Hunter Hunter (2020)

Originally published in Mystery and Suspense, April 25, 2021

A backwoods survivalist pursues a rogue wolf that threatens his family—and finds something infinitely worse, in Shawn Linden’s Hunter Hunter

Somewhere in the wilds of Manitoba, Joseph Mersault (Devon Sawa), his wife Anne (Camille Sullivan), and daughter Renee (Summer Howell), grind out a primitive existence by trapping critters and selling their pelts. 

While this lifestyle is ideal for Joseph, a laconic hunter and woodsman, Anne is tired of hauling furs to the store to bargain for food, and communicating with her husband via Walkie Talkie. Most of all, she wants Renee to go to school and have real friends.

Joseph has been arduously training his daughter to be self-reliant in nature, so Anne’s pitch for a return to civilization doesn’t mesh with his mission. 

“We don’t run from our problems,” he reminds her. 

“You’re scared of people,” she counters.

“This is our home,” Joseph declares. “And nothing pushes us out of our home.”

Future plans are put on hold when Joseph finds carcass evidence of a vicious wolf stealing from their trap lines. As expected, Joseph, the seasoned hunter, disappears into the forest primeval to track the animal and kill it. A solid plan except for one detail: He doesn’t return. 

“Joseph, are you there?” Anne despondently asks her Walkie Talkie, as hours turn into days.

In his absence, Anne nervously tries to put food on the table, relying on Renee’s advice on skinning a fawn for their evening meal. Eventually, Anne hears someone calling for help in the darkness. Instead of the long-missing Joseph, she comes upon Lou (Nick Stahl), a badly injured stranger. Anne loads Lou onto her sled, brings him back to the cabin, and nurses his wounds. 

Renee doesn’t see the point. “He’s a stranger. Dad says we’re not supposed to trust strangers.”

“We’re helping him because that’s what you do when you find someone who needs help,” her mother explains.

But where’s Joseph? And who is Lou?

Writer-director Shawn Linden brings the great outdoors down around the viewer like a shroud. He employs his camera as a stealthy tracker shadowing Joseph, Anne, and Renee through the woods blurring the line between stalker and quarry.

Linden is unsentimental and straight forward in his depiction of frontier living, which includes knowing the correct way to skin and dress prey, so that it won’t ruin the food that’s necessary for survival. 

Anne is not as skilled as her husband and daughter, but she understands necessity.

Hunter Hunter maintains a heady tension for the duration of the film, which builds to a shockingly bloody conclusion. Anne’s final confrontation with the dangerous predator is not as a hunter, but a terrible avenger, and it will leave a mark on your psyche. 

The Block Island Sound (2021)

Originally published in Mystery and Suspense, April 4, 2021

Can a Rhode Island fishing family avoid ending up as Catch of the Day? That is the question posed in The Block Island Sound, an ominous maritime mystery conceived by Matthew and Kevin McManus, previously noted for writing several episodes of Netflix true-crime mockumentary American Vandal. 

This is a movie that only reluctantly divulges information, and the dangling possibilities we’re left with are not the least bit comforting. If you dig ambivalence and an atmosphere of constant dread, you’ll be hooked like a mackerel in no time. 

Consequently, viewers who prefer plausible scenarios may not have the patience to navigate these treacherous waters.

Tom Lynch (Neville Archambault), a hard-drinking boat captain, and his son Harry (Chris Sheffield), make their livings pulling fish from the Atlantic Ocean that surrounds their Block Island home. 

About the same time that Tom starts sleepwalking and blacking out, dead fish wash up on the beaches in record numbers. Tom’s daughter, Audry (Michaela McManus), a single mom who works for the EPA, arrives on the island—with her own kid (Matilda Lawler) in tow—to investigate the phenomenon.

It doesn’t take Audry long to notice that something is amiss with both the marine life and her pappy. Her daughter Emily wakes up screaming with Tom looming over her in the darkness. Tom subsequently disappears at sea and his boat is found abandoned. 

