Sator (2019)

Filmmaker Jordan Graham’s docu-horror Sator is an odd hybrid creature that really digs in its claws. Graham is responsible for every detail, including building a desolate cabin in the woods near Santa Cruz, which explains why the movie spent six years in preproduction.

Sator is partially the (real) story of Graham’s grandmother Nani (June Peterson) who appears in the movie as herself, discussing her history of channeling a guardian spirit called Sator. She’s written hundreds of pages inspired by the woodland entity that, she claims, controls the rural world that surrounds her.

Graham utilizes these interviews with Nani to extrapolate an eerie, dreary tale about her grandson Adam (Gabe Nicholson), a solitary forest dweller who (very) slowly gets drawn in by the machinations of Sator. Or perhaps he’s afflicted with the same mental illness that consumed his mother and grandmother. Or both.

On one of his periodic visits, his brother Pete (Michael Daniel) asks Adam if he’s hearing voices. He replies in the affirmative, as if this is all familiar territory to these damaged siblings. When Adam’s dog disappears, he is effectively untethered and falls even harder.

Sator is a humble, terrifying slice of folk horror that succeeds because Graham has left nothing to chance. It’s clearly a labor of love that generated its own momentum, and Graham took the time to carefully blend the real with the unreal. Each frame is a brooding still-life, with the encroaching nature photography especially menacing, as if there truly were a malevolent figure lurking behind the nearest shrub. Watching. You.

Graham’s visual style can best be described as Nature Noir, with overhanging trees choking off any trace of light in the lives of this blighted family. Graham’s camera shifts from color to black and white, following a hopeless trajectory of impending doom.

Not all genre devotees will have the patience for Sator, a movie floating in foreboding, but with little in the way of dialogue and action. I’m recommending that you stay and watch.

If you have the bandwidth to soak up even a fraction of the dread depicted onscreen, it should prove a transformative experience. Good luck, whatever you decide.

As Above, So Below (2014)

Hey gang, who’s up for some tomb raiding?

Scarlett (Perdita Weeks) is a beautiful and fearless archaeologist searching for the fabled Philosopher’s Stone, an alchemical instrument of great power, stashed amongst the bone-strewn catacombs beneath Paris.

Too bad the road to riches leads perilously close to the gates of Hell. Next time, stay with the tour, lady!

Written and directed by John Erick Dowdle, As Above, So Below is part Blair Witch Project with a splash of Indiana Jones, combining found-footage of claustrophobic exploration with a deadly descent into a haunted underworld from which escape seems a faint possibility.

The pace spasms between breakneck thrills, sudden horrifying obstacles, and episodes of hieroglyphic dexterity, as Scarlett shepherd’s her team through a booby trapped limbo where fragments of their collective past keep biting them on the ass.

The found-footage aspect of the production is handled efficiently, not calling undue attention to itself, making the periodic explosions of paranormal terror and graphic violence even more trauma inducing.

The words of a minor character become the company mantra: “The only way out is down.”

Perdita Weeks is a capable and headstrong heroine, energizing Scarlett with proficiency as well as a complicated set of emotions, as she tries to finish the life’s work that drove her father to suicide.

Not only that, but she might be developing serious feelings for her linguist friend, George (Ben Feldman).

My critic’s cap is off to Dowdle, who fuses furious frights and exhilarating mayhem in one satisfying adventure. It’s a dark, intense quest, but ultimately we’re the better for having seen it through.

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.

Apollo 18 (2011)

Houston, we’ve got a problem. There’s life on the moon, and it ain’t lunar maidens in diaphanous gowns.

Buckle up for another found-footage adventure, this one finding its way back to Earth from the cold embrace of space. Apollo 18 reveals classified information about a secret moon landing in 1969 that was completely on the down low from the American public.

Mission Commander Nathan Walker (Lloyd Owen), Captain Ben Anderson (Warren Christie), and Lieutenant Commander John Grey (Ryan Robbins) are dispatched to the moon under the direction of the Department of Defense, to set up a monitoring device to keep tabs on the Russians.

