Demon Wind (1990)

Sam Raimi and The Evil Dead = The Velvet Underground.

I accept that it’s not a perfect analogy, but you get where I’m coming from. It’s an undeniable influence.

Nearly 10 years after Raimi and Bruce Campbell caught lightning in a bottle, Charles Phillip Moore and his crew unveiled a delightfully unfettered homage, Demon Wind, about another bunch of old teenagers assailed by occult forces in a rural location.

Corey (Eric Larson) and his girlfriend Elaine (Francine Lapensée) meet up with a group of friends and stereotypes to solve the mystery of Corey’s grandparents, who perished under mysterious circumstances during the Great Depression.

Turns out the family farm (more of a tattered theater set, really) is on land originally claimed by a devil-loving preacher and his followers who were set ablaze by townsfolk with no taste for human sacrifice.

Once Corey and his comrades reach the farm, all hell breaks loose, and suddenly, we’re at a Dead show, with ghouls coming out of the woodwork.

I’m not recommending Demon Wind because it’s a brilliantly conceived film that was nurtured to life by the artistic vision of writer-director Charles Phillip Moore.

Rather, it’s the sort of slap-dash amateurism (it was filmed in seven days) that drove Ed Wood to create flying saucers out of paper plates and a cockpit from a shower curtain.

Necessity is indeed the mother of invention, and the makeup and practical effects on Demon Wind, though plentiful, range from barely adequate to comically half-assed.

Moore employs a similarly scattergun approach to the narrative, seizing and abandoning ideas with random enthusiasm.

One of the doomed kids, Chuck (Stephen Quadros), is a magician with a black belt. His friend Stacy (Jack Forcinito) has a shotgun with unlimited ammunition.

Chuck still carries a torch for Terri (Lynn Clark) who now belongs to homophobic meathead Dell (Bobby Johnston).

Poor Bonnie (Sherrie Bendorf) gets turned into a doll, and no one seems to care.

Magic spells are cast. You can tell because that’s when the bloopy, hand-drawn animation appears.

The entire cast looks as though it just stepped out of a Huey Lewis video. Feel free to hit pause and ridicule the myriad lame looks available to pre-grunge adolescents.

And don’t worry about Corey’s friends dying. When the pack gets thin, Amazon thoughtfully sends more.

Stinky cheese makes the tastiest snack, no?

Altar (2014)

You might as well toss a coin. Heads we watch, tails we skip.

Based on the well-worn premise that shit can always get worse if there’s a ghost on the loose, Altar is haunted house hijinks with a decent cast. At its best, the British production, written and directed by Nick Willing, serves up The Shining Lite for viewers satisfied with pedestrian paranormal thrills.

Renovation specialist Meg Hamilton (Olivia Williams) packs up her family and moves from London to the shadowy and desolate Yorkshire Moors, to restore a shadowy and desolate mansion once owned by a sorcerous couple back in Victorian times.

Husband Alec (Matthew Modine), a frustrated artist, immediately falls under the house’s malign influence after cutting his thumb and thoughtfully bleeding all over the goddamn place. He then retreats to his artist studio to brood and bleed some more.

With the parents absorbed in their respective career dramas, daughter Penny (Antonia Clarke) starts seeing spooks, while younger brother Harper (Adam Thomas Wright), is repeatedly told to go to his room by an increasingly frazzled Mum.

The story offers nothing new, as Alec eventually goes full-on Jack Torrance, and Meg is left to defend herself and the kids from Psycho Dad and his newfound enthusiasm for occult rituals.

Olivia Williams gives it a spirited go, but the spectral events in Altar are pretty routine, save for the ending itself, which is delightfully grim.

Whether an inspired conclusion is worth sitting through a mostly tepid setup, is something I can’t speak to at the moment.

Heads or tails, it’s your call.

 

The Witch In The Window (2018)

Heartwarming horror for the whole family?

Sure, why not? No one’s going anywhere in this pestilence.

