Seance (2021)

When you’re the new kid in school, it helps to be adopted by the popular clique, even if they’re into necromancy. Go along to get along, you know?

Seance is set at Edelvine Academy for Girls, a prestigious private learning institution with a recent opening, thanks to a student hopping out the window during a paranormal prank.

Editor’s Note: When are we going to outlaw pranks? Nothing good ever comes from pranks and people get hurt, disfigured, and killed all the damn time.

New student Camille Meadows (Suki Waterhouse) moves into the recently vacated room and gets picked on by the same Mean Girls who drove the previous occupant to jump.

Camille and the Mean Girls all end up in detention together, where an alliance of sorts is formed, and a seance is convened to see if any ghosts want to communicate.

Surprise! They do!

Featuring both a ghost and masked psychos bearing cutlery, Seance is smartly written and full of gradually revealed plot twists that take sinister shape under the guidance of writer-director Simon Barrett (You’re Next, Dead Birds).

There aren’t buckets of blood, but there’s a body count and a few memorable kills, including Bethany’s (Madisen Beaty) fluorescent tube tracheotomy.

It’s also a movie about duty and the bonds of friendship that run deeper than the need for acceptance within a group of nasty bitches.

Recommended! Start the new year off right.

Iron Sky (2012)

Nazis from the moon plan a planetary invasion in the Finnish production of Iron Sky. Directed by Timo Vuorensola, it’s an irreverent, low-budget space opera filmed in the same retro style as Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, that harkens back to cheesy old sci-fi serials like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers.

In an attempt to boost her flagging popularity, the President (Stephanie Paul, who looks and talks like Sarah Palin) sends James Washington (Christopher Kirby), an African-American model to the moon, where he’s captured by low-tech Nazis, who’ve been hiding out on the dark side since their defeat at the hands of the Axis Powers in 1945.

A foxy sympathetic Nazi scientist (Julia Dietze) takes a liking to Washington and gives him an Aryan makeover so that he can accompany her uber-ambitious fiance, Klaus Adler (Gotz Otto), on a scouting mission to Earth.

Adler wants nothing less than to be the new furhrer, resting control from sickly Wolfgang Kortzfleisch (Udo Kier), and perhaps, with the help of some wild analog technology, rule the galaxy.

Director Vuorensola and screenwriter Michael Kalesniko wisely chose to embrace their budget limitations, rather than hide them, and created a highly stylized model universe that almost glows with soft-focus close ups of heroes and villains, playing out against a hulking backdrop of obsolete machinery.

It’s also funny as hell, with a pinch of Dr. Strangelove satire, as when the president yells at members of the U.N. for having secret space programs of their own.

When they protest that she also broke her word, she says matter-of-factly, “We always break ours. That’s just what we do.”

Apparently, there is a sequel to Iron Sky released in 2019 titled Iron Sky: The Coming Race, with many of the same principals attached.

I will be watching the skies.

What Keeps You Alive (2018)

Talk about a relationship with serious obstacles.

Jules (Brittany Allen) and Jackie (Hannah Anderson) are a married gay couple who go off for a romantic weekend to a well-appointed house in rural Canada that belongs to Jackie’s family.

In horror movies, romantic weekends are second only to make-out pot parties as an invitation to trauma. What Keeps You Alive is no exception.

What’s different here is the source of the threat. Soon after their arrival, the couple is visited by Sarah (Martha MacIsaac), a local who recognizes Jackie, but calls her by the name “Megan.”

The next morning Jackie tries to murder Jules by pushing her off a cliff. This unexpected development caused my friend Kaja to remark, “I guess she fell for the wrong girl.”

Jules does not die in the fall, so Jackie begins tracking her, shouting conciliatory messages about how sorry she is, and that she wants to take Jules home.

The single scariest moment in What Keeps You Alive is when Jules, hiding behind a tree from Jackie, sees her wife’s flat emotionless face while she’s yelling endearments.

