Terrified (2017)

It’s scary watching a good neighborhood go bad.

Set in the suburbs of Buenos Aires, Terrified zooms in on one unlucky block of real estate, where strange things are happening.

How strange, you ask?

Just ask the kid next door. He was recently run over by a bus and buried, but has returned after clawing his way out of the grave. The boy’s mother (Julieta Vallina) is beside herself, as you might expect.

Her detective boyfriend Funes (Maximiliano Ghione) calls in retired cop Jano (Norberto Gonzalo), a forensic expert with a knack for bizarre cases.

Before the investigation can begin, renowned paranormal researcher Dr. Mora Albreck (Elvira Onetto) materializes with questions of her own. Despite the assembled brain power, the best theory that Albreck can proffer is that they are sitting on a nest of beings from another dimension.

Further observations from the good doctor reveal that the creatures occupy the same space we do and can inhabit our bodies. Also, they drink blood and seem to enjoy tormenting their subjects to death.

Using comically archaic spiritual weights and measures, Albreck assembles concrete evidence that establishes the existence of vampiric entities that can crawl out from under the bed or emerge from the closet at will.

“What should we do now?” a colleague asks her.

“I have no idea,” she answers truthfully.

Terrified is a potent and terrifyingly graphic film about the dissemination of fear in an urban setting, with roots in paranormal activity. In this regard, it’s quite unlike the Paranormal Activity series of films created Oren Peli.

Instead of endless sequences spent observing snoring citizens, we get pants-wetting shock value from a parade of singular spooks that will leave trauma marks on the cerebral cortex.

Argentine writer-director Demían Rugna wields a deep arsenal of disorienting camera moves that offer no comfort or safe space to hide. We bounce from mouse-eye views looking up, to sinister surveillance peering in the windows, to awful things taking shape on the periphery of the senses.

Utilizing every centimeter of the frame, Rugna proves, just as H.P. Lovecraft did before him, that there’s plenty of room for malign beings to coexist with us—and drive us insane.

This is not a comforting thought. Terrified delivers the scary when it counts.

Choose Or Die (2022)

Video games are bad, ‘mkay?

Choose Or Die takes place in a slightly dystopian future that looks like the present, where our protagonist, Kayla (Iola Evans), ekes out a living cleaning clean offices every night, plus whatever she can scrounge by refurbishing obsolete technology.

During a visit with her friendly fence Isaac (Asa Butterfield), she discovers an old text-based video game from the 1980s called Curs>r that more than lives up to its name.

Isaac informs Kayla that there’s an unclaimed $100,000 prize that supposedly awaits the player worthy enough to win.

The bummer is that it’s a sentient game made with sorcerous runes that can take over reality, forcing the player to make impossible choices, usually having to decide which friend or family member gets maimed in grisly fashion.

Therein lies the tension in all its one-dimensional glory. Dig it, or don’t.

Choose Or Die gets a needed boost from actress Iola Evans, who invests Kayla with brains and bravery. Even with loved ones in constant peril, she keeps her focus while trying to hack the sinister system.

Writer-director Toby Meakins does an adequate job of creating a cold and confusing reality in which financially trapped citizens like Kayla engage in risky occult business in hopes of a prize that will rescue them from wretched poverty.

You know, like in The Hunger Games.

Though Kayla is a talented programmer, she can’t get her foot in the door anywhere, leaving her stuck with mindless labor as the only way to keep the drug-dealing landlord (Ryan Gage) from stringing out her junkie mom.

You should be entertained by the painful predicaments pondered in Choose Or Die, and you will definitely root for the plucky heroine. But it’s all pretty one-dimensional. Hopefully that’s enough.

Saint Maud (2019)

Maud (Morfydd Clark) says her prayers at night, and impatiently asks God for a task worthy of her devotion to him.

Careful what you wish for, Maud.

English writer-director Rose Glass unveils a disturbing, disintegrating portrait of a pious hospice nurse so anxious for meaning in her dismal life, that she creates her own.

