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.

We Summon The Darkness (2019)

Three metal chicks meet three metal dudes at a metal show. When they take the party back to Alexis’s (Alexandra Daddario) posh country house, things go horribly wrong in We Summon The Darkness, a cautionary tale of our times, if it were still 1988.

Alexis, Val (Maddie Hasson), and Beverly (Amy Forsyth), a trio of leather-clad hotties are on a road trip to a heavy metal concert in the late 1980s. Despite televised warnings of murder and Satanic corruption from an outraged preacher (Johnny Knoxville), the girls just want to have fun.

When they fall in with Mark (Keean Johnson), Ivan (Austin Swift), and Kovacs (Logan Miller), the two threesomes decide to pair off. Alexis suggests her nearby mansion for the after-party, and the boys eagerly follow them for implied good times, which needless to say, never materialize.

Instead, the lads are drugged and trussed up, unwilling participants in one of those Satanic rituals that nervous parents are always reading about.

Will a hero emerge? Depends on your definition of the word. The tables get turned, some people switch sides, and there’s a surprise reveal. There’s bloody murder and burning heads, which helps compensate for the lack of supernatural sizzle.

Written by Alan Trezza and directed by Marc Meyers, We Summon The Darkness meets the minimum requirements of a dark-comic slasher. As cinematic events unfold, we learn there isn’t a compelling reason for it to exist in a bygone decade, as opportunities to lampoon ’80s culture are mostly ignored.

Fair enough, but WSTD could have used some pepping up. The young actors, particularly Daddario and Hasson, acquit themselves in noble fashion and tension is made available, but there’s not much popping here in the way of style points or zippy dialogue.

It’s the actors, and the lunacy that ensues after all the cards are on the table that rescues We Summon The Darkness. I admit, the scenes of metalhead boys reduced to whimpering victims and hiding from lethal women were oddly satisfying. Probably because in 99.9 percent of all horror movies, a reversed gender dynamic is the predictable norm.

Movie-wise, it’s an itch that needs scratching.

The Block Island Sound (2021)

Originally published in Mystery and Suspense, April 4, 2021

Can a Rhode Island fishing family avoid ending up as Catch of the Day? That is the question posed in The Block Island Sound, an ominous maritime mystery conceived by Matthew and Kevin McManus, previously noted for writing several episodes of Netflix true-crime mockumentary American Vandal. 

This is a movie that only reluctantly divulges information, and the dangling possibilities we’re left with are not the least bit comforting. If you dig ambivalence and an atmosphere of constant dread, you’ll be hooked like a mackerel in no time. 

Consequently, viewers who prefer plausible scenarios may not have the patience to navigate these treacherous waters.

Tom Lynch (Neville Archambault), a hard-drinking boat captain, and his son Harry (Chris Sheffield), make their livings pulling fish from the Atlantic Ocean that surrounds their Block Island home. 

About the same time that Tom starts sleepwalking and blacking out, dead fish wash up on the beaches in record numbers. Tom’s daughter, Audry (Michaela McManus), a single mom who works for the EPA, arrives on the island—with her own kid (Matilda Lawler) in tow—to investigate the phenomenon.

It doesn’t take Audry long to notice that something is amiss with both the marine life and her pappy. Her daughter Emily wakes up screaming with Tom looming over her in the darkness. Tom subsequently disappears at sea and his boat is found abandoned. 

Be advised that the Brothers McManus do their best to distract and mislead the viewer by dropping plenty of red herrings, such as having the local police chief (Willie Carpenter) suggest to Harry that his father was no stranger to booze cruises.

When Harry experiences his own black-out symptoms, Audry and her less-pleasant sister Jen (Heidi Niedermeyer) discuss the notion that madness may run in the family—and that something will have to be done about it. 

The middle section of The Block Island Sound takes a tonal detour, concerning itself with the mundane details of mourning the family patriarch, and the further disintegration of Harry. The formerly stoic fisherman has become extremely agitated by nocturnal visits from the recently deceased Tom, commanding him to bring domestic and wild animals to the boat, and not in a nice, orderly, Noah’s Ark manner. 

