Old (2021)

We’ve discussed M. Night Shyamalan’s work here before, and true to form, his new feature, Old has elicited sharply mixed reviews. Rotten Tomatoes has them squarely at 50 percent favorable.

Siting precarious fantasies such as The Village, The Happening, and Lady in the Water, fanboys and critics alike have pummeled the acclaimed genre director with charges of proffering half-baked, preposterous plots that don’t pay off. MNS routinely gets written up for Twilight Zone endings more befitting the small screen rather than a theatrical feature.

Stylistic quibbles aside, MNS is and always has been an artful storyteller, and in Old he delivers another dark fable, this time about a family’s vacation to a tropical resort that turns tourists into unwilling test subjects.

Having adapted the French graphic novel Sandcastle, Shyamalan fades in on a European household on holiday, comprised of Guy (Gael Garcia Bernal), wife Prisca (Vicky Krieps), daughter Maddox (Alexa Swinton), and son Trent (Nolan River).

Along with a few other hotel guests, Guy’s group is bundled off to enjoy an afternoon of food and frolic at a secluded beach of postcard quality. Everything seems serene and wondrous, but time gets away from these blissful beachcombers, and they start aging in fast-forward.

The lion’s share of Old is spent with the unfortunate tourists as they try every method at their disposal to leave the beach, with very little success. Kids grow up. Young adults get old. Old adults get older and die.

Trent, a curious and open-minded lad, is soon replaced by successively older actors, but continues to try and puzzle out their predicament. He takes a quick time out to father a child with another guest on a similar biological clock, yet he remains committed to the task of liberating his loved ones.

Shyamalan gets credit for covering a lot of ground here, gracefully transitioning from drama, to horror, to deep questions about the ethics of scientific research.

Of course, we also get plenty of sentimental Mom and Pop moments to remind us that time slips away quickly so be sure to tell everyone you love that, blah, blah, blah.

In this fashion, MNS has always been able to have his cake and eat it, too. By combining humanity’s plight with forces at work beyond our comprehension, we are forced to consider perspectives other than our own.

Visually, Shyamalan continually disorients the viewer by having characters wake up in a daze and seeing familiar looking, but different people standing around them. Who are they?

A sunny, postcard beach isn’t supposed to this sinister, right?

This ambiguity provides the dark current that will keep you watching. It’s just like in real life, but in Old, we can feel the time passing. And it hurts like hell.

They Remain (2018)

Two biologists working for an anonymous corporation are dispatched to the former site of a Manson-type cult compound to investigate strange animal behavior in the area.

Keith (William Jackson Harper) thoroughly explores the acreage, setting up camera feeds to monitor the fauna. Jessica (Rebecca Henderson) examines the data trying to find anomalies.

This goes on for the majority of the movie, as we observe the scientific method gradually give way to something far older and more primitive.

As so often happens, the more time they spend at the accursed locale, the more things break down. Keith hears voices. Jessica hears knocking at the door. Keith chases a wolf. Keith and Jessica drink whiskey.

They Remain is a subdued film, and it helps if you’re in the mood for subtlety. Writer-director Philip Gelatt adapted Laird Barron’s 30 for the screenplay, and it’s told largely from Keith’s perspective, which gets less reliable as time rolls on.

“I trust everybody, just not people,” he says to Jessica during one of their Happy Hours.

Keith dutifully collects his data, but the more he ventures out into the silent forest the less confident, and more unmoored he becomes.

Jessica, who is white, is the obsessive one, and Keith, a black man, worries that she’s not telling him the truth about their situation. Though he’s an experienced woodsman, he finds that his senses aren’t much help when faced with something that doesn’t track like an average specimen.

In fact, we’re never quite certain who is observing whom in They Remain. Whether it’s ghosts, hallucinations, cave dwellers, or just the effects of isolation, the feeling of someone watching is quite inescapable.

In scene after scene, Gelatt’s camera finds Keith hunkered down in the bush, but he doesn’t blend into his surroundings at all. He’s nervous because he isn’t safe, and he can’t hide in what is rapidly shaping up to be a hostile environment.

That’s a scary position to be in. They Remain is a profoundly unsettling movie and a very effective one.

12 Hour Shift (2020)

Originally published in Mystery and Suspense, February 17, 2021

Who knew the shady goings-on at a third-rate Arkansas hospital would strike black-comedy gold?

In Brea Grant’s frenetic and scathing 12 Hour Shift, we spend a long day with Mandy (Angela Bettis in a tour de force), a harried, overworked nurse with a penchant for snorting crushed pain pills when the going gets tough. She and her quick-thinking supervisor Karen (Nikea Gamby-Turner) have a profitable side hustle going on, supplying the Dixie Mafia with fresh organs that would otherwise go to waste.

