Man Vs (2015)

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Back in the days before cable television released the kraken, the three major networks made their own budget-minded movies that were broadcast on different nights. “The ABC Friday Movie of the Week” or “The CBS Tuesday Movie” and such like.

Usually these were formulaic dramas for aging network stars like Rock Hudson and George Peppard, but occasionally something supernaturally cool would come down the pipe. Who can forget Kim Darby fighting off vicious pygmy horrors in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, or Bo Svenson on the trail of an abominable yeti at a ski resort in Snow Beast (recently remade)?

While they weren’t cinematic jewels, these small-screen frighteners succeeded in leaving a mark on impressional minds (like mine) that were allowed to stay up past bedtime  “just this once.” Filmmaker Adam Massey’s talents were honed by his work in television, and in this case, his instincts for tension and pace are solid as cement.

Massey (A Lobster Tale) has directed over 200 commercials, and he brings that lean efficiency to Man Vs, a harrowing sci-fi/horror/reality show hybrid that scores a lot of points from all over the court. There are some obvious flaws to be found, but the watchability here is very high, as we witness the disintegration of an arrogant TV show host who slowly tumbles to the fact that he’s not alone in the remote wilderness of Northern Ontario.

Leading man Chris Diamantopoulos is spot-on as Doug Woods, a sort-of Bear Grylls Lite forced into mortal combat with an extra-terrestrial predator while trying to film his own Mickey Mouse survival  series. His transition from control freak to just plain freaked-out is expertly rendered—the supposedly self-reliant Woods nearly wets his Patagonia rain pants when he realizes he’s the one being stalked for s’mores by a largely unseen enemy. “Why couldn’t we have picked the Bahamas or Santa Barbara?” he laments to his camera. 

Perhaps the enemy should have remained unseen. Among the previously mentioned flaws are the anticlimactic appearance of a nondescript CGI alien predator (complete with that familiar chittering) at around the one-hour mark. Also, the idea that a guy camping for five days could be the basis of a TV show simply isn’t credible. Dude! Haven’t you seen Alone or Naked & Afraid? The bar has been raised.

In spite of its shortcomings, Man Vs delivers an action-packed happy meal without unnecessary plot contrivances, not to mention a first-rate reluctant hero. Diamantopoulos plays Woods as a gutty, resourceful protagonist despite being obviously scared shitless by the severing of contact with civilization. 

Sidebar: I was entertaining a story idea about a survival show that turns supernatural after seeing a recent episode of Naked & Afraid that had the contestants cowering in their shelter because they thought they’d glimpsed a man in a ceremonial mask watching their camp. It was a genuinely unnerving moment, and the incident was never explained. It’s a juicy concept, and Massey got their first.   

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Train To Busan (2016)

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In this case, go ahead and believe the hype. Yeon Sang-ho’s nervy South Korean zombies-on-a-train epic is getting rave reviews, and deservedly so. Not only is Train To Busan a tightly wound horror movie, it’s also a tense disaster film in the spectacle tradition of Irwin Allen.

First and foremost, Train is an expertly paced thriller that darts deftly between hysteria-inducing sequences of undead mobs running amok, and scenes of quiet love and devotion between a father (Gong Yoo) and his daughter (Kim Su-an) that actually succeed in developing their characters to the point where we can root for them in good conscience.

Harried, overworked fund manager Seok-woo must escort his demanding daughter on a train trip to visit her mother and his estranged wife. As so often happens, real life gets in the way of even the best-laid plans, as a nearby chemical leak causes average citizens to turn hungry, fast, and ferocious. The featured zombies have a rubbery acrobatic grace as they gamely snap back to life after succumbing to lethal bites.

All too quickly the train is overrun with bloodthirsty berserkers, and the supporting players emerge from the chaos. There’s a tough guy and his pregnant wife; a high school baseball team; a sociopathic tycoon, and a pair of spinster sisters. Alliances form and crumble, and as we learned in Romero’s original, a house divided cannot stand. As usual, the rich guy can’t be trusted.

Nonetheless, these characters routinely sacrifice themselves for the good of the remaining survivors, continually casting humanity in a noble light. Seok-woo begins the story as an ineffectual office drone, but through attrition and necessity, evolves believably into a hero to save his child.

