Warnings (2019)

Real estate is always a solid investment—unless you’re in a state where realtors needn’t disclose past tragic events, such as occupation by a sinister cult and lots of subsequent disappearances.

Like I said, a crap shoot.

Such is the case with Marcus (Antoine Harris) and Grace (Shannon Foster), who think they’ve found a perfect parcel of land near Ojai, California to set up a commercial cannabis operation.

To celebrate their new future as ganja growers, the couple invite friends Phillip (Peter Sabri), Dominic (Weston Meredith), and Patricia (Erlinda Navarro), down for a weekend of drinking games and exploring the property.

At first, guest and host alike have trouble sleeping. Patricia in particular is gripped by nightmares of bloodletting and dismemberment.

Meanwhile Phil and Dominic get into a lover’s quarrel, and Dominic storms off to find a signal for his phone. Never to be seen again.

Thanks to a gabby security officer, the group finds out that at least one ex-cult member (with cannibal tendencies) is still running around terrorizing the community.

Unfortunately, this is the kind of red flag that will cause most investors to bail out.

The maniac is a brawny dude, marginally scary, but nothing really paranormal happens until his victims rise from the grave seeking revenge.

Filmed on a micro budget by director Demetrius Navarro, Warnings isn’t a good movie, but it’s good enough if gruesome events taking place in a scenic location float your boat.

Let’s give it a C+.

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Howl (2015)

If you’re in the market for a pretty good werewolf movie, Howl should do the trick.

It’s an understated thriller, low budget, definitely second billing on a double feature, but effective, efficient storytelling with proper levels of suspense, blood, and carnage.

A British passenger train chugging through the forest is waylaid by an obstruction on the tracks. Joe (Ed Speelers), a fed-up conductor responsible for the safety and welfare of less than a dozen riders, is tasked with finding out what went wrong.

From the looks of things, plenty.

The engineer is missing and there seems to be a large stag tangled in the train’s undercarriage. It’s a full moon and howling can be heard moving closer to the crippled choo-choo.

Most of Howl takes place on the train, where disgruntled passengers ignore Joe’s safety protocols, much to their detriment. Alliances form and crumble as the beast(s) seek to gain entrance and have a quick bite.

Horror Survival Pro Tip: Join forces. There are safety in numbers, a theorem proven correct as the trapped train commuters brutally gang stomp a werewolf into tomato sauce.

As is usually the case, when the group fragments under pressure the slaughter begins in earnest. Conductor Joe does his employers proud, trying till the very end to save lives, but the lad is in over his head.

Directed by Paul Hyett and written by Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler, Howl is played absolutely straight. There are no subtle genre references, no in-jokes, nothing of the sort.

It’s a train under attack by werewolves! A story as old as time. There’s even a romantic subplot. All aboard!

Stoker Hills (2020)

Funny, I thought with a title like Stoker Hills, that there might be vampires in the vicinity.

Nope, not even a nibble, though blood is drained if you pay attention. I’m not advising you to do so.

Three students enrolled in Professor Tony Todd’s community college film class get themselves kidnapped while working on a zombie movie, and must escape the clutches of a fiendish killer in an underground labyrinth.

Ryan (David Gridley), Jake (William Bedford-Hill), and Erica (Steffani Brass) set out with the noblest intentions to create a cinematic hybrid of “The Walking Dead and Pretty Woman.”

Shooting B-roll of a trolling Erica decked out in hooker garb goes south when she gets snatched by a goon in a creepy car. The dufus bros take off in hot pursuit, eventually leading to a secret trailer in the woods, where they too are set upon and abducted.

The camera is found by a fireman and turned over to the cops.

What looks to be a promising setup is soon squandered, as director Benjamin Louis and scenarist Jonah Kuehner unwisely shift gears into the police investigation that follows their disappearance.

We are summarily introduced to a pair of plodding detectives (Eric Etabari and William Lee Scott, the former inexplicably garbed like he’s auditioning for Guys & Dolls) who manage to grind narrative momentum to a screeching halt.

