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.

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.

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. 

 

 

 

 

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 rear view and take off on a road trip to begin a new life in Los Angeles.

The only things standing in the way are Nicole’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 Nicole 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, Nicole 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. 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.

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.

Demon Wind (1990)

Sam Raimi and The Evil Dead = The Velvet Underground.

I accept that it’s not a perfect analogy, but you get where I’m coming from. It’s an undeniable influence.

Nearly 10 years after Raimi and Bruce Campbell caught lightning in a bottle, Charles Phillip Moore and his crew unveiled a delightfully unfettered homage, Demon Wind, about another bunch of old teenagers assailed by occult forces in a rural location.

Corey (Eric Larson) and his girlfriend Elaine (Francine Lapensée) meet up with a group of friends and stereotypes to solve the mystery of Corey’s grandparents, who perished under mysterious circumstances during the Great Depression.

Turns out the family farm (more of a tattered theater set, really) is on land originally claimed by a devil-loving preacher and his followers who were set ablaze by townsfolk with no taste for human sacrifice.

Once Corey and his comrades reach the farm, all hell breaks loose, and suddenly, we’re at a Dead show, with ghouls coming out of the woodwork.

I’m not recommending Demon Wind because it’s a brilliantly conceived film that was nurtured to life by the artistic vision of writer-director Charles Phillip Moore.

Rather, it’s the sort of slap-dash amateurism (it was filmed in seven days) that drove Ed Wood to create flying saucers out of paper plates and a cockpit from a shower curtain.

Necessity is indeed the mother of invention, and the makeup and practical effects on Demon Wind, though plentiful, range from barely adequate to comically half-assed.

Moore employs a similarly scattergun approach to the narrative, seizing and abandoning ideas with random enthusiasm.

One of the doomed kids, Chuck (Stephen Quadros), is a magician with a black belt. His friend Stacy (Jack Forcinito) has a shotgun with unlimited ammunition.

Chuck still carries a torch for Terri (Lynn Clark) who now belongs to homophobic meathead Dell (Bobby Johnston).

Poor Bonnie (Sherrie Bendorf) gets turned into a doll, and no one seems to care.

Magic spells are cast. You can tell because that’s when the bloopy, hand-drawn animation appears.

The entire cast looks as though it just stepped out of a Huey Lewis video. Feel free to hit pause and ridicule the myriad lame looks available to pre-grunge adolescents.

And don’t worry about Corey’s friends dying. When the pack gets thin, Amazon thoughtfully sends more.

Stinky cheese makes the tastiest snack, no?

Ruin Me (2018)

Honey, for our vacation this year, let’s try something different.

Ever wanted to experience the adrenaline boost that comes from getting chased by a masked killer through the forest in the dark? Man, there’s nothing like it!

This is the premise of Ruin Me, in which thoughtful boyfriend Nathan (Matt Dellapina), surprises his taciturn girlfriend Alexandra (Marcienne Dwyer) with two tickets to Slasher Sleepaway—a 36-hour fun-fest that requires six campers to find clues in order to survive a frightful night in the woods.

Editor’s Note: If I were to surprise my wife with a similar gift, the only blood spilling would be mine.

As so often happens in these bucolic scenarios, the line between fantasy and reality gets lost in the dark, and Alexandra and Nathan gradually come to regret signing the liability waiver as fellow campers are stalked and sliced by a nearby escaped lunatic.

Director and cowriter Preston DeFrancis straps the viewer onto a bucking bronco of jumps, twists, and stupefying gaps of logic that play out in agreeable fashion for fans of the Doomed Camper genre. Even as we celebrate our beloved bloody tropes, we begin to notice clues of our own that point in a different direction.

If you can suspend your disbelief on occasion, the time passes enjoyably and you’ll even find yourself rooting for Alexandra, an unexpectedly complex and resourceful Final Girl, played with much gusto by Marcienne Dwyer.

Like the supporting cast, who appear to be a typical assortment of nerds, goths, and sluts, there is more to Ruin Me than just the usual suspects and psychos dueling in the dark. Sometimes the choices we’re forced to make are far scarier than any boogeyman.