As Above, So Below (2014)

Hey gang, who’s up for some tomb raiding?

Scarlett (Perdita Weeks) is a beautiful and fearless archaeologist searching for the fabled Philosopher’s Stone, an alchemical instrument of great power, stashed amongst the bone-strewn catacombs beneath Paris.

Too bad the road to riches leads perilously close to the gates of Hell. Next time, stay with the tour, lady!

Written and directed by John Erick Dowdle, As Above, So Below is part Blair Witch Project with a splash of Indiana Jones, combining found-footage of claustrophobic exploration with a deadly descent into a haunted underworld from which escape seems a faint possibility.

The pace spasms between breakneck thrills, sudden horrifying obstacles, and episodes of hieroglyphic dexterity, as Scarlett shepherd’s her team through a booby trapped limbo where fragments of their collective past keep biting them on the ass.

The found-footage aspect of the production is handled efficiently, not calling undue attention to itself, making the periodic explosions of paranormal terror and graphic violence even more trauma inducing.

The words of a minor character become the company mantra: “The only way out is down.”

Perdita Weeks is a capable and headstrong heroine, energizing Scarlett with proficiency as well as a complicated set of emotions, as she tries to finish the life’s work that drove her father to suicide.

Not only that, but she might be developing serious feelings for her linguist friend, George (Ben Feldman).

My critic’s cap is off to Dowdle, who fuses furious frights and exhilarating mayhem in one satisfying adventure. It’s a dark, intense quest, but ultimately we’re the better for having seen it through.

His House (2020)

Yes, you should watch His House. It’s captivating and terrifying from the opening scene and never looks back.

London filmmaker Remi Weekes makes a stunning debut with a ghost story about Sudanese refugees trying to start a new life in England. But you know it’s going to take them a while to unpack all that trauma.

Bol Majur (Sope Dirisu) and his wife Rial (Wunmi Mosaku) have survived multiple tragedies escaping their war-torn homeland, leaving behind a deceased daughter and rival tribes with guns bent on annihilating each other.

In England, the Majurs are assigned a shabby government house and their lives are overseen by grumbling official Mark Essworth (Matt Smith), who seems peeved that the refugees aren’t grateful enough.

The Majurs are warned in no uncertain terms that they must stay in their assigned unit and observe innumerable conditions or they will be sent back to Sudan (and certain death).

The new abode comes with faulty wiring, peeling wallpaper, and plenty of ghosts, led by their seething daughter Nyagak (Malaika Wakoli-Abigaba), who has not passed on peacefully.

Bol tries to rationalize and pretend everything is fine, but slowly begins to lose his grip as the pressure of appearing happy and grateful in a haunted house takes its toll, and he freaks out in front of Essworth.

Rial wants to go back home, but Bol digs in and confronts their tormentor—and a deal is struck.

His House demands a thorough investigation for which you’ll be amply rewarded. Remi Weekes is a major talent with superb cinematic instincts.

With Bol and Rial trapped inside their house, Weekes tightens into claustrophobic closeups, and we’re practically a fly on the wall, witnessing encounters with the undead that grow increasingly disturbing.

Outside, the landscape is ruined, desolate, and confusing. When Rial asks for directions, she’s told by a rambunctious bunch of Black English schoolboys to “Go back to Africa.”

Weekes adds unlikely racism to a mounting list of stressors bedeviling a determined couple who’ve already been through hell, thank you very much.

Yet, as we all know, you can’t have a new beginning until old accounts have been settled. Somehow.

Blood Vessel (2019)

It’s a clever touch.

Blood Vessel is obviously a movie about vampires on board a ship, but the title also refers to the doomed crew’s containment effort to stop a terrible blood-borne infection from reaching port.

Nutshell: A veritable United Nations of lifeboat survivors from a torpedoed hospital ship are hopelessly adrift somewhere in the water during the waning days of World War II.

