Banshee Chapter (2013)

Given the present political situation, it should come as absolutely no surprise to anyone that government representatives frequently don’t have our best interests at heart.

Investigative reporter Anne Roland (Katia Winter) goes in search of a missing friend and uncovers a possible story about CIA mind-control experiments gone awry.

A breadcrumb trail of video evidence leads Anne to counterculture author Thomas Blackburn (Ted Levine, ol’ Buffalo Bill himself), a stand-in for Hunter S. Thompson, with whom she “trips” on a formula that was used on unsuspecting civilians in the 60s and 70s.

The drug, derived from the human pineal gland, gives the recipient heightened awareness of other dimensions—and the curious creatures who inhabit them.

The tension level climbs steadily throughout Banshee Chapter, but it’s the footage of old experiments that prove the most gripping. Clueless test subjects are strapped to a chair, injected with the dreadful drug, and plunged into darkness, attracting the attention of extra-dimensional entities who want to use the humans as surfboards into this world.

While intentions are never stated, I think we can safely assume the beings transforming human hosts into hideous mutations, are doing so for nefarious reasons.

Based on H.P. Lovecraft’s From Beyond, but bearing little resemblance to Stuart Gordon’s splashy adaptation from 1986, Banshee Chapter is a formidable debut for writer-director Blair Erickson, who shades his conspiracy theory mockumentary with splashes of cosmic horror (and humor) that blend perfectly in a paranoid landscape that greatly resembles our own.

In times such as these, we need eerie entertainment to keep us on our toes, and Banshee Chapter should have no trouble troubling an already troubled sleep.

 

 

 

 

The Hills Run Red (2009)

Boy, do they ever!

A gruesome splatter fest about our devotion to cult films, The Hills Run Red is a lot like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, only the family business is cinema instead of meat.

And instead of Leatherface, we have Babyface.

Movie nerd Tyler (Tad Hilgenbrink) is obsessed with a notorious horror film from the 1980s called The Hills Run Red that up and disappeared, along with its director, years before.

Tyler tracks down the director’s daughter Alexa (Sophie Monk), a junkie stripper with a heart of gold. After helping her kick heroin, Tyler arranges for Alexa to guide them into the “deep woods” where the movie was filmed.

Tagging along for this road trip in search of cinematic buried treasure is cameraman Lalo (Alex Wyndham) and Tyler’s restless girlfriend Serina (Janet Montgomery).

In a clear case of Careful What You Wish For, Tyler eventually gets to see the legendary film, only to discover that he and his friends are reluctant cast members.

Gallons of gore ensues, but The Hills Run Red isn’t just another homage to vintage slice-and-dice. There are astute discussions on the fly about horror movies, that bring up interesting points about what fans really want, e.g., Emotional Connection versus Violent Spectacle.

Director Dave Parker opens with a hellish montage sequence and keeps his foot near the gas pedal at all times, which means some plot points end up on the cutting room floor.

No matter. As the title implies, there is blood and there are guts, and they are used judiciously and effectively.

I also noticed on a number of occasions, the character Lalo offers sensible advice to his friend Tyler, that is completely ignored. He observes that horror movies take place away from civilization, so one should never leave the city.

They go anyway. To the woods.

Lalo also tells Tyler that maybe The Hills Run Red was hidden for a reason. Tyler should have listened.

 

Rest Stop (2006)

Next time you’re driving through remote, unfamiliar terrain and you feel the call of nature, please consider making other arrangements.

Nicole (Jaimie Alexander) and her BF Jess (Joe Mendocino) leave drab Oklahoma in the rearview and take off on a road trip to begin a new life in Los Angeles.

The only things standing in the way are Jaimie’s tiny bladder and a wily serial killer in an old Ford pickup.

After having sex and getting lost, the couple pulls into a grimy Rest Stop where Jaimie must pee in a substandard Ladies Room. She emerges to find Jess has disappeared, apparently abducted by a guy in a yellow pickup, that patrols the area like a shark.

Trapped in the grotty commode, Jaimie passes the time by reading doomed messages written over the years by victims of the trucker-capped fiend known as KZL 303—the very same maniac currently forcing her into a vicious game of cat and mouse.

Rest Stop is a nifty (and nasty) example of the Killer on the Road genre, which includes the likes of Joy Ride, The Hitcher, Breakdown, and of course, Duel, directed by a young Steven Spielberg.