Despite her dangerous and illegal sideline, Mandy proves to be the most (only?) compassionate soul for miles, especially when compared to her blonde cousin Regina (Chloe Farnworth), an airhead sociopath who picks up the organs for burly crime boss Nick (wrestler Mick Foley).

Complications ensue when Regina stupidly misplaces a kidney prompting Nick to send violence-prone henchman Mikey (Dusty Warren) to fetch hers as a replacement. Stalling for time, Regina hightails it back to the hospital to find more organs, really fast.

How hard could it be?

At its best moments, 12 Hour Shift is an anarchic riot, held together by a righteous performance from Angela Bettis as Mandy. During her titular workday Mandy curses, threatens, flirts, pleads, freaks out, and commits gruesome acts, each requiring its own facial transformation. Bettis never misses a beat—her expressions and comic timing are never less than impeccable. Mandy stands tall as a complicated, resourceful woman with the enviable ability to compartmentalize her train wreck of a life.

Chloe Farnworth plays Regina as the dopiest loose cannon ever let loose in a hospital. After seducing a hapless skater boy and carving him up, Regina discovers the kidneys aren’t where she thought and ends up stealing the poor kid’s bladder.

“Why would you bring this cousin of yours into this if you knew she’d kill people and rat us out?” asks an exasperated Karen.

“I sometimes have too much faith in humanity,” Mandy answers.

“That’s what I like about you,” Karen admits.

The mercenary organ-legging operation merrily flips the script on the idea of medical professionals being selfless and saintly. Instead, the staff at this hospital spends its spare time hunting for spare parts out of dreadful economic necessity, rather like Vincent Price and Peter Lorre as incompetent undertakers in Comedy Of Terrors.

The American Medical Association probably won’t be amused.

Between hair-raising scenes of bloodletting, Karen and Mandy find time to commiserate over crappy birthday cake in the break room and an annoying religious coworker.

Their mundane griping brings unexpected blue-collar verisimilitude to a zany plot about brutally invasive surgeries happening in the hospital corridors. 

Writer-director Grant is up to the task. She bakes up inventive, idiosyncratic characters that would be right at home in a Coen Brothers universe, while her opera-driven fight sequences jump like Tarantino on too much coffee.

12 Hour Shift is a freewheeling spectacle that oscillates between gross and quirky, accompanied by superb acting and quotable dialogue. As someone once said about a different film, it’s a cult movie in need of a cult.

True, it does require some adjustment on the part of the audience to root for a drug-addled organ trafficker, but by the time the end credits roll, it will be done.

Death Of Me (2020)

This is a classic Good News/Bad News situation.

The Good News is that Death Of Me is tourist trauma at its most heinous, so if you dig watching Yuppies circle the drain for 94 minutes, tormented at every turn by language barriers and hallucinations, this is your ticket.

Christine (Maggie Q) and Neil (Luke Hemsworth) wake up hungover in their Thai B&B, with scant memories of the night before. Christine’s passport and phone are missing, and there’s a major typhoon headed for the little island.

Fortunately, Neil’s phone has a two-hour video that explains the missing hours. Apparently, after getting dosed on “Island Magic” and tripping their brains out, Neil and Christine engaged in rough sex. Then Neil strangles Christine and buries her body.

Just to add a touch of verisimilitude, Christine vomits up dirt and grass while watching footage of her own murder.

The film primarily consists of Christine losing track of time (and husband), before regaining consciousness in a succession of locations.

The couple gradually deduce that Christine has been selected as a sacrifice to heathen gods in order to insure that the island remains safe from impending bad weather.

Holding his cell phone, Neil asks Christine, “Who did the guy in The Wicker Man call?”

“Nobody,” she replies. “He got burned to death.”

At least someone is in on the joke.

While Death Of Me contains exotic scenery and the pace fairly gallops, we now come to the Bad News. The word “half-baked” comes to mind.

My theory is director Darren Lynn Bousman (Repo! The Genetic Opera, Saw II) was vacationing on a beautiful island off the coast of Thailand, and the combination of good weed and charming local culture resulted in a “Eureka” moment.

As previously mentioned, the resemblance to The Wicker Man is even remarked upon by poor Neil and Christine themselves. Throw in a little Rosemary’s Baby, and you’ve got a serviceable horror happening.

Honest opinion? Death Of Me doesn’t add up to much, and none of the actors break a sweat, dramatically speaking.

The Thai folk-horror ritual elements conjure some intense, eerie moments, but they’re few and far between.

Keep your passport in the drawer and stay home.

As Above, So Below (2014)

Hey gang, who’s up for some tomb raiding?

Scarlett (Perdita Weeks) is a beautiful and fearless archaeologist searching for the fabled Philosopher’s Stone, an alchemical instrument of great power, stashed amongst the bone-strewn catacombs beneath Paris.

