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.

 

 

 

 

Pandemic (2016)

Nothing like a little light entertainment to help shake those quarantine blues.

Can we interest you in a first-person, point-and-shoot craptacular, with a side of zombie dressing?

Sporting a tagline of “You are humanity’s last stand,” Pandemic puts the viewer squarely behind rotating POV cameras in a breakneck race to save uninfected survivors in post-plague Los Angeles.

Nutshell: A virulent contagion has swept the nation, transforming average citizens into berserk cannibals. After the fall of New York, survivor Lauren (Rachel Nichols), heads to LA where doctors are in short supply.

Assigned to a four-person rescue team tasked with rounding up survivors and testing them for infection, Lauren, Gunner (Mekhi Phifer), Wheels (Alfie Allen), and Denise (Missi Pyle), cruise the streets in a retrofitted school bus, dodging and dispatching meat-seeking freaks and armed gangs of plunderers.

Although the team has been specifically ordered not to go in search of family members, this directive somehow gets lost in all the excitement, and personal agendas threaten to derail the mission.

My wife commented that Pandemic is more of a sketch than a movie, and there is truth to that. With only minimal time given to character exposition, it’s the seat-of-the-pants mayhem that’s designed to carry the story, and indeed, there’s no shortage of high-speed splatter.

Unfortunately, director John Suits doesn’t generate much actual adrenaline, and the action seldom rises above (old) video game quality. When the POV perspective shifts rapidly to different characters, it becomes disorienting trying to follow the identities amidst a barrage of choppy, spastic editing.

Instead of freely reveling in post-apocalyptic/undead shenanigans, it took Dustin Benson’s screenplay shifting its focus to Lauren’s private mission, to keep me involved on a basic level.

Rachel Nichols brings surprising depth to a role that could have been adequately filled by a CGI sock puppet, and her supporting cast, particularly Phifer and Pyle, more than pulls its own weight.

Pandemic does not break new ground or offer much in the way of spectacle, but time passes quickly, allowing us to put our own viral anxieties on the back burner.

That’s gotta be worth something, right?

 

 

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.

 

A Quiet Place (2018)

Count me among those who thought A Quiet Place was an adaptation of the excellent Tim Lebbon novel, The Silence. The similarities are many, but chief among them is that both stories take place after the world has been decimated by blind, winged predators that attack sounds.

Furthermore, in each case the plot revolves around a family with a hearing impaired daughter, who have managed to stay alive due to their mastery of sign language. Coincidence? I hope Lebbon got paid for his trouble.

Real-life couple John Krasinski (who also directs and co-wrote the script) and Emily Blunt, star as Lee and Evelyn Abbott, the parents of three, whoops, make that two kids, who live the quiet life on several rural acres.

Perhaps not thinking far enough ahead, Lee and Evelyn conceive another baby, which, as we all know, never make any noise. If you can get passed this rather obvious lapse in logic, then you should remain emotionally invested enough to make it through the entire movie, as Mom and Dad heroically protect their offspring from flying terrors that look like gargoyles imagined by H.P. Lovecraft.

The Abbott clan’s desperate need to remain stone silent under any circumstances (including childbirth and stepping on a goddamn nail) keeps the stress level near the tipping point. And then it spills over into the audience where it belongs.

As the title suggests, the biggest change of pace happening here horror-wise, is the lack of not only dialogue, but sounds in general. A Quiet Place exists in an enviably noise-free environment, where children are encouraged to play the Quiet Game on a full-time basis, lest they become lunch.

 

 

 

 

It Comes At Night (2017)

th

Earning someone’s trust can be tough. If we factor in a deadly plague that’s already wiped out a significant portion of the population, well, then it gets exponentially tougher, especially for two families under one roof.

With It Comes At Night, writer/director Trey Edward Shults has crafted a taut, apocalyptic domestic drama awash in tension and nervous decisions. It’s a movie that’s small in scale, but it carries a sobering interpersonal message that continues to stare humanity in the face.

Paul (Joel Edgerton) is a survivalist ensconced with his family in a deep-woods compound. Everyone wears gas masks and rubber gloves on group expeditions outside, like setting fire to Grandpa (David Pendleton), so we can safely assume something’s in the air.

The shrinking, demoralized tribe eventually welcomes another fleeing family into its barricaded midst, and for a short time new friendships blossom and an alliance is formed. But can real trust survive a viral holocaust? This dilemma weighs heavy on both sides, eventually spelling doom for all parties.

The horrors afoot in It Comes At Night are never fully explained and we have very little by way of actual facts to go on. All the unanswered questions make the danger even more menacing, as speculation and fear take the wheel. What the hell is the source of the contagion? Is there an antidote? How many people are still alive? What’s happening in the rest of the world?

We don’t know. We’ll never know. Not in this story.

