Barbarian (2022)

We’re seeing an upswing of Air B&B-based horror movies, and writer-director Zach Cregger’s Barbarian currently sits alone at the top of the heap. It’s a stylistic relative of Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, as mood and tone careen crazily between multiple storylines that converge in one really bad house.

Our heroine Tess (Georgina Campbell) is on her way to Detroit for a job interview with a documentary filmmaker. She arrives at her rental, the only livable dwelling in a blighted suburb that looks like World War II ended last week.

To complicate matters, it’s a dark and stormy night. To further complicate matters, she finds her house already occupied by Keith (Bill Skarsgard), a somewhat intense fellow who seems determined to put her at ease, offering to share the house with Tess for the evening.

Eventually, and against her better judgment, Tess accepts Keith’s hospitality and the two get better acquainted over a bottle of wine.

Meanwhile, in another part of the movie, TV sitcom star A.J. Gilbride (Justin Long), is having a rough time with the #MeToo movement, causing his career to crumble.

He’s advised to liquidate his holdings, including some rental property in his native Michigan, currently occupied by Tess, Keith, and something else entirely.

There is a fearsome creature at the heart of Barbarian, but like any good monster, she’s highly sympathetic, certainly more so than the two male leads, neither of whom can adapt in the unexpected survival situation they all stumble into.

AJ in particular is a loathsome example of masculinity; a whiny, raging, mama’s boy, who proves to be the biggest obstacle in Tess’s escape from a hell-house that rivals the Sawyer Family farm in Texas.

Frank (Richard Brake), the owner of the house and its hell, gets his story told in a narrative hopping flashback, and we realize that the thing haunting this hacienda is not the real monster here. In fact, she’s a remarkably nurturing creature considering her grim origin.

There’s a hell of a lot happening in Barbarian, and it understandably leaves the viewer a bit rung out. It’s shocking, periodically funny, and superbly realized by Zach Cregger, formerly of The Whitest Kids You Know.

It’s also a film that’s not afraid to sound off on a laundry list of anxiety topics, including motherhood, property values, Cancel Culture, incest, hospitality industry paranoia, and awkward first dates.

Barbarian is a wild ride that changes course a few times. You’d best buckle up.

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The Rental (2020)

Not recommended.

Dave Franco (younger brother of James) is the fledgling auteur responsible for The Rental, and unlike most coattail grabbing siblings, he demonstrates legitimate ability in the cinematic arts.

Of course, vacationers in peril isn’t the most original concept, but we’ve seen filmmakers do more with less.

Charlie (Dan Stevens, who seems to be making a career in genre films), a big-shot tech dude on the verge of a major career spike, makes arrangements for a celebratory weekend getaway at a well-appointed beach house on the Oregon Coast.

His wife Michelle (Alison Brie), and underachieving kid brother Josh (Jeremy Allen White) are part of the party, as is Josh’s Iranian girlfriend Mina (Sheila Vand)—who also happens to be Charlie’s coworker.

Problems predictably boil to the surface in short order: Mina suspects that Taylor (Toby Huss), the beach-house caretaker, is a racist and makes an issue of it. Michelle doesn’t want any Molly, so the other three party without her. Mina and Josh bring an adorable French bulldog with them, despite a No Dogs clause in the rental agreement.

As the drugs take effect, Charlie puts the moves on Mina, even though she’s in a committed relationship with his hot-headed younger brother, currently crashed on the couch. While Charlie’s wife sleeps peacefully in the next room, the horny workmates knock boots in the shower.

Classy.

Shortly thereafter, Mina discovers micro cameras installed in the shower head and things take a very paranoid turn. Charlie and Mina immediately seize on the idea that Taylor, a man they’ve never met before, is going to blackmail them with illicit footage of their midnight hanky-panky.

If that wasn’t enough, the dog disappears. (He does not die.)

Franco succeeds in sparking tension and earning our interest, as it’s obvious from the assortment of perspectives we’re presented with, inside and outside the house, that someone is watching these frisky beachcombers screw around and catching it all on camera.

