Exists (2014)

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A found-footage entry from director Eduardo Sanchez, the guy who first cashed in on the genre with The Blair Witch Project. I thoroughly understand the financial motivation for using GoPro cameras as the primary source of footage; it’s a helluva lot cheaper than film. And let’s face it, handheld and body mounted cameras give the action a heightened sense of urgency, particularly during the inevitable flight through the forest sequence.

Unfortunately, it’s also distracting and all but challenges the viewer to account for every shot. Sorry, but there are instances in Exists when it becomes nearly impossible to convince yourself that Brian the stoner (Chris Osborn) somehow has access to more cameras than NBC. There. I said it.

The plot is pure boilerplate, as five young adults (one of whom is Dora Madison Burge from Friday Night Lights and Chicago Fire) decide to party at Brian and Matt’s (Samuel Davis) family hunting cabin in the untamed wilds of Texas. That would be the same cabin that their uncle used to live in, until something frightened him away. So yes, by all means, let’s go see if we can figure out exactly what that might be.

The answer is Bigfoot/Sasquatch, who’s enjoying a bit of a resurgence as a movie monster, apparently fully recovered from family friendly piffle like Harry and the Hendersons, that reduced him to kiddy comic relief. In Exists, he’s a vengeful critter, looking to put a hurt on the punks that ran over Little Squatch.

Sanchez opts for a more traditional (and confrontational) approach than is used by Bobcat Goldthwaite in his meditative Willow Creek, another recent Bigfoot-gone-bad film. That means there’s an actual body count here, and that we are treated to several good looks at the beast, whose makeup is well above average.

As we watch another clutch of adolescent interlopers hide and flee, there are sufficient scenes that generate an actual fright response, so I’m giving Exists a modest recommendation that should not be mistaken for overwhelming enthusiasm.

Afterthought: Does Bigfoot eat people? I think he probably should. It’s scarier that way. Who’s gonna run away from a furry herbivore?

The Houses October Built (2014)

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Call me a cockeyed optimist, but I’m the kind of meatball what thinks that life (aka, all the loud shit going on during the waking hours) is an endless learning opportunity. Simply by not having our heads snagged in our own b-holes, we can hopefully evolve into something that isn’t eaten by bobcats or swindled by kids selling magazine subscriptions. If you’re a reasonably intelligent ordinary citizen, you should be able to keep up with your personal narrative to the extent that you can see when your own shitty decision-making is making things unbearable. That is my belief.

Why is this such a struggle for the cast of horror movies and The Houses October Built specifically? Because it’s written that way. It’s our cross to bear so that we can see the trap springing merrily shut.

Armed with digital cameras, four dudes and a woman named Brandy hit the open road in a recreational vehicle looking to document America’s scariest Halloween haunts. They head south, following hideously costumed hillbillies from one trauma-inducing spook house to the next, until they end up in New Orleans. Strange and disturbing occurrences are routine along the way, including confrontations with hostile carny folk and vehicular infiltration by creeping intruders. Anyone with the common sense of a deer smelling a fire in the wind would have hightailed it to the nearest blue state, but the four dudes and Brandy push onward. Sad, really. I wonder who found the footage?

The cast is also billed as the crew. Not quite sure what’s up with that, but I would like to congratulate director Bobby Roe, because The Houses October Built is one scary-ass movie. Way more effective than The Blair Witch Project. Witches aren’t scary. People are scary. Especially in those parts of the world where it gets dark super fast and the scarecrows come to life.

See No Evil 2

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In which righteously indestructible maniac Jacob Goodnight (wrestler Glen “Kane” Jacobs) rises from the grave morgue to massacre another troop of teens late twenty somethings who can’t keep it in their pants. As you may recall from the first See No Evil, Goodnight continually feels the shame of his lustful adolescent urges, and painful memories of the puritanical punishment dished out by his psychotic mother have become his default setting. Hail the avenging prude!

As directed by the Twisted Twins, Jen and Sylvia Soska, who brilliantly helmed American Mary, See No Evil 2 is a perfectly acceptable hack and stack with an exemplary cast. The incomparable Katherine Isabelle (American Mary, Ginger Snaps) is certainly one of the most compelling actresses in the horror genre, and she brings oodles of panache to the part of Tamara, a charmingly depraved vixen victim of the rampaging Goodnight. Dependable Final Girl Danielle Harris (The Hatchet trilogy) also acquits herself nicely as morgue assistant Amy, the secret object of affection of fellow cadaver cutter Seth (Kaj-Erik Eriksen). Not that being somewhat virtuous will save anybody here from a seven foot tall, one-eyed gorilla armed with all sorts of nasty looking sharp things.

