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.

 

 

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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 sash 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.

Krampus (2015)

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When it comes to seasonal horror fare, Christmas is starting to give Halloween a run for its money, even if you don’t count deranged Santas stalking overbaked adolescents.

Michael Dougherty’s Krampus qualifies as first-rate family entertainment capable of engaging several generations of house pests. It’s got suspense and a bit of gore, but not much actual violence. Think of it as more dark urban fairy tale, or perhaps a Scrooge variation conceived by Tim Burton. (I even watched it with a sensitive friend to make sure it passed the brutality test.)

Like the Dickens’ tale, Krampus is appropriate for the whole clan because of the valuable lessons it imparts. When young Max (Emjay Anthony) is forced to spend another holiday with his cretinous cousins, his increasingly bad humor brings down the wrath of the titular Yuletide deity, an angry “Anti” Claus who will bloody well give you something to cry about, if your Christmas spirit is found wanting. In other words, he takes instead of gives.

Soon, his family’s snug suburban home is a frozen wasteland with menacing snow men appearing in the yard, setting the table for ol’ Krampus and his hideous helpers to work some dark magic.

A spirited cast, led by Adam Scott (Parks and Recreation), Toni Collette (United States of Tara), David Koechner (Anchor Man) and Alison Tolman (Fargo) work some magic of their own, giving expert comic performances across the board. The movie certainly qualifies as a dark comedy, but the characters reveal surprising depth and decency. Co-writer and director Dougherty shows a firmer hand with heroism here than he did with either of the X-Men features on his resume.

Like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (Gene Wilder, RIP), Krampus relishes in the teaching of lessons to naughty kids and their clueless parents. All the petty griping, selfishness, and stupidity gets shoved aside as survival becomes the season’s hottest gift idea.

Spring (2014)

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A very nifty flick that can be thoroughly enjoyed by any and all genders and temperaments. Much like A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, Let the Right One In, or Near Dark,  Spring is a deliciously dread romance, as a nice-boy protagonist gets sucked into a dangerous new friendship. Co-director and writer Justin Benson borrows a page or two from Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and creates an oddly pleasing hybrid; a convincing creature feature about love and acceptance, that is rendered exquisitely.

After his mom conveniently kicks the bucket, Evan (Lou Taylor Pucci) decides to ditch his hayseed hometown and take a trip to Italy. His “aw shucks” demeanor and cornfed gusto prove irresistible to lovely research student Louise (Nadia Hilker), and before you know it, charming and witty dialogue gives way to a crisp series of scenic seduction sequences.

A whirlwind fling in a picturesque Italian coastal town ensues, and the star-crossed couple demonstrates palpable chemistry. Even so, there’s something a little odd about Louise. Is she a junky? Does she have a mysterious medical condition? Where did her pet rabbits go?

It certainly helps that Spring gets high-caliber performances from Pucci and Hilker, as a likable couple we have no trouble rooting for, especially since Evan and Louise seem to be having as grand a time as we are.  The whole thing is almost entirely too delightful, an extremely volatile ingredient when it comes to the horror movie.

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