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.

Mama (2013)

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For the first three-quarters of Mama, I was absolutely transfixed. Executive producer Guillermo del Toro imbues the action with his trademark otherworldly finesse, though the overall feel of the film, courtesy of co-writer/director Andres Muschietti, seems more like Sam Raimi with a splash of Sleepy Hollow-era Tim Burton. It’s an eerie, heartfelt, and stylish fairy tale, featuring a fiercely maternal ghost that will probably be guest-starring in my nightmares for years to come. And yet the foot comes off the gas pedal when Muschietti endeavors to make the ghost more human, more of an actual character, toward the conclusion.

Mama opens with a bang as a deranged father (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), fresh off a killing spree, snatches his two young daughters, Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lily (Isabelle Nelisse) and heads for tall timber. He drives off a snowy road, crashes the car, and herds his frightened children to an abandoned house in the woods. Five years later, the now-feral girls are discovered by hunters searching the wilderness in the employ of their Uncle Lucas (Coster-Waldau, again).

The girls are bathed and brought back to civilization under the watchful eye of Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash), and are given over to Lucas and his hot (though not particularly maternal) girlfriend Annabelle (Jessica Chastain) who plays bass in a Muffs-style pop-punk band. The question is, how did two young girls survive five years in the woods on their own? Answer: With the help of a madwoman’s ghost who leapt from a nearby cliff with her own baby more than a century before.

Really, Mama is one of the most impressive “ghost” movies I’ve seen in years. The ending drags a bit, and the vengeful spirit becomes less awesome the more we see of her, but these are minor quibbles. Drop your knitting and get on it; you just might discover (as I did) that this is the sort of thoughtful, wondrous, and best of all, frightening, ghost story that you’ve been hankering for.

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?

Hatchet II (2010)

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There’s no need to fret if you haven’t seen the first installment in writer-director Adam Green’s Hatchet opus. The burgeoning schlockmeister is generous enough to replay the origin of the “Bayou Butcher” Victor Crowley, a monstrous swamp-dwelling child cursed by his own mother who dies while giving birth.

Hey Ma, this is what happens when you opt for home delivery—and your home is a goddamn swamp!

The deformed kid is raised by his father, dies (I guess), accidentally killed by a blow from papa’s axe, and now it’s his alarmingly corporeal ghost that runs amok in the Louisiana bayou, artfully dismembering intruders. Was all of this backstory really necessary?

Marybeth (Danielle Harris) is the lone survivor from the first Hatchet movie, and for some reason, she wants to return to the swamp to retrieve the mutilated corpses of her family members that got chopped into kindling last time around.

Really? That’s the best motivation she can come up with?

Enlisting the aid of voodoo charlatan Reverend Zombie (the reliably nefarious Tony Todd) she puts a greasy white-trash posse together to salvage the remains and hopefully dispatch Crowley (Kane Hodder) into the afterlife on a more permanent basis.

Adam Green is a filmmaker of limited abilities and funds, so he wisely concentrates on the gruesome details in Hatchet II. A hunter gets his jaw torn off leaving his tongue lolling ludicrously. Another victim is bifurcated and while still alive, gets rudely yanked out of his skin by the spinal column. This is why we we’re here.

There’s no story, no character development, no life lessons; just plenty of splatter. Crowley is a Southern-fried Jason Vorhees sans mask and dressed like a cast member from Hee-Haw.

Is he a vengeful ghost? An unkillable thing? An evil spirit?

Don’t worry about it. Just savor the carnage. Green sends sufficient cannon fodder to foolishly confront the monster and the body count is more than respectable, while old pro Tony Todd chews the scenery with relish.

Reason enough, I say.

Scary Or Die (2012)

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Any true aficionado of horror has got to have a soft spot in his/her heart for the anthology film.

Emerging from such firmly entrenched precedents as old EC Comics (and adapted works based on them, e.g., Tales From the Crypt and Creep Show), radio spook shows Lights Out and Inner Sanctum, classic TV fear fodder like Boris Karloff’s Chiller, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Night Gallery, Tales From the Darkside, and Twilight Zone, not to mention short fiction collections ranging from M.R. James to Stephen King, the horror anthology is an effective method of giving the consumer maximum bang for the buck in terms of mood and menace.

