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.

 

 

 

 

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?

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.

 

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.

Southbound (2015)

 

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)

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.