Presently, Jackie gets tired of playing the concerned mate and informs the unseen Jules that she knows the woods like the back of her hand and escape is impossible.

The sexual dynamic between the two lovers hovers over the carnage, occasionally referenced in flashback, as writer-director Colin Minihan explores the depths of betrayal that Jackie has orchestrated.

There’s plenty of nail-biting action, including a riveting rowboat chase across the lake, that will keep your hand close to the panic button.

Minihan alternates between closeups of injured and frightened Jules running through the house, and long establishing shots of the unforgiving terrain, effectively adding weight to the already considerable tension.

There are enough twists and reversals to keep even the most astute thriller fan off balance, and both Allen and Anderson bring everything they have to their respective roles.

We’re predisposed to root for Jules, who proves tougher than she looks, but Jackie’s unfolding madness is spellbinding. She shifts and sheds personalities seemingly at will to keep Jules on the defensive. Whether she’s cajoling, cursing, or crying it’s impossible to get an accurate read on Jackie.

Mercenary? Maniac? Misunderstood?

At one point, Jules demands an answer. “What happened to you? Was it your father? Did he do something to you?” she asks.

“It was nature, not nurture,” Jackie answers deadpan.

Definitely worth your time.

Last Shift (2014)

It’s been firmly established in horror that a police station is no longer a safe space. Assault on Precinct 13, The Terminator, and Jeepers Creepers are just a few examples of cop shops under siege, and now we can add Last Shift to the list.

Rookie policewoman Jess Loren (Juliana Harkavy) is assigned closing night desk duty at a soon-to-be-shuttered precinct house. Her mission is to wait for a Hazmat team to show up and cart off some hazardous waste material that ended up as evidence.

While awaiting the arrival of the cleanup crew, Loren is visited by a homeless man who pees on her floor, a gabby hooker, and the ghost of an officer who died alongside her father (also a cop) when they apprehended John Michael Payman (Joshua Mikel), a Manson-ish cult leader exactly one year before.

Whew! That’s a helluva lot of backstory for one shift!

Payman and two of his rabid followers hung themselves at this very station and apparently their very evil sprits are still bedeviling the premises, moving things around, flicking the lights, and changing the TV to Payman Per View.

Does Officer Loren have the right stuff to keep the ghosts at bay and finish her shift? All I can say is perhaps she should have listened to her guidance counselor and gone to veterinary school.

Last Shift has a skinny budget, but director-writer Anthony DiBlasi stuffs gruesome thrills and shocks into his plot like a cheapskate packing for a long trip.

Harkavy emotes convincingly as the protagonist who’s having a really bad day at work, melting down in fairly realistic fashion as the nasty ghosts finally get a foothold in her head.

The ending is decidedly downbeat, but the action is brisk and unpredictable, and at times, genuinely frightening. Recommended.

False Positive (2021)

Thinking of starting a family? Maybe give this one a miss if you’re on the fence. False Positive is possibly the cringiest horror movie about childbirth since David Cronenberg’s The Brood.

Writer-director John Lee and writer-actress Ilana Glazer (no romantic comedy debut for this Broad City veteran) have delivered a bouncing bloody shocker about an expectant mother who becomes highly suspicious of both her baby doctor and her baby daddy.

Advertising exec Lucy (Glazer) and surgeon Adrian (Justin Theroux) are an affluent New York couple unable to conceive their own bundle of joy.

As luck would have it, Adrian’s old friend and mentor Dr. John Hindle (Pierce Brosnan, in a deviously dark comic role) is one of the best fertility doctors on the planet! Lucy soon finds herself cooling her heels in the stirrups at Hindle’s posh clinic.

“It’s the one thing as a woman I’m supposed to be able to do,” Lucy complains. “And I can’t do it.”

From this seed of insecurity comes a forest of paranoia.

