Stonehearst Asylum (2014)

An able cast saves the day!

Loosely based on Poe’s The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether, and directed by Brad Anderson (The Machinist, Session 9, Transsiberian), Stonehearst Asylum is a Victorian madhouse shocker in which the inmates literally take over the asylum.

Doctor Edward Newgate (Jim Sturgess), an idealistic, Oxford-trained physician lands a job at a remote English asylum for wealthy lunatics, where he is taken under the wing by its director Dr. Silas Lamb (Ben Kingsley).

Lamb chooses to leave the patients unmedicated and in some cases, even encourages them to pursue their delusions, as with the aristocrat who fancies himself a dog.

Newgate is drawn to Eliza Graves (Kate Beckinsale), a posh patient suffering from hysteria, and almost immediately begins devising escape methods on her behalf, even as she warns him to get his own ass outta town.

Stonehearst Asylum takes its sweet time about getting anywhere, but when you’ve got a cast that includes Kingsley, Michael Caine, Brendan Gleeson, and David Thewlis as Lamb’s psychotic bully boy, Mickey Finn, it’s probably best to let these guys ham it up a bit.

Same goes for the ever-enchanting Kate Beckinsale, the ideal template for the role of the beautiful, mysterious madwoman in peril, with whom Newgate has no choice but to fall in love and try to rescue.

Who is she? Who is Newgate? Who is Lamb? Who is anybody in this picture?

Joseph Gangemi’s script wanders like a hippie on an OG Kush bender, but Anderson somehow guides his players to a blazing finale when murderous Mickey Finn bursts into flame and sets the whole place on fire.

I would characterize Stonehearst Asylum not only as a goth-styled thriller, but existing in the same cinematic universe as Roger Corman’s Poe adaptations, and some of Hammer Films’ more outrageous period pieces, that likewise usually conclude with the house burning down.

I almost added Ken Russell to that group. Stonehearst Asylum stops short of achieving anything as stylistically unhinged as Russell’s maddest work, which is a tall order to be sure.

On the other hand, if you enjoy kooky costume drama with a first-rate cast attached, this is an Everything Bagel.

Umma (2022)

I swore I’d never be like my mother!”

It’s easy enough to say, and you can substitute “father” if you want. Mostly they’re just words, and they don’t help.

The central point of terror in Umma (Korean word for “Mama”) is the idea of inherited sin, and how kids are rotten fruit from a poison tree.

As conceived by Iris K. Shim, Umma is a ghost story about being haunted by your own family. Unlike the trend toward pitch-black horizons these days, Shim’s feature maintains its grace despite grim subject matter, and even offers a glimmer of hope.

Amanda (Sandra Oh), an agoraphobic beekeeper, raises her daughter Chris (Fivel Stewart) on a lovely, spacious farm, where electricity (phones, TVs, you name it) is forbidden.

Like all the other threads in the movie, it traces back to Amanda’s tortured childhood and the abuse she suffered at the hand of a mean, unstable mother (MeeWha Alana Lee).

Their idyllic existence gets upended by the arrival of a suitcase containing her mother’s remains, which coincides with the manifestation of her angry ghost, who proceeds to torment Amanda from the grave.

As if life weren’t stressful enough, she also discovers that Chris wants to leave the analog farm and go to college! The pressure to maintain her equilibrium overpowers Amanda, and that’s how the ghost gets in.

Filmmaker Shim isn’t afraid to tackle touchy subjects, and Amanda’s plight is pretty much universal, trying to shelter her own daughter from the worst family traits—even as she gains insight by subletting her soul to a mother’s rage.

In Umma, it isn’t curses or cannibalism that’s passed on, but fear and resentment. You know, real shit.

Pro Tip: Acceptance is your best option when confronted with an angry ghost.

Hellbender (2021)

If you recall the lavish amount of praise I heaped upon The Deeper You Dig, then you might have a clue of how stoked I was for Hellbender, the follow-up effort from the shockingly talented filmmaking Adams Family.

In a possible star-making turn, Zelda Adams absolutely smashes glass as Izzy, a mysterious teen who leads an isolated existence with her mother (Toby Poser) in the woods.

Izzy is not unhappy. Life with Mom rocks, in a modest way. The two create raw punk music together in a drums-bass duo called Hellbender. Mom is wise in the ways of the forest and teaches her daughter all about the forces of nature.

