As Above, So Below (2014)

Hey gang, who’s up for some tomb raiding?

Scarlett (Perdita Weeks) is a beautiful and fearless archaeologist searching for the fabled Philosopher’s Stone, an alchemical instrument of great power, stashed amongst the bone-strewn catacombs beneath Paris.

Too bad the road to riches leads perilously close to the gates of Hell. Next time, stay with the tour, lady!

Written and directed by John Erick Dowdle, As Above, So Below is part Blair Witch Project with a splash of Indiana Jones, combining found-footage of claustrophobic exploration with a deadly descent into a haunted underworld from which escape seems a faint possibility.

The pace spasms between breakneck thrills, sudden horrifying obstacles, and episodes of hieroglyphic dexterity, as Scarlett shepherd’s her team through a booby trapped limbo where fragments of their collective past keep biting them on the ass.

The found-footage aspect of the production is handled efficiently, not calling undue attention to itself, making the periodic explosions of paranormal terror and graphic violence even more trauma inducing.

The words of a minor character become the company mantra: “The only way out is down.”

Perdita Weeks is a capable and headstrong heroine, energizing Scarlett with proficiency as well as a complicated set of emotions, as she tries to finish the life’s work that drove her father to suicide.

Not only that, but she might be developing serious feelings for her linguist friend, George (Ben Feldman).

My critic’s cap is off to Dowdle, who fuses furious frights and exhilarating mayhem in one satisfying adventure. It’s a dark, intense quest, but ultimately we’re the better for having seen it through.

Happy Death Day (2017)

Can beleaguered sorority girl Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) solve her own murder on her birthday?

Happy Death Day swipes the central motif from Bill Murray’s romantic comedy Groundhog Day, and sticks a knife in it, as Tree gets to relive the same day over and over, concluding with her vicious murder at the hands of a baby masked maniac.

Tree begins her recurring day by waking up in the dorm room bed of Carter (Israel Broussard), a dorky, but genuinely nice guy.

From there, she stumbles past a collection of local collegiate color, blows off a former date, ignores a birthday cupcake, dodges her dad on the phone, goes to a lunch meeting with house Big Sister Danielle (Rachel Matthews), makes out with her handsome (married) professor (Charles Aitken), and attends her own surprise party.

As in Groundhog’s Day, Tree gradually realizes that she’s been a selfish bitch, and uses her birthday mulligan to mend fences with Dad (Jason Bayle), roommate Laurie (Ruby Modine), and Carter, to whom she’s grown quite attached.

Tree even contrives to knock off a serial killer (Rob Mello) that’s in the vicinity, but to no avail. Someone keeps murdering her.

Director Chris Landon (son of Little House papa Michael Landon, and director of Freaky) and writer Scott Lobdell cram a ton of entertainment into a borrowed concept, giving equal time to solving Tree’s murder and improving her interpersonal skills.

Jessica Rothe demonstrates grace under fire (except when she’s losing her shit), evolving from a reckless bimbo to a quick-thinking warrior who won’t let go of her seemingly endless lives without a fight.

Happy Death Day is surprisingly funny and moving, inspiring a sequel two years later, as well as plans for a third film.

I’ll let you know how it all plays out.

Note: The Netflix miniseries Russian Doll, created by Natasha Lyonne and Amy Poehler, has a similar Do Over Death Day angle. Just sayin’.

Stage Fright (1987)

The lead dancer (Barbara Cupisti) in a theater company sprains her ankle and goes to a nearby mental hospital to get it treated. She catches the eye of notorious serial killer Irving Wallace (Clain Parker), who promptly escapes and hitches a ride back to rehearsal.

Congratulations are in order to the creative triumvirate of director Michele Soavi, and writers Sheila Goldberg and George Eastman, for coming up with the flimsiest pretext ever for a bloody rampage!

When the company wardrobe mistress (Ulrike Schwerk) gets a pick ax through the eye in the theater parking lot, enterprising director Peter (David Brandon) decides to rewrite the script and make it about Wallace, the very maniac currently making hash out of the cast and crew.

You have to admire Peter’s ability to pivot, but seriously?

Director Soavi (Cemetery Man) has collaborated with the likes of Dario Argento, Terry Gilliam, and Lucio Fucli, so we’re in good hands from a visual standpoint. In Stage Fright, he devises splashy, theatrical kills, most notably the chainsaw bifurcation of dancer Sybil (Jo Ann Smith).

