Last Shift (2014)

It’s been firmly established in horror that a police station is no longer a safe space. Assault on Precinct 13, The Terminator, and Jeepers Creepers are just a few examples of cop shops under siege, and now we can add Last Shift to the list.

Rookie policewoman Jess Loren (Juliana Harkavy) is assigned closing night desk duty at a soon-to-be-shuttered precinct house. Her mission is to wait for a Hazmat team to show up and cart off some hazardous waste material that ended up as evidence.

While awaiting the arrival of the cleanup crew, Loren is visited by a homeless man who pees on her floor, a gabby hooker, and the ghost of an officer who died alongside her father (also a cop) when they apprehended John Michael Payman (Joshua Mikel), a Manson-ish cult leader exactly one year before.

Whew! That’s a helluva lot of backstory for one shift!

Payman and two of his rabid followers hung themselves at this very station and apparently their very evil sprits are still bedeviling the premises, moving things around, flicking the lights, and changing the TV to Payman Per View.

Does Officer Loren have the right stuff to keep the ghosts at bay and finish her shift? All I can say is perhaps she should have listened to her guidance counselor and gone to veterinary school.

Last Shift has a skinny budget, but director-writer Anthony DiBlasi stuffs gruesome thrills and shocks into his plot like a cheapskate packing for a long trip.

Harkavy emotes convincingly as the protagonist who’s having a really bad day at work, melting down in fairly realistic fashion as the nasty ghosts finally get a foothold in her head.

The ending is decidedly downbeat, but the action is brisk and unpredictable, and at times, genuinely frightening. Recommended.

Things Heard and Seen (2021)

Originally published in Mystery and Suspense, July 4, 2021

The enchanting Amanda Seyfried does her doggone best as an unobservant wife coming to grips with her husband’s dark side in the Netflix production Things Heard and Seen. She is typically radiant, even in sweatshirt and jeans, and shows plenty of intestinal fortitude

Still, one wonders how bright she can be since her scheming husband George (James Norton) is about 96 percent dark side.

Based on the novel All Things Cease to Appear by Elizabeth Brundage, Seyfried plays Catherine Claire, an urban sophisticate from Manhattan who packs up her life and daughter and relocates to a small, upstate town called Chosen, when her hubby lands a gig teaching art history at a nearby college.

Their new home is a former dairy farm, and Catherine throws herself into making the place livable, but confesses to a friend on the phone that she feels isolated in the close-knit academic hamlet. George, meanwhile, hits on a visiting student from Cornell (Natalia Dyer).

No surprise, George is a lying, cheating, sociopath, a fact that becomes painfully obvious to everyone except Catherine, and eventually even she grows wise to his machinations and gaslighting.

Things get paranormal as both Catherine and her daughter Franny sense the haunting presence of the previous lady of the house, who was murdered by her own husband. Apparently it’s a tradition that dates back to house’s construction.

To further complicate matters, the sons of the deceased woman show up and ask Catherine for jobs as farm hands! Catherine ends up making out with older brother Eddie (Alex Neustaeder) after gradually realizing her husband is an amoral monster.

There are loose ends a-plenty (you could knit a sweater), but none more clumsy than George’s obvious malevolence. He complains about Franny being scared of a real ghost and needing to sleep with her parents, thus denying him the opportunity to have relations with his comely wife.

There’s a chance that poor George is under the influence of several generations of wife-killers on this Dairy of the Damned, but like Jack Torrance, he doesn’t offer much in the way of resistance.

I confess to loving the ludicrous Biblical ending, which is straight out of a Wendy Webb novel. The last we see of villainous George is on a sinking sailboat to hell before the scene morphs into a George Innes painting that ties together a few of those loose ends I mentioned earlier.

I think writer-directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini crafted themselves a batty, but entertaining thriller. If you can accept a few gaping plot holes, Things Heard and Seen is definitely worth a gander.