That’s the story, anyway.

Walker and Anderson discover a derelict Russian spacecraft and the remains of a Soviet cosmonaut on the lunar surface. Shortly thereafter, Walker has a close encounter with a scuttling moon spider and the mission is pretty much FUBAR.

There are many parallels to Alien, including a critter gestation period and the inevitable expendability of the crew, a development that does not sit well with the participants. Indeed, the casual disregard for the safety of the astronauts by Mission Control is more frightening than the moon spiders themselves.

With Apollo 18, director Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego and writer Brian Miller play the slow-burn card to a fault. They establish a suffocating atmosphere of dread and doom in outer space with limited sets and props—and action.

There are moments when the audience feels like they’re the ones lost in space, adrift in an indifferent narrative.

Ultimately, it’s worth the trip. There’s more than enough creeping unease to keep us tuned in for the duration, as three astronauts transition from All-American heroes with The Right Stuff, to unwitting hosts with interstellar predators.

Hell House II: The Abaddon Hotel (2018)

Hey! Let’s “check in” with Hell House LLC mastermind Stephen Cognetti, and the second installment of his infernal found-footage franchise.

The Abaddon Hotel picks up a few years down the road from the fatal Halloween reopening of the first film. In the interim, the boarded up inn has become a destination for ghost hunters, thrill seekers, and documentary filmmakers—all of whom end up missing.

Despite a local police presence to shoo away curious cats, the Abaddon continues to attract unfortunate wayfarers, including investigative reporter Megan Fox (Jillian Geurts), sole Halloween survivor Mitchell Cavanaugh (Vasile Flutur) and smug TV psychic Brock Davies (Kyle Ingleman).

Film and video from a variety of doomed sources is thoughtfully edited together so we too can enjoy the accommodations at Pennsylvania’s only four-star haunted hotel, now with a new and improved Hell Mouth that’s hungry for fresh souls.

Writer-director Cognetti (aided by dozens of relatives, if the credits are to be believed) expands and colors the nascent concepts left germinating since the first movie.

We finally get to meet kooky cult leader Andrew Tully (played with devilish panache by Brian David Tracy), who fills us in on his devilish “business plan” for the Abaddon.

See, it never closes, and there’s always a fire burning in the basement, just like Tom Bodett’s Motel 666.

Cognetti is not only dexterous enough to fill in the holes from the earlier film, but he lays the foundation for Part III, revealing that a wealthy media mogul has developed an unhealthy interest in the Abaddon.

Stay tuned! I know I will.

Banshee Chapter (2014)

Given the present political situation, it should come as absolutely no surprise to anyone that government representatives frequently don’t have our best interests at heart.

Investigative reporter Anne Roland (Katia Winter) goes in search of a missing friend and uncovers a possible story about CIA mind-control experiments gone awry.

A breadcrumb trail of video evidence leads Anne to counterculture author Thomas Blackburn (Ted Levine, ol’ Buffalo Bill himself), a stand-in for Hunter S. Thompson, with whom she “trips” on a formula that was used on unsuspecting civilians in the 60s and 70s.

The drug, derived from the human pineal gland, gives the recipient heightened awareness of other dimensions—and the curious creatures who inhabit them.

The tension level climbs steadily throughout Banshee Chapter, but it’s the footage of old experiments that prove the most gripping. Clueless test subjects are strapped to a chair, injected with the dreadful drug, and plunged into darkness, attracting the attention of extra-dimensional entities who want to use the humans as surfboards into this world.

While intentions are never stated, I think we can safely assume the beings transforming human hosts into hideous mutations, are doing so for nefarious reasons.

Based on H.P. Lovecraft’s From Beyond, but bearing little resemblance to Stuart Gordon’s splashy adaptation from 1986, Banshee Chapter is a formidable debut for writer-director Blair Erickson, who shades his conspiracy theory mockumentary with splashes of cosmic horror (and humor) that blend perfectly in a paranoid landscape that greatly resembles our own.

