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 moon 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.

 

The Pyramid (2014)

What, no Mummy?

You’d think a horror movie called The Pyramid would have the decency to trot out a few bandage-wrapped shufflers for Old Times’ sake, but director Gregory Levasseur (better known as the writer for High Tension and The Hills Have Eyes) decided to go another way.

Nutshell: An archaeological expedition enters a previously undiscovered pyramid, awakening several inhabitants, including feline zombie servants of Bas, and apparently the god Anubis himself.

Egyptian curses. We never learn.

The defilers of the sacred tomb spend the majority of their screen time crawling through ancient, perfectly symmetrical tunnels in search of an exit, triggering deadly traps and getting mauled by a wrathful jackyl-headed CGI monster that’s actually not too shabby to behold.

The most riveting sequence involves a woman helplessly impaled on wooden stakes being slowly eaten by undead cats. Needless to say, this predicament doesn’t sit well with the victim, who howls for release.

Though The Pyramid is ostensibly a found-footage feature, the POV is all over the place so it’s best not to focus on this aspect.

Instead, settle in for a fast-moving conveyer belt of doomed tomb raiders meeting their fates in memorably macabre fashion.

Again, no mummies are featured in The Pyramid. But the curse is a killer.

The Blackout: Invasion Earth (2019)

No need to overthink it. The Blackout is a slam-bang, sci-fi, action blockbuster from Russia that’s certain to hold your attention long after the Milk Duds harden.

Borrowing from well-sourced material like Starship Troopers, Alien, and War of the Worlds, directors Egor Baranov and Nathalia Hencker have dropped a fairly epic slab of space spectacle on our heads, featuring a cast of brave comrades from the former Soviet Union battling an unearthly menace.

Nutshell: The Earth has gone dark except for one small circle of civilization in Eastern Europe. Russian troops are deployed, but prove mostly useless against an unseen enemy that sends wave after wave of brainwashed bears and people at their shrinking defenses.

All seems lost until the arrival of Id (Atryom Tkachenko), an alien with godlike powers (but no mouth), who offers the beleaguered survivors a possible solution to the impending invasion.

“But at what cost?” as the saying goes.

Seen mostly from the grunt’s-eye view of two soldiers, Oleg (Aleksey Chadov) and Grubov (Pyotr Fyodorov), The Blackout serves up balls-to-the-wall military gear excitement and plenty of narrow escapes, while bodies pile up to the heavens.

Having the aliens enslave millions of human subjects and making them fight against the Russian holdouts is a brilliant strategy that also saves tons of money on the special effects budget.

No need for Godzilla to stomp Tokyo when there’s plenty of domestic cannon fodder at hand.

Thankfully, even at 2-hours plus, there’s no lag time in The Blackout, and that’s worth plenty in my book, especially since it’s light on CGI.

Turns out there’s nothing wrong with old-fashioned blood and guts.

 

 

 

 

The Marshes (2018)

Another camping trip gone to hell thanks to poor social distancing. Let’s face it: Maniacs have no respect for boundaries.

Three biology students from an Australian university are studying water samples in a vast, remote marshy area. As is usually the case in rural communities, the eggheads run afoul of Aussie-brand hicks, hunters, and hillbillies, who take time out from their skinning and gutting duties to harass the learned strangers.

Pria (Dafna Kronental) assumes a leadership role, but her group’s proximity to the bloody and brutal poachers erodes her confidence and she starts having bad dreams.

Gradually, the three academics intuit they’re being stalked by an apex predator with a taste for human burgers.

From a biological standpoint, Pria and her comrades are now a trio of tasty specimens caught in a primitive web, and as the tagline blithely exclaims, “When Science Ends, Survival Begins.”

The spider rapidly making its way toward them is a legendary swamp cannibal known as the Swag Man (Eddie Baroo), presumably because he gives his victims free t-shirts and lighters before devouring their flesh.

Writer-director Roger Scott keeps us off-balance with an eye-popping arsenal of swinging camera moves and perspective shifts that make the marshland scenery appear impenetrable, menacing, and steadily encroaching on the anxious scientists.

Certainly The Marshes would fit snugly alongside any number of “trespasser beware” features, including Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, and Wolf Creek, another grueling import from Down Under.

For a non-horror comparison, I was also favorably reminded of director Walter Hill’s Vietnam metaphor, Southern Comfort, which remains an all-time favorite survival shocker.

