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?

Salvage (2009)

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating. Atmosphere and the unpredictable flow of tension is the life’s blood of any Horrific Flick.

A successful horror movie is one that could be just as effective if it were staged as a play, and you can count Salvage among them. It’s a “trapped in the house” potboiler about a neighborhood under siege, from both a bloodthirsty (alien?) creature and a trigger-happy military—and we’re left to decide who’s the bigger threat.

Paranoia, infidelity, and xenophobia coat the air like cheap incense.

Much of the film’s running time is consumed with the domestic complications of Beth (Neve McIntosh, who rocks!), the smokin’ hot divorced mother of Jodie (Linzey Cocker), a sullen teenager.

Are there any other kind?

Jodie gets dropped off by Dad to spend Christmas with her estranged mother who lives in a snug little cul-de-sac on the coast of Britain. (Sorry, don’t know which one. Is it really that important?)

A touching mother-and-child reunion ensues as Jodie walks in on Beth getting shagged by Kieran (Shaun Dooley), a bloke she met in a bar the previous evening. Disgusted with her slutty mum, Jodie runs off to stay with the neighbors. A-a-a-n-n-d-d … Cue the monster!

The little community is soon crawling with soldiers shooting at anything that moves. A trickle of gore leaks out as a (largely offscreen) body count mounts. The creature wreaks bloody havoc, leaving a parade of mangled corpses in its wake.

For about a third of Salvage, you’re wondering if it’s just a movie about paranoia. Neighbors turn on each other, some seeing terrorists behind every bush. Or perhaps the military has staged a coup, and they’re rounding up citizens on Christmas to work in the mines!

Could happen. This is just one of the red rubber balls you’re left to chew on. Another is the dicey relationship between Beth, a woman who seemingly chose a career in science (and getting shagged by other blokes) over being a wife and mother, and Jodie, the prudish progeny who resents her.

Like Ellen Ripley before her, it’s up to Beth to get in touch with her primal side before she can really earn the title of “mother.”

Splintered (2010)

I’m recommending this British horror flick, but with some reservations. In terms of style, originality, and watchability, Splintered is definitely a worthwhile experience. The acting is thoroughly professional, it’s handsomely photographed, and the story sails along at a tidy clip.

So why did I feel so underwhelmed at the end? Maybe because the movie turned out more like a gothy episode of Law & Order: SVU than the mind-blowing terror that I eternally crave.

Sophie (Holly Weston, who demonstrates considerable dramatic ability) is a teen suffering from bad dreams about a childhood monster that stalks her at bedtime. What this has to do with her desire to track down a legendary beastie that’s been terrorizing the Welsh countryside is anyone’s guess, but there you are.

She and her feckless Scooby gang drive out to the woods, drink beer, get stoned and hope for the best. Sophie stumbles upon an abandoned Catholic orphanage that looks like Buckingham Palace and gets imprisoned by Gavin (Stephen Walters) a feral weirdo who lives there.

Turns out Gavin is the civilized one—it’s his brother Vincent that’s got major aggression issues; these include tearing people’s throats out and a bad case of hot pants for Sophie.

I had this one pegged as a werewolf movie. There are numerous references to the full moon and at one point Sophie is seen reading up on the subject.

Well, it isn’t a werewolf, a golem, a ghost, a ghoul, or even El Chupacabra. It’s just a nimble cannibal boy raised by dogs. Once that shoe drops, I felt like I was wasting my time, though director Simeon Halligan does his best to keep the frights flowing.

It’s a bummer to wait out a movie for the “big reveal” only to discover that the “monster” is only mildly monstrous. Sorry, but my imagination is mightier than the pen that wrote Splintered.

Cabin in the Woods (2011)

Autobiographical side bar: I am old, old, old. I am not Li’l Sharky, Teen Sharky, or even Adult Contemporary Sharky. I’m Ol’ Sharky, an ancient relic from a cooler and weirder world. I carried Agamemnon’s sword; argued with Aristotle; and dogged Cleopatra like she was made of bacon. I shit the pyramids and danced with dinosaurs. I used to carpool to work with Gilgamesh, and even he called me “Gramps.” So when I tell you that I don’t go to the movies much anymore, you’ll begin to understand why. It’s too risky. I can’t be away from my climate-controlled condo for lengthy periods or my aorta will explode. I tried once, and the Visigoths that run the multiplex refused to let me pitch my oxygen tent in the theater. Bastards. All bastards.