Judging by the fiery final frame of Saint Maud, things don’t go as planned.

In a gloomy English town, Maud gets up each day to tend the terminally ill Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), a free-thinking extrovert whose bohemian behavior is a bucket of ice water on the nurse’s tightly held beliefs.

Her patient’s libidinous relationship with the seductive Carol (Lily Frazer) becomes unbearable to Maud’s ascetic sensibility, so she takes it upon herself to send the woman away—for Amanda’s own good.

This encourages Maud to step up her attempts to save Amanda’s damaged soul.

We patiently come to learn things about Maud, who comes from a long line of unreliable narrators. For one thing, that’s not her real name, and the devotional lifestyle is apparently a recent conversion, coming on the heels of a traumatic event.

There are ample clues to demonstrate her flimsy grasp on reality, as when Amanda ridicules her faith at a social gathering, and Maud slaps her face.

This rather unorthodox method doesn’t go over well, and it’s all downhill from there.

Without her mission to save Amanda, Maud hits the skids in a big way, seeking comfort at a pub where she gets wasted and sleeps with Joe Rando. She quickly realizes that secular pleasures don’t do anything for her higher self.

Just when all seems lost, Maud has a miraculous mystical episode in her dreary apartment that levitates her off the ground! And thus spiritually fortified, she returns to visit the dying Amanda one last time.

Recent fare like The Dark and the Wicked, Amulet, Antlers, and now Saint Maud, all seem to take place in the same pressurized godless vacuum, which can be challenging to absorb, especially if you’re allergic to hopelessness.

It can wear on you and leave a mark. But you won’t soon forget it, either. The talented Rose Glass has conjured powerful images here that are already filed away in your screaming subconscious.

Actress Morfydd Clark is a lightning bolt revelation in the title role, thoroughly committing herself to a difficult character. Maud is a well-intentioned soul, who, depending upon your interpretation of the final scene, stumbles over her pride and falls into darkness. Like Lucifer.

In this damned place, there are no other options.

Antlers (2021)

“It all makes sense, you see. I mean, our ancestral spirits never died. They were here long before we were, and they’ll be here long after we’re gone. But now, they’re angry.”

Dark times call for dark movies. Antlers is a coal mine at midnight.

The opening observation comes from Warren Stokes (Graham Greene), the former sheriff of Cispus Falls, a blighted Oregon town where mutilated citizens are appearing with alarming frequency.

The current sheriff, Paul Meadows (Jesse Plemons), is seeking counsel. He’s out of his depth and confused, hypothesizing a cougar or bear attack is responsible for the mayhem.

Meanwhile, Paul’s schoolmarm sister Julia (Keri Russell) is trying to figure out why her sullen student Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas) is drawing pictures of demons and monsters.

In Antlers, all the dots connect to the decline of the planet’s structural integrity. Our systematic “pillaging of Mother Earth” has opened the door to indigenous spirits, most notably the Wendigo, a voracious cannibal that inhabits evil men.

Just below the narrative surface of this riveting supernatural thriller lurks mounting evidence of an infected society that has no access to spiritual vaccine.

Cispus Falls is a moribund mining town, an urban landscape littered with old machinery and empty storefronts, where the only thriving business is meth production.

Deep-rooted trauma is the norm. Julia, a recovering alcoholic with her own childhood of parental abuse, eyes liquor bottles at the store with palpable longing, searching for strength and comfort from any source.

In the background, the news drones on about the opioid epidemic, failing industries, and environmental collapse.

Kerri Russell owns her role as a damaged, unhappy woman who realizes her altruistic motives for helping Lucas are likely futile, but it’s marginally better than giving in to the despair that runs deep in these parts.

She recognizes the telltale signs of abuse in Lucas’s haunted face, a reflection of a home life that is literally hellish. He is a child doomed to maintaining the monstrous status quo at his house, while his younger brother Aidan (Sawyer Jones) is held captive by something that used to be their meth-cooking father (Scott Haze).

