere in the dark forests of Transylvania, in the latter part of the 19th century, a merry band of werewolf hunters rolls into a village currently under siege from members of the lycanthrope community. But, as several characters knowingly declare, “this is no ordinary werewolf!” The hunters are led by the taciturn gunslinger Charles (Ed Quinn) and the swashbuckling Stefan (Adam Croasdell), and aided in their quest by local lad Daniel (Guy Wilson), a medical student working for the town doctor (Stephen Rea). As the nimrods close in on an exceptionally wily werewolf, the townsfolk begin to realize that there is indeed, a “beast among us.”

Perhaps due to its obvious budget limitations (Hello, it’s filmed in Romania!), director Louis Morneau pumps up the fun factor and relies on a capable supporting cast (Rea, Stephen Bauer, Nia Peeples) to tell this ripping werewolf yarn. The hunters are a posse of cool killers, especially Kazia (Ana Ularu), who fries her foes with a makeshift flamethrower and Fang (Florin Piersic) who takes a bite out of crime with his silver choppers. The werewolf CGI isn’t particularly inspired, but Morneau wisely lets a guy in a suit handle the closeup carnage when limbs are torn off and guts are gushing. A genuinely pleasant surprise.

Hannibal Rising (2007)

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I’m all over the map after sitting through two-plus hours of Hannibal Rising, an elegantly told “origin story” of the guy who grows up to be flesh-eating foodie Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs. The screenplay is by Thomas Harris, who scribbled all the books this material is based on, and the results are a weird, compelling mess—one that I am going to recommend, with reservations.

In the waning days of World War II, the Lecters, an Austrian or Lithuanian family of noble birth, flee their storybook castle to escape either the advancing Russians or the Germans. A plane crashes into a tank. Mom and Pop Lecter perish. A shiftless band of German or Austrian soldiers takes over Lecter Farm, which isn’t nearly as nice as Lecter Castle, but it ain’t bad. There’s a harsh winter. The famished brigands nosh on Hannibal’s beloved younger sister Mischa (Helena Lia-Tachovska) ’cause pizza delivery is still several years away from becoming reality.

Hannibal escapes to France or Belgium to seek shelter with his late mother’s brother. Luckily, the uncle’s croaked and his widow, a hot Japanese or Chinese woman (Gong Li), takes in the young refugee, who soon grows into a handsome and brilliant-but-troubled medical student (Gaspard Ulliel; picture a young, evil, Matthew Modine) with vengeance—and lots of emotional baggage—on his mind.

The entire subplot with Hannibal’s beautiful Japanese or Chinese aunt, who schools her nephew in the ways of the samurai (oh brother!), should have been excised; it serves no purpose whatsoever other than padding an already bloated running time. But years later, when young Lecter is tirelessly tracking the bastards that took his sister to lunch, Hannibal Rising achieves an almost-operatic grandeur. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything when I say that revenge is indeed a dish best served cold—with fava beans and a nice Chianti.

The Task (2011)

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Filmed in Bulgaria masquerading as upstate New York, this faux reality-show-set-in-a-haunted-prison feature is severely lacking in just about every department. From the generic no-name cast to a predictable fake-out finale, The Task is a starvation diet of style and tension. And with precious little blood and guts—and no nudity—to distract our attention, the overall cheapness and absence of fresh ideas dooms the production from the get-go.

An assortment of reality show hopefuls are kidnapped and taken to an abandoned prison with a sinister reputation. Formerly under the rule of a sadistic warden who tortured and starved his inmates, the rambling edifice is rumored to be haunted, and the unlucky contestants must spend the night, completing a variety of unsavory tasks, in order to win $20,000. Though the prison is wired with cameras, props, and spooky audio effects, the presence of a legit ghost throws a wrench into the works.

The Task is a total dud, no matter how you slice it. We’re never given a reason to care about any of the characters—and we don’t. If they were faced with an awesome battery of mind-bending horror and derangement, the blandness of the characters wouldn’t have made any difference. As it stands, the stakes are never enough to draw anyone into the low-voltage action. As my former editor would say, when presented with limp copy, it’s awfully “so-whatty.”