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.

Atrocious (2010)

I’m quite good at suspending my disbelief. Trust me, when it comes to horror, I have a very limber set of standards in that department.

And as much as I liked Atrocious, a found-footage frightener from Spain, I had some serious reservations believing that central characters July (Clara Morelada) and her brother Cristian (Cristian Valencia), would continue to schlep their camcorders around after figuring out that a fiendish killer is stalking them at their family’s rural retreat.

“Oh my God, there’s a fiendish killer in the house with us! Do you have a spare battery pack?”

Uh huh. It’s a shame too, because Atrocious has the makings of a crackerjack movie.

Teen siblings July and Cristian are spending their vacation with Mom (Chus Pereiro), Dad (Xavi Doz), and adorable kid brother Jose (Sergi Martin) at a Spanish country estate that comes equipped with its own massive hedge maze.

The pair fancy themselves as intrepid ghost-hunting, mystery solvers so they bring along two video cameras, which is a stroke of luck for the cops when they discovery that everyone’s been murdered about a week later.

After sifting through 37 hours of footage, the final cut serves as the movie itself. If you surmised that there would be an abundance of chaotic night scenes frantically shot by the protagonists whilst lost in the hedge maze, give yourself a gold star.

There is some first-rate fright footage here. And the actors playing July and Cristian are very good, very natural. Atrocious is worth the time it takes to watch, but the surfeit of film (not to mention battery power) is a contrivance that each viewer will have to sort out for themselves.

It doesn’t ruin the experience, but you may find yourself (as I did) shouting, “Oh come on, already!” at the screen on several occasions.

Grave Encounters (2011)

A ghost-chasing reality show crew makes the mistake of choosing a location that is actually, you know, haunted.

The intrepid Grave Encounters team decides to investigate the laundry list of paranormal events at the old Collingwood Mental Hospital, where “thousands” of patients were lobotomized, neglected, and otherwise discouraged in their quests for a sound mind.

Manic team leader Lance Preston (Sean Rogerson), loaded down with the latest in ghostbuster technology, hopes they’ll find evidence of a real haunting.

Careful what you wish for, dude.

It’s been a few moons since I reviewed a “found footage” feature, and I’m glad I found this one. Stylistic similarities aside, I dig Grave Encounters more than The Blair Witch Project. (Dig? Grave? See what I did there?)

True, TBWP came first, but to me, the scariest thing about that particular film, was the inability of its characters to camp successfully. Frankly, it hasn’t aged well.

Grave Encounters is a much less “subtle” movie, and the fright factor is much higher. Sure, most of the time, less is more. The suggestion of terror is more effective than beating you over the head with a bag of ghosts (see the original version of The Haunting, and the vapid remake with Owen Wilson and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Or better yet, just watch the original.)

Here is an exception to the rule. The Vicious Brothers, who wrote and directed, like to reveal their spooks, but they do so in an artful manner, staggering the flow of genuine frights in unpredictable ways.

Some scenes build to an expected payoff—and then it doesn’t happen. But it will. Later. When you’re not looking for it. Original premise? Hell to the no. Fun? Affirmative.

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006)

Humor in horror movies is a tricky thing. It’s a great tension reliever, but too much, too often, and you end up watching a “spoof.” (Spoof = lame). Director Scott Glosserman strikes a judicious balance of horror and ha-ha in Behind the Mask, a faux documentary about a film crew of college students shadowing a wannabe serial killer.

As Leslie, the cheerful, upbeat (but very focused) killer, Nathan Baesel brings vast amounts of nuance to a role that could have been a corny caricature. In fact, he kind of reminds me of Rob Lowe’s character in Parks & Recreation, a most amiable and chatty fellow.

He is by turns funny, cunning, weird, and frightening as a man who has chosen to do battle against the forces of good. (“There can’t be good without evil,” he explains.) The lion’s share of the film details Leslie’s extensive preparations as he stalks his victim, a pretty waitress named Taylor (Angela Goethals).

The real hook is that Leslie takes great pains to debunk the supernatural aspects of cinematic serial killers like Jason Voorhees, Michael Meyers, and Freddy Krueger. He trains relentlessly, studies the disappearing tricks of Houdini, practices yoga, and gets sage advice from Eugene (the always excellent Scott Wilson), a retired killer who lives next door.

It’s a smart film and no one behaves in predictable fashion—unless it’s part of the stalking-and-killing ritual. Small parts featuring Robert Englund as Leslie’s “Ahab,” Dr. Halloran (a ringer for Donald Pleasance in Halloween), and tiny Zelda Rubenstein as the librarian with a red herring, add to the fun.

Behind the Mask is a highly ambitious little movie that brings brains to the table.