We’re handed scene after scene of these two dull dicks mulling over the found footage for clues, occasionally cutting back to the tied-up victims trying laboriously to escape their shackles, as if to remind us that there’s still a plot that needs resolving here.

The storyline twists and rebounds with their ponderous investigative revelations, including a serial killer with a pig heart (Jason Sweat) in need of fresh blood. The outré details don’t add up to much of anything, until the very last scene.

At that point, you will have the privilege of deciding if Stoker Hills is a clever little film with a “Gotcha” ending, or a low-budget time-waster with the lamest finale since, “Gosh, what a crazy dream!”

It’s an awesome responsibility when you think about it.

Spoonful of Sugar (2022)

Time for another installment of The Babysitter Saga, where we get to know the folks minding our precious offspring, while Mom and Dad sip martinis beneath a romantic moon, in search of dormant passion.

Spoonful of Sugar introduces us to Millicent (Morgan Saylor), an awkward college student hired to keep tabs on Johnny (Danilo Crovetti), a nonverbal autistic boy with a ton of allergies.

Johnny’s mother Rebecca (Kat Foster) is a successful writer married to Jacob (Myko Olivier), a hunky, shirtless carpenter that works from home.

Yes, this is a basic recipe for any number of Cinemax potboilers. Fortunately, director Mercedes Bryce Morgan and writer Leah Saint Marie have bigger fish to fry.

Nothing in the film is what it appears to be—it’s much, much worse, often to the point of absolute lunacy.

Millicent seems a virginal innocent, charged with caring for a seriously damaged child in an astronaut costume, whose parents are at the end of their ropes.

And that’s when Morgan brings her ingredients to a furious boil. Jacob and Millicent explore their animal attraction, even as the latter self-medicates with generous doses of LSD.

Historically (hysterically?), it could be argued that the combination of sex and drugs transforms Millicent into something evil, but the evidence presented indicates she’s already had a thriving career in the field, leaving a discreet stash of bodies in her wake.

It’s a calling she shares with young Johnny.

What ensues is a surreal, nightmarish custody battle, with both parties revealing a heart of darkness.

Millicent and Rebecca square off centerstage in a bloody contest of parenting styles, competing for Jacob, and the love of a mute boy with increasingly special needs of his own.

The outrageous extremes and shocking tableaux favored by Mercedes Bryce Morgan slow cook into a marvelously harrowing stew of taboos that satisfies a craving we didn’t even know we had.

Spoonful of Sugar is potentially dangerous medicine. Please consult your mad doctor before ingesting.

Bones and All (2022)

Horror Romance. Seems simple enough, but there are thousands of things that can go wrong, and usually do.

Absence of chemistry between the leads; indulgent editing, inane dialogue, and indifferent art direction, to name a few usual suspects.

Director Luca Guadagnino—along with screenwriter David Kajganich, and cinematographer Arseni Khachaturan—makes magic happen on all fronts in Bones and All, an absorbing and tragic love story, based on a YA novel by Camille DeAngelis.

The moods here shift like unstable weather. We’re following a narrative that’s by turns gruesome, seductive, and visually intoxicating, even when the protagonists are merely rambling down the road, which happens a fair amount during the slow-burning, 2-hour running time.

Or when they’re eating people.

Yes, we are talking about young cannibals in love, but don’t have a cow, man. Weathering the outré scenes is a small price to pay for a unique experience.

As for the subject matter, cannibalism fits snugly into the metaphor drawer under Dark Afflictions.

To say that Maren Yearly (Taylor Russell) is a little different than the other girls at her high school, would be a vicious understatement.

While playing slap and tickle with friends at a slumber party, Maren, the new girl, mistakenly bites down on some finger food, forcing she and her nervous daddy (Andre Holland) to quickly relocate—again.

