Ruin Me (2018)

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Honey, for our vacation this year, let’s try something different.

Ever wanted to experience the adrenaline boost that comes from getting chased by a masked killer through the forest in the dark? Man, there’s nothing like it!

This is the premise of Ruin Me, in which thoughtful boyfriend Nathan (Matt Dellapina), surprises his taciturn girlfriend Alexandra (Marcienne Dwyer) with two tickets to Slasher Sleepaway—a 36-hour fun-fest that requires six campers to find clues in order to survive a frightful night in the woods.

Editor’s Note: If I were to surprise my wife with a similar gift, the only blood spilling would be mine.

As so often happens in these bucolic scenarios, the line between fantasy and reality gets lost in the dark, and Alexandra and Nathan gradually come to regret signing the liability waiver as fellow campers are stalked and sliced by the ever-reliable escaped lunatic.

Director and cowriter Preston DeFrancis straps the viewer onto a bucking bronco of jumps, twists, and stupefying gaps of logic that play out in agreeable fashion for fans of the Doomed Camping Trip genre. Even as we celebrate our beloved and bloody tropes, we begin to notice clues of our own that point in a different direction.

If you can suspend your disbelief on occasion, the time passes enjoyably and you’ll even find yourself rooting for Alexandra, an unexpectedly complex and resourceful Final Girl, played with much gusto by Marcienne Dwyer.

Like the supporting cast, who appear to be a typical assortment of nerds, goths, and sluts, there is more to Ruin Me than just the usual suspects and psychos dueling in the dark. Sometimes the choices we’re forced to make are far scarier than any boogeyman.

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Cold Skin (2017)

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It’s not always smooth sailing, but French director Xavier Jens (Frontiers) charts a bold course in Cold Skin, a chilly atmospheric tale with tendrils of Joseph Conrad, Rudyard Kipling, and Lovecraft slithering through its evolutionary DNA.

Friend, an English sailor (David Oakes), is transferred to a remote and inhospitable island near the Antarctic Circle, during the height of the First World War, to serve a 12-month stint as a weather observer. It’s never made clear what possible use old weather patterns were to the war effort, but let’s just go with it.

Once ensconced on his wave-tossed rock, Friend wastes no time in setting his cabin on fire after a nocturnal attack by his new neighbors, an army of nimble fish people from the briny deep. Bereft of his surf shack, he turns to Gruner, a misanthropic lighthouse keeper (Ray Stevenson), for shelter and succor, only to end up an accomplice in an all-out war against the fish folk.

Like Sam Peckinpah, Jens explores the questionable dynamics of men under pressure, honor under fire, and all that other stuff we acknowledge when the bodies pile up.

Gruner, a despotic tyrant, is bent on domination and control, a certifiably mad cause that nonetheless swallows up the ambivalent sailor, even as the latter begins to lose his thirst for mayhem. The annihilation of a heretofore unknown aquatic race can weigh heavy on the soul, after all.

The photography, sets, costumes, and effects are uniformly divine, which helps solidify a script that meanders a bit, but never bores. There are indeed epic battle sequences in Cold Skin that pay homage to masters of the craft (Sir David Lean, John Huston, among others) that both stir the blood and make us question our own motives for shedding it.

 

Swamp Freak (2017)

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I’ve reviewed nearly 200 movies on this site, and Swamp Freak might just be the stinkiest poop in the pot. In fact, I’m complimenting writer/director David DeCoteau by referring to this shambling mess as a movie, rather than what it actually is: a relentlessly tepid tapestry of Vancouver Island establishing shots that a character or monster sees fit to visit occassionally .

There isn’t a single frame with more than one character present. Swamp Freak appears to have been dutifully assembled from an abundance of cutting-room floor footage, with an emphasis on creating a somnolent atmosphere rather than advancing the flimsy plot.

Every chicken-scratching scene boils down to static primeval photography lingering over the leaves in a pond; lichen-stitched tree bark; a decaying dock. This numbing repetition continues until you’re hypnotized into watching the agonizingly slow narrative that reveals itself with all the grace of a stripper with hiccups.

Nutshell: A professor of cryptozoology disappears in the boonies while searching for the legendary “Reed Cove Swamp Freak,” an ambulatory pile of moss and rain gear that is summoned from H20 hibernation by the Freak’s brother Isaac (Michael Timmermans), who definitely got the good looks in the family.