Director Yeon Sang-ho displays uncanny action-film finesse at times, contrasting the closed-room claustrophobia of the train interior with sweeping panoramic views of an embattled choo-choo chugging down the tracks to its final destination. Train To Busan is indeed a grim ride to survival, but it’s a satisfying one. And the scenery is magnificent.

Krampus (2015)

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When it comes to seasonal horror fare, Christmas is starting to give Halloween a run for its money, even if you don’t count deranged Santas stalking overbaked adolescents.

Michael Dougherty’s Krampus qualifies as first-rate family entertainment capable of engaging several generations of house pests. It’s got suspense and a bit of gore, but not much actual violence. Think of it as more dark urban fairy tale, or perhaps a Scrooge variation conceived by Tim Burton. (I even watched it with a sensitive friend to make sure it passed the brutality test.)

Like the Dickens’ tale, Krampus is appropriate for the whole clan because of the valuable lessons it imparts. When young Max (Emjay Anthony) is forced to spend another holiday with his cretinous cousins, his increasingly bad humor brings down the wrath of the titular Yuletide deity, an angry “Anti” Claus who will bloody well give you something to cry about, if your Christmas spirit is found wanting. In other words, he takes instead of gives.

Soon, his family’s snug suburban home is a frozen wasteland with menacing snow men appearing in the yard, setting the table for ol’ Krampus and his hideous helpers to work some dark magic.

A spirited cast, led by Adam Scott (Parks and Recreation), Toni Collette (United States of Tara), David Koechner (Anchor Man) and Alison Tolman (Fargo) work some magic of their own, giving expert comic performances across the board. The movie certainly qualifies as a dark comedy, but the characters reveal surprising depth and decency. Co-writer and director Dougherty shows a firmer hand with heroism here than he did with either of the X-Men features on his resume.

Like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (Gene Wilder, RIP), Krampus relishes in the teaching of lessons to naughty kids and their clueless parents. All the petty griping, selfishness, and stupidity gets shoved aside as survival becomes the season’s hottest gift idea.

Bone Tomahawk (2015)

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The comedian Patton Oswalt was tweeting about this one recently, his observations growing increasingly agitated—and no wonder. Bone Tomahawk is a horse opera throwback that any John Ford fan will recognize without too much difficulty. It’s your basic, “OK men, let’s get us a posse and go save our womenfolk” tale, that gradually winds its way into an atavistic nightmare and a grueling denouement. And having goddamn Kurt Russell as the dutiful and superbly mustachioed sheriff doesn’t hurt one bit.

Russell portrays Sheriff Franklin Hunt, a turn-of-the-century lawman who watches over the frontier town of Bright Hope, situated somewhere in the Southwestern badlands. One fine evening, he and Chicory (the amazing Richard Jenkins), his backup deputy and comic sidekick, spot a fugitive in their midst (David Arquette), a craven bandit on the run from a tribe of bloodthirsty cave-dwelling savages, who have trailed him to his present location. Oh, and they’re cannibals.

The next morning, Hunt discovers that the bandit, Mrs. O’Dwyer (Lili Simmons), and Deputy Nick (Evan Jonigkeit) have been abducted by the fearsome flesh eaters. A posse consisting of Hunt, Chicory, John Brooder (Scott Fox), a sartorially splendid gunfighter, and Arthur O’Dwyer (Patrick Wilson), a rancher with a broken leg, and husband of the kidnapped damsel, sets off in pursuit.

For most of Bone Tomahawk‘s two-plus hours running time, we plod along with the cowboy quartet on a near-hopeless quest. Hopefully, the pace won’t cause any premature bailouts, because this is where writer and director S. Craig Zahler demonstrates a sure hand. Alternating between meandering scenes of Larry McMurtry-esque cowboy banter and violent episodes of gunplay, Zahler keeps a tight rein on his players, moving them stoically forward to a hellish confrontation with a horrible enemy. And to their credit, the principle cast members (especially Russell and Jenkins) acquit themselves smashingly.