Body At Brighton Rock (2019)

Two words: Deceptively simple.

On the surface, writer-director Roxanne Benjamin’s Body At Brighton Rock is about a novice national park employee (Karina Fontes) who discovers a corpse on a remote hiking trail.

Benjamin vaults from this premise into a a vast, confusing wilderness where predators lurk behind every tree, and a tenderfoot’s training is put to the test.

We quickly learn that part-time park guide Wendy (Fontes) isn’t the most motivated employee, after she shows up late (again) for the daily assignment posting. Wendy’s friends waste no time in reminding her that she’s more of an “indoor” type and not really suited to the more rugged demands of national park stewardship.

Shamed by her coworkers’ low opinion, Wendy swaps duties with her pal Maya (Emily Althaus), and sets out on a lengthy hike to post new seasonal signs all the way up a distant peak.

As it turns out, Wendy’s posse is very perceptive. The neophyte ranger loses her map and ends up in the middle of nowhere with a dead cell phone and a walkie-talkie that looks like it came out of a cereal box.

Let’s add one dead body, a vaguely menacing stranger (Casey Adams), and claw marks on tree bark to ensure young Wendy spends a sleepless night jumping at every snapped twig.

Body At Brighton Rock looks and sounds like a survival situation, and it is. But Benjamin intuitively pushes a number of buttons that ramp up the tension to include Wendy’s understandable self-doubts about her ability to handle some very intense circumstances.

The movie also works as an engrossing coming-of-age vision quest with a bit of Hitchcock’s The Trouble With Harry thrown in for good measure.

Deceptively simple, highly recommended.

 

Crawl (2019)

Treated myself to a new movie from Amazon, and settled on Crawl, the turbid tale of Haley, a dutiful daughter (Kaya Scodelario), who drives into the heart of a Florida hurricane to rescue her injured dad (Barry Pepper).

Complication One: Dad’s trapped in the cellar of their family home and it’s rapidly filling up with water.

Complication Two: The rising floodwaters are teeming with bloodthirsty alligators.

This is not an intricate narrative, and director Alexandre Aja (High Tension, Piranha 3D, The Hills Have Eyes) wisely keeps the focus on what’s going to pop out of the water next. There is some obligatory backstory about the bond between father and daughter, forged while the the latter trained to be a competitive swimming champion, but it’s just enough to make the audience understand that Haley has a fighting chance against the gators.

As the waters rise, Aja tightens the screws to the point where one can’t help shouting out words of encouragement to Haley and her pop, such as, “Get out of there, dummy!” or “Stop thinking about old swim meets and haul ass!”

There’s not much dialogue in Crawl. Seriously, the script is probably like 10 pages long, and both Scodelario and Pepper play their parts to the hilt while submerged in bloody water. Ultimately, the movie succeeds because Aja never allows us the leisure time to get bored with their plight.

It’s one crisis after another, and they’re usually hungry.

The Meg (2018)

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[To be read with Australian accent]

“That’s not a shark. (pause) Now that’s a shark!”

You win. The Meg stars the biggest shark in sea monster cinema history, so it’s got that going for it. There’s also oodles of action heroics by the reliably shirtless Jason Stathem, a laconic swab with the gumption to save a darling little Pekinese dog from a watery grave right before the end credits.

This is hardly a spoiler. The titular apex predator is indeed a massive beast, but it wreaks precious little carnage on the civilian population. The body count is supplied principally by members of an underwater research station bankrolled by slacker billionaire Morris, played by Rainn Wilson.

His gonzo turn is a standout among a cast that includes such standard plug-and-play characters as a sassy black scientist (Page Kennedy) who sure as hell can’t swim and never signed up for any of this shit.

Stathem is Jonas Taylor, a hard-drinking rescue diver still haunted by a few lives lost during a risky mission several years before. In need of redemption, Taylor returns to the briny deep when his ex-wife Lori (Jessica MacNamee), is marooned and besieged by a prehistoric killing machine at the most remote spot on the ocean floor.

Rather than rekindle with the ex, Taylor is more or less thrown into the arms of Suyin (Bingbing Li), a fetching single mom marine biologist whom he obligingly rescues on several subsequent occasions. For sheer volume of last-second escapes, The Meg is up there with Raiders of the Lost Ark.