However, contact with the outside world is verboten. Mom tells Izzy she’s too sick to be around other people. Can this be true, or is there a more compelling reason for homeschooling such a bright pupil?

Written and directed by Adams, Poser, and John Adams, Hellbender is a bold, original movie told with fearless artistic flair. After a lightning strike moment, Izzy must adjust to severe growing pains when she accidentally meets a distant neighbor (Lulu Adams) who awakens all kinds of new, dangerous feelings.

It’s such a confident blend of folk horror and coming-of-age drama/trauma, that when Izzy begins to change, we truly see the world through her eyes, and it’s an unsettling trip. Her caterpillar stage has ended, and something more powerful is emerging, heralded by Izzy’s switch from a vegetarian diet to fresh, bloody meat.

It’s also quite a change for Mom, who recognizes that a new administration will soon be taking charge, and that it’s just the start of a new season.

Highly recommended. The collective vision, brains, and arboreal soul displayed by the Adams Clan in Hellbender is never less than spellbinding, and watching their unique ascension in the horror film landscape leaves me giddy with anticipation of future treasures.

I only hope they can maintain some measure of artistic control as the budgets get bigger and they ponder leaving the creepy bucolic comforts of their upstate New York headquarters. The energy this team brings to each project is somewhat feral, and perhaps shouldn’t be tamed by Big Business.

In any case, I’ll be there in the dark with eyes wide open.

We’re All Going to the World’s Fair (2021)

It’s definitely an immersive experience and most definitely a horror film.

Writer-director Jane Schoenbrun has found a fresh fear angle in We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, forging sinister and frightening links in a story told largely online.

Casey (Anna Cobb) is the personification of teen restlessness. With establishing shots revealing a dreary anonymous urban nowhere, little wonder that she seeks stimulation and community on the web.

And so the web snares another fly as bored blogger Casey creates laptop videos of herself charting her progress through a horror-themed Online Role Playing Game called The World’s Fair.

To enter the game, a player must bleed. Not sure what kind of port you use for upload.

It’s a plot that cooks over a slow fire, but WAGttWF hums with a steadily climbing anxiety level. Our concern for Casey’s welfare deepens as we realize she’s not the only one playing, and the tone of her video posts get darker.

Casey mentions her father’s rifle. She knows where it is.

All kinds of red flags and warning bells go off, but Casey proves capable of mastering her game emotions, even if her opponent (Michael J. Rogers) does not.

Rogers portrays one of those super creepy concern troll that lurks under every virtual bridge. Switching to his perspective, Schoenbrum daringly gives us a nervous glimpse into his painfully shameful world—and that’s more than enough.

We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is a minefield of a movie about a very real war between the sexes. You read about it every day: A lonely wretch goes bananas and kills people because they are psychologically incapable of real-life interaction.

These are the ones I’m warning you about. They are a cause for concern.

La Llorona (2019)

You can’t keep a good ghost down. Not when there’s justice to be meted out.

The titular spirit, who typically wanders the seaside mourning her deceased children in Mexican folklore, becomes a powerful avenger in the hands of Guatemalan filmmaker Jayro Bustamante.

In La Llorona, the vengeful ghost not only seeks retribution for the death of her offspring, but for entire villages of Guatemalan natives slaughtered and enslaved in the 1980s by General Enrique Monteverde (Julio Diaz), a military strongman currently on trial for genocide.

Now a delusional old paranoid, Enrique holes up in a spacious villa while outside the streets are stuffed with protestors, whose singing and chanting are a constant reminder of half-remembered atrocities.

Enrique’s sleep is troubled and he frequently sleepwalks through the house with a loaded pistol.

His steely wife Carmen (Margarita Kenefic) is determined to stand by her man, but their daughter Natalia (Sabrina de la Hoz), a doctor, is having doubts about her papa’s innocence.

With the arrival of Alma (Maria Mercedes Coroy), a beguiling Mayan maid, the stage is set and the Monteverde house is ready for its fall. Enrique is fascinated and troubled by the quiet girl with the long black hair, because she’s a dead ringer for one of his dead victims.

La Llorona is a riveting slow burner that draws substantial power from Bustamante’s steady-frame approach. Once he establishes a visually arresting tableau, he locks it down. There is almost no camera movement in the house and scenes run long with minimal dialogue.