The thing Lucas calls “New Dad” is growing increasingly hungry and his grocery list requires fresh meat.

“Is God really dead?” Aidan asks Lucas. “Daddy said God is dead.”

Director Scott Cooper, working alongside executive producer/malevolent maestro Guillermo del Toro, has constructed a thoroughly ravaged world with precious little light—one that is bone-chillingly familiar.

Hey, isn’t that our civilization crumbling?

There are moments of brain-freezing terror in Antlers, including horned creature craft with genuine nightmare potential, a del Toro calling card.

Yet it’s the overall tone that proves the most unsettling factor, because it presents a terminally ill worldview, a pandemic of the soul that never ends.

There may be small victories to be had, individuals worth saving, but the inescapable conclusion is that humanity is fighting a losing battle with havoc we’ve wrought on ourselves.

In nearly every scene, Julia and Paul (the good guys) are stymied by inadequacy and failure. The coroner is apologetic because he can’t explain how the victims were killed. A doctor is unable to predict if a patient will recover. The harried school principal (Amy Madigan) tells Julia she isn’t allowed to intervene on a student’s behalf.

Even Paul admits he was reluctant to take the sheriff’s job, which mainly consists of evicting local homeowners.

“Everyone thinks these problems are just going to go away, and we know that they don’t,” Julia tells him. She could be referring to any number of societal symptoms depicted in Antlers.

The wound runs too deep, there’s no saving this patient. The downward spiral is well under way and no one’s getting off.

Hope you like it bleak.

Head Count (2018)

The moral of the story: Don’t use the internet, it’s evil.

Evan (Isaac Jay) is a college kid on spring break looking for love and adventure. Careful what you wish for, my lad.

Instead of Lake Havasu, he heads for Joshua Tree to crash with his older brother Peyton (Cooper Rowe), and maybe bond over some hiking and camping.

Rather than pitch a tent, Evan ditches his brother at the first opportunity and falls in with a bunch of bohemian millennials renting a nearby house. Seeing attractive folks his own age that party all night is sufficient temptation for Evan, especially the beguiling Zoe (Ashleigh Morghan), a photographer currently without a boyfriend.

Scenes of low-key hedonism (weed, shrooms, booze) are followed by everyone gathered around the ol’ campfire for ghost stories. Since Evan doesn’t know one, he is directed to a website where he mistakenly recites a summoning spell for a shapeshifting demon.

Editor’s Note: Check and verify your sources, people! How dumb do you have to be to read an incantation that warns you not to say a certain name out loud? What hayseed community college do these nitwits attend?

None of them are going to have to worry about graduation requirements, if it’s any consolation.

The malevolent entity called a hsijie can appear to look like anyone and even these inebriated dorks begin to notice that various members of their group seem to have gained the ability to be in two places at once.

This is called a clue, and Evan is the only one present who picks up on it. The carefree weekend takes on a distinctly ominous tone after pretty Zoe walks off a cliff and injures her ankle.

Did she jump or was she pushed?

Other than Evan and Camille (Bevin Bru), the rest of the group can’t be bothered to examine the evidence that’s all around them, preferring beer pong and Never Have I Ever to thoughts of self-preservation.

Head Count succeeds as a low-budge (but not to its detriment) thriller with a nifty paranormal threat that remains largely out of sight. Even so, writer-director Elle Callahan (Witch Hunt) brings tensions to a boil with strategically placed pointers amidst all the scenes of collegiate cavorting that inevitably ensue when the parents are out of town.

I told you kids! No parties! You’re all grounded.

Six feet deep.

Spell (2020)

Thomas Wolfe was right. You can’t go home again.

Just ask Marquis Woods (Omari Hardwick), an affluent African-American who crashes his plane squarely in the distant past in director Mark Tonderai’s Spell.

Marquis has grown up from a dirt-poor Appalachian childhood into a powerhouse big city lawyer with a handsome family. Upon learning of the death of his estranged father back in the hills, he packs up the wife and kids and flies everyone down South.

