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.

Ruin Me (2018)

Honey, for our vacation this year, let’s try something different.

Ever wanted to experience the adrenaline boost that comes from getting chased by a masked killer through the forest in the dark? Man, there’s nothing like it!

This is the premise of Ruin Me, in which thoughtful boyfriend Nathan (Matt Dellapina), surprises his taciturn girlfriend Alexandra (Marcienne Dwyer) with two tickets to Slasher Sleepaway—a 36-hour fun-fest that requires six campers to find clues in order to survive a frightful night in the woods.

Editor’s Note: If I were to surprise my wife with a similar gift, the only blood spilling would be mine.

As so often happens in these bucolic scenarios, the line between fantasy and reality gets lost in the dark, and Alexandra and Nathan gradually come to regret signing the liability waiver as fellow campers are stalked and sliced by a nearby escaped lunatic.

Director and cowriter Preston DeFrancis straps the viewer onto a bucking bronco of jumps, twists, and stupefying gaps of logic that play out in agreeable fashion for fans of the Doomed Camper genre. Even as we celebrate our beloved bloody tropes, we begin to notice clues of our own that point in a different direction.

If you can suspend your disbelief on occasion, the time passes enjoyably and you’ll even find yourself rooting for Alexandra, an unexpectedly complex and resourceful Final Girl, played with much gusto by Marcienne Dwyer.

Like the supporting cast, who appear to be a typical assortment of nerds, goths, and sluts, there is more to Ruin Me than just the usual suspects and psychos dueling in the dark. Sometimes the choices we’re forced to make are far scarier than any boogeyman.

The Endless (2017)

I was introduced to the writer-director duo of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead by way of Spring, an audacious rom-mon-com reviewed right here on this very site. I was smitten by the look and feel of the movie, a charmingly low-budget love story with a monstrous subplot. So natch I was jazzed to check out the latest Benson-Moorhead joint, The Endless, a cult film starring the plucky filmmakers themselves!

Set in the roles of siblings Justin (Benson) and Aaron (Moorhead—kudos for easy to remember character names!) The Endless recounts the brothers’ quest to unravel the mystery surrounding the hippie-dippy UFO cult they escaped years before.

Elder brother Justin, the skeptic and the instigator of their earlier flight, insists that the eventual goal of the group was suicide. Aaron, the sensitive brother, wants to know more about Camp Arcadia, the commune where they grew up. Road trip!

Not only is the commune intact, it’s turning a profit as a craft brewery! Justin and Aaron are welcomed with open arms by humble guru Hal (Tate Ellington) and beguiling beauty Anna (Callie Hernandez), and invited to crash as long as they want.

Aaron is taken with the communal vibe, healthy food, clean air, and Anna (not necessarily in that order). Justin, on the other hand, can’t shake the feeling that there’s a rotten core to this paradisiacal apple. He is proved correct and the boys come face to face with dreadful evidence of an eldritch entity that rules the roost.

This is cosmic horror done right, where the story takes prominence over CGI buffoonery. Benson and Moorhead once again combine fearless camerawork with an outré narrative that is compelling and provocative throughout.

See, in Camp Arcadia, immortality exists—and it kinda sucks. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it’s not much different than being a self-aware character stuck replaying the same scene for eternity. On the positive tip, you have a long time to figure out an escape plan. And that, dear friends, is our life’s work.

 

 

Don’t Breathe (2016)

There’s much to admire about Don’t Breathe, a nasty, audacious thriller directed and co-written by Fede Alvarez and released by Sam Raimi’s Ghost House Pictures. The technical finesse demonstrated throughout adds considerable impact and Raimi-esque flourish to the action, which unfortunately becomes increasingly preposterous under the weight of too many plot points.

Rocky (Jane Levy) is a hardworking single-mom burglar with dreams of relocating to sunny California from her blighted hometown of Detroit (actually filmed in Hungary—way to save money, team!). She and her coworkers Alex (Dylan Minnette) and Money (Daniel Zovatto) tumble onto a caper that looks like a piece of cake: bust into a blind man’s pad and steal a pile of cash that is supposedly on the premises, the result of a huge settlement he reached after a rich girl killed his daughter in a car accident.

The little old blind man (a scary Stephen Lang) turns out to be a chiseled combat veteran with a Rottweiller and a labyrinthine basement full of dangerous secrets, and the bad-ass burglars are soon trapped in a dark house with an even badder-ass “victim.”

The twists and turns that ensue range from deft and effective to downright ludicrous. If Alvarez didn’t feel the need to pad the script with unnecessary dramatic tropes (dead daughter, bad mother memories, male suitor rivalry, pregnancy), he might have had a lean, mean survival flick in the tradition of John Carpenter or Wes Craven. To his credit, he almost pulls it off.

The contrast between the lithe tracking shots of abandoned neighborhoods being slowly retaken by nature, to the tightly focused and creeping claustrophobia of the blind man’s lair is skillfully rendered, and Alvarez earns bonus points for keeping tensions taut.

What detracts from the tension is the director’s penchant for telegraphing every development well before it happens with cutaway shots to objects that will play a significant role further down the line.

It’s an annoyingly condescending move designed to eliminate any obligation on the viewer’s part to pay attention. Alvarez cheerfully introduces us to a hammer, a piece of glass, a crowbar, a remote, a couple pairs of shoes, and a pistol hidden under a mattress just so we aren’t surprised when they reappear later.

Sam Raimi can get away with this chicanery in his own movies, but here it falls flat and goes splat.

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