Like his father before him, Harry awakens out at sea with nary a clue. Audry and Jen worry about their brother’s erratic behavior but are at a loss for solutions.

Whenever Harry starts doubting his own sanity, his drinking buddy Dale (Jim Cummings) appears to aggregate all the weird stuff that’s happening right under their noses on Block Island. Top-secret experiments, the presence of nearby wind turbines, sea monsters, government agents, weather anomalies, all get a day in conspiracy court. 

Later, Audry meets Kurt (Jeremy Horn), a reclusive local who shares her brother’s time-loss affliction. He in turn points her in a completely different direction, and urges Audry to grab her family and leave the island.

Instead, everyone ends up on the boat.  

Strangely enough, the closest thing to a reasonable explanation comes when Audry reassures Emily about the necessity of environmental research.

“Most of the fish we take out of the water, we put right back in just a few days later,” Audry tells her daughter. “We’re studying them so we can get to know them better. So we can help them better.

Emily protests that some fish don’t survive the experience.

“By taking some brave fish out of the water and learning about them, we can eventually help all the other fish,” Audrey concludes. “It’s a good thing we’re doing.”

Evidently, we’re not the only ones conducting experiments in the universe. As mentioned, the exact nature of the menace, whether aquatic, extra-terrestrial, or weirdly scientific, is never specified. 

But the implications offered by The Block Island Sound are more than enough to take seafood off the menu for a while.   

The Wolf of Snow Hollow (2020)

Originally published in Mystery and Suspense, March 1, 2021

One floundering cop’s quest to stop a lupine-styled killer in a small Utah town forms the dramatic basis of The Wolf of Snow Hollow, an impressively atmospheric thriller written, directed, and starring Jim Cummings. 

Instead of focusing on the tortured soul who becomes a wolf when the moon is full and bright, the camera remains bound to Deputy John Marshall (Cummings), a tightly wound recovering alcoholic with more problems on his hands than Ted Cruz.

His father (Robert Forster, in his final screen role) the stubborn town sheriff has a not-so-hidden heart condition that’s slowed him down considerably as retirement looms. 

“This is scary. It’s new. I’ve never seen a body like that,” he tells John after a gruesome victim viewing.

On the home front, John’s teenaged daughter Jenna (Chloe East) is a budding gymnast who also likes to park in cars with local boys, a hobby that nearly results in her mutilation.

The Snow Hollow police force—except for his sturdy partner Officer Julia Robson (Riki Lindhome)—consists of feckless nitwits. This proves significant because Snow Hollow is under siege from a “wolf man” who’s been brutally dismembering members of the community beneath the light of the full moon. 

Deputy John and his department of underachievers have been unable to find the man or animal that is making coleslaw out of the citizenry. They in turn, have no problem reminding the beleaguered boys in blue that they’re a bunch of incompetents.

“Where were you? Where were you?” a bereaved father yells at the frustrated policeman.

John takes this especially hard, often feeling like he’s the only one in town who doesn’t believe the prevailing rumors.

“Let me just make this perfectly clear,” he snarls at his assembled troops. “There is no such thing as werewolves.”

Yet as more evidence of wolfish carnage turns up in bloody piles, John’s anger builds while his grip on reality gets increasingly shaky thanks to a return to old habits and very little sleep.

He bottoms out after being discovered by a concerned police matron (Anna Sward) on the floor of the police station, stoned into a stupor, with a vape pen dangling out of his mouth. The frazzled cop’s personal psychodrama is laid out for the whole town to see in The Wolf of Snow Hollow. John’s increasingly erratic and destructive behavior runs parallel to the fear and horror spilling over in the community he’s supposed to protect.

After Jenna makes a narrow escape from the wolf man, John realizes he can’t even protect his own daughter, forcing him to sober up and get serious about his mission to rid the town of a beastly killer. This in turn becomes his means of personal (and professional) salvation.

“You want to be the sheriff? How about we start acting like one?” Officer Robson tells him.

