Southbound (2015)

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The Allman Brothers were right. The road goes on forever—in hell!

With its parallel storylines laid out in nonlinear fashion, Southbound plays like a supernatural Pulp Fiction. Characters overlap briefly in a moment of transition, and the next tale of damnation/redemption begins, with narration by a lonesome DJ (Larry Fessenden), who functions as a sort of high desert Crypt Keeper on the road to nowhere.

“The Way In” and “They Way Out” are the bookend narratives that frame the action, as a pair of hit men (Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Chad Villela) attempt to outrun their fates on an infernal stretch of highway that has no exits, no cell phone reception, and no hope.

An all-girl rock band tries to keep it together despite creative differences and being bewitched by wholesome cultists (led by Dana Gould), in “Siren.”

A distracted driver (David Bruckner) creams a woman in distress and calls 911 for help in “The Accident.” Sounds sensible, but who answers the phone?

An obsessed avenger (David Yow) searches for his sister in a small town populated by unfriendly folks.

For anyone who’s never seen an episode of The Twilight Zone, this might be a plot spoiler, but it becomes pretty obvious, pretty fast, that these events are taking place in the Netherworld.

Both the the highway itself and the little communities it serves are a perpetual purgatory where lost souls can relive the worst nights of their lives on a continuous loop.

Some characters develop self-awareness and accept life in limbo, finding it preferable to being torn apart by demons, as befalls anyone foolish enough to think there’s a way out through the desert.

Plot spolier #2. There isn’t.

The various segments are written and directed by an assortment of creatives, some more talented than others, but the overall entertainment value offered by Southbound is bountiful indeed. Yes, it’s worth the trip.

Added Value: Take a drink whenever a character says, “What the fuck?”

 

 

 

Mohawk (2017)

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My tri-corner hat is off to Mohawk, a harrowing revenge tale rooted in a particularly dark corner of American history, that comes out with guns blazing and blood flowing.

This is one of those gutsy, low-budget efforts that should earn director and co-writer Ted Geoghegan (We Are Still Here) a long-term contract to do whatever the hell he wants. His filmic instincts consistently hit their marks, allowing him to create vivid, indelible tableaus out of the rawest materials.

During the waning days of the War of 1812, a trio of “outlaws” are pursued deep into the forest primeval of upstate New York by a vicious posse of American soldiers, seeking vengeance for the sneak-attack killing of several members of their company.

As Mohawk warriors Oak (Kaniehtiio Horn) and Calvin (Justin Rain), along with their friend, British agent Joshua Pinsmail (Eamon Farron), flee further into uncharted Mohawk territory, the pot really boils for both hunter and hunted, leading to a showdown best described as otherworldly.

Like Michael Winner’s Chato’s Land (1972), which also features a ruthless posse chasing an American Indian (Charles Bronson, no less), it’s the white guys in charge who prove to be the real savages, even as the reluctant grunts quake in fear at the thought of being captured and tortured by natives.

Led by the unbending Colonel Hezekiah Holt (Ezra Buzzington) and his froggy voiced scout Sherwood Beal (Robert Longstreet, wearing an outlandish set of Antiques Roadshow spectacles), the company, including massive WWE wrestler Luke Harper, inevitably shrinks down to the last man, as Oak becomes an avenger following a seemingly divine encounter.

The ironic subtext about the dangers of immigration is on-point timely, and shouldn’t be lost amongst the deft brutality and gripping vistas. These foreign invaders (a.k.a. Americans) are indeed a deplorable bunch, who think nothing of eradicating entire societies in its lust for land, money, and revenge.

 

Harbinger Down (2015)

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No need to beat around the bush, Harbinger Down is an above-average homage to John Carpenter’s The Thing, set aboard an Alaskan crab boat, skippered by Lance Henricksen. The story goes, that the film’s creature effects team, ADI, apparently worked on the 2011 prequel of The Thing, only to see their contributions largely cut in favor of CGI.

