Frontier(s) (2007)

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Parisian robbers on the run pick the absolute worst place in the universe to hide out.

Frontier(s) writer-director Xavier Gens is obviously smitten with genre classics like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes, but I suspect there’s a sneaky tip of the beret to French New Wave provocateur Jean-Luc Godard, as well.

See? I studied film.

A quartet of reasonably attractive thieves flees the political turmoil and violent protests in Paris for the anonymity of the French countryside in order to count their loot.

Editor’s Note: What could people in Paris be upset about? You live in Paris! Have another creamy pastry and wash it down with some fine wine. Sheesh!

Unwilling accomplice Yasmine (Karina Testa) and her three co-conspirators decide to hole up in a bed and breakfast/pig farm staffed by Cannibal Nazi Hillbillies (Canazibillies?) and are soon horrified to find themselves on the menu.

The Canazibillies have little trouble subduing the brash bandits, but then old resentments boil over during the divvying of the spoils and the Master Racists are reduced to fighting amongst each other.

Even as Paris is awash in violence after the election of a right-wing candidate, Yasmine and her friends use the opportunity to commit robbery, preferring cold, hard cash to either side of a political demonstration.

I believe it is their cynical lack of commitment to a cause that makes them suitable candidates for torture and a trip to the pantry. What happens when shameless opportunists meet fanatical sadists? Well, it ain’t pretty that’s for sure.

Even if the revolutionary subtext is stretched thin to the point of invisibility, Frontier(s) provides effective shocks to the system with frantic regularity as captor and captive alike meet a succession of grim fates.

Perhaps Gens is pointing out that the fruit born of violence, whether calculated or chaotic, is equally bitter and deadly.

Don’t worry, this won’t be on the test.

House at the End of the Street (2012)

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Suburban Gothic, anyone?

Hollywood “It” girl Jennifer Lawrence stars as Elissa, a high-spirited lass in a tight-fitting tank top who moves to a new town with her single mom Sarah (Elisabeth Shue).

As luck would have it, the only real estate deal they can swing is right next door to a house where psycho teenager Carrie Anne stabbed her parents to death four years before.

Now that’s a tough rental market.

Elissa befriends Carrie Anne’s older brother Ryan (Max Theriot), who lives in the murder house, but was apparently away staying with his aunt when the killings went down.

And since the only other boy in town that’s shown an interest in her tries to rape her at a party, Elissa falls for the mysterious Ryan, who at least has the decency to drive a pretty sweet car and offer her a lift home during a timely cloudburst.

Soon Elissa is securely enmeshed in a tangled familial web, and disturbing secrets of the Norman Bates variety come bubbling to the surface.

House at the End of the Street is nothing special, but writer David Loucka and director Mark Tonderai provide sufficiently well-shuffled plot twists that keep us guessing—at least until they’re rather haphazardly explained.

Lawrence is a compelling actress even in a contrived damsel-in-distress role, and she works hard to nurture whatever emotional investment on our part she can muster.

It’s only a PG-13, so it’s light on bloody mayhem, but there are a few decent jump-scares. If you’re an adolescent dude and want to show your girlfriend a movie that’s scary enough to promote hand-holding (or whatever), but not so horrifying that she flees the room, House at the End of the Street should do the trick.

The Selling (2011)

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M’lady did not care for The Selling, at all. She thought it was corny and childish. Total amateur hour. Long pointless scenes. An unfunny comedy. For the most part, I agreed with her, and still do—yet I quite liked it. Apparently, girls not only mature faster than boys, they mature far longer. Does that make sense?

The truth is, The Selling is nothing more than an old-fashioned spook-house comedy, a genre that peaked somewhere around the time of The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. And my inner 12-year-old (which greatly resembles my outer 50-year-old), was delighted. I giggled like a mental patient all the way through it. M’lady thinks me deranged, or at least a case for arrested development. Maybe deranged development is most accurate.

Screenwriter and star Gabriel Diani is dweeby Los Angeles real estate agent Richard Scarry—you know, like the children’s author—who needs to make a pile of dough in a hurry to pay for his mother’s cancer treatment, which, unsurprisingly, is ungodly expensive.

Richard and his dopey pal Dave (Jonathan Klein) get talked into buying a murder house by hot/conniving Realtor Mary Best (Janet Varney) and are then forced to somehow fix-up and flip a house that’s haunted by the 12 victims of a serial killer known as the Sleep Stalker.

The Selling is at its best in the world of real estate chicanery, as our knucklehead protagonists attempt to get an extremely haunted house ready for a “showing.” Meek little Richard attempts to reason with the ghosts, telling them that he is, in fact, in a rather tight spot, and has no choice but to try and sell the house. The ghosts respond with a volley of plagues that would have driven saner, smarter men to head for the hills.