After a few uncomfortable treatments Lucy successfully gets a bun in the oven, as well as a case of cold feet. She just can’t shake the feeling that people are conspiring against her, particularly Adrian and Hindle, who seem to have their own scientific agenda for the little nipper(s).

Lucy’s concerns are dismissed with buckets of condescension by everyone, who blame the effects of Mommy Brain, a catch-all for the doubts and dark thoughts that come with the arrival of the stork.

When she’s given the choice between birthing twin sons or a single girl, Lucy opts for the latter. Adrian and Hindle openly express hostility with her decision.

By this point, it’s Mom Vs The World, and Lucy is no shrinking violet. Her attempts to gain control of her “birth story” by consulting an African midwife (Zainab Jah) are disastrous, however. The viewer is left to sort out Lucy’s eventual freakout and rampage, and whether or not her women’s intuition has any grounds in reality.

The short answer? Both are possible and plausible. The long answer? Buckle up, Buttercup. Even when she transforms into an avenging fury, our sympathies remain firmly in Lucy’s corner as she lashes out at the sinister men in her life.

Ilana Glazer is a dramatic bulldozer (and rather frightening) as a furious mom driven to extreme measures to keep her body and her baby beyond the reach of the patriarchy.

You’ve come a long way, Rosemary’s Baby.

V.F.W. (2019)

At first glance, VFW plays out like an ol’ time blood bath, somewhere along the lines of John Carpenter’s Assault On Precinct 13, as waves of drug addicts storm a little bar defended by a determined band of geezers.

Carpenter-esque synthesizer stabs punctuate the carnage and gang members are decked-out in faux-leather bodywear, as if they’d just returned from a Spandau Ballet video shoot.

The uber-violent skirmish gets rolling when street urchin Lizard (Sierra McCormick) rips off Boz (Travis Hammer), a theatrical drug-dealing psychopath, and seeks shelter at a local watering hole inhabited by combat veteran ass-kickers itching for a little action.

Boz and his ruthless bodyguard Gutter (Dora Madison) inflict some damage, but ultimately they underestimate the tenacity and loyalty of these ancient warriors, resulting in an explosive comeuppance.

The action is nonstop, the blood is plentiful and stylishly rendered. You need further recommendation? VFW is a Fangoria production, so don’t expect a whole lot of dialogue.

Even so, somewhere during the third act, Fred the bartender (Stephen Lang) yells “Come on, you lazy bastard!” at his old foxhole buddy Walter (William Sadler), who responds, “I’m coming, dammit!”

Not a super noticeable moment unless you’re a fan of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, but it demonstrates that director Joe Begos (Almost Human) and writers Max Brallios and Matthew McArdle know and respect their antecedents when it comes to movies about hopelessly outnumbered men fighting for a cause.

In addition to Lang and Sadler, the pedigreed supporting cast includes Martin Kove (The Karate Kid), Fred “The Hammer” Williamson (From Dusk Till Dawn), George Wendt (Cheers), and David Patrick Kelly (Twin Peaks, Commando), all of whom have swell screentime dismembering, impaling, and perforating platoons of savage tweakers.

Kelly, who distinguished himself as the evilest gang member ever in Walter Hill’s classic The Warriors, is particularly poignant as an old stoner on his last legs who chooses to die with his boots on.

Peckinpah would be proud of this bunch. Carpenter too, probably.

Psycho Goreman (2020)

Originally published in Mystery and Suspense, May 22, 2021

Surely there is a universe where Psycho Goreman would be considered family friendly entertainment. 

You know, like E.T.? Maybe? Sorta?

The latest spectacle by Canadian makeup artist-turned-filmmaker Steven Kostanski, (see also 2016’s cosmic-horror blood bath The Void), Psycho Goreman is indeed the story of a family, but they’re not very friendly.

More like a Dysfunctional Family Circus, as conceived by Spielberg in a rare subversive mood. 

