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.

Ready Or Not (2019)

More scenes from the class struggle, as rich people hunt down an unlucky bride-to-be in Ready Or Not.

With the economy currently floating facedown in the pool, financial horror movies (Parasite, The Perfection, Cheap ThrillsWould You Rather?) continue to strike fear throughout the land, and with good reason.

We’re all hanging from the same thread.

Nutshell: Grace (Samara Weaving) is a scrappy, beautiful blonde engaged to Daniel (Adam Brody), the fabulously wealthy son of a family whose fortune was built on games (cards, not video).

As is the custom, the newest member of the family must participate in a game to be chosen randomly by drawing a card. The contest begins at midnight and concludes at dawn.

So what are we playing this year? Go Fish? Checkers?

As the title suggests, it’s Hide and Seek with Capital Punishment, and Grace must find a place to hole up till the sun rises. The family mansion and grounds are roughly the size of Connecticut, so hiding isn’t too difficult.

But, as we all know, rich people cheat to get ahead, so the hunters use hidden cameras to track their quarry.

Ready Or Not is directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, and the tempo is brisk, punctuated with frequent violent episodes played for dark laughs. When all three maids (who look like Robert Palmer dancers) are accidentally murdered, their plutocrat employers are quick to express mild annoyance at the lack of reliable domestic help to clean up a growing mess (of bodies).

The script, by Guy Busick and R. Christopher Murray, is full of revelations about the origins of wealth in our society, mostly having to do with infernal pacts made long ago.

Face it, rich assholes continue to make the best villains, because it’s so satisfying to see them pay for their crimes against humanity.

Quite a nice change from real life, but that’s the magic of cinema—making our unfulfilled dreams come true since the dawn of the 20th century.

 

 

 

 

The Hills Run Red (2009)

Boy, do they ever!

A gruesome splatter fest about our devotion to cult films, The Hills Run Red is a lot like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, only the family business is cinema instead of meat.

And instead of Leatherface, we have Babyface.

Movie nerd Tyler (Tad Hilgenbrink) is obsessed with a notorious horror film from the 1980s called The Hills Run Red that up and disappeared, along with its director, years before.

Tyler tracks down the director’s daughter Alexa (Sophie Monk), a junkie stripper with a heart of gold. After helping her kick heroin, Tyler arranges for Alexa to guide them into the “deep woods” where the movie was filmed.

Tagging along for this road trip in search of cinematic buried treasure is cameraman Lalo (Alex Wyndham) and Tyler’s restless girlfriend Serina (Janet Montgomery).

In a clear case of Careful What You Wish For, Tyler eventually gets to see the legendary film, only to discover that he and his friends are reluctant cast members.

Gallons of gore ensues, but The Hills Run Red isn’t just another homage to vintage slice-and-dice. There are astute discussions on the fly about horror movies, that bring up interesting points about what fans really want, e.g., Emotional Connection versus Violent Spectacle.

Director Dave Parker opens with a hellish montage sequence and keeps his foot near the gas pedal at all times, which means some plot points end up on the cutting room floor.

No matter. As the title implies, there is blood and there are guts, and they are used judiciously and effectively.

I also noticed on a number of occasions, the character Lalo offers sensible advice to his friend Tyler, that is completely ignored. He observes that horror movies take place away from civilization, so one should never leave the city.

They go anyway. To the woods.

Lalo also tells Tyler that maybe The Hills Run Red was hidden for a reason. Tyler should have listened.

 

Rest Stop (2006)

Next time you’re driving through remote, unfamiliar terrain and you feel the call of nature, please consider making other arrangements.

Nicole (Jaimie Alexander) and her BF Jess (Joe Mendocino) leave drab Oklahoma in the rearview and take off on a road trip to begin a new life in Los Angeles.

The only things standing in the way are Jaimie’s tiny bladder and a wily serial killer in an old Ford pickup.

After having sex and getting lost, the couple pulls into a grimy Rest Stop where Jaimie must pee in a substandard Ladies Room. She emerges to find Jess has disappeared, apparently abducted by a guy in a yellow pickup, that patrols the area like a shark.