Writer-director John Shiban successfully taps a rich vein of dread by constantly reminding us of how vulnerable we are once we leave the highway. So much so that even a seemingly benign comfort station can be a deadly trap.

As a lifetime horror fan, my advice to incontinent road trippers is to keep driving. And never accept a ride from a Winnebago.

 

 

 

The Vast Of Night (2019)

Whether or not The Vast Of Night qualifies as horror is debatable. Whether or not it’s truckloads of fun is not, because it is.

Amazon bought the rights to writer-director-editor Andrew Patterson’s 90-minute sci-fi joyride after it developed noteworthy buzz on the festival circuit.

Nutshell: In the late 1950s, a tiny New Mexico town experiences extra-terrestrial shenanigans on the night of the big basketball game at the high school gym.

Fast-talking disc jockey Everett (Jake Horowitz) and his telephone operator sidekick Fay (Sierra McCormick) stumble upon a strange audio frequency and instantly find themselves hip deep in government coverups, eerie phone calls, and quite possibly visitors from outer space.

Can this gabby duo solve a mystery that’s out of this world?

The Vast Of Night is a camp stew of War of the Worlds (the radio station Everett works at is WOTW), X-Files, and Close Encounters, all familiar elements laid out like generous buffet stations.

It’s when Patterson’s visual acuity takes charge that the story soars to marvelous heights.

The movie plays out as an episode of Paradox Theater, a thinly disguised vintage stand-in for The Twilight Zone. Scenes open in fuzzy black and white before the characters come into focus, and then color gradually returns.

It’s a mesmerizing effect that binds us to the evolving narrative like there was never any choice in the matter.

Patterson’s boundless drone photography is bold and borders on gimmicky, but it lends exhilarating movement and flow to a movie that often slows down to let people talk for a spell.

A word of warning: Everett and Fay’s nonstop verbosity will irritate some members of the audience. If you dig well-written banter, there’s plenty to savor and save for later.

Don’t let the whimsical retro trappings fool you, though. The Vast Of Night contains a dilly of a conspiracy that might contain clues to our current chaos.

Keep watching the skies.

 

The Witch In The Window (2018)

Heartwarming horror for the whole family?

Sure, why not? No one’s going anywhere in this pestilence.

Even without gushing gore or a massive body count, The Witch In The Window successfully induces chills the old-fashioned way, with well-written characters that find themselves in over their heads.

Simon (Alex Draper) is a dutiful part-time parent to Finn (Charlie Tacker), an articulate 12-year-old suffering from abandonment issues and existential dread. In an effort to bond with the moody kid, Simon invites Finn along to help him restore and flip an old house in rural Vermont.

It’s a realistically awkward trip, with plenty of failed conversations. The estranged duo eventually form an alliance when they realize the former tenant was an evil witch (Carol Stanzione) who’s trying to make a comeback.

Like that Spielberg dude, writer-director Andy Mitton strategically places the father-son dynamic squarely in the middle of the action, as Simon, a perpetual underachiever, decides that what he wants most is “a good house” for his family.

You have to admire that kind of commitment.

As an avid peruser of unattainable real estate, I could have told Simon that a good house in the country is hard to find. There’s always unforeseen issues with the wiring or the foundation or whatever, and it pays to be a flexible negotiator.

To Simon’s credit, he gets a killer deal. This place has acreage, a pond, and functional outbuildings.

On the downside, there’s a live-in caretaker whether you want one or not.

 

 

Body At Brighton Rock (2019)

Two words: Deceptively simple.

On the surface, writer-director Roxanne Benjamin’s Body At Brighton Rock is about a novice national park employee (Karina Fontes) who discovers a corpse on a remote hiking trail.

Benjamin vaults from this premise into a a vast, confusing wilderness where predators lurk behind every tree, and a tenderfoot’s training is put to the test.

We quickly learn that part-time park guide Wendy (Fontes) isn’t the most motivated employee, after she shows up late (again) for the daily assignment posting. Wendy’s friends waste no time in reminding her that she’s more of an “indoor” type and not really suited to the more rugged demands of national park stewardship.

Shamed by her coworkers’ low opinion, Wendy swaps duties with her pal Maya (Emily Althaus), and sets out on a lengthy hike to post new seasonal signs all the way up a distant peak.

As it turns out, Wendy’s posse is very perceptive. The neophyte ranger loses her map and ends up in the middle of nowhere with a dead cell phone and a walkie-talkie that looks like it came out of a cereal box.

