Cold Skin (2017)

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It’s not always smooth sailing, but French director Xavier Jens (Frontiers) charts a bold course in Cold Skin, a chilly atmospheric tale with tendrils of Joseph Conrad, Rudyard Kipling, and Lovecraft slithering through its evolutionary DNA.

Friend, an English sailor (David Oakes), is transferred to a remote and inhospitable island near the Antarctic Circle, during the height of the First World War, to serve a 12-month stint as a weather observer. It’s never made clear what possible use old weather patterns were to the war effort, but let’s just go with it.

Once ensconced on his wave-tossed rock, Friend wastes no time in setting his cabin on fire after a nocturnal attack by his new neighbors, an army of nimble fish people from the briny deep. Bereft of his surf shack, he turns to Gruner, a misanthropic lighthouse keeper (Ray Stevenson), for shelter and succor, only to end up an accomplice in an all-out war against the fish folk.

Like Sam Peckinpah, Jens explores the questionable dynamics of men under pressure, honor under fire, and all that other stuff we acknowledge when the bodies pile up.

Gruner, a despotic tyrant, is bent on domination and control, a certifiably mad cause that nonetheless swallows up the ambivalent sailor, even as the latter begins to lose his thirst for mayhem. The annihilation of a heretofore unknown aquatic race can weigh heavy on the soul, after all.

The photography, sets, costumes, and effects are uniformly divine, which helps solidify a script that meanders a bit, but never bores. There are indeed epic battle sequences in Cold Skin that pay homage to masters of the craft (Sir David Lean, John Huston, among others) that both stir the blood and make us question our own motives for shedding it.

 

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Swamp Freak (2017)

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I’ve reviewed nearly 200 movies on this site, and Swamp Freak might just be the stinkiest poop in the pot. In fact, I’m complimenting writer/director David DeCoteau by referring to this shambling mess as a movie, rather than what it actually is: a relentlessly tepid tapestry of Vancouver Island establishing shots that a character or monster sees fit to visit occassionally .

There isn’t a single frame with more than one character present. Swamp Freak appears to have been dutifully assembled from an abundance of cutting-room floor footage, with an emphasis on creating a somnolent atmosphere rather than advancing the flimsy plot.

Every chicken-scratching scene boils down to static primeval photography lingering over the leaves in a pond; lichen-stitched tree bark; a decaying dock. This numbing repetition continues until you’re hypnotized into watching the agonizingly slow narrative that reveals itself with all the grace of a stripper with hiccups.

Nutshell: A professor of cryptozoology disappears in the boonies while searching for the legendary “Reed Cove Swamp Freak,” an ambulatory pile of moss and rain gear that is summoned from H20 hibernation by the Freak’s brother Isaac (Michael Timmermans), who definitely got the good looks in the family.

Gradually, after hearing three offscreen lectures about the origin and motives of the drippy cryptoid, several students—none of whom are theater majors—appear one at a time, hot on the trail of their missing mentor, and presumably an assload of extra credit.

The Action: Student talks on cellphone. Student completes call and shuffles around the same track of wilderness for what feels like days. Student senses they’re being watched, because they are, by the Swamp Freak, who half-heartedly gives chase, but sadly wasn’t built for speed. Student runs away for several hours. The Swamp Freak appears unexpectedly and delivers a devastating (and bloodless) blow. This happens five times without the slightest variation.

Even at 75 minutes the tedium is stultifying and oppressive, like being stuck wearing a winter jacket in a hot room. As aimless students wander through a damp and dreary landscape, the viewer is doomed to flounder for meaning—as well as the remote.

 

The Endless (2017)

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I was introduced to the writer-director duo of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead by way of Spring, an audacious rom-mon-com reviewed right here on this very site. I was smitten by the look and feel of the movie, a charmingly low-budget love story with a monstrous subplot. So natch I was jazzed to check out the latest Benson-Moorhead joint, The Endless, a cult film starring the plucky filmmakers themselves!

Set in the roles of siblings Justin (Benson) and Aaron (Moorhead—kudos for easy to remember character names!) The Endless recounts the brothers’ quest to unravel the mystery surrounding the hippie-dippy UFO cult they escaped years before.

Elder brother Justin, the skeptic and the instigator of their earlier flight, insists that the eventual goal of the group was suicide. Aaron, the sensitive brother, wants to know more about Camp Arcadia, the commune where they grew up. Road trip!

Not only is the commune intact, it’s turning a profit as a craft brewery! Justin and Aaron are welcomed with open arms by humble guru Hal (Tate Ellington) and beguiling beauty Anna (Callie Hernandez), and invited to crash as long as they want.

