Atrocious (2010)

I’m quite good at suspending my disbelief. Trust me, when it comes to horror, I have a very limber set of standards in that department.

And as much as I liked Atrocious, a found-footage frightener from Spain, I had some serious reservations believing that central characters July (Clara Morelada) and her brother Cristian (Cristian Valencia), would continue to schlep their camcorders around after figuring out that a fiendish killer is stalking them at their family’s rural retreat.

“Oh my God, there’s a fiendish killer in the house with us! Do you have a spare battery pack?”

Uh huh. It’s a shame too, because Atrocious has the makings of a crackerjack movie.

Teen siblings July and Cristian are spending their vacation with Mom (Chus Pereiro), Dad (Xavi Doz), and adorable kid brother Jose (Sergi Martin) at a Spanish country estate that comes equipped with its own massive hedge maze.

The pair fancy themselves as intrepid ghost-hunting, mystery solvers so they bring along two video cameras, which is a stroke of luck for the cops when they discovery that everyone’s been murdered about a week later.

After sifting through 37 hours of footage, the final cut serves as the movie itself. If you surmised that there would be an abundance of chaotic night scenes frantically shot by the protagonists whilst lost in the hedge maze, give yourself a gold star.

There is some first-rate fright footage here. And the actors playing July and Cristian are very good, very natural. Atrocious is worth the time it takes to watch, but the surfeit of film (not to mention battery power) is a contrivance that each viewer will have to sort out for themselves.

It doesn’t ruin the experience, but you may find yourself (as I did) shouting, “Oh come on, already!” at the screen on several occasions.

A Haunting in Salem (2011)

Take a teaspoon of The Shining, a sprinkle of The Amityville Horror, stir in a tiny budget, and garnish with an intense, odd-looking little actor as your leading man, and what have you got? I’d say a “C”, maybe a “C+”.

New sheriff Wayne Downs (Bill Oberst Jr.) moves his super-hot wife (Courtney Abbiati) and two kids to Salem, Massachusetts, and settles into an old Gothic manor house that comes with the job. (Nice perk!)

As luck would have it, the joint is haunted by the ghosts of 19 pissed-off witches who were burned and hanged back in the the late 1600s—by the town sheriff— and were subsequently laid to rest on the property where Downs and his brood are currently taking up residence.

The house also comes with a brain-damaged gardener (Where does he live?) who mumbles dire warnings about the ghosts and is soon dispatched by same.

The Realtor neglected to mention any of this, but it does have a lovely bonus space that could be converted into a guest bedroom or a cathedral for your Black Mass, your Satanic rituals, or whatnot.

A Haunting in Salem isn’t a memorable film. It’s a painfully familiar tale and director Shane Van Dyke (one of Dick’s grandchildren; another, Cary, plays a local cop) doesn’t have the money or the chops to bring anything new to this haunted house party.

The frights, in addition to being rote and predictable, are few and far between. The story is set in a huge, historic mansion, but it looks like the cast and crew were only permitted to shoot in a couple of the rooms, which becomes distracting once you notice that every scene takes place in either the kitchen, the bathroom, the hall, or the daughter’s bedroom.

It’s only the earthy presence of Bill Oberst Jr. as the determined sheriff that gives the flimsy plot a solid grounding. He’s a sawed-off plug of a man with curiously scarred features who perpetually looks like he’s on the verge of a very messy nervous breakdown.

Thus, he’s perfectly cast as the husband and father that the rest of the family believes is going cuckoo, so their unease around him is palpable.

Also, the body language between the sheriff and his tall gorgeous wife Carrie reveals that they’re definitely not comfortable around each other.

Any tension is good tension, I always say. Now make it work!

Savage Island (2005)

Here’s a drinking game you can play as the credits roll. Down a shot of whiskey whenever the name “Lando” appears. Between the efforts of writer/director/stunt driver/pianist/editor Jeffrey Lando and his brother (?) Peter, you’ll be shitfaced by the time the movie starts, and then again at the end. It will probably help.

Unlikeable yuppie pricks Steven (Steven Man) and Julia (Kristina Copeland), along with their squawling infant, take a trip to a remote island in British Columbia to visit Julia’s parents. After Julia’s idiot brother Peter (Brendan Beiser) runs over a child belonging to a family of grubby squatters, the yuppie pricks find themselves besieged by vengeful hillbillies (let’s just call them that) who demand their squawling infant as recompense. It goes downhill from there.