Trapped in the grotty commode, Jaimie passes the time by reading doomed messages written over the years by victims of the trucker-capped fiend known as KZL 303—the very same maniac currently forcing her into a vicious game of cat and mouse.

Rest Stop is a nifty (and nasty) example of the Killer on the Road genre, which includes the likes of Joy Ride, The Hitcher, Breakdown, and of course, Duel, directed by a young Steven Spielberg.

Writer-director John Shiban successfully taps a rich vein of dread by constantly reminding us of how vulnerable we are once we leave the highway. So much so that even a seemingly benign comfort station can be a deadly trap.

As a lifetime horror fan, my advice to incontinent road trippers is to keep driving. And never accept a ride from a Winnebago.

 

 

 

Dead & Buried (1981)

Dead & Buried is a 40-year-old fright flick that has remained available on cable since the Reagan Administration. Now that’s staying power!

We open on the quaint seaport town of Potter’s Bluff, where friendly townsfolk frequently gather to savagely murder unlucky tourists, all caught on camera for those special vacation memories.

Sheriff Gillis (James Farentino) is inevitably handed the case, but he’s distracted at home by his wife’s (Melody Anderson) increasingly strange behavior, which includes teaching her fourth-grade class about voodoo.

Gillis consults with dapper Dr. Dobbs (Jack Albertson) the jazz-loving town coroner, who complains that closed casket funerals are a drag, because no one can fully appreciate the artistry it takes to make a comely corpse—especially ones that have been burned alive or had their throats sliced.

The murders continue unabated, while the sheriff dutifully gathers clues that point to pretty much everybody.

The ending is Rod Serling-meets-Angel Heart, as Gillis realizes he has more in common with his neighbors than he’d care to admit.

Most of Dead & Buried‘s notoriety comes from being the followup to Alien for screenwriters Ronald Shusset and Dan O’Bannon, as well as makeup mastermind Stan Winston, whose gore effects are brutally efficient here.

In some ways, this is a dated artifact that looks downright hokey at times. Compared to Alien, it’s all the way down to earth and mundane in appearance.

That said, Dead & Buried is creepy as hell and full of small-town weirdness, like Norman Rockwell taking a stab at Dorian Gray.

It’s also the final live-action appearance of veteran actor Jack Albertson, best known as Charlie’s bedridden gramps in Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory.

In Dead & Buried, Albertson goes out in grand fashion, as a hepcat mad doctor with delusions of grandeur and visions of immortality.

We should all be so lucky.

 

The Marshes (2018)

Another camping trip gone to hell thanks to poor social distancing. Let’s face it: Maniacs have no respect for boundaries.

Three biology students from an Australian university are studying water samples in a vast, remote marshy area. As is usually the case in rural communities, the eggheads run afoul of Aussie-brand hicks, hunters, and hillbillies, who take time out from their skinning and gutting duties to harass the learned strangers.

Pria (Dafna Kronental) assumes a leadership role, but her group’s proximity to the bloody and brutal poachers erodes her confidence and she starts having bad dreams.

Gradually, the three academics intuit they’re being stalked by an apex predator with a taste for human burgers.

From a biological standpoint, Pria and her comrades are now a trio of tasty specimens caught in a primitive web, and as the tagline blithely exclaims, “When Science Ends, Survival Begins.”

The spider rapidly making its way toward them is a legendary swamp cannibal known as the Swag Man (Eddie Baroo), presumably because he gives his victims free t-shirts and lighters before devouring their flesh.

Writer-director Roger Scott keeps us off-balance with an eye-popping arsenal of swinging camera moves and perspective shifts that make the marshland scenery appear impenetrable, menacing, and steadily encroaching on the anxious scientists.

Certainly The Marshes would fit snugly alongside any number of “trespasser beware” features, including Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, and Wolf Creek, another grueling import from Down Under.

For a non-horror comparison, I was also favorably reminded of director Walter Hill’s Vietnam metaphor, Southern Comfort, which remains an all-time favorite survival shocker.