Rampage (1987)

By request of 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, right?

Oh, and he’s a closet Nazi, to boot. Should he get life in prison, be exiled to a funny farm, or hung up from the nearest tree?

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 crazy 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 officer, I never thought he was capable of violence. Video games and heavy metal music must have drove him to it.

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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Not to put too fine a point on it, but The Badadook is one of the most emotionally devastating horror movies I’ve ever seen.

It’s quite 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 without gore and very little violence, yet it’s brutally draining, recalling both Polanski’s Repulsion and William Friedkin’s The Exorcist for its merciless plunge into the sea 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’ve grown emotionally attached to the protagonists.

The bottom line, that bad things happen to good people, is more horrifying than a thousand dead campers.

The Red House (1947)

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This is one of those crazy old films that I must have seen five or six trauma-inducing times as a kid, and had heard nothing about since. Thanks for reuniting us, Hulu Plus! Warning: This film is in glorious black and white. There’s no need to adjust your sets.

Written and directed by Hollywood utility man Delmer Daves (The Petrified Forest, Dark Passage, A Summer Place, Destination Tokyo, 3:10 To Yuma, among others) and based on a novel by George Agnew Chamberlain, The Red House is a legitimately creepy, rural gothic, coming-of-age mystery.

It’s also a master-class in acting taught by Edward G. Robinson, a man mostly remembered for his snarling gangster roles, such as the sadistic Johnny Rocco in the Bogart/Bacall thriller Key Largo.

Amidst a wild and bucolic countryside sits the sprawling Morgan Farm, where we find Pete Morgan (EGR), his sister Ellen (Dame Judith Anderson), and their (more or less) adopted ward-daughter-person Meg (Allene Roberts), who has a crush on Pete’s new hired hand, her high school classmate Nath (Lon McCallister).

One night, Nath decides to take a shortcut home through the woods, despite frantic warnings from Pete. While the lad insists that he must go through the woods to save time, Pete has a convincing anxiety attack, warning him about screams in the night coming from … The Red House! (dun, dun, Dun!)

Meg continues to moon over Nath, who’s in an unsatisfying relationship with Tibby (Julie London), a trampy rich girl who only has eyes for the brutish town poacher (Rory Calhoun, who wears an Elvis Presley pompadour several years before the King himself).

Meg and Nath find themselves thrown together, and decide to find that mysterious Red House in the woods.

While not horror per se, The Red House is thoroughly marinated in dread, with atmosphere to burn—including a surprising amount of smoldering teenage lust.

Certainly one could read Meg and Nath’s obsessive quest to find the “Red House” in the woods as the buildup to a sexual awakening.  I’ll have you know, I studied this shit in school!

The dreamy score by legendary film composer Miklos Rozsa (Ben-Hur, Spellbound, Double Indemnity, among others), guides every scene to delirious heights, and the outré ending haunted my sleep for years. Or months, maybe.

And Edward G. Robinson is sublime as a basically decent man with too many secrets—and a slippery grasp on reality.

The Red House is the perfect movie to pull out on a night when everybody swears they’ve seen everything.

Mr. Hush (2011)

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Nope, no sugarcoating around here. Your life will not be enhanced in any way, shape or form by watching Mr. Hush. It’s a terminally amateurish effort from writer/director David Lee Madison about a dude named Holland Price (Brad Loree, a poor man’s, I don’t know, Eric Roberts?), an unfortunate soul who opens the door to the wrong trick-or-treater. Here’s a life hack for you buddy: Don’t let a man into your house who is dressed as a priest and calling himself “Father Flanagan” (Edward X. Young) on Halloween night unless you’ve been looking forward to seeing your wife’s throat cut and your daughter abducted.

Bad luck, right? We leap 10 years into the future and Price is a dish dog at a greasy spoon with a tiny little crush on Debbie (Connie Giordano) the new waitress. She’s a widow with a teenage daughter, he’s a widower with a perpetual case of the blues, so they tentatively embark on a relationship. Oh hark! Is that a knock at the door? Before Price can say “boo” to a goose, the very same maniac reappears, looking not a day older, to carve up his new special lady. What are the odds?

Mr. Hush would be utterly unwatchable without the meaty contributions of Edward X. Young, as a charmingly hammy community theater villain who seems to be enjoying the hell out of himself, even firing off a perfectly terrible joke after he’s impaled by the shards of a Louisville Slugger. And yep, that’s Evil Ed from Fright Night, Stephen Geoffreys, as the killer’s psychotic little helper who dresses like a homeless backup dancer from Michael Jackson’s “Bad” video. Sadly, it’s not enough to compensate for the leaden pace, goofy-ass script and fatal cheapness of the production.

