They Remain (2018)

Two biologists working for an anonymous corporation are dispatched to the former site of a Manson-type cult compound to investigate strange animal behavior in the area.

Keith (William Jackson Harper) thoroughly explores the acreage, setting up camera feeds to monitor the fauna. Jessica (Rebecca Henderson) examines the data trying to find anomalies.

This goes on for the majority of the movie, as we observe the scientific method gradually give way to something far older and more primitive.

As so often happens, the more time they spend at the accursed locale, the more things break down. Keith hears voices. Jessica hears knocking at the door. Keith chases a wolf. Keith and Jessica drink whiskey.

They Remain is a subdued film, and it helps if you’re in the mood for subtlety. Writer-director Philip Gelatt adapted Laird Barron’s 30 for the screenplay, and it’s told largely from Keith’s perspective, which gets less reliable as time rolls on.

“I trust everybody, just not people,” he says to Jessica during one of their Happy Hours.

Keith dutifully collects his data, but the more he ventures out into the silent forest the less confident, and more unmoored he becomes.

Jessica, who is white, is the obsessive one, and Keith, a black man, worries that she’s not telling him the truth about their situation. Though he’s an experienced woodsman, he finds that his senses aren’t much help when faced with something that doesn’t track like an average specimen.

In fact, we’re never quite certain who is observing whom in They Remain. Whether it’s ghosts, hallucinations, cave dwellers, or just the effects of isolation, the feeling of someone watching is quite inescapable.

In scene after scene, Gelatt’s camera finds Keith hunkered down in the bush, but he doesn’t blend into his surroundings at all. He’s nervous because he isn’t safe, and he can’t hide in what is rapidly shaping up to be a hostile environment.

That’s a scary position to be in. They Remain is a profoundly unsettling movie and a very effective one.

Seance (2021)

When you’re the new kid in school, it helps to be adopted by the popular clique, even if they’re into necromancy. Go along to get along, you know?

Seance is set at Edelvine Academy for Girls, a prestigious private learning institution with a recent opening, thanks to a student hopping out the window during a paranormal prank.

Editor’s Note: When are we going to outlaw pranks? Nothing good ever comes from pranks and people get hurt, disfigured, and killed all the damn time.

New student Camille Meadows (Suki Waterhouse) moves into the recently vacated room and gets picked on by the same Mean Girls who drove the previous occupant to jump.

Camille and the Mean Girls all end up in detention together, where an alliance of sorts is formed, and a seance is convened to see if any ghosts want to communicate.

Surprise! They do!

Featuring both a ghost and masked psychos bearing cutlery, Seance is smartly written and full of gradually revealed plot twists that take sinister shape under the guidance of writer-director Simon Barrett (You’re Next, Dead Birds).

There aren’t buckets of blood, but there’s a body count and a few memorable kills, including Bethany’s (Madisen Beaty) fluorescent tube tracheotomy.

It’s also a movie about duty and the bonds of friendship that run deeper than the need for acceptance within a group of nasty bitches.

Recommended! Start the new year off right.

Censor (2021)

To anyone who dares spread the rumor that horror movies are responsible for the moral decay of society, here is a provocative feature for your consideration.

Set against England’s Video Nasty outrage of the mid-’80s, Censor takes us inside the head of Enid Baines (Niamh Algar), an efficient and organized member of the government agency in charge of rating violent and disturbing films of the day, like Driller Killer and Deranged.

Enid is quite good at her job but her personal life hasn’t recovered from the childhood trauma of losing her sister Nina in the woods, and she continues to harbor hopes that she will turn up one day.

When she’s assigned a Nasty called Don’t Go in the Church, something shifts in Enid’s memories as the movie seems to be a re-creation of the day her sister disappeared, a haunting mystery that was never solved, and the details of which she can’t remember.

Her parents want her to move on with her life and meet a nice fellah, but Enid is determined to track down the cult filmmaker who could be the source of everything that’s gone wrong in her life.

Welsh writer-director Prano Bailey-Bond has fashioned a deeply drawn character in Enid, and the performance by Algar just keeps getting richer, even as her world gets darker, infected by the barrage of torture and cruelty she witnesses on a daily basis.

Bailey-Bond does a first-rate job of establishing time and place, when England was under a media-fueled frenzy of lurid details from “hardcore” horror films dubbed “Video Nasties.”

Enid’s office, with its dark little viewing rooms, becomes equally lurid, as screams and chopping sounds fill the halls.

Job pressures take their toll on Enid, a thoroughly professional woman with a complicated, compartmentalized life. Like Cassandra Thomas in Promising Young Woman, she has answered a calling and takes pride in her work.

Unfortunately, Enid, an otherwise intelligent and perceptive woman, ignores the warning issued by more than one character, that being, “Evil is contagious.”

In my estimation, Censor is one of the best horror films of the year.

