The Devil Below (2021)

It’s always the right time for comfort-food horror, and in The Devil Below we are served up another doomed expedition searching for answers in a subterranean hellhole.

We’ll have a double helping of monsters, and don’t spare the giblets, please!

How can you screw up such a basic recipe? Director Bradley Parker and writers Eric Scherbarth and Stefan Jaworski manage to do so almost immediately and never really gain their balance.

The Devil Below is a rote, budget-strapped feature, which wouldn’t be so bad, except it also fails to register any decent gore or creature shocks, quite an unforgiveable sin in my book.

A ragtag team (is there any other kind?) of geologists guided by Alpha Gal Arianne (Maria Sanz) is tasked with investigating an Appalachian coal mine that’s been burning for decades.

They soon discover that the real cause for alarm is a race of tunneling trogs who can’t decide if they’re Lovecraftian (starfish face) or just mole people in baggy clothes.

It’s really hard to say, since we never get a proper look, but they do brandish a poison claw that immobilizes the victim. Shawn (Chinaza Uche), a soon-to-be late geologist hypothesizes that they’re a new species that colonizes, like insects, but that’s as far as the analysis goes.

Veteran character actor Will Patton is onboard as a grizzled mine owner trying to avenge his dead son, but despite everyone’s best intentions, we end up with a pale and bloodless version of The Descent, a movie that remains the undisputed high watermark in the Underground Horror genre.

With its modest body count and some of the vaguest monsters on the block, The Devil Below is below average viewing, and I’m stuck for a compelling reason to sit through it.

You have been warned.

Psycho Goreman (2020)

Originally published in Mystery and Suspense, May 22, 2021

Surely there is a universe where Psycho Goreman would be considered family friendly entertainment. 

You know, like E.T.? Maybe? Sorta?

The latest spectacle by Canadian makeup artist-turned-filmmaker Steven Kostanski, (see also 2016’s cosmic-horror blood bath The Void), Psycho Goreman is indeed the story of a family, but they’re not very friendly.

More like a Dysfunctional Family Circus, as conceived by Spielberg in a rare subversive mood. 

Let’s start with Dad. Greg (Adam Brooks) is one of the worst fathers ever committed to celluloid. A lazy, resentful nitwit, he’s married to Susan (Alexis Kara Hancey), the primary breadwinner, who does her best to keep the clan operational. 

Daughter Mimi (Nita-Josee Hanna) is a hotheaded Narcissist, and calls all the shots in this house. Her long-suffering brother Luke (Owen Myre) is an occasional co-conspirator, but more often than not, an easily bullied opponent.

The balance of power is further tipped in Mimi’s favor when Luke finds an ancient amulet that contains a monstrous alien warlord (Matthew Ninaber), imprisoned several millennia beforehand for trying to conquer the galaxy. 

Luke discovers the artifact while digging his own grave. Mimi reminds him that he lost their most recent game of Crazy Ball, so he gets buried alive. 

Side Note: Crazy Ball is an unfathomable form of dodge ball that is the most sacred game in Mimi and Luke’s world, as well as their primary activity. And rules are rules. 

Since she won at Crazy Ball (she always does), Mimi takes ownership of the talisman and thus controls the most powerful being in existence.

“Do you have a name, monster man?” Mimi asks the towering gargoyle.  

My enemies sometimes refer to me as the archduke of nightmares,” the giant says, in a basso profundo arch-villain voice. 

“Well, that sucks.” Mia replies unfazed. “Never mind, we can workshop this.” The kids subsequently dub him Psycho Goreman (or PG), after watching him dismember a street gang. 

Psycho Goreman writer-director Kostanski artfully creates hilarious rubberized havoc in the style of Japan’s Tokosatsu movement—better known as Campy Superhero Versus Monster TV Shows (e.g., UltramanMighty Morphin Power Rangers)—that dates all the way back to the middle 20th century. 

And much like the juvenile delinquents over at Troma Entertainment (Toxic Avenger etc.), Kostanski loves blood, guts, and sick monster suits. Yet somehow the action here never degenerates into mere schlock, and we find ourselves rooting for a vicious villain against the forces that come his way. 

