Girl on the Third Floor (2019)

I haven’t followed professional rasslin’ for the last decade or two, so I’ve missed out on the rise of CM Punk, a straight-edge, comic book-loving, butt-kicking atheist who’s managed to win several championship belts in the early part of the 21st century.

In Girl on the Third Floor he tries on a tool belt to restore an old Victorian mansion with a bad reputation as a peace offering to his pregnant wife, Liz (Trieste Kelly Dunn).

Don Koch (Punk), is a financial con artist who’s cut a deal with the feds to stay out of prison, despite draining several pension funds. Having proven himself to be a liar, a drunk, and a womanizer, Don has vowed to turn over a new leaf, and “make everything right” by fixing up a former brothel into a dream home for his burgeoning family.

Unfortunately, a leopard can’t change his spots and you can’t build a dream home on a rotten foundation. The man formerly known as King Don, immediately starts drinking beer and lying to his wife on their daily phone calls, which doesn’t say much about his commitment to the project or to his marriage.

While fumbling through basic carpentry and getting loads of gross fluids dumped on him in at every turn, Don entertains Ellie Mueller (Karen Wooditsch) a gabby nun from the church next door and Sarah Yates (Sarah Brooks) a simmering sexpot who seems to come and go at will.

Don gets characteristically drunk, smokes weed, and knocks boots with Sarah. Like Michael Douglas in Fatal Attraction, he soon regrets giving in to his toxic masculine desires when his one-night stand turns out to be a vengeful spirit.

It’s a morality play, duh.

The house itself consumes the protagonist, serving as a warning to faithless spouses seeking redemption for their misdeeds.

Punk is up to the task, and acquits himself as an able, agile leading man, losing his marbles in entertaining fashion and getting tossed around like a pumped-up Bruce Campbell in Evil Dead II.

Watching the misadventures of the angry, bumbling, and ultimately remorseful Don Koch, writer-director Travis Stevens gives us a virtual Power Point illustration of the terrible fate that befalls an ethical weakling.

Maybe try couples counseling, instead.

Warning: The dog dies. Steel yourself emotionally.

The Deep House (2021)

Why would anyone want to explore a haunted house at the bottom of a lake? Talk about looking for trouble. The Deep House follows Ben (James Jagger) and Tina (Camille Lowe), a couple of thrill-seeking social media climbers that specialize in visiting creepy-ass abandoned buildings.

They don’t get much creepier than an eerily preserved house on the floor of a deep French lake, so they gather their diving gear and make a splash, guided to the secret spot by a chainsmoking local (Eric Savin).

Their life aquatic isn’t pleasant, to say the least. They find the house and Tina doesn’t like the atmosphere one bit. When they discover buoyant corpses and evidence of human sacrifice things really go off the rails.

Written and directed by Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo, The Deep House will make you uncomfortable in interesting new ways. The prospect of running out of air surfaces early in the film, as Tina practices holding her breath in the bathtub prior to arrival.

If the idea of an empty air tank under hundreds of feet water while being chased through a submerged spook-house by swimming ghouls doesn’t freeze your blood, then you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din.

Furthermore, Ben is anxious to become media famous, while Tina has a stubborn streak of common sense that often runs counter to her partner’s ambition, a situation that could spell doom for both of them.

Ben has a camera drone that provides aerial views and also follows the couple into the lake, so visually they’ve got all their angles covered. And we can see what’s lurking around the corner.

As soon as the viewer forgets that Ben and Tina are underwater, something floats by and we get a fresh wave of panic.

There’s no big moral lesson in The Deep House. What Ben and Tina find in the house at the bottom of the lake is something that should have stayed there. Is that so hard to wrap your head around?

Again, why go out of your way to get metaphysically mangled? Good movie, though.

Demonic (2015)

A detective (Frank Grillo) and a police psychiatrist (Maria Bello) try to piece together what happened after a team of amateur ghostbusters bungle a seance in a haunted house, in Demonic.

Probably happens all the time.

The cops grill John (Dustin Milligan), the only survivor, in an attempt to locate his missing girlfriend Michelle (Cody Horn) and ghost team leader Bryan (Scott Mechlowicz).

The rest of Bryan’s crew are spread out around the house in various stages of decomposition after persons unknown went on a chopping spree.

The story unfolds via John’s remembrances and footage recovered by forensic specialists, so the narrative bounces from the current crime scene to the week before, when the paranormal investigators set up shop in a rambling manor house somewhere in Louisiana swampland.

There are jump scares aplenty and a decent amount of escalating tension, but not much in the way of blood and guts. Gaping plot holes abound (Really? The detective has no other recourse but to shoot his only suspect while the latter is holed up in a grocery store?) and no one associated with the film will win any acting awards.