The Dark and the Wicked (2020)

Originally published in Mystery and Suspense, February 7, 2021

“There’s nothing worse than a soul left alone in the end.”

Texas filmmaker Bryan Bertino wrote the screenplay for The Strangers, a movie that made us feel unsafe in our own homes. In The Dark and the Wicked, Bertino gets downright metaphysical, worrying us about the state of our immortal souls.

The setting is a blighted patch of Texas prairie, but Bertino grazes the same bleak spiritual tundra as Ingmar Bergman, suggesting that a human soul bereft of love is vulnerable to attack by dark forces.

Somewhere in a particularly lonesome part of Texas, an old man (Michael Zagst) lays dying in his bed, wheezing out air supplied by an oxygen tube. A nurse (Lynn Andrews) sits nearby knitting and observing his tortured breathing. The old man’s wife (Julie Oliver-Touchstone) chops vegetables in the kitchen staring vacantly out a window at the grim landscape of the family farm. Their two children, Louise (Marin Ireland), and Michael (Michael Abbott Jr), now grown, have returned to lend comfort to Mother and watch over their fading papa. 

How did everything go so wrong? And how are they getting worse? The Dark and the Wicked never says for sure. Instead, we are left with symptoms pointing to a malady beyond the reach of medicine.

“You shouldn’t have come,” Mother hisses at her offspring.

With wolves howling in the distance (and getting closer all the time), there is no comfort or joy in the family reunion. Bertino illustrates this through dispassionate editing choices, settling on objects or desolate scenery for every shot with a person in it, as if the presence of human beings means nothing in this dreary place. But there is a growing menace in the household that can’t be ignored. Louise sees her comatose father in the shower, and Michael spies his mother floating in the air through a window.

It falls to the sympathetic nurse to try and articulate all the bad mojo.

“I think there are things in this world, horrible things, wicked. And they come for whoever they want,” she cautions Michael, explaining that a soul needs love to keep it safe. “I can smell the fear in y’all. I can feel it in this house.” she murmurs.

As previously stated, love, warmth, and comfort are in short supply around these parts. Louise and Michael are both clearly guilt-ridden about ignoring their parents for so long, and the guilt gets snowballed into a bad situation.  Rather than delve into the specifics of sin, The Dark and the Wicked drops clues, frightful images, and ghostly visitors that haunt the siblings till it becomes unbearable.

Save your pity for the one left alone.

Amulet (2020)

Originally published in Mystery and Suspense, January 12, 2021

Some old war wounds never heal. In fact, they were designed to become more painful over time. Written and masterfully directed by BBC actress Romola Garai, Amulet is a slow-burn Gothic noir, about a homeless soldier trying to put the past behind him.

Tomaz (Alec Secareanu), a severely traumatized veteran of some nameless Eastern European conflict, finds himself in need of a place to crash after his London squat goes up in flames. 

Helpful nun Sister Claire (Imelda Staunton) offers him a peachy situation: Free room and board in a dank, shadowy old house, in exchange for handyman duties. Tomaz is initially reticent, but finds himself irresistibly drawn to Magda (Carla Juri), the sweet, nervous girl who lives in the house, caring for a surprisingly ferocious invalid mother (Anah Ruddin).

The house itself has passed the state of disrepair and is well into a spiral of decay rivaling the ancestral home of Roderick Usher. There is almost no light, and the camera lands on the abundant mold and water stains like a lazy fly on the wall. The hazy air itself has a bilious green hue, as if infected with something terminal.

When Tomaz tries to sleep, he dreams of the war, apparently stationed in a remote forest outpost. There, his lonely routine gets interrupted by the arrival of Miriam (Angeliki Papoulia), a refugee mother in search of her child.

Tomaz allows her to stay and the seeds of tragedy are sown. He only wanted to help. He tried to help.

Spoiler Alert: The waking and sleeping narratives are connected. This means bad news for the young soldier. 