As PG faces off against a barrage of interstellar assassins and vengeful demigods that want him out of the picture, we see an evil soulless creature learn just a little bit about love and human compassion. This observation applies principally to Mimi, but also to PG, who comes to appreciate terrestrial pleasures like magazines, hunky boys, and television from his prepubescent captors. 

Slick fight choreography, brilliant character designs, and outrageous dialogue keep our higher senses engaged, while our lizard brains wallow in vivid onscreen pandemonium.  

Sprinkled into all the frenetic mayhem is a sneaky anti-moralist message, one that’s the exact opposite of heroic, as Mimi decides that all the responsibility and power is kind of a pain. 

Eventually, she gives PG his freedom so he can continue his mission to destroy the universe. 

Except for the part Mimi and her family live in. So heartwarming. So wrong. 

Sator (2019)

Filmmaker Jordan Graham’s docu-horror Sator is an odd hybrid creature that really digs in its claws. Graham is responsible for every detail, including building a desolate cabin in the woods near Santa Cruz, which explains why the movie spent six years in preproduction.

Sator is partially the (real) story of Graham’s grandmother Nani (June Peterson) who appears in the movie as herself, discussing her history of channeling a guardian spirit called Sator. She’s written hundreds of pages inspired by the woodland entity that, she claims, controls the rural world that surrounds her.

Graham utilizes these interviews with Nani to extrapolate an eerie, dreary tale about her grandson Adam (Gabe Nicholson), a solitary forest dweller who (very) slowly gets drawn in by the machinations of Sator. Or perhaps he’s afflicted with the same mental illness that consumed his mother and grandmother. Or both.

On one of his periodic visits, his brother Pete (Michael Daniel) asks Adam if he’s hearing voices. He replies in the affirmative, as if this is all familiar territory to these damaged siblings. When Adam’s dog disappears, he is effectively untethered and falls even harder.

Sator is a humble, terrifying slice of folk horror that succeeds because Graham has left nothing to chance. It’s clearly a labor of love that generated its own momentum, and Graham took the time to carefully blend the real with the unreal. Each frame is a brooding still-life, with the encroaching nature photography especially menacing, as if there truly were a malevolent figure lurking behind the nearest shrub. Watching. You.

Graham’s visual style can best be described as Nature Noir, with overhanging trees choking off any trace of light in the lives of this blighted family. Graham’s camera shifts from color to black and white, following a hopeless trajectory of impending doom.

Not all genre devotees will have the patience for Sator, a movie floating in foreboding, but with little in the way of dialogue and action. I’m recommending that you stay and watch.

If you have the bandwidth to soak up even a fraction of the dread depicted onscreen, it should prove a transformative experience. Good luck, whatever you decide.

Phantom of the Paradise (1974)

One of the great overlooked rock ‘n’ roll movies of the ages, Phantom of the Paradise has heart, soul, and everything else going for it. If you’ve not had the pleasure, you should rectify that situation.

Written and directed by Brian DePalma, with a score by star Paul Williams, it’s a fabulous ’70s freakout on The Phantom of the Opera, with sensational songs, staging, and costumes that positively revel in the pageantry of those high, hedonistic times.

Williams plays Swan, a seemingly ageless music industry Svengali who needs a new sound to open his ultimate rock palace, The Paradise.

At a show featuring one of his bands, Swan happens to catch the opening act, a nobody singer-songwriter named Winslow Leach (William Finley). Swan sends his agent, Philbin (George Memmoli), to bamboozle the hapless composer out of his entire song catalogue—and set him up to take a fall for dealing heroin, just for good measure.

Sentenced to life in Sing Sing Prison, Leach vows revenge against Swan, manages to escape, and becomes hideously disfigured in a record press accident while destroying Swan’s property.

Now a scarred mute monster, Leach returns to The Paradise, steals a really awesome costume and begins his life as the Phantom, orchestrating a terror campaign against Swan, who is busy trying to arrange Leach’s rock opera to be performed by Beef (Gerritt Graham, who steals the show), a Frank N. Furter-esque Glamazon.