Too bad the road to riches leads perilously close to the gates of Hell. Next time, stay with the tour, lady!

Written and directed by John Erick Dowdle, As Above, So Below is part Blair Witch Project with a splash of Indiana Jones, combining found-footage of claustrophobic exploration with a deadly descent into a haunted underworld from which escape seems a faint possibility.

The pace spasms between breakneck thrills, sudden horrifying obstacles, and episodes of hieroglyphic dexterity, as Scarlett shepherd’s her team through a booby trapped limbo where fragments of their collective past keep biting them on the ass.

The found-footage aspect of the production is handled efficiently, not calling undue attention to itself, making the periodic explosions of paranormal terror and graphic violence even more trauma inducing.

The words of a minor character become the company mantra: “The only way out is down.”

Perdita Weeks is a capable and headstrong heroine, energizing Scarlett with proficiency as well as a complicated set of emotions, as she tries to finish the life’s work that drove her father to suicide.

Not only that, but she might be developing serious feelings for her linguist friend, George (Ben Feldman).

My critic’s cap is off to Dowdle, who fuses furious frights and exhilarating mayhem in one satisfying adventure. It’s a dark, intense quest, but ultimately we’re the better for having seen it through.

Stage Fright (1987)

The lead dancer (Barbara Cupisti) in a theater company sprains her ankle and goes to a nearby mental hospital to get it treated. She catches the eye of notorious serial killer Irving Wallace (Clain Parker), who promptly escapes and hitches a ride back to rehearsal.

Congratulations are in order to the creative triumvirate of director Michele Soavi, and writers Sheila Goldberg and George Eastman, for coming up with the flimsiest pretext ever for a bloody rampage!

When the company wardrobe mistress (Ulrike Schwerk) gets a pick ax through the eye in the theater parking lot, enterprising director Peter (David Brandon) decides to rewrite the script and make it about Wallace, the very maniac currently making hash out of the cast and crew.

You have to admire Peter’s ability to pivot, but seriously?

Director Soavi (Cemetery Man) has collaborated with the likes of Dario Argento, Terry Gilliam, and Lucio Fucli, so we’re in good hands from a visual standpoint. In Stage Fright, he devises splashy, theatrical kills, most notably the chainsaw bifurcation of dancer Sybil (Jo Ann Smith).

Note: Her sad guts are later nibbled on by Lucifer, the theater cat. Naughty kitty!

Stage Fright (Italian title Deliria) is a gaudy product of first-generation MTV aesthetics with a side of giallo, as Soavi’s staccato pulse of quick takes drives home the doomed plight of actors in various stages of distress, pursued by a savage killer in an owl costume.

Trust me, it’s creepy from any angle.

With its New Wave zoom cutting and blaring wall of Rick Wakeman-style synthesizer, Stage Fright is a lurid, fleshy artifact that gyrates at a brisk clip and doesn’t skimp on the carnage.

I call that time well spent.

Blood Vessel (2019)

It’s a clever touch.

Blood Vessel is obviously a movie about vampires on board a ship, but the title also refers to the doomed crew’s containment effort to stop a terrible blood-borne infection from reaching port.

Nutshell: A veritable United Nations of lifeboat survivors from a torpedoed hospital ship are hopelessly adrift somewhere in the water during the waning days of World War II.

There’s two Australians (Nathan Phillips, Alyssa Sutherland), a whiny British spook (John Lloyd Fillingham), a taciturn Russian (Alex Cooke), and a pair of Americans: a useful black sailor (Lydell Jackson), and a surly Italian cook (Mark Diaco) from the mean streets of Central Casting.

The improbable company hops aboard a derelict German ship and spends about 45 minutes exploring its innards, discovering burned, mutilated sailors, priceless art treasures, and an anemic child (Ruby Isobell Hall).

I realize that seems like quite a bit of action, but when spread over the entirety of the running time (a tidy 93 minutes), the pace is almost geologic.

As written and directed by Australian special effects maestro Justin Dix, Blood Vessel is mostly stuff we’ve seen before, wrapping Nazis in occult robes for another spin around the block.

Despite a fondness for familiar tropes, Dix has some inspired moments. His depiction of an Old World vampire clan that does most of its damage from a distance by psychically manipulating the infected sailors, is a fresh idea.

The hands-off approach to slaughter however, somewhat dilutes the impact of these powerful undead beings, though the creature concept and monstrous makeup are on point.

It’s too bad the vampires don’t get more screen time. Instead we learn personal details about members of the doomed crew so that past tragedies can still inform the present—especially when bloodsuckers start messing with their heads.

And with all the bad accents flying around, we’re having enough trouble remembering the parade of nations on display. Fortunately, the Australian speaks German, and the Russian understands Romanian.

