Hillside Cannibals (2006)

The synopsis for Hillside Cannibals describes it as being about some dude named Sawney Bean, a cannibal killer who’s been feasting on victims for 400 years. He lives with his flesh-eating inbred clan in some caves on a hillside (hence the title) in the California desert.

My question is: Where the hell did all this back story come from? There is no evidence of 400-year-old killers found anywhere in the movie. Unless I saw a severely truncated version (which I doubt, because the film is heavily padded; every third shot is of the same pile of skulls and bones on the ground), then director Leigh Scott and writer Steve Bevilacqua are full of crap.

Hell, the cannibals don’t even talk! They just grunt, gurgle, and gesticulate a lot. Perhaps a jaunty song should play during the opening credits (like in The Beverly Hillbillies) that explains the premise. It would have helped.

Nutshell: Five campers, for no reason in particular, go out into the desert for an evening of drinking, reefing, and screwing. A clan of Road Warrior extras, who apparently got their costumes at Goodwill, show up for a bloody buffet.

Final Girl Linda (Heather Conforto), spends the rest of the movie alternately trying to get help, rescue her boyfriend, and elude capture. That’s about it, really.

In their desperate attempt to somehow link this turkey to The Hills Have Eyes, Scott and Bevilacqua neglect the other aspects of the film. First of all, three of the five campers are dead within 12 minutes of the opening. This leaves only two other characters to be killed for the duration of the movie, a problem Scott tries to fix by briefly introducing three more campers, who are on screen just long enough to prove annoying, before they become lunch.

We don’t know who they are, why they’ve chosen to stop in this location, or anything else. While the scene does up the body count, the inclusion of these off-brand characters was clearly an afterthought and accurately illustrates the haphazard level of craft and creativity at work.

Despite all the piss-poor examples of padding and subplots that go nowhere (e.g., what’s the sheriff’s relationship to this band of bizarros? Is he a cousin or something? We never find out.) there is abundant gore and some genuinely nightmarish imagery, including an ending that’s totally grim.

I thought it was a nice stylish touch that when a new chief of the tribe takes power, he has to remove the face of the fallen leader and wear it around. Disgusting, but sort of cool, I guess.

Hillside Cannibals isn’t a complete waste of time—but it comes awfully close.

YellowBrickRoad (2010)

This indie entry has such an unsettling premise and buildup, that I’m actually going to forgive the WTF ending. It wasn’t easy, but the first 75 minutes are skillfully constructed and hint at so much awful, otherworldly potential.

Filmmakers Andy Mitton and Jesse Holland effectively borrow the premise of The Blair Witch Project—research team goes into scary woods to investigate a local mystery—and successfully create a movie in which the viewer is constantly bombarded with possibilities and forced to invent scenarios that explain the increasingly bizarre circumstances.

A writer (Michael Laurino), his wife (Anessa Ramsey), and a handful of other science-y types go traipsing off into uncharted New Hampshire forest land to find out what happened to the entire population of the nearby town of Friar.

Seventy years previous, everyone inexplicably left Friar and followed a trail into the woods and were never seen alive again. The modern-day explorers find the coordinates of the trail and the expedition begins. What no one realizes until it’s far too late, is that it’s a doomed expedition leading only to—MADNESS!

It’s a subtle transformation that takes place in YellowBrickRoad; the further the characters travel on the trail, the more things break down. Tensions arise, their instruments cease to work, and worst of all, they are loudly serenaded with old-timey jazz music day and night, as if the entire forest is wired for sound.

After all this slow-baked agony, the ending is a rather pale payoff compared to what Mitton and Holland have put us through for most of the film, but credit must be given for the power of the journey itself, which at times resembles a low-budget take on Werner Herzog’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God rather than the aforementioned Blair Witch.

And that’s good company. 

Deadwater (2008)

Deadwater is not a very good film, but the presence of grizzled vet Lance Henricksen helps a bit.

Kudos to director Roel Reiné, who took the time and energy to dress it up as a contemporary naval action thriller (not that there are abundant thrills to be had in this yawner) and include scenes of “advanced interrogation techniques.”

Abu Ghraib is mentioned a few times. That’s about as timely as it gets, though.

Somewhere at sea near Iran or Iraq (forgot which), a U.S. crew operating a recommissioned WW II vessel is slaughtered under mysterious circumstances, due mainly to the poor lighting and spastic camera work.

Old salt Col. John Willets (Henricksen) and his crack team of nobodies are sent to investigate. Lo and behold, one of the few survivors of the haunted holocaust is the colonel’s son, Colin Willets (played by Australian side-of-beef Gary Stretch, whose acting chops and resemblance to Henricksen are equally nonexistent).

So what the hell happened?

There are approximately 863,111 movies in which a team of well-armed investigators boards a derelict ship or facility to find out what became of the previous occupants. This isn’t nearly as good as say, Ghost Ship, one of the better efforts in that genre.

The threat remains mostly unseen (malevolent energy or something. Zzzzzzz.) and 95 percent of the movie consists of Henricksen and company moving stealthily through corridors and making ludicrous military hand gestures at each other.

Save this one for Low Expectations Sunday. BTW, if you’re looking for it in Netflix, you’ll find it under the title Black Ops. My advice? Don’t look too hard.