This lack of flow effectively imprisons the viewer in the pressure cooker alongside the guilty parties, and it’s an unnerving experience.

After all, we’re not on trial here.

A House on the Bayou (2021)

Now here’s a movie that skips the main course and gets right to the Just Desserts.

As is so often the case these days, A House in the Bayou focuses on a family unit in turmoil, caused by a patriarch who can’t keep it in his pants.

John Chambers (Paul Schneider, from Parks & Recreation) is the unfaithful husband and father. His real estate agent wife, Jessica (Angela Sarafyan), is super pissed but doesn’t want to break-up the family.

Daughter Anna (Lia McHugh) is fearful of a divorce and having to attend separate Christmas dinners. I just assumed the last part.

Jessica packs her contentious clan off to bayou country in the hopes of getting past all the unpleasantness with a surprise vacation to a palatial plantation.

What a great idea!

Upon arrival, Anna meets Isaac (Jacob Lofland), a creepy boy who hangs out at the general store run by Grandpappy (Doug Van Liew), a creepy old geezer. Next thing you know, Isaac and Grandpappy are invited to dinner and hell can proceed to break loose.

Isaac is aptly named, because he has a similar vibe of righteousness as the leader of Stephen King’s Corn kids, not to mention access to a great deal of personal information for a hick from the sticks.

The clever teen also performs “magic tricks” like lighting candles without a match and bringing the family cat back to life.

Grandpappy tells the Chambers’ that Isaac “appeared out of the swamp one day” and the local rubes have been following his lead ever since.

This isn’t good news for a family starting over and learning to trust each other. “The Devil is watching you,” Grandpappy warns John.

Whether or not there are supernatural forces at work in A House on the Bayou, is a back-and-forth situation, but eventually lands squarely in the affirmative camp, with a clear-cut case of pagan idolatry unfolding in modern day Louisiana.

Feel free to use your spare time to figure out Isaac’s origin story. I’m sure it’s a whopper.

Writer-director Alex McAulay shuffles his clue cards with sufficient dexterity to keep a reasonably bright viewer guessing. The ending comes from deep left field, but even so, you probably won’t ask for your money back.

Editor’s Note: Cheating husband John is considering leaving his stunningly gorgeous wife in favor of a less attractive candidate. Doesn’t ring true, sorry.

Terrified (2017)

It’s scary watching a good neighborhood go bad.

Set in the suburbs of Buenos Aires, Terrified zooms in on one unlucky block of real estate, where strange things are happening.

How strange, you ask?

Just ask the kid next door. He was recently run over by a bus and buried, but has returned after clawing his way out of the grave. The boy’s mother (Julieta Vallina) is beside herself, as you might expect.

Her detective boyfriend Funes (Maximiliano Ghione) calls in retired cop Jano (Norberto Gonzalo), a forensic expert with a knack for bizarre cases.

Before the investigation can begin, renowned paranormal researcher Dr. Mora Albreck (Elvira Onetto) materializes with questions of her own. Despite the assembled brain power, the best theory that Albreck can proffer is that they are sitting on a nest of beings from another dimension.

Further observations from the good doctor reveal that the creatures occupy the same space we do and can inhabit our bodies. Also, they drink blood and seem to enjoy tormenting their subjects to death.

Using comically archaic spiritual weights and measuring devices, Albreck assembles concrete evidence that establishes the existence of vampiric entities that can crawl out from under the bed or emerge from the closet at will.

“What should we do now?” a colleague asks her.

“I have no idea,” she answers truthfully.

Terrified is a potent and terrifyingly graphic film about the dissemination of fear in an urban setting, with roots in paranormal activity. In this regard, it’s quite unlike the Paranormal Activity series of films created by Oren Peli.

Instead of endless sequences spent observing snoring citizens, we get pants-wetting shock value from a parade of singular spooks that will leave trauma marks on the cerebral cortex.

Argentine writer-director Demían Rugna wields a deep arsenal of disorienting camera moves that offer no comfort or safe space to hide. We bounce from mouse-eye views looking up, to sinister surveillance peering in the windows, to awful things taking shape on the periphery of the senses.

Utilizing every centimeter of the frame, Rugna proves, just as H.P. Lovecraft did before him, that there’s plenty of room for malign beings to coexist with us—and drive us insane.

This is not a comforting thought. Terrified delivers the scary when it counts.