Harbinger Down, written and directed Alec Gillis, is a crowd-funded production that gives ADI’s shrieking, flailing aliens some needed screen time. The results are nothing Rob Bottin needs to lose any sleep over, but are nonetheless far superior to the usual CGI gravy flopping around on SyFy network these days.

Welcome aboard the good ship Harbinger, a Bering Sea commercial fishing vessel, with the roomy interior of an oil tanker. Seriously, my family is in the fishing business, and I’ve never set foot on a crab boat with so many winding passageways.

Henricksen plays Graff, a grizzled old salt, who don’t take any lip, either from his feisty crew, or his granddaughter’s research team, who’ve hopped aboard to study whales or something. (If wardrobe had been on the ball, they would have given Lance a captain’s hat and a corncob pipe to complete his Popeye’s Pappy ensemble).

Along with a few tons of Dungeness, the Harbinger hooks some space wreckage that contains the remains of a Soviet craft, complete with a frozen cosmonaut carrying a hostile alien. You know, mutating space organism, it can look like anyone, lots of tentacles, you either freeze it or burn it. Sound familiar?

Given the premise, the script is little more than an afterthought, though Gillis misses the opportunity to create some much-needed distinctive supporting characters, by making sure that any and all dialogue is played hopelessly straight.

This is why Carpenter’s characters, stranded in the Arctic, or Ridley Scott’s characters, trapped in outer space, (definitely some Alien in this critter’s cinematic DNA), are memorable ones. They way they conduct themselves under extreme pressure (“I ain’t going with Windows, man!”), tells us everything we need to know about them, their final witticisms forever burned into our memory banks.

Here, the crew is just a bunch of nobodies, with the exception of ol’ reliable Lance, and perhaps Winston James Frances, as Big G, a courageous giant, the Harbinger equivalent of the Nostromo’s Parker (Yaphet Kotto). Nope, nothing new here, but Harbinger Down passes the time with flying colors.

It Follows (2014)

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It Follows is a real corker, and you should watch it, like right now. Daring and original, writer-director David Robert Mitchell’s tale of teens in trouble with … something relentless (Ghost? Evil spirit? Demon stalker?) is fascinating, freaky, and, above all, extremely well crafted.

Even as the constantly escalating sense of dread threatens to drag us down into perpetual darkness, observant eyes can’t fail to register Mitchell’s uncanny arsenal of 360 degree pans, unexpected angles, and sneaky shot compositions that prevent the viewer from getting comfortable with a stable perspective—thus ratcheting up our discomfort to strange new levels. Even mundane shots of characters watching TV or going to the movies are rife with tension, accompanied by discordant synthesizer static reminiscent of an early John Carpenter flick.

Nutshell: Heroine hottie Jay Height (Maika Monroe) gets dumped by mystery man Hugh (Jake Weary) after surrendering her virtue in his car. In this case, getting dumped entails fobbing sweet Jay off on a malevolent shape-shifting entity that can look like anyone, as it slowly, inexorably pursues its quarry. Hugh hastily explains that Jay needs to “pass it on” by having sex with someone else. “You’re a girl, it should be easy,” he tells her.

Jay’s sister Kelly (Lily Sepe) and neighborhood friends Paul (Keir Gilchrist) and Yara (Olivia Luccardi) valiantly attempt to keep her moving and close ranks around her, but it (Ghost? Evil Spirit? Demon stalker?) just keeps coming, forcing the group to make some very, very difficult decisions.

There’s almost no gore or computer-generated mayhem to be found in It Follows, and it doesn’t make a bit of difference. The hellish situation thrust on Jay and her friends is so confounding and unearthly, that fear of death and dismemberment places a distant to second to the awful, inevitable pursuit by … something really bad. Whether Jay’s running, driving, or hiding in a vacant beach house, we know there’s no escape—and eventually so does she.

