A House on the Bayou (2021)

Now here’s a movie that skips the main course and gets right to the Just Desserts.

As is so often the case these days, A House in the Bayou focuses on a family unit in turmoil, caused by a patriarch who can’t keep it in his pants.

John Chambers (Paul Schneider, from Parks & Recreation) is the unfaithful husband and father. His real estate agent wife, Jessica (Angela Sarafyan), is super pissed but doesn’t want to break-up the family.

Daughter Anna (Lia McHugh) is fearful of a divorce and having to attend separate Christmas dinners. I just assumed the last part.

Jessica packs her contentious clan off to bayou country in the hopes of getting past all the unpleasantness with a surprise vacation to a palatial plantation.

What a great idea!

Upon arrival, Anna meets Isaac (Jacob Lofland), a creepy boy who hangs out at the general store run by Grandpappy (Doug Van Liew), a creepy old geezer. Next thing you know, Isaac and Grandpappy are invited to dinner and hell can proceed to break loose.

Isaac is aptly named, because he has a similar vibe of righteousness as the leader of Stephen King’s Corn kids, not to mention access to a great deal of personal information for a hick from the sticks.

The clever teen also performs “magic tricks” like lighting candles without a match and bringing the family cat back to life.

Grandpappy tells the Chambers’ that Isaac “appeared out of the swamp one day” and the local rubes have been following his lead ever since.

This isn’t good news for a family starting over and learning to trust each other. “The Devil is watching you,” Grandpappy warns John.

Whether or not there are supernatural forces at work in A House on the Bayou, is a back-and-forth situation, but eventually lands squarely in the affirmative camp, with a clear-cut case of pagan idolatry unfolding in modern day Louisiana.

Feel free to use your spare time to figure out Isaac’s origin story. I’m sure it’s a whopper.

Writer-director Alex McAulay shuffles his clue cards with sufficient dexterity to keep a reasonably bright viewer guessing. The ending comes from deep left field, but even so, you probably won’t ask for your money back.

Editor’s Note: Cheating husband John is considering leaving his stunningly gorgeous wife in favor of a less attractive candidate. Doesn’t ring true, sorry.

Animal Among Us (2019)

A very weird and cheap little film.

Animal Among Us kept me marginally enthralled through its entirety, and really, the best I can offer is that it’s weird and cheap, occasionally endearingly so, but mostly it’s a rolling mess.

Somewhere in the California wilderness lies Camp Merrymaker, a blighted spot that’s been closed for 15 years due to a couple kids getting mauled to death by a mysterious creature.

Anita Bishop (Larisa Oleynik) and her sister Poppy (Christine Donlon) are the cute caretakers of this forsaken forest community. They hope to reopen the ill-reputed summer camp with the help of Roland Baumgarner (Christian Oliver), the best-selling author who originally wrote about The Merrymaker Murderer case.

Editor’s Note: After the whole Friday The 13th debacle, why in God’s name would anyone with a grain of sense want to open a summer camp? Were they ever profitable? Just asking.

There’s a junk drawer of subplots spilling all over the place, and what starts out as Cat & Mouse with a monster in the woods, evolves into a revenge plot against the arrogant and faithless Baumgarner.

By no means is Animal Among Us compelling drama, but director John Woodruff and writer Jonathan Murphy pull a few rudimentary surprises out of an old, battered hat.

Their neatest cinematic trick is enlisting the talents of Christine Donlon as a sex-pot forest ranger, who seems to have wandered in from a steamy Cinemax thriller.

Donlon’s libidinous, unhinged performance works as an effective snare to the unaware, hopeful of bonus porn tableaux. (Cue saxophones)

And so the time passes.

Indeed, there is such a palpable sensation of delayed sexy time throughout, that the existence of a spicy director’s cut would surprise absolutely no one of this Earth.

With barely any gore and no actual nudity in the offing, Animal Among Us plays out like community theater Campground Gothic, as an evil, but determined family hangs on against all odds to preserve their vanishing way of life.