Let’s start with Dad. Greg (Adam Brooks) is one of the worst fathers ever committed to celluloid. A lazy, resentful nitwit, he’s married to Susan (Alexis Kara Hancey), the primary breadwinner, who does her best to keep the clan operational. 

Daughter Mimi (Nita-Josee Hanna) is a hotheaded Narcissist, and calls all the shots in this house. Her long-suffering brother Luke (Owen Myre) is an occasional co-conspirator, but more often than not, an easily bullied opponent.

The balance of power is further tipped in Mimi’s favor when Luke finds an ancient amulet that contains a monstrous alien warlord (Matthew Ninaber), imprisoned several millennia beforehand for trying to conquer the galaxy. 

Luke discovers the artifact while digging his own grave. Mimi reminds him that he lost their most recent game of Crazy Ball, so he gets buried alive. 

Side Note: Crazy Ball is an unfathomable form of dodge ball that is the most sacred game in Mimi and Luke’s world, as well as their primary activity. And rules are rules. 

Since she won at Crazy Ball (she always does), Mimi takes ownership of the talisman and thus controls the most powerful being in existence.

“Do you have a name, monster man?” Mimi asks the towering gargoyle.  

My enemies sometimes refer to me as the archduke of nightmares,” the giant says, in a basso profundo arch-villain voice. 

“Well, that sucks.” Mia replies unfazed. “Never mind, we can workshop this.” The kids subsequently dub him Psycho Goreman (or PG), after watching him dismember a street gang. 

Psycho Goreman writer-director Kostanski artfully creates hilarious rubberized havoc in the style of Japan’s Tokosatsu movement—better known as Campy Superhero Versus Monster TV Shows (e.g., UltramanMighty Morphin Power Rangers)—that dates all the way back to the middle 20th century. 

And much like the juvenile delinquents over at Troma Entertainment (Toxic Avenger etc.), Kostanski loves blood, guts, and sick monster suits. Yet somehow the action here never degenerates into mere schlock, and we find ourselves rooting for a vicious villain against the forces that come his way. 

As PG faces off against a barrage of interstellar assassins and vengeful demigods that want him out of the picture, we see an evil soulless creature learn just a little bit about love and human compassion. This observation applies principally to Mimi, but also to PG, who comes to appreciate terrestrial pleasures like magazines, hunky boys, and television from his prepubescent captors. 

Slick fight choreography, brilliant character designs, and outrageous dialogue keep our higher senses engaged, while our lizard brains wallow in vivid onscreen pandemonium.  

Sprinkled into all the frenetic mayhem is a sneaky anti-moralist message, one that’s the exact opposite of heroic, as Mimi decides that all the responsibility and power is kind of a pain. 

Eventually, she gives PG his freedom so he can continue his mission to destroy the universe. 

Except for the part Mimi and her family live in. So heartwarming. So wrong. 

Hunter Hunter (2020)

Originally published in Mystery and Suspense, April 25, 2021

A backwoods survivalist pursues a rogue wolf that threatens his family—and finds something infinitely worse, in Shawn Linden’s Hunter Hunter

Somewhere in the wilds of Manitoba, Joseph Mersault (Devon Sawa), his wife Anne (Camille Sullivan), and daughter Renee (Summer Howell), grind out a primitive existence by trapping critters and selling their pelts. 

While this lifestyle is ideal for Joseph, a laconic hunter and woodsman, Anne is tired of hauling furs to the store to bargain for food, and communicating with her husband via Walkie Talkie. Most of all, she wants Renee to go to school and have real friends.

Joseph has been arduously training his daughter to be self-reliant in nature, so Anne’s pitch for a return to civilization doesn’t mesh with his mission. 

“We don’t run from our problems,” he reminds her. 

“You’re scared of people,” she counters.

“This is our home,” Joseph declares. “And nothing pushes us out of our home.”

