Watcher (2022)

Holy Hitchcock, Batman!

From its Read Window voyeurism to Julia’s (Maika Monroe) resemblance to classic Hitchcock blonde Tippi Hedren, Watcher is a first-rate homage to the 20th century’s finest suspense filmmaker.

Best of all, it’s exquisitely crafted by writer-director Chloe Okuno, who orchestrates grinding fear and dread for a serial killer’s potential victim, a woman who knows too much in a country where she doesn’t speak the language.

Julia and her husband Francis (Karl Glusman) have just moved to Bucharest for his work. Julia, a one-time actress, is left to entertain herself in their new apartment for long periods of time while Francis wheels and deals.

Right off the bat, Julia is unnerved by a silhouette in a window across the street, a figure that seems to be fixated in her direction. In what becomes a pattern, she tries to tell Francis about the suspicious person, only to have hubby minimize her fears.

Meanwhile, women alone in their apartments are turning up headless. Yeah, thanks for your concern, Francis! Probably nothing to worry about.

There isn’t an ounce of flab on Watcher. Dialogue is minimal. Each frame is a precision brick in a wall of menace that threatens to fall on Julia at any moment. Precarious angles of endless invention are used to create a perpetual male gaze on Julia, a person seen, but not heard, due to a language (and gender) barrier.

Maika Monroe (It Follows, The Guest) continues to bloom, transcending the genre’s Final Girl status and emerging as a reluctant action hero, correctly channeling frustration and rage into not only self-preservation, but victory.

Make no mistake: in the hands of a lesser actress this film would not have achieved such thrilling peaks. As the unwilling object of a madman’s desire, Monroe is charismatic, capable, and committed to each character moment, as only someone fighting for their life can be.

Julia’s determination to find her tormentor and destroy her victimhood provides serious octane in Watcher, a sleek thriller that both embraces the Hitchcock tradition, and flips the camera back onto the audience (and Hitchcock), as if to ask, “What are you looking at?”

Definitely a Top Ten film of 2022. See it straight away.

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Alone in the Dark (1982)

Wow, two Oscar winners in one low-budget, 40-year-old slasher!

Jack Palance and Martin Landau are half a quartet of escaped lunatics paying a surprise visit to their new mental health practitioner in Alone in the Dark, a New Line Cinema oddity from writer-director Jack Sholder (The Hidden, A Nightmare on Elm Street 2).

Palance is underutilized as Frank Hawkes, a paranoid schizophrenic, but Landau chews the scenery like a great herbivorous swamp dinosaur as Byron Sutcliffe, a pyromaniac pastor with a permanently deranged countenance.

With the arrival of Doctor Dan Potter (Dwight Schultz, from The A-Team), the new shrink at the Haven Mental Hospital, Hawkes takes it into his head that Potter must have murdered their former doctor, and that he will soon kill all of them.

Donald Pleasance does the heavy lifting as stoner psychiatrist Leo Bain, the director of Haven Hospital. Bain’s ludicrous touchy-feely therapy encourages the patients to truly explore their various psychotic “trips.”

“Preacher likes to set fire to churches, that’s his trip. Unfortunately he does it when there are people inside,” Hawkes explains to Potter.

Along with monstrous pedophile Ronald “Fatty” Elster (Erland van Lidth, The Wanderers) and a vicious (but shy) maniac nicknamed “The Bleeder” (Phillip Clark), Hawkes and Preacher escape captivity during a power blackout caused by theatrical punk band The Sick Fucks, who are playing at a nearby bar.

Could happen.

The showdown, the siege of Dr. Potter’s house, ain’t exactly Straw Dogs, but Pleasance does his zany best confronting his runaway loonies with platitudes and mumbo jumbo.

Taken as a whole, Alone in the Dark isn’t a very good movie. It’s light on gore, characters appear and disappear randomly, and at least one subplot, involving Dr. Potter’s wife and sister going to a Nuclear Power protest, stretches credulity beyond all known limits.

Somehow, through the awkward combination of dormant star power, budget-constraint innovation, and tongue-in-cheek pseudoscience, it remains a kooky curio worthy of attention even 40 years later.

When Potter tells Bain that the escapees are armed and have killed several people, the latter shrugs, “Well, what do you expect? It’s a violent world out there.”

Right you are, doc.