Be advised that the Brothers McManus do their best to distract and mislead the viewer by dropping plenty of red herrings, such as having the local police chief (Willie Carpenter) suggest to Harry that his father was no stranger to booze cruises.

When Harry experiences his own black-out symptoms, Audry and her less-pleasant sister Jen (Heidi Niedermeyer) discuss the notion that madness may run in the family—and that something will have to be done about it. 

The middle section of The Block Island Sound takes a tonal detour, concerning itself with the mundane details of mourning the family patriarch, and the further disintegration of Harry. The formerly stoic fisherman has become extremely agitated by nocturnal visits from the recently deceased Tom, commanding him to bring domestic and wild animals to the boat, and not in a nice, orderly, Noah’s Ark manner. 

Like his father before him, Harry awakens out at sea with nary a clue. Audry and Jen worry about their brother’s erratic behavior but are at a loss for solutions.

Whenever Harry starts doubting his own sanity, his drinking buddy Dale (Jim Cummings) appears to aggregate all the weird stuff that’s happening right under their noses on Block Island. Top-secret experiments, the presence of nearby wind turbines, sea monsters, government agents, weather anomalies, all get a day in conspiracy court. 

Later, Audry meets Kurt (Jeremy Horn), a reclusive local who shares her brother’s time-loss affliction. He in turn points her in a completely different direction, and urges Audry to grab her family and leave the island.

Instead, everyone ends up on the boat.  

Strangely enough, the closest thing to a reasonable explanation comes when Audry reassures Emily about the necessity of environmental research.

“Most of the fish we take out of the water, we put right back in just a few days later,” Audry tells her daughter. “We’re studying them so we can get to know them better. So we can help them better.

Emily protests that some fish don’t survive the experience.

“By taking some brave fish out of the water and learning about them, we can eventually help all the other fish,” Audrey concludes. “It’s a good thing we’re doing.”

Evidently, we’re not the only ones conducting experiments in the universe. As mentioned, the exact nature of the menace, whether aquatic, extra-terrestrial, or weirdly scientific, is never specified. 

But the implications offered by The Block Island Sound are more than enough to take seafood off the menu for a while.   

Synchronic (2020)

Originally published in Mystery and Suspense, March 18, 2021

A pair of paramedics discover that the new designer drug that’s sweeping town has troubling side effects, namely, the possibility of getting lost somewhere in time.

Talk about a buzz kill.

Steve (Anthony Mackie) and Dennis (Jamie Dornan) are EMT BFFs who spend their professional hours hip-deep in medical emergencies, usually bouncing around in the back of a New Orleans ambulance. While cleaning up the aftermath of a messy party, the paramedics notice wrappers from a newly synthesized party drug called Synchronic. Instead of getting high, imbibers vanish, and either don’t come back intact, or they return as part of a wall or other solid object. 

Sometimes they’re gone entirely. 

Meanwhile, Steve gets an unwelcome brain tumor diagnosis and decides to experiment with the drug to locate Dennis’s gloomy daughter Brianna (Ally Ioannides) who’s disappeared after a Synchronic session gone bad. Through copious trial and error, he finds that Synchronic results in a localized time trip of seven minutes, and in order to return whole, you must be in the exact spot you took off from.

Needless to say, there were no instructions on the label.

We’re invited along to experience the mind/time-altering effects with Steve, as he visits the Big Easy during the Ice Age (thoughtfully bringing fire to early man), and nearly gets stabbed by a freaked-out conquistador during the years of Spanish conquest. Imagine Steve’s surprise, as a modern day African American, when he finds himself in pre Civil War New Orleans, nearly getting lynched and sacrificed in a voodoo ceremony on successive trips. 

With a limited supply of Synchronic, Steve is forced to take risky chances calculating his return trajectory with (hopefully) another living being. 