With a structural resemblance to Aliens, minus the tension, spendy effects, and brilliant cast, Blood Vessel is serviceable entertainment at best, which doesn’t mean there’s no fun to be had.

There’s just not enough to go around.

The Cave (2005)

I vaguely remember seeing The Cave when it came out.

Unfortunately, my memories of it are jumbled together with Neil Marshall’s The Descent, a scarier, similarly themed movie that came out the same year.

Bad timing, I guess.

Upon revisiting The Cave, I’m inclined to sing its praises as a reasonably riveting action-horror hybrid that more than adequately meets the needs of any restless cinephile.

A healthy budget doesn’t hurt, either.

Nutshell: So there’s this uncharted system of underwater caves in the Carpathian Mountains, located beneath the remains of a mysterious church that was built to contain winged demons who would periodically emerge from the netherworld.

A team of macho cave divers and a few scientists suit up to explore the hole and end up trapped below the surface in a slimy, sunless world of highly adaptive parasites that cause the host to mutate into a highly adaptive cave monster.

The crew is led by determined dive-master Jack McCallister (Cole Hauser), who promises a way out of the mountain tomb, even as his own transformation becomes increasingly difficult to conceal.

When comparing The Cave and The Descent, it’s important to remember that the latter film is generally regarded as one of the best horror movies of the 21st century.

That said, The Cave is much better than I remember, and includes several harrowing scenes, none more so than spunky Charlie’s (Piper Perabo) spine-tingling aerial combat with a gargoyle.

Director Bruce Hunt constructs a crushing and claustrophobic underworld that pulses with genuine menace, while writers Tegan West and Michael Steinberg proffer a handful of characters worth rooting for.

Take a look around The Cave. It’s pretty cool, and you’ll adapt in no time.

 

Apollo 18 (2011)

Houston, we’ve got a problem. There’s life on the moon, and it ain’t lunar maidens in diaphanous gowns.

Buckle up for another found-footage adventure, this one finding its way back to Earth from the cold embrace of space. Apollo 18 reveals classified information about a secret moon landing in 1969 that was completely on the down low from the American public.

Mission Commander Nathan Walker (Lloyd Owen), Captain Ben Anderson (Warren Christie), and Lieutenant Commander John Grey (Ryan Robbins) are dispatched to the moon under the direction of the Department of Defense, to set up a monitoring device to keep tabs on the Russians.

That’s the story, anyway.

Walker and Anderson discover a derelict Russian spacecraft and the remains of a Soviet cosmonaut on the lunar surface. Shortly thereafter, Walker has a close encounter with a scuttling moon spider and the mission is pretty much FUBAR.

There are many parallels to Alien, including a critter gestation period and the inevitable expendability of the crew, a development that does not sit well with the participants. Indeed, the casual disregard for the safety of the astronauts by Mission Control is more frightening than the moon spiders themselves.

With Apollo 18, director Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego and writer Brian Miller play the slow-burn card to a fault. They establish a suffocating atmosphere of dread and doom in outer space with limited sets and props—and action.

There are moments when the audience feels like they’re the ones lost in space, adrift in an indifferent narrative.

Ultimately, it’s worth the trip. There’s more than enough creeping unease to keep us tuned in for the duration, as three astronauts transition from All-American heroes with The Right Stuff, to unwitting hosts with interstellar predators.

Hell House II: The Abaddon Hotel (2018)

Hey! Let’s “check in” with Hell House LLC mastermind Stephen Cognetti, and the second installment of his infernal found-footage franchise.

The Abaddon Hotel picks up a few years down the road from the fatal Halloween reopening of the first film. In the interim, the boarded up inn has become a destination for ghost hunters, thrill seekers, and documentary filmmakers—all of whom end up missing.

Despite a local police presence to shoo away curious cats, the Abaddon continues to attract unfortunate wayfarers, including investigative reporter Megan Fox (Jillian Geurts), sole Halloween survivor Mitchell Cavanaugh (Vasile Flutur) and smug TV psychic Brock Davies (Kyle Ingleman).

Film and video from a variety of doomed sources is thoughtfully edited together so we too can enjoy the accommodations at Pennsylvania’s only four-star haunted hotel, now with a new and improved Hell Mouth that’s hungry for fresh souls.

Writer-director Cognetti (aided by dozens of relatives, if the credits are to be believed) expands and colors the nascent concepts left germinating since the first movie.

We finally get to meet kooky cult leader Andrew Tully (played with devilish panache by Brian David Tracy), who fills us in on his devilish “business plan” for the Abaddon.

See, it never closes, and there’s always a fire burning in the basement, just like Tom Bodett’s Motel 666.

Cognetti is not only dexterous enough to fill in the holes from the earlier film, but he lays the foundation for Part III, revealing that a wealthy media mogul has developed an unhealthy interest in the Abaddon.

Stay tuned! I know I will.