Future plans are put on hold when Joseph finds carcass evidence of a vicious wolf stealing from their trap lines. As expected, Joseph, the seasoned hunter, disappears into the forest primeval to track the animal and kill it. A solid plan except for one detail: He doesn’t return. 

“Joseph, are you there?” Anne despondently asks her Walkie Talkie, as hours turn into days.

In his absence, Anne nervously tries to put food on the table, relying on Renee’s advice on skinning a fawn for their evening meal. Eventually, Anne hears someone calling for help in the darkness. Instead of the long-missing Joseph, she comes upon Lou (Nick Stahl), a badly injured stranger. Anne loads Lou onto her sled, brings him back to the cabin, and nurses his wounds. 

Renee doesn’t see the point. “He’s a stranger. Dad says we’re not supposed to trust strangers.”

“We’re helping him because that’s what you do when you find someone who needs help,” her mother explains.

But where’s Joseph? And who is Lou?

Writer-director Shawn Linden brings the great outdoors down around the viewer like a shroud. He employs his camera as a stealthy tracker shadowing Joseph, Anne, and Renee through the woods blurring the line between stalker and quarry.

Linden is unsentimental and straight forward in his depiction of frontier living, which includes knowing the correct way to skin and dress prey, so that it won’t ruin the food that’s necessary for survival. 

Anne is not as skilled as her husband and daughter, but she understands necessity.

Hunter Hunter maintains a heady tension for the duration of the film, which builds to a shockingly bloody conclusion. Anne’s final confrontation with the dangerous predator is not as a hunter, but a terrible avenger, and it will leave a mark on your psyche. 

Phantom of the Paradise (1974)

One of the great overlooked rock ‘n’ roll movies of the ages, Phantom of the Paradise has heart, soul, and everything else going for it. If you’ve not had the pleasure, you should rectify that situation.

Written and directed by Brian DePalma, with a score by star Paul Williams, it’s a fabulous ’70s freakout on The Phantom of the Opera, with sensational songs, staging, and costumes that positively revel in the pageantry of those high, hedonistic times.

Williams plays Swan, a seemingly ageless music industry Svengali who needs a new sound to open his ultimate rock palace, The Paradise.

At a show featuring one of his bands, Swan happens to catch the opening act, a nobody singer-songwriter named Winslow Leach (William Finley). Swan sends his agent, Philbin (George Memmoli), to bamboozle the hapless composer out of his entire song catalogue—and set him up to take a fall for dealing heroin, just for good measure.

Sentenced to life in Sing Sing Prison, Leach vows revenge against Swan, manages to escape, and becomes hideously disfigured in a record press accident while destroying Swan’s property.

Now a scarred mute monster, Leach returns to The Paradise, steals a really awesome costume and begins his life as the Phantom, orchestrating a terror campaign against Swan, who is busy trying to arrange Leach’s rock opera to be performed by Beef (Gerritt Graham, who steals the show), a Frank N. Furter-esque Glamazon.

Swan tracks down the Phantom/Leach and puts him under contract to write songs for Phoenix (Jessica Harper), a beautiful backup singer that’s captured his fancy.

The innocent and naive Phoenix is being groomed for success, but Leach doesn’t trust Swan and tries his best to protect her from the malevolent mogul’s diabolical reach.

Brian DePalma (The Untouchables, Dressed To Kill, Body Double) is at the height of his considerable cinematic powers, utilizing snappy split-screen and multi-screen perspectives to keep tabs on several characters at once.

This camera tactic becomes increasingly important as we approach the finale, a gloriously staged wedding extravaganza that culminates with a live assassination on the air.

I could go on for days about the variety of catchy tunes (“Upholstery/Where my baby sits up close to me/That’s supposed to be what life is all about!”), Williams’s masterful turn as Swan, and all the jaundiced observations about show business that still hold true today.

However, I would rather not deprive you of your own dive into this terrific time capsule. The 1970s ruled. Here’s the evidence.