To be grudgingly honest, there is a smidgen of entertainment to be derived from witnessing this unstable combination of ludicrous script, wooden acting, and Craft Night special effects.

Keep your expectations as low as the budget and you’ll be fine.

Boar (2017)

Boar is an Aussie animal-attack flick about a small outback community of ranchers threatened by a gigantic, bloodthirsty pig.

Yes, I know it sounds like Razorback (1979). When the star of the movie is a massive swine, comparisons are inevitable.

For my money, writer-director Chris Sun accomplishes exactly what he sets out to do, namely, make an old-fashioned thriller about a giant critter on a rampage that racks up a hella high body count.

It helps greatly that cinematography and practical creature effects were areas of focus for Sun. He dexterously shuffles hog-o-vision POV stalking camera with flying tracking shots of victims trying to escape the oncoming Pork Chop Express in ways that maximize impending terror.

When poor Blue (Roger Ward) has to make a stand against the monstrous boar, the buildup is dizzying, with cameras swooping and circling around him like vultures.

The cast of familiar faces include John Jarratt (Wolf Creek) and Bill Moseley (The Devil’s Rejects) in non-maniac roles.

In fact, Jarratt, who played one of the most cruel and violent killers ever in Wolf Creek, is borderline heroic here. He risks his life, unarmed, to rescue some old-looking teenage campers who’ve pitched their tents in the pig’s path of destruction.

It’s a refreshingly uncharacteristic touch, in a movie that’s full of them. Another example is heroic hulk Bernie (Nathan Jones, think Jason Statham Down Under) launching into a gleeful rap-a-long of “Ice Ice Baby” that reminds me of Quint’s crew enjoying a song in Jaws—a timely comic moment shortly before the shit hits the fan.

There are a number of such moments in Boar, particularly in the beery banter between drinking buddies Ken (Jarratt) and Blue, who are forced to put down their Fosters and run for their lives.

Blue yells at Ken for not loading his rifle before they drunkenly embark on a midnight run to track the creature.

“Well, I never reckoned I’d run into a pig the size of a rhino out here!” Ken retorts.

The “out here” Ken refers to is the beautiful Mary Valley in Queensland, Australia, whose bucolic splendors are never less than gorgeous. Even while characters plan, plot, and panic over their porky predicament, the scenery remains a sparkling gem.

Taken as a whole, Boar isn’t a bore; there are too many good things going on to complain about the uneven pace or a few CGI pig shots that don’t cut it.

Your time invested will be paid off in quality entertainment. You’re welcome.

Ghost Team (2016)

I don’t generally award points for amiability, but somehow Ghost Team managed the feat.

A bunch of goofy ghost chasers get a shot at a real spook surveillance mission, where they must confront dark forces and come together as a team.

As you’ve already guessed, it’s a crew of unhappy misfits looking for something meaningful in their failed lives. Team leader Louis (Jon Heder) is a nonentity who owns a copy shop in a strip mall.

Louis’s depressed BFF, Stan (David Krumholtz), lives on the couch, unable to get past the delusion that his fiancee was abducted by aliens—on their wedding day.

“Why else wouldn’t she be there?” he asks Louis between sobs.

Every team needs a tech wizard, so we also meet Louis’s nephew Zak (Paul W. Downs), a sarcastic prick with access to killer gear, thanks to his job at a Big Box electronics store.

Security guard Ross (Justin Long) is a reasonably brave moron with a military fetish, and Victoria (Amy Sedaris) is a sketchy cable-access clairvoyant looking to get paid.

Finally, there’s Ellie (Melonie Diaz), the pretty Latina who works at the nail salon next door to Louis’s print shop. She signs on to do hair and makeup since everything is being filmed.

The various members of Ghost Team suffer from comically low self-esteem related to their crummy careers, except Stan, who doesn’t have one.