Soon after, Maren awakens to find Pops has abandoned her, leaving behind a cassette tape he made to help her understand her “condition.”

With little cash and no other options, Maren heads to Minnesota in search of her mother’s relatives and hopefully a sense of her own identity.

During her journey she meets Sully (Mark Rylance), a seemingly benign drifter who identifies her as a fellow “eater,” a small cabal of carnivores that strongly prefer human hocks to anything raised on the farm.

Sully, a smiling and helpful ghoul who feeds opportunistically, is a recurring nightmare for Maren, made flesh and bloody by Rylance’s riveting portrayal.

The next “eater” she encounters is Lee (Timothee Chalamet), a wiry skate dude with a lousy dye job driving a stolen blue pickup. This one sticks, and they drive off together like Thelma and Louise on a second date.

Luca Guadagnino makes bold style and story choices throughout Bones and All, and his judgment is razor-sharp. He grants the camera enough room to shape heartbreaking tableaux of faded beauty amidst a backdrop of rural American poverty.

Like Steinbeck characters, somehow retaining their humanity in the face of crushing circumstances, Maren and Lee are devoted and determined to carve out a bloody little life for themselves, no matter the price.

While they bear some resemblance to other fugitive movie couples (Sailor and Lula in Wild At Heart, Caleb and Mae in Near Dark, Kit and Holly in Badlands), these kids are a different breed.

Hunger is present in every word and action. It’s a black current that soaks into the fabric of a strikingly gorgeous film, and the actors, especially Taylor Russell, handle that internal struggle with amazing grace.

My wife (former Theater major, I’ll have you know!) remarked that Russell is flawless, and gives one of the most naturalistic performances she’s seen in recent years.

All that’s based on a single viewing. There will be more to follow.

Bones and All is an unexpected trunk of perilous wonders, with loneliness and loss lurking among shiner coins such as love and freedom.

It’s an emotional risk to sort it all out, but worth taking if we want to get better.

Escape the Field (2022)

I hate waking up in a cornfield with no memory of getting there. So, right away, I was a little reluctant to proceed with Escape the Field, a succinctly titled puzzler from English filmmaker Emerson Moore.

Six people regain consciousness amongst an endless jungle of corn. They’re each equipped with a single item (lantern, matches, water, knife, etc), and together must reason their way out of ear shot.

The field is loaded with booby traps, and there is a killer shrewdly disguised as corn, lurking about and making life miserable for everyone.

Sam (Jordan Clare Robbins), who is clearly the brains of this bunch, quickly devours clues and discovers an evolving map that presumably leads to a less starchy environment.

Joining Sam on her doomed patrol, is Ryan (Shane West, in the Adam Baldwin role), a seething, guilt-ridded soldier; Tyler (Theo Rossi, in the Robert Beltran role), a smiling divorced father who develops a crush on Sam, and Cameron (Tahirah Sharif), an emotionally unstable British intelligence agent.

There are two other people in their little posse, but they don’t do anything except die.

After dodging Corn Man and and assorted deadly pitfalls, Sam begins to see a pattern. Someone is obviously watching their progress through the deadly gauntlet.

But who? And what do they want?

Don’t hold your breath waiting for answers. As more than one person remarks during Escape the Field, “there’s no way out.”

This becomes apparent at around the 30-minute mark, leaving another 58 minutes of futile floundering in the field.

Writer-director Emerson Moore surely should have known that we’d get fed up with all this friggin’ corn.

In the case of Escape the Field, I would stick with the old horror movie adage, “Steer clear of the Moore.”

The Howling (1981)

I had an old friend crashing on my couch for the night so we decided to watch something horrific. After complaining about the paucity of decent werewolf features, we came upon The Howling, and the poor slob confessed to never having seen it.

Well, that settles that.

Plucky Los Angeles TV anchorwoman Karen White (Dee Wallace) has caught the eye of local serial killer Eddie Quist (Robert Picardo), who phones her to arrange a classy tryst at a local porn theater.

