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. that’s always inventing new means to escape his increasingly bloody problem. De Jonge is extremely formidable as the object of his grotesque affection and goes to extreme lengths to thwart Luke’s 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.

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.

Demonic (2015)

A detective (Frank Grillo) and a police psychiatrist (Maria Bello) try to piece together what happened after a team of amateur ghostbusters bungle a seance in a haunted house, in Demonic.

Probably happens all the time.

The cops grill John (Dustin Milligan), the only survivor, in an attempt to locate his missing girlfriend Michelle (Cody Horn) and ghost team leader Bryan (Scott Mechlowicz).

The rest of Bryan’s crew are spread out around the house in various stages of decomposition after persons unknown went on a chopping spree.

The story unfolds via John’s remembrances and footage recovered by forensic specialists, so the narrative bounces from the current crime scene to the week before, when the paranormal investigators set up shop in a rambling manor house somewhere in Louisiana swampland.

There are jump scares aplenty and a decent amount of escalating tension, but not much in the way of blood and guts. Gaping plot holes abound (Really? The detective has no other recourse but to shoot his only suspect while the latter is holed up in a grocery store?) and no one associated with the film will win any acting awards.

Even so, director-cowriter Will Canon keeps his spooks flying and manages to perpetrate a few decent plot twists to keep our attention from wandering too far.

Demonic is not required viewing, but you could do a lot worse. I should know.

What Keeps You Alive (2018)

Talk about a relationship with serious obstacles.

Jules (Brittany Allen) and Jackie (Hannah Anderson) are a married gay couple who go off for a romantic weekend to a well-appointed house in rural Canada that belongs to Jackie’s family.

In horror movies, romantic weekends are second only to make-out pot parties as an invitation to trauma. What Keeps You Alive is no exception.

What’s different here is the source of the threat. Soon after their arrival, the couple is visited by Sarah (Martha MacIsaac), a local who recognizes Jackie, but calls her by the name “Megan.”

The next morning Jackie tries to murder Jules by pushing her off a cliff. This unexpected development caused my friend Kaja to remark, “I guess she fell for the wrong girl.”

Jules does not die in the fall, so Jackie begins tracking her, shouting conciliatory messages about how sorry she is, and that she wants to take Jules home.

The single scariest moment in What Keeps You Alive is when Jules, hiding behind a tree from Jackie, sees her wife’s flat emotionless face while she’s yelling endearments.

Presently, Jackie gets tired of playing the concerned mate and informs the unseen Jules that she knows the woods like the back of her hand and escape is impossible.

The sexual dynamic between the two lovers hovers over the carnage, occasionally referenced in flashback, as writer-director Colin Minihan explores the depths of betrayal that Jackie has orchestrated.

There’s plenty of nail-biting action, including a riveting rowboat chase across the lake, that will keep your hand close to the panic button.

Minihan alternates between closeups of injured and frightened Jules running through the house, and long establishing shots of the unforgiving terrain, effectively adding weight to the already considerable tension.

There are enough twists and reversals to keep even the most astute thriller fan off balance, and both Allen and Anderson bring everything they have to their respective roles.

We’re predisposed to root for Jules, who proves tougher than she looks, but Jackie’s unfolding madness is spellbinding. She shifts and sheds personalities seemingly at will to keep Jules on the defensive. Whether she’s cajoling, cursing, or crying it’s impossible to get an accurate read on Jackie.

Mercenary? Maniac? Misunderstood?

At one point, Jules demands an answer. “What happened to you? Was it your father? Did he do something to you?” she asks.

“It was nature, not nurture,” Jackie answers deadpan.

Definitely worth your time.

The Beach House (2020)

Turns out an extinction event is no day at the beach.

Two couples get acquainted over wine and weed edibles at a sweet shack by the seashore during an atmospheric catastrophe, after which everything changes for the worse.

Written and directed by Jeffrey A. Brown, The Beach House conjures scare scenarios along the same lines as The Block Island Sound and Color Out Of Space, a pair of recent cosmic horror entries that are also long on tension and short on answers.

College sweethearts in crisis, Randall (Noah Le Gros) and Emily (Liana Liberato), take a break from academia to spend the weekend at Randall’s family beach house.

It all looks promising until another pair of beachcombers arrive with a reservation for the same weekend. Awkward!

Mitch (Jake Weber) and Jane (Maryann Nagel), a distantly recognized, slightly older couple, are amiable and open to suggestions. The newly formed quartet agree to share quarters and a dinner party becomes the order of the day.

Like all civilized people, we welcome members into our tribe with barbecued meat, wine, and really potent edibles. Old records are played, dreams discussed, and for a short time these strangers relax in each other’s company in a beautiful home by the sea.

As a curiously glittered fog descends, Jane winds her way down to the beach.

It’s not a spoiler to say that everything falls apart, because it does so in such an artfully considered way. The Beach House depicts a low-key apocalypse that implodes an idyllic weekend getaway, and offers four stagnant souls an opportunity to embrace real change.

Writer-director Brown is an avowed fan of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (every iteration), and he creates perpetual nervousness by keeping the camera affixed to on-the-move Emily, who’s becomes the pivotal character forced to witness Jane’s uncanny transformation and Randall’s inability to adapt to a changing landscape.

It’s in the air. It’s in the water. It’s in you.

With the same respect for bourgeois leisure time as New Wave bosses like Luis Buñuel and Jean-Luc Godard, Brown pops his peeps into a pressure cooker beyond their control and reduces them to essential salts.

Speaking of waves, Mitch seems to have disappeared into them.

Characterizing some of the recurring elements here as “Lovecraftian,” isn’t misleading, but the term is becoming a convenient marketing junk drawer. It should remind us that the reclusive Rhode Islander doesn’t hold creative claim to the entire universe.

The nightmare evolution taking place in The Beach House could be accidental or inevitable; environmental or extra-terrestrial. In the end, it doesn’t matter. The scary thing is, it’s happening.