“People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between the past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion,” Steve intones, dutifully quoting Einstein.

Certainly Steve’s nobility and the convenience of a fatal illness help propel the storyline to its poignant conclusion, but Mackie carries the role of reluctant action hero to a nerve-wracking finale, and we’re with him every last step.

Synchronic is a superb piece of budget sci-fi filmmaking by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, who also made the similarly time-trap themed The Endless, itself a movie that deserves more attention.

Benson and Moorhead make time travel a truly frightening prospect, tying it to a party drug in pill form that shreds dimensions. The scenes in which Steve trips look like they take place in an unstable and menacing parallel world, because … they do.  

Writer Benson always brings fully formed characters to the crisis, and in Synchronic, the best-buddy friendship of Steve and Dennis really fleshes out the time-ripping action sequences. Theirs is a comically dysfunctional relationship, but the bond is strong even when they come to blows. 

“I found out I was dying. My brain… has a tumor. And all those things just seem trivial,” he eloquently tells his friend. “That there’s meaning in the things I do have, and I want to spend the time I have preserving them. … When you’re staring down at the end you realize there are far worse things than death.”

Like banishment to a less-civilized world, for example.

Amulet (2020)

Originally published in Mystery and Suspense, January 12, 2021

Some old war wounds never heal. In fact, they were designed to become more painful over time. Written and masterfully directed by BBC actress Romola Garai, Amulet is a slow-burn Gothic noir, about a homeless soldier trying to put the past behind him.

Tomaz (Alec Secareanu), a severely traumatized veteran of some nameless Eastern European conflict, finds himself in need of a place to crash after his London squat goes up in flames. 

Helpful nun Sister Claire (Imelda Staunton) offers him a peachy situation: Free room and board in a dank, shadowy old house, in exchange for handyman duties. Tomaz is initially reticent, but finds himself irresistibly drawn to Magda (Carla Juri), the sweet, nervous girl who lives in the house, caring for a surprisingly ferocious invalid mother (Anah Ruddin).

The house itself has passed the state of disrepair and is well into a spiral of decay rivaling the ancestral home of Roderick Usher. There is almost no light, and the camera lands on the abundant mold and water stains like a lazy fly on the wall. The hazy air itself has a bilious green hue, as if infected with something terminal.

When Tomaz tries to sleep, he dreams of the war, apparently stationed in a remote forest outpost. There, his lonely routine gets interrupted by the arrival of Miriam (Angeliki Papoulia), a refugee mother in search of her child.

Tomaz allows her to stay and the seeds of tragedy are sown. He only wanted to help. He tried to help.

Spoiler Alert: The waking and sleeping narratives are connected. This means bad news for the young soldier. 

Our sympathy for Tomaz is never exactly on solid ground. His unspecified wartime trauma erupts in nightly terrors, and his desire to liberate the long-suffering Magda, bound to serve a dangerous and unstable mother, is evidently sincere.

Tomaz pauses in his work one day to watch Magda wrap a bandage around a fresh bite wound on her arm. As the cliché goes, no good deed goes unpunished. In this instance, his instinct to come to a woman’s aid is the worst possible course of action a man can take. There are abundant horrors to be mined in the aftermath of military service. Amulet demonstrates that the most terrible is the false hope of redemption.

Tomaz is a haunted man, brought back from the brink of despair by the vague idea that he can atone for a misdeed, through an act of sacrifice. It’s that distant, faint illusion of hope that cuts the deepest, much like the illusion of being “a good man” that’s eventually ripped from Tomaz like old skin.

The forces at work here are as old as the avenging Furies of Greek Tragedy, and they haven’t lost any power to punish transgressors with brutal clarity. Like Oedipus the doomed king of Thebes (or Mickey Rourke in Angel Heart, for that matter), Tomaz can’t identify himself as the cause of his own misery until it’s far too late to escape an awful fate, one that befits an unforgiveable crime.