Even without gushing gore or a massive body count, The Witch In The Window successfully induces chills the old-fashioned way, with well-written characters that find themselves in over their heads.

Simon (Alex Draper) is a dutiful part-time parent to Finn (Charlie Tacker), an articulate 12-year-old suffering from abandonment issues and existential dread. In an effort to bond with the moody kid, Simon invites Finn along to help him restore and flip an old house in rural Vermont.

It’s a realistically awkward trip, with plenty of failed conversations. The estranged duo eventually form an alliance when they realize the former tenant was an evil witch (Carol Stanzione) who’s trying to make a comeback.

Like that Spielberg dude, writer-director Andy Mitton strategically places the father-son dynamic squarely in the middle of the action, as Simon, a perpetual underachiever, decides that what he wants most is “a good house” for his family.

You have to admire that kind of commitment.

As an avid peruser of unattainable real estate, I could have told Simon that a good house in the country is hard to find. There’s always unforeseen issues with the wiring or the foundation or whatever, and it pays to be a flexible negotiator.

To Simon’s credit, he gets a killer deal. This place has acreage, a pond, and functional outbuildings.

On the downside, there’s a live-in caretaker whether you want one or not.

 

 

Hell House LLC (2016)

In which the haunters become the haunted.

Five friends form a professional haunt company, staging elaborate Halloween tours in creepy locations. The opening of their latest attraction is not entirely successful, as most of the staff ends up deceased in gruesome fashion.

The police and civic authorities shut down subsequent investigations, but five years after the Halloween Holocaust, a documentary crew attempts to solve the mystery by tracking down and interviewing the lone survivor.

For fans of the found-footage genre, Hell House LLC doesn’t disappoint. Writer-director Stephen Cognetti peppers the premises with ghosts, demons, a Satanic cult, a big scary clown, and enough paranormal pageantry to make up for any quandaries about who’s supposed to be running the camera in this scene.

I cheerfully recommend the movie, and may go so far as to check out the two sequels it inspired.

Note to filmmakers on a budget: Behold the beauty of a found-footage film; the iPhone cinematography actually enhances the dreadful atmosphere, forcing the trembling viewer to strain for every grainy terror captured.

The very existence of sequels to Hell House LLC proves that someone made their money back—and that’s enough to keep the iPhones rolling.

 

Babysitter Wanted (2008)

The subject is babysitters. Talk about a thankless job. Minimum wage, shitty snacks, bratty kids, and knife-wielding maniacs? Hard pass.

But what can you do when you have no bed to sleep in? Get a job, slacker.

Angie (Sarah Thompson) is a new student at a Northern California community college, with a dorm room that includes a sullen stoner roommate, but sadly, no bed. Beneath a bunch of Missing Person fliers on the community bulletin board, she finds a number for a babysitting job.

Once employment is secured, Angie looks forward to eventually getting a good night’s sleep.

Complications abound. The job is way out in the boonies and Angie’s shitbox car won’t make it. Also, there seems to be a horribly scarred bald dude following her.

At this point, Angie could probably write off her anxiety as a bad case of freshman jitters, since Jim Stanton (Bruce Thomas) and his wife Violet (Kristen Dalton) appear to be honest, hardworking farmers who just need someone to watch their little boy, Sam (Kai Caster).

What could possibly go wrong? Let’s put it this way: the scary scarred dude is the least of her worries.

In my estimation, writer and co-director Jonas Barnes utilizes the babysitter premise far more effectively than Ti West did in the similarly themed House of the Devil, which came out the following year in 2009.

While West is undoubtedly a gifted visual stylist, HotD comes across as a painfully self-aware exercise in genre clothes. The onscreen shocks were distant and removed, as though filmed through a dispassionate filter.

Babysitter Wanted is savage and satisfyingly visceral, with a cast that plays it to the hilt, including the always-dependable Bill Moseley in a rare non-maniac role.

Sarah Thompson, who looks a bit like Jennifer Garner, imbues Final Girl Angie with fire and fortitude, which comes in mighty handy when the kid she’s being paid to watch wakes up hungry as hell.

