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.

Head Count (2018)

The moral of the story: Don’t use the internet, it’s evil.

Evan (Isaac Jay) is a college kid on spring break looking for love and adventure. Careful what you wish for, my lad.

Instead of Lake Havasu, he heads for Joshua Tree to crash with his older brother Peyton (Cooper Rowe), and maybe bond over some hiking and camping.

Rather than pitch a tent, Evan ditches his brother at the first opportunity and falls in with a bunch of bohemian millennials renting a nearby house. Seeing attractive folks his own age that party all night is sufficient temptation for Evan, especially the beguiling Zoe (Ashleigh Morghan), a photographer currently without a boyfriend.

Scenes of low-key hedonism (weed, shrooms, booze) are followed by everyone gathered around the ol’ campfire for ghost stories. Since Evan doesn’t know one, he is directed to a website where he mistakenly recites a summoning spell for a shapeshifting demon.

Editor’s Note: Check and verify your sources, people! How dumb do you have to be to read an incantation that warns you not to say a certain name out loud? What hayseed community college do these nitwits attend?

None of them are going to have to worry about graduation requirements, if it’s any consolation.

The malevolent entity called a hsijie can appear to look like anyone and even these inebriated dorks begin to notice that various members of their group seem to have gained the ability to be in two places at once.

This is called a clue, and Evan is the only one present who picks up on it. The carefree weekend takes on a distinctly ominous tone after pretty Zoe walks off a cliff and injures her ankle.

Did she jump or was she pushed?

Other than Evan and Camille (Bevin Bru), the rest of the group can’t be bothered to examine the evidence that’s all around them, preferring beer pong and Never Have I Ever to thoughts of self-preservation.

Head Count succeeds as a low-budge (but not to its detriment) thriller with a nifty paranormal threat that remains largely out of sight. Even so, writer-director Elle Callahan (Witch Hunt) brings tensions to a boil with strategically placed pointers amidst all the scenes of collegiate cavorting that inevitably ensue when the parents are out of town.

I told you kids! No parties! You’re all grounded.

Six feet deep.

It Waits (2005)

If your expectations are not currently residing in a lofty skyscraper, then It Waits should do the trick. The time passed and I was engaged, despite the teensy budget and a general lack of dramatic ability from the cast.

First and foremost, this is a story about redemption. Yes, there is a winged monster that dismembers campers, and plays cat-and-mouse with the lovely Danielle (Cerina Vincent), an alcoholic ranger stationed at a lonely tower in the forest primeval.

See, Danielle recently got shitfaced with her friend Julie, and was at the wheel of their jeep when it crashed, killing her bestie. Since then, she’s retreated to the solitude of her fire-watch perch to sulk and drink some more, with a wisecracking parrot as her primary companion.

If only there were some way for her to save the day, and earn back her self-respect!

Meanwhile, a bunch of stupid college students blast a hole in the side of a mountain, freeing a demon/gargoyle that’s resided there for ages and ages. After dispensing with the hors d’oeuvres, the monster plays the long game with Danielle, waging a gruesome terror campaign and reducing everyone around her to bloody mulch.

Director Steven Monroe recognizes that Danielle is the focus of the feature, so she’s never far from the camera, an aesthetic gamble that pays off. While her emotive capability seldom rises above school play levels, actress Cerina Vincent pumps the gas when action is called for and spends the majority of her screen-time looking absolutely ravishing.

The creature also gets a fair amount of camera time, and it’s a sturdily built costume that wreaks plenty of havoc, resembling Pumpkinhead with a wingspan. In fact, the diabolical monster seems rather too formidable for the plucky ranger.

Fortunately, dynamite is a great equalizer. Keep expectations on the ground floor and you will be reasonably pleased with It Waits.

Better Watch Out (2016)

Once again, the poor babysitter is left to deal with the devil while bourgeois Mom and Pop drink the night away. And right before Christmas! After watching Better Watch Out, I know of one kid who’s getting a load of coal dumped in his yard.

On the verge of leaving town for college, Ashley (Olivia de Jonge) takes one last babysitting gig for the Lerners (Patrick Warburton and Virginia Madsen), keeping an eye on their son Luke (Levi Miller).

Unbeknownst to Ashley, Luke and his flunky friend Garrett (Ed Oxenbould) have contrived a “home invasion” to frighten her, in the hopes that a heroic-looking Luke will win her heart.

Yep, 12-year-old Luke has the hots for his sitter and his worst instincts take over. What starts out as Home Alone-inspired high jinks gets real dark, real fast, as Luke continually ups the stakes revealing him to be a vicious and clever sociopath.

“One-hundred one uses for duct tape,” he says merrily, as he binds Ashley to a chair.

The angel-faced kid is all bad, but when it comes to creating murder and mayhem he’s definitely a prodigy. They should probably consider moving him up a couple grades so he can torment older kids.

Miller is truly disturbing as Luke, imbuing him with a fiendishly high I.Q. that’s always inventing new means to escape his increasingly bloody problem. De Jonge is extremely formidable as the object of his grotesque affection and goes to extreme lengths to thwart Luke’s sinister scheme.

With Better Watch Out, director and co-writer Chris Peckover has left a distinctive mark on the Babysitter Horror subgenre, where the evil is always coming from inside the house.

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.

Happy Death Day 2U (2019)

It’s great to see the ol’ Happy Death Day gang again!

In this decidedly Back To The Future II sequel, Tree (Jessica Rothe), Carter (Israel Broussard), and his genius/nerd roommate Ryan (Phi Vu) are once again stuck in a campus vortex that culminates in murder.

It turns out all the time-loop business has been caused by Ryan’s thesis project Sissy, a super powerful time-shredding device that only works sporadically with unpredictable results.

It was a test-run of Sissy that caused Tree to relive her own murder in perpetuity, and this time around she gets bounced to another timeline where things are slightly different.

For one thing, Carter is now the caring boyfriend of Tree’s insufferable sorority queen bee Danielle (Rachel Matthews). For another, her late mother Julie (Missy Yager) is miraculously still alive!

This leads Tree to a cataclysmic decision with an unforeseen butterfly effect that could leave Carter as another victim of the Babyface Killer (Rob Mello).

Perhaps the best line in the film is when Ryan, who’s being stalked by the murderous mascot, quips something to the effect of “What kind of a stupid college has a baby for a mascot?

Beware the Bayfield Babies.

Writer-director Christopher Landon (several of the Paranormal Activity movies and director of Happy Death Day) expands on the theoretical possibilities hinted at in the first film and smartly beefs up the supporting cast, particularly Ryan, who grows from comedy relief to a crucial character in the new timeline.

And the long-suffering Tree is played to comedic and dramatic perfection by Jessica Rothe.

Happy Death Day 2U is the rarest thing in Hollywood—a truly worthy sequel to an excellent film, one that succeeds on its own merits and generates fresh inspiration instead of rehashed mayhem.

One should also admire the discipline of the principle actors and set design team for re-creating seamless continuity from a two-year-old shoot.

If the rumors are true, there’s going to be a third chapter in the series, which will require the key characters to remain ageless in suspended animation until filming begins.

I can’t wait for Happy Death Day 3 Cheers For Babyface.

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.