Sleepaway Camp (1983)

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Where do I begin? Probably where most people do—the ending. The finale of Sleepaway Camp is crazier than Andy Dick on bath salts, and accounts for about 90 percent of the mystique that surrounds this camp-killer relic. There is also fun to be had watching an amazing time capsule of hideous ’80s hair and clothes. One kid wears an Asia (the band) T-shirt!

Though not a particularly gory movie, the kills are inventive, and writer-director Robert Hiltzig (a film student at the time) somehow sustains enough tension with his amateur freak-show cast to carry us through to the aforementioned ending. Which, in case I didn’t make myself clear, is the stuff of afternoons whiled away on the psychiatrist’s couch.

Introverted Angela (Felissa Rose) and her boisterous cousin Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten) are shipped off to Camp Arawak, a substandard bucolic retreat for horny teens. (Much of the discomfort encountered in Sleepaway Camp comes from virtually all the campers behaving like hormonal nitwits, which wouldn’t be so bad, except that most of actors look like they’re 12, tops. Ewww.)

Since she’s the quiet type, Angela naturally gets picked on by her bitchy bunkmates, but does successfully attract the attention of Paul (Christopher Collett), a nice boy, whom she soon finds in a compromising lip-lock with her chief tormentor, Judy (Karen Fields, who, in her own bored, flirty way, is the film’s real monster). A series of deadly “accidents” ensue, as one camper drowns and another gets stung to death by bees.

Let’s meet the staff! Counselor Ronnie (Paul DeAngelo) is an Italian body builder who ambles about in horrifying shorty shorts; the cook (Owen Hughes) is a brazen sexual predator, and Mel, the cigar-smoking, hopelessly middle-aged camp director (Mike Kellin, who’s been in about a zillion movies since 1950) is a man increasingly worried about the camp’s financial bottom line, once the corpses start piling up. However, he’s not so worried that he can’t find time to make indecent proposals to Meg (Katherine Kamhi), a counselor that apparently craves the attention of old homely men in knee socks.

My suspicion here is that Hiltzig, a novice filmmaker, caught some Ed Wood juju in a jar. Somehow, through a combination of luck, desperation, and naive audacity, he made a cheap, traumatic slasher flick that people still talk about. The ending, anyway.

Sleepaway Camp inspired a bunch of sequels, but I can’t speak to their quality.

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Beneath (2013)

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Not to be confused with Beast Beneath, this cold-sweat skin crawler from director Ben Ketai, plunges us into some seriously subterranean depths for claustrophobic goosebumps not seen around these parts since Neil Marshall’s The Descent (a below-the-surface horror highwater mark).

Filmed in a very realistic coal mine (no location info available) operation, a group of unlucky miners, along with their boss (Jeff Fahey) and his plucky daughter (Kelly Noonan), find themselves stranded 600 feet below ground after an unexpected tectonic turn. Searching for a way out, they come across an older tunnel that leads to the abandoned outpost of a mining crew that disappeared nearly 100 years earlier. Meanwhile, their emergency supply of oxygen canisters is dwindling faster than free drinks at a wedding reception. Wait! Did you hear something?

Since Beneath is “based on actual events,” the likelihood of mole men, ghouls, or trogs appearing out of the stonework seems remote at best, but to their credit, Ketai and writers Patrick Doody and Chris Valenziano keep a firm hand on the reins and the threat levels high. I myself experienced the same sense of impending doom (and fear of tight spaces) that I felt while getting to know the colorful company of marines in Cameron’s Aliens.

I wish I could have contributed to the marketing of this movie, because I have a can’t-miss tagline. “The poisonous atmosphere left them—OXYGEN DEPRAVED!” (The written content of Horrificflicks.com is my intellectual property, by the way.)

Dark Ride (2006)

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If you’ve seen the Tobe Hooper flick Funhouse (1981), then there’s no particular reason to sit through this inferior facsimile. Yes, The Sopranos Jamie-Lynn Sigler is onboard, as is Patrick Renna from The Sandlot. Neither possesses sufficient dramatic gravitas to make the slightest bit of difference on the quality scale. On the plus side, Dark Ride is adequately paced and there’s a decent amount of bloodletting, including a memorable axe-chop that neatly cleaves a security guard in twain.