Wouldn’t you know it? He’s got dietary restrictions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Void (2016)

Have a hankering for some top-notch cosmic horror? Then come and get it, Lovecraft Lovers! The Void is a veritable smorgasbord of guts, gory rituals, and tentacled abominations from beyond time and space.

Writer/directors Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski are clearly captivated by the works of John Carpenter (particularly The Thing and Assault On Precinct 13), Stuart Gordon, and the body horror of David Cronenberg. Their approach is to dole out generous portions of oozing carnage that saturates the landscape like blood gravy on hell-baked biscuits.

Daniel Carter (Aaron Poole) is a small-town deputy getting ready to call it a night when he encounters a stumbling, bloody stranger (Evan Stern) in need of assistance. You can tell it’s a small town, because the nearest hospital is on the verge of closing and only staffed by a skeleton crew, including Carter’s soon-to-be ex-wife Allison (Kathleen Munroe) and kindly old Dr. Powell (Kenneth Welsh).

Things go from bad to nightmare bad as the hospital inhabitants discover they’ve been cut off from civilization by a squad of whacked-out cultists in white robes awaiting a cosmic event. To make matters worse, patient and doctor alike begin changing—and not for the better.

There are no slow parts to The Void; it opens with a woman being set on fire and never pauses for breath. The requisite character development is handled swiftly and cleanly, coming to light as needed when Carter, Allison, and Doc Powell take extreme measures to fill their own personal voids.

The results are cataclysmic. Turns out when the stars are right, you can change the world. And not for the better.

 

Dead Birds (2004)

Just a quick note to would-be bank robbers: Make sure you have a safe hideout after the job.

It’s part of your due diligence. I mean, how hard is it to send over a priest or gypsy to check the place out for evil spirits and whatnot?

A band of confederate renegades rip off a gold shipment from an Alabama bank during the War Between the States. They shoot lots of folks in the attempt and once their financial goals are met, the bandits beat a hasty retreat to wait out a storm at an abandoned plantation.

Natch, there’s friction within the organization. William (Henry Thomas) is in charge, but subordinates Clyde (Michael Shannon) and Joseph (Mark Boone, Jr) have designs on moving up by stealing the loot before they rendezvous in Mexico.

William’s younger brother Sam (Patrick Fugit) took a bullet during the robbery, and seems to be fading fast. Todd (Isaiah Washington), a runaway slave, gets creeped out by an occult grimoire he discovers in the barn, and Annabelle (Nicki Aycox) wants the hell out of there, ASAP.

Director Alex Turner and writer Simon Barrett meticulously wrap the action in a constricting shroud of understated, slow-burn dread, and the production is better for it. Tensions mount incrementally as the thunderstorm roars to a crescendo over the evil house, awakening the former tenants.

At this point, Turner and Barrett wisely turn the taps on full, and let the pinot flow. Dead Birds is a curious film and definitely worth watching as an intriguing stylistic anomaly. It’s not every day you find a Lovecraftian Western with a decent body count.

Satanic Panic (2019)

In search of diversion, I stumbled upon Satanic Panic, a spirited romp about a pizza delivery driver named Sam (Hayley Griffith) who just wants a lousy tip from a bunch of hungry devil worshippers and their curvaceous cult leader, Danica Ross (Rebecca Romjin).

It’s her first day on the job and she needs money to put gas in her scooter. In addition to fast-paced mayhem, Satanic Panic is very much a movie about class struggle, as dirt-poor Sam must avoid becoming a sacrifice to Baphomet (what a lousy time to be a virgin!) while trying to collect a few measly bucks from weird rich people in a gated community.

Billed as a horror/comedy, Satanic Panic is a hugely entertaining bootstrap operation driven by the same delirious spirit of amateurism that inspired Sam Raimi and friends to set up shop in the woods. Who knew that there were so many monsters, demons, witches, perverts, and sacrificial summonings behind closed doors in such a good neighborhood?