In times such as these, we need eerie entertainment to keep us on our toes, and Banshee Chapter should have no trouble troubling an already troubled sleep.

Final Prayer (2013)

Let sleeping gods lie. They wake up cranky.

In writer-director Elliott Goldner’s found-footage frightmare Final Prayer (original title: The Borderlands), a team of investigators from the Vatican gets swallowed up by a powerful pocket of pagan worship in rural England.

As we all know from The Da Vinci Code, the Catholic Church has its fingers in dozens of occult pies, and always stands ready to dispatch expert emissaries should the need arise.

A report of supernatural hijinks at a remote country church is reason enough for the Pope to assign hard-drinking clergyman, Deacon (Gordon Kennedy), Gray (Robin Hill), a novice film and audio tech, and officious Vatican rep Mark (Aidan McArdle), to confirm or debunk the phenomenon.

The tiny congregation is headed by Father Crellick (Luke Neal), who fervently believes that the sounds of babies crying and objects moving by themselves in his church are proof of a miracle.

The team has different ideas. Mark thinks it’s a hoax; Gray is perplexed and frightened, while Deacon sees parallels with an older case that didn’t end well.

Fortunately for us, the protagonists get so used to wearing their headset cameras and mics during the course of the investigation, that we get the inside scoop before All Hell Breaks Loose, which happens in spectacular fashion during the final scene.

I advise patience during the first 45 minutes or so. Final Prayer takes a while to get rolling, but the slow burn pays off with a finale that is outré in the extreme.

By then, you’ll be on the hook with the rest of us.

Highly recommended.

 

 

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.

 

The Pyramid (2014)

What, no Mummy?

You’d think a horror movie called The Pyramid would have the decency to trot out a few bandage-wrapped shufflers for Old Times’ sake, but director Gregory Levasseur (better known as the writer for High Tension and The Hills Have Eyes) decided to go another way.

Nutshell: An archaeological expedition enters a previously undiscovered pyramid, awakening several inhabitants, including feline zombie servants of Bas, and apparently the god Anubis himself.

Egyptian curses. We never learn.

The defilers of the sacred tomb spend the majority of their screen time crawling through ancient, perfectly symmetrical tunnels in search of an exit, triggering deadly traps and getting mauled by a wrathful jackyl-headed CGI monster that’s actually not too shabby to behold.

The most riveting sequence involves a woman helplessly impaled on wooden stakes being slowly eaten by undead cats. Needless to say, this predicament doesn’t sit well with the victim, who howls for release.

Though The Pyramid is ostensibly a found-footage feature, the POV is all over the place so it’s best not to focus on this aspect.

Instead, settle in for a fast-moving conveyer belt of doomed tomb raiders meeting their fates in memorably macabre fashion.

Again, no mummies are featured in The Pyramid. But the curse is a killer.

Hell House LLC (2016)

In which the haunters become the haunted.

Five friends form a professional haunt company, staging elaborate Halloween tours in creepy locations. The opening of their latest attraction is not entirely successful, as most of the staff ends up deceased in gruesome fashion.

The police and civic authorities shut down subsequent investigations, but five years after the Halloween Holocaust, a documentary crew attempts to solve the mystery by tracking down and interviewing the lone survivor.

For fans of the found-footage genre, Hell House LLC doesn’t disappoint. Writer-director Stephen Cognetti peppers the premises with ghosts, demons, a Satanic cult, a big scary clown, and enough paranormal pageantry to make up for any quandaries about who’s supposed to be running the camera in this scene.

I cheerfully recommend the movie, and may go so far as to check out the two sequels it inspired.

Note to filmmakers on a budget: Behold the beauty of a found-footage film; the iPhone cinematography actually enhances the dreadful atmosphere, forcing the trembling viewer to strain for every grainy terror captured.

The very existence of sequels to Hell House LLC proves that someone made their money back—and that’s enough to keep the iPhones rolling.