The Cursed (2021)

Lovely to look at but largely bereft of beast, The Cursed, written and directed by Sean Ellis, can’t decide if it’s a werewolf movie or a period piece homage to The Thing.

In true egalitarian fashion, we get a smattering of each, leaving both camps less than satisfied.

Seamus Laurent (Alistair Petrie) is a 19th-century French landowner with a passel of problems. While slaughtering a band of gypsies who’ve taken up residence on his property, Laurent gets a horrible hex placed on him by a dying witch, who doesn’t appreciate being buried alive.

The local children immediately start having bad dreams about an evil mouth of silver teeth, supposedly constructed from the 30 pieces of silver that Judas was paid to betray Jesus.

Kids being kids, they find the enchanted teeth, start horsing around with them, and Edward (Max Mackintosh), Laurent’s son, gets bitten. Soon after, mutilated bodies begin turning up, and a visiting pathologist (Boyd Holbrook) is called in to investigate.

The Cursed is sturdily constructed and painterly pretty, but Ellis uses such a muted color palette, his framing dexterity often gets overlooked. Each set is either engulfed in fog or we get buckets of brown mud and green turf, so as to appear especially dreary. Visual monotony ensues.

And then there’s his cavalier attitude toward lycanthropy. Surviving victims of Edward’s rampage transform with tendrils emerging from their backside. Tendrils? Where did they come from? Is this Lon Chaney or Lovecraft?

Furthermore, the werewolf CGI isn’t anything special when it finally appears. Rick Baker’s seven Oscars are not in danger of being eclipsed by this bunch.

Even so, The Cursed isn’t a terrible movie, but it’s slow, overly talky, and there are way too many scenes of people waking up from nightmares. Turns out the dreams are the scariest part, unfortunately.

Editor’s Note: This is the second disappointing werewolf movie I’ve seen with this title. The 2004 Wes Craven-Kevin Williamson feature with Christina Ricci is also a dud.

Brides of Dracula (1960)

“Count Dracula, monarch of all vampires, is dead, but his disciples live on, to spread the cult and corrupt the world.”

Like the gloomy narrator indicates in his ominous introduction to Brides of Dracula, the marquee bloodsucker, played by Christopher Lee, managed to get himself skewered in a previous Hammer Films production, so this time around we get Baron Meinster (the dashing David Peel), certainly one of the first examples of vampire as pop star.

When Meinster materializes at the Transylvania Academy of Proper Young Ladies to visit Marianne (Yvonne Monlaur), the pretty new French teacher, the gathered gals go gaga over the dapper blonde Baron.

Check out the image above used to promote the film. It looks Heathcliff and Catherine off to a make-out sesh on the moors.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

By this point in the movie, Marianne has already freed Meinster from captivity by his daffy dowager mother the Baroness Meinster (Martita Hunt), who for years has kept vigil over her evil offspring, aided by Greta (Freda Jackson), her equally loony servant.

Earlier, the Baroness discovers Marianne stuck at the local pub, abandoned by her cowardly coachman (Michael Ripper). Lonely for educated company, the increasingly unstable noblewoman invites Marianne up to her castle, to sleep in one of her many guest bedrooms.

From her window, Marianne spies the young Baron wandering on his own balcony below. Throwing common sense to the wind, she instantly believes the beautiful man has been wrongfully incarcerated and helps him to escape.

Nice going, Marianne!

The newly liberated nosferatu is soon feasting on the hottest peasant woman in the village (Marie Deveraux), as well as Marianne’s jealous roommate Gina (Andree Melly).

Greta, once his captor, has decided to help out Meinster by digging up the dead girls and making them more presentable for their master.

Now that’s what I call Goth!

True, there is no Dracula on hand, but we do get Doctor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) the Hall of Fame vampire slayer, operating at the top of his game. Cushing is typically excellent and erudite as the dedicated undead destroyer, who has a couple gnarly brawls with the new count on the block.

After getting a bite from Meinster, Van Helsing demonstrates uncanny resourcefulness, by treating his unholy hickey with a hot branding iron and some H20 blessed by the local priest.

Despite the absence of the iconic Christopher Lee, Brides of Dracula gallops along at a brisk clip, with impending danger reliably signaled by Malcolm Williamson’s anxious orchestration, that during moments of high drama seems on the verge of complete nervous collapse.

