Scare Me (2020)

Originally published in Mystery and Suspense, January 28, 2021

In Scare Me, two writers stay up all night in a Catskills cabin during a thunderstorm, telling frightening stories by firelight. Unexpectedly, it proves to be an instructive, positive experience until one of them turns out to be too fragile for personal growth.

Fanny Addie (Aya Cash) is a successful horror novelist with a bestseller in the charts. Fred Banks (writer-director Josh Ruben) is an advertising copywriter with a vague sense of entitlement and zero credits.

During a power outage, the two are thrown together and neophyte writer Fred probes the famous author for anything he can use. His questions about her current project cause Fanny to assume a defensive posture. 

“I never discuss my ideas. Some people steal, especially desperate white dudes like you,” she tells him. This observation takes place while she’s showing him how to build a fire in a dark cabin in the woods.

Yes, this is a horror movie of our times, and white men are called out for making things generally shittier through their mulish obstinacy. Over the course of one enchanted evening in a single location, Fanny challenges wannabe author Fred to put up, or shut up in a storytelling showdown.

“Come on Fred, it’s story time,” she coaxes. “No judgies.”

To his credit, Fred soon learns that he’s out of his league, as Fanny dissects his lame attempts at a narrative about a werewolf, calling it “trodden.”

“Details!” she howls at Fred during his painfully amateurish recital, followed by a barrage of suggestions: Use your space, show me the shakes, how come the kid’s mom knows how to handle a gun so well?

Fanny schools the dilettante scribe and mocks his pedestrian oratorical skills, but she also forcefully demonstrates how to tell a better story, by telling him a better story, about a little girl and her creepy grandfather.

“School” is the operative word in Scare Me, and Professor Stephen King hovers like a ghost in the room. Fanny doesn’t care for King’s Silver Bullet (“childish, campy garbage”) but does agree with King’s assertion that reading other authors can improve one’s chops. (Also, a minor character looks and talks like Kathy Bates in Misery.)

After a shaky start, Fred gets the hang of it, and for a time, feels what it’s like to have his creative juices flow. At this point, Scare Me is running with a full head of steam, shifting mood and tone in cavalier fashion, which is not a characteristic that will endear the movie to linear thinkers.

It’s definitely a dark comedy, but it’s hard to tell where we’re headed.

Fred and Fanny share definite chemistry, bonding over their mutual love of horror, specifically the painful puns dispensed by TV’s Cryptkeeper. They duel, dance, and embellish each other’s tales, while Ruben, from the director’s chair, employs a deep bag of inventive camera moves to create space—and honest-to-goodness frights—on a small set. No blood, no carnage, no kidding.

Note: Spoilers ahead

There are vivid moments when the lighting, dancing shadow play, and perspective shifts are reminiscent of Jonathan Demme’s moving ingenuity with Spaulding Gray’s stories in Swimming To Cambodia.  

Sadly, the creative honeymoon comes to an end, and Fred, instead of being grateful for getting a crash course in how to tell a decent story, decides his feelings are hurt, and that his own efforts will never be any good. So he devises a cheesy, horror movie finale, because he’s jealous and can’t think of anything more original.

The final act devolves into stalker boilerplate, and Fanny wants nothing to do with it, calling Fred out for a “bullshit” ending.

“You want my life? Do the work, do the work, do the work,” she yells, but by this time Fred is committed to his own ending, and has picked up a nearby fireplace poker.

Scare Me has a lot of things going on, not all of them are successfully realized. The ending, though it makes sense, still fizzles. And there’s definitely some fat that could have been trimmed along the way. Even so, there is much to admire. It’s both entertainingly told and long on ideas, particularly the joys and terrors of storytelling. 

Aya Cash is a fast-talking dynamo as Fanny, a demanding woman who just wants to hear something scary. Filmmaker Ruben portrays a no-talent schmuck in Scare Me, but in reality he’s clearly an artist on the ascent. His character Fred would be both proud and envious. 

The Platform (2019)

Welcome to The Platform, a dystopian future where a prison sentence becomes a daily feeding frenzy or a grim kick in the guts, depending on what level of the prison you’re incarcerated.

Somewhere in Europe there is an immense tower with hundreds of floors. Called a Vertical Self-Management Center (or simply “the hole”), the tower has two prisoners per floor.

Once a day a platform with the remains of a grand feast is lowered to each floor, and famished convicts shovel as much food as they can into their mouths, caring not one whit for the unfortunates beneath them.

Prisoners on the highest floor gorge themselves, while those below Level 50 or so, find less and less to eat.

And if you’re on Level 172? Improvise.

Lest we think this set-up perpetually favors the higher floors, there’s a catch. After one month, the prisoners are put to sleep and moved to another level. So one day, you might be fine dining on prime rib, the next, your cellmate.

If you guessed that this is a brutal allegory of class warfare, give yourself a star.