Foul weather causes the single-engine plane to drop out of the sky, and when Marquis regains consciousness he is an injured house guest of Miss Eloise (Loretta Devine), a witchy woman who uses magic herbs and a hoodoo doll to keep him immobilized, awaiting a Blood Moon ritual to transfer her essence into a younger body, or something like that.

The lion’s share of Spell is about Marquis’s grueling quest to escape from Miss Eloise and her minions, that’s reminiscent of James Caan trying to vanquish Kathy Bates in Misery.

Eventually Marquis realizes he’s going to have to fight fire with fire and reaches back into his own distant memories for the incantations his father taught him. “You got to believe to make it work,” his father’s shade tells him.

Though he claims on numerous occasions not to believe any of his father’s magical madness, desperation and rage transform Marquis into a practitioner capable of battling Miss Eloise to a standstill.

There’s no shortage of horror movies about urbanites having to fight their way out of a backwoods hellhole, but Spell is the first one I’ve seen with an all-black cast.

It makes for a provocative and offbeat point of view in a film that I recommend taking for a spin.

The Deep House (2021)

Why would anyone want to explore a haunted house at the bottom of a lake? Talk about looking for trouble. The Deep House follows Ben (James Jagger) and Tina (Camille Lowe), a couple of thrill-seeking social media climbers that specialize in visiting creepy-ass abandoned buildings.

They don’t get much creepier than an eerily preserved house on the floor of a deep French lake, so they gather their diving gear and make a splash, guided to the secret spot by a chainsmoking local (Eric Savin).

Their life aquatic isn’t pleasant, to say the least. They find the house and Tina doesn’t like the atmosphere one bit. When they discover buoyant corpses and evidence of human sacrifice things really go off the rails.

Written and directed by Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo, The Deep House will make you uncomfortable in interesting new ways. The prospect of running out of air surfaces early in the film, as Tina practices holding her breath in the bathtub prior to arrival.

If the idea of an empty air tank under hundreds of feet water while being chased through a submerged spook-house by swimming ghouls doesn’t freeze your blood, then you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din.

Furthermore, Ben is anxious to become media famous, while Tina has a stubborn streak of common sense that often runs counter to her partner’s ambition, a situation that could spell doom for both of them.

Ben has a camera drone that provides aerial views and also follows the couple into the lake, so visually they’ve got all their angles covered. And we can see what’s lurking around the corner.

As soon as the viewer forgets that Ben and Tina are underwater, something floats by and we get a fresh wave of panic.

There’s no big moral lesson in The Deep House. What Ben and Tina find in the house at the bottom of the lake is something that should have stayed there. Is that so hard to wrap your head around?

Again, why go out of your way to get metaphysically mangled? Good movie, though.

Demonic (2015)

A detective (Frank Grillo) and a police psychiatrist (Maria Bello) try to piece together what happened after a team of amateur ghostbusters bungle a seance in a haunted house, in Demonic.

Probably happens all the time.

The cops grill John (Dustin Milligan), the only survivor, in an attempt to locate his missing girlfriend Michelle (Cody Horn) and ghost team leader Bryan (Scott Mechlowicz).

The rest of Bryan’s crew are spread out around the house in various stages of decomposition after persons unknown went on a chopping spree.

The story unfolds via John’s remembrances and footage recovered by forensic specialists, so the narrative bounces from the current crime scene to the week before, when the paranormal investigators set up shop in a rambling manor house somewhere in Louisiana swampland.

There are jump scares aplenty and a decent amount of escalating tension, but not much in the way of blood and guts. Gaping plot holes abound (Really? The detective has no other recourse but to shoot his only suspect while the latter is holed up in a grocery store?) and no one associated with the film will win any acting awards.

Even so, director-cowriter Will Canon keeps his spooks flying and manages to perpetrate a few decent plot twists to keep our attention from wandering too far.

Demonic is not required viewing, but you could do a lot worse. I should know.

Willy’s Wonderland (2021)

S’okay.