But it’s an earlier Steven Spielberg blockbuster that fans still venerate as Lord of the Deep in the giant critter genre. At that point in his career (1975), young Spielberg hadn’t become commodified as the ultimate family friendly filmmaker.

In Jaws, the dog disappears. Remember the kid on the beach throwing the stick to a black lab named Pippet? You see the dog swimming and then the stick washes up on the shore. Spielberg’s movie is both bloodier and scarier, even 40 years later. Current audience research indicates a missing dog won’t cut it with a 21st century crowd.

There is certainly nothing as hair-raising as Ben Gardner’s floating head in The Meg. Instead, it’s a serviceable CGI popcorn flick content to elicit a few gasps—rather than a chorus of screams.

Don’t Breathe (2016)

There’s much to admire about Don’t Breathe, a nasty, audacious thriller directed and co-written by Fede Alvarez and released by Sam Raimi’s Ghost House Pictures. The technical finesse demonstrated throughout adds considerable impact and Raimi-esque flourish to the action, which unfortunately becomes increasingly preposterous under the weight of too many plot points.

Rocky (Jane Levy) is a hardworking single-mom burglar with dreams of relocating to sunny California from her blighted hometown of Detroit (actually filmed in Hungary—way to save money, team!). She and her coworkers Alex (Dylan Minnette) and Money (Daniel Zovatto) tumble onto a caper that looks like a piece of cake: bust into a blind man’s pad and steal a pile of cash that is supposedly on the premises, the result of a huge settlement he reached after a rich girl killed his daughter in a car accident.

The little old blind man (a scary Stephen Lang) turns out to be a chiseled combat veteran with a Rottweiller and a labyrinthine basement full of dangerous secrets, and the bad-ass burglars are soon trapped in a dark house with an even badder-ass “victim.”

The twists and turns that ensue range from deft and effective to downright ludicrous. If Alvarez didn’t feel the need to pad the script with unnecessary dramatic tropes (dead daughter, bad mother memories, male suitor rivalry, pregnancy), he might have had a lean, mean survival flick in the tradition of John Carpenter or Wes Craven. To his credit, he almost pulls it off.

The contrast between the lithe tracking shots of abandoned neighborhoods being slowly retaken by nature, to the tightly focused and creeping claustrophobia of the blind man’s lair is skillfully rendered, and Alvarez earns bonus points for keeping tensions taut.

What detracts from the tension is the director’s penchant for telegraphing every development well before it happens with cutaway shots to objects that will play a significant role further down the line.

It’s an annoyingly condescending move designed to eliminate any obligation on the viewer’s part to pay attention. Alvarez cheerfully introduces us to a hammer, a piece of glass, a crowbar, a remote, a couple pairs of shoes, and a pistol hidden under a mattress just so we aren’t surprised when they reappear later.

Sam Raimi can get away with this chicanery in his own movies, but here it falls flat and goes splat.

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Grizzly (1976)

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The trouble with being a middle-aged horror fan is never being able to quite remember where you heard something about a certain movie. I knew at one time, but now… that bit of data is gone forever, swallowed up by a sinkhole full of quicksand in my head that’s growing larger every day. (I would estimate it to be roughly the size of Rhode Island, at the moment.)

Anyway, I’d like to have a word with whomever advised me that Grizzly was “Jaws with a bear,” and “a classic gore-fest.” Sure, there’s blood and a respectable body count, but nothing that compares with Ben Gardner’s head floating out of a hole in the hull of his boat. Plus, Jaws had Spielberg, Richard Dreyfuss, Roy Schieder, and Robert Shaw. Grizzly has to make do with director William Girdler and a cast of ham-and-eggers.

So there’s a grizzly bear running amok in a Georgia state park and it’s up to a chain-smoking park ranger (Christopher George), a goofy naturalist who dresses in animal furs (Richard Jaeckel), and a cynical ‘Nam vet helicopter pilot (Andrew Prine) to stop the beast. l

This arduous task takes up the entire running time of the movie, which is stone-cold boring except for periodic bear maulings, and frankly, they’re no great shakes in the blood and guts department.

Despite the fact that I found Grizzly on Hulu Plus under the designation “Classics”, I would hesitate to put it into any special category other than “Ho-Hum & Hokey.”

A much better film of this type is John Frankenheimer’s Prophecy, about a pollution-spawned mutant grizzly on the rampage. Go find that one, instead.