There’s two Australians (Nathan Phillips, Alyssa Sutherland), a whiny British spook (John Lloyd Fillingham), a taciturn Russian (Alex Cooke), and a pair of Americans: a useful black sailor (Lydell Jackson), and a surly Italian cook (Mark Diaco) from the mean streets of Central Casting.

The improbable company hops aboard a derelict German ship and spends about 45 minutes exploring its innards, discovering burned, mutilated sailors, priceless art treasures, and an anemic child (Ruby Isobell Hall).

I realize that seems like quite a bit of action, but when spread over the entirety of the running time (a tidy 93 minutes), the pace is almost geologic.

As written and directed by Australian special effects maestro Justin Dix, Blood Vessel is mostly stuff we’ve seen before, wrapping Nazis in occult robes for another spin around the block.

Despite a fondness for familiar tropes, Dix has some inspired moments. His depiction of an Old World vampire clan that does most of its damage from a distance by psychically manipulating the infected sailors, is a fresh idea.

The hands-off approach to slaughter however, somewhat dilutes the impact of these powerful undead beings, though the creature concept and monstrous makeup are on point.

It’s too bad the vampires don’t get more screen time. Instead we learn personal details about members of the doomed crew so that past tragedies can still inform the present—especially when bloodsuckers start messing with their heads.

And with all the bad accents flying around, we’re having enough trouble remembering the parade of nations on display. Fortunately, the Australian speaks German, and the Russian understands Romanian.

With a structural resemblance to Aliens, minus the tension, spendy effects, and brilliant cast, Blood Vessel is serviceable entertainment at best, which doesn’t mean there’s no fun to be had.

There’s just not enough to go around.

Vampire Clay (2017)

Art school kids in rural Japan fall victim to demonic sculpting material—film at 11.

Pack your plausibility away for Vampire Clay, an energized lump of J-Horror with decent practical effects that make for scenes of memorable chaos.

Nutshell: A handful of art students in a Japanese village attempt to escape poverty by demonstrating sufficient talent to attend a real school in Tokyo. Kaori (Ena Fujita), has already studied in Tokyo and her sculptures put her at the top of the class.

Things take a turn for the weird when Kaori finds a mysterious bag of clay that almost seems to come alive at her touch. Using it in her figurines releases the spirit of an evil sculptor whose blood has tainted the art supplies.

The newly sentient substance wreaks havoc on Kaori’s rivals, swallowing other students whole, and eventually coalescing into a creepy golem that looks like it was drawn by Paul Frank.

Orchestrated by writer-director Soichi Umezawa, Vampire Clay reveals subtler layers beyond the gross and gruesome, as the economic necessity of abandoning village life looms as a grim specter haunting every frame.

Apparently, competition for getting into multi-discipline programs at a decent Japanese college is extreme.

Seeing artists consumed by their work isn’t the freshest metaphor around, but it makes for first-rate spectacle.

The Love Witch (2016)

She put a spell on me.

Conceived by writer-director Anna Biller, The Love Witch is an overloaded circuit of color and costumery that came from Granny’s hippie trunk.

The dazzling Samantha Robinson portrays Elaine Parks, a lonely witch looking for love in all the wrong places, who’s literally left a string of dead bodies behind in her quest to find a soulmate.

Elaine has a junkie-like need to be wanted, but quickly tires of her assorted suitors when they become pathetically dependent on her.

Paradoxically, this astoundingly gorgeous creature who looks like a sex-crazed Diana Rigg, relies on hallucinogenic potions that enslave her victims to the point where they become a nuisance and she must remove their hearts!

There are cops, nosy neighbors, Satanic cultists, tampon magic, and psychedelic sex interludes, but don’t worry about keeping track of characters, they’re not that important.

It’s Elaine’s world and her needs must be attended to, even if it seems she’s doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over.

Biller shoves the look and feel of the movie to centerstage, as saturated hues of pink, purple, and red create a landscape that’s vividly anachronistic, as if based on feverish memories of I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched.