Aaron is taken with the communal vibe, healthy food, clean air, and Anna (not necessarily in that order). Justin, on the other hand, can’t shake the feeling that there’s a rotten core to this paradisiacal apple. He is proved correct and the boys come face to face with dreadful evidence of an eldritch entity that rules the roost.

This is cosmic horror done right, where the story takes prominence over CGI buffoonery. Benson and Moorhead once again combine fearless camerawork with an outré narrative that is compelling and provocative throughout.

See, in Camp Arcadia, immortality exists—and it kinda sucks. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it’s not much different than being a self-aware character stuck replaying the same scene for eternity. On the positive tip, you have a long time to figure out an escape plan. And that, dear friends, is our life’s work.

 

 

Giant From The Unknown (1958)

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He’s husky, but I wouldn’t call him a giant.

It’s pretty obvious truth in advertising laws don’t apply to monster movies made in the 1950s. Former boxer Buddy Baer (uncle of Beverly Hillbillies‘ Jethro, Max Baer, Jr) stands about 6-7, and tips the scales at a solid 250, as the titular creature. Impressive measurements, but well short of beanstalk status.

Still, when he dons his conquistador clothes after waking up from a 500-year nap, the local citizens of a California mountain town wet their collective knickers.

Enter leading man geologist Wayne Brooks (Ed Kemmer), Professor Cleveland (Morris Ankrum), and Janet (Sally Fraser), the prof’s sassy daughter, who are soon on the case, at first searching for fossil evidence of a rogue band of Spanish soldiers that kicked around the vicinity centuries before, led by a large inarticulate fellow called Vargas.

After about 35 minutes of zero action—other than Wayne and Janet’s awkward flirting—the trio deduces that Vargas (Baer), has shaken off the effects of suspended animation after being struck by lightning, and has slaughtered a bunch of nearby livestock (woke up hungry, I guess), sending area rubes into a panic.

The movie is over in 80 minutes, leading to thoughts that the whole thing might have been a diet-inspired hallucination. Highlights include Vargas throwing small rocks at his pursuers, a midnight make-out sesh with Wayne and Janet, and doomed secondary characters named Charlie Brown and Injun Joe who fall victim to the massive Spaniard’s rampage.

Giant From The Unknown is an actual relic, a funny ol’ fly in amber from Tuesday afternoon matinees on Channel 12, when harried housewives had a moment to drain a fast pitcher of martinis before returning to domestic servitude.

Note to Joel: It’s also a prime candidate for Season 12 of Mystery Science Theater. Just sayin’.

 

 

The Bye Bye Man (2017)

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Oh bloody hell, it’s another one of those infernal boogeymen that insists on crashing the party whenever some poor slob mentions their moniker. This incarnation is so sensitive that he’ll turn your life to sewage if you so much as think it.

Elliott (Doug Smith), his girlfriend Sasha (Cressida Bonas), and John (Lucien Laviscount) are a trio of uninteresting Wisconsin college students who forgo the dorm experience in favor of renting a dilapidated old brick mansion that they restore to former grandeur in nothing flat. At the inaugural housewarming beer blast, a little girl finds an old coin in an upstairs bedroom, an impromptu seance occurs, and the next thing you know, Elliott yodels the name of the titular evil spirit, bringing ruination to one and all.

The Bye Bye Man has a few things going for it: Robert Kurtzman’s makeup effects are ghastly good, and name actors Faye Dunaway and Carrie-Ann Moss stop by for a cup of coffee. Sadly, a few touches of professional acting and groovy gore only serve to make the rest of the movie look rather anemic.

Director Stacy Title can’t summon any genuine frights out of Jonathan Penner’s screenplay (based on a story by Robert Damon Schneck), a hodgepodge of convoluted plot points and cookie-cutter cliches that amount to little more than a bargain-brand Candyman. Adequate genre entertainment, but just barely.

Editor’s Note: A game that requires participants to drink bourbon whenever the phrase “Don’t think it/don’t say it” appears, would help to pass the time.

 

Man Vs (2015)

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Back in the days before cable television released the kraken, the three major networks made their own budget-minded movies that were broadcast on different nights. “The ABC Friday Movie of the Week” or “The CBS Tuesday Movie” and such like.

Usually these were formulaic dramas for aging network stars like Rock Hudson and George Peppard, but occasionally something supernaturally cool would come down the pipe. Who can forget Kim Darby fighting off vicious pygmy horrors in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, or Bo Svenson on the trail of an abominable yeti at a ski resort in Snow Beast (recently remade)?

