Ghost Stories (2017)

As a whole, Ghost Stories is greater than the sum of its parts.

While the individual tales in this anthology vary in terms of intensity and originality, it’s the wraparound narrative of Professor Philip Goodman (Andrew Dyson, who also co-wrote and co-directed) that effectively binds the whole dreary package in sorrowful strings.

Goodman is a skeptic and writer whose mission to debunk psychics and paranormal phenomenon has made him a familiar figure on British telly. He’s tasked with testing the validity of three unique cases, each told by a surviving protagonist.

A night-watchman (Paul Whitehouse) is haunted by a ghost child; an irresponsible teenager (Alex Lawther) recounts a terrifying encounter in his father’s car, and a wealthy businessman (Martin Freeman) confronts a poltergeist while awaiting the birth of his son.

Each story has at its heart, an instance of parental failing that leads to grim consequences for the parties involved, particularly for the clueless professor who sets out to define the unknown, and ends up consumed by it.

Ghost Stories does not offer buckets of viscera or a breathtaking assortment of effects wizardry, but rather demonstrates in austere fashion that paranormal events are rooted in the sins and injustices of past deeds.

Our ability to atone for those sins remains unknown. In other words, we may not be able to “wiggle off the hook” in a spiritual sense for long-buried grievances.

And if you’re the spiritual sort, that’s pretty scary.

Masque of the Red Death (1964)

Talk about a story for our times!

Masque of the Red Death is one of Roger Corman’s best Edgar Allan Poe adaptations for American International Pictures, anchored by Vincent Price at the top of his game as evil Prince Prospero.

Prospero (Price) is a medieval tyrant who makes life miserable for the peasants grinding out a meager existence on his land. He takes their crops and burns the village to the ground upon learning that the “Red Death” (plague) is loose in the countryside.

Smitten by Francesca, a virtuous village girl (Jane Asher, Paul McCartney’s first flame), Prospero spirits her away—along with her father (Nigel Green) and her fiancé (David Weston)—to his castle for the amusement of his sin-soaked courtier cronies, who seem to be staying for the season.

Outside the castle walls, the less-fortunate starve and succumb to the swift-moving contagion. Inside, Prospero goads his party guests into animalistic abandon, as he tries his damndest to corrupt the chaste and faithful Francesca.

As a melodramatic matinee redolent in gothic splendor with a high degree of creepy, Masque of the Red Death measures up.  

Corman’s budget-friendly, vivid production holds together reasonably well, and is profoundly augmented by Price’s fiendish charisma, a lean, provocative script by Twilight Zone writer Charles Beaumont, and the saturated color photography of future arthouse auteur Nicolas Roeg (Don’t Look Now, Bad Timing).

In the final analysis, I’m guessing it’s the theme of a vicious narcissistic ruler engaged in depravity while his subjects suffer that resonates so strongly with the 2020 crowd.

Just sounds so hauntingly familiar. 

The Ritual (2017)

When good buddies fail to back each other up, disaster ensues.

Based on Adam Nevill’s absorbing novel, The Ritual is a tense and taut example of the “Trespasser Beware” genre, in which four friends go camping in rural Sweden to honor the wishes of a fallen comrade.

As we all know, these bonding trips to the boonies never work out, and things go quickly south. Dom (Sam Troughton) takes a fall and his limping slows their hiking pace considerably.

Then it starts to rain buckets. 

After getting lost in a seemingly impenetrable forest, the dispirited quartet stumble upon an abandoned shack that includes a menacing pagan altar among its amenities. 

No one enjoys a restful night. Luke (Rafe Spall), who already carries baggage over the recent death of their mutual friend, has a monstrous dream.

Team leader Hutch (Robert James-Collier) awakens to discover he’s wet his jammies, and Phil (Arsher Ali) is horrified to learn that he has somehow performed an entire ceremony before the altar in his sleep. 

And Dom’s still whining about his leg.  

Director David Bruckner and writer Joe Barton do an admirable job fleshing out Nevill’s story, as Luke becomes its pivotal character, trying to lead his friends to safety while dealing with a shitload of remorse.

Bruckner cinches Luke’s dilemma tighter and tighter as it becomes apparent that concepts like guilt and loyalty are luxuries one can’t indulge when faced with an ancient enemy that defies rational description.

The creature/deity effects in The Ritual are excellent, an unnaturally inspired Chimera of animal, human, and demon parts that towers above its pitiful followers, impaling victims in the upper branches of tall trees. 

We’ve not seen its like before, and I’m not too keen on seeing it again, if you know what I mean.

When the subject is monsters, that’s a heavy compliment. 

 

 

 

 

The Wretched (2019)

Nothing good ever comes from spying on the neighbors. Just ask Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window.

With nods to both the Hitchcock classic and more recent fare like Fright Night, The Wretched delivers familiar frights amidst familial turbulence, as a troubled teen suspects the lady next door of being a 1,000-year-old witch.