While the writing in Savage Island is nothing less than terrible, I have to drop a few props on Jeffrey Lando for his consistency of vision. He finishes what he starts, a third-rate, low-budget riff on Deliverance and Straw Dogs. The Savages (the appropriately named island hillbillies) are nicely fleshed out, and I appreciate that Pa (Winston Rekert) and Ma (Lindsay Jameson) look like Merle Haggard and Sarah Palin, respectively. For that matter, the yokel clan is far more interesting—and sympathetic— than their whiny bourgeois captives.

Bonus: The part of Julia’s stubborn father Keith is played by Don Davis, who was memorable in Twin Peaks as Major Briggs, the father of rebellious teen Bobby, one of Laura Palmer’s many swains.

Wicked Little Things (2006)

The moral of Wicked Little Things is a little elusive, but upon my second viewing, this is what I came up with: If you have a terminally ill spouse, make sure you’ve got insurance up the wazoo.

Just another horror movie where the real monster is corporate America…

Filmed in Bulgaria, but set in Pennsylvania mining country, Wicked Little Things opens with one of those sepia-toned flashbacks that explains the premise.

In 1913, a heartless mine owner (See? A capitalist villain!) forces poor local children to work deep in the bowels of the earth. After an unplanned tectonic event, a bunch of the miserable waifs are buried alive.

We are then magically transported to the present, where MILF Karen Tunney (Lori Heuring), and her two daughters, Sarah (Scout Taylor-Compton), a surly teen, and Emma (Chloe Moretz), an empathetic moppet, are relocating to this blighted area after the death of Karen’s husband.

Pop’s long, withering illness ate up the family funds, so his dependents are forced to occupy a spacious, but dilapidated family home. Karen’s plans of flipping her fixer-upper are dashed when she finds out that she doesn’t actually own the house, and that the surrounding forest is chock-full of voracious zombie kids, who have emerged from their graves, dressed like cockney street urchins.

Maybe they should have called the movie Hungry Little Things.

It’s not a work of art, but Wicked Little Things maintains a firm hand on mood and tension throughout. I’ve never thought children the least bit horrifying (unless I’m at a restaurant trying to enjoy a meal), but these zombie rug rats are a silent, relentless, and bloodthirsty band that makes mincemeat out of dependable character actor Geoffrey Lewis (Really? You don’t know Geoffrey Lewis?) and a host of bit players.

The real tragedy is that the whole mess could have been avoided if Karen had a better insurance policy.

Deadwater (2008)

Deadwater is not a very good film, but the presence of grizzled vet Lance Henricksen helps a bit.

Kudos to director Roel Reiné, who took the time and energy to dress it up as a contemporary naval action thriller (not that there are abundant thrills to be had in this yawner) and include scenes of “advanced interrogation techniques.”

Abu Ghraib is mentioned a few times. That’s about as timely as it gets, though.

Somewhere at sea near Iran or Iraq (forgot which), a U.S. crew operating a recommissioned WW II vessel is slaughtered under mysterious circumstances, due mainly to the poor lighting and spastic camera work.

Old salt Col. John Willets (Henricksen) and his crack team of nobodies are sent to investigate. Lo and behold, one of the few survivors of the haunted holocaust is the colonel’s son, Colin Willets (played by Australian side-of-beef Gary Stretch, whose acting chops and resemblance to Henricksen are equally nonexistent).

So what the hell happened?

There are approximately 863,111 movies in which a team of well-armed investigators boards a derelict ship or facility to find out what became of the previous occupants. This isn’t nearly as good as say, Ghost Ship, one of the better efforts in that genre.

The threat remains mostly unseen (malevolent energy or something. Zzzzzzz.) and 95 percent of the movie consists of Henricksen and company moving stealthily through corridors and making ludicrous military hand gestures at each other.

Save this one for Low Expectations Sunday. BTW, if you’re looking for it in Netflix, you’ll find it under the title Black Ops. My advice? Don’t look too hard.

Insidious (2010)

Right off the bat I was worried. The cover art proclaims, “From the makers of Paranormal Activity and Saw,” two films I didn’t much care for.

I thought the former was dull and the latter unbearably formulaic. So paddle my ass and call me Spanky—I rolled the dice and came up a winner with Insidious, a potent portrait of immaterial possession that belongs on the same domestic horror shelf as Poltergeist, The Exorcist, and The Grudge.

