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.

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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.

Exists (2014)

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exists

A found-footage entry from director Eduardo Sanchez, the guy who first cashed in on the genre with The Blair Witch Project. I thoroughly understand the financial motivation for using GoPro cameras as the primary source of footage; it’s a helluva lot cheaper than film. And let’s face it, handheld and body mounted cameras give the action a heightened sense of urgency, particularly during the inevitable flight through the forest sequence.

Unfortunately, it’s also distracting and all but challenges the viewer to account for every shot. Sorry, but there are instances in Exists when it becomes nearly impossible to convince yourself that Brian the stoner (Chris Osborn) somehow has access to more cameras than NBC. There. I said it.

The plot is pure boilerplate, as five young adults (one of whom is Dora Madison Burge from Friday Night Lights and Chicago Fire) decide to party at Brian and Matt’s (Samuel Davis) family hunting cabin in the untamed wilds of Texas. That would be the same cabin that their uncle used to live in, until something frightened him away. So yes, by all means, let’s go see if we can figure out exactly what that might be.

The answer is Bigfoot/Sasquatch, who’s enjoying a bit of a resurgence as a movie monster, apparently fully recovered from family friendly piffle like Harry and the Hendersons, that reduced him to kiddy comic relief. In Exists, he’s a vengeful critter, looking to put a hurt on the punks that ran over Little Squatch.

Sanchez opts for a more traditional (and confrontational) approach than is used by Bobcat Goldthwaite in his meditative Willow Creek, another recent Bigfoot-gone-bad film. That means there’s an actual body count here, and that we are treated to several good looks at the beast, whose makeup is well above average.

As we watch another clutch of adolescent interlopers hide and flee, there are sufficient scenes that generate an actual fright response, so I’m giving Exists a modest recommendation that should not be mistaken for overwhelming enthusiasm.

Afterthought: Does Bigfoot eat people? I think he probably should. It’s scarier that way. Who’s gonna run away from a furry herbivore?

Animal (2014)

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No, it’s not the Rob Schneider movie. That would be too depraved even for me.

Welcome to another episode of We’re A Bunch of Dipshits Who Went Camping. Two couples and their gay friend go for a hike, get lost in the woods, and are pursued through the pines by some kind of super-powerful apex predator. The creature itself is the best part of Animal, and frankly, it deserves a better movie than this tedious time waster.

The beast is close to human size, really fast, agile, and powerful. It appears to be equal parts rodent, reptile, and canine, and must have been fasting recently, because this thing is first in line at the human flesh buffet, barely slowing down to nosh on one victim before another lands in his lap. Put him on a plate son, you’ll enjoy him more.

Predictably, things bog down when the campers discover a fairly majestic log cabin to hide in, one that already has a trio of trapped hikers, including former Kevin Smith co-star Joey Lauren Adams. That’s when these idiots turn on each other and reveal long-simmering secrets that have no bearing on the action whatsoever, but do fill a tidy bit of time.

Animal is not awful, but when you introduce a badass creature that piques the curiosity, we want to know a little backstory, like, what the hell is it and where’d it come from? This information is not forthcoming, but while we’re twiddling our thumbs in the cabin, we do find out that the studly Jeff (Parker Young), who has long since had his head removed, may have once had a hookup with Sean (Paul Iacano), much to the chagrin of Mandy (Elizabeth Gillies), the hot Final Girl.

Come on, people! Priorities!

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