Mr. Jones (2013)

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The consensus opinion on writer-director Karl Mueller’s feature-length debut is that it has all the makings of a first-class frightener—but falls apart at the end, like a child’s first soufflé. I think the finale boils down to two possibilities, neither of which ruined the experience, in my opinion. In Mr. Jones, Mueller has created a vivid, found-footage nightmare that runs its course effectively, before running smack-dab into an ambiguous conclusion. Ambiguous, in this instance, does not mean half-assed or inexplicable.

Nutshell: An attractive couple severs its ties with civilization and sets up housekeeping in a remote mountainous locale (The Sierra Nevada range, if I had to guess). Scott (Jon Foster) is intent on making a nature documentary, that fizzles out before it starts. Girlfriend Penny (Sarah Jones) is worried about her partner, who’s gone off his medication and lost interest in the film project that would undoubtedly make them both rich and famous. (Add sarcasm font to the preceding statement.)

They soon become aware of a mysterious neighbor who gambols around in a hooded cloak, and Penny deduces that it is none other than Mr. Jones, a reclusive artist famous for creating unsettling life-sized scarecrows that got shipped out to seemingly random recipients around the world. And now their documentary has a new subject!

As the couple investigates Mr. Jones further, it becomes apparent that the artist is some sort of sorcerer or shaman who’s guarding the borders where various dimensions overlap. Penny’s convinced he’s benign, but Scott isn’t so sure. During a massive storm, all hell breaks loose and the fledgling filmmakers lose each other in the chaos. Queue up an ending that leaves us with more questions than answers, and roll credits.

I thoroughly enjoyed Mr. Jones. It successfully keeps us off balance, unsure of anything that’s taking place before our eyes. As for the ending that got stuck in everyone’s craw, there are two possible explanations. The first is that Scott, upon abandoning his meds (for what condition, we’re not told) has a reality break from which there is no return. The footage they’ve shot suggests that Mr. Jones is Scott himself, but this is hard to verify since there seem to be good and evil versions of both characters running around.

The other theory is that Scott did something to screw up the wards that Jones had put in place to protect our world against impending evil, resulting in the latter’s death. Now it’s up to Scott take his place as the new dimensional guardian. Which is only fair, if you ask me.

Willow Creek (2013)

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Comedian-turned-director Bobcat Goldthwaite has proven himself to be a thoughtfully provocative filmmaker; first with the Robin Williams tragi-com World’s Greatest Dad, followed by the let’s-shoot-all-the-douchebags black comedy God Bless America.

So what does Bobcat bring to the table with Willow Creek, his found-footage fright flick about a yuppie couple in search of Bigfoot? A legitimately scary movie with a harsh message for dilettante daytrippers, and that also happens to mirror the narrative structure of The Blair Witch Project.

Jim (Bryce Johnson, a poor man’s Matthew Modine) is a Sasquatch enthusiast who’s keen on visiting the Willow Creek wilderness where the famous Bigfoot footage was shot by Roger Patterson in 1967. Jim’s girlfriend Kelly (Alexie Gilmore) is along to keep him company.

After interviewing some folks about the legendary creature, the curious couple is strongly advised to abandon the project by two different locals. As it turns out, this was excellent advice that should have been taken to heart.

The whole trip is treated as quite a merry lark until the 42-minute mark when Jim and Kelly find that their campsite has been ransacked. It is at that point that Kelly sensibly says, “I want to go home.” This is followed by a long and harrowing night sequence with the frightened couple trapped in their tent as something roars and stomps around right outside.

The protagonists in Willow Creek, while basically decent and likable, are in no way up to the task at hand, namely, confronting the unknown. Most of the blame goes to Jim, an irresponsible man-child who carelessly follows his whims without a second thought. Kelly, while more of a pragmatist, is too self-absorbed to recognize what a dangerous situation they’ve stumbled into. They’re nice enough, but they reek of frivolous bourgeois entitlement.

Ultimately, their flimsy relationship falls apart in the face of a challenge that they were stunningly unprepared for. To be fair, though, being menaced by a howling legend in the Forest Primeval would test the mettle of even the most devoted couple.