If I had to gripe about anything, it would have to be a shortage of stylistically memorable mayhem. After all, the Soska Twins are responsible for the dazzling American Mary, one of the most original and provocative horror movies of the last few years. See No Evil 2 seems a bit perfunctory in comparison, but given the nature of indie cinema these days, filmmakers with artistic inclinations are often tasked with conventional fare, in order to earn a payday that will result in something more profound and personal. I believe that to be the case here.

All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (2006)

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On the surface, All the Boys Love Mandy Lane looks like a fairly typical stalk and stab adventure. You know the drill: a passel of comely teens in a rural location begin to notice that attendance is dropping sharply. But director Jonathan Levine and writer Jacob Foreman make a number of astute moves that raise the quality level significantly.

Levine proves himself to be an able visual stylist; his lingering shots of young faces smiling in the sun give Mandy Lane an almost languid European sensibility—which enhances the impact of sudden violent interludes. Characters are a bit more evolved (and less annoying) than the usual doomed-camper stereotypes and the yearning desire that they feel for the dream girl in their midst is perfectly understandable. Finally, the absence of supernatural elements makes the ensuing murder spree grimly realistic and even more disturbing.

The titular maiden (Amber Heard) is a seemingly unattainable innocent beauty that stokes the collective fire of her lusty classmates. When the subject of Mandy Lane comes up various boys call “first dibs” as if that will help their cause. A clutch of her school chums finally prevail on Mandy to spend the weekend partying at a remote ranch owned by Red’s (Aaron Himelstein) family. The concept of summer fun is quickly quashed as a string of murders leads to a very ambiguous conclusion.

Some of the plot points are easy to figure out and some are not, but Levine uses the accelerator sparingly and lets the action play out in a naturalistic setting. True, some viewers may experience a taste of boredom here and there, but danger, in the form of a psycho in a hoodie, is never far away. Recommended.



Mr. Hush (2011)

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Nope, no sugarcoating around here. Your life will not be enhanced in any way, shape or form by watching Mr. Hush. It’s a terminally amateurish effort from writer/director David Lee Madison about a dude named Holland Price (Brad Loree, a poor man’s, I don’t know, Eric Roberts?), an unfortunate soul who opens the door to the wrong trick-or-treater. Here’s a life hack for you buddy: Don’t let a man into your house who is dressed as a priest and calling himself “Father Flanagan” (Edward X. Young) on Halloween night unless you’ve been looking forward to seeing your wife’s throat cut and your daughter abducted.

Bad luck, right? We leap 10 years into the future and Price is a dish dog at a greasy spoon with a tiny little crush on Debbie (Connie Giordano) the new waitress. She’s a widow with a teenage daughter, he’s a widower with a perpetual case of the blues, so they tentatively embark on a relationship. Oh hark! Is that a knock at the door? Before Price can say “boo” to a goose, the very same maniac reappears, looking not a day older, to carve up his new special lady. What are the odds?

Mr. Hush would be utterly unwatchable without the meaty contributions of Edward X. Young, as a charmingly hammy community theater villain who seems to be enjoying the hell out of himself, even firing off a perfectly terrible joke after he’s impaled by the shards of a Louisville Slugger. And yep, that’s Evil Ed from Fright Night, Stephen Geoffreys, as the killer’s psychotic little helper who dresses like a homeless backup dancer from Michael Jackson’s “Bad” video. Sadly, it’s not enough to compensate for the leaden pace, goofy-ass script and fatal cheapness of the production.

Black Rock (2012)

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I must admit I had some misgivings during the credits of Black Rock when I saw that it was written by Mark Duplass (Jeff Who Lives at Home, The Mindy Project, Safety Not Guaranteed) and directed by his wife Katie Aselton (The League).

I happen to be a fan of all the above, but I was worried that a movie billed as an escape-and-survive thriller about three childhood friends camping on a secluded Maine island would evolve into some kind of lightly comic, ironic commentary on the genre. As it turns out, I was in good hands all along.

