Deep in the Darkness (2014)

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A rather tepid adaptation of Michael Laimo’s book of the same name, Deep in the Darkness concerns a new-fish doctor (Sean Patrick Thomas) who takes over a rural medical practice on the outskirts of Nutsyville, where the simple inhabitants share a terrible secret about the lurkers in the forest.

As per Laimo’s book, the story has decent potential as the rather clueless Dr. Cayle (Thomas) gets acquainted with a race of nasty troglodyte tunnel-dwellers that call the shots with the local hillbilly population. The doc’s new neighbor, Phil (Dean Stockwell, who tries his best), attempts to get Cayle on board with the idea of sacrificing animals to their vicious little landlords, but the latter dithers and procrastinates, while his wife (Kristen Bush) seemingly has little trouble adapting to their strange new surroundings. Next thing you know, she’s preggers! (You’d think a doctor would have better access to contraception, but such is not the case.)

Neither director Colin Theys or writer John Doolan bring much enthusiasm to the project, and significant story points spill out in haphazard fashion, with all the care of a starving hobo going through a Dumpster. Then after what seems like an eternity (actually just 100 minutes), we’re presented with an unsatisfying left-field ending that packs all the wallop of a question mark materializing after “The End” credit appears.

Other than the casting of Stockwell and Blanche Baker, Deep in the Darkness has precious little going for it. It’s not awful by any means, but genuine frights are few and far between. The only real question you need to ask yourself, is “Why bother?”

The Houses October Built (2014)

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Call me a cockeyed optimist, but I’m the kind of meatball what thinks that life (aka, all the loud shit going on during the waking hours) is an endless learning opportunity. Simply by not having our heads snagged in our own b-holes, we can hopefully evolve into something that isn’t eaten by bobcats or swindled by kids selling magazine subscriptions. If you’re a reasonably intelligent ordinary citizen, you should be able to keep up with your personal narrative to the extent that you can see when your own shitty decision-making is making things unbearable. That is my belief.

Why is this such a struggle for the cast of horror movies and The Houses October Built specifically? Because it’s written that way. It’s our cross to bear so that we can see the trap springing merrily shut.

Armed with digital cameras, four dudes and a woman named Brandy hit the open road in a recreational vehicle looking to document America’s scariest Halloween haunts. They head south, following hideously costumed hillbillies from one trauma-inducing spook house to the next, until they end up in New Orleans. Strange and disturbing occurrences are routine along the way, including confrontations with hostile carny folk and vehicular infiltration by creeping intruders. Anyone with the common sense of a deer smelling a fire in the wind would have hightailed it to the nearest blue state, but the four dudes and Brandy push onward. Sad, really. I wonder who found the footage?

The cast is also billed as the crew. Not quite sure what’s up with that, but I would like to congratulate director Bobby Roe, because The Houses October Built is one scary-ass movie. Way more effective than The Blair Witch Project. Witches aren’t scary. People are scary. Especially in those parts of the world where it gets dark super fast and the scarecrows come to life.

Beneath (2013)

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Not to be confused with Beast Beneath, this cold-sweat skin crawler from director Ben Ketai, plunges us into some seriously subterranean depths for claustrophobic goosebumps not seen around these parts since Neil Marshall’s The Descent (a below-the-surface horror highwater mark).

Filmed in a very realistic coal mine (no location info available) operation, a group of unlucky miners, along with their boss (Jeff Fahey) and his plucky daughter (Kelly Noonan), find themselves stranded 600 feet below ground after an unexpected tectonic turn. Searching for a way out, they come across an older tunnel that leads to the abandoned outpost of a mining crew that disappeared nearly 100 years earlier. Meanwhile, their emergency supply of oxygen canisters is dwindling faster than free drinks at a wedding reception. Wait! Did you hear something?

Since Beneath is “based on actual events,” the likelihood of mole men, ghouls, or trogs appearing out of the stonework seems remote at best, but to their credit, Ketai and writers Patrick Doody and Chris Valenziano keep a firm hand on the reins and the threat levels high. I myself experienced the same sense of impending doom (and fear of tight spaces) that I felt while getting to know the colorful company of marines in Cameron’s Aliens.

