Bone Tomahawk (2015)

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The comedian Patton Oswalt was tweeting about this one recently, his observations growing increasingly agitated—and no wonder. Bone Tomahawk is a horse opera throwback that any John Ford fan will recognize without too much difficulty. It’s your basic, “OK men, let’s get us a posse and go save our womenfolk” tale, that gradually winds its way into an atavistic nightmare and a grueling denouement. And having goddamn Kurt Russell as the dutiful and superbly mustachioed sheriff doesn’t hurt one bit.

Russell portrays Sheriff Franklin Hunt, a turn-of-the-century lawman who watches over the frontier town of Bright Hope, situated somewhere in the Southwestern badlands. One fine evening, he and Chicory (the amazing Richard Jenkins), his backup deputy and comic sidekick, spot a fugitive in their midst (David Arquette), a craven bandit on the run from a tribe of bloodthirsty cave-dwelling savages, who have trailed him to his present location. Oh, and they’re cannibals.

The next morning, Hunt discovers that the bandit, Mrs. O’Dwyer (Lili Simmons), and Deputy Nick (Evan Jonigkeit) have been abducted by the fearsome flesh eaters. A posse consisting of Hunt, Chicory, John Brooder (Scott Fox), a sartorially splendid gunfighter, and Arthur O’Dwyer (Patrick Wilson), a rancher with a broken leg, and husband of the kidnapped damsel, sets off in pursuit.

For most of Bone Tomahawk‘s two-plus hours running time, we plod along with the cowboy quartet on a near-hopeless quest. Hopefully, the pace won’t cause any premature bailouts, because this is where writer and director S. Craig Zahler demonstrates a sure hand. Alternating between meandering scenes of Larry McMurtry-esque cowboy banter and violent episodes of gunplay, Zahler keeps a tight rein on his players, moving them stoically forward to a hellish confrontation with a horrible enemy. And to their credit, the principle cast members (especially Russell and Jenkins) acquit themselves smashingly.

Hunt and his men prove to be fallible, but honorable avengers, capable of extraordinary acts of courage, even under extreme circumstances. These include helplessly watching a captured comrade writhe in agony as a clan of troglodytes readies him for supper. Suffice to say there’s more to this meal preparation than washing your hands.

Bone Tomahawk has its cringe-worthy moments, but the savagery is a vital story component, serving as a chillingly effective worst-case scenario, and not merely a cheap excuse for guts and gore. On the other hand, if you’re hungry for guts and gore, you surely won’t be disappointed by the time they arrive. Strong work!

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Deep in the Darkness (2014)

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A rather tepid adaptation of Michael Laimo’s book of the same name, Deep in the Darkness concerns a new-fish doctor (Sean Patrick Thomas) who takes over a rural medical practice on the outskirts of Nutsyville, where the simple inhabitants share a terrible secret about the lurkers in the forest.

As per Laimo’s book, the story has decent potential as the rather clueless Dr. Cayle (Thomas) gets acquainted with a race of nasty troglodyte tunnel-dwellers that call the shots with the local hillbilly population. The doc’s new neighbor, Phil (Dean Stockwell, who tries his best), attempts to get Cayle on board with the idea of sacrificing animals to their vicious little landlords, but the latter dithers and procrastinates, while his wife (Kristen Bush) seemingly has little trouble adapting to their strange new surroundings. Next thing you know, she’s preggers! (You’d think a doctor would have better access to contraception, but such is not the case.)

Neither director Colin Theys or writer John Doolan bring much enthusiasm to the project, and significant story points spill out in haphazard fashion, with all the care of a starving hobo going through a Dumpster. Then after what seems like an eternity (actually just 100 minutes), we’re presented with an unsatisfying left-field ending that packs all the wallop of a question mark materializing after “The End” credit appears.

Other than the casting of Stockwell and Blanche Baker, Deep in the Darkness has precious little going for it. It’s not awful by any means, but genuine frights are few and far between. The only real question you need to ask yourself, is “Why bother?”

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.

CHUD II (1989)

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Without a doubt one of the lamest, tamest brain-dead horror-comedies of all time. CHUD II has nothing whatsoever to do with the original CHUD (1984), a decent fright flick about Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers (CHUDS) who roam the sewers and tunnels beneath New York City devouring whatever stray sucker that encroaches on their turf. CHUD II isn’t even on the same level as the average Troma Team release—and that’s saying something. The credits list David Irving as director and Ed Naha as writer, but the whole thing seems like it was derived from a none-too-bright sixth grader’s “really weird dream.”