Our sympathy for Tomaz is never exactly on solid ground. His unspecified wartime trauma erupts in nightly terrors, and his desire to liberate the long-suffering Magda, bound to serve a dangerous and unstable mother, is evidently sincere.

Tomaz pauses in his work one day to watch Magda wrap a bandage around a fresh bite wound on her arm. As the cliché goes, no good deed goes unpunished. In this instance, his instinct to come to a woman’s aid is the worst possible course of action a man can take. There are abundant horrors to be mined in the aftermath of military service. Amulet demonstrates that the most terrible is the false hope of redemption.

Tomaz is a haunted man, brought back from the brink of despair by the vague idea that he can atone for a misdeed, through an act of sacrifice. It’s that distant, faint illusion of hope that cuts the deepest, much like the illusion of being “a good man” that’s eventually ripped from Tomaz like old skin.

The forces at work here are as old as the avenging Furies of Greek Tragedy, and they haven’t lost any power to punish transgressors with brutal clarity. Like Oedipus the doomed king of Thebes (or Mickey Rourke in Angel Heart, for that matter), Tomaz can’t identify himself as the cause of his own misery until it’s far too late to escape an awful fate, one that befits an unforgiveable crime.

Amulet is seriously grim going—though handsomely filmed—and includes interludes of body horror that would give David Cronenberg the willies. It also progresses at a snail’s pace, which works to the film’s advantage, allowing the viewer to gradually get acclimated to the accursed atmosphere.

Even so, when we’re finally able to consider the grand scale of justice served at the conclusion of Romola Garai’s vivid and terrible revenge tale, the effect is breathtaking—and should not be missed.

His House (2020)

Yes, you should watch His House. It’s captivating and terrifying from the opening scene and never looks back.

London filmmaker Remi Weekes makes a stunning debut with a ghost story about Sudanese refugees trying to start a new life in England. But you know it’s going to take them a while to unpack all that trauma.

Bol Majur (Sope Dirisu) and his wife Rial (Wunmi Mosaku) have survived multiple tragedies escaping their war-torn homeland, leaving behind a deceased daughter and rival tribes with guns bent on annihilating each other.

In England, the Majurs are assigned a shabby government house and their lives are overseen by grumbling official Mark Essworth (Matt Smith), who seems peeved that the refugees aren’t grateful enough.

The Majurs are warned in no uncertain terms that they must stay in their assigned unit and observe innumerable conditions or they will be sent back to Sudan (and certain death).

The new abode comes with faulty wiring, peeling wallpaper, and plenty of ghosts, led by their seething daughter Nyagak (Malaika Wakoli-Abigaba), who has not passed on peacefully.

Bol tries to rationalize and pretend everything is fine, but slowly begins to lose his grip as the pressure of appearing happy and grateful in a haunted house takes its toll, and he freaks out in front of Essworth.

Rial wants to go back home, but Bol digs in and confronts their tormentor—and a deal is struck.

His House demands a thorough investigation for which you’ll be amply rewarded. Remi Weekes is a major talent with superb cinematic instincts.

With Bol and Rial trapped inside their house, Weekes tightens into claustrophobic closeups, and we’re practically a fly on the wall, witnessing encounters with the undead that grow increasingly disturbing.

Outside, the landscape is ruined, desolate, and confusing. When Rial asks for directions, she’s told by a rambunctious bunch of Black English schoolboys to “Go back to Africa.”

Weekes adds unlikely racism to a mounting list of stressors bedeviling a determined couple who’ve already been through hell, thank you very much.

Yet, as we all know, you can’t have a new beginning until old accounts have been settled. Somehow.

The Mortuary Collection (2019)

Multiple choice question. Anthology horror movies ride a seasonal spike in popularity as we approach:

(A) Halloween (B) The Election (C) End Times (D) All of the above

The Mortuary Collection, written and directed by Ryan Spindell, is comprised of five tangled tales of terror, vigorously spun by Montgomery Dark (Clancy Brown), the looming and gloomy mortician of the town of Raven’s End.