Swan tracks down the Phantom/Leach and puts him under contract to write songs for Phoenix (Jessica Harper), a beautiful backup singer that’s captured his fancy.

The innocent and naive Phoenix is being groomed for success, but Leach doesn’t trust Swan and tries his best to protect her from the malevolent mogul’s diabolical reach.

Brian DePalma (The Untouchables, Dressed To Kill, Body Double) is at the height of his considerable cinematic powers, utilizing snappy split-screen and multi-screen perspectives to keep tabs on several characters at once.

This camera tactic becomes increasingly important as we approach the finale, a gloriously staged wedding extravaganza that culminates with a live assassination on the air.

I could go on for days about the variety of catchy tunes (“Upholstery/Where my baby sits up close to me/That’s supposed to be what life is all about!”), Williams’s masterful turn as Swan, and all the jaundiced observations about show business that still hold true today.

However, I would rather not deprive you of your own dive into this terrific time capsule. The 1970s ruled. Here’s the evidence.

The Wolf of Snow Hollow (2020)

Originally published in Mystery and Suspense, March 1, 2021

One floundering cop’s quest to stop a lupine-styled killer in a small Utah town forms the dramatic basis of The Wolf of Snow Hollow, an impressively atmospheric thriller written, directed, and starring Jim Cummings. 

Instead of focusing on the tortured soul who becomes a wolf when the moon is full and bright, the camera remains bound to Deputy John Marshall (Cummings), a tightly wound recovering alcoholic with more problems on his hands than Ted Cruz.

His father (Robert Forster, in his final screen role) the stubborn town sheriff has a not-so-hidden heart condition that’s slowed him down considerably as retirement looms. 

“This is scary. It’s new. I’ve never seen a body like that,” he tells John after a gruesome victim viewing.

On the home front, John’s teenaged daughter Jenna (Chloe East) is a budding gymnast who also likes to park in cars with local boys, a hobby that nearly results in her mutilation.

The Snow Hollow police force—except for his sturdy partner Officer Julia Robson (Riki Lindhome)—consists of feckless nitwits. This proves significant because Snow Hollow is under siege from a “wolf man” who’s been brutally dismembering members of the community beneath the light of the full moon. 

Deputy John and his department of underachievers have been unable to find the man or animal that is making coleslaw out of the citizenry. They in turn, have no problem reminding the beleaguered boys in blue that they’re a bunch of incompetents.

“Where were you? Where were you?” a bereaved father yells at the frustrated policeman.

John takes this especially hard, often feeling like he’s the only one in town who doesn’t believe the prevailing rumors.

“Let me just make this perfectly clear,” he snarls at his assembled troops. “There is no such thing as werewolves.”

Yet as more evidence of wolfish carnage turns up in bloody piles, John’s anger builds while his grip on reality gets increasingly shaky thanks to a return to old habits and very little sleep.

He bottoms out after being discovered by a concerned police matron (Anna Sward) on the floor of the police station, stoned into a stupor, with a vape pen dangling out of his mouth. The frazzled cop’s personal psychodrama is laid out for the whole town to see in The Wolf of Snow Hollow. John’s increasingly erratic and destructive behavior runs parallel to the fear and horror spilling over in the community he’s supposed to protect.

After Jenna makes a narrow escape from the wolf man, John realizes he can’t even protect his own daughter, forcing him to sober up and get serious about his mission to rid the town of a beastly killer. This in turn becomes his means of personal (and professional) salvation.

“You want to be the sheriff? How about we start acting like one?” Officer Robson tells him.

As a filmmaker, Cummings has the visual flair to create chilling tableaux. Scenes of moonlit stalking and slaughter are tightly edited for maximum fright, and we get used to seeing the snow run red. As the leading man, Cummings acquits himself well, deftly handling the gradual disintegration of a determined deputy and dad by forces beyond his control.

 “When do I get to be right about something?” John wonders aloud.

It takes about three-quarters of The Wolf of Snow Hollow’s running time to find out.