Note: Her sad guts are later nibbled on by Lucifer, the theater cat. Naughty kitty!

Stage Fright (Italian title Deliria) is a gaudy product of first-generation MTV aesthetics with a side of giallo, as Soavi’s staccato pulse of quick takes drives home the doomed plight of actors in various stages of distress, pursued by a savage killer in an owl costume.

Trust me, it’s creepy from any angle.

With its New Wave zoom cutting and blaring wall of Rick Wakeman-style synthesizer, Stage Fright is a lurid, fleshy artifact that gyrates at a brisk clip and doesn’t skimp on the carnage.

I call that time well spent.

Blood Vessel (2019)

It’s a clever touch.

Blood Vessel is obviously a movie about vampires on board a ship, but the title also refers to the doomed crew’s containment effort to stop a terrible blood-borne infection from reaching port.

Nutshell: A veritable United Nations of lifeboat survivors from a torpedoed hospital ship are hopelessly adrift somewhere in the water during the waning days of World War II.

There’s two Australians (Nathan Phillips, Alyssa Sutherland), a whiny British spook (John Lloyd Fillingham), a taciturn Russian (Alex Cooke), and a pair of Americans: a useful black sailor (Lydell Jackson), and a surly Italian cook (Mark Diaco) from the mean streets of Central Casting.

The improbable company hops aboard a derelict German ship and spends about 45 minutes exploring its innards, discovering burned, mutilated sailors, priceless art treasures, and an anemic child (Ruby Isobell Hall).

I realize that seems like quite a bit of action, but when spread over the entirety of the running time (a tidy 93 minutes), the pace is almost geologic.

As written and directed by Australian special effects maestro Justin Dix, Blood Vessel is mostly stuff we’ve seen before, wrapping Nazis in occult robes for another spin around the block.

Despite a fondness for familiar tropes, Dix has some inspired moments. His depiction of an Old World vampire clan that does most of its damage from a distance by psychically manipulating the infected sailors, is a fresh idea.

The hands-off approach to slaughter however, somewhat dilutes the impact of these powerful undead beings, though the creature concept and monstrous makeup are on point.

It’s too bad the vampires don’t get more screen time. Instead we learn personal details about members of the doomed crew so that past tragedies can still inform the present—especially when bloodsuckers start messing with their heads.

And with all the bad accents flying around, we’re having enough trouble remembering the parade of nations on display. Fortunately, the Australian speaks German, and the Russian understands Romanian.

With a structural resemblance to Aliens, minus the tension, spendy effects, and brilliant cast, Blood Vessel is serviceable entertainment at best, which doesn’t mean there’s no fun to be had.

There’s just not enough to go around.

Vampire Clay (2017)

Art school kids in rural Japan fall victim to demonic sculpting material—film at 11.

Pack your plausibility away for Vampire Clay, an energized lump of J-Horror with decent practical effects that make for scenes of memorable chaos.

Nutshell: A handful of art students in a Japanese village attempt to escape poverty by demonstrating sufficient talent to attend a real school in Tokyo. Kaori (Ena Fujita), has already studied in Tokyo and her sculptures put her at the top of the class.

Things take a turn for the weird when Kaori finds a mysterious bag of clay that almost seems to come alive at her touch. Using it in her figurines releases the spirit of an evil sculptor whose blood has tainted the art supplies.

The newly sentient substance wreaks havoc on Kaori’s rivals, swallowing other students whole, and eventually coalescing into a creepy golem that looks like it was drawn by Paul Frank.

Orchestrated by writer-director Soichi Umezawa, Vampire Clay reveals subtler layers beyond the gross and gruesome, as the economic necessity of abandoning village life looms as a grim specter haunting every frame.

Apparently, competition for getting into multi-discipline programs at a decent Japanese college is extreme.

Seeing artists consumed by their work isn’t the freshest metaphor around, but it makes for first-rate spectacle.

Just Before Dawn (1981)

Somebody somewhere anointed Just Before Dawn an under-the-radar slasher classic, one of many that dropped in the wake of Friday The 13th‘s camping bloodbath.

