Shallow Ground (2004)

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A screwy mish-mash of elements somehow makes for a modestly entertaining melange of mayhem. Even though the overall execution is just slightly north of made-for-TV and the performances indicate that the actors were given perhaps an hour to familiarize themselves with the script, Shallow Ground managed to keep me engaged. Never underestimate the value of abundant gore and the occasional unclothed actress, I suppose.

The story reveals itself in very haphazard, what-the-hell fashion, as if a team of lemurs was busily typing out new scenes even as the cameras commenced rolling. In a middle-of-nowhere rural community called Shallow Valley, a tiny police department is in the midst of disbanding when a naked young man (Rocky Marquette) covered in blood makes an unwelcome appearance. Apparently, the townspeople are packing up after the completion of a nearby dam (don’t ask why, they just are), and Sheriff Jack Shepherd (a gaunt, haunted, and inexplicably Irish Timothy V. Murphy), still tormented by an unsolved murder from a year before, has to deal with a new string of deaths that are somehow connected to the presence of the mysterious blood-splattered adolescent.

The conclusion of Shallow Ground is clumsy and confused as writer-director Sheldon Wilson, another enthusiastic Sam Raimi acolyte, requests that the viewer obligingly stitch together several disparate story lines: the accidental death of a local man and his daughter during the dam’s construction, the subsequent disappearances of several people connected with the dam project, a crooked deputy (Stan Kirsch) who murders a drug dealer in a nearby large city (huh?), and a vengeful hausfrau (Patty McCormack from The Bad Seed!) with an axe to grind. It doesn’t coalesce in any meaningful way, but in this case the sum of Shallow Ground‘s grisly parts are (barely) enough to sustain us to the hastily constructed finale. You will have questions. For me, it was why is the incidental tension music so shitty and stupidly applied?

Shadow (2009)

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You’ll have to roll with some changes in this Italian horror import, but ultimately, I think it’s worth it to do so.

Shadow begins as a fairly standard-issue case of strangers beware, before shifting gears about halfway through into a nasty bit of torture porn, and finally revealing itself in a Twilight Zone-meets-Dalton Trumbo finale.

David (Jake Muxworthy), an American soldier recently returned from the front lines of Afghanistan, decides a bicycle trip through a remote patch of Eastern Europe will help him unwind.

He meets a pretty fellow cyclist (Karin Testa) who invites him in to share her tent, and soon both are on the run from a pair of bloodthirsty poachers. (Ottaviano Blitch and Chris Coppola).

But wait! There’s more! After a few skirmishes, David and the poachers find themselves the unwilling guests of the evil Mortis (Nuot Arquint), a bony, bald albino with a penchant for inflicting pain—which he does.

And then there’s a twist ending that actually works for me.

What Shadow has going for it is devilishly effective tension escalation. Circumstances get increasingly grim without deteriorating into a pointless bloody mess, and Mortis has to be one of the creepiest kooks to come along in a long time.

Some of you will not care for the conclusion, but I appreciated the “one last surprise” card being played. Rather than a rip-off, I consider it a rather creative solution.

See for yourself. I doubt you’ll be disappointed, because this trip is a trip.

The Road (2011)

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Purely for marketing purposes, they should have called this movie something other than The Road. The Cormac-McCarthy-post-apocalypse-tale-turned-Viggo-Mortensen vehicle was barely two years old, and it’s hard to create word-of-mouth excitement if you have to continually explain that the movie you’re recommending is not that one. But recommend it I will.

This curious import from the Philippines is both a fearsome ghost story and a very soulful meditation on evil, and more specifically “the sins of the father” concept.

Three restless teens borrow a car and go out for a midnight joy ride. None has a driver’s license, so they turn off the freeway and head down an old unmarked road—and the trap is sprung!

A nightmarish sequence ensues as the kids are stalked by vengeful ghosts and an unseen killer. Eventually the cops arrive on the scene under the command of recently decorated Detective Luis (TJ Trinidad) who sees uncanny parallels in this case to those of an old unsolved homicide.

