The Hazing (2004)

Today’s lesson: Don’t judge a movie by its blurb. I read the words “fraternity” and “sorority” and my interest began to wane.

Glad I toughed it out. The Hazing is a first-rate, low-budg, sloppy kiss tribute to (surprise, surprise) Sam Raimi and The Evil Dead.

Nutshell: Two gals and three dudes pledging to brother-sister houses must complete a Halloween scavenger hunt and bring all their items to Hack House, a local mansion of the haunted variety.

Note: Bruce Campbell’s picture makes an appearance as one of the items the pledges must roundup on the scavenger hunt, for Pete’s sake.

Another needful thing is a potent grimoire of dark magic that’s in the possession of mysterious Professor Kapps (Brad Dourif). They grab the book, a demon is summoned, and so begins a night of Raimi-esque chaos, confusion, and high-voltage hack and stack.

And Brad Dourif kills (literally!) as the mad professor, providing a sturdy dramatic foundation for his less polished costars.

I was thoroughly entertained by The Hazing, mostly because it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Delia (Nectar Rose), shouts, “I wasn’t planning to stay out all night killing my friends!” when an evil spirit possesses her fellow pledges.

Fortunately, the goofy tone doesn’t diminish the horror action. It’s got a pedal-to-the-metal pace, decent body count, naked interludes, and scaredy-cat nerd Tim (Perry Shen), ends up a hero of sorts.

Tim proudly takes a moment of screen time to tell his fellow cast members why he isn’t a stereotype geek. “I don’t work with computers, I don’t like video games, and I’m not a virgin,” he insists.  “I lost my cherry when I was 15!”

The Hazing is very much in keeping with this statement. It’s not what you think it is. It’s way better.

The Shortcut (2009)

“Some urban legends are real.” Yeah, real dull.

I admit freely that I’m an optimist when it comes to horror movies. I always try to accentuate the positive, particularly when it comes to the works of novice filmmakers. Somewhere amidst the dreck and detritus, I can find something to praise, some aspect of the production that shows signs of promise.

When it comes to The Shortcut, I’ve got my work cut out for me. It fails on so many levels, that it’s practically impossible to find anything that resembles a silver lining.

For one thing, it’s a “Happy Madison” production, which means that Adam Sandler’s people had a hand in it. The script was co-written by Scott Sandler, no doubt one of Adam’s poor relations who’s grown disillusioned with a future in the food service industry.

Beware the evil shadow of nepotism…

There’s nothing remotely terrifying or even mysterious about The Shortcut. A group of high school kids explore a path through the woods that’s earned a sinister reputation. They encounter a crazy old man (Raymond Barry), who was once the son of a very wealthy and prominent family.

While searching for a missing dog, they find the man’s house and decide to break in. Some of the kids learn a valuable lesson about the consequences of their actions.

There’s very little gore, few killings, no nudity, and no supernatural elements. In other words,”Why bother?”

I wish I could answer that.

There’s a straight-outta-left-field plot twist at the very end of the movie, but by that time, you won’t give a shit. Writer Scott Sandler lacks even the most rudimentary of storytelling skills.

I’ve seen pet food commercials that were fraught with more tension. Avoid at all costs.

Slaughter Night (2006)

A handful of hard-partying Dutch kids take a tour of a mine where centuries (years?) before, a fiendish killer/sorcerer was executed.

I know what you’re thinking. Why in the hell would a group of reasonably attractive young adults end up in a mine? As Bill Murray once said, “It just doesn’t matter.”

What does matter is the spirit of the sorcerer is alive and kicking, and needs eight victims in order to … something or other. Become human again? Get out of hell? Get a free foot-long sub? See Murray quote.

Oh, and I have some free advice to anyone who happens to find themselves trapped in a haunted mine. Do not play with a Ouija Board. And do not split up so you can cover more ground.

Friggin’ amateurs.

Slaughter Night was produced in the Netherlands, and I will tip my hat to our Dutch Brothers for a well-acted, fast-paced blood letter, with a goodly amount of decapitations.

Once again, we have a case of overt Sam Raimi worship by writers/directors Frank van Geloven and Edwin Visser, as the possessed teens are dead ringers for Evil Dead‘s Deadites.

Even so, things move along pretty well, and the mine provides a suitably creepy and claustrophobic setting.

The film is also subtitled, which I actually prefer, as far too many horror flicks suffer from uneven sound. You know, where crucial dialogue is whispered by two characters, and you turn up the volume to compensate, right as the chainsaws and screaming start.

And that’s when my wife yells at me to “turn that screamy shit down.” So everybody’s happy.

Forget Me Not (2009)

I kept avoiding this in the Netflix cue, and I’m not entirely sure why. Perhaps it sounded overly adolescent? But after reading an enthusiastic review at Horror Movie A Day, I decided to pull the trigger.