Sadly, The Rental builds shakily to a half-baked massacre that clarifies zilch. I honestly pictured a nation of viewers looking quizzically at one another while shrugging their shoulders.

My complaint is simply this: We spend 95 percent of the running time of the movie putting up with a philandering tech bro and his flawed posse, only to have a deux ex machina come in and wipe them all out?

Who’s the guy in the mask?

Hey Little Franco, if we’re forced to go online for an explanation of your movie’s ending, you’ve failed your obligation as a storyteller.

Brides of Dracula (1960)

“Count Dracula, monarch of all vampires, is dead, but his disciples live on, to spread the cult and corrupt the world.”

Like the gloomy narrator indicates in his ominous introduction to Brides of Dracula, the marquee bloodsucker, played by Christopher Lee, managed to get himself skewered in a previous Hammer Films production, so this time around we get Baron Meinster (the dashing David Peel), certainly one of the first examples of vampire as pop star.

When Meinster materializes at the Transylvania Academy of Proper Young Ladies to visit Marianne (Yvonne Monlaur), the pretty new French teacher, the gathered gals go gaga over the dapper blonde Baron.

Check out the image above used to promote the film. It looks Heathcliff and Catherine off to a make-out sesh on the moors.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

By this point in the movie, Marianne has already freed Meinster from captivity by his daffy dowager mother the Baroness Meinster (Martita Hunt), who for years has kept vigil over her evil offspring, aided by Greta (Freda Jackson), her equally loony servant.

Earlier, the Baroness discovers Marianne stuck at the local pub, abandoned by her cowardly coachman (Michael Ripper). Lonely for educated company, the increasingly unstable noblewoman invites Marianne up to her castle, to sleep in one of her many guest bedrooms.

From her window, Marianne spies the young Baron wandering on his own balcony below. Throwing common sense to the wind, she instantly believes the beautiful man has been wrongfully incarcerated and helps him to escape.

Nice going, Marianne!

The newly liberated nosferatu is soon feasting on the hottest peasant woman in the village (Marie Deveraux), as well as Marianne’s jealous roommate Gina (Andree Melly).

Greta, once his captor, has decided to help out Meinster by digging up the dead girls and making them more presentable for their master.

Now that’s what I call Goth!

True, there is no Dracula on hand, but we do get Doctor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) the Hall of Fame vampire slayer, operating at the top of his game. Cushing is typically excellent and erudite as the dedicated undead destroyer, who has a couple gnarly brawls with the new count on the block.

After getting a bite from Meinster, Van Helsing demonstrates uncanny resourcefulness, by treating his unholy hickey with a hot branding iron and some H20 blessed by the local priest.

Despite the absence of the iconic Christopher Lee, Brides of Dracula gallops along at a brisk clip, with impending danger reliably signaled by Malcolm Williamson’s anxious orchestration, that during moments of high drama seems on the verge of complete nervous collapse.

The veteran supporting cast is spot on. Freda Jackson is a howling mad domestic that nonetheless adapts to new duties with surprising confidence. And the enchanting Andree Melly glowingly epitomizes the movie’s tagline: “He turned innocent beauty into unspeakable horror!”

Even minor characters, like Dr. Tobler (Miles Malleson), the dipsomaniac local sawbones, are given sufficient space by director Terence Fisher to have small comic interludes that prove successful more often than not.

Speaking of comic interludes, there is some lame-ass bat puppetry happening here that wshould also inspire a few laughs. That should not deter anyone in the slightest.

Brides of Dracula is Hammer horror at its hottest, featuring a plethora of glaring bloodshot eyes, heaving bosoms, and a fair amount of fang action.

Required viewing in my estimation. See what all the fuss is about.

Deadstream (2022)

Now that’s what I’m talking about!

As if to put an exclamation point on my earlier observation that internet adventurers are the new Red Shirts, along comes Deadstream, the Apocalypse Now of found footage horror.

Sean Ruddy (Joseph Winter) is an internet personality who stages dangerous stunts that also manage to be offensive, such as getting smuggled across the Mexican border in the trunk of a car.

After his latest spectacle goes horribly wrong, Ruddy hopes to apologize and move on, but his fans are deserting him in droves, peppering his inbox with destructive criticism.

