Hellbender (2021)

If you recall the lavish amount of praise I heaped upon The Deeper You Dig, then you might have a clue of how stoked I was for Hellbender, the follow-up effort from the shockingly talented filmmaking Adams Family.

In a possible star-making turn, Zelda Adams absolutely smashes glass as Izzy, a mysterious teen who leads an isolated existence with her mother (Toby Poser) in the woods.

Izzy is not unhappy. Life with Mom rocks, in a modest way. The two create raw punk music together in a drums-bass duo called Hellbender. Mom is wise in the ways of the forest and teaches her daughter all about the forces of nature.

However, contact with the outside world is verboten. Mom tells Izzy she’s too sick to be around other people. Can this be true, or is there a more compelling reason for homeschooling such a bright pupil?

Written and directed by Adams, Poser, and John Adams, Hellbender is a bold, original movie told with fearless artistic flair. After a lightning strike moment, Izzy must adjust to severe growing pains when she accidentally meets a distant neighbor (Lulu Adams) who awakens all kinds of new, dangerous feelings.

It’s such a confident blend of folk horror and coming-of-age drama/trauma, that when Izzy begins to change, we truly see the world through her eyes, and it’s an unsettling trip. Her caterpillar stage has ended, and something more powerful is emerging, heralded by Izzy’s switch from a vegetarian diet to fresh, bloody meat.

It’s also quite a change for Mom, who recognizes that a new administration will soon be taking charge, and that it’s just the start of a new season.

Highly recommended. The collective vision, brains, and arboreal soul displayed by the Adams Clan in Hellbender is never less than spellbinding, and watching their unique ascension in the horror film landscape leaves me giddy with anticipation of future treasures.

I only hope they can maintain some measure of artistic control as the budgets get bigger and they ponder leaving the creepy bucolic comforts of their upstate New York headquarters. The energy this team brings to each project is somewhat feral, and perhaps shouldn’t be tamed by Big Business.

In any case, I’ll be there in the dark with eyes wide open.

We’re All Going to the World’s Fair (2021)

It’s definitely an immersive experience and most definitely a horror film.

Writer-director Jane Schoenbrun has found a fresh fear angle in We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, forging sinister and frightening links in a story told largely online.

Casey (Anna Cobb) is the personification of teen restlessness. With establishing shots revealing a dreary anonymous urban nowhere, little wonder that she seeks stimulation and community on the web.

And so the web snares another fly as bored blogger Casey creates laptop videos of herself charting her progress through a horror-themed Online Role Playing Game called The World’s Fair.

To enter the game, a player must bleed. Not sure what kind of port you use for upload.

It’s a plot that cooks over a slow fire, but WAGttWF hums with a steadily climbing anxiety level. Our concern for Casey’s welfare deepens as we realize she’s not the only one playing, and the tone of her video posts get darker.

Casey mentions her father’s rifle. She knows where it is.

All kinds of red flags and warning bells go off, but Casey proves capable of mastering her game emotions, even if her opponent (Michael J. Rogers) does not.

Rogers portrays one of those super creepy concern troll that lurks under every virtual bridge. Switching to his perspective, Schoenbrum daringly gives us a nervous glimpse into his painfully shameful world—and that’s more than enough.

We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is a minefield of a movie about a very real war between the sexes. You read about it every day: A lonely wretch goes bananas and kills people because they are psychologically incapable of real-life interaction.

These are the ones I’m warning you about. They are a cause for concern.

Alligator (1980)

Alligator is the correct and proper way to make a giant critter movie. People create the monster. Monster eats people.

A vacationing couple and their daughter watch an alligator nearly bite a man’s leg off at a hick circus in Missouri. Struck by the wonder of this magic moment, they buy their little girl her own baby gator from a nearby huckster.

Soon after the family’s return to Chicago, Dad flushes the little lizard down the crapper. See you later, alligator.

Fast forward 12 years and there’s a monster-sized alligator in the sewer.

While we could blame the irresponsible father who bought the damn thing in the first place, John Sayles’ civic conspiracy-minded script points the guilty finger at Slade (Dean Jagger), a cadaverous old CEO whose company’s clandestine experiments with growth hormones have dramatically affected the local food chain.