Gradually, after hearing three offscreen lectures about the origin and motives of the drippy cryptoid, several students—none of whom are theater majors—appear one at a time, hot on the trail of their missing mentor, and presumably an assload of extra credit.

The Action: Student talks on cellphone. Student completes call and shuffles around the same track of wilderness for what feels like days. Student senses they’re being watched, because they are, by the Swamp Freak, who half-heartedly gives chase, but sadly wasn’t built for speed. Student runs away for several hours. The Swamp Freak appears unexpectedly and delivers a devastating (and bloodless) blow. This happens five times without the slightest variation.

Even at 75 minutes the tedium is stultifying and oppressive, like being stuck wearing a winter jacket in a hot room. As aimless students wander through a damp and dreary landscape, the viewer is doomed to flounder for meaning—as well as the remote.

 

Giant From The Unknown (1958)

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He’s husky, but I wouldn’t call him a giant.

It’s pretty obvious truth in advertising laws don’t apply to monster movies made in the 1950s. Former boxer Buddy Baer (uncle of Beverly Hillbillies‘ Jethro, Max Baer, Jr) stands about 6-7, and tips the scales at a solid 250, as the titular creature. Impressive measurements, but well short of beanstalk status.

Still, when he dons his conquistador clothes after waking up from a 500-year nap, the local citizens of a California mountain town wet their collective knickers.

Enter leading man geologist Wayne Brooks (Ed Kemmer), Professor Cleveland (Morris Ankrum), and Janet (Sally Fraser), the prof’s sassy daughter, who are soon on the case, at first searching for fossil evidence of a rogue band of Spanish soldiers that kicked around the vicinity centuries before, led by a large inarticulate fellow called Vargas.

After about 35 minutes of zero action—other than Wayne and Janet’s awkward flirting—the trio deduces that Vargas (Baer), has shaken off the effects of suspended animation after being struck by lightning, and has slaughtered a bunch of nearby livestock (woke up hungry, I guess), sending area rubes into a panic.

The movie is over in 80 minutes, leading to thoughts that the whole thing might have been a diet-inspired hallucination. Highlights include Vargas throwing small rocks at his pursuers, a midnight make-out sesh with Wayne and Janet, and doomed secondary characters named Charlie Brown and Injun Joe who fall victim to the massive Spaniard’s rampage.

Giant From The Unknown is an actual relic, a funny ol’ fly in amber from Tuesday afternoon matinees on Channel 12, when harried housewives had a moment to drain a fast pitcher of martinis before returning to domestic servitude.

Note to Joel: It’s also a prime candidate for Season 12 of Mystery Science Theater. Just sayin’.

 

 

The Bye Bye Man (2017)

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Oh bloody hell, it’s another one of those infernal boogeymen that insists on crashing the party whenever some poor slob mentions their moniker. This incarnation is so sensitive that he’ll turn your life to sewage if you so much as think it.

Elliott (Doug Smith), his girlfriend Sasha (Cressida Bonas), and John (Lucien Laviscount) are a trio of uninteresting Wisconsin college students who forgo the dorm experience in favor of renting a dilapidated old brick mansion that they restore to former grandeur in nothing flat. At the inaugural housewarming beer blast, a little girl finds an old coin in an upstairs bedroom, an impromptu seance occurs, and the next thing you know, Elliott yodels the name of the titular evil spirit, bringing ruination to one and all.

The Bye Bye Man has a few things going for it: Robert Kurtzman’s makeup effects are ghastly good, and name actors Faye Dunaway and Carrie-Ann Moss stop by for a cup of coffee. Sadly, a few touches of professional acting and groovy gore only serve to make the rest of the movie look rather anemic.

Director Stacy Title can’t summon any genuine frights out of Jonathan Penner’s screenplay (based on a story by Robert Damon Schneck), a hodgepodge of convoluted plot points and cookie-cutter cliches that amount to little more than a bargain-brand Candyman. Adequate genre entertainment, but just barely.

Editor’s Note: A game that requires participants to drink bourbon whenever the phrase “Don’t think it/don’t say it” appears, would help to pass the time.