Even so, director-cowriter Will Canon keeps his spooks flying and manages to perpetrate a few decent plot twists to keep our attention from wandering too far.

Demonic is not required viewing, but you could do a lot worse. I should know.

Willy’s Wonderland (2021)

S’okay.

Granted, Willy’s Wonderland is an entertaining movie, but director Kevin Lewis and writer G. O. Parsons ultimately underdeliver on the fright front. Yes, Nicolas Cage gives a spirited performance as a mute janitor battling Satanic forces inside a cursed restaurant, but much of the action feels like missed opportunity.

A man of few words (Cage) blows a couple tires while traveling the backroads of the country. Local entrepreneur Tex Macadoo (Ric Reitz) and his tow-truck driving flunky (Chris Warner) take charge of the situation, offering to fix the stranger’s bitchin’ car in exchange for a night’s work, cleaning up Willy’s Wonderland, a former family eatery (think Chuck E. Cheese) inhabited by evil mascots who made a deal with the devil.

Cage agrees to the terms, and thus embarks on an earnest quest to restore the decaying fun zone to its former pristine condition. There are even inspired montage sequences that feature serious deep cleaning by NC that made me laugh.

The squad of evil automatons (a gorilla, an alligator, a Mexican bandit, a fairy, a knight, and a weasel) are one of those aforementioned wasted opportunities, as they turn out to be easily disposed of by the industrious janitor.

The only thing keeping Cage from really cleaning house, is a recurring gag that has him taking breaks in the middle of combat, where he guzzles an energy drink and plays pinball for a while. The bit gets tiresome and momentum grinds to a halt.

Comic actress Beth Grant (The Mindy Project) is on hand as a corrupt sheriff keeping the town’s dirty secret, and she provides a level of energy and commitment that compensates for some of the script shortcomings.

Willy’s Wonderland has moments of divine lunacy. There could and should have been more.

Last Shift (2014)

It’s been firmly established in horror that a police station is no longer a safe space. Assault on Precinct 13, The Terminator, and Jeepers Creepers are just a few examples of cop shops under siege, and now we can add Last Shift to the list.

Rookie policewoman Jess Loren (Juliana Harkavy) is assigned closing night desk duty at a soon-to-be-shuttered precinct house. Her mission is to wait for a Hazmat team to show up and cart off some hazardous waste material that ended up as evidence.

While awaiting the arrival of the cleanup crew, Loren is visited by a homeless man who pees on her floor, a gabby hooker, and the ghost of an officer who died alongside her father (also a cop) when they apprehended John Michael Payman (Joshua Mikel), a Manson-ish cult leader exactly one year before.

Whew! That’s a helluva lot of backstory for one shift!

Payman and two of his rabid followers hung themselves at this very station and apparently their very evil sprits are still bedeviling the premises, moving things around, flicking the lights, and changing the TV to Payman Per View.

Does Officer Loren have the right stuff to keep the ghosts at bay and finish her shift? All I can say is perhaps she should have listened to her guidance counselor and gone to veterinary school.

Last Shift has a skinny budget, but director-writer Anthony DiBlasi stuffs gruesome thrills and shocks into his plot like a cheapskate packing for a long trip.

Harkavy emotes convincingly as the protagonist who’s having a really bad day at work, melting down in fairly realistic fashion as the nasty ghosts finally get a foothold in her head.

The ending is decidedly downbeat, but the action is brisk and unpredictable, and at times, genuinely frightening. Recommended.

One Dark Night (1982)

The dueling subplots in One Dark Night don’t actually connect until about three-quarters of the way through the movie, but when they do, something magical happens. The big subplot eats the little subplot.

Welcome back to the 1980s when teenagers were actually much older than they look. Golden boy Steve (David Mason Daniels) has got to be pushing 30, and his Queen Bee Bitch ex-girlfriend Carol (Robin Evans) is from a similar demongraphic.

Carol is the leader of a girl gang imaginatively named The Sisters, comprised of Leslie (E.G. Daily, forever known as Dottie, from Pee Wee’s Big Adventure) and Kitty (Leslie Speights), a sassy black teen with a toothbrush in her mouth.

Hmmph. Three girls. Some gang.

The latest initiate into The Sisters, Julie (Meg Tilly, in her debut), is Steve’s new flame, so Carol cruelly demands that she spend an entire night in a mausoleum!

To add to her discomfort, Kitty gives Julie Demarol, a powerful painkiller, instead of the sleeping pills she promised. All the better for her to be in a tripped-out state of mind when the other girls sneak back into the mausoleum to frighten her with their lame ghost costumes.

Mean girls. Always been a thing.