It’s certainly a horse of a different color, with a minimal body count and fairly rudimentary gore, but this 80s artifact has other tricks up its sleeve.

A quintet of twentysomethings take a road trip to backwoods Oregon to check out some land inherited by golden boy Warren (Gregg Henry).

Despite dire warnings from forest ranger Roy McLean (George Kennedy), the carefree kids venture into Hillbilly Country and attract the attention of a Killer Goon (John Hunsaker) who turns out to be surprisingly nimble in his movements.

After a few bodies drop, it’s Warren’s girlfriend Connie (Deborah Benson) who steps up in the cajones department, cramming her feminist agenda down the throat of the simpleminded killer, while her broken lover sobs nearby.

Director and cowriter Jeff Lieberman (Satan’s Little Helper, Blue Sunshine, Squirm) has a distinguished resume of offbeat horror films, and Just Before Dawn is a case in point.

Filmed here in the great state of Oregon at Silver Falls State Park, the dark density of the woods contributes greatly to creating Lieberman’s unsettling and uncivilized landscape.

The story unfolds in realtime and the pace is often leisurely, inviting us to set down our anxieties for a while and just take in the gorgeous scenery by way of a vivid array of artful camerawork—the waterfalls, the mountains, the galloping streams, the treacherous rope bridge, the abandoned church …

Lieberman successfully camouflages the building blocks of tension and dread among the natural splendors, and his credentialed cast (Kennedy, Henry, Chris Lemmon, Mike Kellin, Jamie Rose) make the most of it.

Despite a tendency to take its sweet time, Just Before Dawn provides sufficient glimpses of psychos in the woods to remind us that there is potential carnage behind every shrub, even if it’s not all that bloody.

Those who thrive on splash and spectacle likely won’t be pleased, but Just Before Dawn proves to be an intriguing anomaly in the Dead Camper canon, which is not typically noted for its subtlety.

Masque of the Red Death (1964)

Talk about a story for our times!

Masque of the Red Death is one of Roger Corman’s best Edgar Allan Poe adaptations for American International Pictures, anchored by Vincent Price at the top of his game as evil Prince Prospero.

Prospero (Price) is a medieval tyrant who makes life miserable for the peasants grinding out a meager existence on his land. He takes their crops and burns the village to the ground upon learning that the “Red Death” (plague) is loose in the countryside.

Smitten by Francesca, a virtuous village girl (Jane Asher, Paul McCartney’s first flame), Prospero spirits her away—along with her father (Nigel Green) and her fiancé (David Weston)—to his castle for the amusement of his sin-soaked courtier cronies, who seem to be staying for the season.

Outside the castle walls, the less-fortunate starve and succumb to the swift-moving contagion. Inside, Prospero goads his party guests into animalistic abandon, as he tries his damndest to corrupt the chaste and faithful Francesca.

As a melodramatic matinee redolent in gothic splendor with a high degree of creepy, Masque of the Red Death measures up.  

Corman’s budget-friendly, vivid production holds together reasonably well, and is profoundly augmented by Price’s fiendish charisma, a lean, provocative script by Twilight Zone writer Charles Beaumont, and the saturated color photography of future arthouse auteur Nicolas Roeg (Don’t Look Now, Bad Timing).

In the final analysis, I’m guessing it’s the theme of a vicious narcissistic ruler engaged in depravity while his subjects suffer that resonates so strongly with the 2020 crowd.

Just sounds so hauntingly familiar. 

The Ritual (2017)

When good buddies fail to back each other up, disaster ensues.

Based on Adam Nevill’s absorbing novel, The Ritual is a tense and taut example of the “Trespasser Beware” genre, in which four friends go camping in rural Sweden to honor the wishes of a fallen comrade.

As we all know, these bonding trips to the boonies never work out, and things go quickly south. Dom (Sam Troughton) takes a fall and his limping slows their hiking pace considerably.

Then it starts to rain buckets. 

After getting lost in a seemingly impenetrable forest, the dispirited quartet stumble upon an abandoned shack that includes a menacing pagan altar among its amenities. 

No one enjoys a restful night. Luke (Rafe Spall), who already carries baggage over the recent death of their mutual friend, has a monstrous dream.