And unlike an entree on Chopped, it is possible to enjoy or hate individual sections without the need to judge the work as a whole. Of course, you’re entitled to do that too—it’s your dime, it’s your time.

Scary Or Die‘s wraparound premise focuses on an anonymous ghoul doing some late-night web surfing, selecting different horror tales from a menu of choices. (How bloody contemporary!)

The first, “The Crossing,” stars our old friend Bill Oberst Jr (who could ever forget A Haunting In Salem?), as Buck, a despicable truck-driving redneck vigilante, who hunts illegal immigrants along the border between Arizona and Mexico. In the blunt-as-a-brick denouement, Buck, his dumbbell pal, and inexplicably hot gal, who, bless her heart, doesn’t approve of killing unarmed Mexicans, meet a very sorry fate when a whole graveyard of Buck’s past victims crawl out of the ground with a vicious case of the munchies. It’s gross, crude, and predictable, but reasonably satisfying.

“Taejung’s Lament” is an elegant stylistic contrast, the story of a man (Charles Rahi Chun) who ghost-walks through his days, forever mourning his late wife, until he rescues the beautiful and mysterious Min-ah (Alexandra Choi) from an assault, and presto, he’s completely under her spell. (Note: We figure out she is a vampire way, way before he does.) Tastefully shot at night in Los Angeles, this one has a haunting, minimalist quality that visually compensates for a twistless plot.

In “Re-Membered” a hit man (Christopher Darga) gets more than he bargained for when his latest mark turns out to be a clever and very-hard-to-kill sorcerer. It’s another adequately suspenseful entry with few surprises.

The strongest episode is “Clowned,” about an amiable coke dealer named Emmett (Corbin Bleu) who suffers an unwanted clown bite at his little brother’s birthday party.

The idea that clowns, like vampires and lycanthropes, can create more of their kind through a bite, is quite a good one, and soon poor Emmett begins to undergo a hideous (and hilarious) transformation. Oh yeah, and he craves human meat, especially that of his innocent hermano.

This one also has an unexpectedly funny exchange of dialogue between two detectives arguing over the difference between a clown and a mime. I’m sorry, but if you can’t appreciate the universally grotesque charm of flesh-eating clowns, then what good are you?

The final segment, “Lover Come Back” is a standard tale of love and revenge, with a voodoo priestess (Shannon Bobo) rising from the grave after she’s betrayed by her faithless lover.

Moral: Don’t fool around on your sweetie if she’s got strange and terrible powers. Seriously, I need to tell you that?

Writer-directors Bob Badway and Michael Emanuel don’t bring anything new to the table (aside from the cannibal clown mythology) in Scary or Die, but neither do they commit any egregious errors. There’s not much depth here, but your hunger pangs will be sated.

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.

Fear Island (2009)

A low-wattage variation of I Know What You Did Last Summer, in which a handful of amoral dirt-bag twentysomethings, who once did a terrible thing, end up paying the piper on a remote island.

Not very bloody, no nudity, and only one plot twist, that’s immediately obvious to anyone who’s seen The Usual Suspects.

What else is there to say? Haylie Duff is in it. Pass.

The Reeds (2010)

Boy, I hate it when my tranquil weekend of boating with friends turns into a blood-soaked nightmare. After thousands of movies in which a back-to-nature retreat results in death and dismemberment, you’d think people would just stay the eff home. Watch Nature Channel, or some shit. But noo-oo-oo!

Three unexceptional couples hit upon the brilliant idea of renting a boat for a river excursion through a remote British waterway that’s choked with (cue the title) reeds! So what form of doom will they encounter on their nautical getaway? Ruthless delinquents as in Eden Lake? An insidious beastie from the depths? Piranhas? Killer kelp? Nope, the crew gets mired in a tragic feedback loop between an angry loner and a bunch of scruffy mute kids, who are seemingly locked in an eternal spiral of antagonism—despite the fact that the rugrats have been dead for decades. Talk about holding a grudge…

The claustrophobic spell cast by the forlorn, colorless landscape gives The Reeds a crucial boost of atmosphere, and the silent band of urchins are a creepy lot. And while director Nick Cohen is possessed of sufficient skills to keep things relatively interesting, it’s a glacially-paced affair without much in the way of action—though the anchor impalement scene was a welcome highlight. The Reeds is worth a viewing, but only if it’s a slow news day and all your chores are done.