Train To Busan (2016)

In this case, go ahead and believe the hype. Yeon Sang-ho’s nervy South Korean zombies-on-a-train epic is getting rave reviews, and deservedly so. Not only is Train To Busan a tightly wound horror movie, it’s also a tense disaster film in the spectacle tradition of Irwin Allen.

First and foremost, Train is an expertly paced thriller that darts deftly between hysteria-inducing sequences of undead mobs running amok, and scenes of quiet love and devotion between a father (Gong Yoo) and his daughter (Kim Su-an) that actually succeed in developing their characters to the point where we can root for them in good conscience.

Harried, overworked fund manager Seok-woo must escort his demanding daughter on a train trip to visit her mother and his estranged wife. As so often happens, real life gets in the way of even the best-laid plans, as a nearby chemical leak causes average citizens to turn hungry, fast, and ferocious. The featured zombies have a rubbery acrobatic grace as they gamely snap back to life after succumbing to lethal bites.

All too quickly the train is overrun with bloodthirsty berserkers, and the supporting players emerge from the chaos. There’s a tough guy and his pregnant wife; a high school baseball team; a sociopathic tycoon, and a pair of spinster sisters. Alliances form and crumble, and as we learned in Romero’s original, a house divided cannot stand. As usual, the rich guy can’t be trusted.

Nonetheless, these characters routinely sacrifice themselves for the good of the remaining survivors, continually casting humanity in a noble light. Seok-woo begins the story as an ineffectual office drone, but through attrition and necessity, evolves believably into a hero to save his child.

Director Yeon Sang-ho displays uncanny action-film finesse at times, contrasting the closed-room claustrophobia of the train interior with sweeping panoramic views of an embattled choo-choo chugging down the tracks to its final destination. Train To Busan is indeed a grim ride to survival, but it’s a satisfying one. And the scenery is magnificent.

SaveSave

The Battery (2012)

MV5BMjAxMTk2NDcxM15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMjQ0ODA0OQ@@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_AL_

I suppose The Battery qualifies as a zombie movie—but just barely.

Until the finale, you can count the number of undead appearances on one hand. First and foremost, it’s a post-apocalyptic road movie that owes more to Samuel Beckett than it does George Romero.

Gorehounds with ADD are going to hate this film because it’s slower than a senior citizen square dance and probably a lot less bloody. It’s also an extremely frugal production. Seriously, the budget was probably less than what I have in my checking account.

I am currently unemployed—thanks for asking!

Even with so many things stacked against it, I have to give an admiring thumbs-up to The Battery and to writer, director, and star Jeremy Gardner, who bravely ran with the idea of having very little money at his disposal, and used that freedom to create something unique: a bleak, absurdist buddy movie about two minor-league baseball players dodging the dead on the backroads of Connecticut.

After months on the road, our two main characters have become a study in contrasts. Ben (Gardner), the team’s catcher, is a bearded outdoorsman, a brawny survivor-type who does most of the heavy lifting (hunting, fishing, zombie-killing) in the relationship.

Mickey (Adam Cronheim), a relief pitcher, is a sullen romantic who spends most of his time lost in thought with a pair of headphones fixed over his ears. Despite the presence of the jovial and optimistic Ben, Mickey is depressed and desperately misses his old life.

One fine day, the pair pick up a stray communication on their walkie-talkies, leading them to believe there is a fortified community in the area. Ben, who is content with camping and living outside, wants to steer clear. Mickey wants a home. A bed. A roof over his head. And maybe a girl.

This is the doomed conflict at the heart of The Battery—the terrible necessity of freedom, as personified by Ben, who refuses to be trapped in any situation, and Mickey’s need for comfort and security.

In the end, freedom trumps comfort, as one might expect given the dire circumstances. But Gardner’s languid, lengthy scenes of Ben and Mickey brushing their teeth, playing catch, listening to music and generally farting around, imply that it takes two souls to make a life worth fighting for.

Positive and negative, yin and yang, pitcher and catcher.

Fun Fact: “The Battery” refers to the pitcher and catcher in ye olde baseball vernacular.

The Colony (2013)

 

MV5BNzAzNzEzNDA4OF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwOTUwODA3OQ@@._V1_SX214_AL_

When in doubt, a frozen hellscape will definitely add depth and dread to a horror movie. It’s also a good distraction from having the main characters in The Colony spending entirely too much time hiking around on another egregious AIW (Anonymous Industrial Walkabout).

Still, the production values here are decent, the story is reasonably compelling and the atmosphere is chillingly claustrophobic.

The presence of a couple genre vets in Laurence Fishburne and Bill Paxton, doesn’t hurt either.

Nuclear winter has fallen and in a few lonely outposts, humanity attempts to restart its society underground. The titular colony has suffered a drop in numbers lately, thanks to a nasty flu that’s been going around.

This is generally followed by the afflicted citizen either getting shot by an increasingly paranoid Mason (Paxton) or being sent on “the walk,” a stroll through the aforementioned frozen hellscape which offers a grimly minuscule chance at survival.

