The Beach House (2020)

Turns out an extinction event is no day at the beach.

Two couples get acquainted over wine and weed edibles at a sweet shack by the seashore during an atmospheric catastrophe, after which everything changes for the worse.

Written and directed by Jeffrey A. Brown, The Beach House conjures scare scenarios along the same lines as The Block Island Sound and Color Out Of Space, a pair of recent cosmic horror entries that are also long on tension and short on answers.

College sweethearts in crisis, Randall (Noah Le Gros) and Emily (Liana Liberato), take a break from academia to spend the weekend at Randall’s family beach house.

It all looks promising until another pair of beachcombers arrive with a reservation for the same weekend. Awkward!

Mitch (Jake Weber) and Jane (Maryann Nagel), a distantly recognized, slightly older couple, are amiable and open to suggestions. The newly formed quartet agree to share quarters and a dinner party becomes the order of the day.

Like all civilized people, we welcome members into our tribe with barbecued meat, wine, and really potent edibles. Old records are played, dreams discussed, and for a short time these strangers relax in each other’s company in a beautiful home by the sea.

As a curiously glittered fog descends, Jane winds her way down to the beach.

It’s not a spoiler to say that everything falls apart, because it does so in such an artfully considered way. The Beach House depicts a low-key apocalypse that implodes an idyllic weekend getaway, and offers four stagnant souls an opportunity to embrace real change.

Writer-director Brown is an avowed fan of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (every iteration), and he creates perpetual nervousness by keeping the camera affixed to on-the-move Emily, who’s becomes the pivotal character forced to witness Jane’s uncanny transformation and Randall’s inability to adapt to a changing landscape.

It’s in the air. It’s in the water. It’s in you.

With the same respect for bourgeois leisure time as New Wave bosses like Luis Buñuel and Jean-Luc Godard, Brown pops his peeps into a pressure cooker beyond their control and reduces them to essential salts.

Speaking of waves, Mitch seems to have disappeared into them.

Characterizing some of the recurring elements here as “Lovecraftian,” isn’t misleading, but the term is becoming a convenient marketing junk drawer. It should remind us that the reclusive Rhode Islander doesn’t hold creative claim to the entire universe.

The nightmare evolution taking place in The Beach House could be accidental or inevitable; environmental or extra-terrestrial. In the end, it doesn’t matter. The scary thing is, it’s happening.

Psycho Goreman (2020)

Originally published in Mystery and Suspense, May 22, 2021

Surely there is a universe where Psycho Goreman would be considered family friendly entertainment. 

You know, like E.T.? Maybe? Sorta?

The latest spectacle by Canadian makeup artist-turned-filmmaker Steven Kostanski, (see also 2016’s cosmic-horror blood bath The Void), Psycho Goreman is indeed the story of a family, but they’re not very friendly.

More like a Dysfunctional Family Circus, as conceived by Spielberg in a rare subversive mood. 

Let’s start with Dad. Greg (Adam Brooks) is one of the worst fathers ever committed to celluloid. A lazy, resentful nitwit, he’s married to Susan (Alexis Kara Hancey), the primary breadwinner, who does her best to keep the clan operational. 

Daughter Mimi (Nita-Josee Hanna) is a hotheaded Narcissist, and calls all the shots in this house. Her long-suffering brother Luke (Owen Myre) is an occasional co-conspirator, but more often than not, an easily bullied opponent.

The balance of power is further tipped in Mimi’s favor when Luke finds an ancient amulet that contains a monstrous alien warlord (Matthew Ninaber), imprisoned several millennia beforehand for trying to conquer the galaxy. 

Luke discovers the artifact while digging his own grave. Mimi reminds him that he lost their most recent game of Crazy Ball, so he gets buried alive. 

Side Note: Crazy Ball is an unfathomable form of dodge ball that is the most sacred game in Mimi and Luke’s world, as well as their primary activity. And rules are rules. 

Since she won at Crazy Ball (she always does), Mimi takes ownership of the talisman and thus controls the most powerful being in existence.

“Do you have a name, monster man?” Mimi asks the towering gargoyle.  

My enemies sometimes refer to me as the archduke of nightmares,” the giant says, in a basso profundo arch-villain voice. 

“Well, that sucks.” Mia replies unfazed. “Never mind, we can workshop this.” The kids subsequently dub him Psycho Goreman (or PG), after watching him dismember a street gang. 

Psycho Goreman writer-director Kostanski artfully creates hilarious rubberized havoc in the style of Japan’s Tokosatsu movement—better known as Campy Superhero Versus Monster TV Shows (e.g., UltramanMighty Morphin Power Rangers)—that dates all the way back to the middle 20th century. 

And much like the juvenile delinquents over at Troma Entertainment (Toxic Avenger etc.), Kostanski loves blood, guts, and sick monster suits. Yet somehow the action here never degenerates into mere schlock, and we find ourselves rooting for a vicious villain against the forces that come his way. 

As PG faces off against a barrage of interstellar assassins and vengeful demigods that want him out of the picture, we see an evil soulless creature learn just a little bit about love and human compassion. This observation applies principally to Mimi, but also to PG, who comes to appreciate terrestrial pleasures like magazines, hunky boys, and television from his prepubescent captors. 