Even so, I found myself in the vicinity of a theater with time to kill yesterday, so I purchased a ticket for the moving pictures and saw Cabin in the Woods. I’m very glad that I did. Joss Whedon is getting justifiably blown by critic and fanboy alike for hitting a box-office home run with The Avengers, but that’s no reason to overlook this marvelous muffin basket of a monster movie that he produced, co-wrote, and (second unit) directed. Sadly, the specifics of the story arc prevent a detailed critique, but let’s just say that this is a horror movie on a grand “meta” scale that dwarfs Wes Craven’s Scream series.

What Whedon does with Cabin in the Woods is place the late 20th century horror movie, and more specifically the subcategory known as Hack and Stack (a.k.a. Doomed Teenage Campers), into a miraculous context, one that weds the most dreadful aspects of Lovecraft and Phillip K. Dick. Whedon has created a horror movie mythos that dares to explain why its characters make such monumentally bad decisions, and why it’s imperative that the fools suffer before meeting their (mostly determined) gruesome fate. It’s a groovy concept, but really, just this once.

I don’t anticipate a rash of imitators, because this looks to be a genre only big enough for one. And Cabin in the Woods is it. At the same time, I can understand why some horror fans didn’t care for it. To them I would say, don’t think of this movie as an attempt to subvert the genre in a contrived or overly clever way—it’s more of an elegant novelty, an intricate lark that stands as a singular testament to outside-the-box thinking. In other words, Whedon’s laughing with us, and not at us.

Shadow Puppets (2007)

Several folks (mostly attractive women) wake up in a mental institution, dressed in generic undies, with no memory of who they are or how they got there.

They spend the remainder of the film wandering around the facility while trying to steer clear of a dark, shadowy, spider-type thing with a face, that shows up once in a while to kill someone.

Despite the presence of genre-pedigreed actors James Marsters (Spike from Buffy and Angel, who hasn’t aged well); Tony Todd (the Candyman himself!); and Joleen Blalock (she was the Vulcan hottie from that lame Star Trek series with Scott Bakula), there really isn’t much to recommend Shadow Puppets.

This is another one of those annoying “walkabout” movies, with endless scenes of wary characters moving (very slowly) through a largely featureless industrial landscape.

It’s an approach that’s quite different from a movie like Cube, for example, where shocking and creepy details emerge from both the alien environment and the characters’ own heads.

We do discover the identities of the captives, but it doesn’t add up to anything worth writing down. We learn the origin of the smoky, spider thing, but it’s all argle bargle that’s forgotten two seconds after the explanation is delivered. (“It’s the distilled essence of the victims’ life forces,” or some such drivel.)

Note to writer-director Michael Winnick: If we don’t care about the monster or the characters, then you’re going to need lots more gore and gals to maintain a passable level of interest from the average horror fan.

And a brawny dude in a rubber suit would have been a major improvement in the monster department.

The Oregonian (2011)

I’ve been employed as a writer and editor in Portland since 1994 (more or less). So when I saw that a new horror entry on Netflix had the same name as our daily newspaper, I just assumed it was the terrifying story of an aging copy editor with limited skills trying to remain employed in the face of career obsolescence.

For better or for worse, this is not the case. Instead, writer-director Calvin Reeder works awfully hard to create a minor-league David Lynch nightmare—with marginal results.

The Oregonian opens on a girl (Lindsay Pulsipher, from True Blood; think Reese Witherspoon’s disturbed kid sister) driving away from a farm (and a drunk abusive father figure). This is followed by a a vague car accident in which “the Oregonian” (Pulsipher, I guess) smashes a couple of unlucky picnickers into pickle relish.

When she regains her senses (if in fact, she ever does), the titular damsel finds herself lost in a weirdly malign universe that bears a striking resemblance to David Lynch’s subconscious.

Looking for help, and finding nothing of the sort, the girl meets a menacing witch (more of a ticked-off art teacher, really); a guy in a truck who doesn’t speak (much) but gives her a ride, and then collapses after taking a long, multicolored leak; and a tall guy in a green fuzzy monster suit who seems to represent some part of her life that she’s trying to repress.

Again, it’s Lynch, Lynch, Lynch. The soundtrack is crammed with shrieks, radio static, buzzers, voices, and other annoying artsy distractions. The lonely, rural, rainy sets could be Twin Peaks B-roll, even down to a shot of the girl walking across the same railroad bridge that poor Ronette Pulaski wandered over, lo those many years ago.

Reeder gets a few points for being a dexterous (though derivative) visual stylist, but his fevered homage is more endurance test than entertainment.

I could hack films like The Oregonian back when I was young and my head was still supple; now I just want my 90 minutes back.