YellowBrickRoad (2010)

This indie entry has such an unsettling premise and buildup, that I’m actually going to forgive the WTF ending. It wasn’t easy, but the first 75 minutes are skillfully constructed and hint at so much awful, otherworldly potential.

Filmmakers Andy Mitton and Jesse Holland effectively borrow the premise of The Blair Witch Project—research team goes into scary woods to investigate a local mystery—and successfully create a movie in which the viewer is constantly bombarded with possibilities and forced to invent scenarios that explain the increasingly bizarre circumstances.

A writer (Michael Laurino), his wife (Anessa Ramsey), and a handful of other science-y types go traipsing off into uncharted New Hampshire forest land to find out what happened to the entire population of the nearby town of Friar.

Seventy years previous, everyone inexplicably left Friar and followed a trail into the woods and were never seen alive again. The modern-day explorers find the coordinates of the trail and the expedition begins. What no one realizes until it’s far too late, is that it’s a doomed expedition leading only to—MADNESS!

It’s a subtle transformation that takes place in YellowBrickRoad; the further the characters travel on the trail, the more things break down. Tensions arise, their instruments cease to work, and worst of all, they are loudly serenaded with old-timey jazz music day and night, as if the entire forest is wired for sound.

After all this slow-baked agony, the ending is a rather pale payoff compared to what Mitton and Holland have put us through for most of the film, but credit must be given for the power of the journey itself, which at times resembles a low-budget take on Werner Herzog’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God rather than the aforementioned Blair Witch.

And that’s good company. 

The Hazing (2004)

Today’s lesson: Don’t judge a movie by its blurb. I read the words “fraternity” and “sorority” and my interest began to wane.

Glad I toughed it out. The Hazing is a first-rate, low-budg, sloppy kiss tribute to (surprise, surprise) Sam Raimi and The Evil Dead.

Nutshell: Two gals and three dudes pledging to brother-sister houses must complete a Halloween scavenger hunt and bring all their items to Hack House, a local mansion of the haunted variety.

Note: Bruce Campbell’s picture makes an appearance as one of the items the pledges must roundup on the scavenger hunt, for Pete’s sake.

Another needful thing is a potent grimoire of dark magic that’s in the possession of mysterious Professor Kapps (Brad Dourif). They grab the book, a demon is summoned, and so begins a night of Raimi-esque chaos, confusion, and high-voltage hack and stack.

And Brad Dourif kills (literally!) as the mad professor, providing a sturdy dramatic foundation for his less polished costars.

I was thoroughly entertained by The Hazing, mostly because it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Delia (Nectar Rose), shouts, “I wasn’t planning to stay out all night killing my friends!” when an evil spirit possesses her fellow pledges.

Fortunately, the goofy tone doesn’t diminish the horror action. It’s got a pedal-to-the-metal pace, decent body count, naked interludes, and scaredy-cat nerd Tim (Perry Shen), ends up a hero of sorts.

Tim proudly takes a moment of screen time to tell his fellow cast members why he isn’t a stereotype geek. “I don’t work with computers, I don’t like video games, and I’m not a virgin,” he insists.  “I lost my cherry when I was 15!”

The Hazing is very much in keeping with this statement. It’s not what you think it is. It’s way better.

Deadwater (2008)

Deadwater is not a very good film, but the presence of grizzled vet Lance Henricksen helps a bit.

Kudos to director Roel Reiné, who took the time and energy to dress it up as a contemporary naval action thriller (not that there are abundant thrills to be had in this yawner) and include scenes of “advanced interrogation techniques.”

Abu Ghraib is mentioned a few times. That’s about as timely as it gets, though.

Somewhere at sea near Iran or Iraq (forgot which), a U.S. crew operating a recommissioned WW II vessel is slaughtered under mysterious circumstances, due mainly to the poor lighting and spastic camera work.

Old salt Col. John Willets (Henricksen) and his crack team of nobodies are sent to investigate. Lo and behold, one of the few survivors of the haunted holocaust is the colonel’s son, Colin Willets (played by Australian side-of-beef Gary Stretch, whose acting chops and resemblance to Henricksen are equally nonexistent).

So what the hell happened?

There are approximately 863,111 movies in which a team of well-armed investigators boards a derelict ship or facility to find out what became of the previous occupants. This isn’t nearly as good as say, Ghost Ship, one of the better efforts in that genre.

The threat remains mostly unseen (malevolent energy or something. Zzzzzzz.) and 95 percent of the movie consists of Henricksen and company moving stealthily through corridors and making ludicrous military hand gestures at each other.

Save this one for Low Expectations Sunday. BTW, if you’re looking for it in Netflix, you’ll find it under the title Black Ops. My advice? Don’t look too hard.

Slaughter Night (2006)

A handful of hard-partying Dutch kids take a tour of a mine where centuries (years?) before, a fiendish killer/sorcerer was executed.

I know what you’re thinking. Why in the hell would a group of reasonably attractive young adults end up in a mine? As Bill Murray once said, “It just doesn’t matter.”

What does matter is the spirit of the sorcerer is alive and kicking, and needs eight victims in order to … something or other. Become human again? Get out of hell? Get a free foot-long sub? See Murray quote.

Oh, and I have some free advice to anyone who happens to find themselves trapped in a haunted mine. Do not play with a Ouija Board. And do not split up so you can cover more ground.