Comments pop up throughout the movie acting as a sort of Greek chorus to the action, which is plentiful. Even as Sean battles all manner of paranormal entity, the comment string keeps up a barrage of fan posts that are funny, annoying, and even surprisingly useful.

Among my favorite comments: “Glad I’m not you,” “Better start praying,” and “Please sign this petition at Move.org so Sean will stop being be such a pussy.”

In order to atone for a bad call, Ruddy comes clean to his public about the one fear he’s never tackled—ghosts.

So, strapped with all the latest gear thanks to a sponsorship from an energy drink company, the repentant daredevil vows to spend a night in the most haunted house in America—that he can successfully break into without getting arrested.

The lion’s share of Deadstream originates from one of Sean’s cameras that are spread throughout Death House, the site of his viral vigil, or mounted on his person.

Admittedly, this is a long time to be looking up Sean’s nose, but writer-directors Joseph and Vanessa Winter reward our patience by throwing everything but the yeti at our fearful protagonist.

Sean spends an enchanted evening fending off angry spirits, misshapen freaks, and a hot girl named Chrissy (Melanie Stone) who wanders into the chaos.

Like the legendary Don Knotts in The Ghost and Mister Chicken, Joseph Winter delivers an unhinged scaredy-cat performance, that comes garnished with the best girlie shriek of man-terror I’ve heard in a minute.

As Sean Ruddy, a man who will do anything to please the ever-present and increasingly fickle comment string, Winter willfully throws himself into a thankless part, that of sacrificial lamb to his voracious followers.

Ruddy makes himself vulnerable to the dark forces of the house and to his followers. Will the truth set him free?

His unwavering commitment to see the project through drives Deadstream to thoughtful new frontiers that bear examining. For instance, shouldn’t everyone come equipped with a Stupid Things To Do spin board?

Simply in terms of pound-for-pound raw energy, and entertainment bang for the buck, Deadstream is a hot ticket.

I was a wee bit disappointed that the Winters decided to pay homage to Sam Raimi about three-fourths of the way through the film, precisely because they had managed to avoid doing so up to that point.

The Deadites must have a strong union.

Jamie Marks is Dead (2014)

“Adam, you don’t want a dead boy lurking around outside your house, trust me.”

Writer-director Carter Smith distinguishes himself mightily with Jamie Marks Is Dead, a ghost story about friendship and duty from beyond the grave.

Adam McCormick (Cameron Monaghan) is a high school cross country star who becomes curiously attached to the ghost of a murdered classmate, Jamie “Moonie” Marks (Noah Silver).

Marks’ body is found at the riverside by weird goth girl Grace Highsmith (Morgan Saylor), with whom Adam quickly becomes romantically involved. This development leads to the discovery of Marks’ ghost, still shivering and dressed in skivvies, skulking around Grace’s backyard.

“We all have a choice, Adam,” Grace tells him. “I choose not to see him.”

Driven by pity for Marks, a friendless boy routinely tormented by his fellow jocks, Adam vows to help the wayward spirit, giving him clothes and a place to live in his own closet.

Adam reaches out because he’s lonely, too. His own brother Aaron (Ryan Munzert) is a macho douchebag, while his trailer park mama (Liv Tyler) has chosen to share their home with Lucy, the drunk driver (Judy Greer) that put her in a wheelchair.

Adam affectionately nicknames her “the Paralyzer.”

At this point in the narrative, the viewer will surely make assumptions about Adam eventually being forced to disentangle himself from an increasingly needy spook. Smith, who adapted the novel One For Sorrow by Daniel Barzak, avoids the obvious track.

Instead, Adam atones for his callous indifference to the suffering of a fellow soul, by pledging emotional support to someone he never cared for in life.

The action takes place in another one of those blighted, boarded-up little towns that appear bereft of anything resembling empathy or compassion.

But sometimes humanity rises to the occasion.

Jamie Marks is Dead, is a fascinating, somber movie that will surprise a few people, thanks to an unexpectedly hopeful final act. One that allows for a smidgen of light into a 99 percent dreary reality.