“You remember when you were a kid, and you dreamed one day you’d own your own print and copy shop?” Louis asks Ellie. “Me neither.”

Underdogs. Nerds. Nobodies. The odds are certainly stacked against them. Spirits are lifted with the arrival of matching yellow Ghost Team t-shirts. Sadly, they couldn’t afford the sweet jackets.

Through a timely tip from a copy shop customer, Ghost Team stakes out a remote, boarded up farmhouse and bust out Zak’s “borrowed” ghost-busting gadgets.

Instead of paranormal pratfalls, they stumble upon a meth lab staffed by junkies, who look and act like traditional zombies, leading to a splashy paintball shootout.

Jon Heder provides earnest strength as Louis, the fledgling leader who shows genuine concern for his newfound comrades.

Written and directed by Oliver Irving, Ghost Team is a consistently amusing haunted house caper with heart, one that works best as a team-building exercise. No, it’s not very intense, but if you’re not careful you will be won over by a winning cast of losers.

Tourist Trap (1979)

It’s always a trip to catch a TV icon in a weird little genre film. In the case of Tourist Trap, we’re fortunate to observe The Rifleman himself, Chuck Connors, chewing the scenery as the deranged proprietor of a roadside museum called Slauson’s Lost Oasis.

Written and directed by David Schmoeller (Puppet Master, Crawlspace), Tourist Trap begins with car trouble on a lonely road for five young adults (20? 30?) who are “rescued” from the elements by Slauson (Connors), an overall-clad rube who once ran a profitable frontier wax museum in the area.

Sadly, the new highway choked off the customer flow to Lost Oasis, so now it’s just Slauson and a house full of mannequins that occasionally come to life and scream their displeasure.

The victims, including future Charlie’s Angel Tonya Roberts, wisely decide to go explore the creepy manor house one at a time so they can be easily captured by Slauson (or his masked transvestite brother) and converted into shaking mannequins.

So lifelike! Such realistic skin.

In what may be a case of gilding the lily, Slauson also has telekinetic abilities that he uses to shake things up and kill people remotely when his presence is required elsewhere.

Now that’s multitasking!

To his credit, Connors is marvelous as a really kooky dude who misses his wife and his livelihood. He’s not quite as over-the-top batshit as Rory Calhoun in Motel Hell, but he constantly introduces new facets to Slauson’s madness, creating a more well-rounded maniac.

I believe Tourist Trap was remade in 2005 as House Of Wax, a vehicle for the thespian talents of Paris Hilton. There’s less blood in the original, but it’s way wackier.

Vintage weird that’s worth the search.

Antlers (2021)

“It all makes sense, you see. I mean, our ancestral spirits never died. They were here long before we were, and they’ll be here long after we’re gone. But now, they’re angry.”

Dark times call for dark movies. Antlers is a coal mine at midnight.

The opening observation comes from Warren Stokes (Graham Greene), the former sheriff of Cispus Falls, a blighted Oregon town where mutilated citizens are appearing with alarming frequency.

The current sheriff, Paul Meadows (Jesse Plemons), is seeking counsel. He’s out of his depth and confused, hypothesizing a cougar or bear attack is responsible for the mayhem.

Meanwhile, Paul’s schoolmarm sister Julia (Keri Russell) is trying to figure out why her sullen student Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas) is drawing pictures of demons and monsters.

In Antlers, all the dots connect to the decline of the planet’s structural integrity. Our systematic “pillaging of Mother Earth” has opened the door to indigenous spirits, most notably the Wendigo, a voracious cannibal that inhabits evil men.

Just below the narrative surface of this riveting supernatural thriller lurks mounting evidence of an infected society that has no access to spiritual vaccine.

Cispus Falls is a moribund mining town, an urban landscape littered with old machinery and empty storefronts, where the only thriving business is meth production.

Deep-rooted trauma is the norm. Julia, a recovering alcoholic with her own childhood of parental abuse, eyes liquor bottles at the store with palpable longing, searching for strength and comfort from any source.