Director Chelsea Stardust and writers Grady Hendrix and Ted Geoghagen (Mohawk), successfully walk a watchable line between wigged out Grand Guignol excess (reminiscent of the late Stuart Gordon), and the basic narrative about how Sam is a wage slave trapped in a bourgeois hell.

Will Sam find the fortitude to fight back and overthrow her oppressors? Hey, she’s a working-class hero delivering pizza for a living! Of course she does!

And what’s with this no tipping bullshit?

 

One Cut of the Dead (2017)

If you made a Christmas wish for an undead version of Truffaut’s Day For Night, I have some wonderful news. Writer-director Shinichiro Ueda pulls off multilevel moves on a micro budget in One Cut of the Dead, a riotous ride about the joy and terror of no-frills filmmaking, and the question every horror director asks themselves during a production: Do we have enough fake blood?

A small Japanese film crew sets up in an abandoned munitions factory as a location for a slap-dash feature for cable channel Zombie TV. The tyrannical director (Takayuki Hamatsu) wants real fear from his star-crossed leads, Chinatsu (Yuzuki Akiyama) and teen heartthrob Ko (Kazuaki Nagaya). This motivational tactic comes to fruition when the little troop faces an undead ambush.

Unfortunately for the young actors, the director has apparently joined the other side in his pursuit of cinematic excellence, and the director’s wife (Harumi Shahama), who serves as company den mother, no longer trusts anyone—and she’s got an axe.

While the single-cut, running hand-held camera splatterfest is the main course in One Cut of the Dead, the backstory of how the plucky crew successfully pulls off a nearly impossible realtime shoot is funny and frantically paced, and gives one a deep appreciation of frugal artists on a deadline.

During filming, the one-shot restriction requires actors to nervously ad-lib entire scenes and take inexplicable pauses in the action to await the arrival of makeup and effects people to throw more blood and body parts on the scene. But the show must (and does) go on. Somehow.

Lovers of quality cheese will be pleased and gore hounds will howl.

Bad Moon (1996)

Werewolves, like mummies, have been relegated to second-tier movie monsters, no question. Just ask Benicio Del Toro.

On the other hand, there are fantastic werewolf movies, that any cinephile worth their silver bullets should pay rapt attention to this Halloween season. Joe Dante’s The Howling and John Landis’ American Werewolf In London (both released in 1981) are two crucial examples. If you haven’t had the hair-raising pleasure, get on them before the wolfsbane blooms. Chop, chop!

Since lycanthropes get little love from the critics, I’m going to point you in the direction of something rare and valuable: a very watchable werewolf fable with a hero dog, called Bad Moon.

Written and directed by legendary weirdo Eric Red (screenwriter of The Hitcher and Near Dark, among others), the movie stars deadpan tough guy Michael Paré, who, once upon a time, was a somewhat bankable actor (Eddie and the Cruisers, 1983, Streets of Fire, 1984).

Here, Paré sinks his teeth into a meaty role as a cursed photojournalist visiting his widowed sister Janet (Mariel Hemingway) in the wooded wilds of the Pacific Northwest.

Unbeknownst to Janet and her son Brett (lovable towhead Mason Gamble), beloved Uncle Ted recently emerged from the jungle after a nasty scrape with a vicious lupine predator, and everyone around him is looking more like Today’s Special with each passing hour.

Fortunately, Thor (Primo), the family German Shepherd, isn’t fooled by this man who looks familiar but smells all wrong. I mean, come on, who goes jogging in the woods all night long?

And thus begins a very real pissing match between guardian and invader.

Other than one sex scene and a few moments of grisly flesh shredding, Bad Moon could be an old Disney film. There’s an inquisitive child, a virtuous mom, a sinister uncle, and a really brave dog.

I’m as surprised as anyone that I got so wrapped up in a boy-and-his-dog movie that I was legit cheering for the fearless canine to save Mom from the Big Bad Werewolf.

Michael Paré and Mariel Hemingway get top billing, but the dog steals the show, plain and simple.

Good boy, Thor.