The other narrative involves the death of a famous Russian psychic named Raymar, recently discovered alongside a pile of dead girls. The psychic’s daughter Olivia (Melissa Newman) is warned by a mysterious albino (Donald Hotton) that her father had figured out how to drain “bio energy” from people and save it up to return from the grave.

Which he does.

By the time Raymar, crackling with psychic energy, kicks his way out of the crypt, Julie is high as a kite and her tormentors are getting mobbed by freshly revived corpses.

Coffins come springing out of the walls revealing folks in various states of decomposition who quickly dogpile on Kitty and Carol, smothering them in rotting flesh. Ewwww!

It’s this twisted, nightmarish conclusion to One Dark Night that rescues a small-scale, perfunctory movie that’s also bereft of blood and guts. A modest round of applause goes to writer-director Tom McLaughlin for successfully pulling his fat out of the fire.

Moral of the Story: Even if you’re a budget-strapped director with maxed-out credit cards, you need to deliver on some horrific level to get respect around these part.

Editor’s Note: Fans of 60s-era Batman will be disappointed in the amount of screen time allotted to Adam West, as Olivia’s husband. He doesn’t get to do shit.

Vampires vs The Bronx (2020)

And they’d have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for those meddling kids. It’s a long-standing tradition that the biggest threat to imminent world domination is nosy teenagers.

Writer-director and Saturday Night Live alum Oz Rodriguez has a blast with villainous bloodsuckers disguised as real estate developers in Vampires vs The Bronx, a fast-paced, family fang feature from Netflix.

All over The Bronx businesses are closing down or getting bought out by Murnau Properties, a real estate firm with a logo depicting Vlad The Impaler. Gotta say one thing for those vampires, they’re a subtle bunch.

The nerds that save the day are a charismatic crew. Miguel, better known as Lil Mayor (Jaden Michael) is the golden boy, a community organizer/hustler who wants nothing more than to save his beloved Bodega from the wrecking ball.

Along with his friends Luis (Gregory Diaz) and Tommy (Gerald Jones), Miguel stumbles onto a vampire-driven plot to gentrify the neighborhood, but finds that it’s hard to get people to believe your story when the newcomers are affluent white folks throwing money around.

Besides, who’s going to listen to some stupid kids?

Jordan Peele correctly identified Class War Horror as a hot topic, and Rodriguez makes the most of his turn at bat. Cleverly setting the threat of Caucasian expansion in a comic-horror milieu, Rodriguez leaves us with no hard ethical decisions to make. Real estate developers bad. Neighborhood scalawags good.

Now let’s all forget our differences and drive out the suckheads!

The cast is 100 percent delightful (including Method Man as a priest!), the action is frequent and not too messy. Naturally, there will be valuable lessons for everyone. It’s not every day we get a vampire adventure fit for all ages, so get it while it’s hot.

Things Heard and Seen (2021)

Originally published in Mystery and Suspense, July 4, 2021

The enchanting Amanda Seyfried does her doggone best as an unobservant wife coming to grips with her husband’s dark side in the Netflix production Things Heard and Seen. She is typically radiant, even in sweatshirt and jeans, and shows plenty of intestinal fortitude

Still, one wonders how bright she can be since her scheming husband George (James Norton) is about 96 percent dark side.

Based on the novel All Things Cease to Appear by Elizabeth Brundage, Seyfried plays Catherine Claire, an urban sophisticate from Manhattan who packs up her life and daughter and relocates to a small, upstate town called Chosen, when her hubby lands a gig teaching art history at a nearby college.

Their new home is a former dairy farm, and Catherine throws herself into making the place livable, but confesses to a friend on the phone that she feels isolated in the close-knit academic hamlet. George, meanwhile, hits on a visiting student from Cornell (Natalia Dyer).

No surprise, George is a lying, cheating, sociopath, a fact that becomes painfully obvious to everyone except Catherine, and eventually even she grows wise to his machinations and gaslighting.

Things get paranormal as both Catherine and her daughter Franny sense the haunting presence of the previous lady of the house, who was murdered by her own husband. Apparently it’s a tradition that dates back to house’s construction.

To further complicate matters, the sons of the deceased woman show up and ask Catherine for jobs as farm hands! Catherine ends up making out with older brother Eddie (Alex Neustaeder) after gradually realizing her husband is an amoral monster.

There are loose ends a-plenty (you could knit a sweater), but none more clumsy than George’s obvious malevolence. He complains about Franny being scared of a real ghost and needing to sleep with her parents, thus denying him the opportunity to have relations with his comely wife.

There’s a chance that poor George is under the influence of several generations of wife-killers on this Dairy of the Damned, but like Jack Torrance, he doesn’t offer much in the way of resistance.

