Monstrum (2016)

Directed and co-written by South Korean filmmaker Jong-ho Huh, Monstrum is an exquisitely crafted 16th century period piece about a legendary beast that is decimating the population of Mount Inwangsan.

It is also a very astute political thriller about a beleaguered king (Park Hee Soon) who is being undermined by his cabinet ministers. The powers behind the throne conspire to keep the peasants wary and fearful by fueling rumors of a horrible creature that not only kills its victims but spreads the plague throughout the countryside.

Naturally, the peasants would like to see something done to mitigate the mutilations, so the king summons a loyal general (Kim Myung-min) to lead a party of warriors and farmers to hunt down and destroy the thing known as Monstrum.

The plot bubbles with palace intrigue and betrayals as a persistent rumor turns flesh (fur) in the form of a monstrous black cat that’s grown to massive proportions thanks to a steady diet of disease-ridden corpses.

The Monstrum itself isn’t the best CGI critter ever, but it’s far from the worst. Thematically, it represents man-made corruption, dishing out death as an equal opportunity destroyer, feasting on peasant and noble alike.

The monster is generally on the money in Monstrum, but the movie’s also chockful of superb swordplay and martial arts choreography that dazzles the senses. It’s no Crouching Tiger, but it’s definitely a hidden gem.

It also boasts terrific cast chemistry and you’ll have no trouble rooting for the scrappy band of heroes that takes on the vicious monster and stands up to a cadre of treacherous politicians.

And like Masque of the Red Death or Brotherhood of the Wolf, Monstrum uses a deadly plague to illustrate the indifference of the aristocracy to the suffering of an impoverished working class.

Twas ever thus.

It Waits (2005)

If your expectations are not currently residing in a lofty skyscraper, then It Waits should do the trick. The time passed and I was engaged, despite the teensy budget and a general lack of dramatic ability from the cast.

First and foremost, this is a story about redemption. Yes, there is a winged monster that dismembers campers, and plays cat-and-mouse with the lovely Danielle (Cerina Vincent), an alcoholic ranger stationed at a lonely tower in the forest primeval.

See, Danielle recently got shitfaced with her friend Julie, and was at the wheel of their jeep when it crashed, killing her bestie. Since then, she’s retreated to the solitude of her fire-watch perch to sulk and drink some more, with a wisecracking parrot as her primary companion.

If only there were some way for her to save the day, and earn back her self-respect!

Meanwhile, a bunch of stupid college students blast a hole in the side of a mountain, freeing a demon/gargoyle that’s resided there for ages and ages. After dispensing with the hors d’oeuvres, the monster plays the long game with Danielle, waging a gruesome terror campaign and reducing everyone around her to bloody mulch.

Director Steven Monroe recognizes that Danielle is the focus of the feature, so she’s never far from the camera, an aesthetic gamble that pays off. While her emotive capability seldom rises above school play levels, actress Cerina Vincent pumps the gas when action is called for and spends the majority of her screen-time looking absolutely ravishing.

The creature also gets a fair amount of camera time, and it’s a sturdily built costume that wreaks plenty of havoc, resembling Pumpkinhead with a wingspan. In fact, the diabolical monster seems rather too formidable for the plucky ranger.

Fortunately, dynamite is a great equalizer. Keep expectations on the ground floor and you will be reasonably pleased with It Waits.

Censor (2021)

To anyone who dares spread the rumor that horror movies are responsible for the moral decay of society, here is a provocative feature for your consideration.

Set against England’s Video Nasty outrage of the mid-’80s, Censor takes us inside the head of Enid Baines (Niamh Algar), an efficient and organized member of the government agency in charge of rating violent and disturbing films of the day, like Driller Killer and Deranged.

Enid is quite good at her job but her personal life hasn’t recovered from the childhood trauma of losing her sister Nina in the woods, and she continues to harbor hopes that she will turn up one day.

When she’s assigned a Nasty called Don’t Go in the Church, something shifts in Enid’s memories as the movie seems to be a re-creation of the day her sister disappeared, a haunting mystery that was never solved, and the details of which she can’t remember.

Her parents want her to move on with her life and meet a nice fellah, but Enid is determined to track down the cult filmmaker who could be the source of everything that’s gone wrong in her life.

Welsh writer-director Prano Bailey-Bond has fashioned a deeply drawn character in Enid, and the performance by Algar just keeps getting richer, even as her world gets darker, infected by the barrage of torture and cruelty she witnesses on a daily basis.