Metaphorically, the implacable follower could represent any number of things: mortality, STDs, original sin, guilty conscience, loss of innocence, you name it. Unfortunately, Jay is too busy fleeing and concocting desperate schemes to really consider these implications.

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.

Mr. Jones (2013)

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The consensus opinion on writer-director Karl Mueller’s feature-length debut is that it has all the makings of a first-class frightener—but falls apart at the end, like a child’s first soufflé. I think the finale boils down to two possibilities, neither of which ruined the experience, in my opinion. In Mr. Jones, Mueller has created a vivid, found-footage nightmare that runs its course effectively, before running smack-dab into an ambiguous conclusion. Ambiguous, in this instance, does not mean half-assed or inexplicable.

Nutshell: An attractive couple severs its ties with civilization and sets up housekeeping in a remote mountainous locale (The Sierra Nevada range, if I had to guess). Scott (Jon Foster) is intent on making a nature documentary, that fizzles out before it starts. Girlfriend Penny (Sarah Jones) is worried about her partner, who’s gone off his medication and lost interest in the film project that would undoubtedly make them both rich and famous. (Add sarcasm font to the preceding statement.)

They soon become aware of a mysterious neighbor who gambols around in a hooded cloak, and Penny deduces that it is none other than Mr. Jones, a reclusive artist famous for creating unsettling life-sized scarecrows that got shipped out to seemingly random recipients around the world. And now their documentary has a new subject!

As the couple investigates Mr. Jones further, it becomes apparent that the artist is some sort of sorcerer or shaman who’s guarding the borders where various dimensions overlap. Penny’s convinced he’s benign, but Scott isn’t so sure. During a massive storm, all hell breaks loose and the fledgling filmmakers lose each other in the chaos. Queue up an ending that leaves us with more questions than answers, and roll credits.

I thoroughly enjoyed Mr. Jones. It successfully keeps us off balance, unsure of anything that’s taking place before our eyes. As for the ending that got stuck in everyone’s craw, there are two possible explanations. The first is that Scott, upon abandoning his meds (for what condition, we’re not told) has a reality break from which there is no return. The footage they’ve shot suggests that Mr. Jones is Scott himself, but this is hard to verify since there seem to be good and evil versions of both characters running around.

The other theory is that Scott did something to screw up the wards that Jones had put in place to protect our world against impending evil, resulting in the latter’s death. Now it’s up to Scott take his place as the new dimensional guardian. Which is only fair, if you ask me.

Haunter (2013)

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Can a plucky ghost solve a mystery and prevent a murder? A thoughtfully askew haunted house tale, Haunter tells the story of a fiendish serial killer (Stephen McHattie) through the eyes of one of his victims, a teenage ghost named Lisa (Abigail Breslin, who is excellent). She and the rest of her deceased family are tragically housebound in a time loop on the day that her father Bruce (Peter Outerbridge) succumbs to the influence of the murderer’s evil spirit and kills his kinfolk. Needless to say, all attempts to escape the house result in failure.

Lisa has “woken up” to the fact that she and her loved ones are doomed to relive the same day over and over, and she rightfully sees no future in it. Sensing another presence in the house, Lisa does her best Nancy Drew impression to figure out what’s going on and discovers that a different family (in the present day) is dwelling in the house and are in danger of repeating her family’s fate, as the killer’s ghostly presence is on the verge of causing another dad to turn homicidal.

Director Vincenzo Natali and writer Brian King bring a number of fresh elements to Haunter, particularly the idea that a lost soul can redeem itself by trying to save another. Breslin, nattily attired in her Siouxsie and the Banshees sweatshirt and Chuck Taylors, is winningly courageous as a sullen teen (spirit) who decides to quit wallowing in her own misery to battle the malignant entity that caused her untimely demise. Haunter is both compelling and reasonably horrifying without being accompanied by buckets of blood or resorting to tired tropes. It flows like a cracking good YA novel—one that’s dandy entertainment for the whole ghost family.

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