Richard and Dave are not Ghostbusters or even especially competent; they’re just a pair of goofy schnooks that get in over their heads. At least Richard is rewarded with a romantic interest, the extremely bubbly paranormal blogger Ginger Sparks (Etta Divine) who helps them make contact with the spirit world. Comedian Simon Helberg has a small part, and veteran scene chewer Barry Bostwick shows up as a bumbling exorcist.

From all accounts, this was a shoe-string operation, financed the friend-and-family way. So I have to give it up for Diani and director Emily Lou. Here they have cinematic evidence of sufficient wit and inventive moxie to handle a bigger budget. The Selling never tries to be anything more than a sweet, amusing and somewhat corny contemporary haunted house flick. And it more than meets that modest goal.

Wrong Turn 2: Dead End (2007)

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On the scariness scale, if you stack Wrong Turn up against The Hills Have Eyes, I’ll take Wrong Turn every time.

Granted, it’s a close call, but I find the isolation of backwoods West Virginia to be more sinister and oppressive than the stony desert of the American Southwest. At least the latter is open country so it’s more difficult to be taken by surprise.

In the dense vegetation of the forest primeval, bad shit could be hiding anywhere—and probably is. Plus the deft artistry of monster makeup maestro Stan Winston in Wrong Turn is impossible to top.

As far as sequels go, Wrong Turn 2, while not up to the original, is pretty fun. Like Texas Chainsaw 2, this one plays it for gruesome laughs, as the story concerns the pilot for a reality show called Ultimate Survivalist.

As hosted by steely bad-ass Col. Dale Murphy (Henry Rollins, who seems right at home here), it’s a cheap Survivor knockoff, with six meat sacks representing the major victim food groups (slut, jock, buffoon, ass-kicker chick, etc.) tasked with remaining resilient in the boonies after the collapse of civilization.

But of all the boonies in all the world, they had to pick the stomping grounds of deformed, inbred cannibal hillbillies. Oh, is that the dinner bell?

As I alluded earlier, the makeup effects are merely competent in Wrong Turn 2, but that’s to be expected without the presence of Winston.

Also in the “tsk tsk” column is a needlessly determined effort by writers Turi Meyer and Al Septien to add “color” to the script by including a relationship subplot between plucky producer Mara Stone (Aleksa Palladino) and doofus director “M” (Matthew Currie Holmes) that has fuck-all to do with anything.

Even so, director Joe Lynch keeps the ball rolling, the blood flowing, and doomed campers fleeing like bunnies through the bush.

And to give credit where it’s due, Meyer and Septien serve up an ace in their depiction of the monstrous (though eerily familiar) cannibal clan, who provide us with a domestic tableau that’s not only a dead-on tribute to Texas Chainsaw Massacre (specifically the dinner table sequence), but also bloody revolting in its own right.

Is Wrong Turn 2 any more grotesque than say, Honey Boo Boo, or that awful TV family who seem to spawn every other month? Really, I couldn’t say, but I probably would tune in to a show about the daily adventures of this particular pack of deformed, inbred cannibal hillbillies. Coming next season to TLC…

Bonus: There are three more Wrong Turn movies available! Hope they measure up, but I’m certainly not expecting miracles. Stay tuned!

Medium Raw (2010)

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Unless your name is Orson Welles, a single person taking on all the primary tasks associated with filmmaking usually turns into a shit show.

Note to Quentin Tarantino: Stop acting. Forever! Thanks!

Writer-director-star Andrew Cymek shows sufficient promise while wearing 20 hats at once that I’ll give him the benefit of a doubt, but this is a ragged effort as befits one man and a microscopic budget.

Cymek stars as Johnny Morgan, a troubled cop who’s still haunted by the childhood memory of his sister’s abduction by a heinous serial killer known as “The Big Bad Wolf.” Though the killer has been dormant, a recurrence of his modus operandi several years later puts Morgan on the case with a chance to even the score.

Morgan succeeds in capturing the Wolf (Greg Dunham), who is then ensconced in a nearby home for the criminally insane where his va-va-voom girlfriend Jamie (Brigitte Kingsley) works as a psychiatrist.

Also in the loop is the Wolf’s lawyer (Mercedes McNab, from Buffy and Angel), the sinister asylum director Dr. Robert Parker (William B. Davis, the cigarette-smoking man from X-Files), and a colorful assortment of deranged inmates. One night, the power goes out and, sure enough, the patients are soon revolting.

There are a number of wayward plot points that remain unaddressed. What happens to Mr. Jacobs, the gigantic madman who turns insanely violent when he sees the color red? The movie ends with him still on the loose.