Haunter (2013)

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Can a plucky ghost solve a mystery and prevent a murder? A thoughtfully askew haunted house tale, Haunter tells the story of a fiendish serial killer (Stephen McHattie) through the eyes of one of his victims, a teenage ghost named Lisa (Abigail Breslin, who is excellent). She and the rest of her deceased family are tragically housebound in a time loop on the day that her father Bruce (Peter Outerbridge) succumbs to the influence of the murderer’s evil spirit and kills his kinfolk. Needless to say, all attempts to escape the house result in failure.

Lisa has “woken up” to the fact that she and her loved ones are doomed to relive the same day over and over, and she rightfully sees no future in it. Sensing another presence in the house, Lisa does her best Nancy Drew impression to figure out what’s going on and discovers that a different family (in the present day) is dwelling in the house and are in danger of repeating her family’s fate, as the killer’s ghostly presence is on the verge of causing another dad to turn homicidal.

Director Vincenzo Natali and writer Brian King bring a number of fresh elements to Haunter, particularly the idea that a lost soul can redeem itself by trying to save another. Breslin, nattily attired in her Siouxsie and the Banshees sweatshirt and Chuck Taylors, is winningly courageous as a sullen teen (spirit) who decides to quit wallowing in her own misery to battle the malignant entity that caused her untimely demise. Haunter is both compelling and reasonably horrifying without being accompanied by buckets of blood or resorting to tired tropes. It flows like a cracking good YA novel—one that’s dandy entertainment for the whole ghost family.

Oculus (2013)

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Speaking as a somewhat jaded horror buff, there are definitely times when the surfeit of unmitigated crap available on Fear.com, Netflix, Amazon and Hulu can weigh heavy on the soul. To make matters worse, it’s often the same unmitigated crap wherever you look! Sure, I enjoy revisiting familiar tropes as much as the next pinhead (A camping trip? What a lovely idea! I’ll bring my videocamera so we can capture each magic murder… I mean, moment!), but there are times when the self-imposed limitations placed on the genre can shred one’s patience. If boredom and burnout levels are approaching critical, I suggest spending an evening with Oculus, director/cowriter Mike Flanagan’s deceptively devastating homage to a haunted mirror.

Eleven years ago, Kaylie Russell and her younger brother Tim watched in horror as their father Alan (Rory Cochrane, from Dazed and Confused!) murdered their mother Marie (Katee Sackhoff, from Battlestar Galactica!). Young Tim (Brenton Thwaites) grows up in a mental institution while Kaylie (Karen Gillan) reaches adulthood with a burning desire to banish the evil spirit that haunts the mirror in her father’s study that she believes to be responsible for his descent into murder and madness.

Tim and Kaylie are reunited when the former is released from the booby hatch on his 21st birthday, and she wastes no time in collaring her kid brother to help her destroy the cursed object. Much to her dismay, Tim has learned his mental health lessons well, and is currently convinced that his sister is cut from the same crazy cloth as Daddy.

Oculus works for the very reason that so many fright flicks don’t: the characters. Flanagan takes his time with the telling details that go into the construction of the doomed Russell family. Alan is a hardworking and caring father, but he’s a control freak and prone to rages. Marie adores her children, but doesn’t have the tightest grip on reality. Kaylie is the dominant child who simultaneously protects her brother and encourages him to take increasingly desperate measures fueled by her obsession with the evil looking glass.

The actual onscreen horror is judiciously portioned out; the movie is neither swimming in blood nor dry as a bone. The vast and vivid array of outré details are seamlessly stitched into the action—and the reason they will scare the soup out of you is because director Flanagan expertly mixes illusion, fantasy and reality to the point where we can’t trust the information that our eyes are transmitting. When that happens, it’s all over, baby. Enjoy! I know I did.

 

Barricade (2012)

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In which the hunky star of Will & Grace (Eric McCormack) gets the opportunity to go all Jack Torrance while snowed in at a remote cabin with his two nervous children. However, instead of chasing his kids around with an axe, he attempts to prove his mettle by protecting them against ghosts—and a really nasty case of the flu.