The protagonist, Goreng (Ivan Massague), awakens in the tower, with vicious little cellmate Trimagasi (Zorion Eguileor) as his only company. Gradually, he gets used to the ugly routine, watching as Trimagasi literally pisses on the prisoners housed below them.

As Goreng serves his time, whether starving or stuffed, he attempts to talk to those above and below about a means of cooperation to feed everyone in the prison. Though his efforts are routinely scorned, he sees a bigger picture in the small solidarity movement.

Director Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia (The Platform is in Spanish with subtitles) has created his own Stanford Prison Experiment, where guards are only necessary once a month. The inmates provide their own cruelty, happily spilling blood over a chicken leg or an extra mouthful of wine.

Goreng, a fundamentally decent fellow who only wants to help, is forced into several violent confrontations with fellow prisoners. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it’s all rather harsh sledding and not intended for the squeamish, especially if cannibalism is a trigger.

As concepts go, “Eat or Be Eaten” isn’t especially profound. Fortunately, Gaztelu-Urrutia is an ambitious, inventive visual stylist, painstakingly painting a nightmare society that is literally devouring itself.

The Platform isn’t the least bit subtle. Sometimes a sledgehammer is the best tool for the job.

Mayhem (2017)

For every miserable corporate cog subjected to the petty tyranny of a jagoff boss, there is Mayhem. Watch and laugh yourself silly as chaos and cruelty erupt in the bowels of a Fortune 500 company. (Ewww)

Derek Cho (Steven Yeun, from The Walking Dead) is an up-and-coming financial analyst working for a mega-corp overseen by cokehead asshole John Towers (Steven Brand).

When Towers conspires to have Derek take the fall for a botched account, the young financier vows vengeance—and gets an opportunity almost immediately thanks to an airborne virus that’s causing citizens to forget their inhibitions and act out violent thoughts and impulses.

Now there’s a stroke of luck!

With the skyscraper under quarantine, Derek scales the corporate ladder in a rage of bloodlust, accompanied by an angry client (Samara Weaving, who’s building an impressive genre resume) with a nail gun and her own ax to grind.

Director Joe Lynch (Wrong Turn 2) douses Mayhem in bloody waves of comic gore, following Derek’s rise to the top and revenge against treacherous co-workers. Lynch takes the Jewish mother approach to doling out the carnage, and the effects are wickedly clever.

The action is fierce, funny, and fast, with tight fight choreography and no unnecessary character development. We get exactly what we want: Ascending floors of hi-octane slaughter, whereh any sharp or blunt object within reach comes into play.

Lynch and writer Mattias Caruso pull back just a smidgen from complete anarchy by instilling in Derek a deep streak of decency that even a raging virus can’t overcome.

Ultimately, Mayhem strikes a huge sympathetic chord familiar to the working wounded everywhere. Who hasn’t fantasized about going nuclear on the boss? Or your meathead co-workers? Or the zombies in HR?

And who the hell took Derek’s coffee cup?

Offload those feelings of negativity that are affecting your productivity. Take stock of your potential and join us for a short morale meeting. If you fully appreciate the soul-crushing mundanity of Office Space, then Mayhem could be a life-changing cathartic event.

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.

The Love Witch (2016)

She put a spell on me.

Conceived by writer-director Anna Biller, The Love Witch is an overloaded circuit of color and costumery that came from Granny’s hippie trunk.

The dazzling Samantha Robinson portrays Elaine Parks, a lonely witch looking for love in all the wrong places, who’s literally left a string of dead bodies behind in her quest to find a soulmate.

Elaine has a junkie-like need to be wanted, but quickly tires of her assorted suitors when they become pathetically dependent on her.

Paradoxically, this astoundingly gorgeous creature who looks like a sex-crazed Diana Rigg, relies on hallucinogenic potions that enslave her victims to the point where they become a nuisance and she must remove their hearts!

There are cops, nosy neighbors, Satanic cultists, tampon magic, and psychedelic sex interludes, but don’t worry about keeping track of characters, they’re not that important.

It’s Elaine’s world and her needs must be attended to, even if it seems she’s doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over.

Biller shoves the look and feel of the movie to centerstage, as saturated hues of pink, purple, and red create a landscape that’s vividly anachronistic, as if based on feverish memories of I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched.

Even the dated film stock looks like leftovers from a groovier time.

Can a movie that contains scenes of human sacrifice still be wacky? The Love Witch pulls it off with style and wit.

Anna Biller emerges as a filmmaker to invest some interest in, one with a bold aesthetic point of view and a sly sense of humor.

Just Before Dawn (1981)

Somebody somewhere anointed Just Before Dawn an under-the-radar slasher classic, one of many that dropped in the wake of Friday The 13th‘s camping bloodbath.

It’s certainly a horse of a different color, with a minimal body count and fairly rudimentary gore, but this 80s artifact has other tricks up its sleeve.

A quintet of twentysomethings take a road trip to backwoods Oregon to check out some land inherited by golden boy Warren (Gregg Henry).