Budding juvenile delinquent Ben (John-Paul Howard) gets shipped off to a sleepy Great Lakes resort town for the summer, where he works for his dad (Jamison Jones) at the marina.

He even has his arm in a cast, just like Stewart’s photographer.

During a brief interlude when he isn’t brooding, Ben notices that the family next door seems to have a fluctuating number of children, and that the hot mom (Zarah Mahler) is prone to nocturnal ramblings.

Written and directed by the Pierce Brothers, The Wretched covers a lot of well-traveled territory, particularly the nostalgic coming-of-age adventure ala Spielberg or Stranger Things.

It also speaks to the fragility of the family unit, and about how kids without that stabilizing spiritual force in their lives are vulnerable to … enchantment?

Not to mention the possibility of being consumed and forgotten by the outside world. Now that’s scary!

In the Dark Mother, we get a horrifying and ghoulish creature/villain, and I fervently wish the Pierces had given us a bit more backstory, but perhaps that’s coming in the next movie.

I confess to my uncertainty of a sequel, but I’m taking this opportunity to wish it into existence, because we all need something to look forward to.

 

 

Color Out of Space (2019)

Color me impressed.

What with stormtroopers, tear gas, Covid, and the most destructive wildfires in Oregon’s history bidding for my anxiety contract, a pleasure cruise on the SS Lovecraft proved to be a bracing tonic for my ailing brain.

So long, sanity! Pick me up after the show.

Writer-director Richard Stanley deserves the positive reviews because Color Out of Space is pretty darn good. All the paranoia and cosmic malevolence that one associates with H.P. Lovecraft is present and looks splendid.

Nutshell: Nicolas Cage stars as Nathan Gardner, a yuppie with the bright idea to move his brood from the Big Apple to rural Massachusetts, in the hopes it will prove beneficial in curbing the cancer currently loose in his wife, Theresa (Joely Richardson).

Life on the Gardner’s alpaca farm seems serene, till the peace and quiet is cancelled by the arrival of a small meteorite, which contaminates the environment and turns everything a lovely shade of lavender.

You know the drill. Everyone and everything mutates horribly, but at least it’s in a color I can tolerate.

Cage plays Nathan somewhat against type, shedding the vengeful hero image for a doofus dad with bad glasses, and Color Out of Space is the better for it. His talent for comic madness is on full display, but stops short of cramping the action.

As darkling daughter Lavinia, Madeleine Arthur gets the most screen time and does an estimable job in a performance that transcends the usual goth stereotypes, even as she proves to be the film’s pivotal character.

Unfortunately, her two brothers fail to rate a blip on the Interesting Scale, so it’s up to Tommy Chong as (surprise, surprise) a neighboring hippie reprobate to carry some of the dramatic load.

During a time of multiple crises, my movie demands become simpler as comfort carries more weight than ambiguity and nuance. With Color Out of Space, my needs are fully met.

Cosmic Horror trending during an extinction event makes perfect sense, if you think about it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Cave (2005)

I vaguely remember seeing The Cave when it came out.

Unfortunately, my memories of it are jumbled together with Neil Marshall’s The Descent, a scarier, similarly themed movie that came out the same year.

Bad timing, I guess.

Upon revisiting The Cave, I’m inclined to sing its praises as a reasonably riveting action-horror hybrid that more than adequately meets the needs of any restless cinephile.

A healthy budget doesn’t hurt, either.

Nutshell: So there’s this uncharted system of underwater caves in the Carpathian Mountains, located beneath the remains of a mysterious church that was built to contain winged demons who would periodically emerge from the netherworld.

A team of macho cave divers and a few scientists suit up to explore the hole and end up trapped below the surface in a slimy, sunless world of highly adaptive parasites that cause the host to mutate into a highly adaptive cave monster.

The crew is led by determined dive-master Jack McCallister (Cole Hauser), who promises a way out of the mountain tomb, even as his own transformation becomes increasingly difficult to conceal.

When comparing The Cave and The Descent, it’s important to remember that the latter film is generally regarded as one of the best horror movies of the 21st century.

That said, The Cave is much better than I remember, and includes several harrowing scenes, none more so than spunky Charlie’s (Piper Perabo) spine-tingling aerial combat with a gargoyle.

Director Bruce Hunt constructs a crushing and claustrophobic underworld that pulses with genuine menace, while writers Tegan West and Michael Steinberg proffer a handful of characters worth rooting for.

Take a look around The Cave. It’s pretty cool, and you’ll adapt in no time.

 

Black Mountain Side (2014)

Perhaps writer-director Nick Szostakiwskyj should have titled his movie And Another Thing, because it follows the structure of John Carpenter’s 1982 frosty classic to the letter.

Of course, there’s one crucial difference, but we’ll discuss that later.

An archaeology team on a long-term dig in the frozen north of Canada unearths a monolith and a few artifacts. Next thing you know, the darn radio gives up the ghost and communication with the outside world is shut off.