Friggin’ amateurs.

Slaughter Night was produced in the Netherlands, and I will tip my hat to our Dutch Brothers for a well-acted, fast-paced blood letter, with a goodly amount of decapitations.

Once again, we have a case of overt Sam Raimi worship by writers/directors Frank van Geloven and Edwin Visser, as the possessed teens are dead ringers for Evil Dead‘s Deadites.

Even so, things move along pretty well, and the mine provides a suitably creepy and claustrophobic setting.

The film is also subtitled, which I actually prefer, as far too many horror flicks suffer from uneven sound. You know, where crucial dialogue is whispered by two characters, and you turn up the volume to compensate, right as the chainsaws and screaming start.

And that’s when my wife yells at me to “turn that screamy shit down.” So everybody’s happy.

Insidious (2010)

Right off the bat I was worried. The cover art proclaims, “From the makers of Paranormal Activity and Saw,” two films I didn’t much care for.

I thought the former was dull and the latter unbearably formulaic. So paddle my ass and call me Spanky—I rolled the dice and came up a winner with Insidious, a potent portrait of immaterial possession that belongs on the same domestic horror shelf as Poltergeist, The Exorcist, and The Grudge.

It isn’t as good as those films, but it’s good enough.

Teeny weeny actress Rose Byrne (Damages) is cast as Renai Lambert, a mother of three children. Byrne is totally spot-on here emotionally as the freaked-out-but-scrappy mom, but she looks like she’d shatter into gravel if she so much as contemplated child birth.

Patrick Wilson, a rather colorless fusion of Will Arnett, Robert Patrick, and Timothy Olyphant, is her husband Josh. As previously mentioned, they have three children.

The eldest, Dalton (Ty Simpkins), is a fearless tyke with a hidden talent for astral projection during sleep. A stroke of bad luck comes when Dalton, instead of hanging out in the girls’ locker room like a sensible youngster, gets his dumb-astral form trapped in a very bad-astral place, and all sorts of extra-dimensional creatures start showing up to claim the lad’s comatose body.

After getting the beans scared out of her on repeated occasions, Renai finally prevails on her prick of a husband to move from their extremely nice early 20th century Craftsman-style home into another, equally beautiful home.

Editor’s note: Having gone through numerous hellish scenarios with contractors, realtors, and movers, the Lamberts emerge from this part of the deal relatively unscathe). It’s only after the move that they find out, as the tag line declares, “It isn’t the house that’s haunted.”

I got a kick out of Insidious. The scares, though predictable, are fairly intense and original. There’s some surprisingly unannoying comedy relief in Specs (writer Leigh Wannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson), a Mutt-and-Jeff team of nerdy ghost busters who quickly realize they’re in over their heads.

And veteran character actress Lin Shaye (Kingpin, There’s Something About Mary) does yeoman work as a capable psychic brought in by Josh’s mom Lorraine (Barbara Hershey, always a pleasure).

The ghosts, lost souls, and demons that materialize during the 103-minute run time are mostly frightening, and, more importantly, memorable.

Alone in the house, on a dark night, Insidious could well set your pants afloat.

It’s My Party and I’ll Die If I Want To (2006)

There are a thousand things wrong with It’s My Party and I’ll Die If I Want To—and I still dug it.

Director and writer (also editor, composer, and several other titles) Tony Wash had the brass to make his film on a budget so puny you can practically hear the car washes, garage sales, and bake sales (not to mention the ringing of credit cards) that went into the financing.

There are continuity errors, mushy sound quality, community theater acting, and it looks like it was shot on a flip phonw. Even so, Wash and his creative cohorts have some audacity and style. True, it’s a young Sam Raimi’s style, but nonetheless…

Sarah (Adrienne Fischer) thinks her friends have forgotten her 18th birthday. Geez, how could they forget? It’s on Halloween! And that means a costume party in an old house with a sinister reputation.

Part of that reputation, truthfully, should be because of its periodic ability to drastically change size and shape. The interior layout of Burkitt Manor is incomprehensible.

It turns out Sarah’s bland assortment of acquaintances have hit upon the brilliant idea of rigging up the old Burkitt Manor (where in either 1908 or 1930 a despotic husband beat his family into hamburger) as a haunted house to scare the bejeebers out of her.

Who knew kids were so motivated?

After 67 or so slow exposition scenes, the Karo syrup finally starts to fly, as the evil spirit of the house takes possession of young schmuck Travis (Oliver Lucach), and the body count clock is ticking.

Fortunately, we learn (in a training scene that includes a shower interlude—good call, Tony) Sarah is an expert in martial arts and her friends thoughtfully chipped in to buy her a katana! So we get a savage kung-fu showdown—with the plucky Sarah dressed as Elvira—in addition to buckets of viscera and a little gratuitous nudity.

It’s My Party and I’ll Die If I Want To is an amateur production with a capital “A”, even with a Tom Savini cameo. But Wash and his team work hard to get most of the details right.

And he borrows liberally from Raimi (the main creature is pretty much a Deadite), George Romero (The EC Comics segues are straight out of Creep Show), John Carpenter, and even Tarantino, which should be enough for horror geeks to suck on like an all-day lollipop.

It was for me, anyway. Someone give this kid a few bucks, eh?