Bailey-Bond does a first-rate job of establishing time and place, when England was under a media-fueled frenzy of lurid details from “hardcore” horror films dubbed “Video Nasties.”

Enid’s office, with its dark little viewing rooms, becomes equally lurid, as screams and chopping sounds fill the halls.

Job pressures take their toll on Enid, a thoroughly professional woman with a complicated, compartmentalized life. Like Cassandra Thomas in Promising Young Woman, she has answered a calling and takes pride in her work.

Unfortunately, Enid, an otherwise intelligent and perceptive woman, ignores the warning issued by more than one character, that being, “Evil is contagious.”

In my estimation, Censor is one of the best horror films of the year.

We Need To Do Something (2021)

There are moments in We Need To Do Something in which director Sean King O’Grady and writer Max Booth III manage to make us forget that the movie is mostly about an annoying family trapped in their bathroom.

There is a powerful storm. Dad, Mom, daughter Melissa, and son Bobby hole up in the master bath. A tree crashes through the roof imprisoning the bickering clan in the can.

The presence of a rattlesnake in the restroom livens things up a bit, and provides some semblance of actual danger.

Further, the subplot about Melissa (Sierra McCormick) and her girlfriend Amy (Lisette Alexis) casting a spell on a nosy classmate that apparently results in the Earth’s destruction is intriguing, and could have been developed.

However, there is just so much horror that can be plumbed from living in a loo. Robert (Pat Healy), the twitchy family patriarch proves to be utterly useless in a crisis, impotently raging around the room, making life miserable for everyone—including the viewer.

As the face of toxic masculinity, Healy is an angry, unstable child whose very presence makes any situation 100-times more unbearable.

This gets old real fast.

Diane (Vinessa Shaw), Robert’s wife, is preoccupied with buoying Bobby’s (John James Cronin) spirits, particularly after the latter’s encounter with the roving rattler.

Single-set monotony takes over, and the lack of legitimate threats beyond Robert’s rapid decline into lunacy (it was a short trip) do not inspire much in the way of suspense.

Will Melissa cop to the crime of crashing civilization? Will anyone survive the dangers lurking beyond the camera’s reach? Will someone please kill Dad?

In the final reckoning, We Need To Do Something falls short of achieving any sort of entertainment momentum, since it’s forced to rely on offscreen developments to move the story forward.

Rather than a movie, Max Booth’s script suggests the sort of exercise in stale irony that one endures in community college playwriting classes.

Feel free to skip this class. You won’t learn anything.

Spell (2020)

Thomas Wolfe was right. You can’t go home again.

Just ask Marquis Woods (Omari Hardwick), an affluent African-American who crashes his plane squarely in the distant past in director Mark Tonderai’s Spell.

Marquis has grown up from a dirt-poor Appalachian childhood into a powerhouse big city lawyer with a handsome family. Upon learning of the death of his estranged father back in the hills, he packs up the wife and kids and flies everyone down South.

Foul weather causes the single-engine plane to drop out of the sky, and when Marquis regains consciousness he is an injured house guest of Miss Eloise (Loretta Devine), a witchy woman who uses magic herbs and a hoodoo doll to keep him immobilized, awaiting a Blood Moon ritual to transfer her essence into a younger body, or something like that.

The lion’s share of Spell is about Marquis’s grueling quest to escape from Miss Eloise and her minions, that’s reminiscent of James Caan trying to vanquish Kathy Bates in Misery.

Eventually Marquis realizes he’s going to have to fight fire with fire and reaches back into his own distant memories for the incantations his father taught him. “You got to believe to make it work,” his father’s shade tells him.

Though he claims on numerous occasions not to believe any of his father’s magical madness, desperation and rage transform Marquis into a practitioner capable of battling Miss Eloise to a standstill.

There’s no shortage of horror movies about urbanites having to fight their way out of a backwoods hellhole, but Spell is the first one I’ve seen with an all-black cast.

It makes for a provocative and offbeat point of view in a film that I recommend taking for a spin.

Better Watch Out (2016)

Once again, the poor babysitter is left to deal with the devil while bourgeois Mom and Pop drink the night away. And right before Christmas! After watching Better Watch Out, I know of one kid who’s getting a load of coal dumped in his yard.