Hey! At least they have a choice!

When Briggs (Fishburne), the colony commander, loses radio contact with one of the last outposts, he takes a small team out to investigate.

And here come the cannibals, led by a fearsome bald giant (Dru Viergever). But how do three guys fight a ravenous mob? Unsuccessfully, as it turns out.

There’s nothing innovative going on in The Colony, but cowriter and director Jeff Renfroe keeps it moving with a minimum of stupid crap we don’t care about—despite a surfeit of aimless rambling.

You will watch, you will care, and you will be effectively entertained.

 

28 Weeks Later (2007)

MV5BMTUxMjc2MTcxNV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMzgzOTY0MQ@@._V1._SY317_CR0,0,214,317_

I avoided the follow-up to 28 Days Later (2002) for the simple reason that it wasn’t written and directed by Danny Boyle. As it turns out, this is akin to skipping Aliens because Ridley Scott wasn’t on board. Writer-director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo is no James Cameron, but 28 Weeks Later is very much a worthy successor to Boyle’s original. In fact, Boyle himself served as executive producer and reportedly did some second unit direction, so this lightning-paced, action-packed production was in good hands from the get-go, never straying far from the dark frenetic chaos of the first film, even as it chases a different thematic agenda.

About six months after the outbreak of the original rage virus in England, a US military deployment has succeeded in carving out a bit of safe territory in London. British government man Don (Robert Carlyle) managed to escape mutilation at the hands of roving maniacs by bravely lobbing his wife Alice (Catherine McCormack) at them to cover his exit strategy. (OK, slight exaggeration, but he did scamper like a bunny chased by greyhounds, leaving the Mrs to fend for herself.) Imagine his surprise when soldiers recover not only his son Andy (Mackintosh Muggleton, love that name) and daughter Tammy (Imogene Poots, ditto), but also his previously jettisoned wife, who appears to have a rare blood type that renders her immune to the virus—which soon makes an unwelcome reappearance. The lovely Rose Byrne from Damages gets plenty of screen time as a military supervisor who decides to protect the kids and their valuable blood at all costs, aided by Jeremy Renner as a rough-and-ready sniper.

In 28 Days Later, Boyle focused on the breakdown of authority and the fallibility of leaders in a time of crisis. 28 Weeks Later is more of a domestic morality play, as Carlyle’s character is punished for his cold feet and faint heart by becoming an alpha maniac who relentlessly pursues his children in a perverted act of devotion, somehow trying to reunite his fractured family in death. Naturally, the kids want no part of this nonsense, and much carnage ensues.

Stake Land (2010)

MV5BMTg4NTYwNDc0MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNDg1NzM5NA@@._V1._SY317_CR0,0,214,317_

I noticed this title had popped up on a lot of “Best Of”  lists from two years ago so I was keen on seeing it. Saints be praised, I wasn’t disappointed. (Don’t you love it when that happens?) Lean, mean, and gritty, there’s not an ounce of fat on Stake Land; no extraneous drama, no clumsy attempts at comedy, and very little dialogue. It’s a rural, post-apocalypse road movie that’s long on action and intense situations. Admirers of The Walking Dead, The Omega Man, Road Warrior, and especially Justin Cronin’s novel The Passage will be in their happy place. The undead/post-apocalyptic genre is getting pretty crowded these days, but director and co-writer Jim Mickle manages to “stake” out a little fresh territory.

Martin (Connor Paolo) is a young survivor trying to keep his blood inside his body during the vampire infestation that’s swept the nation after the collapse of society. (Don’t you hate it when that happens?) His hard-boiled mentor Mister (Nick Damici) is a bad-ass vampire killer that drives a muscle car around the rural South, chasing bloodsuckers (and collecting their fangs) and steering clear of the crazy Christians known as the Brotherhood, who may well pose a greater threat than the undead. They stop and sleep where they can and barter with other refugees, all the while following a vague plan to head north for a safe settlement called New Eden, which may or may not exist. Martin and Mister are targeted for death by the head of the Brotherhood, Jebedia Loven (Michael Cerveris), a bald-headed fanatic who thinks the vampires are angels sent by God to rid the world of sinners.

The vampires in Stake Land are neither dudes in capes nor sparkly teenagers. In fact, they’re little more than zombies; grunting, snuffling ghouls on the hunt for a fresh cup of O-Positive. But they’re fast, strong, and seemingly all over the damn place. Because this is basically a road movie, things keep moving (duh!) and the action never bogs down. Martin and Mister fight, flee, make friends, lose friends, and gain enemies, and continue to chase a nebulous idea that somewhere else is probably better than here. Just like everybody, ever. It’s Martin’s determined belief that he can somehow find a normal (or at least livable) life that propels Stake Land, and keeps it from imploding in the face of hopelessness and chaos. Believe me, there’s plenty of hopelessness and chaos to go around; it’s almost as prevalent as the vampires and deranged bible-belters.