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.
At first glance, VFW plays out like an ol’ time blood bath, somewhere along the lines of John Carpenter’s Assault On Precinct 13, as waves of drug addicts storm a little bar defended by a determined band of geezers.
Carpenter-esque synthesizer stabs punctuate the carnage and gang members are decked-out in faux-leather bodywear, as if they’d just returned from a Spandau Ballet video shoot.
The uber-violent skirmish gets rolling when street urchin Lizard (Sierra McCormick) rips off Boz (Travis Hammer), a theatrical drug-dealing psychopath, and seeks shelter at a local watering hole inhabited by combat veteran ass-kickers itching for a little action.
Boz and his ruthless bodyguard Gutter (Dora Madison) inflict some damage, but ultimately they underestimate the tenacity and loyalty of these ancient warriors, resulting in an explosive comeuppance.
The action is nonstop, the blood is plentiful and stylishly rendered. You need further recommendation? VFW is a Fangoria production, so don’t expect a whole lot of dialogue.
Even so, somewhere during the third act, Fred the bartender (Stephen Lang) yells “Come on, you lazy bastard!” at his old foxhole buddy Walter (William Sadler), who responds, “I’m coming, dammit!”
Not a super noticeable moment unless you’re a fan of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, but it demonstrates that director Joe Begos (Almost Human) and writers Max Brallios and Matthew McArdle know and respect their antecedents when it comes to movies about hopelessly outnumbered men fighting for a cause.
In addition to Lang and Sadler, the pedigreed supporting cast includes Martin Kove (The Karate Kid), Fred “The Hammer” Williamson (From Dusk Till Dawn), George Wendt (Cheers), and David Patrick Kelly (Twin Peaks, Commando), all of whom have swell screentime dismembering, impaling, and perforating platoons of savage tweakers.
Kelly, who distinguished himself as the evilest gang member ever in Walter Hill’s classic The Warriors, is particularly poignant as an old stoner on his last legs who chooses to die with his boots on.
Peckinpah would be proud of this bunch. Carpenter too, probably.
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 Tokosatsumovement—better known as Campy Superhero Versus Monster TV Shows (e.g., Ultraman, Mighty 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.
A backwoods survivalist pursues a rogue wolf that threatens his family—and finds something infinitely worse, in Shawn Linden’s Hunter Hunter.
Somewhere in the wilds of Manitoba, Joseph Mersault (Devon Sawa), his wife Anne (Camille Sullivan), and daughter Renee (Summer Howell), grind out a primitive existence by trapping critters and selling their pelts.
While this lifestyle is ideal for Joseph, a laconic hunter and woodsman, Anne is tired of hauling furs to the store to bargain for food, and communicating with her husband via Walkie Talkie. Most of all, she wants Renee to go to school and have real friends.
Joseph has been arduously training his daughter to be self-reliant in nature, so Anne’s pitch for a return to civilization doesn’t mesh with his mission.
“We don’t run from our problems,” he reminds her.
“You’re scared of people,” she counters.
“This is our home,” Joseph declares. “And nothing pushes us out of our home.”
Future plans are put on hold when Joseph finds carcass evidence of a vicious wolf stealing from their trap lines. As expected, Joseph, the seasoned hunter, disappears into the forest primeval to track the animal and kill it. A solid plan except for one detail: He doesn’t return.
“Joseph, are you there?” Anne despondently asks her Walkie Talkie, as hours turn into days.
In his absence, Anne nervously tries to put food on the table, relying on Renee’s advice on skinning a fawn for their evening meal. Eventually, Anne hears someone calling for help in the darkness. Instead of the long-missing Joseph, she comes upon Lou (Nick Stahl), a badly injured stranger. Anne loads Lou onto her sled, brings him back to the cabin, and nurses his wounds.
Renee doesn’t see the point. “He’s a stranger. Dad says we’re not supposed to trust strangers.”
“We’re helping him because that’s what you do when you find someone who needs help,” her mother explains.
But where’s Joseph? And who is Lou?
Writer-director Shawn Linden brings the great outdoors down around the viewer like a shroud. He employs his camera as a stealthy tracker shadowing Joseph, Anne, and Renee through the woods blurring the line between stalker and quarry.
Linden is unsentimental and straight forward in his depiction of frontier living, which includes knowing the correct way to skin and dress prey, so that it won’t ruin the food that’s necessary for survival.
Anne is not as skilled as her husband and daughter, but she understands necessity.
Hunter Hunter maintains a heady tension for the duration of the film, which builds to a shockingly bloody conclusion. Anne’s final confrontation with the dangerous predator is not as a hunter, but a terrible avenger, and it will leave a mark on your psyche.
Three metal chicks meet three metal dudes at a metal show. When they take the party back to Alexis’s (Alexandra Daddario) posh country house, things go horribly wrong in We Summon The Darkness, a cautionary tale of our times, if it were still 1988.