Troubled-but-honest cop David Madison (Robert Forester) is the detective saddled with the thankless job of going into the sewer and capturing the rampaging reptile. Through his frustrating quest, Sayles and director Lewis Teague reveal that corrupt politicians and muckraking journalists are no help whatsoever, and deserve to be eaten.

Madison enlists the help of gorgeous herpetologist Marisa Kendall (Robin Riker) in an effort to get inside the lizard brain, while the mayor (Jack Carter) brings in famous big game hunter Colonel Brock (Henry Silva) to slay the beast.

When Madison’s investigation gets too close to Slade Industries, the spineless mayor has him fired, removing the one competent person in Chicago that’s committed to stopping the creature.

Soon the alligator is popping up all over the place. A backyard swimming pool, a nearby canal, dark alleys, and eventually the posh wedding at Slade Mansion, where the monster eats its fill of the elite guest list and dispenses justice at the same time.

The reason Alligator is revered as a classic of the genre, is usually attributed to the presence of Sayles, who went on to direct lauded art-house fare like Matewan, Lone Star, and Passion Fish, making him a favorite among the well-heeled brie and festival crowd.

It doesn’t hurt that plot and characters mirror the Jaws template, even twisting the knife a little deeper into the culpability of swinish local officials.

The cast of marvelous professionals, including Forester, Riker, Silva, and Michael Gazzo as a beleaguered police chief, really nail the story in place and bring it to life. Every actor, from top to bottom, brings humor and humanity to their roles, and that gives the production a big lift.

Even ancient faces like Jagger and Mike Mazurki get a little screen time!

And let’s not forget the titular terror. There’s no CGI here, just miniature sets and strong practical effects that emphasize flailing bodies in the gator’s mouth, with blood gushing, and bones crunching.

As it should be. People getting eaten by monsters is, perhaps, the highest form of cinema.

The Requin (2022)

What the hell is a “Requin?”

Oh, it’s French for shark. Seems odd to name the movie after a character that doesn’t even show up for the first hour.

Prior to the shark’s arrival, we get Alicia Silverstone emoting all over the place as a woman on a tropical vacation with her husband (James Tupper).

Jaelyn (Silverstone) is having trouble getting her groove back after a recent bloody miscarriage. She and hubby Kyle take an exotic trip to coastal Vietnam, where a recuperative idyl is interrupted by a storm so fierce, their little hut on the beach is pulled out to sea.

As if they didn’t face enough obstacles as a couple.

The bickering duo spend a few months adrift (it sure feels like it, anyway) until the signal fire they build to attract planes and ships burns up their raft.

Still no shark.

Kyle and Jaelyn eventually reach a place in their relationship (and in the ocean) where they’re comfortable forgiving each other and working together to achieve mutual goals.

It’s at this point, about an hour into the movie, that director Le-Van Kiet finds the key to the shark cage. Suddenly the water is full of fins, despite the fact Kyle has been gushing Type O since Day One.

Rather than continue to listen to his batty wife, Kyle manages to get his legs eaten, effectively freeing his soul to go anywhere else.

I would like to offer a modest round of applause to Kyle, who never stops being a supportive, caring spouse, even after many hours spent floating in a water tank with a cranky costar. His ability to crack jokes in an effort to buoy his wife’s ever-changing moods is nothing less than heroic.

“I’m going to ask for a discount on the room,” he quips, earning him a brief smile.

As for Miss Silverstone, she endures mounting misery in true Perils Of Pauline fashion. One shark in particular (they named the movie after him!) pursues Jaelyn and devours the Vietnamese fisherman (Danny Chung) who rescues her, because no good deed goes unpunished.

The Requin is a big bucket of smelly chum with Amateur Hour special effects, but you kind of want to see it through—if only to find out how much worse things get for Alicia Silverstone, who is clearly having a real bad year.

Terrified (2017)

It’s scary watching a good neighborhood go bad.

Set in the suburbs of Buenos Aires, Terrified zooms in on one unlucky block of real estate, where strange things are happening.

How strange, you ask?

Just ask the kid next door. He was recently run over by a bus and buried, but has returned after clawing his way out of the grave. The boy’s mother (Julieta Vallina) is beside herself, as you might expect.

Her detective boyfriend Funes (Maximiliano Ghione) calls in retired cop Jano (Norberto Gonzalo), a forensic expert with a knack for bizarre cases.