 

House of Frankenstein (1944)

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Sticklers for truth in advertising could make an excellent case for renaming this tepid Universal horror entry House of Niemann, but by the waning days of World War II the lack of a sure-fire marquee name wouldn’t have put many butts in the seats.

Boris Karloff, the most iconic star in the Frankenstein cosmos, plays Dr. Niemann, an admirer of the original mad scientist who first charged-up the monster that bears his name.

Like his mentor, Niemann has a hunchback assistant (J. Carroll Naish) and enough ambition to raise the dead. After a fortunate spate of bad weather, he and his spine-damaged flunky escape from prison and waste no time in carjacking a couple of wagons owned by Lampini (George Zucco), an itinerant sideshow impresario.

The sideshow’s star attraction? Dracula’s skeleton, which seems to have a doorstop stuffed into its sternum. Once revived, John Carradine does his best, but lacks the physical presence to truly terrify. He also insists on wearing a ludicrous top hat, as if he was just stopping in for a nip of O negative before dashing off to a Gilbert & Sullivan opera.

The titular creature (Glenn Strange, taking over Bela Lugosi, who just didn’t cut it in Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman) doesn’t even make an appearance till 45 minutes into the movie, and for the most part remains either frozen in ice or strapped to a table.

The hunchback falls in love with a gypsy dancer (Elena Verduga), who in turn has hot pants for part-time lycanthrope, Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr), thawed out while Niemann is searching the ruins of Frankenstein’s castle for the doctor’s Cliffs Notes on creation.

The three key monsters never interact, which is a rather disappointing turn of events, especially since we have to sit through several soggy scenes of Talbot and the hunchback whining about who’s life sucks worse.

This movie, as directed by horror veteran Erle C. Kenton (Ghost of Frankenstein, House of Dracula, Island of Lost Souls), is patchy and episodic with only perfunctory thrills. Hell, the Wolfman’s lone kill takes place offscreen, while Dracula’s attack on the burgermeister is performed as a shadow play! Pretty weak tea, if you ask me.

In the long-awaited finale, villagers arrive at the laboratory with torches and chase the monster and Niemann into a quicksand bog. Karloff’s panicked face sinking into the swamp is the last thing we see before the end credits, which is only fitting since he’s the biggest star on the block—and the chief reason to sit through a rather pedestrian film. House of Frankenstein is no classic, but definitely rates a low-expectations look.

Exists (2014)

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exists

A found-footage entry from director Eduardo Sanchez, the guy who first cashed in on the genre with The Blair Witch Project. I thoroughly understand the financial motivation for using GoPro cameras as the primary source of footage; it’s a helluva lot cheaper than film. And let’s face it, handheld and body mounted cameras give the action a heightened sense of urgency, particularly during the inevitable flight through the forest sequence.

Unfortunately, it’s also distracting and all but challenges the viewer to account for every shot. Sorry, but there are instances in Exists when it becomes nearly impossible to convince yourself that Brian the stoner (Chris Osborn) somehow has access to more cameras than NBC. There. I said it.

The plot is pure boilerplate, as five young adults (one of whom is Dora Madison Burge from Friday Night Lights and Chicago Fire) decide to party at Brian and Matt’s (Samuel Davis) family hunting cabin in the untamed wilds of Texas. That would be the same cabin that their uncle used to live in, until something frightened him away. So yes, by all means, let’s go see if we can figure out exactly what that might be.

The answer is Bigfoot/Sasquatch, who’s enjoying a bit of a resurgence as a movie monster, apparently fully recovered from family friendly piffle like Harry and the Hendersons, that reduced him to kiddy comic relief. In Exists, he’s a vengeful critter, looking to put a hurt on the punks that ran over Little Squatch.

Sanchez opts for a more traditional (and confrontational) approach than is used by Bobcat Goldthwaite in his meditative Willow Creek, another recent Bigfoot-gone-bad film. That means there’s an actual body count here, and that we are treated to several good looks at the beast, whose makeup is well above average.

As we watch another clutch of adolescent interlopers hide and flee, there are sufficient scenes that generate an actual fright response, so I’m giving Exists a modest recommendation that should not be mistaken for overwhelming enthusiasm.

Afterthought: Does Bigfoot eat people? I think he probably should. It’s scarier that way. Who’s gonna run away from a furry herbivore?

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