Alexis, Val (Maddie Hasson), and Beverly (Amy Forsyth), a trio of leather-clad hotties are on a road trip to a heavy metal concert in the late 1980s. Despite televised warnings of murder and Satanic corruption from an outraged preacher (Johnny Knoxville), the girls just want to have fun.
When they fall in with Mark (Keean Johnson), Ivan (Austin Swift), and Kovacs (Logan Miller), the two threesomes decide to pair off. Alexis suggests her nearby mansion for the after-party, and the boys eagerly follow them for implied good times, which needless to say, never materialize.
Instead, the lads are drugged and trussed up, unwilling participants in one of those Satanic rituals that nervous parents are always reading about.
Will a hero emerge? Depends on your definition of the word. The tables get turned, some people switch sides, and there’s a surprise reveal. There’s bloody murder and burning heads, which helps compensate for the lack of supernatural sizzle.
Written by Alan Trezza and directed by Marc Meyers, We Summon The Darkness meets the minimum requirements of a dark-comic slasher. As cinematic events unfold, we learn there isn’t a compelling reason for it to exist in a bygone decade, as opportunities to lampoon ’80s culture are mostly ignored.
Fair enough, but WSTD could have used some pepping up. The young actors, particularly Daddario and Hasson, acquit themselves in noble fashion and tension is made available, but there’s not much popping here in the way of style points or zippy dialogue.
It’s the actors, and the lunacy that ensues after all the cards are on the table that rescues We Summon The Darkness. I admit, the scenes of metalhead boys reduced to whimpering victims and hiding from lethal women were oddly satisfying. Probably because in 99.9 percent of all horror movies, a reversed gender dynamic is the predictable norm.
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.
Who knew the shady goings-on at a third-rate Arkansas hospital would strike black-comedy gold?
In Brea Grant’s frenetic and scathing 12 Hour Shift, we spend a long day with Mandy (Angela Bettis in a tour de force), a harried, overworked nurse with a penchant for snorting crushed pain pills when the going gets tough. She and her quick-thinking supervisor Karen (Nikea Gamby-Turner) have a profitable side hustle going on, supplying the Dixie Mafia with fresh organs that would otherwise go to waste.
Despite her dangerous and illegal sideline, Mandy proves to be the most (only?) compassionate soul for miles, especially when compared to her blonde cousin Regina (Chloe Farnworth), an airhead sociopath who picks up the organs for burly crime boss Nick (wrestler Mick Foley).
Complications ensue when Regina stupidly misplaces a kidney prompting Nick to send violence-prone henchman Mikey (Dusty Warren) to fetch hers as a replacement. Stalling for time, Regina hightails it back to the hospital to find more organs, really fast.
How hard could it be?
At its best moments, 12 Hour Shift is an anarchic riot, held together by a righteous performance from Angela Bettis as Mandy. During her titular workday Mandy curses, threatens, flirts, pleads, freaks out, and commits gruesome acts, each requiring its own facial transformation. Bettis never misses a beat—her expressions and comic timing are never less than impeccable. Mandy stands tall as a complicated, resourceful woman with the enviable ability to compartmentalize her train wreck of a life.
Chloe Farnworth plays Regina as the dopiest loose cannon ever let loose in a hospital. After seducing a hapless skater boy and carving him up, Regina discovers the kidneys aren’t where she thought and ends up stealing the poor kid’s bladder.
“Why would you bring this cousin of yours into this if you knew she’d kill people and rat us out?” asks an exasperated Karen.
“I sometimes have too much faith in humanity,” Mandy answers.
“That’s what I like about you,” Karen admits.
The mercenary organ-legging operation merrily flips the script on the idea of medical professionals being selfless and saintly. Instead, the staff at this hospital spends its spare time hunting for spare parts out of dreadful economic necessity, rather like Vincent Price and Peter Lorre as incompetent undertakers in Comedy Of Terrors.
The American Medical Association probably won’t be amused.
Between hair-raising scenes of bloodletting, Karen and Mandy find time to commiserate over crappy birthday cake in the break room and an annoying religious coworker.
Their mundane griping brings unexpected blue-collar verisimilitude to a zany plot about brutally invasive surgeries happening in the hospital corridors.
Writer-director Grant is up to the task. She bakes up inventive, idiosyncratic characters that would be right at home in a Coen Brothers universe, while her opera-driven fight sequences jump like Tarantino on too much coffee.
12 Hour Shift is a freewheeling spectacle that oscillates between gross and quirky, accompanied by superb acting and quotable dialogue. As someone once said about a different film, it’s a cult movie in need of a cult.
True, it does require some adjustment on the part of the audience to root for a drug-addled organ trafficker, but by the time the end credits roll, it will be done.
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.
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.
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.