Frankenstein’s Army (2013)

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OK, this bad boy rocks.

If you haven’t seen anything worth inviting into your Netflix queue lately, Frankenstein’s Army is a brilliant remedy.

What we have here is a disturbing Weird War tale with steampunk accoutrements fitted into a “found-footage” frame, with a visual aesthetic that’s bold and nightmarishly distinctive.

In the waning days of World War II, Russian troops are streaming into Germany, wreaking havoc along the way. One such unit is accompanied by Captain Dimitri (Alexander Mercury), a cameraman making a documentary about these “heroic” soldiers.

While holed up in a bombed-out village, the group discovers a church converted into a mad scientist’s lab and are soon set upon by the most outré pack of Nazi zombie-robot-monsters I’ve ever seen.

Frankenstein’s Army is a Czech/US/Netherlands co-production filmed in the Czech Republic, which perhaps goes a long way toward explaining its unique appeal.

A hearty shake of my flippers goes to director and story man Richard Raaphorst, who hits a horror home run his first time at bat.

Admittedly, the lengths needed to preserve the found-footage premise become increasingly (and purposely, I think) absurd as a 70-year-old Soviet movie camera is able to capture pristine audio while getting tossed around like a Samsung at a frat party.

But Raaphorst is a filmmaker with vision: his nimble mind invents extraordinary beings, and like Dr. Frankenstein (Karl Roden), he has the ability to bring them to life.

He’s clearly not just another fawning acolyte of Sam Raimi or Tim Burton—if anything, his work reminds me of England’s once-reigning madman, Ken Russell.

Take it from me, Frankenstein’s Army is some very fresh hell, indeed. Highly recommended.

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!

 

Devil’s Pass (2013)

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With a found-footage narrative similar to The Frankenstein Theory—film crew blunders into a frozen hell searching for answers to an unsolved mystery—Devil’s Pass provides sufficient diversions for an afternoon of chilly thrills.

Plus, it’s directed by former A-list filmmaker Renny Harlin (Cliffhanger, Die Hard 2, The Long Kiss Goodnight) who seems to have fallen off the map of late.

A five-person film crew from the University of Oregon (Woooot! Ducks represent!) retraces the steps of the Dyatlov Expedition, a Russian team that perished under mysterious circumstances in the Ural Mountains in 1959.

Why anyone would want to follow the path of a doomed expedition defies comprehension, but as team leader Holly King (Holly Goss) notes gleefully on camera, “We got a grant!”

Once they land in the former Soviet Union, the crew is bedeviled by a failing GPS navigator, huge footprints in the snow that randomly appear and disappear, and some scary sounds in the night.

All this leads to the discovery of a huge door in the mountainside and hints that the Russian military has been messing around with alien technology.

The finale of Devil’s Pass makes a passable attempt at explaining all the questions that have emerged during the movie’s running time, but it’s still kind of a train wreck.

So instead of yeti we get teleporting ghouls that maybe used to be human? Sure, ok, whatever. The bottom line is that it’s a grueling and unpredictable trip that’s worth taking.

Don’t trip over the plot holes along the way.

The Frankenstein Theory (2013)

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The Frankenstein Theory is a well-made addition to the monster’s cinematic pantheon.

It’s The Blair Witch Project set in the Yukon and the tension build is exquisite. Sure, there’s no monster and no killing for most of the movie’s 86-minute running time, but the slow changes that occur, the gathering darkness that descends on a hapless film crew in search of the legendary Frankenstein’s monster is expertly handled by writer-director Andrew Weiner.

Brainiac scientist Jonathan Venkenhein (Kris Lemche, who is excellent) enlists filmmaker Heather Stephens (Vicky Stephens) and her three-man documentary crew to follow him to the Arctic Circle in search of Frankenstein’s monster, a fictional construct that Venkenhein believes to be flesh and blood.

He produces letters, maps, drawings, and all sorts of theoretical evidence that gets laughed off by the film crew and the team’s hardboiled guide (Timothy V. Murphy), but as they move closer to the frozen heart of nowhere, they begin to realize that there might be something to this mad doctor’s hypothesis after all.