In the background, the news drones on about the opioid epidemic, failing industries, and environmental collapse.

Kerri Russell owns her role as a damaged, unhappy woman who realizes her altruistic motives for helping Lucas are likely futile, but it’s marginally better than giving in to the despair that runs deep in these parts.

She recognizes the telltale signs of abuse in Lucas’s haunted face, a reflection of a home life that is literally hellish. He is a child doomed to maintaining the monstrous status quo at his house, while his younger brother Aidan (Sawyer Jones) is held captive by something that used to be their meth-cooking father (Scott Haze).

The thing Lucas calls “New Dad” is growing increasingly hungry and his grocery list requires fresh meat.

“Is God really dead?” Aidan asks Lucas. “Daddy said God is dead.”

Director Scott Cooper, working alongside executive producer/malevolent maestro Guillermo del Toro, has constructed a thoroughly ravaged world with precious little light—one that is bone-chillingly familiar.

Hey, isn’t that our civilization crumbling?

There are moments of brain-freezing terror in Antlers, including horned creature craft with genuine nightmare potential, a del Toro calling card.

Yet it’s the overall tone that proves the most unsettling factor, because it presents a terminally ill worldview, a pandemic of the soul that never ends.

There may be small victories to be had, individuals worth saving, but the inescapable conclusion is that humanity is fighting a losing battle with havoc we’ve wrought on ourselves.

In nearly every scene, Julia and Paul (the good guys) are stymied by inadequacy and failure. The coroner is apologetic because he can’t explain how the victims were killed. A doctor is unable to predict if a patient will recover. The harried school principal (Amy Madigan) tells Julia she isn’t allowed to intervene on a student’s behalf.

Even Paul admits he was reluctant to take the sheriff’s job, which mainly consists of evicting local homeowners.

“Everyone thinks these problems are just going to go away, and we know that they don’t,” Julia tells him. She could be referring to any number of societal symptoms depicted in Antlers.

The wound runs too deep, there’s no saving this patient. The downward spiral is well under way and no one’s getting off.

Hope you like it bleak.

Spell (2020)

Thomas Wolfe was right. You can’t go home again.

Just ask Marquis Woods (Omari Hardwick), an affluent African-American who crashes his plane squarely in the distant past in director Mark Tonderai’s Spell.

Marquis has grown up from a dirt-poor Appalachian childhood into a powerhouse big city lawyer with a handsome family. Upon learning of the death of his estranged father back in the hills, he packs up the wife and kids and flies everyone down South.

Foul weather causes the single-engine plane to drop out of the sky, and when Marquis regains consciousness he is an injured house guest of Miss Eloise (Loretta Devine), a witchy woman who uses magic herbs and a hoodoo doll to keep him immobilized, awaiting a Blood Moon ritual to transfer her essence into a younger body, or something like that.

The lion’s share of Spell is about Marquis’s grueling quest to escape from Miss Eloise and her minions, that’s reminiscent of James Caan trying to vanquish Kathy Bates in Misery.

Eventually Marquis realizes he’s going to have to fight fire with fire and reaches back into his own distant memories for the incantations his father taught him. “You got to believe to make it work,” his father’s shade tells him.

Though he claims on numerous occasions not to believe any of his father’s magical madness, desperation and rage transform Marquis into a practitioner capable of battling Miss Eloise to a standstill.

There’s no shortage of horror movies about urbanites having to fight their way out of a backwoods hellhole, but Spell is the first one I’ve seen with an all-black cast.

It makes for a provocative and offbeat point of view in a film that I recommend taking for a spin.

The Devil Below (2021)

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.

You have been warned.

Hunter Hunter (2020)

Originally published in Mystery and Suspense, April 25, 2021

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. 

12 Hour Shift (2020)

Originally published in Mystery and Suspense, February 17, 2021

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.