His audience is Sam (Caitlin Fisher), a steely job applicant with a severe curiosity for the more macabre aspects of post-mortem employment. Much to her delight, Dark digs deep into a dreadful drawer of local lore that winds inevitably back to the present.

He recounts the bizarre and gruesome fates that befell several unfortunate citizens of Raven’s End, ending up as customers in the morgue of Mr. Dark’s rambling hilltop funeral home.

At a swinging party, a trip to the toilet turns fatal for a stylish dame (Christine Kilmer) who gets too nosy with the medicine cabinet.

The campus Casanova (Jacob Elordi) is forced into reluctant fatherhood, and finds he just isn’t built for it.

A dutiful husband (Barak Hardley) gets the dirty end of the stick when his blushing bride turns catatonic right after the wedding.

Finally, a determined babysitter wages war with an escaped lunatic during a violent thunderstorm.

Each story prompts critical discussion as to whether the protagonists in question deserve their unhappy endings. Dark insists that actions have serious consequences and old rules should not be violated.

Sam scoffs at his morality plays, eventually revealing her true face in an ending that turns out to be the most outrageous segment of them all.

What’s not to like?

There’s gorgeous gore galore. The art direction, practical effects, and set design are uniformly excellent. Dark’s massive funeral home is dressed to the hilt with eerie details, crammed to the rafters with sinister flourish.

The Raven’s End Mortuary looks every inch a decaying stronghold of stories and secrets, one that seemingly winds downstairs forever.

Clancy Brown, a seasoned character actor (and voice of Mr. Krabs on SpongeBob SquarePants), towers above his costars in these grim surroundings, hitting on all cylinders as a host who tells each tale with obvious relish, while splendidly attired in a dusky wardrobe, undoubtedly purchased at the same Big & Tall Man shop recommended by Angus Scrimm.

The Mortuary Collection is top-shelf storytelling, on a par with not only the upper echelon of anthology horror films (Creepshow, Tales From The Crypt, Vault Of Horror), but the creepy old comic books that inspired them in the first place.

Check it out. Check it all out. Time may not be on our side.

Ghost Stories (2017)

As a whole, Ghost Stories is greater than the sum of its parts.

While the individual tales in this anthology vary in terms of intensity and originality, it’s the wraparound narrative of Professor Philip Goodman (Andrew Dyson, who also co-wrote and co-directed) that effectively binds the whole dreary package in sorrowful strings.

Goodman is a skeptic and writer whose mission to debunk psychics and paranormal phenomenon has made him a familiar figure on British telly. He’s tasked with testing the validity of three unique cases, each told by a surviving protagonist.

A night-watchman (Paul Whitehouse) is haunted by a ghost child; an irresponsible teenager (Alex Lawther) recounts a terrifying encounter in his father’s car, and a wealthy businessman (Martin Freeman) confronts a poltergeist while awaiting the birth of his son.

Each story has at its heart, an instance of parental failing that leads to grim consequences for the parties involved, particularly for the clueless professor who sets out to define the unknown, and ends up consumed by it.

Ghost Stories does not offer buckets of viscera or a breathtaking assortment of effects wizardry, but rather demonstrates in austere fashion that paranormal events are rooted in the sins and injustices of past deeds.

Our ability to atone for those sins remains unknown. In other words, we may not be able to “wiggle off the hook” in a spiritual sense for long-buried grievances.

And if you’re the spiritual sort, that’s pretty scary.

Hell House II: The Abaddon Hotel (2018)

Hey! Let’s “check in” with Hell House LLC mastermind Stephen Cognetti, and the second installment of his infernal found-footage franchise.

The Abaddon Hotel picks up a few years down the road from the fatal Halloween reopening of the first film. In the interim, the boarded up inn has become a destination for ghost hunters, thrill seekers, and documentary filmmakers—all of whom end up missing.