Why is there a nine-year-old girl wandering around in a nuthouse filled with cannibals, criminals, perverts, and killers?

To his credit, Cymek manages to keep enough balls in the air to maintain a respectable interest level throughout, and his conception of the insidious Wolf is fairly inspired.

Fans of actor John Rhys-Davies, who gets top billing here, should be emotionally prepared for his speedy exit.

The Road (2011)

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Purely for marketing purposes, they should have called this movie something other than The Road. The Cormac-McCarthy-post-apocalypse-tale-turned-Viggo-Mortensen vehicle was barely two years old, and it’s hard to create word-of-mouth excitement if you have to continually explain that the movie you’re recommending is not that one. But recommend it I will.

This curious import from the Philippines is both a fearsome ghost story and a very soulful meditation on evil, and more specifically “the sins of the father” concept.

Three restless teens borrow a car and go out for a midnight joy ride. None has a driver’s license, so they turn off the freeway and head down an old unmarked road—and the trap is sprung!

A nightmarish sequence ensues as the kids are stalked by vengeful ghosts and an unseen killer. Eventually the cops arrive on the scene under the command of recently decorated Detective Luis (TJ Trinidad) who sees uncanny parallels in this case to those of an old unsolved homicide.

There are plenty of supernatural fright elements at play in The Road, but writer-director Yam Laranas puts the most muscle into telling a ghost story born of an all-too-familiar domestic tragedy. The movie is a triptych of tales (the present, the past, the distant past) that remain firmly rooted in a poison tree that bears deadly fruit. (Note: trees don’t figure into the story; this is what we call a metaphor.)

The pace can be a bit sluggish, but in my opinion, the added weight given to characters and landscape makes The Road a much more vivid trip.

The Tall Man (2012)

Is The Tall Man HINO (Horror in Name Only)? Sure, it takes place in a brooding rural slum ala Winter’s Bone (except this one’s on the West Coast—Washington, to be exact), and it’s about a prolific bogeyman who abducts children in a dried-up mining town. But what ensues is a provocatively ambiguous thriller (and yes, it is thrilling) with a fairly blunt social agenda.

Cold Rock, Washington is a mildewing husk of a town decomposing in the overgrown backwoods of Washington. The local Chamber of Commerce undoubtedly has its hands full trying to lure tourists to such a cheerless gray community where 18 children have disappeared over the past few years. A focused and fascinating Jessica Biel plays Julia, a recently widowed nurse living in the area who tends to the medical needs of the hapless hillbillies in her sector. Shit gets personal when her beloved toddler gets snatched from her house by the legendary “Tall Man.” Julia channels her inner Ellen Ripley and sets out to get her bambino back.

The tag line should have been: “Who’s The Monster Here?” The Tall Man is a brisk, well-crafted, and shifty film that never allows you to get comfortable from any perspective. And while the supernatural elements are mostly of the red-herring variety, there is a very real horror at its heart—namely are we becoming a society that might require fantastically drastic social engineering in order to survive? Echoes of P.D. James’ Children of Men and Dennis Lehane’s Gone Daddy Gone may bubble to the surface. You have been warned.

Silent House (2011)

Seldom have I had such a thoughtful and productive conversation while sitting through a “haunted house” movie. For this I should thank my brainy friend Kaja Katamay who chose to watch it with me. Since there’s very little dialog, we were free to analyze, theorize, and hypothesize all through Silent House and not miss a word. (And no one told us to STFU!) Our observations about the characters proved uncannily accurate: I suggested that Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen, fetching younger sister of Ashley and Mary-Kate) behaved as though she’d suffered a traumatic episode, and Kaja suspected the supporting cast of treachery. Right on both counts.

Nutshell: Sarah meets up with her father, John (Adam Trese), and Uncle Peter (Eric Sheffer Stevens) to help fix up and hopefully flip the family summer house. Things don’t work out quite as well they do on Property Brothers, as Sarah becomes increasingly anxious while wandering through the rambling hacienda. Just so you know: the house is completely boarded up to discourage vandals. There’s no electricity. Cell phones no workee.

Directors Chris Kentis and Laura Lau—who previously helmed Open Water, chose to film Silent House in real time as if it were one continuous shot. It wasn’t, but this audacious gambit definitely adds a sense of first-person urgency to the events as they unfold, especially as Sarah gets closer and closer to the heart of darkness. By the way, Elizabeth Olsen acquits herself quite well in what must have been a demanding role. As Sarah, she’s a 21st century upgrade to the Scream Queen: she’s a victim who tries ineffectually to keep her fear buried in the sub-conscious, until she has no choice but to fight back—and emerge triumphant.