Sure, a camping trip! Nothing bad ever happens on camping trips! Sarah (Kate Bosworth) is attempting to reconnect with her lifelong chums Abby (Aselton) and Lou (Lake Bell) by arranging a weekend of drinking and roughing it on Black Rock, a remote island that served as their idyllic childhood playground—which is an important plot point.

Lo and behold, the gals bump into a trio of poachers, one of whom (Will Bouvier) is a distant acquaintance from their youth. Not wishing to appear standoffish, Abby invites the hunters to share their campfire since they have “a shitload of booze.” A series of unfortunate events take place, and soon the ladies are fleeing for their lives.

Make no mistake, there are jarring scenes of naked brutality in Black Rock. But Aselton and Duplass avoid the well-trodden path to mere exploitation taken by so many in the “trespassing strangers” genre. The hunters here are not a bunch of degenerate hillbillies who want to take the women home and make ’em squeal like pigs.

The steps leading to one group in pursuit of the other are a combination of misunderstandings and bad luck, as was the case in Eden Lake, another contemporary thriller that got a rave review here.

Black Rock is fascinating, fraught with tension, and not lacking in white-knuckle moments. It also manages to be, um, uplifting thanks to the desperate heroism displayed by some very flawed characters whose survival depends on burying longstanding enmity and banding together in the face of a common enemy.


Horror High (1974)

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Oddly enough, this is NOT a prequel to Return to Horror High (1987) reviewed here a little less than a year ago. Instead, it’s a high school variation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde about a chemistry nerd that invents a potion releasing his inner maniac (who for some reason walks pigeon-toed).

While I cannot recommend Horror High (a.k.a. Twisted Brain—what’s wrong with that title?) owing to its excruciatingly laborious pace, sports fans may want to check it out to see some pro football stars (“Mean” Joe Greene, Craig Morton, D.D. Lewis, Billy Truax) from a bygone era filling out the cast as assorted cops and jocks.

Vernon Potts (Pat Cardi) is a perpetually bullied four-eyed Poindexter who transforms into a somewhat hairier and nastier version of himself when he’s forced to drink his own formula by a crazy janitor bent on revenge after Vernon’s guinea pig, Mr. Mumps, kills the custodian’s cat.

It sounds complicated, but it’s mostly tedious beyond belief. Seriously, there is a scene in which Vernon phones his father, a wheeler-dealer businessman of some kind who is never at home, that leads to an interminable sequence of his dad arguing with his new wife/girlfriend that ends (finally!) with the two of them going for a drive!

My question for director Larry Stouffer and writer J.D. Feigelson: WHY WASN’T THIS SCENE CUT DOWN OR EVEN REMOVED COMPLETELY? IT HAS NOTHING WHATSOEVER TO DO WITH ANYTHING GOING ON IN THE REST OF THE MOVIE AND IS NEVER REFERRED TO AGAIN! Even as padding goes it’s staggeringly and mind-numbingly egregious.

Our boy Vernon eventually gets around to slaying his tormentors—and pitching woo to cute girl Robin (Rosie Holotik)—before Lieutenant Bozeman (Austin Stoker) deduces that the spindly kid is a part-time killer caveman.

But oh, the tedium, the endless tedium! Horror High pushed me to my absolute limits; I’ve never been more tempted to fast-forward through a movie in my life. I really deserve a plaque. Or at least a comfy pillow.

Hannibal Rising (2007)

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I’m all over the map after sitting through two-plus hours of Hannibal Rising, an elegantly told “origin story” of the guy who grows up to be flesh-eating foodie Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs. The screenplay is by Thomas Harris, who scribbled all the books this material is based on, and the results are a weird, compelling mess—one that I am going to recommend, with reservations.

In the waning days of World War II, the Lecters, an Austrian or Lithuanian family of noble birth, flee their storybook castle to escape either the advancing Russians or the Germans. A plane crashes into a tank. Mom and Pop Lecter perish. A shiftless band of German or Austrian soldiers takes over Lecter Farm, which isn’t nearly as nice as Lecter Castle, but it ain’t bad. There’s a harsh winter. The famished brigands nosh on Hannibal’s beloved younger sister Mischa (Helena Lia-Tachovska) ’cause pizza delivery is still several years away from becoming reality.

Hannibal escapes to France or Belgium to seek shelter with his late mother’s brother. Luckily, the uncle’s croaked and his widow, a hot Japanese or Chinese woman (Gong Li), takes in the young refugee, who soon grows into a handsome and brilliant-but-troubled medical student (Gaspard Ulliel; picture a young, evil, Matthew Modine) with vengeance—and lots of emotional baggage—on his mind.