Despite a local police presence to shoo away curious cats, the Abaddon continues to attract unfortunate wayfarers, including investigative reporter Megan Fox (Jillian Geurts), sole Halloween survivor Mitchell Cavanaugh (Vasile Flutur) and smug TV psychic Brock Davies (Kyle Ingleman).

Film and video from a variety of doomed sources is thoughtfully edited together so we too can enjoy the accommodations at Pennsylvania’s only four-star haunted hotel, now with a new and improved Hell Mouth that’s hungry for fresh souls.

Writer-director Cognetti (aided by dozens of relatives, if the credits are to be believed) expands and colors the nascent concepts left germinating since the first movie.

We finally get to meet kooky cult leader Andrew Tully (played with devilish panache by Brian David Tracy), who fills us in on his devilish “business plan” for the Abaddon.

See, it never closes, and there’s always a fire burning in the basement, just like Tom Bodett’s Motel 666.

Cognetti is not only dexterous enough to fill in the holes from the earlier film, but he lays the foundation for Part III, revealing that a wealthy media mogul has developed an unhealthy interest in the Abaddon.

Stay tuned! I know I will.

Final Prayer (2013)

Let sleeping gods lie. They wake up cranky.

In writer-director Elliott Goldner’s found-footage frightmare Final Prayer (original title: The Borderlands), a team of investigators from the Vatican gets swallowed up by a powerful pocket of pagan worship in rural England.

As we all know from The Da Vinci Code, the Catholic Church has its fingers in dozens of occult pies, and always stands ready to dispatch expert emissaries should the need arise.

A report of supernatural hijinks at a remote country church is reason enough for the Pope to assign hard-drinking clergyman, Deacon (Gordon Kennedy), Gray (Robin Hill), a novice film and audio tech, and officious Vatican rep Mark (Aidan McArdle), to confirm or debunk the phenomenon.

The tiny congregation is headed by Father Crellick (Luke Neal), who fervently believes that the sounds of babies crying and objects moving by themselves in his church are proof of a miracle.

The team has different ideas. Mark thinks it’s a hoax; Gray is perplexed and frightened, while Deacon sees parallels with an older case that didn’t end well.

Fortunately for us, the protagonists get so used to wearing their headset cameras and mics during the course of the investigation, that we get the inside scoop before All Hell Breaks Loose, which happens in spectacular fashion during the final scene.

I advise patience during the first 45 minutes or so. Final Prayer takes a while to get rolling, but the slow burn pays off with a finale that is outré in the extreme.

By then, you’ll be on the hook with the rest of us.

Highly recommended.

 

 

Rest Stop (2006)

Next time you’re driving through remote, unfamiliar terrain and you feel the call of nature, please consider making other arrangements.

Nicole (Jaimie Alexander) and her BF Jess (Joe Mendocino) leave drab Oklahoma in the rear view and take off on a road trip to begin a new life in Los Angeles.

The only things standing in the way are Nicole’s tiny bladder and a wily serial killer in an old Ford pickup.

After having sex and getting lost, the couple pulls into a grimy Rest Stop where Nicole must pee in a substandard Ladies Room. She emerges to find Jess has disappeared, apparently abducted by a guy in a yellow pickup, that patrols the area like a shark.

Trapped in the grotty commode, Nicole passes the time by reading doomed messages written over the years by victims of the trucker-capped fiend known as KZL 303—the very same maniac currently forcing her into a vicious game of cat and mouse.

Rest Stop is a nifty (and nasty) example of the Killer on the Road genre, which includes the likes of Joy Ride, The Hitcher, Breakdown, and of course, Duel, directed by a young Steven Spielberg.

Writer-director John Shiban successfully taps a rich vein of dread by constantly reminding us of how vulnerable we are once we leave the highway. Even a seemingly benign comfort station can be a deadly trap.

As a lifetime horror fan, my advice to incontinent road trippers is to keep driving. And never accept a ride from a Winnebago.