Axe Giant: The Wrath of Paul Bunyan (2013)

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Will you think the less of me if I heap modest praise on Axe Giant? Hell, I don’t care. I’m obviously going soft in the head, but this movie never promises more than it can deliver. I am aware that the CGI effects are one notch above cable access and the acting ranges from horrible to hilariously hammy. Even so, director/cowriter Gary Jones has devised what amounts to an intriguingly twisted tall tale that’s awash in guts and gore.

Nutshell: Five snotty adolescent offenders are transported to the Middle of Nowhere Mountains (filmed on location in Ohio, Michigan and California) under the supervision of Sgt. Hoke (Tom Downey), a militaristic asshole who probably has an autographed picture of R. Lee Ermey next to his bed.

Hoke’s mission, to kick their criminal asses toward responsibility, is interrupted by the arrival of the legendary Paul Bunyan, who has an axe to grind (see what I did there?) with whomever has desecrated the final resting place of his beloved buddy, Babe the Blue Ox. The cast is soon whittled down to a paltry few, including Meeks (Joe Estevez, from the famous Estevez/Sheen clan) a mad mountain man who has a soft spot in his heart for the rampaging giant. Given such a juicy part, Estevez hams it up like a butcher with a prize pig and a shiny new cleaver.

The giant’s origin is explained by way of an 1894 backstory that stars old Grizzly Adams himself, Dan Haggerty (who has not aged well). Here, Bunyan turns out to be a massive man-child with  a ridiculously long lifespan and a talent for felling trees, and bears a slight resemblance to a Tolkien troll. The sympathetic brute even inspires a catchy Seeger-esque (Pete, not Bob) ballad that accompanies the credits, sung by Hick’ry Hawkins! You’ve got to admit, an effort was made.

It’s 90 minutes of jolly crapola, but Axe Giant is at least adequately paced, as the titular lumberjack stays pretty busy making bloody cordwood out of the supporting cast. It’s got a few laughs and even a brief nude scene. Folks, you could do a lot worse.

I do feel I must point out one recurring motif that left me befuddled. The giant is apparently stealthy! Have you ever heard of such a thing? He’s constantly sneaking up on his victims and getting the jump on them. You’d think the approach of a 20-foot dude would ring a few alarm bells, but these soon-to-be kindling campers are self-absorbed to the point of oblivion. Perhaps since he spent his life in the woods, Bunyan has learned to tread lightly?

Almost Human (2013)

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It’s no work of art, but writer-director Joe Begos has successfully crafted a nifty low-budget, alien-abduction thriller. If you can get around some amateurish acting and an uneven plot that provides few answers to nagging questions (e.g., Where do these aliens come from and how come we never get any idea of what they’re up to?), Almost Human delivers decent gore and a respectable body count.

Rural Maine citizen Mark Fisher (Josh Ethier) disappears one evening after a visit from his buddy Seth (Graham Skipper), who seems agitated in the extreme over the disappearance of another mutual friend. Mark’s house is bombarded with weird lights from the sky accompanied by horrible, paralyzing banshee shrieks, and neither Seth nor Mark’s girlfriend Jen (Vanessa Leigh), who witness the abduction, has any idea of where Mark has gone.

Two years later, Seth is a nervous wreck while Jen has moved on with her career (waitressing at the local greasy spoon) and her love life, getting engaged to Clyde (Anthony Amaral III), who presumably furnishes her with a more stable, down-to-earth relationship. The long-missing Mark is soon discovered nude and freezing in the woods by a pair of hunters, who quickly become the first casualties of his alien-augmented rampage.

In an interesting turn, Mark chooses to keep his victims close in order to secrete goop all over them and transform the newly departed into not-very-capable killer zombies. He’s also got a plan to get back together with Jen and start their own little litter of star-spawn.

If expectations are kept to a minimum, there are enough shocks and jolts in Almost Human to keep the viewer engaged—if not exactly enthralled. There are even a few subtle nods to The Thing, Evil Dead and Reanimator lurking in the details, if you need additional stimulation.

Barricade (2012)

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In which the hunky star of Will & Grace (Eric McCormack) gets the opportunity to go all Jack Torrance while snowed in at a remote cabin with his two nervous children. However, instead of chasing his kids around with an axe, he attempts to prove his mettle by protecting them against ghosts—and a really nasty case of the flu.

Terrance Shade (McCormack) is a recently widowed MD who’s never really bonded with daughter Cynthia (Conner Dwelly) and son Jake (Ryan Grantham). After his wife’s unexpected demise, he decides to take his estranged offspring to an isolated mountain cabin for Christmas. On the Bad Idea scale, this rates near the tippy top, because, as the kids remind Pops again and again, he’s not handy, hardy, or even barely competent at wilderness survival. The whole Shade clan comes down with a bug courtesy of the town sheriff/shopkeeper/landlord (Donnelly Rhodes), and Terrance begins to see and hear things that cause him to come unhinged in a big way.

The crux of Barricade becomes readily apparent all too soon: Is Terrance hallucinating or is there an actual evil spirit loose in the house that’s causing them no end of misery? Why does Terrance keep flipping in and out of consciousness? Are the family members being haunted by their own sense of loss and guilt over the death of the wife/mother?

It’s not really much of a mystery, but director Andrew Currie and writer Michaelbrent Collings make sure that the atmosphere is suitably tense and claustrophobic throughout, and McCormack delivers a first-rate performance as the hapless patriarch trying his best to keep his children out of harm’s way. A very watchable little fright flick.

 

Citadel (2012)

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Ding, ding, ding! We have a winner! Written and directed by Ciaran Foy, Citadel is a Scottish/Irish coproduction filmed on location in some of the most unbelievably desolate and blighted locales of Glasgow and Dublin that I’ve ever seen on film. The decaying housing projects and ruined grey landscapes make an ideal setting for a particularly harrowing urban fairy tale about an anxiety ridden single father who must protect his infant daughter from a marauding band of feral children.

After seeing his wife attacked by a trio of menacing urchins—and being powerless to help—Tommy Cowley (Aneurin Barnard) has developed a rather whopping case of agoraphobia, one that requires him to treat the affliction with counseling sessions and trust exercises. In this case, Tommy’s phobia is perfectly justified, as he lives in a dismal housing development with his yowling daughter Elsa, born despite a comatose mother who never recovered from her vicious assault.

To make matters considerably worse, it appears that the same pack of nasty kids is on his trail once again. Even while he gets advice and comfort from a sympathetic nurse (Wunmi Mosaku), Tommy comes to realize that these murderous moppets can smell and trace his fear—and as an agoraphobe, he lights up the night like a shining beacon. Driven to desperate lengths, Tommy teams up with a deranged priest (James Cosmo) to battle the little blighters.

Foy’s deft blending of grim, dystopic reality and dark mythic quest is extraordinary. Barnard is a revelation as Tommy, a young man who has no choice but to get his shit together and take arms against a hideously relentless foe. The term “reluctant hero” was tailor-made for this crazy kid. We can’t help but root for him and hope that he can somehow overcome his crippling fear and fulfill his quest.