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.

Deep in the Darkness (2014)

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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?”

Suburban Gothic (2014)

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It took me a few minutes to figure it out, but Suburban Gothic appears to be a piss-take version of Zach Braff’s Garden State. Yes, that decade-old cinematic testament to post-grad honky malaise that helped coin the term Manic Pixie Dreamgirl (Google it), and gave the Shins a modest career boost. If this is indeed the case, then my sombrero is off to writer-director Richard Bates Jr. Well played, sir. *Golf clap*

Matthew Gray Gubler (aka, Dr. Jeremy Reed on CBS procedural Criminal Minds) is both droll and goofy as Raymond, a latent psychic with an MBA, forced by circumstances to boomerang home to live with emotionally fragile Mom (Barbara Niven) and asshole football coach Dad (Ray Wise). Shortly after his arrival, the Mexican landscaping crew at his parents’ house uncover a child’s skeleton in the backyard—and a-haunting we will go!

When Raymond isn’t mowing the lawn or dodging bullies, he gets booze and sympathy from Becca the bartender (Kat Dennings, hubba hubba!) a former classmate with a former weight problem, who becomes his foxy, wisecracking Watson in the Case of the Kid in the Ground in the Yard.

Idiosyncratic auteur John Waters has a small part in Suburban Gothic, which should give you an idea of the farcical low-budget aesthetic that’s in play here. Fellow fringe dwellers Jeffrey Combs, Sally Kirkland, and Mackenzie Phillips show up as local color, but it’s the haunted-house action that remains the most intriguing element, with Raymond and Becca making one of the wittiest team of mystery solvers since Nick and Nora. Can they please have their own series on Showtime? It would be way better than the current season of True Detective.

I, Frankenstein (2014)

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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.

Neverlake (2013)

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There’s nothing wrong with a competently executed film, and Neverlake certainly qualifies. In terms of acting, setting, pace, tension, and professional camera work, I’ve got no complaints. The story itself springs from a well-chewed gothic template, namely, young girl in remote location discovers terrible family secrets and thus becomes imperiled. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t a few nits to pick.

Curious teen Jenny Brook (the improbably named Daisy Keeping) arrives in rural Tuscany to visit her estranged father (David Brandon), a taciturn doctor who shares a capacious (though austere) stone villa with his assistant Olga (Joy Tanner). Jenny’s mother is deceased (or—is she?). Anyway, she’s not around.

Since Dad is too busy studying Etruscan sacrificial rituals (Clue!) to show her around, Jenny takes to rambling though the woods to explore nearby Idols Lake (Clue!). Here she meets a motley assortment of disabled kids living in a dilapidated hospital who take to her instantly, except for the brooding Peter (Martin Kashirokov, who presumably has “The Russian Robert Pattinson” written on his business cards). He takes two whole scenes to warm up to their cute new friend.

Complaint Department: Dr. Brook, as played by David Brandon, can be pegged as the villain from the moment he materializes on camera. There are no other suspects. Stevie Wonder could very quickly tell you that Dr. Brook is a cold, scowling (mad) scientist who is obviously up to something nefarious—least of all, boinking his stern, Eastern Bloc assistant. The painful obviousness of this development somewhat diminishes the suspense that director Riccardo Paoletti, and writers Carlo Longo and Manuela Cacciamani were hoping to create.

Even so, Neverlake gets a lukewarm recommendation from where I’m sitting. It doesn’t take much to buy into the drama, and thankfully, despite a well-worn path, there are still some surprises lurking in these woods.

The Babadook (2014)

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Simply put, The Badadook is one of the most emotionally devastating horror movies I’ve ever seen. It’s a brilliant film that manages to be both a dark, heroic fairy tale and a grimmer-than-grim slice-of-life family drama about an overworked mother who tries, but can’t cope with her eccentric son’s disturbing behavior anymore. It’s also about a terrified young boy who’s mother might be going insane.

Amelia (Essie Davis, who shines like a young Jessica Lange) is the harried widowed mother of Samuel (Noah Wiseman), a clever but damaged young boy who doesn’t fit in at school or with friends. Amelia’s husband died in a car accident on the way to the hospital the night she gave birth, so she too has a dark cloud of unresolved issues that follows her around like a nervous dog.

Mother and son clearly love each other, but their life is difficult, to say the least. One night, during the evening bedtime story, Samuel selects the wrong book and an evil spirit is loosed in the house. As if they didn’t have enough trouble…

The combination of Amelia’s waking, working nightmare of a life, and the additional strain placed on her by the malign presence that’s settled in her home creates an unrelenting pressure cooker that would crumble a commando. The Babadook is a film without gore and very little violence, that is nonetheless brutal, recalling both Polanski’s Repulsion and William Friedkin’s The Exorcist for its merciless plunge into the realm of madness.

Australian writer-director Jennifer Kent presents us with a tale that cuts uncomfortably close to the bone, because she had the nerve to invent two characters who are believable, likable, sympathetic—and profoundly haunted. True, in the past, I’ve griped about movies that waste time on character development when all we really want is mayhem. The Babadook is exactly the opposite. It’s a realistic character-driven story in which we hope that misfortune can be averted because we’re emotionally invested in the protagonists. The bottom line, that bad things happen to good people, is more horrifying than a thousand dead campers.

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