I confess to loving the ludicrous Biblical ending, which is straight out of a Wendy Webb novel. The last we see of villainous George is on a sinking sailboat to hell before the scene morphs into a George Innes painting that ties together a few of those loose ends I mentioned earlier.

I think writer-directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini crafted themselves a batty, but entertaining thriller. If you can accept a few gaping plot holes, Things Heard and Seen is definitely worth a gander.

Sator (2019)

Filmmaker Jordan Graham’s docu-horror Sator is an odd hybrid creature that really digs in its claws. Graham is responsible for every detail, including building a desolate cabin in the woods near Santa Cruz, which explains why the movie spent six years in preproduction.

Sator is partially the (real) story of Graham’s grandmother Nani (June Peterson) who appears in the movie as herself, discussing her history of channeling a guardian spirit called Sator. She’s written hundreds of pages inspired by the woodland entity that, she claims, controls the rural world that surrounds her.

Graham utilizes these interviews with Nani to extrapolate an eerie, dreary tale about her grandson Adam (Gabe Nicholson), a solitary forest dweller who (very) slowly gets drawn in by the machinations of Sator. Or perhaps he’s afflicted with the same mental illness that consumed his mother and grandmother. Or both.

On one of his periodic visits, his brother Pete (Michael Daniel) asks Adam if he’s hearing voices. He replies in the affirmative, as if this is all familiar territory to these damaged siblings. When Adam’s dog disappears, he is effectively untethered and falls even harder.

Sator is a humble, terrifying slice of folk horror that succeeds because Graham has left nothing to chance. It’s clearly a labor of love that generated its own momentum, and Graham took the time to carefully blend the real with the unreal. Each frame is a brooding still-life, with the encroaching nature photography especially menacing, as if there truly were a malevolent figure lurking behind the nearest shrub. Watching. You.

Graham’s visual style can best be described as Nature Noir, with overhanging trees choking off any trace of light in the lives of this blighted family. Graham’s camera shifts from color to black and white, following a hopeless trajectory of impending doom.

Not all genre devotees will have the patience for Sator, a movie floating in foreboding, but with little in the way of dialogue and action. I’m recommending that you stay and watch.

If you have the bandwidth to soak up even a fraction of the dread depicted onscreen, it should prove a transformative experience. Good luck, whatever you decide.

Phantom of the Paradise (1974)

One of the great overlooked rock ‘n’ roll movies of the ages, Phantom of the Paradise has heart, soul, and everything else going for it. If you’ve not had the pleasure, you should rectify that situation.

Written and directed by Brian DePalma, with a score by star Paul Williams, it’s a fabulous ’70s freakout on The Phantom of the Opera, with sensational songs, staging, and costumes that positively revel in the pageantry of those high, hedonistic times.

Williams plays Swan, a seemingly ageless music industry Svengali who needs a new sound to open his ultimate rock palace, The Paradise.

At a show featuring one of his bands, Swan happens to catch the opening act, a nobody singer-songwriter named Winslow Leach (William Finley). Swan sends his agent, Philbin (George Memmoli), to bamboozle the hapless composer out of his entire song catalogue—and set him up to take a fall for dealing heroin, just for good measure.

Sentenced to life in Sing Sing Prison, Leach vows revenge against Swan, manages to escape, and becomes hideously disfigured in a record press accident while destroying Swan’s property.

Now a scarred mute monster, Leach returns to The Paradise, steals a really awesome costume and begins his life as the Phantom, orchestrating a terror campaign against Swan, who is busy trying to arrange Leach’s rock opera to be performed by Beef (Gerritt Graham, who steals the show), a Frank N. Furter-esque Glamazon.

Swan tracks down the Phantom/Leach and puts him under contract to write songs for Phoenix (Jessica Harper), a beautiful backup singer that’s captured his fancy.

The innocent and naive Phoenix is being groomed for success, but Leach doesn’t trust Swan and tries his best to protect her from the malevolent mogul’s diabolical reach.

Brian DePalma (The Untouchables, Dressed To Kill, Body Double) is at the height of his considerable cinematic powers, utilizing snappy split-screen and multi-screen perspectives to keep tabs on several characters at once.

This camera tactic becomes increasingly important as we approach the finale, a gloriously staged wedding extravaganza that culminates with a live assassination on the air.

I could go on for days about the variety of catchy tunes (“Upholstery/Where my baby sits up close to me/That’s supposed to be what life is all about!”), Williams’s masterful turn as Swan, and all the jaundiced observations about show business that still hold true today.

However, I would rather not deprive you of your own dive into this terrific time capsule. The 1970s ruled. Here’s the evidence.