The entire subplot with Hannibal’s beautiful Japanese or Chinese aunt, who schools her nephew in the ways of the samurai (oh brother!), should have been excised; it serves no purpose whatsoever other than padding an already bloated running time. But years later, when young Lecter is tirelessly tracking the bastards that took his sister to lunch, Hannibal Rising achieves an almost-operatic grandeur. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything when I say that revenge is indeed a dish best served cold—with fava beans and a nice Chianti.

The Mummy’s Hand (1940)

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Haven’t sat down with a good ol’ Universal monster movie in quite a while, and that’s a shame since they were the primary catalyst for making me the horror fan I am today. Imagine your humble narrator as a wide-eyed moppet in footy pajamas staring in wonder at another episode of some regional spook show like Creature Features or House of Fear, my shaky hand seeking the comfort of the popcorn bowl in a profound darkness lighted only by a small black-and-white TV set. Or better yet, don’t.

Yes, the Mummy is a slow-moving, clumsy bugger usually manipulated by some dude in a fez to deliver him hot chicks in nightgowns, but not many monsters have such a formidable (and underutilized) mythology behind them. You know, Egypt, hieroglyphics, sarcophagi, curses, tombs, and the like? It’s a wealth of sinister and exotic pageantry, and I for one will never tire of an ambulatory roll of bandages hunting down a bunch of foolhardy archaeologists.

The Mummy’s Hand isn’t the first entry in the series (that would be 1932 version of The Mummy with Boris Karloff) but it’s a fine jumping-off point to get acquainted with the whole premise. Brawny archaeologist Steve Banning (Dick Foran—not much of an actor, I’m afraid) and his comedy sidekick Babe Jensen (Wallace Ford) launch an expedition to find the tomb of Princess Ananka, and instead stumble upon Kharis (Tom Tyler) a 3,000-year-old living mummy who serves the latest in a long line of high priests (George Zucco, who would return to the role two more times in The Mummy’s Tomb and The Mummy’s Ghost).

Interlopers are strangled, a tasty dame (Peggy Moran) is carried away by the lovesick Kharis, and the high priest gets gunned down by the comedy sidekick. It’s a lot of movie packed into a short running time, and even with some unlikely set dressing decisions (I spied a dragon motif affixed to the temple of Amon-Ra. Were ancient Egyptians into dragons? Don’t think so, but I could be wrong) and inexplicable mood swings (e.g., Babe Jensen sits around the campfire with his magician pal, the Great Solvani, trying to learn a corny parlor trick about 10 minutes after they discover a murdered comrade in the forbidden tomb), but it’s fast-paced entertainment with an eerie menace that stands the test of time. Do yourself a favor.

Donner Pass (2012)

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A little R&R in the heart of cannibal country? What a great idea! Donner Pass may have a teeny weeny budget, but I have grudging admiration for director and co-writer Elise Robertson’s commitment to blood-and-guts filmmaking and her insistence on adding a few surprise ingredients to the (human) stew.

A quartet of students in search of a winter’s idyll take up residence in a remote snowbound cabin. Sure, it sounds innocent enough, until a truckload of their drunken buddies crash the party and a partially devoured body count ensues. Apparently the rumors of cannibal pioneer George Donner haunting the hills in search of a little warm flesh have some basis in fact. You just can’t keep a good man down!

Although she’s playing with well-worn tropes (e.g., should they leave the cabin and try to get help during a blizzard or sit tight and await the dinner bell? Decisions, decisions …), Robertson gamely tries to instill some believable humanity in her doomed characters—a bold gambit considering we’re not tuning in to see if Kayley (Desiree Hall) and Mike (Colley Bailey) can work out their relationship difficulties or if reluctant host Thomas (Erik Stocklin) is going to get in trouble with his parents for having a rowdy soiree in their absence.

Although the trail of misdirection that leads to the hungry mastermind isn’t exactly revelatory, it’s got a pinch of panache and a dollop of entertainment value. There’s also a straight out of left-field date-rape revenge subplot that has no reason to exist beyond padding the movie’s scanty 80-minute run time.

All things being equal, I’m going to give Donner Pass a cautious recommendation. Robertson and her amateur cohorts display enough dexterity and creative moxie with these frozen leftovers to warrant a watch—but only if you’ve finished your chores and walked the dog.

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