Scare Me (2020)

Originally published in Mystery and Suspense, January 28, 2021

In Scare Me, two writers stay up all night in a Catskills cabin during a thunderstorm, telling frightening stories by firelight. Unexpectedly, it proves to be an instructive, positive experience until one of them turns out to be too fragile for personal growth.

Fanny Addie (Aya Cash) is a successful horror novelist with a bestseller in the charts. Fred Banks (writer-director Josh Ruben) is an advertising copywriter with a vague sense of entitlement and zero credits.

During a power outage, the two are thrown together and neophyte writer Fred probes the famous author for anything he can use. His questions about her current project cause Fanny to assume a defensive posture. 

“I never discuss my ideas. Some people steal, especially desperate white dudes like you,” she tells him. This observation takes place while she’s showing him how to build a fire in a dark cabin in the woods.

Yes, this is a horror movie of our times, and white men are called out for making things generally shittier through their mulish obstinacy. Over the course of one enchanted evening in a single location, Fanny challenges wannabe author Fred to put up, or shut up in a storytelling showdown.

“Come on Fred, it’s story time,” she coaxes. “No judgies.”

To his credit, Fred soon learns that he’s out of his league, as Fanny dissects his lame attempts at a narrative about a werewolf, calling it “trodden.”

“Details!” she howls at Fred during his painfully amateurish recital, followed by a barrage of suggestions: Use your space, show me the shakes, how come the kid’s mom knows how to handle a gun so well?

Fanny schools the dilettante scribe and mocks his pedestrian oratorical skills, but she also forcefully demonstrates how to tell a better story, by telling him a better story, about a little girl and her creepy grandfather.

“School” is the operative word in Scare Me, and Professor Stephen King hovers like a ghost in the room. Fanny doesn’t care for King’s Silver Bullet (“childish, campy garbage”) but does agree with King’s assertion that reading other authors can improve one’s chops. (Also, a minor character looks and talks like Kathy Bates in Misery.)

After a shaky start, Fred gets the hang of it, and for a time, feels what it’s like to have his creative juices flow. At this point, Scare Me is running with a full head of steam, shifting mood and tone in cavalier fashion, which is not a characteristic that will endear the movie to linear thinkers.

It’s definitely a dark comedy, but it’s hard to tell where we’re headed.

Fred and Fanny share definite chemistry, bonding over their mutual love of horror, specifically the painful puns dispensed by TV’s Cryptkeeper. They duel, dance, and embellish each other’s tales, while Ruben, from the director’s chair, employs a deep bag of inventive camera moves to create space—and honest-to-goodness frights—on a small set. No blood, no carnage, no kidding.

Note: Spoilers ahead

There are vivid moments when the lighting, dancing shadow play, and perspective shifts are reminiscent of Jonathan Demme’s moving ingenuity with Spaulding Gray’s stories in Swimming To Cambodia.  

Sadly, the creative honeymoon comes to an end, and Fred, instead of being grateful for getting a crash course in how to tell a decent story, decides his feelings are hurt, and that his own efforts will never be any good. So he devises a cheesy, horror movie finale, because he’s jealous and can’t think of anything more original.

The final act devolves into stalker boilerplate, and Fanny wants nothing to do with it, calling Fred out for a “bullshit” ending.

“You want my life? Do the work, do the work, do the work,” she yells, but by this time Fred is committed to his own ending, and has picked up a nearby fireplace poker.

Scare Me has a lot of things going on, not all of them are successfully realized. The ending, though it makes sense, still fizzles. And there’s definitely some fat that could have been trimmed along the way. Even so, there is much to admire. It’s both entertainingly told and long on ideas, particularly the joys and terrors of storytelling. 

Aya Cash is a fast-talking dynamo as Fanny, a demanding woman who just wants to hear something scary. Filmmaker Ruben portrays a no-talent schmuck in Scare Me, but in reality he’s clearly an artist on the ascent. His character Fred would be both proud and envious.