I wish I could have contributed to the marketing of this movie, because I have a can’t-miss tagline. “The poisonous atmosphere left them—OXYGEN DEPRAVED!” (The written content of Horrificflicks.com is my intellectual property, by the way.)

Axe Giant: The Wrath of Paul Bunyan (2013)

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Will you think the less of me if I heap modest praise on Axe Giant? Hell, I don’t care. I’m obviously going soft in the head, but this movie never promises more than it can deliver. I am aware that the CGI effects are one notch above cable access and the acting ranges from horrible to hilariously hammy. Even so, director/cowriter Gary Jones has devised what amounts to an intriguingly twisted tall tale that’s awash in guts and gore.

Nutshell: Five snotty adolescent offenders are transported to the Middle of Nowhere Mountains (filmed on location in Ohio, Michigan and California) under the supervision of Sgt. Hoke (Tom Downey), a militaristic asshole who probably has an autographed picture of R. Lee Ermey next to his bed.

Hoke’s mission, to kick their criminal asses toward responsibility, is interrupted by the arrival of the legendary Paul Bunyan, who has an axe to grind (see what I did there?) with whomever has desecrated the final resting place of his beloved buddy, Babe the Blue Ox. The cast is soon whittled down to a paltry few, including Meeks (Joe Estevez, from the famous Estevez/Sheen clan) a mad mountain man who has a soft spot in his heart for the rampaging giant. Given such a juicy part, Estevez hams it up like a butcher with a prize pig and a shiny new cleaver.

The giant’s origin is explained by way of an 1894 backstory that stars old Grizzly Adams himself, Dan Haggerty (who has not aged well). Here, Bunyan turns out to be a massive man-child with  a ridiculously long lifespan and a talent for felling trees, and bears a slight resemblance to a Tolkien troll. The sympathetic brute even inspires a catchy Seeger-esque (Pete, not Bob) ballad that accompanies the credits, sung by Hick’ry Hawkins! You’ve got to admit, an effort was made.

It’s 90 minutes of jolly crapola, but Axe Giant is at least adequately paced, as the titular lumberjack stays pretty busy making bloody cordwood out of the supporting cast. It’s got a few laughs and even a brief nude scene. Folks, you could do a lot worse.

I do feel I must point out one recurring motif that left me befuddled. The giant is apparently stealthy! Have you ever heard of such a thing? He’s constantly sneaking up on his victims and getting the jump on them. You’d think the approach of a 20-foot dude would ring a few alarm bells, but these soon-to-be kindling campers are self-absorbed to the point of oblivion. Perhaps since he spent his life in the woods, Bunyan has learned to tread lightly?

Mountain Monsters (2012)

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It’s not a movie, but if you’re lucky enough to have Channel 201, Destination America, you must watch this incredible show. Apparently the hills of West Virginia are teeming with all manner of cryptozoological fauna, including the Moth Man, the Grass Man, wolf men, dog men, devil dogs, wampus beasts, and every distant relative of Bigfoot known to mankind. So who you gonna call? John “Trapper” Tice and his AIMS (Appalachian Investigators of Mysterious Sightings) team, that’s who!

Trapper and his boys like nothing more than an excuse to go crashing through the woods at night in search of legendary beasts spotted by their hillbilly brethren. Besides Trapper, there’s Jeff, who’s in charge of research. In other words, he has a laptop and knows how to use it. Willy and Wild Bill build all sorts of outlandish traps, pits, and snares, in hopes of capturing a heretofore unknown specimen. They’ve never succeeded, but by god, it ain’t for lack of trying! Huckleberry (Woooot! Team Huckleberry!) is a hunter and tracker with a ready supply of guns, ammo, and thermal-imaging gear. (“Wait! There’s something there! *pause* Now it’s gone!”)

And then there’s Buck, the fat-guy comic relief, who once locked eyes with the Moth Man himself—and fell over hypnotized! On camera! At least once per episode, Buck will gaze in wonder at sketchy video evidence of their mythical quarry (usually a misshapen shadow or tree branch that moved) and exclaim, “That thing’s huge!”