There are plenty of supernatural fright elements at play in The Road, but writer-director Yam Laranas puts the most muscle into telling a ghost story born of an all-too-familiar domestic tragedy. The movie is a triptych of tales (the present, the past, the distant past) that remain firmly rooted in a poison tree that bears deadly fruit. (Note: trees don’t figure into the story; this is what we call a metaphor.)

The pace can be a bit sluggish, but in my opinion, the added weight given to characters and landscape makes The Road a much more vivid trip.

Chromeskull: Laid To Rest 2 (2011)

Pardon me while I spill my gushing guts. I admired the heck out of the original Laid To Rest, but the sequel is everything the second installment of a film series should be: bigger, artistically bolder, and rife with disturbing implications. (See Evil Dead—Evil Dead II. )

Like the Raimi films, LTR2 is an evolutionary leap beyond its predecessor, as it takes virtually the same story and creates a whole universe for it to live in. And like Romero’s zombie epics, Chromeskull has the chutzpah to place a modern horror film into the larger and more provocative context of a thoroughly corrupt and predatory society—one that bares a striking resemblance to our own.

Even though writer-director Robert Hall’s sophomore effort isn’t quite in the same league as the aforementioned films and folks, it’s still a bloody good time.

The second film opens just moments after the conclusion of the first: The relentless killer known as Chromeskull (Nick Principe) is apparently kaput after having his noggin pulverized by a pair of plucky survivors, but modern science can do amazing things these days.

The mutilated maniac is heroically raced to a hospital and sewn back together by the finest surgeons money can buy and so embarks on a three-month convalescence. See, it turns out Chromeskull can afford top-drawer health care—he’s friggin’ rich, the CEO of his own shadow corporation.

Like any successful man, he’s got disgruntled employees and ambitious rivals, or in this case both, in the person of his right-hand flunky Preston, played with gonzo panache by 90210‘s Brian Austin Green!

While the boss gets his head back together, Preston entertains ideas of moving up in the company.

Naturally, another woman is methodically stalked and many people are gutted, carved, and filleted in excruciating detail. A big round of applause should be directed to the special makeup effects team of Cris Alex and Joe Badiali, who seem to be cut from the same gruesome cloth as the master himself, Tom Savini.

Laid To Rest 2 is a rockin’ righteous bloodbath. The kills are teeth-gritting in their unfettered savagery, as Chromeskull is clearly a man(?) who loves his work and has a near fetishistic reverence for his tools—which should serve as inspiration to his ungrateful underlings.

Seeing the boss working the line and getting his hands dirty is an increasingly rare thing in corporate America.

The Tall Man (2012)

Is The Tall Man HINO (Horror in Name Only)? Sure, it takes place in a brooding rural slum ala Winter’s Bone (except this one’s on the West Coast—Washington, to be exact), and it’s about a prolific bogeyman who abducts children in a dried-up mining town. But what ensues is a provocatively ambiguous thriller (and yes, it is thrilling) with a fairly blunt social agenda.

Cold Rock, Washington is a mildewing husk of a town decomposing in the overgrown backwoods of Washington. The local Chamber of Commerce undoubtedly has its hands full trying to lure tourists to such a cheerless gray community where 18 children have disappeared over the past few years. A focused and fascinating Jessica Biel plays Julia, a recently widowed nurse living in the area who tends to the medical needs of the hapless hillbillies in her sector. Shit gets personal when her beloved toddler gets snatched from her house by the legendary “Tall Man.” Julia channels her inner Ellen Ripley and sets out to get her bambino back.

The tag line should have been: “Who’s The Monster Here?” The Tall Man is a brisk, well-crafted, and shifty film that never allows you to get comfortable from any perspective. And while the supernatural elements are mostly of the red-herring variety, there is a very real horror at its heart—namely are we becoming a society that might require fantastically drastic social engineering in order to survive? Echoes of P.D. James’ Children of Men and Dennis Lehane’s Gone Daddy Gone may bubble to the surface. You have been warned.

Dread (2009)

A beastly unsettling adaptation of a Clive Barker short story by writer/director Anthony DiBlasi, Dread doesn’t require supernatural elements—other than bad dreams—to really make us squirm in our seats.

Sure, Barker’s psycho-sexual hot potatoes (blood, sex, domination, and cruelly testing one’s limits) are in play, but it’s a character-driven nightmare first and foremost, as a student film about mapping out the territory of fear runs amok and lives are annihilated in the process.