Before the investigation can begin, renowned paranormal researcher Dr. Mora Albreck (Elvira Onetto) materializes with questions of her own. Despite the assembled brain power, the best theory that Albreck can proffer is that they are sitting on a nest of beings from another dimension.

Further observations from the good doctor reveal that the creatures occupy the same space we do and can inhabit our bodies. Also, they drink blood and seem to enjoy tormenting their subjects to death.

Using comically archaic spiritual weights and measuring devices, Albreck assembles concrete evidence that establishes the existence of vampiric entities that can crawl out from under the bed or emerge from the closet at will.

“What should we do now?” a colleague asks her.

“I have no idea,” she answers truthfully.

Terrified is a potent and terrifyingly graphic film about the dissemination of fear in an urban setting, with roots in paranormal activity. In this regard, it’s quite unlike the Paranormal Activity series of films created by Oren Peli.

Instead of endless sequences spent observing snoring citizens, we get pants-wetting shock value from a parade of singular spooks that will leave trauma marks on the cerebral cortex.

Argentine writer-director Demían Rugna wields a deep arsenal of disorienting camera moves that offer no comfort or safe space to hide. We bounce from mouse-eye views looking up, to sinister surveillance peering in the windows, to awful things taking shape on the periphery of the senses.

Utilizing every centimeter of the frame, Rugna proves, just as H.P. Lovecraft did before him, that there’s plenty of room for malign beings to coexist with us—and drive us insane.

This is not a comforting thought. Terrified delivers the scary when it counts.

Animal Among Us (2019)

A very weird and cheap little film.

Animal Among Us kept me marginally enthralled through its entirety, and really, the best I can offer is that it’s weird and cheap, occasionally endearingly so, but mostly it’s a rolling mess.

Somewhere in the California wilderness lies Camp Merrymaker, a blighted spot that’s been closed for 15 years due to a couple kids getting mauled to death by a mysterious creature.

Anita Bishop (Larisa Oleynik) and her sister Poppy (Christine Donlon) are the cute caretakers of this forsaken forest community. They hope to reopen the ill-reputed summer camp with the help of Roland Baumgarner (Christian Oliver), the best-selling author who originally wrote about The Merrymaker Murderer case.

Editor’s Note: After the whole Friday The 13th debacle, why in God’s name would anyone with a grain of sense want to open a summer camp? Were they ever profitable? Just asking.

There’s a junk drawer of subplots spilling all over the place, and what starts out as Cat & Mouse with a monster in the woods, evolves into a revenge plot against the arrogant and faithless Baumgarner.

By no means is Animal Among Us compelling drama, but director John Woodruff and writer Jonathan Murphy pull a few rudimentary surprises out of an old, battered hat.

Their neatest cinematic trick is enlisting the talents of Christine Donlon as a sex-pot forest ranger, who seems to have wandered in from a steamy Cinemax thriller.

Donlon’s libidinous, unhinged performance works as an effective snare to the unaware, hopeful of bonus porn tableaux. (Cue saxophones)

And so the time passes.

Indeed, there is such a palpable sensation of delayed sexy time throughout, that the existence of a spicy director’s cut would surprise absolutely no one of this Earth.

With barely any gore and no actual nudity in the offing, Animal Among Us plays out like community theater Campground Gothic, as an evil, but determined family hangs on against all odds to preserve their vanishing way of life.

To be grudgingly honest, there is a smidgen of entertainment to be derived from witnessing this unstable combination of ludicrous script, wooden acting, and Craft Night special effects.

Keep your expectations as low as the budget and you’ll be fine.

Boar (2017)

Boar is an Aussie animal-attack flick about a small outback community of ranchers threatened by a gigantic, bloodthirsty pig.

Yes, I know it sounds like Razorback (1979). When the star of the movie is a massive swine, comparisons are inevitable.

For my money, writer-director Chris Sun accomplishes exactly what he sets out to do, namely, make an old-fashioned thriller about a giant critter on a rampage that racks up a hella high body count.

It helps greatly that cinematography and practical creature effects were areas of focus for Sun. He dexterously shuffles hog-o-vision POV stalking camera with flying tracking shots of victims trying to escape the oncoming Pork Chop Express in ways that maximize impending terror.

When poor Blue (Roger Ward) has to make a stand against the monstrous boar, the buildup is dizzying, with cameras swooping and circling around him like vultures.