Slick fight choreography, brilliant character designs, and outrageous dialogue keep our higher senses engaged, while our lizard brains wallow in vivid onscreen pandemonium.  

Sprinkled into all the frenetic mayhem is a sneaky anti-moralist message, one that’s the exact opposite of heroic, as Mimi decides that all the responsibility and power is kind of a pain. 

Eventually, she gives PG his freedom so he can continue his mission to destroy the universe. 

Except for the part Mimi and her family live in. So heartwarming. So wrong. 

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.   

Color Out of Space (2019)

Color me impressed.

What with stormtroopers, tear gas, Covid, and the most destructive wildfires in Oregon’s history bidding for my anxiety contract, a pleasure cruise on the SS Lovecraft proved to be a bracing tonic for my ailing brain.

So long, sanity! Pick me up after the show.

Writer-director Richard Stanley deserves the positive reviews because Color Out of Space is pretty darn good. All the paranoia and cosmic malevolence that one associates with H.P. Lovecraft is present and looks splendid.

Nutshell: Nicolas Cage stars as Nathan Gardner, a yuppie with the bright idea to move his brood from the Big Apple to rural Massachusetts, in the hopes it will prove beneficial in curbing the cancer currently loose in his wife, Theresa (Joely Richardson).

Life on the Gardner’s alpaca farm seems serene, till the peace and quiet is cancelled by the arrival of a small meteorite, which contaminates the environment and turns everything a lovely shade of lavender.

You know the drill. Everyone and everything mutates horribly, but at least it’s in a color I can tolerate.

Cage plays Nathan somewhat against type, shedding the vengeful hero image for a doofus dad with bad glasses, and Color Out of Space is the better for it. His talent for comic madness is on full display, but stops short of cramping the action.

As darkling daughter Lavinia, Madeleine Arthur gets the most screen time and does an estimable job in a performance that transcends the usual goth stereotypes, even as she proves to be the film’s pivotal character.

Unfortunately, her two brothers fail to rate a blip on the Interesting Scale, so it’s up to Tommy Chong as (surprise, surprise) a neighboring hippie reprobate to carry some of the dramatic load.

During a time of multiple crises, my movie demands become simpler as comfort carries more weight than ambiguity and nuance. With Color Out of Space, my needs are fully met.

Cosmic Horror trending during an extinction event makes perfect sense, if you think about it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Apollo 18 (2011)

Houston, we’ve got a problem. There’s life on the moon, and it ain’t lunar maidens in diaphanous gowns.

Buckle up for another found-footage adventure, this one finding its way back to Earth from the cold embrace of space. Apollo 18 reveals classified information about a secret moon landing in 1969 that was completely on the down low from the American public.

Mission Commander Nathan Walker (Lloyd Owen), Captain Ben Anderson (Warren Christie), and Lieutenant Commander John Grey (Ryan Robbins) are dispatched to the moon under the direction of the Department of Defense, to set up a monitoring device to keep tabs on the Russians.

That’s the story, anyway.

Walker and Anderson discover a derelict Russian spacecraft and the remains of a Soviet cosmonaut on the lunar surface. Shortly thereafter, Walker has a close encounter with a scuttling moon spider and the mission is pretty much FUBAR.

There are many parallels to Alien, including a critter gestation period and the inevitable expendability of the crew, a development that does not sit well with the participants. Indeed, the casual disregard for the safety of the astronauts by Mission Control is more frightening than the moon spiders themselves.

With Apollo 18, director Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego and writer Brian Miller play the slow-burn card to a fault. They establish a suffocating atmosphere of dread and doom in outer space with limited sets and props—and action.

There are moments when the audience feels like they’re the ones lost in space, adrift in an indifferent narrative.

Ultimately, it’s worth the trip. There’s more than enough creeping unease to keep us tuned in for the duration, as three astronauts transition from All-American heroes with The Right Stuff, to unwitting hosts with interstellar predators.

Black Mountain Side (2014)

Perhaps writer-director Nick Szostakiwskyj should have titled his movie And Another Thing, because it follows the structure of John Carpenter’s 1982 frosty classic to the letter.

Of course, there’s one crucial difference, but we’ll discuss that later.

An archaeology team on a long-term dig in the frozen north of Canada unearths a monolith and a few artifacts. Next thing you know, the darn radio gives up the ghost and communication with the outside world is shut off.

Shortly thereafter, the camp comes under the malign influence of one or all of the following:

  • The Deer God. (Dear God, no!)
  • A parasitic virus that causes insanity.
  • Just plain insanity, aka, Cabin Fever.

Suffice to say, these gooses are cooked. Paranoia rears its ugly head, and, much like Kurt Russell and his comrades, the team turns on itself.

Francis (Carl Toftfelt) starts hearing voices. Olsen (Michael Dickson) has a conversation with a corpse. Giles (Marc Anthony Williams) loads his gun and stops trusting anyone.

And nobody can sleep.

The key difference between Black Mountain Side and its predecessor (aside from budget and acting talent) is the uncertainty of the threat.

Is it alien? Pagan? Bacterial? Mental? Who knows?