The veteran supporting cast is spot on. Freda Jackson is a howling mad domestic that nonetheless adapts to new duties with surprising confidence. And the enchanting Andree Melly glowingly epitomizes the movie’s tagline: “He turned innocent beauty into unspeakable horror!”

Even minor characters, like Dr. Tobler (Miles Malleson), the dipsomaniac local sawbones, are given sufficient space by director Terence Fisher to have small comic interludes that prove successful more often than not.

Speaking of comic interludes, there is some lame-ass bat puppetry happening here that wshould also inspire a few laughs. That should not deter anyone in the slightest.

Brides of Dracula is Hammer horror at its hottest, featuring a plethora of glaring bloodshot eyes, heaving bosoms, and a fair amount of fang action.

Required viewing in my estimation. See what all the fuss is about.

Men (2022)

These days, it’s almost impossible for anyone suffering a traumatic loss to be allowed the time and space to heal properly.

Harper Marlowe (Jessie Buckley) has just lost her husband to suicide, so she drives off into the timeless wonder of the English countryside to recharge her emotional batteries.

Unfortunately, her rural B&B is situated smack-dab in the middle of a metaphoric battlefield where she must face down unwanted masculine attention, principally in the form of Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear) her temporary landlord.

All of the men in the nearby village are hostile to Harper, including a priest who asks her if she’s figured out what sin she committed to cause her husband to kill himself.

And then there’s a naked wild man that lives in an abandoned train tunnel who awakens at the sound of Harper singing and begins to pursue her relentlessly, enchanted by her “siren” song.

Writer and director Alex Garland (Annihilation) continually jabs the audience with a stick, asking us to consider uncomfortable ideas, such as, “Should both partners in a bad relationship go down with the ship?”

Men is a typically prickly A24 Production, depicting a society inhabited by a single man (demon?) who comes in many different shapes, and sits in judgment of Harper, a modern woman that ought to be ashamed that her husband James (Papaa Essiedue) jumped out a window.

That suicidal act appears to function as a blood sacrifice, summoning the Avenging Man Spirit (Kinnear, who is brilliant) to punish his wife’s transgressions—namely wanting her own life apart from a dangerously unstable partner.

The finale of Men is a queasily edited body horror freak out that will probably freak you out. After that, you can start unpacking all the subtext. Take your time: there’s plenty of meat on this bone, and I highly recommend savoring each bite.

Day Shift (2022)

“This is like the third movie we’ve seen where vampires are also realtors,” Kaja observes.

“It’s an easy metaphor,” I admit.

Day Shift is set in sunny Los Angeles, as hard-working vampire hunter Bud Jablonski (Jamie Foxx) tries to earn a living snuffing out the undead and selling their teeth to oily pawnshop owner Troy (Peter Stormare).

There is a vampire hunter union, and Bud could make more money if he was a member. Alas, he’s been kicked out for not following the rules.

And wouldn’t you know it? He’s got a week to put together $10,000 for his daughter’s school tuition and braces, and his soon-to-be ex-wife wants to sell their house.

This situation provides the comic fulcrum and prompts Bud’s return to the union, where he is assigned a by-the-book partner named Seth, played by Dave Franco as a Rick Moranis-style retro nerd.

The villain in Day Shift is Audrey San Fernando (Karla Souza), an ambitious land baron who’s trying to buy up the valley she’s named after. She’s got a score to settle with Bud, who recently beheaded Audrey’s daughter during a house call.

Heck, let’s throw in Snoop Dogg dressed in full-on cowboy gear as Big John Elliott, a legendary slayer with a Clint Eastwood vibe.

Day Shift, directed by J.J. Perry and written by Tyler Tice and Shane Hatten, provides zippy spectacle with state-of-the-art vampire slaying methods (garlic grenades, silver beheading wire, wooden bullets), and the action is tightly choreographed and brutally executed.

The scene in which Bud teams up with the Nazarian Brothers, a pair of Eastern European tough boys, to clean out a nest of vampires is a real adrenaline popper. Martial arts, flying body parts, and tech toys make for successful stimulation.

Unfortunately, when the rumbles subside, we’re not left with much to occupy our attention.

It’s a minor complaint, but Bud’s family is about as one-dimensional as it gets. The sassy daughter (Zion Broadnax) and endlessly complaining wife (Meagan Goode) are standard plug and play characters.

There are loose ends left dangling all over the place, including a sunscreen that allows vampires to run around in the daylight for a short time. A significant discovery in Nosferatu society, but here it barely rates a mention.