Team leader Hutch (Robert James-Collier) awakens to discover he’s wet his jammies, and Phil (Arsher Ali) is horrified to learn that he has somehow performed an entire ceremony before the altar in his sleep. 

And Dom’s still whining about his leg.  

Director David Bruckner and writer Joe Barton do an admirable job fleshing out Nevill’s story, as Luke becomes its pivotal character, trying to lead his friends to safety while dealing with a shitload of remorse.

Bruckner cinches Luke’s dilemma tighter and tighter as it becomes apparent that concepts like guilt and loyalty are luxuries one can’t indulge when faced with an ancient enemy that defies rational description.

The creature/deity effects in The Ritual are excellent, an unnaturally inspired Chimera of animal, human, and demon parts that towers above its pitiful followers, impaling victims in the upper branches of tall trees. 

We’ve not seen its like before, and I’m not too keen on seeing it again, if you know what I mean.

When the subject is monsters, that’s a heavy compliment. 

 

 

 

 

Color Out of Space (2019)

Color me impressed.

What with stormtroopers, tear gas, Covid, and the most destructive wildfires in Oregon’s history bidding for my anxiety contract, a pleasure cruise on the SS Lovecraft proved to be a bracing tonic for my ailing brain.

So long, sanity! Pick me up after the show.

Writer-director Richard Stanley deserves the positive reviews because Color Out of Space is pretty darn good. All the paranoia and cosmic malevolence that one associates with H.P. Lovecraft is present and looks splendid.

Nutshell: Nicolas Cage stars as Nathan Gardner, a yuppie with the bright idea to move his brood from the Big Apple to rural Massachusetts, in the hopes it will prove beneficial in curbing the cancer currently loose in his wife, Theresa (Joely Richardson).

Life on the Gardner’s alpaca farm seems serene, till the peace and quiet is cancelled by the arrival of a small meteorite, which contaminates the environment and turns everything a lovely shade of lavender.

You know the drill. Everyone and everything mutates horribly, but at least it’s in a color I can tolerate.

Cage plays Nathan somewhat against type, shedding the vengeful hero image for a doofus dad with bad glasses, and Color Out of Space is the better for it. His talent for comic madness is on full display, but stops short of cramping the action.

As darkling daughter Lavinia, Madeleine Arthur gets the most screen time and does an estimable job in a performance that transcends the usual goth stereotypes, even as she proves to be the film’s pivotal character.

Unfortunately, her two brothers fail to rate a blip on the Interesting Scale, so it’s up to Tommy Chong as (surprise, surprise) a neighboring hippie reprobate to carry some of the dramatic load.

During a time of multiple crises, my movie demands become simpler as comfort carries more weight than ambiguity and nuance. With Color Out of Space, my needs are fully met.

Cosmic Horror trending during an extinction event makes perfect sense, if you think about it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Cave (2005)

I vaguely remember seeing The Cave when it came out.

Unfortunately, my memories of it are jumbled together with Neil Marshall’s The Descent, a scarier, similarly themed movie that came out the same year.

Bad timing, I guess.

Upon revisiting The Cave, I’m inclined to sing its praises as a reasonably riveting action-horror hybrid that more than adequately meets the needs of any restless cinephile.

A healthy budget doesn’t hurt, either.

Nutshell: So there’s this uncharted system of underwater caves in the Carpathian Mountains, located beneath the remains of a mysterious church that was built to contain winged demons who would periodically emerge from the netherworld.

A team of macho cave divers and a few scientists suit up to explore the hole and end up trapped below the surface in a slimy, sunless world of highly adaptive parasites that cause the host to mutate into a highly adaptive cave monster.

The crew is led by determined dive-master Jack McCallister (Cole Hauser), who promises a way out of the mountain tomb, even as his own transformation becomes increasingly difficult to conceal.

When comparing The Cave and The Descent, it’s important to remember that the latter film is generally regarded as one of the best horror movies of the 21st century.

That said, The Cave is much better than I remember, and includes several harrowing scenes, none more so than spunky Charlie’s (Piper Perabo) spine-tingling aerial combat with a gargoyle.

Director Bruce Hunt constructs a crushing and claustrophobic underworld that pulses with genuine menace, while writers Tegan West and Michael Steinberg proffer a handful of characters worth rooting for.

Take a look around The Cave. It’s pretty cool, and you’ll adapt in no time.