All I can say for certain is that scientists and their subordinates working in Arctic environments have the life expectancy of a clumsy mine sweeper.

Banshee Chapter (2014)

Given the present political situation, it should come as absolutely no surprise to anyone that government representatives frequently don’t have our best interests at heart.

Investigative reporter Anne Roland (Katia Winter) goes in search of a missing friend and uncovers a possible story about CIA mind-control experiments gone awry.

A breadcrumb trail of video evidence leads Anne to counterculture author Thomas Blackburn (Ted Levine, ol’ Buffalo Bill himself), a stand-in for Hunter S. Thompson, with whom she “trips” on a formula that was used on unsuspecting civilians in the 60s and 70s.

The drug, derived from the human pineal gland, gives the recipient heightened awareness of other dimensions—and the curious creatures who inhabit them.

The tension level climbs steadily throughout Banshee Chapter, but it’s the footage of old experiments that prove the most gripping. Clueless test subjects are strapped to a chair, injected with the dreadful drug, and plunged into darkness, attracting the attention of extra-dimensional entities who want to use the humans as surfboards into this world.

While intentions are never stated, I think we can safely assume the beings transforming human hosts into hideous mutations, are doing so for nefarious reasons.

Based on H.P. Lovecraft’s From Beyond, but bearing little resemblance to Stuart Gordon’s splashy adaptation from 1986, Banshee Chapter is a formidable debut for writer-director Blair Erickson, who shades his conspiracy theory mockumentary with splashes of cosmic horror (and humor) that blend perfectly in a paranoid landscape that greatly resembles our own.

In times such as these, we need eerie entertainment to keep us on our toes, and Banshee Chapter should have no trouble troubling an already troubled sleep.

The Vast Of Night (2019)

Whether or not The Vast Of Night qualifies as horror is debatable. Whether or not it’s truckloads of fun is not, because it is.

Amazon bought the rights to writer-director-editor Andrew Patterson’s 90-minute sci-fi joyride after it developed noteworthy buzz on the festival circuit.

Nutshell: In the late 1950s, a tiny New Mexico town experiences extra-terrestrial shenanigans on the night of the big basketball game at the high school gym.

Fast-talking disc jockey Everett (Jake Horowitz) and his telephone operator sidekick Fay (Sierra McCormick) stumble upon a strange audio frequency and instantly find themselves hip deep in government coverups, eerie phone calls, and quite possibly visitors from outer space.

Can this gabby duo solve a mystery that’s out of this world?

The Vast Of Night is a camp stew of War of the Worlds (the radio station Everett works at is WOTW), X-Files, and Close Encounters, all familiar elements laid out like generous buffet stations.

It’s when Patterson’s visual acuity takes charge that the story soars to marvelous heights.

The movie plays out as an episode of Paradox Theater, a thinly disguised vintage stand-in for The Twilight Zone. Scenes open in fuzzy black and white before the characters come into focus, and then color gradually returns.

It’s a mesmerizing effect that binds us to the evolving narrative like there was never any choice in the matter.

Patterson’s boundless drone photography is bold and borders on gimmicky, but it lends exhilarating movement and flow to a movie that often slows down to let people talk for a spell.

A word of warning: Everett and Fay’s nonstop verbosity will irritate some members of the audience. If you dig well-written banter, there’s plenty to savor and save for later.

Don’t let the whimsical retro trappings fool you, though. The Vast Of Night contains a dilly of a conspiracy that might contain clues to our current chaos.

Keep watching the skies.

 

The Blackout: Invasion Earth (2019)

No need to overthink it. The Blackout is a slam-bang, sci-fi, action blockbuster from Russia that’s certain to hold your attention long after the Milk Duds harden.

Borrowing from well-sourced material like Starship Troopers, Alien, and War of the Worlds, directors Egor Baranov and Nathalia Hencker have dropped a fairly epic slab of space spectacle on our heads, featuring a cast of brave comrades from the former Soviet Union battling an unearthly menace.

Nutshell: The Earth has gone dark except for one small circle of civilization in Eastern Europe. Russian troops are deployed, but prove mostly useless against an unseen enemy that sends wave after wave of brainwashed bears and people at their shrinking defenses.

All seems lost until the arrival of Id (Atryom Tkachenko), an alien with godlike powers (but no mouth), who offers the beleaguered survivors a possible solution to the impending invasion.

“But at what cost?” as the saying goes.

Seen mostly from the grunt’s-eye view of two soldiers, Oleg (Aleksey Chadov) and Grubov (Pyotr Fyodorov), The Blackout serves up balls-to-the-wall military gear excitement and plenty of narrow escapes, while bodies pile up to the heavens.

Having the aliens enslave millions of human subjects and making them fight against the Russian holdouts is a brilliant strategy that also saves tons of money on the special effects budget.

No need for Godzilla to stomp Tokyo when there’s plenty of domestic cannon fodder at hand.

Thankfully, even at 2-hours plus, there’s no lag time in The Blackout, and that’s worth plenty in my book, especially since it’s light on CGI.

Turns out there’s nothing wrong with old-fashioned blood and guts.

 

 

 

 

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.