The Frankenstein Theory is a slow turn of the screw, but worth your patience. Action fans might be distressed by the lack of a towering body count, but in doling out the frights in small measures, Weiner makes the anticipation of a showdown worth savoring.

As with most mockumentary/found footage features, there are improbable scenes of “anonymous” camera work (i.e., “Hey, who’s supposed to be shooting this sequence?”) that stretch credulity to the breaking point, but I’m going to let it pass.

Hell, I would watch this again, and that’s something you don’t hear me say very often.

Crowsnest (2012)

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Another found-footage cautionary tale about the dangers of a rural partytime weekend with your buds. Seriously! It sounds like a good idea on paper, especially, as in this case, if the hot-girl-to-dude ratio is 3:2.

But just look at what can happen! And if you must roister in the wilderness, for the love of gawd, don’t videotape every moment along the way.

To be fair, this doomed crew has a better excuse to shoot endless footage of their misadventures than most (documenting evidence of a crime), but it’s become apparent to me that one look through the cursed viewfinder is enough to cook your goose.

A quintet of assholes (really, is it too much to ask that our protagonists have at least one or two attributes that aren’t thoroughly annoying?) pile into their four-wheel drive for a roadtrip to a remote cabin. Needless to say, they never arrive, because the dudes brilliantly decide to take a detour to the middle of nowhere (Canada? Upstate New York? Can’t remember. It ain’t important.) so they can buy a bunch of half-priced beer.

Seems like a solid plan until they find themselves pursued by a pack of cannibals in a Winnebago. Yep. Hungry, hungry hillbillies.

The camera gets passed around from one victim to the next, followed by the inevitable chaotic, shaky handheld footage as the unfortunates get chased through the tall timber by mostly unseen predators looking to restock their larders. After all, winter’s coming.

Crowsnest contains some genuinely grueling scenes of savagery, and the gradual decay of trust and friendship amongst the assholes is effectively documented. It’s a fairly slow journey into terror, but once you’re there the blood and guts come pouring down in buckets.

Writer John Sheppard and director Brenton Spencer aren’t reinventing the wheel here; they’re just reemphasizing a lesson we know all too well. A carload of attractive jerks doesn’t stand a chance out there.

Monster Brawl (2011)

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It’s feather-light on substance, but writer-director Jesse T. Cook’s heart is in the right place.

Monster Brawl imagines a pay-per-view event that pits eight screen creatures (Frankenstein’s Monster, the Werewolf, Zombie Man, Swamp Gut, Cyclops, Lady Vampire, the Mummy, and Witch Bitch) against each other in an other-worldly rasslin’ match—and only one shall emerge victorious.

What could have been a totally brainless exercise in lowest-common denominator yucks, though not brilliant by any means, does fit the bill if you need to clean out your head with 90 minutes of reasonably clever mindless fun.

The good: Buzz Chambers (Dave Foley, from Kids in the Hall) and “Sasquatch” Sid Tucker (Art Hindle) are the commentators calling out the action, and really, their game commitment to the roles is probably the best thing about Monster Brawl.

Buzz is the flask-swigging play-by-play guy, while former champ “Sasquatch” Sid is the voice of ring experience. Both actors acquit themselves with straight-faced aplomb.

We should also acknowledge the efforts of resourceful actor Jason David Brown, who plays no less than three parts (Swamp Gut, Cyclops, and the Gravedigger)! That’s a helluva lot of time to spend with your ass planted in the makeup chair.

There are occasional splashes of gore that are entirely adequate (e.g., the zombie head squish). Lance Henriksen supplies some voice-over work.

Not so good: The monsters are at best, serviceable. Frankenstein’s Monster (Robert Maillet) is a decent interpretation, though the fact that he’s wearing a pullover from Land’s End is not to his sartorial credit.

For the most part they remain in character, though Witch Bitch (Holly Letkeman) is a disappointment, because she uses wrestling maneuvers against Cyclops, instead of her own vaunted sorcery.