My thanks to friend of the blog, Andre Hagestedt, for recommending it. You may want to thank him, too.

Men (2022)

These days, it’s almost impossible for anyone suffering a traumatic loss to be allowed the time and space to heal properly.

Harper Marlowe (Jessie Buckley) has just lost her husband to suicide, so she drives off into the timeless wonder of the English countryside to recharge her emotional batteries.

Unfortunately, her rural B&B is situated smack-dab in the middle of a metaphoric battlefield where she must face down unwanted masculine attention, principally in the form of Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear) her temporary landlord.

All of the men in the nearby village are hostile to Harper, including a priest who asks her if she’s figured out what sin she committed to cause her husband to kill himself.

And then there’s a naked wild man that lives in an abandoned train tunnel who awakens at the sound of Harper singing and begins to pursue her relentlessly, enchanted by her “siren” song.

Writer and director Alex Garland (Annihilation) continually jabs the audience with a stick, asking us to consider uncomfortable ideas, such as, “Should both partners in a bad relationship go down with the ship?”

Men is a typically prickly A24 Production, depicting a society inhabited by a single man (demon?) who comes in many different shapes, and sits in judgment of Harper, a modern woman that ought to be ashamed that her husband James (Papaa Essiedue) jumped out a window.

That suicidal act appears to function as a blood sacrifice, summoning the Avenging Man Spirit (Kinnear, who is brilliant) to punish his wife’s transgressions—namely wanting her own life apart from a dangerously unstable partner.

The finale of Men is a queasily edited body horror freak out that will probably freak you out. After that, you can start unpacking all the subtext. Take your time: there’s plenty of meat on this bone, and I highly recommend savoring each bite.

Shock Waves (1977)

Long before Dead Snow thawed out a battalion of Nazi zombies, this low-budget creeper, written and directed by Ken Wiederhorn (Eyes of a Stranger, Meatballs II), spent a few decades bouncing around the Late Night Spook Show circuit.

Shock Waves stars horror vets Peter Cushing and John Carradine, as well as Luke Halpin from Flipper, all grown up into a blonde, mustachioed male lead, who must rally a crew of castaways marooned on an island awash in goggled zombies in SS uniforms.

Cushing brings a convincing accent, dandy scar makeup, and complete authority to his role as an exiled Nazi commander forced to live in an abandoned luxury resort on a nameless island somewhere in the ocean.

Guess he couldn’t make it all the way to Brazil.

Cushing patiently awaits the arrival of the soggy soldiers formerly under his command, who should be returning from Davey Jones’ Locker any day now.

Editor’s Note: Cushing plays Admiral Tarkin in Star Wars—the very same year!

John Carradine doesn’t get to do much as Ben, the cranky charter boat captain, but we do get to see him in a bathing suit. (Rrrrowr!)

Comely Brooke Adams stands out as Rose, a tourist who also looks smashing in swimwear.

The underwater photography, particularly when the Nazi zombies snap into formation and smartly march toward the surface, is eerie and strangely captivating, jarringly punctuated by Richard Einhorn’s dissonant electronic score.

No, they don’t eat flesh, but these genetically altered stormtroopers are consumed by a desire to kill, and they have thoroughly adapted to the life aquatic.

So what if they look like a techno band? Good stuff!

Speak No Evil (2022)

Trauma warning: Speak No Evil is very dark and will probably leave a mark.

Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch) and Bjorn (Morten Burian) are an attractive Danish couple on holiday, with their young daughter Agnes (Liva Forsberg). They happen to meet Patrick (Feja van Huet) and Karin (Karina Smulders), who are from Holland, traveling with their quiet son Abel (Marius Damslev), who is about Agnes’s age.

The two families have dinner together and promise to keep in touch.

Meanwhile, Sune Kolster’s musical score is erupting with sinister and ominous trumpet flourishes all over the place, as if Max Cady had just been released from prison and wandered over from Cape Fear.

What is happening here?

Director and writer Christian Tafdrup is actually tipping his hand. My first assumption was that the overblown soundtrack was parody and meant to mislead or exaggerate a threat.