Film student and Johnny Deppleganger Stephen Grace (Jackson Rathbone) meets Quaid (Shaun Evans), a charismatic loner, who wastes no time in reeling his new pal into exploring the roots and boundaries of real fear, and soon a student film project is born.

With the help of Cheryl (Hanne Steen), a fellow film studies major, the young auteurs interview a range of students about their earliest and most profound memories of fear.

Quaid, who seems to be majoring in villainy with a minor in degradation, believes their project lacks juice, so he takes it upon himself to “take things to the next level.”

By the way, never trust anyone who uses this expression.

Dread succeeds on the strength of its well-drawn characters, particularly in the homo-erotic jousting between the curious, but virtuous, Stephen, and the increasingly deranged and manipulative Quaid, a fellow who was obviously, in the words of the most articulate sociopath in the world, Dexter Morgan, “born of blood.”

DiBlasi takes his time, slow-cooking the horror till it’s falling off the bone. And in Quaid we have a charming sadist with his own terrifying baggage, who actually believes he’s helping people “confront the beast” by tormenting them with the things they fear the most, in the hope that they be destroyed and born anew, as fearless warriors.

Needless to say, his victims don’t appreciate the effort. There’s gratitude for you.

Silent House (2011)

Seldom have I had such a thoughtful and productive conversation while sitting through a “haunted house” movie. For this I should thank my brainy friend Kaja Katamay who chose to watch it with me. Since there’s very little dialog, we were free to analyze, theorize, and hypothesize all through Silent House and not miss a word. (And no one told us to STFU!) Our observations about the characters proved uncannily accurate: I suggested that Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen, fetching younger sister of Ashley and Mary-Kate) behaved as though she’d suffered a traumatic episode, and Kaja suspected the supporting cast of treachery. Right on both counts.

Nutshell: Sarah meets up with her father, John (Adam Trese), and Uncle Peter (Eric Sheffer Stevens) to help fix up and hopefully flip the family summer house. Things don’t work out quite as well they do on Property Brothers, as Sarah becomes increasingly anxious while wandering through the rambling hacienda. Just so you know: the house is completely boarded up to discourage vandals. There’s no electricity. Cell phones no workee.

Directors Chris Kentis and Laura Lau—who previously helmed Open Water, chose to film Silent House in real time as if it were one continuous shot. It wasn’t, but this audacious gambit definitely adds a sense of first-person urgency to the events as they unfold, especially as Sarah gets closer and closer to the heart of darkness. By the way, Elizabeth Olsen acquits herself quite well in what must have been a demanding role. As Sarah, she’s a 21st century upgrade to the Scream Queen: she’s a victim who tries ineffectually to keep her fear buried in the sub-conscious, until she has no choice but to fight back—and emerge triumphant.

Devil (2010)

I missed the memo on why exactly M. Night Shyamalan is now considered such a lame-o. I didn’t see Lady in the Water and I started to watch The Happening but bailed out for some mundane reason unrelated to the quality of the film.

So what happened? Did these two movies suck so unbelievably badly that they reduced the Shyamalan brand to a punch line? And now I’ve built up such a load of anxiety that I can’t bring myself to watch them.

I didn’t realize Devil was co-written and produced by Shyamalan or I might have steered clear, but I’m reasonably glad that I didn’t. Sure, it’s rife with his trademark glib spirituality (or Old Testament as folklore) with a side dish of “you just gotta believe sometimes.”

Even so, it’s a modestly effective thriller about five people trapped in an elevator—one of whom might be Lucifer.

Taking place in a thoroughly modern skyscraper in a thoroughly modern metropolis, five seemingly unrelated people get into an elevator car and become trapped between floors. A dramatic storm sent by obviously sinister forces moves into the area and messes with the electrical system, so getting them out proves complicated.

Detective Bowden (Chris Messina) is the cop on the scene who attempts to organize their rescue, with some help from Ramirez (Jacob Vargas), a particularly devout building security guard who doesn’t like what he’s seeing on the video monitor from the stranded elevator.