Bad: The presence of annoying wrestling manager Jimmy “The Mouth of the South” Hart (who once managed Hulk Hogan!) adds nothing to the proceedings, though his two bikini-clad sidekicks are welcome eye candy in an otherwise desolate landscape.

Best dialogue exchange

BUZZ: And here comes Frankenstein!

SID: Technically, it’s Frankenstein’s Monster, if you want to be a dick about it.

The Bay (2012)

The director of one of my favorite non-horror movies (Diner) hangs out his genre shingle in the found-footage eco-thriller The Bay.

Yep, Oscar-winning writer-director Barry Levinson, best-known for marquee attractions like Good Morning Vietnam, The Natural, and Rain Man, takes the no-name, low-budget road this time around, but still manages to scare the bejeebers out of me with a seemingly plausible environmental disaster scenario set in a small Chesapeake Bay community.

The story unfolds via video edited together from various sources, chiefly confiscated footage seized by government agents—after the fact. Former news station intern Donna Thompson (Kether Donohue) is interviewed on camera about a harrowing incident that has left her traumatized and paranoid.

The year is 2009 and the picturesque town of Claridge, Maryland is preparing for a festive Fourth of July weekend. (Considering the number of horrible things that happen to small towns during annual tourist-trap wingdings, I say we outlaw all community celebrations—forever!)

The assembled footage reveals that the polluted waters of the Chesapeake Bay are infested with parasites, now whimsically grown to the size of collies from steroids in the chicken manure dumped in the water from unscrupulous neighboring factory farms.

The nasty little critters infect the local water supply and cause the citizenry to boil over in gross, awful boils and blisters before the monstrous isopods grow to full size and chew themselves free of their human hosts.

The lion’s share of the blame for this catastrophic turn of events goes to Mayor Stockman (Frank Deal), a crooked, money grubbing shitheel who willfully ignores environmental regulations and dooms his community. Needless to say, he will not be getting my vote come re-election time.

If you’ve seen The Blair Witch Project you’ll be fairly familiar with the dramatic structure. The stitched-together scenes evolve from mundane and curious bits of exposition to choppy, nightmarish fragments, that show an all-American town overrun by fast-moving alien predators.

Fans of Discovery Channel fair like The Monsters Inside Me will no doubt be charmed and delighted as the hideous parasites soon have the run of the place requiring the feds to step in and hush up the whole affair.

It’s no masterpiece, but Levinson and writer Michael Wallach definitely succeed in creating an intense, effective piece of enviro-horror that doesn’t waste any time, thanks to a minimum of preachiness and pretense with “the message.” Recommended.

Troll Hunter (2010)

A trio of Norwegian college students armed with a video camera chases a man they suspect of being a bear poacher.

As it turns out, Hans the hunter (Otto Jesperson) has a much more arcane purpose to his clandestine activities, namely regulating the troll population on behalf of the Norwegian government.

Like most people who’ve sat through Troll Hunter, I dug the hell out of its confident blending of mockumentary, humor, horror, and conspiracy theory.

The troll FX are wizardly; the “mythical” giants are marvelous creations that come to life as sinister (though familiar) fairy tale terrors with a taste for automobile tires and sheep.

As Hans explains to the incredulous students, there are all kinds of trolls: Some are 200 feet tall. Some have more than one head. Some can be found under bridges. And they all live in particular territories.

It’s Hans’ job to track and kill the creatures if they leave their stomping grounds, lest they upset the delicate balance of nature, which usually ends up with people getting crushed or eaten.

Writer-director André Ovredal has a keen sense of all the disparate elements at work here, and his cinematic finesse in creating a vivid mythology on the fly instantly makes him a filmmaker worth following.

If I had to make a complaint, it’s that Troll Hunter is a little light on gore and fright intensity. There is a jaunty lightness of mood that permeates the action, resulting in plot developments—like the death of a major character—that lack any genuine impact.

In other words, Ovredal sacrifices fear for fun.

It’s not much of a misstep, and it goes a long way toward explaining the movie’s popularity at indie and second-run cinemas. Gambling on an audience’s preference for snickering instead of screaming is probably a smart move if you’re looking down the road at career longevity.