Shortly thereafter, the camp comes under the malign influence of one or all of the following:

  • The Deer God. (Dear God, no!)
  • A parasitic virus that causes insanity.
  • Just plain insanity, aka, Cabin Fever.

Suffice to say, these gooses are cooked. Paranoia rears its ugly head, and, much like Kurt Russell and his comrades, the team turns on itself.

Francis (Carl Toftfelt) starts hearing voices. Olsen (Michael Dickson) has a conversation with a corpse. Giles (Marc Anthony Williams) loads his gun and stops trusting anyone.

And nobody can sleep.

The key difference between Black Mountain Side and its predecessor (aside from budget and acting talent) is the uncertainty of the threat.

Is it alien? Pagan? Bacterial? Mental? Who knows?

All I can say for certain is that scientists and their subordinates working in Arctic environments have the life expectancy of a clumsy mine sweeper.

Final Prayer (2013)

Let sleeping gods lie. They wake up cranky.

In writer-director Elliott Goldner’s found-footage frightmare Final Prayer (original title: The Borderlands), a team of investigators from the Vatican gets swallowed up by a powerful pocket of pagan worship in rural England.

As we all know from The Da Vinci Code, the Catholic Church has its fingers in dozens of occult pies, and always stands ready to dispatch expert emissaries should the need arise.

A report of supernatural hijinks at a remote country church is reason enough for the Pope to assign hard-drinking clergyman, Deacon (Gordon Kennedy), Gray (Robin Hill), a novice film and audio tech, and officious Vatican rep Mark (Aidan McArdle), to confirm or debunk the phenomenon.

The tiny congregation is headed by Father Crellick (Luke Neal), who fervently believes that the sounds of babies crying and objects moving by themselves in his church are proof of a miracle.

The team has different ideas. Mark thinks it’s a hoax; Gray is perplexed and frightened, while Deacon sees parallels with an older case that didn’t end well.

Fortunately for us, the protagonists get so used to wearing their headset cameras and mics during the course of the investigation, that we get the inside scoop before All Hell Breaks Loose, which happens in spectacular fashion during the final scene.

I advise patience during the first 45 minutes or so. Final Prayer takes a while to get rolling, but the slow burn pays off with a finale that is outré in the extreme.

By then, you’ll be on the hook with the rest of us.

Highly recommended.

 

 

The Pyramid (2014)

What, no Mummy?

You’d think a horror movie called The Pyramid would have the decency to trot out a few bandage-wrapped shufflers for Old Times’ sake, but director Gregory Levasseur (better known as the writer for High Tension and The Hills Have Eyes) decided to go another way.

Nutshell: An archaeological expedition enters a previously undiscovered pyramid, awakening several inhabitants, including feline zombie servants of Bas, and apparently the god Anubis himself.

Egyptian curses. We never learn.

The defilers of the sacred tomb spend the majority of their screen time crawling through ancient, perfectly symmetrical tunnels in search of an exit, triggering deadly traps and getting mauled by a wrathful jackyl-headed CGI monster that’s actually not too shabby to behold.

The most riveting sequence involves a woman helplessly impaled on wooden stakes being slowly eaten by undead cats. Needless to say, this predicament doesn’t sit well with the victim, who howls for release.

Though The Pyramid is ostensibly a found-footage feature, the POV is all over the place so it’s best not to focus on this aspect.

Instead, settle in for a fast-moving conveyer belt of doomed tomb raiders meeting their fates in memorably macabre fashion.

Again, no mummies are featured in The Pyramid. But the curse is a killer.

From The Dark (2014)

It’s time to play Name That Creature!

Vampire? Ghoul? Revenant? Other?

A reasonably attractive couple experiences car trouble while touring the Irish countryside. This wouldn’t normally be a big deal, except their mishap coincides with the accidental resurrection of an undead dude by a clumsy sod farmer.

After holing up in the farmer’s house, Fay (Niamh Algar) takes charge of their situation, maintaining a level head under extreme duress. Mark (Stephen Cromwell) reverts to a whiny little piss pants.

Fay figures out the monster is extremely light averse and sensibly surrounds herself with headlights, lanterns, candles, lamps, lighters, and a cell phone, all while trying to keep her doofus husband conscious and motivated.

Writer-director Conor McMahon (Stitches) skillfully renders From The Dark in miniature, with only four characters in the whole movie, including the living dead one (Ged Murray). The events unfold in real time, with no atmospheric cutaways.

McMahon keeps the camera tightly focused on Fay’s anguished face, her head on a swivel trying to get a bead on a shrouded figure who’s at home in the darkness.

But what is it?

A vampire, probably, but at times behaves more like a slobbering ghoul, this creature doesn’t speak a word. He just comes and goes until the inevitable showdown right before dawn.

It’s a well-conceived monster, if a bit insubstantial at times.

There are pacing problems. From The Dark roars out of the gate like a cyclone and calms down considerably in the Second Act, as the couple sweats it out in captivity.

But that sweet, sweet tension is never far away, and Fay knows she’s in for a real street fight.