Happy Death Day (2017)

Can beleaguered sorority girl Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) solve her own murder on her birthday?

Happy Death Day swipes the central motif from Bill Murray’s romantic comedy Groundhog Day, and sticks a knife in it, as Tree gets to relive the same day over and over, concluding with her vicious murder at the hands of a baby masked maniac.

Tree begins her recurring day by waking up in the dorm room bed of Carter (Israel Broussard), a dorky, but genuinely nice guy.

From there, she stumbles past a collection of local collegiate color, blows off a former date, ignores a birthday cupcake, dodges her dad on the phone, goes to a lunch meeting with house Big Sister Danielle (Rachel Matthews), makes out with her handsome (married) professor (Charles Aitken), and attends her own surprise party.

As in Groundhog’s Day, Tree gradually realizes that she’s been a selfish bitch, and uses her birthday mulligan to mend fences with Dad (Jason Bayle), roommate Laurie (Ruby Modine), and Carter, to whom she’s grown quite attached.

Tree even contrives to knock off a serial killer (Rob Mello) that’s in the vicinity, but to no avail. Someone keeps murdering her.

Director Chris Landon (son of Little House papa Michael Landon, and director of Freaky) and writer Scott Lobdell cram a ton of entertainment into a borrowed concept, giving equal time to solving Tree’s murder and improving her interpersonal skills.

Jessica Rothe demonstrates grace under fire (except when she’s losing her shit), evolving from a reckless bimbo to a quick-thinking warrior who won’t let go of her seemingly endless lives without a fight.

Happy Death Day is surprisingly funny and moving, inspiring a sequel two years later, as well as plans for a third film.

I’ll let you know how it all plays out.

Note: The Netflix miniseries Russian Doll, created by Natasha Lyonne and Amy Poehler, has a similar Do Over Death Day angle. Just sayin’.

Stage Fright (1987)

The lead dancer (Barbara Cupisti) in a theater company sprains her ankle and goes to a nearby mental hospital to get it treated. She catches the eye of notorious serial killer Irving Wallace (Clain Parker), who promptly escapes and hitches a ride back to rehearsal.

Congratulations are in order to the creative triumvirate of director Michele Soavi, and writers Sheila Goldberg and George Eastman, for coming up with the flimsiest pretext ever for a bloody rampage!

When the company wardrobe mistress (Ulrike Schwerk) gets a pick ax through the eye in the theater parking lot, enterprising director Peter (David Brandon) decides to rewrite the script and make it about Wallace, the very maniac currently making hash out of the cast and crew.

You have to admire Peter’s ability to pivot, but seriously?

Director Soavi (Cemetery Man) has collaborated with the likes of Dario Argento, Terry Gilliam, and Lucio Fucli, so we’re in good hands from a visual standpoint. In Stage Fright, he devises splashy, theatrical kills, most notably the chainsaw bifurcation of dancer Sybil (Jo Ann Smith).

Note: Her sad guts are later nibbled on by Lucifer, the theater cat. Naughty kitty!

Stage Fright (Italian title Deliria) is a gaudy product of first-generation MTV aesthetics with a side of giallo, as Soavi’s staccato pulse of quick takes drives home the doomed plight of actors in various stages of distress, pursued by a savage killer in an owl costume.

Trust me, it’s creepy from any angle.

With its New Wave zoom cutting and blaring wall of Rick Wakeman-style synthesizer, Stage Fright is a lurid, fleshy artifact that gyrates at a brisk clip and doesn’t skimp on the carnage.

I call that time well spent.

Blood Vessel (2019)

It’s a clever touch.

Blood Vessel is obviously a movie about vampires on board a ship, but the title also refers to the doomed crew’s containment effort to stop a terrible blood-borne infection from reaching port.

Nutshell: A veritable United Nations of lifeboat survivors from a torpedoed hospital ship are hopelessly adrift somewhere in the water during the waning days of World War II.

There’s two Australians (Nathan Phillips, Alyssa Sutherland), a whiny British spook (John Lloyd Fillingham), a taciturn Russian (Alex Cooke), and a pair of Americans: a useful black sailor (Lydell Jackson), and a surly Italian cook (Mark Diaco) from the mean streets of Central Casting.