This is not the case. The brass barrage is meant to be a warning of impending danger to the characters, and probably the viewer as well.

Speak No Evil is an excruciating slow death of a thousand cuts. What at first unrolls like a comedy of manners—urban, Danish sophisticates spend an uncomfortably rustic weekend as guests of less civilized Dutch acquaintances— gradually reveals itself to be mounting torments of the damned.

“It’s perhaps a bit too long to spend with some people we barely know,” Louise offers sensibly.

“What’s the worst that could happen?” Bjorn asks a short time later.

This moment in time is played for (uneasy) laughs, but the answer to Bjorn’s question is a bottomless pit of micro-aggressions and red flags that culminate in a finale that is blistering, not only in the brutality it depicts, but in the utter hopelessness on the parts of Louise and Bjorn, who face a fate as grim as any I’ve witnessed at the movies.

Like Godard and Buñuel before him, Dutch director Christian Tafdrup has no sympathy for the bourgeoise.

Speak No Evil is not a cheaply made shocker. Tafdrup trains a razor-sharp eye on Bjorn’s smug boredom with middle-class domesticity as more than reason enough to seal their doom.

And what a dark little doom it is!

My advice? Never ever wonder out loud about how bad something can get, unless you want to find out. Or maybe you enjoy being punched in the stomach really hard.

Horror in the High Desert (2021)

Social influencers are horror movie gold!

I alluded to this situation in my review of The Deep House, as the answer to the burning question, “Why would otherwise intelligent people put on scuba gear to explore a haunted house at the bottom of a lake?”

The protagonists are compelled to take on insanely dangerous missions in order to attract (and maintain) followers! Building that brand is indeed hazardous to your health.

Horror in the High Desert is an 82-minute found-footage shocker about Gary Hinge (Eric Mencis), a popular outdoor adventure blogger who disappears under (you guessed it!) “mysterious circumstances,” while exploring a remote area of Nevada’s high desert.

Possibly based on the real-life case of Kenny Veach (Google that shit), writer-director Dutch Marich dutifully assembles realistic interviews with family, friends, and investigators, all of whom are trying to figure out what happened to someone who was, by all accounts, an expert at wilderness survival.

Spoiler alert: It ain’t good, and eventually the talking heads give way to Gary Hinge’s final creepy posts, from a location he clearly didn’t want to revisit.

The fearless blogger admits to increasing anxiety, and with good reason. All his instincts warn Hinge away from the nasty little shack in the middle of Nowhere, Nevada.

But his core followers have demanded video evidence, so he has no choice but to return to a cursed location. Film, or it didn’t happen.

As a blogger myself, I can only hope my dozen or so regular readers don’t start clamoring for personal peril on my part—unless you’d enjoy footage of me collecting dog poop in the backyard.

The ending leaves open the possibility of a sequel (or three), as it’s reported during the credits that no less than 17 teams of danger bloggers went out to find Hinge.

Horror in the High Desert is a more than ample warning to the foolhardy. Don’t let obnoxious fans push you over the brink and into the arms of … someone you do not ever want to meet.

Wer (2013)

I’m reasonably sure that this movie would have more of a following if it wasn’t saddled with such a clunker of a title.

Wer? Really, that’s the best we can do?

It’s a shame because Wer is top-shelf lycanthrope mayhem all day, every day.

Co-writer and director William Brent Bell wisely saved his nickels and dimes by filming in Romania and calling it France, where American lawyer Kate Moore (A.J. Cook from Criminal Minds) is defending a hulking peasant (Brian Scott O’Connor) accused of tearing up a family of tourists. Limb from limb.

And taking huge bites out of them.

The makeup and prosthetic work by Almost Human Inc. is worth the price of the ticket. The scene when Kate examines the shredded remains of the victims is startlingly savage. Seldom has bodily harm been rendered in such vicious detail.

A shaking hand-held camera gives Wer the appearance of a found footage police procedural, with lengthy talking sequences that flare into bloody chaos without warning.

Now that’s what I’m talking about. Modest movies that turn out to be way better than I expect are the coin of my realm. They’re my jam.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to make some toast.

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