We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011)

We Need To Talk About Kevin is like one of those nightmare scenarios where the babysitter (finally) figures out that the phone calls are coming from inside the house. In this case, the phone calls are coming from inside the family. Much of this movie’s acclaim comes from Tilda Swinton’s bravura performance as the long-suffering mother of a burgeoning sociopath—and justifiably so. But let’s not overlook writer-director Lynne Ramsay’s achievements, as she raises a ton of tricky questions about parental responsibility. The lovely Barbara and I stayed up well past the credits discussing all the uncomfortable implications. Interestingly enough, we came to the same conclusion: we would have smothered the kid with a pillow and chopped him up in the bathtub. And that is why I love the lovely Barbara.

In nonlinear fashion, we become acquainted with Eva (Swinton), her not-very-observant husband Franklin (John C. Reilly), and their obviously malevolent offspring, the titular Kevin. The viewer lurches between the past and the present (a surprisingly smooth ride!), watching in growing alarm as Kevin seems to take an immediate dislike to his mother, torturing her through his formative years by crying incessantly, refusing to learn the mechanics of potty training, and by feigning good-natured amiability around the clueless Franklin. You don’t need a house call from Dr. Plotspoiler to quickly intuit that at some point, Kevin will go down the rabbit hole and emerge as a fully formed monster.

Once the story is set on its inevitable course, the questions start coming hard and fast: Is Kevin just Satan in a diaper? That’s the easy answer, but as Kevin grows into a handsome teenager (Ezra Miller), we get the nagging suspicion that Eva and Kevin are more alike than we’d first thought. Mother and son greatly resemble one another, and during a night out together (a date?), look more like a couple than Eva and Franklin ever do. One of the only times in the movie that Kevin approves of his mother is when he discovers that her wit is every bit as vicious as his own.

The finale of We Need To Talk About Kevin is also maddeningly ambiguous. Does Eva continue to visit her son in prison because: 1) She feels responsible for his crime? 2) She’s punishing herself for her failure to socialize the little fiend? 3) She is tormenting him in return? A very provocative, original, and disturbing movie—even more so because of the depth of skill and artistry that went into its making.

The Woman in Black (2012)

Also known as Harry Potter and the Angry Mother’s Ghost.

OK, I made that up, but The Woman in Black is noteworthy for reasons other than the presence of Daniel Radcliffe.

The movie marks the return of the Hammer Films imprint. As a lineal descendant of stately Brit-horror celluloid like The Brides of Dracula and Night Creatures, The Woman in Black is a worthy addition, with an expansive sense of dread invoked by proper gothic storytelling.

True, it comes rattling with haunted house tropes that are as well worn as Jacob Marley’s chains, but my admiration for its almost-gentlemanly ability to coax scares remains undiminished.

Radcliffe plays Arthur Kipps, a morose young attorney with a broken heart, who apparently has been slacking on the job after the death of his wife. Kipps is told by a less-than-sympathetic boss to get his lawyer ass to a remote village to sort out the paperwork of a recently deceased client.

Problem 1: The villagers remove the welcome mat upon his arrival.

Problem 2: The paperwork resides at Eelmarsh House, a decaying mansion that appears to be sinking into a swamp.

Problem 3: The house is fiercely haunted by the ghost of a woman who lost her son due to the negligence of the house’s previous occupants.

Problem 4: Whenever the ghost gets restless, village children start dying.

Problem 5: The ghost is restless now, so Kipps takes it into his head to play ghostbuster and lay the spirit to rest, perhaps in an effort to come to terms with his own tragic past.

The storyline advances in predictable fashion, but even so, it’s a reliable yarn that crackles like a fresh log on the fire. Rather than recalling vintage Hammer stock, I was reminded of The Changeling with George C. Scott; a familial tragedy with a supernatural revenge motif that’s told earnestly, but with skill and vigor.

However, I must point out one incredible scene that makes me wonder what director James Watkins and writer Susan Hill (based on her novel) were smoking at lunch break.

Kipps hits upon the outré idea of recovering the body of the young boy who drowned in the marsh, in an attempt to appease the pissed-off apparition.

So he and his friend Mr. Daily (Ciarán Hinds) go gamely splashing around underwater near the boy’s grave marker until they find and retrieve the muddy little bugger from his aquatic resting place.

For some reason, this sequence reminds me of poor Bela Lugosi in Bride of the Monster, forced to wrestle with an inanimate octopus in a cold tank of water.

I would just like to ask Watkins and Hill, who in the hell would ever entertain such an outlandish scheme for even a moment? Nobody, that’s who, and certainly not a clever young wizard.