Devil offers legitimately frightening scenes as the trapped characters begin freaking out from the steadily increasing paranoia, claustrophobia, and growing suspicion that one among them is not what he/she seems.

More than just a morality play (although there are similarities), the story hangs on a basic Twilight Zone premise that Satan is real, and that from time to time he likes to go out amongst the people in the guise of a particularly unpleasant collections agent.

Seriously, if you’re on this list, you have very few options.

We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011)

We Need To Talk About Kevin is like one of those nightmare scenarios where the babysitter (finally) figures out that the phone calls are coming from inside the house. In this case, the phone calls are coming from inside the family. Much of this movie’s acclaim comes from Tilda Swinton’s bravura performance as the long-suffering mother of a burgeoning sociopath—and justifiably so. But let’s not overlook writer-director Lynne Ramsay’s achievements, as she raises a ton of tricky questions about parental responsibility. The lovely Barbara and I stayed up well past the credits discussing all the uncomfortable implications. Interestingly enough, we came to the same conclusion: we would have smothered the kid with a pillow and chopped him up in the bathtub. And that is why I love the lovely Barbara.

In nonlinear fashion, we become acquainted with Eva (Swinton), her not-very-observant husband Franklin (John C. Reilly), and their obviously malevolent offspring, the titular Kevin. The viewer lurches between the past and the present (a surprisingly smooth ride!), watching in growing alarm as Kevin seems to take an immediate dislike to his mother, torturing her through his formative years by crying incessantly, refusing to learn the mechanics of potty training, and by feigning good-natured amiability around the clueless Franklin. You don’t need a house call from Dr. Plotspoiler to quickly intuit that at some point, Kevin will go down the rabbit hole and emerge as a fully formed monster.

Once the story is set on its inevitable course, the questions start coming hard and fast: Is Kevin just Satan in a diaper? That’s the easy answer, but as Kevin grows into a handsome teenager (Ezra Miller), we get the nagging suspicion that Eva and Kevin are more alike than we’d first thought. Mother and son greatly resemble one another, and during a night out together (a date?), look more like a couple than Eva and Franklin ever do. One of the only times in the movie that Kevin approves of his mother is when he discovers that her wit is every bit as vicious as his own.

The finale of We Need To Talk About Kevin is also maddeningly ambiguous. Does Eva continue to visit her son in prison because: 1) She feels responsible for his crime? 2) She’s punishing herself for her failure to socialize the little fiend? 3) She is tormenting him in return? A very provocative, original, and disturbing movie—even more so because of the depth of skill and artistry that went into its making.

The Midnight Meat Train (2008)

I haven’t read enough Clive Barker to decide if I’m a fan or not, but he certainly spins a fascinatingly lurid yarn. The Midnight Meat Train is based on one of his short stories, and it’s a bloody fun ride, even though I kept thinking I was watching a chopped up version that had scenes missing. There are moments when the action inexplicably jumps from Point A to Point M, and you wonder how the hell we got here.

A right-before-he-got famous Bradley Cooper plays Leon, a wannabe artsy photographer trying to capture “the beating heart of New York City” to impress snooty art dealer Susan Hoff (Brooke Shields), who advises him to take more chances, and not run away when danger rears its ugly head. He starts hanging out in the subway during the wee hours of the morning and stumbles upon a very dapper and intense-looking butcher (Vinnie Jones, in a silent part), and is immediately compelled to follow him around. (How do we know he’s a butcher? Well, he carries a meat mallet the size of Mjolnir, for one thing.) Sure enough, it appears his new-found subject is a methodical serial killer who’s been making late-night subway riders disappear for quite some time. Poor Leon realizes too late, that the butcher’s grisly nocturnal rituals are all a part of (sung in Elton John voice) “the c-i-r-c-l-e of l-i-i-i-f-e!”

Anytime you pad out a short story into a feature length film, there’s going to be filler, and The Midnight Meat Train is no exception, but for the most part, director Ryuhel Kitamura and screenplay scribe Jeff Buhler keep it fast and gruesome. The ending is pure Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, but it’s not a cop-out. It’s surprisingly weird and horrible, and hints at a “bigger picture” that’s even more terrible than we had first supposed. And that, folks, is what good horror should do. What, no sequel?