Despite dire warnings from forest ranger Roy McLean (George Kennedy), the carefree kids venture into Hillbilly Country and attract the attention of a Killer Goon (John Hunsaker) who turns out to be surprisingly nimble in his movements.

After a few bodies drop, it’s Warren’s girlfriend Connie (Deborah Benson) who steps up in the cajones department, cramming her feminist agenda down the throat of the simpleminded killer, while her broken lover sobs nearby.

Director and cowriter Jeff Lieberman (Satan’s Little Helper, Blue Sunshine, Squirm) has a distinguished resume of offbeat horror films, and Just Before Dawn is a case in point.

Filmed here in the great state of Oregon at Silver Falls State Park, the dark density of the woods contributes greatly to creating Lieberman’s unsettling and uncivilized landscape.

The story unfolds in realtime and the pace is often leisurely, inviting us to set down our anxieties for a while and just take in the gorgeous scenery by way of a vivid array of artful camerawork—the waterfalls, the mountains, the galloping streams, the treacherous rope bridge, the abandoned church …

Lieberman successfully camouflages the building blocks of tension and dread among the natural splendors, and his credentialed cast (Kennedy, Henry, Chris Lemmon, Mike Kellin, Jamie Rose) make the most of it.

Despite a tendency to take its sweet time, Just Before Dawn provides sufficient glimpses of psychos in the woods to remind us that there is potential carnage behind every shrub, even if it’s not all that bloody.

Those who thrive on splash and spectacle likely won’t be pleased, but Just Before Dawn proves to be an intriguing anomaly in the Dead Camper canon, which is not typically noted for its subtlety.

Masque of the Red Death (1964)

Talk about a story for our times!

Masque of the Red Death is one of Roger Corman’s best Edgar Allan Poe adaptations for American International Pictures, anchored by Vincent Price at the top of his game as evil Prince Prospero.

Prospero (Price) is a medieval tyrant who makes life miserable for the peasants grinding out a meager existence on his land. He takes their crops and burns the village to the ground upon learning that the “Red Death” (plague) is loose in the countryside.

Smitten by Francesca, a virtuous village girl (Jane Asher, Paul McCartney’s first flame), Prospero spirits her away—along with her father (Nigel Green) and her fiancé (David Weston)—to his castle for the amusement of his sin-soaked courtier cronies, who seem to be staying for the season.

Outside the castle walls, the less-fortunate starve and succumb to the swift-moving contagion. Inside, Prospero goads his party guests into animalistic abandon, as he tries his damndest to corrupt the chaste and faithful Francesca.

As a melodramatic matinee redolent in gothic splendor with a high degree of creepy, Masque of the Red Death measures up.  

Corman’s budget-friendly, vivid production holds together reasonably well, and is profoundly augmented by Price’s fiendish charisma, a lean, provocative script by Twilight Zone writer Charles Beaumont, and the saturated color photography of future arthouse auteur Nicolas Roeg (Don’t Look Now, Bad Timing).

In the final analysis, I’m guessing it’s the theme of a vicious narcissistic ruler engaged in depravity while his subjects suffer that resonates so strongly with the 2020 crowd.

Just sounds so hauntingly familiar. 

The Ritual (2017)

When good buddies fail to back each other up, disaster ensues.

Based on Adam Nevill’s absorbing novel, The Ritual is a tense and taut example of the “Trespasser Beware” genre, in which four friends go camping in rural Sweden to honor the wishes of a fallen comrade.

As we all know, these bonding trips to the boonies never work out, and things go quickly south. Dom (Sam Troughton) takes a fall and his limping slows their hiking pace considerably.

Then it starts to rain buckets. 

After getting lost in a seemingly impenetrable forest, the dispirited quartet stumble upon an abandoned shack that includes a menacing pagan altar among its amenities. 

No one enjoys a restful night. Luke (Rafe Spall), who already carries baggage over the recent death of their mutual friend, has a monstrous dream.

Team leader Hutch (Robert James-Collier) awakens to discover he’s wet his jammies, and Phil (Arsher Ali) is horrified to learn that he has somehow performed an entire ceremony before the altar in his sleep. 

And Dom’s still whining about his leg.  

Director David Bruckner and writer Joe Barton do an admirable job fleshing out Nevill’s story, as Luke becomes its pivotal character, trying to lead his friends to safety while dealing with a shitload of remorse.

Bruckner cinches Luke’s dilemma tighter and tighter as it becomes apparent that concepts like guilt and loyalty are luxuries one can’t indulge when faced with an ancient enemy that defies rational description.

The creature/deity effects in The Ritual are excellent, an unnaturally inspired Chimera of animal, human, and demon parts that towers above its pitiful followers, impaling victims in the upper branches of tall trees. 

We’ve not seen its like before, and I’m not too keen on seeing it again, if you know what I mean.

When the subject is monsters, that’s a heavy compliment. 

 

 

 

 

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.