Amulet is seriously grim going—though handsomely filmed—and includes interludes of body horror that would give David Cronenberg the willies. It also progresses at a snail’s pace, which works to the film’s advantage, allowing the viewer to gradually get acclimated to the accursed atmosphere.

Even so, when we’re finally able to consider the grand scale of justice served at the conclusion of Romola Garai’s vivid and terrible revenge tale, the effect is breathtaking—and should not be missed.

The Platform (2019)

Welcome to The Platform, a dystopian future where a prison sentence becomes a daily feeding frenzy or a grim kick in the guts, depending on what level of the prison you’re incarcerated.

Somewhere in Europe there is an immense tower with hundreds of floors. Called a Vertical Self-Management Center (or simply “the hole”), the tower has two prisoners per floor.

Once a day a platform with the remains of a grand feast is lowered to each floor, and famished convicts shovel as much food as they can into their mouths, caring not one whit for the unfortunates beneath them.

Prisoners on the highest floor gorge themselves, while those below Level 50 or so, find less and less to eat.

And if you’re on Level 172? Improvise.

Lest we think this set-up perpetually favors the higher floors, there’s a catch. After one month, the prisoners are put to sleep and moved to another level. So one day, you might be fine dining on prime rib, the next, your cellmate.

If you guessed that this is a brutal allegory of class warfare, give yourself a star.

The protagonist, Goreng (Ivan Massague), awakens in the tower, with vicious little cellmate Trimagasi (Zorion Eguileor) as his only company. Gradually, he gets used to the ugly routine, watching as Trimagasi literally pisses on the prisoners housed below them.

As Goreng serves his time, whether starving or stuffed, he attempts to talk to those above and below about a means of cooperation to feed everyone in the prison. Though his efforts are routinely scorned, he sees a bigger picture in the small solidarity movement.

Director Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia (The Platform is in Spanish with subtitles) has created his own Stanford Prison Experiment, where guards are only necessary once a month. The inmates provide their own cruelty, happily spilling blood over a chicken leg or an extra mouthful of wine.

Goreng, a fundamentally decent fellow who only wants to help, is forced into several violent confrontations with fellow prisoners. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it’s all rather harsh sledding and not intended for the squeamish, especially if cannibalism is a trigger.

As concepts go, “Eat or Be Eaten” isn’t especially profound. Fortunately, Gaztelu-Urrutia is an ambitious, inventive visual stylist, painstakingly painting a nightmare society that is literally devouring itself.

The Platform isn’t the least bit subtle. Sometimes a sledgehammer is the best tool for the job.

Mayhem (2017)

For every miserable corporate cog subjected to the petty tyranny of a jagoff boss, there is Mayhem. Watch and laugh yourself silly as chaos and cruelty erupt in the bowels of a Fortune 500 company. (Ewww)

Derek Cho (Steven Yeun, from The Walking Dead) is an up-and-coming financial analyst working for a mega-corp overseen by cokehead asshole John Towers (Steven Brand).

When Towers conspires to have Derek take the fall for a botched account, the young financier vows vengeance—and gets an opportunity almost immediately thanks to an airborne virus that’s causing citizens to forget their inhibitions and act out violent thoughts and impulses.

Now there’s a stroke of luck!

With the skyscraper under quarantine, Derek scales the corporate ladder in a rage of bloodlust, accompanied by an angry client (Samara Weaving, who’s building an impressive genre resume) with a nail gun and her own ax to grind.

Director Joe Lynch (Wrong Turn 2) douses Mayhem in bloody waves of comic gore, following Derek’s rise to the top and revenge against treacherous co-workers. Lynch takes the Jewish mother approach to doling out the carnage, and the effects are wickedly clever.

The action is fierce, funny, and fast, with tight fight choreography and no unnecessary character development. We get exactly what we want: Ascending floors of hi-octane slaughter, whereh any sharp or blunt object within reach comes into play.