The cast of familiar faces include John Jarratt (Wolf Creek) and Bill Moseley (The Devil’s Rejects) in non-maniac roles.

In fact, Jarratt, who played one of the most cruel and violent killers ever in Wolf Creek, is borderline heroic here. He risks his life, unarmed, to rescue some old-looking teenage campers who’ve pitched their tents in the pig’s path of destruction.

It’s a refreshingly uncharacteristic touch, in a movie that’s full of them. Another example is heroic hulk Bernie (Nathan Jones, think Jason Statham Down Under) launching into a gleeful rap-a-long of “Ice Ice Baby” that reminds me of Quint’s crew enjoying a song in Jaws—a timely comic moment shortly before the shit hits the fan.

There are a number of such moments in Boar, particularly in the beery banter between drinking buddies Ken (Jarratt) and Blue, who are forced to put down their Fosters and run for their lives.

Blue yells at Ken for not loading his rifle before they drunkenly embark on a midnight run to track the creature.

“Well, I never reckoned I’d run into a pig the size of a rhino out here!” Ken retorts.

The “out here” Ken refers to is the beautiful Mary Valley in Queensland, Australia, whose bucolic splendors are never less than gorgeous. Even while characters plan, plot, and panic over their porky predicament, the scenery remains a sparkling gem.

Taken as a whole, Boar isn’t a bore; there are too many good things going on to complain about the uneven pace or a few CGI pig shots that don’t cut it.

Your time invested will be paid off in quality entertainment. You’re welcome.

Frankenstein: Day Of The Beast (2011)

Frankenstein: Day Of The Beast is the low-budget shocker being watched by the doomed audience in The Last Matinee when the maniac (played by Ricardo Islas, the writer-director of this film) goes on his cinematic killing rampage.

Truth be told, I was intrigued enough by the footage to give it a shot, and it turned out to be worth the effort.

In this version of the Frankenstein tale, Victor Frankenstein (Adam Stephenson) has fled to a remote island to wed his beloved Elizabeth (Michelle Shields).

Victor has employed a squad of mercenaries to keep her safe, but the monster (Tim Krueger, who’s quite good) has promised his creator that he would appear on his wedding night to take her.

Islas stays fairly faithful to Mary Shelley’s source material, but departs from the template in significant ways. This incarnation of the Frankenstein Monster is pure evil, with no grey area. He kills in extravagantly brutal fashion, bifuracting one unlucky guard with intestines on full display. Another gets his spine removed, and a blind man is forced to swallow his own cane.

The monster also eats human flesh, so there’s that. Apparently mangling his victims wasn’t sufficient to inspire terror. This guy bites faces off and rips throats out with his teeth.

How downright monstrous!

As the title implies, Frankenstein: Day Of The Beast is a more elemental take on a familiar story, one that doesn’t hold back on the blood and guts, and allows no sympathy for the monster, who doesn’t speak, but occasionally laughs cruelly.

The aforementioned budget limitations show up in various forms, from flimsy sets to terrible acting by supporting characters, but Islas clearly understands what makes Frankenstein’s creation so damned frightening. He is a relentless enemy who can’t be destroyed.

So what are you gonna do? As the vengeful Mohawk says to Max in The Road Warrior, “You can run, but you can’t hide.”

Antlers (2021)

“It all makes sense, you see. I mean, our ancestral spirits never died. They were here long before we were, and they’ll be here long after we’re gone. But now, they’re angry.”

Dark times call for dark movies. Antlers is a coal mine at midnight.

The opening observation comes from Warren Stokes (Graham Greene), the former sheriff of Cispus Falls, a blighted Oregon town where mutilated citizens are appearing with alarming frequency.

The current sheriff, Paul Meadows (Jesse Plemons), is seeking counsel. He’s out of his depth and confused, hypothesizing a cougar or bear attack is responsible for the mayhem.

Meanwhile, Paul’s schoolmarm sister Julia (Keri Russell) is trying to figure out why her sullen student Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas) is drawing pictures of demons and monsters.

In Antlers, all the dots connect to the decline of the planet’s structural integrity. Our systematic “pillaging of Mother Earth” has opened the door to indigenous spirits, most notably the Wendigo, a voracious cannibal that inhabits evil men.

Just below the narrative surface of this riveting supernatural thriller lurks mounting evidence of an infected society that has no access to spiritual vaccine.