Six very old-looking college kids (including Sigler and Renna), on their way to New Orleans, stop off to visit a boardwalk amusement park where a pair of adorable moppets were hacked to smithereens a few decades earlier. Meanwhile, the maniac who committed the killings decides there’s no time like the present to escape from the loony bin, and seek sanctuary in the bowels of the very same carnival ride that the “kids” intend to explore. What are the odds, right?

Other than some brief nudity and the aforementioned head-splitter, director/cowriter Craig Singer doesn’t bring anything especially compelling to the table, including an identity plot twist that I had pegged accurately the moment it appeared. Dark Ride doesn’t suck, exactly, but if you give it a pass there’s no harm done.

Afterthought: This is exactly the sort of “meh” film that presents me with a challenging dilemma, as to whether or not I should even bother reviewing it. But at the end of the day (I never use this phrase!), if I can save even one of you from a case of overly high expectations in the Netflix horror queue, then my life has meaning.

The Abandoned (2006)

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As that well-known horror movie critic Tom Petty used to say, “The waiting is the hardest part.” If this is true, then The Abandoned, a slow-burning haunted house puzzler co-written and directed by Spain’s Nacho Cerdá, will certainly test the patience of the average viewer. However, my advice is to stick with it. Cerdá, a confident visual stylist, has constructed an eerie, alluring tableau frozen in time that awaits to snatch up the twin sibling protagonists who are curious about where they came from.

American film producer Marie Jones (Anastasia Hille) returns to her homeland of Russia at the behest of a lawyer (Valentin Ganev). Once arrived, Marie is informed that her long-lost birth mother has been found, the victim of a 40-year-old murder. She also inherits the decrepit family farm, that’s been vacant since the time of the killing. The farm is in the middle of Nowherezistan, surrounded on three sides by a river, with a rickety bridge serving as the only point of access. It’s here that she’s reunited with her twin brother Nicolai (Karel Roden), shortly before the trap springs shut.

Much of The Abandoned‘s 99-minute running time is spent establishing that there is apparently no escape from this damned farm, as Marie and her brother test every available route. To be fair, this does get a little monotonous. But during this time, Cerdá is designing a meticulous metamorphosis of the farmhouse, from ruined wreck to a vengeful living thing, that never meant for the twins to leave in the first place. My patience was rewarded; your results may vary.

Rampage (1987)

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By request from Friends of the Blog, Jayne and Chris, I dug up this William Friedkin oddity and took it for a spin. Though it plays out like a Movie of the Week or an episode of a gritty police procedural/courtroom drama, Rampage is nonetheless darkly fascinating, and certainly qualifies as a “Horrific Flick.”

Meet smiling killer Charlie Reece (Alex McArthur, a poor man’s David Cassidy), the handsome, simmering maniac next door, who shares a dumpy house with his traumatized mom (Grace Zabriskie, from Twin Peaks and elsewhere). Charlie’s complicated madness springs from the notion that his blood has somehow been poisoned so he needs the blood and organs of other people to ensure his survival. That’s his story and he’s sticking to it.

After the troubled lad racks up a decent body count, it’s up to blow-dried prosecutor Anthony Fraser (Michael Biehn) to prove that Charlie was sufficiently in control of his faculties to premeditate his “rampage,” while defense attorney Albert Morse (Nicholas Campbell) angles for an insanity plea. Obviously, someone who would kill five people (plus a few cops during an escape attempt), drink their blood, and remove their spleens, must be a lunatic. Oh, and he’s a closet Nazi, to boot. Should he get life in prison, be exiled to a funny farm, or earn the death penalty?

The legal and ethical debate over Charlie’s mental health threatens to capsize the action, but writer-director Friedkin (The Exorcist, To Live and Die in L.A., and Sorcerer) keeps the kid in the picture, occasionally jumping us inside Charlie’s warped mind so we can revel in his ritualized bloodlust.

