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 wolf man’s lone kill takes place of offscreen, while Dracula’s attack on the burgermeister is performed as a shadow play! Weak tea, indeed.

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.

Harbinger Down (2015)

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No need to beat around the bush, Harbinger Down is an above-average homage to John Carpenter’s The Thing, set aboard an Alaskan crab boat, skippered by Lance Henricksen. The story goes, that the film’s creature effects team, ADI, apparently worked on the 2011 prequel of The Thing, only to see their contributions largely cut in favor of CGI.

Harbinger Down, written and directed Alec Gillis, is a crowd-funded production that gives ADI’s shrieking, flailing aliens some needed screen time. The results are nothing Rob Bottin needs to lose any sleep over, but are nonetheless far superior to the usual CGI gravy flopping around on SyFy network these days.

Welcome aboard the good ship Harbinger, a Bering Sea commercial fishing vessel, with the roomy interior of an oil tanker. Seriously, my family is in the fishing business, and I’ve never set foot on a crab boat with so many winding passageways.

Henricksen plays Graff, a grizzled old salt, who don’t take any lip, either from his feisty crew, or his granddaughter’s research team, who’ve hopped aboard to study whales or something. (If wardrobe had been on the ball, they would have given Lance a captain’s hat and a corncob pipe to complete his Popeye’s Pappy ensemble).

Along with a few tons of Dungeness, the Harbinger hooks some space wreckage that contains the remains of a Soviet craft, complete with a frozen cosmonaut carrying a hostile alien. You know, mutating space organism, it can look like anyone, lots of tentacles, you either freeze it or burn it. Sound familiar?

Given the premise, the script is little more than an afterthought, though Gillis misses the opportunity to create some much-needed distinctive supporting characters, by making sure that any and all dialogue is played hopelessly straight.

This is why Carpenter’s characters, stranded in the Arctic, or Ridley Scott’s characters, trapped in outer space, (definitely some Alien in this critter’s cinematic DNA), are memorable ones. They way they conduct themselves under extreme pressure (“I ain’t going with Windows, man!”), tells us everything we need to know about them, their final witticisms forever burned into our memory banks.

Here, the crew is just a bunch of nobodies, with the exception of ol’ reliable Lance, and perhaps Winston James Frances, as Big G, a courageous giant, the Harbinger equivalent of the Nostromo’s Parker (Yaphet Kotto). Nope, nothing new here, but Harbinger Down passes the time with flying colors.

Deep in the Darkness (2014)

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Darkness

A rather tepid adaptation of Michael Laimo’s book of the same name, Deep in the Darkness concerns a new-fish doctor (Sean Patrick Thomas) who takes over a rural medical practice on the outskirts of Nutsyville, where the simple inhabitants share a terrible secret about the lurkers in the forest.

As per Laimo’s book, the story has decent potential as the rather clueless Dr. Cayle (Thomas) gets acquainted with a race of nasty troglodyte tunnel-dwellers that call the shots with the local hillbilly population. The doc’s new neighbor, Phil (Dean Stockwell, who tries his best), attempts to get Cayle on board with the idea of sacrificing animals to their vicious little landlords, but the latter dithers and procrastinates, while his wife (Kristen Bush) seemingly has little trouble adapting to their strange new surroundings. Next thing you know, she’s preggers! (You’d think a doctor would have better access to contraception, but such is not the case.)

Neither director Colin Theys or writer John Doolan bring much enthusiasm to the project, and significant story points spill out in haphazard fashion, with all the care of a starving hobo going through a Dumpster. Then after what seems like an eternity (actually just 100 minutes), we’re presented with an unsatisfying left-field ending that packs all the wallop of a question mark materializing after “The End” credit appears.

Other than the casting of Stockwell and Blanche Baker, Deep in the Darkness has precious little going for it. It’s not awful by any means, but genuine frights are few and far between. The only real question you need to ask yourself, is “Why bother?”

I, Frankenstein (2014)

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IFrankenstein

As you may have surmised having seen the previews, I, Frankenstein is a big stinky turd burger of a movie. Yes, some numb-nuts executive actually green-lighted this $65,000,000 shit show, and handed the keys to writer-director Stuart Beattie, who wrote Michael Mann’s Collateral and had a hand in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. The results are a migraine-inducing mess of CGI gargoyles, a dull, witless script, and Aaron Eckhart—who alternately resembles Denis Leary and Christopher Lambert—playing the monster (or “Adam Frankenstein” if you prefer) with fluctuating scar tissue and jaw set at permanent clench.

Nutshell: The monster not only survived the Arctic escapades that claimed the life of his creator, but he hasn’t aged a day in 200 years. He becomes a pivotal player in a dismally boring war between gargoyles, who for some reason feel obligated to protect mankind, and demons, who want to populate the earth with damned souls inhabiting a whole army of freshly minted Frankensteins.

The bad guys are led by a demon prince called Naberius, played with modest verve by Bill Nighy. There are scores of unwieldy effects-heavy battle sequences in which dispatched demons go down in flames and fallen gargoyles ascend into heaven. (Speaking of: The gargoyles spend half their screen time flexing and posing with their stylish edged weapons—probably designed by a producer’s D&D-playing nephew.)

Other than the reliable Nighy, the acting is hammy and leaden, ideally suited to the ghastly dialogue. There’s precious little fun to be had here, unless you’re hosting a drunken viewing party with plenty of high-spirited heckling.

I grudgingly admire that Beattie at least tried to concoct a cosmology that would be inclusive enough to squeeze Mary Shelley’s creature into an obscenely budgeted Judeo-Christian sword soiree. But I, Frankenstein is such a joyless enterprise, I wonder why he bothered.

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