Lynch and writer Mattias Caruso pull back just a smidgen from complete anarchy by instilling in Derek a deep streak of decency that even a raging virus can’t overcome.

Ultimately, Mayhem strikes a huge sympathetic chord familiar to the working wounded everywhere. Who hasn’t fantasized about going nuclear on the boss? Or your meathead co-workers? Or the zombies in HR?

And who the hell took Derek’s coffee cup?

Offload those feelings of negativity that are affecting your productivity. Take stock of your potential and join us for a short morale meeting. If you fully appreciate the soul-crushing mundanity of Office Space, then Mayhem could be a life-changing cathartic event.

As Above, So Below (2014)

Hey gang, who’s up for some tomb raiding?

Scarlett (Perdita Weeks) is a beautiful and fearless archaeologist searching for the fabled Philosopher’s Stone, an alchemical instrument of great power, stashed amongst the bone-strewn catacombs beneath Paris.

Too bad the road to riches leads perilously close to the gates of Hell. Next time, stay with the tour, lady!

Written and directed by John Erick Dowdle, As Above, So Below is part Blair Witch Project with a splash of Indiana Jones, combining found-footage of claustrophobic exploration with a deadly descent into a haunted underworld from which escape seems a faint possibility.

The pace spasms between breakneck thrills, sudden horrifying obstacles, and episodes of hieroglyphic dexterity, as Scarlett shepherd’s her team through a booby trapped limbo where fragments of their collective past keep biting them on the ass.

The found-footage aspect of the production is handled efficiently, not calling undue attention to itself, making the periodic explosions of paranormal terror and graphic violence even more trauma inducing.

The words of a minor character become the company mantra: “The only way out is down.”

Perdita Weeks is a capable and headstrong heroine, energizing Scarlett with proficiency as well as a complicated set of emotions, as she tries to finish the life’s work that drove her father to suicide.

Not only that, but she might be developing serious feelings for her linguist friend, George (Ben Feldman).

My critic’s cap is off to Dowdle, who fuses furious frights and exhilarating mayhem in one satisfying adventure. It’s a dark, intense quest, but ultimately we’re the better for having seen it through.

Happy Death Day (2017)

Can beleaguered sorority girl Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) solve her own murder on her birthday?

Happy Death Day swipes the central motif from Bill Murray’s romantic comedy Groundhog Day, and sticks a knife in it, as Tree gets to relive the same day over and over, concluding with her vicious murder at the hands of a baby masked maniac.

Tree begins her recurring day by waking up in the dorm room bed of Carter (Israel Broussard), a dorky, but genuinely nice guy.

From there, she stumbles past a collection of local collegiate color, blows off a former date, ignores a birthday cupcake, dodges her dad on the phone, goes to a lunch meeting with house Big Sister Danielle (Rachel Matthews), makes out with her handsome (married) professor (Charles Aitken), and attends her own surprise party.

As in Groundhog’s Day, Tree gradually realizes that she’s been a selfish bitch, and uses her birthday mulligan to mend fences with Dad (Jason Bayle), roommate Laurie (Ruby Modine), and Carter, to whom she’s grown quite attached.

Tree even contrives to knock off a serial killer (Rob Mello) that’s in the vicinity, but to no avail. Someone keeps murdering her.

Director Chris Landon (son of Little House papa Michael Landon, and director of Freaky) and writer Scott Lobdell cram a ton of entertainment into a borrowed concept, giving equal time to solving Tree’s murder and improving her interpersonal skills.

Jessica Rothe demonstrates grace under fire (except when she’s losing her shit), evolving from a reckless bimbo to a quick-thinking warrior who won’t let go of her seemingly endless lives without a fight.

Happy Death Day is surprisingly funny and moving, inspiring a sequel two years later, as well as plans for a third film.

I’ll let you know how it all plays out.

Note: The Netflix miniseries Russian Doll, created by Natasha Lyonne and Amy Poehler, has a similar Do Over Death Day angle. Just sayin’.