As it so happens, Rampage is based on a true story (surprise, surprise!) set in Stockton, California. Charlie Reece is the face of ordinary, homegrown evil; he doesn’t wear a mask or rise from the grave every 15 minutes. He’s just that weird kid from down the street. Gosh, I never thought he was capable of violence, officer.

Neverlake (2013)

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There’s nothing wrong with a competently executed film, and Neverlake certainly qualifies. In terms of acting, setting, pace, tension, and professional camera work, I’ve got no complaints. The story itself springs from a well-chewed gothic template, namely, young girl in remote location discovers terrible family secrets and thus becomes imperiled. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t a few nits to pick.

Curious teen Jenny Brook (the improbably named Daisy Keeping) arrives in rural Tuscany to visit her estranged father (David Brandon), a taciturn doctor who shares a capacious (though austere) stone villa with his assistant Olga (Joy Tanner). Jenny’s mother is deceased (or—is she?). Anyway, she’s not around.

Since Dad is too busy studying Etruscan sacrificial rituals (Clue!) to show her around, Jenny takes to rambling though the woods to explore nearby Idols Lake (Clue!). Here she meets a motley assortment of disabled kids living in a dilapidated hospital who take to her instantly, except for the brooding Peter (Martin Kashirokov, who presumably has “The Russian Robert Pattinson” written on his business cards). He takes two whole scenes to warm up to their cute new friend.

Complaint Department: Dr. Brook, as played by David Brandon, can be pegged as the villain from the moment he materializes on camera. There are no other suspects. Stevie Wonder could very quickly tell you that Dr. Brook is a cold, scowling (mad) scientist who is obviously up to something nefarious—least of all, boinking his stern, Eastern Bloc assistant. The painful obviousness of this development somewhat diminishes the suspense that director Riccardo Paoletti, and writers Carlo Longo and Manuela Cacciamani were hoping to create.

Even so, Neverlake gets a lukewarm recommendation from where I’m sitting. It doesn’t take much to buy into the drama, and thankfully, despite a well-worn path, there are still some surprises lurking in these woods.

The Babadook (2014)

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Simply put, The Badadook is one of the most emotionally devastating horror movies I’ve ever seen. It’s a brilliant film that manages to be both a dark, heroic fairy tale and a grimmer-than-grim slice-of-life family drama about an overworked mother who tries, but can’t cope with her eccentric son’s disturbing behavior anymore. It’s also about a terrified young boy who’s mother might be going insane.

Amelia (Essie Davis, who shines like a young Jessica Lange) is the harried widowed mother of Samuel (Noah Wiseman), a clever but damaged young boy who doesn’t fit in at school or with friends. Amelia’s husband died in a car accident on the way to the hospital the night she gave birth, so she too has a dark cloud of unresolved issues that follows her around like a nervous dog.

Mother and son clearly love each other, but their life is difficult, to say the least. One night, during the evening bedtime story, Samuel selects the wrong book and an evil spirit is loosed in the house. As if they didn’t have enough trouble…

The combination of Amelia’s waking, working nightmare of a life, and the additional strain placed on her by the malign presence that’s settled in her home creates an unrelenting pressure cooker that would crumble a commando. The Babadook is a film without gore and very little violence, that is nonetheless brutal, recalling both Polanski’s Repulsion and William Friedkin’s The Exorcist for its merciless plunge into the realm of madness.

Australian writer-director Jennifer Kent presents us with a tale that cuts uncomfortably close to the bone, because she had the nerve to invent two characters who are believable, likable, sympathetic—and profoundly haunted. True, in the past, I’ve griped about movies that waste time on character development when all we really want is mayhem. The Babadook is exactly the opposite. It’s a realistic character-driven story in which we hope that misfortune can be averted because we’re emotionally invested in the protagonists. The bottom line, that bad things happen to good people, is more horrifying than a thousand dead campers.

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