As a filmmaker, Cummings has the visual flair to create chilling tableaux. Scenes of moonlit stalking and slaughter are tightly edited for maximum fright, and we get used to seeing the snow run red. As the leading man, Cummings acquits himself well, deftly handling the gradual disintegration of a determined deputy and dad by forces beyond his control.

 “When do I get to be right about something?” John wonders aloud.

It takes about three-quarters of The Wolf of Snow Hollow’s running time to find out.

The Dark and the Wicked (2020)

Originally published in Mystery and Suspense, February 7, 2021

“There’s nothing worse than a soul left alone in the end.”

Texas filmmaker Bryan Bertino wrote the screenplay for The Strangers, a movie that made us feel unsafe in our own homes. In The Dark and the Wicked, Bertino gets downright metaphysical, worrying us about the state of our immortal souls.

The setting is a blighted patch of Texas prairie, but Bertino grazes the same bleak spiritual tundra as Ingmar Bergman, suggesting that a human soul bereft of love is vulnerable to attack by dark forces.

Somewhere in a particularly lonesome part of Texas, an old man (Michael Zagst) lays dying in his bed, wheezing out air supplied by an oxygen tube. A nurse (Lynn Andrews) sits nearby knitting and observing his tortured breathing. The old man’s wife (Julie Oliver-Touchstone) chops vegetables in the kitchen staring vacantly out a window at the grim landscape of the family farm. Their two children, Louise (Marin Ireland), and Michael (Michael Abbott Jr), now grown, have returned to lend comfort to Mother and watch over their fading papa. 

How did everything go so wrong? And how are they getting worse? The Dark and the Wicked never says for sure. Instead, we are left with symptoms pointing to a malady beyond the reach of medicine.

“You shouldn’t have come,” Mother hisses at her offspring.

With wolves howling in the distance (and getting closer all the time), there is no comfort or joy in the family reunion. Bertino illustrates this through dispassionate editing choices, settling on objects or desolate scenery for every shot with a person in it, as if the presence of human beings means nothing in this dreary place. But there is a growing menace in the household that can’t be ignored. Louise sees her comatose father in the shower, and Michael spies his mother floating in the air through a window.

It falls to the sympathetic nurse to try and articulate all the bad mojo.

“I think there are things in this world, horrible things, wicked. And they come for whoever they want,” she cautions Michael, explaining that a soul needs love to keep it safe. “I can smell the fear in y’all. I can feel it in this house.” she murmurs.

As previously stated, love, warmth, and comfort are in short supply around these parts. Louise and Michael are both clearly guilt-ridden about ignoring their parents for so long, and the guilt gets snowballed into a bad situation.  Rather than delve into the specifics of sin, The Dark and the Wicked drops clues, frightful images, and ghostly visitors that haunt the siblings till it becomes unbearable.

Save your pity for the one left alone.

Amulet (2020)

Originally published in Mystery and Suspense, January 12, 2021

Some old war wounds never heal. In fact, they were designed to become more painful over time. Written and masterfully directed by BBC actress Romola Garai, Amulet is a slow-burn Gothic noir, about a homeless soldier trying to put the past behind him.

Tomaz (Alec Secareanu), a severely traumatized veteran of some nameless Eastern European conflict, finds himself in need of a place to crash after his London squat goes up in flames. 

Helpful nun Sister Claire (Imelda Staunton) offers him a peachy situation: Free room and board in a dank, shadowy old house, in exchange for handyman duties. Tomaz is initially reticent, but finds himself irresistibly drawn to Magda (Carla Juri), the sweet, nervous girl who lives in the house, caring for a surprisingly ferocious invalid mother (Anah Ruddin).

The house itself has passed the state of disrepair and is well into a spiral of decay rivaling the ancestral home of Roderick Usher. There is almost no light, and the camera lands on the abundant mold and water stains like a lazy fly on the wall. The hazy air itself has a bilious green hue, as if infected with something terminal.