Even the dated film stock looks like leftovers from a groovier time.

Can a movie that contains scenes of human sacrifice still be wacky? The Love Witch pulls it off with style and wit.

Anna Biller emerges as a filmmaker to invest some interest in, one with a bold aesthetic point of view and a sly sense of humor.

The Mortuary Collection (2019)

Multiple choice question. Anthology horror movies ride a seasonal spike in popularity as we approach:

(A) Halloween (B) The Election (C) End Times (D) All of the above

The Mortuary Collection, written and directed by Ryan Spindell, is comprised of five tangled tales of terror, vigorously spun by Montgomery Dark (Clancy Brown), the looming and gloomy mortician of the town of Raven’s End.

His audience is Sam (Caitlin Fisher), a steely job applicant with a severe curiosity for the more macabre aspects of post-mortem employment. Much to her delight, Dark digs deep into a dreadful drawer of local lore that winds inevitably back to the present.

He recounts the bizarre and gruesome fates that befell several unfortunate citizens of Raven’s End, ending up as customers in the morgue of Mr. Dark’s rambling hilltop funeral home.

At a swinging party, a trip to the toilet turns fatal for a stylish dame (Christine Kilmer) who gets too nosy with the medicine cabinet.

The campus Casanova (Jacob Elordi) is forced into reluctant fatherhood, and finds he just isn’t built for it.

A dutiful husband (Barak Hardley) gets the dirty end of the stick when his blushing bride turns catatonic right after the wedding.

Finally, a determined babysitter wages war with an escaped lunatic during a violent thunderstorm.

Each story prompts critical discussion as to whether the protagonists in question deserve their unhappy endings. Dark insists that actions have serious consequences and old rules should not be violated.

Sam scoffs at his morality plays, eventually revealing her true face in an ending that turns out to be the most outrageous segment of them all.

What’s not to like?

There’s gorgeous gore galore. The art direction, practical effects, and set design are uniformly excellent. Dark’s massive funeral home is dressed to the hilt with eerie details, crammed to the rafters with sinister flourish.

The Raven’s End Mortuary looks every inch a decaying stronghold of stories and secrets, one that seemingly winds downstairs forever.

Clancy Brown, a seasoned character actor (and voice of Mr. Krabs on SpongeBob SquarePants), towers above his costars in these grim surroundings, hitting on all cylinders as a host who tells each tale with obvious relish, while splendidly attired in a dusky wardrobe, undoubtedly purchased at the same Big & Tall Man shop recommended by Angus Scrimm.

The Mortuary Collection is top-shelf storytelling, on a par with not only the upper echelon of anthology horror films (Creepshow, Tales From The Crypt, Vault Of Horror), but the creepy old comic books that inspired them in the first place.

Check it out. Check it all out. Time may not be on our side.

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. 

 

 

 

 

Host (2020)

At 57 minutes, it’s not so much a movie as it is a serviceable Twilight Zone episode.

In Rob Savage’s found-footage “movella” Host, six insufferable British twits learn why mocking the spirits is a bad idea.

Set up as a Zoom meeting of talking heads, Haley (Haley Bishop) instructs her assortment of nitwit comrades to take the online seance seriously, shortly before the medium (Seylan Baxter) arrives.

Not to play the blame game among the cast, but Jemma (Jemma Moore) commits a major boner in seance etiquette, and soon strange and awful occurrences are taking place in every window!

The various cams blinking on and off does get visually monotonous after a while, but occasionally someone will thoughtfully hoist their laptop to go check on the noise in the other room.

Director and co-writer Savage gets plus points for a bold concept and several solid jump scares. It’s a fairly tense 57 minutes.

On the downside, the characters range from annoying to stupid, so as my brother Dave observed, “you’re compelled to root for the demon.”

Well, what’s wrong with that? Not like you don’t have a spare hour.