The improbable company hops aboard a derelict German ship and spends about 45 minutes exploring its innards, discovering burned, mutilated sailors, priceless art treasures, and an anemic child (Ruby Isobell Hall).

I realize that seems like quite a bit of action, but when spread over the entirety of the running time (a tidy 93 minutes), the pace is almost geologic.

As written and directed by Australian special effects maestro Justin Dix, Blood Vessel is mostly stuff we’ve seen before, wrapping Nazis in occult robes for another spin around the block.

Despite a fondness for familiar tropes, Dix has some inspired moments. His depiction of an Old World vampire clan that does most of its damage from a distance by psychically manipulating the infected sailors, is a fresh idea.

The hands-off approach to slaughter however, somewhat dilutes the impact of these powerful undead beings, though the creature concept and monstrous makeup are on point.

It’s too bad the vampires don’t get more screen time. Instead we learn personal details about members of the doomed crew so that past tragedies can still inform the present—especially when bloodsuckers start messing with their heads.

And with all the bad accents flying around, we’re having enough trouble remembering the parade of nations on display. Fortunately, the Australian speaks German, and the Russian understands Romanian.

With a structural resemblance to Aliens, minus the tension, spendy effects, and brilliant cast, Blood Vessel is serviceable entertainment at best, which doesn’t mean there’s no fun to be had.

There’s just not enough to go around.

Host (2020)

At 57 minutes, it’s not so much a movie as it is a serviceable Twilight Zone episode.

In Rob Savage’s found-footage “movella” Host, six insufferable British twits learn why mocking the spirits is a bad idea.

Set up as a Zoom meeting of talking heads, Haley (Haley Bishop) instructs her assortment of nitwit comrades to take the online seance seriously, shortly before the medium (Seylan Baxter) arrives.

Not to play the blame game among the cast, but Jemma (Jemma Moore) commits a major boner in seance etiquette, and soon strange and awful occurrences are taking place in every window!

The various cams blinking on and off does get visually monotonous after a while, but occasionally someone will thoughtfully hoist their laptop to go check on the noise in the other room.

Director and co-writer Savage gets plus points for a bold concept and several solid jump scares. It’s a fairly tense 57 minutes.

On the downside, the characters range from annoying to stupid, so as my brother Dave observed, “you’re compelled to root for the demon.”

Well, what’s wrong with that? Not like you don’t have a spare hour.

The Cave (2005)

I vaguely remember seeing The Cave when it came out.

Unfortunately, my memories of it are jumbled together with Neil Marshall’s The Descent, a scarier, similarly themed movie that came out the same year.

Bad timing, I guess.

Upon revisiting The Cave, I’m inclined to sing its praises as a reasonably riveting action-horror hybrid that more than adequately meets the needs of any restless cinephile.

A healthy budget doesn’t hurt, either.

Nutshell: So there’s this uncharted system of underwater caves in the Carpathian Mountains, located beneath the remains of a mysterious church that was built to contain winged demons who would periodically emerge from the netherworld.

A team of macho cave divers and a few scientists suit up to explore the hole and end up trapped below the surface in a slimy, sunless world of highly adaptive parasites that cause the host to mutate into a highly adaptive cave monster.

The crew is led by determined dive-master Jack McCallister (Cole Hauser), who promises a way out of the mountain tomb, even as his own transformation becomes increasingly difficult to conceal.

When comparing The Cave and The Descent, it’s important to remember that the latter film is generally regarded as one of the best horror movies of the 21st century.

That said, The Cave is much better than I remember, and includes several harrowing scenes, none more so than spunky Charlie’s (Piper Perabo) spine-tingling aerial combat with a gargoyle.

Director Bruce Hunt constructs a crushing and claustrophobic underworld that pulses with genuine menace, while writers Tegan West and Michael Steinberg proffer a handful of characters worth rooting for.

Take a look around The Cave. It’s pretty cool, and you’ll adapt in no time.