When Tomaz tries to sleep, he dreams of the war, apparently stationed in a remote forest outpost. There, his lonely routine gets interrupted by the arrival of Miriam (Angeliki Papoulia), a refugee mother in search of her child.

Tomaz allows her to stay and the seeds of tragedy are sown. He only wanted to help. He tried to help.

Spoiler Alert: The waking and sleeping narratives are connected. This means bad news for the young soldier. 

Our sympathy for Tomaz is never exactly on solid ground. His unspecified wartime trauma erupts in nightly terrors, and his desire to liberate the long-suffering Magda, bound to serve a dangerous and unstable mother, is evidently sincere.

Tomaz pauses in his work one day to watch Magda wrap a bandage around a fresh bite wound on her arm. As the cliché goes, no good deed goes unpunished. In this instance, his instinct to come to a woman’s aid is the worst possible course of action a man can take. There are abundant horrors to be mined in the aftermath of military service. Amulet demonstrates that the most terrible is the false hope of redemption.

Tomaz is a haunted man, brought back from the brink of despair by the vague idea that he can atone for a misdeed, through an act of sacrifice. It’s that distant, faint illusion of hope that cuts the deepest, much like the illusion of being “a good man” that’s eventually ripped from Tomaz like old skin.

The forces at work here are as old as the avenging Furies of Greek Tragedy, and they haven’t lost any power to punish transgressors with brutal clarity. Like Oedipus the doomed king of Thebes (or Mickey Rourke in Angel Heart, for that matter), Tomaz can’t identify himself as the cause of his own misery until it’s far too late to escape an awful fate, one that befits an unforgiveable crime.

Amulet is seriously grim going—though handsomely filmed—and includes interludes of body horror that would give David Cronenberg the willies. It also progresses at a snail’s pace, which works to the film’s advantage, allowing the viewer to gradually get acclimated to the accursed atmosphere.

Even so, when we’re finally able to consider the grand scale of justice served at the conclusion of Romola Garai’s vivid and terrible revenge tale, the effect is breathtaking—and should not be missed.

Death Of Me (2020)

This is a classic Good News/Bad News situation.

The Good News is that Death Of Me is tourist trauma at its most heinous, so if you dig watching Yuppies circle the drain for 94 minutes, tormented at every turn by language barriers and hallucinations, this is your ticket.

Christine (Maggie Q) and Neil (Luke Hemsworth) wake up hungover in their Thai B&B, with scant memories of the night before. Christine’s passport and phone are missing, and there’s a major typhoon headed for the little island.

Fortunately, Neil’s phone has a two-hour video that explains the missing hours. Apparently, after getting dosed on “Island Magic” and tripping their brains out, Neil and Christine engaged in rough sex. Then Neil strangles Christine and buries her body.

Just to add a touch of verisimilitude, Christine vomits up dirt and grass while watching footage of her own murder.

The film primarily consists of Christine losing track of time (and husband), before regaining consciousness in a succession of locations.

The couple gradually deduce that Christine has been selected as a sacrifice to heathen gods in order to insure that the island remains safe from impending bad weather.

Holding his cell phone, Neil asks Christine, “Who did the guy in The Wicker Man call?”

“Nobody,” she replies. “He got burned to death.”

At least someone is in on the joke.

While Death Of Me contains exotic scenery and the pace fairly gallops, we now come to the Bad News. The word “half-baked” comes to mind.

My theory is director Darren Lynn Bousman (Repo! The Genetic Opera, Saw II) was vacationing on a beautiful island off the coast of Thailand, and the combination of good weed and charming local culture resulted in a “Eureka” moment.

As previously mentioned, the resemblance to The Wicker Man is even remarked upon by poor Neil and Christine themselves. Throw in a little Rosemary’s Baby, and you’ve got a serviceable horror happening.

Honest opinion? Death Of Me doesn’t add up to much, and none of the actors break a sweat, dramatically speaking.

The Thai folk-horror ritual elements conjure some intense, eerie moments, but they’re few and far between.

Keep your passport in the drawer and stay home.

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.