Granted, Willy’s Wonderland is an entertaining movie, but director Kevin Lewis and writer G. O. Parsons ultimately underdeliver on the fright front. Yes, Nicolas Cage gives a spirited performance as a mute janitor battling Satanic forces inside a cursed restaurant, but much of the action feels like missed opportunity.

A man of few words (Cage) blows a couple tires while traveling the backroads of the country. Local entrepreneur Tex Macadoo (Ric Reitz) and his tow-truck driving flunky (Chris Warner) take charge of the situation, offering to fix the stranger’s bitchin’ car in exchange for a night’s work, cleaning up Willy’s Wonderland, a former family eatery (think Chuck E. Cheese) inhabited by evil mascots who made a deal with the devil.

Cage agrees to the terms, and thus embarks on an earnest quest to restore the decaying fun zone to its former pristine condition. There are even inspired montage sequences that feature serious deep cleaning by NC that made me laugh.

The squad of evil automatons (a gorilla, an alligator, a Mexican bandit, a fairy, a knight, and a weasel) are one of those aforementioned wasted opportunities, as they turn out to be easily disposed of by the industrious janitor.

The only thing keeping Cage from really cleaning house, is a recurring gag that has him taking breaks in the middle of combat, where he guzzles an energy drink and plays pinball for a while. The bit gets tiresome and momentum grinds to a halt.

Comic actress Beth Grant (The Mindy Project) is on hand as a corrupt sheriff keeping the town’s dirty secret, and she provides a level of energy and commitment that compensates for some of the script shortcomings.

Willy’s Wonderland has moments of divine lunacy. There could and should have been more.

One Dark Night (1982)

The dueling subplots in One Dark Night don’t actually connect until about three-quarters of the way through the movie, but when they do, something magical happens. The big subplot eats the little subplot.

Welcome back to the 1980s when teenagers were actually much older than they look. Golden boy Steve (David Mason Daniels) has got to be pushing 30, and his Queen Bee Bitch ex-girlfriend Carol (Robin Evans) is from a similar demongraphic.

Carol is the leader of a girl gang imaginatively named The Sisters, comprised of Leslie (E.G. Daily, forever known as Dottie, from Pee Wee’s Big Adventure) and Kitty (Leslie Speights), a sassy black teen with a toothbrush in her mouth.

Hmmph. Three girls. Some gang.

The latest initiate into The Sisters, Julie (Meg Tilly, in her debut), is Steve’s new flame, so Carol cruelly demands that she spend an entire night in a mausoleum!

To add to her discomfort, Kitty gives Julie Demarol, a powerful painkiller, instead of the sleeping pills she promised. All the better for her to be in a tripped-out state of mind when the other girls sneak back into the mausoleum to frighten her with their lame ghost costumes.

Mean girls. Always been a thing.

The other narrative involves the death of a famous Russian psychic named Raymar, recently discovered alongside a pile of dead girls. The psychic’s daughter Olivia (Melissa Newman) is warned by a mysterious albino (Donald Hotton) that her father had figured out how to drain “bio energy” from people and save it up to return from the grave.

Which he does.

By the time Raymar, crackling with psychic energy, kicks his way out of the crypt, Julie is high as a kite and her tormentors are getting mobbed by freshly revived corpses.

Coffins come springing out of the walls revealing folks in various states of decomposition who quickly dogpile on Kitty and Carol, smothering them in rotting flesh. Ewwww!

It’s this twisted, nightmarish conclusion to One Dark Night that rescues a small-scale, perfunctory movie that’s also bereft of blood and guts. A modest round of applause goes to writer-director Tom McLaughlin for successfully pulling his fat out of the fire.

Moral of the Story: Even if you’re a budget-strapped director with maxed-out credit cards, you need to deliver on some horrific level to get respect around these part.

Editor’s Note: Fans of 60s-era Batman will be disappointed in the amount of screen time allotted to Adam West, as Olivia’s husband. He doesn’t get to do shit.