Of course, the police have Karen wired so they can capture the maniac. Sadly, surveillance technology is still in its infancy and the cops lose contact with the nervous reporter.

Eddie is gunned down but Karen can’t remember anything about their deadly encounter at the dirty movie house.

In order to dredge up every lurid detail of her trauma, renowned psychiatrist Dr. George Waggner (Patrick Macnee) recommends Karen and her husband Bill (Christopher Stone) take a restful vay-kay at his coastal retreat, The Colony.

There they meet Slim Pickens, John Carradine, James Murtaugh, and Elisabeth Brooks, all of whom are probably werewolves.

“Join us Karen! It feels wonderful!”

The Howling is a fantastic werewolf movie, maybe the best one. The only problem is, it came out the same year as An American Werewolf in London, which is generally acknowledged as the apex of the lycanthrope genre.

Granted, AAWiL is a terrific film, and special effects wizard Rick Baker’s transformation makeup hasn’t been equalled in over 40 years. Baker was also an effects consultant on The Howling, but the man in charge was Rob Bottin (The Thing, Total Recall, Fight Club), a man with a resume nearly as impressive as Baker’s.

In other words, prosthetics on both wolf and victim in The Howling totally shred.

Director Joe Dante and screenwriter John Sayles bring a keen combination of wit and irreverence to the shaggy subject matter, mainly in the person of occult bookstore owner Walter Paisley (Dick Miller), who, when asked if he believes in the supernatural, replies, “What am I? An idiot? I’m trying to make a buck here.”

Cameos by Roger Corman, Forrest J. Ackerman, and Sayles himself should keep the film school nerds energized, and everyone else will be sated by premium werewolf carnage.

Note: There are a bunch of Howling sequels and I might revisit a few, to ensure I didn’t miss anything.

Watcher (2022)

Holy Hitchcock, Batman!

From its Read Window voyeurism to Julia’s (Maika Monroe) resemblance to classic Hitchcock blonde Tippi Hedren, Watcher is a first-rate homage to the 20th century’s finest suspense filmmaker.

Best of all, it’s exquisitely crafted by writer-director Chloe Okuno, who orchestrates grinding fear and dread for a serial killer’s potential victim, a woman who knows too much in a country where she doesn’t speak the language.

Julia and her husband Francis (Karl Glusman) have just moved to Bucharest for his work. Julia, a one-time actress, is left to entertain herself in their new apartment for long periods of time while Francis wheels and deals.

Right off the bat, Julia is unnerved by a silhouette in a window across the street, a figure that seems to be fixated in her direction. In what becomes a pattern, she tries to tell Francis about the suspicious person, only to have hubby minimize her fears.

Meanwhile, women alone in their apartments are turning up headless. Yeah, thanks for your concern, Francis! Probably nothing to worry about.

There isn’t an ounce of flab on Watcher. Dialogue is minimal. Each frame is a precision brick in a wall of menace that threatens to fall on Julia at any moment. Precarious angles of endless invention are used to create a perpetual male gaze on Julia, a person seen, but not heard, due to a language (and gender) barrier.

Maika Monroe (It Follows, The Guest) continues to bloom, transcending the genre’s Final Girl status and emerging as a reluctant action hero, correctly channeling frustration and rage into not only self-preservation, but victory.

Make no mistake: in the hands of a lesser actress this film would not have achieved such thrilling peaks. As the unwilling object of a madman’s desire, Monroe is charismatic, capable, and committed to each character moment, as only someone fighting for their life can be.

Julia’s determination to find her tormentor and destroy her victimhood provides serious octane in Watcher, a sleek thriller that both embraces the Hitchcock tradition, and flips the camera back onto the audience (and Hitchcock), as if to ask, “What are you looking at?”

Definitely a Top Ten film of 2022. See it straight away.

Freeze (2022)

Well, let’s see you make a tale of Arctic terror on a microscopic budget!