It isn’t as good as those films, but it’s good enough.

Teeny weeny actress Rose Byrne (Damages) is cast as Renai Lambert, a mother of three children. Byrne is totally spot-on here emotionally as the freaked-out-but-scrappy mom, but she looks like she’d shatter into gravel if she so much as contemplated child birth.

Patrick Wilson, a rather colorless fusion of Will Arnett, Robert Patrick, and Timothy Olyphant, is her husband Josh. As previously mentioned, they have three children.

The eldest, Dalton (Ty Simpkins), is a fearless tyke with a hidden talent for astral projection during sleep. A stroke of bad luck comes when Dalton, instead of hanging out in the girls’ locker room like a sensible youngster, gets his dumb-astral form trapped in a very bad-astral place, and all sorts of extra-dimensional creatures start showing up to claim the lad’s comatose body.

After getting the beans scared out of her on repeated occasions, Renai finally prevails on her prick of a husband to move from their extremely nice early 20th century Craftsman-style home into another, equally beautiful home.

Editor’s note: Having gone through numerous hellish scenarios with contractors, realtors, and movers, the Lamberts emerge from this part of the deal relatively unscathe). It’s only after the move that they find out, as the tag line declares, “It isn’t the house that’s haunted.”

I got a kick out of Insidious. The scares, though predictable, are fairly intense and original. There’s some surprisingly unannoying comedy relief in Specs (writer Leigh Wannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson), a Mutt-and-Jeff team of nerdy ghost busters who quickly realize they’re in over their heads.

And veteran character actress Lin Shaye (Kingpin, There’s Something About Mary) does yeoman work as a capable psychic brought in by Josh’s mom Lorraine (Barbara Hershey, always a pleasure).

The ghosts, lost souls, and demons that materialize during the 103-minute run time are mostly frightening, and, more importantly, memorable.

Alone in the house, on a dark night, Insidious could well set your pants afloat.

Prey (2010)

Are pigs scary? Sure, why not?

In the French thriller Prey, some really vicious swine bedevil a wealthy family of corrupt industrialists. Mayhem ensues.

Nutshell: The aforementioned 1 percenters gather at the family mansion for various reasons: the family business (pesticides, natch) is in trouble, and the youngest daughter is considering marriage and a move away with her fiancee (Grégoire Colin).

Before anyone can make any sort of decision, a herd of deer commit suicide by throwing themselves on an electric fence. The menfolk get their shooting irons together and investigate.

Enter monstrous, mutated killer pigs.

I liked this one quite a bit. The hunting party is a pack of privileged assholes who slowly come unraveled in the wilderness (Sorry, I love that motif) and get everything they deserve.

The action then asks us to consider, “Who are the real pigs here?”

Prey  (Proie en Francais) is a righteous little movie and proof positive that pigs—yes, pigs—are a formidable foe with much potential to plague mankind.

All hail the coming of Swinecore!

The Canyon (2009)

My sweet baby and I like watching a show on Discovery Channel called I Shouldn’t Be Alive, that features depressing dramatizations of unlucky camping trips, plane rides, skiing vacations, and the like, wherein folks get marooned, injured, lost or otherwise completely screwed thanks to a wrathful Mother Nature.

The Canyon reminds me of a longer version of the show—and that’s not such a bad thing. Both the TV show and the film have one vital theme in common: How do people react when things just keep getting worse?

Nick (Eion Bailey)and Lori Conway (Yvonne Strahowski) are the reasonably attractive newlywed couple who decide to take a guided tour of the Grand Canyon by mule for their honeymoon. Gosh, how romantic. Lori wants no part of the plan but her douchey new husband insists.

They end up being escorted by Henry (Will Patton), a grizzled, hard-drinking old trail hand they meet in a bar. Yep, it promises to be a swell honeymoon. Henry gets waylaid by rattlesnakes and the tenderfooted couple end up lost in the Grand Canyon with next to no provisions. Awesome.

Lori quickly evolves into the alpha while Nick proves to be a wussy little twerp. Hats off to the lady for dealing with hungry wolves (again with the wolves?), an avalanche, and a whiny, useless husband.

The pace quickly accelerates from slow and sun-baked to a fairly believable struggle against the elements, predators, and their own civilized veneer.

Just stay home, you fools!