I’m glad I did, because Forget Me Not is an absorbing film that pivots gracefully from a story of childhood betrayal into a gripping revenge-from-beyond thriller.

Sandy (Carly Schroeder) is the smartest, hottest, and most popular girl in school. She and her brother Eli (Cody Linley) are both going to Stanford on academic scholarships.

Along with their sock drawer of goofy friends and lovers (slightly better than stock-character teens) they engage in some post-graduation drinking, smoking, and screwing, before deciding to hit the graveyard for one final game of “Ghost.” It’s like hide-and-seek except if the person designated as the ghost finds you, you become a ghost too.

Last one alive wins.

The seemingly innocent game opens up a nasty can of worms from their past about a cruel prank they once played on orphan girl Angela years before during a game. And when Sandy’s friends start dying, she’s only one who can remember that they ever existed at all.

As her circle of friends becomes smaller and smaller, Sandy’s enviable life gets progressively crappier. Her now deceased friends return from the grave as shimmying, contorting demons that look a bit like dancing Michael Jacksons. Moral of the story: Don’t play vicious pranks on orphans.

Forget Me Not is a very limber horror tale. When the group turns on orphan girl Angela, it’s really heart-wrenching, but totally believable. Who doesn’t have an episode from childhood where a new, cool group of friends becomes more important than someone whom circumstances threw you together with?

Remember the Seinfeld episode when Jerry has to break up with an odious chum from childhood because the only reason they were friends in the first place was because the kid had a ping-pong table?

It’s a morality play that loudly warns against even the most casual cruelty, as it can come back and bite us (painfully) on the ass.

And “youthful indiscretions” are no excuse.

Sam’s Lake (2006)


I’m really on the fence about Sam’s Lake. It’s a slow-burner, but it’s got gorgeous scenery. The body count is low, but the story is fairly intriguing. There’s no bloodletting till around the 43 minute mark, and the carnage is minimal. Despite all this, I felt compelled to see it through.

Sam (super-cute Fay Masterson) brings a carload of her friends up to a remote cabin on the lake where she grew up. Once ensconced, Sam’s childhood pal and local garage mechanic Jessie (William Gregory Lee) drops in to share a chilling campfire story about a kid who escaped from a nearby mental hospital (there’s always a nearby mental hospital) and wasted his entire family (with a pointy stick). As luck would have it, this tall tale is no legend, as the campers, soon discover.

The “twist” in Sam’s Lake isn’t very twisted, especially since it’s pretty damn obvious from the get-go that Jessie’s a 24-carat weirdo. Even so, the buildup is well constructed and the eventual showdown has a few genuine surprises.

And Fay Masterson delivers a sterling performance as a very deceptive main character. On the down side, not much gore and no nudity. If you don’t watch it, you haven’t missed anything. If you give it a chance, your patience will be slightly rewarded.

Night of the Scarecrow (1995)

Call it a by-product of living in accelerated times. It’s getting to the point where I look at movies made before the turn of the century as “quaint.” I’m sure this happens to everybody on our relentless trek to the boneyard, but it seems when I watch perfectly good horror films from the ’80s and even the ’90s now, they look like relics from another world that I’ve forgotten.

“OMG, look at that poodle hair! Is that a Members Only jacket? Ned’s Atomic Dustbin?”

With the passing of time the cultural signposts of eras passed start to get a little blurry. I have younger friends who are into movies and they usually won’t rent something more than 10 years old, claiming “it looks cheap and weird,” and “the FX are gonna suck.” I’m still adjusting to being the “old guy” in these situations.

So Night of the Scarecrow is a film fossil from 16 years ago. It’s good. Satisfying, even. It’s like dinner at an old-school steak house after having nothing but rice and tofu for a month. There are no surprises but everything is served just the way you like it; meat and potatoes, a stiff drink, and no sass.

What I appreciate most is that it’s a movie that doesn’t dilly-dally; the plot races along like Richard Petty at Daytona. Within, oh, 15 minutes or so, we know all the characters who live in the nice little town of Hanford—the one with the dark secret.

Over 100 years prior, the town fathers made a deal with a passing warlock (I guess there were warlocks roaming the west during the Ulysses Grant administration). In exchange for fertile soil and a temperate climate, the warlock could do whatever he pleased in Hanford.

The horny wizard turns out to be an advocate of sex magic, luring the town’s women into awesome episodes of debauchery. The menfolk decide that ain’t cool, drug the warlock, and crucify him in the cornfield.

Cut to “modern” times. The warlock, now in the guise of a button-eyed, sack-headed scarecrow, starts slaughtering the Goodmans, descendants of the guy who betrayed him and stole his book of spells.

These include brothers George (Dirk Blocker), Thaddeus (Bruce Glover, Crispin’s dad) and William (Gary Lockwood), who all perish in ghastly fashion, while William’s daughter Claire (Elizabeth Barondes), and her mimbo Dillon (John Mese, who looks like a stand-in for Scott Bakula) try to find the spell that will banish the malevolent mage.