The Mortuary Collection (2019)

Multiple choice question. Anthology horror movies ride a seasonal spike in popularity as we approach:

(A) Halloween (B) The Election (C) End Times (D) All of the above

The Mortuary Collection, written and directed by Ryan Spindell, is comprised of five tangled tales of terror, vigorously spun by Montgomery Dark (Clancy Brown), the looming and gloomy mortician of the town of Raven’s End.

His audience is Sam (Caitlin Fisher), a steely job applicant with a severe curiosity for the more macabre aspects of post-mortem employment. Much to her delight, Dark digs deep into a dreadful drawer of local lore that winds inevitably back to the present.

He recounts the bizarre and gruesome fates that befell several unfortunate citizens of Raven’s End, ending up as customers in the morgue of Mr. Dark’s rambling hilltop funeral home.

At a swinging party, a trip to the toilet turns fatal for a stylish dame (Christine Kilmer) who gets too nosy with the medicine cabinet.

The campus Casanova (Jacob Elordi) is forced into reluctant fatherhood, and finds he just isn’t built for it.

A dutiful husband (Barak Hardley) gets the dirty end of the stick when his blushing bride turns catatonic right after the wedding.

Finally, a determined babysitter wages war with an escaped lunatic during a violent thunderstorm.

Each story prompts critical discussion as to whether the protagonists in question deserve their unhappy endings. Dark insists that actions have serious consequences and old rules should not be violated.

Sam scoffs at his morality plays, eventually revealing her true face in an ending that turns out to be the most outrageous segment of them all.

What’s not to like?

There’s gorgeous gore galore. The art direction, practical effects, and set design are uniformly excellent. Dark’s massive funeral home is dressed to the hilt with eerie details, crammed to the rafters with sinister flourish.

The Raven’s End Mortuary looks every inch a decaying stronghold of stories and secrets, one that seemingly winds downstairs forever.

Clancy Brown, a seasoned character actor (and voice of Mr. Krabs on SpongeBob SquarePants), towers above his costars in these grim surroundings, hitting on all cylinders as a host who tells each tale with obvious relish, while splendidly attired in a dusky wardrobe, undoubtedly purchased at the same Big & Tall Man shop recommended by Angus Scrimm.

The Mortuary Collection is top-shelf storytelling, on a par with not only the upper echelon of anthology horror films (Creepshow, Tales From The Crypt, Vault Of Horror), but the creepy old comic books that inspired them in the first place.

Check it out. Check it all out. Time may not be on our side.

Ghost Stories (2017)

As a whole, Ghost Stories is greater than the sum of its parts.

While the individual tales in this anthology vary in terms of intensity and originality, it’s the wraparound narrative of Professor Philip Goodman (Andrew Dyson, who also co-wrote and co-directed) that effectively binds the whole dreary package in sorrowful strings.

Goodman is a skeptic and writer whose mission to debunk psychics and paranormal phenomenon has made him a familiar figure on British telly. He’s tasked with testing the validity of three unique cases, each told by a surviving protagonist.

A night-watchman (Paul Whitehouse) is haunted by a ghost child; an irresponsible teenager (Alex Lawther) recounts a terrifying encounter in his father’s car, and a wealthy businessman (Martin Freeman) confronts a poltergeist while awaiting the birth of his son.

Each story has at its heart, an instance of parental failing that leads to grim consequences for the parties involved, particularly for the clueless professor who sets out to define the unknown, and ends up consumed by it.

Ghost Stories does not offer buckets of viscera or a breathtaking assortment of effects wizardry, but rather demonstrates in austere fashion that paranormal events are rooted in the sins and injustices of past deeds.

Our ability to atone for those sins remains unknown. In other words, we may not be able to “wiggle off the hook” in a spiritual sense for long-buried grievances.

And if you’re the spiritual sort, that’s pretty scary.