Girl on the Third Floor (2019)

I haven’t followed professional rasslin’ for the last decade or two, so I’ve missed out on the rise of CM Punk, a straight-edge, comic book-loving, butt-kicking atheist who’s managed to win several championship belts in the early part of the 21st century.

In Girl on the Third Floor he tries on a tool belt to restore an old Victorian mansion with a bad reputation as a peace offering to his pregnant wife, Liz (Trieste Kelly Dunn).

Don Koch (Punk), is a financial con artist who’s cut a deal with the feds to stay out of prison, despite draining several pension funds. Having proven himself to be a liar, a drunk, and a womanizer, Don has vowed to turn over a new leaf, and “make everything right” by fixing up a former brothel into a dream home for his burgeoning family.

Unfortunately, a leopard can’t change his spots and you can’t build a dream home on a rotten foundation. The man formerly known as King Don, immediately starts drinking beer and lying to his wife on their daily phone calls, which doesn’t say much about his commitment to the project or to his marriage.

While fumbling through basic carpentry and getting loads of gross fluids dumped on him in at every turn, Don entertains Ellie Mueller (Karen Wooditsch) a gabby nun from the church next door and Sarah Yates (Sarah Brooks) a simmering sexpot who seems to come and go at will.

Don gets characteristically drunk, smokes weed, and knocks boots with Sarah. Like Michael Douglas in Fatal Attraction, he soon regrets giving in to his toxic masculine desires when his one-night stand turns out to be a vengeful spirit.

It’s a morality play, duh.

The house itself consumes the protagonist, serving as a warning to faithless spouses seeking redemption for their misdeeds.

Punk is up to the task, and acquits himself as an able, agile leading man, losing his marbles in entertaining fashion and getting tossed around like a pumped-up Bruce Campbell in Evil Dead II.

Watching the misadventures of the angry, bumbling, and ultimately remorseful Don Koch, writer-director Travis Stevens gives us a virtual Power Point illustration of the terrible fate that befalls an ethical weakling.

Maybe try couples counseling, instead.

Warning: The dog dies. Steel yourself emotionally.

The Deep House (2021)

Why would anyone want to explore a haunted house at the bottom of a lake? Talk about looking for trouble. The Deep House follows Ben (James Jagger) and Tina (Camille Lowe), a couple of thrill-seeking social media climbers that specialize in visiting creepy-ass abandoned buildings.

They don’t get much creepier than an eerily preserved house on the floor of a deep French lake, so they gather their diving gear and make a splash, guided to the secret spot by a chainsmoking local (Eric Savin).

Their life aquatic isn’t pleasant, to say the least. They find the house and Tina doesn’t like the atmosphere one bit. When they discover buoyant corpses and evidence of human sacrifice things really go off the rails.

Written and directed by Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo, The Deep House will make you uncomfortable in interesting new ways. The prospect of running out of air surfaces early in the film, as Tina practices holding her breath in the bathtub prior to arrival.

If the idea of an empty air tank under hundreds of feet water while being chased through a submerged spook-house by swimming ghouls doesn’t freeze your blood, then you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din.

Furthermore, Ben is anxious to become media famous, while Tina has a stubborn streak of common sense that often runs counter to her partner’s ambition, a situation that could spell doom for both of them.

Ben has a camera drone that provides aerial views and also follows the couple into the lake, so visually they’ve got all their angles covered. And we can see what’s lurking around the corner.

As soon as the viewer forgets that Ben and Tina are underwater, something floats by and we get a fresh wave of panic.

There’s no big moral lesson in The Deep House. What Ben and Tina find in the house at the bottom of the lake is something that should have stayed there. Is that so hard to wrap your head around?

Again, why go out of your way to get metaphysically mangled? Good movie, though.

Demonic (2015)

A detective (Frank Grillo) and a police psychiatrist (Maria Bello) try to piece together what happened after a team of amateur ghostbusters bungle a seance in a haunted house, in Demonic.

Probably happens all the time.

The cops grill John (Dustin Milligan), the only survivor, in an attempt to locate his missing girlfriend Michelle (Cody Horn) and ghost team leader Bryan (Scott Mechlowicz).

The rest of Bryan’s crew are spread out around the house in various stages of decomposition after persons unknown went on a chopping spree.

The story unfolds via John’s remembrances and footage recovered by forensic specialists, so the narrative bounces from the current crime scene to the week before, when the paranormal investigators set up shop in a rambling manor house somewhere in Louisiana swampland.

There are jump scares aplenty and a decent amount of escalating tension, but not much in the way of blood and guts. Gaping plot holes abound (Really? The detective has no other recourse but to shoot his only suspect while the latter is holed up in a grocery store?) and no one associated with the film will win any acting awards.

Even so, director-cowriter Will Canon keeps his spooks flying and manages to perpetrate a few decent plot twists to keep our attention from wandering too far.

Demonic is not required viewing, but you could do a lot worse. I should know.

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.