Choose Or Die (2022)

Video games are bad, ‘mkay?

Choose Or Die takes place in a slightly dystopian future that looks like the present, where our protagonist, Kayla (Iola Evans), ekes out a living cleaning clean offices every night, plus whatever she can scrounge by refurbishing obsolete technology.

During a visit with her friendly fence Isaac (Asa Butterfield), she discovers an old text-based video game from the 1980s called Curs>r that more than lives up to its name.

Isaac informs Kayla that there’s an unclaimed $100,000 prize that supposedly awaits the player worthy enough to win.

The bummer is that it’s a sentient game made with sorcerous runes that can take over reality, forcing the player to make impossible choices, usually having to decide which friend or family member gets maimed in grisly fashion.

Therein lies the tension in all its one-dimensional glory. Dig it, or don’t.

Choose Or Die gets a needed boost from actress Iola Evans, who invests Kayla with brains and bravery. Even with loved ones in constant peril, she keeps her focus while trying to hack the sinister system.

Writer-director Toby Meakins does an adequate job of creating a cold and confusing reality in which financially trapped citizens like Kayla engage in risky occult business in hopes of a prize that will rescue them from wretched poverty.

You know, like in The Hunger Games.

Though Kayla is a talented programmer, she can’t get her foot in the door anywhere, leaving her stuck with mindless labor as the only way to keep the drug-dealing landlord (Ryan Gage) from stringing out her junkie mom.

You should be entertained by the painful predicaments pondered in Choose Or Die, and you will definitely root for the plucky heroine. But it’s all pretty one-dimensional. Hopefully that’s enough.

The Happening (2008)

And back for a return visit to the director’s chair is our ol’ pal M. Night Shyamalan! Hope he brought snacks.

The Happening is one of those Shyamalan features that feels very insubstantial, with an ending bound to elicit cries of “That’s it?”

Nigel Floyd from Time Out, summed it up thusly: “At first, a great deal happens, then nothing much happens for quite some time, then something so underwhelming happens that one is left wondering, ‘Did that really just happen?'”

It doesn’t help that stars Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel have precious little chemistry as Elliott and Alma Moore, a couple on the run from an unspecified menace.

Shyamalan can take some of the blame. His dialogue is so wooden you could build a raft out of it.

It could be argued, however, that MNS movies are seldom character studies in the traditional sense, but rather about subjects adapting to extreme situations.

In this case, the Moores, along with most of the eastern seaboard are fleeing from a mysterious ill wind that upon contact motivates humans to destroy themselves in gruesome fashion.

Fortunately, Elliott is a science teacher so he hypothesizes his head off, and figures out the virus is being produced by sentient plant life. Needless to say, the shrubs are pretty damn unhappy with our stewardship of the planet, and their intent is to pull a few weeds out of the garden.

Timing is everything in show business. The Happening wasn’t a commercial or critical success upon its release, but it certainly has more impact on an audience today, having collectively experienced the Covid-19 crisis and an ongoing pandemic.

Not only that, my allergies are killing me. I think MNS deserves credit for anticipating floral warfare.

Till Death (2021)

We’ve all had one of those nights. Maybe not quite as bad as the one in Till Death, but you know what I mean.

After an evening of sweet lovemaking at their secluded lake house, Emma (Megan Fox) awakens handcuffed to her very dead, attorney husband Mark (Eoin Macken).

As if this wasn’t enough of a predicament, the same thug (Callan Mulvey) that stabbed her during a robbery years before, is apparently dropping by to finish the job.

The vast majority of Till Death‘s running time tracks Emma’s excruciating adventures as she slides awkwardly into survival mode, with her late hubby serving as a constant ball and chain.

Director SK Dale and writer Jason Carvey make things rough on poor Emma, who proves to be more resilient than a powerful man’s trophy wife should be.

Tellingly, of all the items she has at her disposal, it’s Emma’s wedding dress that serves her best, both as bandage material, and as a travois for hauling a stiffening corpse around the frozen countryside.

Till Death works as a teeth-grinding thriller and as a visceral metaphor for the honeymoon being over in a big way. It’s in darkly comic top form when all the desperate parties are present and the cards are on the table—the same one Emma attempts to turn on her would-be assailants.

She was not a good wife. But Emma refuses to go down with the sinking matrimonial ship.

Lucky for her, she got custody of the survival instincts.