Let’s add one dead body, a vaguely menacing stranger (Casey Adams), and claw marks on tree bark to ensure young Wendy spends a sleepless night jumping at every snapped twig.

Body At Brighton Rock looks and sounds like a survival situation, and it is. But Benjamin intuitively pushes a number of buttons that ramp up the tension to include Wendy’s understandable self-doubts about her ability to handle some very intense circumstances.

The movie also works as an engrossing coming-of-age vision quest with a bit of Hitchcock’s The Trouble With Harry thrown in for good measure.

Deceptively simple, highly recommended.

 

Depraved (2019)

Big Apple underground auteur Larry Fessenden has been referred to as a 21st Century Roger Corman, not only for his ability to nurture talented indie directors (Jim Mickle and Ti West, among others), but presumably because his productions tend to be of the fast and cheap variety.

Yet Corman’s monster matinees bear little resemblance to Fessenden’s sparse, puzzling, and always provocative genre features like Wendigo, Habit, and The Last Winter, where flawed, well-meaning characters encounter or create something that fundamentally changes who they are and the world they live in.

In Depraved, Fessenden’s ambitious, miniature rendering of Frankenstein, we meet Henry, a shell-shocked Army doctor (David Call) who reanimates an assemblage of body parts (Alex Breaux) with the help of his benefactor, Polidori (Joshua Leonard), a scheming pharmaceutical engineer. The only marginally monstrous creature is dubbed Adam, which Henry admits sounds “corny” at first.

Instead of a mad scientist’s laboratory, we get an airy Brooklyn loft where Henry tries to be a supportive creator, but he’s constantly interrupted by his worried girlfriend Liz (Ana Kayne), and bored, impatient Polidori, who impulsively takes Adam out for a night on the town, replete with strippers, whiskey, and cocaine.

Henry proves ill-equipped to be a mentor, with his own wartime trauma never far from the surface. When Adam runs away from the loft in search of female companionship, Henry properly freaks out.

Meanwhile, Adam meets Shelley (Addison Timlin), a pretty barfly who likes Iggy Pop, but it wasn’t meant to be.

As is usually the case in Fessenden films, things don’t work out because his characters are so clearly defined (and doomed) by their inability to adapt to a changing world.

Depraved deserves more attention, especially since Universal Pictures seems bloody determined to reboot its monster franchise after one dismal, expensive flop (The Mummy) and one surprising hit (The Invisible Man).

Fessenden is exactly the sort of budget-friendly, problem-solving hired gun who could (and should) figure into their long-range plans. With Depraved, he ably demonstrates that his take on classic horror honors the past, but can’t wait for the future.

 

 

The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas (1957)

That’s a bit specific, isn’t it? It’s not like there’s an Abominable Snowman of Pasadena to get confused with.

Despite warnings from a bunch of concerned monks, a Tibetan expedition led by brash adventurer Tom Friend (Forrest Tucker) and British botanist John Rollason (Peter Cushing) sets out to find the elusive howling hominid known as the Yeti.

Outfitted with the latest in fur coat technology, the little band, which includes a big-game hunter (Robert Brown) and an eyewitness (Michael Brill), dutifully climbs through blizzard-like conditions to establish a basecamp somewhere near Snowman Central.

Once in their tents, things get intense for the members of the expedition. As the howling and bellowing gets closer, Friend, Rollason, and the rest begin to bend under the pressure of the creatures’ approach.

Cushing and Tucker are actually quite good in their scenes together; the former as the compassionate man of science, and the latter as the Ugly American, a morally bankrupt con artist.

At one point, Friend observes that if “they” drop the Hydrogen Bomb, it might be their own frozen remains that get dug up in the future. There are plenty of thoughtful moments like these, where science and reason clash with greed, arrogance, and fear.

Unlike Christian Nyby’s The Thing From Another World, which came out six years earlier, the creature menace turns out benign, while the real threat comes from soulless hucksters like Friend, who want to exploit and destroy an advanced, ancient race of beings.

Fortunately, justice is served and lessons are learned.

As directed by Hammer Films stalwart Val Guest, The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas is a fast-moving blast from the past, a fairly fun flick that’s def worth a watch.

Needless to say, it’s always a treat to see a dependable thespian like Peter Cushing sink his teeth into some serious scenery.

Bon appetit, Pete! And thanks for everything.

 

 

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?”

 

 

 

It Comes At Night (2017)

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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.