The Burning (1981)

Probably the best way to describe The Burning is that it’s a post Friday The 13th knock-off and an interesting conversation piece.

It features a gonzo Exorcist-meets-Yes score by Rick Wakeman, a script that was doctored by future film scumbags Bob and Harvey Weinstein, and some recognizable actors in teeny teen roles—and in the case of Holly Hunter, make that downright microscopic.

Yes, that’s Seinfeld foil Jason Alexander as Dave, a wisecracking camper (with a full head of hair!) who miraculously doesn’t get his jugular severed by Cropsy (Lou David), the hideously scarred former camp caretaker out for bloody revenge.

Nutshell: A bunch of snotty boys at summer camp punk Cropsy, the alcoholic caretaker, by placing a burning skull next to his bed. Things get shitty real fast as the clumsy bum catches himself on fire and spends the next five years fuming in a hospital while his doctors point and laugh at his freaky face.

Eventually Cropsy leaves, kills a hooker to get warmed up and goes back to camp to carve up the current crop of kids. His weapon of choice is a deluxe pair of hedge clippers.

Were the writers inspired by Cropsey, the legendary Staten Island boogeyman? Well, duh!

Seeing the likes of Alexander, Larry Joshua (The Rundown, NYPD Blue), Leah Ayers (Bloodsport), Fisher Stevens (Short Circuit) and Brian Backer (Fast Times at Ridgemont High) pay their dues as Doomed Campers is worth a giggle or two, but sadly, The Burning is slower than my Granny’s bowels.

It takes a whole friggin’ hour for the first camper to get carved! Note to the writing department: we do not now, nor have we ever given a shit who has the hots for whom—unless it leads to a nude scene.

Too much yakkin’ and not enough whackin’ is no way to create horror history.

Fortunately, the brothers Weinstein and director Tony Maylam had the good sense to leave the gruesome special effects to the best in the business, namely Tom Savini (Friday The 13th, Dawn of the Dead, Maniac, and so many more).

So by the time Cropsy finally gets around to some serious slicing and dicing, the blood arrives in buckets, including a sensational canoe sequence where he wastes five kids in a flurry fit for a ninja.

Worth a look.

Eden Lake (2008)

Talk about grueling; Eden Lake makes Straw Dogs look like a Frankie and Annette double feature. Writer-director James Watkins (The Woman in Black) methodically stokes the fear furnace until the tension is nearly unbearable—but you don’t dare look away.

By firmly establishing his protagonists as something more than pale quaking stereotypes, Watkins succeeds where Eli Roth and James Wan fall short; namely giving the viewer a good reason to be shocked and horrified about the cruelties inflicted on them.

In search of a romantic weekend, Steve (Michael Fassbender) and his girlfriend Jenny (Kelly Reilly) drive way out to hell and gone in the English countryside to camp on a secluded beach that’s about to become the centerpiece of a condo development. The couple incurs the wrath of local juvenile delinquents on BMX bikes and things rapidly spin out of control. Sure, it’s all a big joke, till someone gets hurt—or in this case, killed.

While Steve and Jenny definitely do not deserve their eventual fates, it can be rightly said that the awful shit pit they land in is due mostly to Steve being a colossal asshole who should have just walked away before everything went to hell. He has several chances to do so, but his idiotic pride won’t let him.

Eden Lake should look familiar: the plot is nearly identical to The Strangers (or Deliverance, The Hills Have Eyes, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Wrong Turn, for that matter). Above all else, never ever pitch your tent in an isolated rural area, especially after witnessing the casual cruelty of the locals.

But there is a critical difference. There’s no explanation for the amorality and astonishing lack of empathy on the part of the teens in The Strangers. Boredom maybe? Gangsta rap? Point and shoot video games? Guess we’ll never know.

In Watkins’ film, the young miscreants are squarely under the sway of Brett (Jack O’Connell), the group’s psychotic Alpha male, who, like any good tyrant, whittles away his subjects’ humanity with bullying and threats. (I kept thinking of African child soldiers, forced under impossible pressure into remorseless killers.)

Each nightmarish escalation of the action is presented as a transgression that could have been avoided, but also as a disturbingly believable development, considering the hellish circumstances the characters find themselves in. And that is why Eden Lake is so damn terrifying and transfixing.