Terrance Shade (McCormack) is a recently widowed MD who’s never really bonded with daughter Cynthia (Conner Dwelly) and son Jake (Ryan Grantham). After his wife’s unexpected demise, he decides to take his estranged offspring to an isolated mountain cabin for Christmas. On the Bad Idea scale, this rates near the tippy top, because, as the kids remind Pops again and again, he’s not handy, hardy, or even barely competent at wilderness survival. The whole Shade clan comes down with a bug courtesy of the town sheriff/shopkeeper/landlord (Donnelly Rhodes), and Terrance begins to see and hear things that cause him to come unhinged in a big way.

The crux of Barricade becomes readily apparent all too soon: Is Terrance hallucinating or is there an actual evil spirit loose in the house that’s causing them no end of misery? Why does Terrance keep flipping in and out of consciousness? Are the family members being haunted by their own sense of loss and guilt over the death of the wife/mother?

It’s not really much of a mystery, but director Andrew Currie and writer Michaelbrent Collings make sure that the atmosphere is suitably tense and claustrophobic throughout, and McCormack delivers a first-rate performance as the hapless patriarch trying his best to keep his children out of harm’s way. A very watchable little fright flick.

 

Citadel (2012)

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Ding, ding, ding! We have a winner! Written and directed by Ciaran Foy,

Citadel is a Scottish/Irish co-production filmed on location in some of the most unbelievably desolate and blighted locales of Glasgow and Dublin that I’ve ever seen on film.

The decaying housing projects and ruined grey landscapes make an ideal setting for a particularly harrowing urban fairy tale about an anxiety ridden single father who must protect his infant daughter from a marauding band of feral children.

After seeing his wife attacked by a trio of menacing urchins—and being powerless to help—Tommy Cowley (Aneurin Barnard) has developed a rather whopping case of Agoraphobia, one that requires him to treat the affliction with counseling sessions and trust exercises.

In this case, Tommy’s phobia is perfectly justified, as he lives in a dismal housing development with his yowling daughter Elsa, born despite a comatose mother who never recovered from her vicious assault.

To make matters considerably worse, it appears that the same pack of nasty kids is on his trail once again. Even while he gets advice and comfort from a sympathetic nurse (Wunmi Mosaku), Tommy comes to realize that these murderous moppets can smell and trace his fear—and as an Agoraphobe, he lights up the night like a shining beacon.

Driven to desperate lengths, Tommy teams up with a deranged priest (James Cosmo) to battle the little blighters.

Foy’s deft blending of grim, dystopic reality and dark mythic quest is extraordinary. Barnard is a revelation as Tommy, a young man who has no choice but to get his shit together and take arms against a hideously relentless foe.

The term “reluctant hero” was tailor-made for this crazy kid. We can’t help but root for him and hope that he can somehow overcome his crippling fear and fulfill his quest.

Maniac (2012)


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I distinctly remember seeing the original Maniac (1980) at the drive-in the year it came out.

It was an especially garish example of grindhouse sleazery directed by William Lustig (Maniac Cop, Vigilante), with splashy gore effects by the great Tom Savini, and starring Joe Spinell (The Godfather II, Taxi Driver) as Frank Zito, a lumpy schlub on a murderous rampage.

Whether he was obliterating necking teens with a shotgun, strangling hookers, or scalping his victims in order to dress up his mannequin collection, Zito proved a memorably demented protagonist.

For this slick, slightly less lurid remake, Lustig teamed with Franco fiends Alexandre Aja, Gregory Levasseur (writers) and Franck Khalfoun (director) to recast Frodo Bag… er, Elijah Wood as the prolific psycho with the crippling Mommy issues.

Frank Zito (Wood) is the rodentish owner of a vintage mannequin store obsessed with Anna (Nora Arnezeder), a beautiful photographer, who happens by his shop to admire his magnificent collection of dress forms.

When Frank isn’t awkwardly wooing Anna, he’s out skewering, strangling, slicing, and scalping a string of unlucky ladies who remind him of his horribly skanky mother. Can the love of a good woman redeem a savage killer? No, of course not. What a ridiculous idea.

Director Khalfoun charts the action with a very aggressive POV camera (Wood is seen mostly in reflections), that straps us into the driver’s seat of considerable carnage—a feverish perspective that most viewers should find deeply unsettling.

Wood portrays Zito as a shaky mess of neuroses and unchecked rage, a rather alarming change from the mild-mannered hobbit that we followed through three epic movies on his sojourn to Mount Doom.

Here, Wood’s character is on a different kind of quest; trying to annihilate the memories of the woman responsible for making him the man(iac) he is today.

Needless to say, not for squeamish or sensitive souls.