Steve (Brian Robbins, a sort of poor-man’s Corey Haim) and Kevin (Brian Calvert) accidentally lose the cadaver that’s supposed to be on display for their biology class and decide to steal another one from a nearby disease control center. To complicate matters, the new stiff, nicknamed Bud (Gerritt Graham, a really funny actor who, to his credit, gives it the ol’ college try), is actually a hungry hungry zombie that was created by the military to be an eating and killing machine. Once reanimated, he falls in love with Katie (Tricia Lee Fisher), Steve and Kevin’s lab partner, and creates a mob of zombie pals through his contagious bite. One of the zombies is Steve’s poodle. Idiotic, unfunny hijinks ensue. You will not laugh.

If you’re a fan of Murder She Wrote, you might get a kick out of all the cameo appearances from a veritable Who’s Who of television actors from yesteryear, including Larry Linville (M*A*S*H), Norman Fell (Three’s Company), June Lockhart (Lassie, Lost in Space), and Jack Riley (The Bob Newhart Show). Or perhaps you’ll appreciate Robert Vaughn’s (The Man From Uncle) hammy turn as a deranged army colonel. Oh yeah, and Bianca Jagger appears at the very end of the movie for some reason. But I’m betting you won’t make it that far. Frankly, I’m surprised I did.

The Colony (2013)

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When in doubt, a frozen hellscape will definitely add depth and dread to your horror movie—even if the main characters in The Colony spend entirely too much time hiking around on another egregious AIW (Anonymous Industrial Walkabout). Still, the production values here are decent, the story is reasonably compelling and the atmosphere is chillingly claustrophobic. The presence of a couple genre vets in Laurence Fishburne and Bill Paxton, doesn’t hurt either.

Nuclear winter has fallen and in a few lonely outposts, humanity attempts to restart society underground. The titular colony has suffered a drop in numbers lately, thanks to a nasty flu that’s been going around. This is usually followed by the afflicted citizen either getting shot by an increasingly paranoid Mason (Paxton) or being sent on “the walk,” a stroll through the aforementioned frozen hellscape which offers a grimly minuscule chance at survival. But hey! At least they have a choice!

When Briggs (Fishburne), the colony commander, loses radio contact with one of the few remaining outposts, he takes a small team out to investigate. And here come the cannibals, led by a fearsome bald giant (Dru Viergever). But how can three guys fight a ravenous mob? Unsuccessfully, as it turns out.

There’s nothing blazingly innovative going on in The Colony, but cowriter and director Jeff Renfroe keeps it moving with a minimum of stupid crap we don’t care about—despite a surfeit of aimless rambling. You will watch, you will care, and you will be effectively entertained.

 

Blood Runs Cold (2011)

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Based on the description, I thought this might be some annoyingly clever musical crossover, since its rather featureless lead character Winona (Hanna Oldenburg) is supposedly a successful pop singer. To my relief, she doesn’t sing a note. She’s far too busy trying to elude the zombie-cannibal-miner-hillbilly freak that’s intent on having her over for a snack (if you know what I mean).

Blood Runs Cold is filmed somewhere near Stockholm, pretending to be North Carolina—which also accounts for the mercurial accents on display. Winona (not a Judd) must four-wheel her way through several miles of frozen tundra to a remote house near her hometown that has been rented by her manager. (Note: If this guy was my manager, and he stuck me way-the-hell-out in some snowbound hick town without my entourage, he’d soon be nut-punched).

Winona (not a Judd) finds her crummy dump of a house, settles in and drives to a nearby tavern where she stumbles over her high school sweetheart Richard (Patrick Saxe) and his friends Carl (Andrea Wylander) and Liz (Elin Hugoson). She invites them all back to her crummy dump (lots of time spent driving around in Arctic conditions just adds to its zero-budget, WTF charm) where they fall prey to a multifaceted maniac (David Liljeblad—who also serves as producer and co-writer) with a penchant for pickax perforation. He falls a bit short of frightening, but I would have appreciated two minutes of backstory on where this colorful killer came from.

With Blood Runs Cold, director Sonny Laguna gives us a fascinatingly unadorned minimalist study in the field of hack-and-stack. Not one dime of this film’s budget was spent on set dressing, wardrobe, or the cast; it’s all earmarked for blood, guts, and decapitation. And if you ask me, that’s money well spent.

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.

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