Needless to say, AIMS has never brought home any appreciable evidence of wolf men, aliens, blue devils, or thunderbirds. But I sleep safely at night knowing that these fearless investigators… are really, really far away across the country and unlikely to mistake me for the Beast of Bray Road or the bloodsucking Devil Dog of Logan County and fill my hide with buckshot. Mountain Monsters is a hoot and it’s must-see TV. It’s also been renewed for a second season!

And whatever you do, don’t lump these beardos in with the Duck Dynasty dopes. Not all gun-toting hicks are bad people.

Blood Runs Cold (2011)

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Based on the description, I thought this might be some annoyingly clever musical crossover, since its rather featureless lead character Winona (Hanna Oldenburg) is supposedly a successful pop singer. To my relief, she doesn’t sing a note. She’s far too busy trying to elude the zombie-cannibal-miner-hillbilly freak that’s intent on having her over for a snack (if you know what I mean).

Blood Runs Cold is filmed somewhere near Stockholm, pretending to be North Carolina—which also accounts for the mercurial accents on display. Winona (not a Judd) must four-wheel her way through several miles of frozen tundra to a remote house near her hometown that has been rented by her manager. (Note: If this guy was my manager, and he stuck me way-the-hell-out in some snowbound hick town without my entourage, he’d soon be nut-punched).

Winona (not a Judd) finds her crummy dump of a house, settles in and drives to a nearby tavern where she stumbles over her high school sweetheart Richard (Patrick Saxe) and his friends Carl (Andrea Wylander) and Liz (Elin Hugoson). She invites them all back to her crummy dump (lots of time spent driving around in Arctic conditions just adds to its zero-budget, WTF charm) where they fall prey to a multifaceted maniac (David Liljeblad—who also serves as producer and co-writer) with a penchant for pickax perforation. He falls a bit short of frightening, but I would have appreciated two minutes of backstory on where this colorful killer came from.

With Blood Runs Cold, director Sonny Laguna gives us a fascinatingly unadorned minimalist study in the field of hack-and-stack. Not one dime of this film’s budget was spent on set dressing, wardrobe, or the cast; it’s all earmarked for blood, guts, and decapitation. And if you ask me, that’s money well spent.

Jug Face (2013)

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“There’s some weird shit going on in the woods out there.”

I’m very impressed with Jug Face, an absorbing and shockingly original jolt of indie-horror from writer-director Chad Crawford Kinkle. I would almost venture to call it “magical realism” but that term fails to capture the profound depths of despair plumbed by teen protagonist Ada (Lauren Ashley Carter) as she tries desperately to escape her awful fate as a sacrificial offering to a nameless creature that lives in a nearby pit and serves as a protector to a bunch of moonshine-brewing hillbillies.

Jug Face is indeed mighty grim stuff. Somewhere in the Appalachians, a degenerate community of yokels lives off the grid, dependent on sales of white lightning and dutifully tending the thing in the pit to maintain their squalid existence. Ada, who has an arranged marriage to a doughy village boy in her future, is in love with her sullen brother Jessaby (Daniel Manche) who knocks up the unlucky lass whilst they’re cavorting in the woods.

Meanwhile, the thing in the pit is unhappy and Dwai (Sean Bridgers), the village idiot savant/high priest can’t figure out what’s wrong. Normally, when the god is restless, Dwai is compelled to bake a jug that looks like one of the villagers, who is then sacrificed to the deity. So not only is Ada facing a loveless marriage while carrying her brother’s baby, but it appears she’s next on the pit parade.

The filth and blind ignorance in this hick settlement is so thick you’d need a weed whacker to get through it. And it’s the act of “committing a sin” in such a terrible, unforgiving environment that accounts for the real horror in Jug Face, more so than the angry Lovecraftian god in their midst. Poor Ada tries everything she can think of to avoid the pit, but the superstitious ties that bind (and strangle) these slack-jawed citizens are simply too strong.

Reminiscent of Winter’s Bone, another film about an isolated community with its own strict code of behavior, Jug Face is like an anthropological field trip—or a bad dream induced by a late-night order of pepperoni pizza. In either case, you’ll be very grateful to wake up safe and sound in your own bed.

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