A better-than-average cast helps. Stephen Root (O Brother Where Art Thou, Red State) plays another incompetent sheriff, while John Hawkes (Deadwood, Winter’s Bone) delivers the goods as the asshole delinquent who unwittingly frees the warlock.

But the real scene-stealer is Glover, chewing the scenery like a hungry goat as a weak-willed preacher with a hot-to-trot daughter that gets defiled by Hawkes’ town rowdy. Seriously, Glover’s overacting is almost operatic, maybe a notch below bad Shakespeare. And it’s just another reason to watch this unexpectedly satisfying sleeper.

High Lane (2009)

High Lane is a smartly crafted French thriller that earns a respectable round of applause from yours truly. It’s kind of a two-fer, since the terror stems from different directions.

A passel of adventurous, reasonably attractive young-uns decide to climb a fabled mountain in Croatia (mistake no. 1, of many). The climbing footage itself, to me, is disturbing enough (me no like high places), especially after it turns out that one member of the team is scared of heights and has to be led around like a sniveling cub scout.

Great, I’ve got a character to identify with—and he’s a shithead.

As if coping with a panic-stricken climber isn’t enough, it turns out they are not alone up there. Somewhere, a creature dwells. And really, that’s all that needs to be said.

So with High Lane you get vertiginous frights augmented by the presence of a freaky whatsit. Any way you slice it, that’s good value.

It also helps that director Abel Ferry has a good eye for both picturesque countryside and high-altitude drama.

I’d watch it again.

Mask Maker (2010)

How many times have we seen a movie wherein a young couple hoping for a fresh start moves into a house with an evil, awful, scary, drippy history? I think I lost count at a gajillion.

The thing that chafes my cheeks is when a low- to no-budget horror film has exterior footage of a huge, mysterious, fog-shrouded Gothic mansion, only to cut to interior shots that look like they were filmed in your Aunt Tillie’s country condo.

The stairs and hallways of the accursed manor that once housed Satan himself, are festooned with smoke alarms, paintings of dogs playing poker, and three-prong outlets? It’s a hard one for me to overlook.

Thankfully, Mask Maker (original title: Maskerade) manages to disguise its measly budget well enough, and you’ll likely be sufficiently invested to turn a blind eye to some bad mattes, continuity errors, and a weird chronology of events.

A couple of reasonably attractive college students elope to a decrepit plantation-style house in the middle of nowhere that Evan (Stephen Colletti) has bought for the very reasonable sum of $10,000.

The house comes with 40 (haunted) acres, is a goldmine of valuable heirlooms, and even has a priceless wine cellar.

What the Realtor neglected to mention is that a woman, accused of witchcraft like, 50 years ago (when Kennedy was in office, presumably), and her demented son were lynched on the property.

One thing leads to another, and the son rises from the grave (that looks all of  two feet deep) and, for reasons we never learn, murders the interlopers and steals their faces to make scary masks.

It sounds pretty lame, but director Griff Fuest is generous with the gore and there’s even a splash of nudity. The script is nothing special but it isn’t dealbreaker dumb.

Bonus points for casting Treat Williams and Michael (The Hills Have Eyes) Berryman in small parts.

And Jason London, on a weekend pass from rehab, also makes an appearance.

You could do worse.

 

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006)

Humor in horror movies is a tricky thing. It’s a great tension reliever, but too much, too often, and you end up watching a “spoof.” (Spoof = lame). Director Scott Glosserman strikes a judicious balance of horror and ha-ha in Behind the Mask, a faux documentary about a film crew of college students shadowing a wannabe serial killer.

As Leslie, the cheerful, upbeat (but very focused) killer, Nathan Baesel brings vast amounts of nuance to a role that could have been a corny caricature. In fact, he kind of reminds me of Rob Lowe’s character in Parks & Recreation, a most amiable and chatty fellow.

He is by turns funny, cunning, weird, and frightening as a man who has chosen to do battle against the forces of good. (“There can’t be good without evil,” he explains.) The lion’s share of the film details Leslie’s extensive preparations as he stalks his victim, a pretty waitress named Taylor (Angela Goethals).

The real hook is that Leslie takes great pains to debunk the supernatural aspects of cinematic serial killers like Jason Voorhees, Michael Meyers, and Freddy Krueger. He trains relentlessly, studies the disappearing tricks of Houdini, practices yoga, and gets sage advice from Eugene (the always excellent Scott Wilson), a retired killer who lives next door.

It’s a smart film and no one behaves in predictable fashion—unless it’s part of the stalking-and-killing ritual. Small parts featuring Robert Englund as Leslie’s “Ahab,” Dr. Halloran (a ringer for Donald Pleasance in Halloween), and tiny Zelda Rubenstein as the librarian with a red herring, add to the fun.

Behind the Mask is a highly ambitious little movie that brings brains to the table.