On the verge of leaving town for college, Ashley (Olivia de Jonge) takes one last babysitting gig for the Lerners (Patrick Warburton and Virginia Madsen), keeping an eye on their son Luke (Levi Miller).

Unbeknownst to Ashley, Luke and his flunky friend Garrett (Ed Oxenbould) have contrived a “home invasion” to frighten her, in the hopes that a heroic-looking Luke will win her heart.

Yep, 12-year-old Luke has the hots for his sitter and his worst instincts take over. What starts out as Home Alone-inspired high jinks gets real dark, real fast, as Luke continually ups the stakes revealing him to be a vicious and clever sociopath.

“One-hundred one uses for duct tape,” he says merrily, as he binds Ashley to a chair.

The angel-faced kid is all bad, but when it comes to creating murder and mayhem he’s definitely a prodigy. They should probably consider moving him up a couple grades so he can torment older kids.

Miller is truly disturbing as Luke, imbuing him with a fiendishly high I.Q. His improvisational methods for dealing with a situation rapidly spinning out of his control impressive, to say the least.

De Jonge, for her part, is formidable as the object of Luke’s grotesque affection who goes to extreme lengths to thwart his sinister scheme.

With Better Watch Out, director and co-writer Chris Peckover has left a distinctive mark on the Babysitter Horror subgenre, where the evil is always coming from inside the house.

Iron Sky (2012)

Nazis from the moon plan a planetary invasion in the Finnish production of Iron Sky. Directed by Timo Vuorensola, it’s an irreverent, low-budget space opera filmed in the same retro style as Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, that harkens back to cheesy old sci-fi serials like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers.

In an attempt to boost her flagging popularity, the President (Stephanie Paul, who looks and talks like Sarah Palin) sends James Washington (Christopher Kirby), an African-American model to the moon, where he’s captured by low-tech Nazis, who’ve been hiding out on the dark side since their defeat at the hands of the Axis Powers in 1945.

A foxy sympathetic Nazi scientist (Julia Dietze) takes a liking to Washington and gives him an Aryan makeover so that he can accompany her uber-ambitious fiance, Klaus Adler (Gotz Otto), on a scouting mission to Earth.

Adler wants nothing less than to be the new furhrer, resting control from sickly Wolfgang Kortzfleisch (Udo Kier), and perhaps, with the help of some wild analog technology, rule the galaxy.

Director Vuorensola and screenwriter Michael Kalesniko wisely chose to embrace their budget limitations, rather than hide them, and created a highly stylized model universe that almost glows with soft-focus close ups of heroes and villains, playing out against a hulking backdrop of obsolete machinery.

It’s also funny as hell, with a pinch of Dr. Strangelove satire, as when the president yells at members of the U.N. for having secret space programs of their own.

When they protest that she also broke her word, she says matter-of-factly, “We always break ours. That’s just what we do.”

Apparently, there is a sequel to Iron Sky released in 2019 titled Iron Sky: The Coming Race, with many of the same principals attached.

I will be watching the skies.

Girl on the Third Floor (2019)

I haven’t followed professional rasslin’ for the last decade or two, so I’ve missed out on the rise of CM Punk, a straight-edge, comic book-loving, butt-kicking atheist who’s managed to win several championship belts in the early part of the 21st century.

In Girl on the Third Floor he tries on a tool belt to restore an old Victorian mansion with a bad reputation as a peace offering to his pregnant wife, Liz (Trieste Kelly Dunn).

Don Koch (Punk), is a financial con artist who’s cut a deal with the feds to stay out of prison, despite draining several pension funds. Having proven himself to be a liar, a drunk, and a womanizer, Don has vowed to turn over a new leaf, and “make everything right” by fixing up a former brothel into a dream home for his burgeoning family.

Unfortunately, a leopard can’t change his spots and you can’t build a dream home on a rotten foundation. The man formerly known as King Don, immediately starts drinking beer and lying to his wife on their daily phone calls, which doesn’t say much about his commitment to the project or to his marriage.

While fumbling through basic carpentry and getting loads of gross fluids dumped on him in at every turn, Don entertains Ellie Mueller (Karen Wooditsch) a gabby nun from the church next door and Sarah Yates (Sarah Brooks) a simmering sexpot who seems to come and go at will.