Hunt and his men prove to be fallible, but honorable avengers, capable of extraordinary acts of courage, even under extreme circumstances. These include helplessly watching a captured comrade writhe in agony as a clan of troglodytes readies him for supper. Suffice to say there’s more to this meal preparation than washing your hands.

Bone Tomahawk has its cringe-worthy moments, but the savagery is a vital story component, serving as a chillingly effective worst-case scenario, and not merely a cheap excuse for guts and gore. On the other hand, if you’re hungry for guts and gore, you surely won’t be disappointed by the time they arrive. Strong work!

Harbinger Down (2015)

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No need to beat around the bush, Harbinger Down is an above-average homage to John Carpenter’s The Thing, set aboard an Alaskan crab boat, skippered by Lance Henricksen. The story goes, that the film’s creature effects team, ADI, apparently worked on the 2011 prequel of The Thing, only to see their contributions largely cut in favor of CGI.

Harbinger Down, written and directed Alec Gillis, is a crowd-funded production that gives ADI’s shrieking, flailing aliens some needed screen time. The results are nothing Rob Bottin needs to lose any sleep over, but are nonetheless far superior to the usual CGI gravy flopping around on SyFy network these days.

Welcome aboard the good ship Harbinger, a Bering Sea commercial fishing vessel, with the roomy interior of an oil tanker. Seriously, my family is in the fishing business, and I’ve never set foot on a crab boat with so many winding passageways.

Henricksen plays Graff, a grizzled old salt, who don’t take any lip, either from his feisty crew, or his granddaughter’s research team, who’ve hopped aboard to study whales or something. (If wardrobe had been on the ball, they would have given Lance a captain’s hat and a corncob pipe to complete his Popeye’s Pappy ensemble).

Along with a few tons of Dungeness, the Harbinger hooks some space wreckage that contains the remains of a Soviet craft, complete with a frozen cosmonaut carrying a hostile alien. You know, mutating space organism, it can look like anyone, lots of tentacles, you either freeze it or burn it. Sound familiar?

Given the premise, the script is little more than an afterthought, though Gillis misses the opportunity to create some much-needed distinctive supporting characters, by making sure that any and all dialogue is played hopelessly straight.

This is why Carpenter’s characters, stranded in the Arctic, or Ridley Scott’s characters, trapped in outer space, (definitely some Alien in this critter’s cinematic DNA), are memorable ones. They way they conduct themselves under extreme pressure (“I ain’t going with Windows, man!”), tells us everything we need to know about them, their final witticisms forever burned into our memory banks.

Here, the crew is just a bunch of nobodies, with the exception of ol’ reliable Lance, and perhaps Winston James Frances, as Big G, a courageous giant, the Harbinger equivalent of the Nostromo’s Parker (Yaphet Kotto). Nope, nothing new here, but Harbinger Down passes the time with flying colors.

You’re Next (2011)

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Except for one small detail, You’re Next is a satisfying plunge into dark domestic waters, shaping up as a nail-biting cross between Straw Dogs and Strangers. Aussie starlet Sharni Vinson is dynamite as a resourceful guest defending a dinner party at an isolated manor house against a trio of murderous invaders. The tension level continually hovers near the ceiling and the pace is relentless.

When Crispian (AJ Bowen) brings new girlfriend Erin (Vinson) to the family estate to meet the rest of his affluent clan, all heck breaks loose, as assorted neighbors and dinner guests find themselves perforated by crossbow bolts and chopped into corpse kindling, with the grisly tableaux usually accompanied by the bloody message, “You’re next!”

As luck would have it, plucky Erin grew up in a survivalist camp and has the skills to fight back against a team of assassins hidden behind creepy animal masks. There’s nifty gallows humor and gritty kills, and the cast includes genre veteran Barbara Crampton as the family matriarch.

My question for director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett is this: Is art director Nathan Truesdell color blind, or did you sign off on the brown blood? During a few key scenes, stabbing victims look more like sloppy sundae eaters, with faces and clothes soaked in a distinctly caramel-colored goo. It’s a noticeable distraction in an otherwise exciting flick.

The wheel is not reinvented, but You’re Next packs more than enough thrills to keep a body riveted, even if it is covered in chocolate syrup.

 

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?

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