While they weren’t cinematic jewels, these small-screen frighteners succeeded in leaving a mark on impressional minds (like mine) that were allowed to stay up past bedtime  “just this once.” Filmmaker Adam Massey’s talents were honed by his work in television, and in this case, his instincts for tension and pace are solid as cement.

Massey (A Lobster Tale) has directed over 200 commercials, and he brings that lean efficiency to Man Vs, a harrowing sci-fi/horror/reality show hybrid that scores a lot of points from all over the court. There are some obvious flaws to be found, but the watchability here is very high, as we witness the disintegration of an arrogant TV show host who slowly tumbles to the fact that he’s not alone in the remote wilderness of Northern Ontario.

Leading man Chris Diamantopoulos is spot-on as Doug Woods, a sort-of Bear Grylls Lite forced into mortal combat with an extra-terrestrial predator while trying to film his own Mickey Mouse survival  series. His transition from control freak to just plain freaked-out is expertly rendered—the supposedly self-reliant Woods nearly wets his Patagonia rain pants when he realizes he’s the one being stalked for s’mores by a largely unseen enemy. “Why couldn’t we have picked the Bahamas or Santa Barbara?” he laments to his camera. 

Perhaps the enemy should have remained unseen. Among the previously mentioned flaws are the anticlimactic appearance of a nondescript CGI alien predator (complete with that familiar chittering) at around the one-hour mark. Also, the idea that a guy camping for five days could be the basis of a TV show simply isn’t credible. Dude! Haven’t you seen Alone or Naked & Afraid? The bar has been raised.

In spite of its shortcomings, Man Vs delivers an action-packed happy meal without unnecessary plot contrivances, not to mention a first-rate reluctant hero. Diamantopoulos plays Woods as a gutty, resourceful protagonist despite being obviously scared shitless by the severing of contact with civilization. 

Sidebar: I was entertaining a story idea about a survival show that turns supernatural after seeing a recent episode of Naked & Afraid that had the contestants cowering in their shelter because they thought they’d glimpsed a man in a ceremonial mask watching their camp. It was a genuinely unnerving moment, and the incident was never explained. It’s a juicy concept, and Massey got their first.   

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House of Frankenstein (1944)

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Sticklers for truth in advertising could make an excellent case for renaming this tepid Universal horror entry House of Niemann, but by the waning days of World War II the lack of a sure-fire marquee name wouldn’t have put many butts in the seats.

Boris Karloff, the most iconic star in the Frankenstein cosmos, plays Dr. Niemann, an admirer of the original mad scientist who first charged-up the monster that bears his name.

Like his mentor, Niemann has a hunchback assistant (J. Carroll Naish) and enough ambition to raise the dead. After a fortunate spate of bad weather, he and his spine-damaged flunky escape from prison and waste no time in carjacking a couple of wagons owned by Lampini (George Zucco), an itinerant sideshow impresario.

The sideshow’s star attraction? Dracula’s skeleton, which seems to have a doorstop stuffed into its sternum. Once revived, John Carradine does his best, but lacks the physical presence to truly terrify. He also insists on wearing a ludicrous top hat, as if he was just stopping in for a nip of O negative before dashing off to a Gilbert & Sullivan opera.

The titular creature (Glenn Strange, taking over Bela Lugosi, who just didn’t cut it in Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman) doesn’t even make an appearance till 45 minutes into the movie, and for the most part remains either frozen in ice or strapped to a table.

The hunchback falls in love with a gypsy dancer (Elena Verduga), who in turn has hot pants for part-time lycanthrope, Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr), thawed out while Niemann is searching the ruins of Frankenstein’s castle for the doctor’s Cliffs Notes on creation.

The three key monsters never interact, which is a rather disappointing turn of events, especially since we have to sit through several soggy scenes of Talbot and the hunchback whining about who’s life sucks worse.

This movie, as directed by horror veteran Erle C. Kenton (Ghost of Frankenstein, House of Dracula, Island of Lost Souls), is patchy and episodic with only perfunctory thrills. Hell, the Wolfman’s lone kill takes place offscreen, while Dracula’s attack on the burgermeister is performed as a shadow play! Pretty weak tea, if you ask me.

In the long-awaited finale, villagers arrive at the laboratory with torches and chase the monster and Niemann into a quicksand bog. Karloff’s panicked face sinking into the swamp is the last thing we see before the end credits, which is only fitting since he’s the biggest star on the block—and the chief reason to sit through a rather pedestrian film. House of Frankenstein is no classic, but definitely rates a low-expectations look.

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