Don gets characteristically drunk, smokes weed, and knocks boots with Sarah. Like Michael Douglas in Fatal Attraction, he soon regrets giving in to his toxic masculine desires when his one-night stand turns out to be a vengeful spirit.

It’s a morality play, duh.

The house itself consumes the protagonist, serving as a warning to faithless spouses seeking redemption for their misdeeds.

Punk is up to the task, and acquits himself as an able, agile leading man, losing his marbles in entertaining fashion and getting tossed around like a pumped-up Bruce Campbell in Evil Dead II.

Watching the misadventures of the angry, bumbling, and ultimately remorseful Don Koch, writer-director Travis Stevens gives us a virtual Power Point illustration of the terrible fate that befalls an ethical weakling.

Maybe try couples counseling, instead.

Warning: The dog dies. Steel yourself emotionally.

The Deep House (2021)

Why would anyone want to explore a haunted house at the bottom of a lake? Talk about looking for trouble. The Deep House follows Ben (James Jagger) and Tina (Camille Lowe), a couple of thrill-seeking social media climbers that specialize in visiting creepy-ass abandoned buildings.

They don’t get much creepier than an eerily preserved house on the floor of a deep French lake, so they gather their diving gear and make a splash, guided to the secret spot by a chainsmoking local (Eric Savin).

Their life aquatic isn’t pleasant, to say the least. They find the house and Tina doesn’t like the atmosphere one bit. When they discover buoyant corpses and evidence of human sacrifice things really go off the rails.

Written and directed by Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo, The Deep House will make you uncomfortable in interesting new ways. The prospect of running out of air surfaces early in the film, as Tina practices holding her breath in the bathtub prior to arrival.

If the idea of an empty air tank under hundreds of feet water while being chased through a submerged spook-house by swimming ghouls doesn’t freeze your blood, then you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din.

Furthermore, Ben is anxious to become media famous, while Tina has a stubborn streak of common sense that often runs counter to her partner’s ambition, a situation that could spell doom for both of them.

Ben has a camera drone that provides aerial views and also follows the couple into the lake, so visually they’ve got all their angles covered. And we can see what’s lurking around the corner.

As soon as the viewer forgets that Ben and Tina are underwater, something floats by and we get a fresh wave of panic.

There’s no big moral lesson in The Deep House. What Ben and Tina find in the house at the bottom of the lake is something that should have stayed there. Is that so hard to wrap your head around?

Again, why go out of your way to get metaphysically mangled? Good movie, though.

Happy Death Day 2U (2019)

It’s great to see the ol’ Happy Death Day gang again!

In this decidedly Back To The Future II sequel, Tree (Jessica Rothe), Carter (Israel Broussard), and his genius/nerd roommate Ryan (Phi Vu) are once again stuck in a campus vortex that culminates in murder.

It turns out all the time-loop business has been caused by Ryan’s thesis project Sissy, a super powerful time-shredding device that only works sporadically with unpredictable results.

It was a test-run of Sissy that caused Tree to relive her own murder in perpetuity, and this time around she gets bounced to another timeline where things are slightly different.

For one thing, Carter is now the caring boyfriend of Tree’s insufferable sorority queen bee Danielle (Rachel Matthews). For another, her late mother Julie (Missy Yager) is miraculously still alive!

This leads Tree to a cataclysmic decision with an unforeseen butterfly effect that could leave Carter as another victim of the Babyface Killer (Rob Mello).

Perhaps the best line in the film is when Ryan, who’s being stalked by the murderous mascot, quips something to the effect of “What kind of a stupid college has a baby for a mascot?

Beware the Bayfield Babies.

Writer-director Christopher Landon (several of the Paranormal Activity movies and director of Happy Death Day) expands on the theoretical possibilities hinted at in the first film and smartly beefs up the supporting cast, particularly Ryan, who grows from comedy relief to a crucial character in the new timeline.

And the long-suffering Tree is played to comedic and dramatic perfection by Jessica Rothe.

Happy Death Day 2U is the rarest thing in Hollywood—a truly worthy sequel to an excellent film, one that succeeds on its own merits and generates fresh inspiration instead of rehashed mayhem.

One should also admire the discipline of the principle actors and set design team for re-creating seamless continuity from a two-year-old shoot.

If the rumors are true, there’s going to be a third chapter in the series, which will require the key characters to remain ageless in suspended animation until filming begins.

I can’t wait for Happy Death Day 3 Cheers For Babyface.