Cispus Falls is a moribund mining town, an urban landscape littered with old machinery and empty storefronts, where the only thriving business is meth production.

Deep-rooted trauma is the norm. Julia, a recovering alcoholic with her own childhood of parental abuse, eyes liquor bottles at the store with palpable longing, searching for strength and comfort from any source.

In the background, the news drones on about the opioid epidemic, failing industries, and environmental collapse.

Kerri Russell owns her role as a damaged, unhappy woman who realizes her altruistic motives for helping Lucas are likely futile, but it’s marginally better than giving in to the despair that runs deep in these parts.

She recognizes the telltale signs of abuse in Lucas’s haunted face, a reflection of a home life that is literally hellish. He is a child doomed to maintaining the monstrous status quo at his house, while his younger brother Aidan (Sawyer Jones) is held captive by something that used to be their meth-cooking father (Scott Haze).

The thing Lucas calls “New Dad” is growing increasingly hungry and his grocery list requires fresh meat.

“Is God really dead?” Aidan asks Lucas. “Daddy said God is dead.”

Director Scott Cooper, working alongside executive producer/malevolent maestro Guillermo del Toro, has constructed a thoroughly ravaged world with precious little light—one that is bone-chillingly familiar.

Hey, isn’t that our civilization crumbling?

There are moments of brain-freezing terror in Antlers, including horned creature craft with genuine nightmare potential, a del Toro calling card.

Yet it’s the overall tone that proves the most unsettling factor, because it presents a terminally ill worldview, a pandemic of the soul that never ends.

There may be small victories to be had, individuals worth saving, but the inescapable conclusion is that humanity is fighting a losing battle with havoc we’ve wrought on ourselves.

In nearly every scene, Julia and Paul (the good guys) are stymied by inadequacy and failure. The coroner is apologetic because he can’t explain how the victims were killed. A doctor is unable to predict if a patient will recover. The harried school principal (Amy Madigan) tells Julia she isn’t allowed to intervene on a student’s behalf.

Even Paul admits he was reluctant to take the sheriff’s job, which mainly consists of evicting local homeowners.

“Everyone thinks these problems are just going to go away, and we know that they don’t,” Julia tells him. She could be referring to any number of societal symptoms depicted in Antlers.

The wound runs too deep, there’s no saving this patient. The downward spiral is well under way and no one’s getting off.

Hope you like it bleak.

Night Teeth (2021)

I wish they hadn’t called it Night Teeth. It’s not a very good title for such an entertaining and inventive film.

Broke student Benny Perez (Jorge Lendeborg, Jr.) just wants to earn a little extra cash driving for a car service. He borrows a sweet ride from his older brother Jay (Raul Castillo) and picks up mysterious beauties Zoe (Lucy Fry) and Blaire (Debby Ryan) for a night of club hopping around Los Angeles.

The ladies are able to read Benny like a book and quickly determine he’s a newbie at the chauffeur game, a source of much amusement. And as the night goes on, Benny becomes alternatingly aroused and alarmed by his odd passengers, particularly after one stop when they return with a satchel full of bloody cash.

Meanwhile, his brother Jay has to get his boys together because there are vampires in Boyle Heights, and that runs counter to a long-standing treaty.

There’s a full slate of subplots in Night Teeth, including sparks between young Benny and the somehow-still-kind-hearted Blaire. When they’re together the movie freely pivots into a star-crossed romance and the night seems full of new possibilities.

Mostly the story sticks close to the mob-style coup being staged by ambitious vampire Victor (Alfie Allen), who wants to go back to the old ways of old days, when humans were fair game, regardless of their address.

Night Teeth is also one of those vampire movies (like Near Dark) that doesn’t use the “V” word, which is why I found the title clumsy, like it was picked out of a hat.

Even so, there is all-you-can-eat action, laughs, guts, and unlikely romance to be feasted on in Night Teeth. Just as in Vampires Vs The Bronx, bloodsuckers are depicted as affluent white gangsters trying to gain wealth and power by displacing a hardworking minority, in this case, Latin Americans.

“Who still uses crossbows?” Benny wonders out loud while trying to stay alive during a gnarly fight between undead rebels and vampire hunters. Find out this and other exquisite tidbits in Night Teeth, winningly directed by Adam Randall, and sharply written by Brent Dillon.

These vampires definitely don’t suck.