Written and directed by Charlie Steeds (Winterskin, Death Ranch), a MetFilm grad with an abiding love of bygone horror tropes, Freeze is a Lovecrafty pastiche of Victorian Era exploration that bravely demands your attention, despite being financed by old soda bottles.

Captain Roland Mortimer (Rory Wilton) charts his warship the HMS Innsmouth (hint) to the North Pole in search of his best friend, William Streiner (Tim Cartwright), a fellow sea captain who disappeared two years before in search of a passage through the ice.

It doesn’t take long for the Innsmouth to get frozen in the ice and set upon by Deep Ones, so Mortimer and his intrepid crew of a half-dozen men abandon ship and try their luck on the frozen tundra.

The Arctic region isn’t very large, so Mortimer and company soon discover a massive cave containing a few stiffs from Streiner’s earlier voyage. After that, they discover Streiner himself, who has gone native and joined forces with the so-called “Icthyoids” in a vague scheme of world domination.

All he needs to lead his baggy suited fishmen to victory is his copy of The Necronomicon, which Mortimer thoughtfully provides.

Freeze is old, old-time entertainment that would have worked just as well as a radio play accompanied by scary sound effects and a wheezy organ. Of course, then we’d miss grotty details like Streiner biting his best friend’s fingers off, and admittedly, that’s a fun scene.

Steeds cheerfully peppers the proceedings with DIY practical effects that any Dr. Who fan would endorse, particularly the pesky Icthyoids, who resemble a Sleestack dance company when appearing en masse.

So what can we really say about Freeze? Campy enthusiasm and resourceful story telling can still save the day, if you agree to meet them halfway.

Alone in the Dark (1982)

Wow, two Oscar winners in one low-budget, 40-year-old slasher!

Jack Palance and Martin Landau are half a quartet of escaped lunatics paying a surprise visit to their new mental health practitioner in Alone in the Dark, a New Line Cinema oddity from writer-director Jack Sholder (The Hidden, A Nightmare on Elm Street 2).

Palance is underutilized as Frank Hawkes, a paranoid schizophrenic, but Landau chews the scenery like a great herbivorous swamp dinosaur as Byron Sutcliffe, a pyromaniac pastor with a permanently deranged countenance.

With the arrival of Doctor Dan Potter (Dwight Schultz, from The A-Team), the new shrink at the Haven Mental Hospital, Hawkes takes it into his head that Potter must have murdered their former doctor, and that he will soon kill all of them.

Donald Pleasance does the heavy lifting as stoner psychiatrist Leo Bain, the director of Haven Hospital. Bain’s ludicrous touchy-feely therapy encourages the patients to truly explore their various psychotic “trips.”

“Preacher likes to set fire to churches, that’s his trip. Unfortunately he does it when there are people inside,” Hawkes explains to Potter.

Along with monstrous pedophile Ronald “Fatty” Elster (Erland van Lidth, The Wanderers) and a vicious (but shy) maniac nicknamed “The Bleeder” (Phillip Clark), Hawkes and Preacher escape captivity during a power blackout caused by theatrical punk band The Sick Fucks, who are playing at a nearby bar.

Could happen.

The showdown, the siege of Dr. Potter’s house, ain’t exactly Straw Dogs, but Pleasance does his zany best confronting his runaway loonies with platitudes and mumbo jumbo.

Taken as a whole, Alone in the Dark isn’t a very good movie. It’s light on gore, characters appear and disappear randomly, and at least one subplot, involving Dr. Potter’s wife and sister going to a Nuclear Power protest, stretches credulity beyond all known limits.

Somehow, through the awkward combination of dormant star power, budget-constraint innovation, and tongue-in-cheek pseudoscience, it remains a kooky curio worthy of attention even 40 years later.

When Potter tells Bain that the escapees are armed and have killed several people, the latter shrugs, “Well, what do you expect? It’s a violent world out there.”

Right you are, doc.