And what’s up with Jamie Foxx’s name? When was the last time you met an African-American dude named Bud Jablonski?

If you’re inclined to forgive a few half-assed details, Day Shift delivers decent bang for the buck, but you’re not missing anything special.

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.

Lantern’s Lane (2021)

True Confession. Role Playing Games once represented a huge part of my social life. Many’s the night we cast our dice to the wind playing Dungeons & Dragons, rolling up characters for some catastrophic quest or other, fortified by cheap beer and weak weed (and vice versa).

On the not-too-rare occasions when nobody really had their shit together enough to have an original adventure prepared, we relied on modules, or ready-made dungeons, that any half-bright game master could purchase at the local Nerd Boutique.

Lantern’s Lane, written and directed by Southern California filmmaker Justin LaReau, is a horror movie module. It’s a bare-bones slasher that hovers around the minimum requirement level in every department.

Nutshell: Homecoming Queen and all-around It Girl, Layla (Brooke Butler), returns to her hick hometown after graduating from college. She drops by the seedy saloon and reconnects with high-school chums Missy (Ashley Doris), a hottie waitress, Shana (Sydney Carvill), a former fat girl, and Jason (Andy Cohen, think Xander from Buffy The Vampire Slayer), the eunuch comic relief.

After a few shots of White Lightning, the onetime classmates drive out to Lantern’s Lane, a local hotspot for Urban Legends and paranormal activity, hoping to get a glimpse of the Old Lady with the Lantern, a tragic spook eternally searching for her dead hubby.

Instead, Layla and her mates end up stranded in an unfinished house, penned in by a knife-wielding psycho wearing a bug-eyed sack.

How basic can you get?

Sadly, most of the running time is devoted to devising escape plans that don’t work, and discussing how Layla is a bad friend for leaving their Podunk town and making a life for herself in the Big City.

By the time the maniac shows up, the characters have rehashed their petty grievances to the point that we’re hoping they get carved up like Christmas hams. No such luck, the body count is dismal and we get only trace amounts of viscera.

On top of all that, LaReau can’t write dialogue to save his life, seldom rising above “Let’s get out of here,” “I can’t do it,” and other throwaway panic phrases that come with the game setup.

The recurring problem with Lantern’s Lane is its lack of any distinctive characteristics. It isn’t scary, funny, bloody, sexy, or even atmospheric.

More like Lantern’s Lame, if you ask me.

Editor’s Note: Find additional content at facebook.com/horrificflicks

A Lonely Place To Die (2011)

It’s really more of a thriller than a horror movie, but there’s no mistaking the blinding terror faced by the principals in A Lonely Place To Die, written and directed by British filmmaker Julian Gilbey.

Five friends meet up for a weekend of rock climbing in the Scottish Highlands. While negotiating some tricky cliff business, they stumble upon Anna (Holly Boyd), a kidnapped Serbian girl who’s been buried alive in a small chamber.

Rob (Alec Newman) and Alison (Melissa George), the group’s best climbers, take off to fetch help, leaving Ed (Ed Speelers), Alex (Garry Sweeney), and Jenny (Kate Magowan) to mind the child.

Nearby, Mr. Kidd (Sean Harris) and Mr. McRae (Stephen McCole), the ruthless criminals responsible for the abduction, start killing everyone they meet, working their way through a couple of hapless poachers before cutting Rob’s rope as he dangles off a precipice known as “Devil’s Drop.”

Then they break out rifles and set their sites on the rest of the party.

Julian Gilbey does an excellent job of distributing his threats in A Lonely Place To Die. We get vertiginous mountain-climbing spectacle, causing characters to stop and muse how long it would take them to reach the ground after falling.

Anna’s burial in such a remote area is an indication that the villains are cold and cruel, not even bothering to check on the little girl’s scant water supply while she’s in the ground.

Indeed, this turns out to be the case, as Kidd plays the quiet sociopath to McRae’s raging and reckless killer.

The finale takes place in a small Scottish village during a riotous Beltane festival, the perfect cover for a violent skirmish between desperate foes. Gilbey deftly orchestrates the havoc, switching point of view from hunters to hunted, to different hunters hunting the hunters.

Sorry, there’s nothing supernatural going on in A Lonely Place To Die, but the pace, pursuit, and payoff are so far up our alley, we’re going to make room.

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.