Sam’s Lake (2006)


I’m really on the fence about Sam’s Lake. It’s a slow-burner, but it’s got gorgeous scenery. The body count is low, but the story is fairly intriguing. There’s no bloodletting till around the 43 minute mark, and the carnage is minimal. Despite all this, I felt compelled to see it through.

Sam (super-cute Fay Masterson) brings a carload of her friends up to a remote cabin on the lake where she grew up. Once ensconced, Sam’s childhood pal and local garage mechanic Jessie (William Gregory Lee) drops in to share a chilling campfire story about a kid who escaped from a nearby mental hospital (there’s always a nearby mental hospital) and wasted his entire family (with a pointy stick). As luck would have it, this tall tale is no legend, as the campers, soon discover.

The “twist” in Sam’s Lake isn’t very twisted, especially since it’s pretty damn obvious from the get-go that Jessie’s a 24-carat weirdo. Even so, the buildup is well constructed and the eventual showdown has a few genuine surprises.

And Fay Masterson delivers a sterling performance as a very deceptive main character. On the down side, not much gore and no nudity. If you don’t watch it, you haven’t missed anything. If you give it a chance, your patience will be slightly rewarded.

Night of the Scarecrow (1995)

Call it a by-product of living in accelerated times. It’s getting to the point where I look at movies made before the turn of the century as “quaint.” I’m sure this happens to everybody on our relentless trek to the boneyard, but it seems when I watch perfectly good horror films from the ’80s and even the ’90s now, they look like relics from another world that I’ve forgotten.

“OMG, look at that poodle hair! Is that a Members Only jacket? Ned’s Atomic Dustbin?”

With the passing of time the cultural signposts of eras passed start to get a little blurry. I have younger friends who are into movies and they usually won’t rent something more than 10 years old, claiming “it looks cheap and weird,” and “the FX are gonna suck.” I’m still adjusting to being the “old guy” in these situations.

So Night of the Scarecrow is a film fossil from 16 years ago. It’s good. Satisfying, even. It’s like dinner at an old-school steak house after having nothing but rice and tofu for a month. There are no surprises but everything is served just the way you like it; meat and potatoes, a stiff drink, and no sass.

What I appreciate most is that it’s a movie that doesn’t dilly-dally; the plot races along like Richard Petty at Daytona. Within, oh, 15 minutes or so, we know all the characters who live in the nice little town of Hanford—the one with the dark secret.

Over 100 years prior, the town fathers made a deal with a passing warlock (I guess there were warlocks roaming the west during the Ulysses Grant administration). In exchange for fertile soil and a temperate climate, the warlock could do whatever he pleased in Hanford.

The horny wizard turns out to be an advocate of sex magic, luring the town’s women into awesome episodes of debauchery. The menfolk decide that ain’t cool, drug the warlock, and crucify him in the cornfield.

Cut to “modern” times. The warlock, now in the guise of a button-eyed, sack-headed scarecrow, starts slaughtering the Goodmans, descendants of the guy who betrayed him and stole his book of spells.

These include brothers George (Dirk Blocker), Thaddeus (Bruce Glover, Crispin’s dad) and William (Gary Lockwood), who all perish in ghastly fashion, while William’s daughter Claire (Elizabeth Barondes), and her mimbo Dillon (John Mese, who looks like a stand-in for Scott Bakula) try to find the spell that will banish the malevolent mage.

A better-than-average cast helps. Stephen Root (O Brother Where Art Thou, Red State) plays another incompetent sheriff, while John Hawkes (Deadwood, Winter’s Bone) delivers the goods as the asshole delinquent who unwittingly frees the warlock.

But the real scene-stealer is Glover, chewing the scenery like a hungry goat as a weak-willed preacher with a hot-to-trot daughter that gets defiled by Hawkes’ town rowdy. Seriously, Glover’s overacting is almost operatic, maybe a notch below bad Shakespeare. And it’s just another reason to watch this unexpectedly satisfying sleeper.

It’s My Party and I’ll Die If I Want To (2006)

There are a thousand things wrong with It’s My Party and I’ll Die If I Want To—and I still dug it.

Director and writer (also editor, composer, and several other titles) Tony Wash had the brass to make his film on a budget so puny you can practically hear the car washes, garage sales, and bake sales (not to mention the ringing of credit cards) that went into the financing.

There are continuity errors, mushy sound quality, community theater acting, and it looks like it was shot on a flip phonw. Even so, Wash and his creative cohorts have some audacity and style. True, it’s a young Sam Raimi’s style, but nonetheless…

Sarah (Adrienne Fischer) thinks her friends have forgotten her 18th birthday. Geez, how could they forget? It’s on Halloween! And that means a costume party in an old house with a sinister reputation.

Part of that reputation, truthfully, should be because of its periodic ability to drastically change size and shape. The interior layout of Burkitt Manor is incomprehensible.

It turns out Sarah’s bland assortment of acquaintances have hit upon the brilliant idea of rigging up the old Burkitt Manor (where in either 1908 or 1930 a despotic husband beat his family into hamburger) as a haunted house to scare the bejeebers out of her.

Who knew kids were so motivated?

After 67 or so slow exposition scenes, the Karo syrup finally starts to fly, as the evil spirit of the house takes possession of young schmuck Travis (Oliver Lucach), and the body count clock is ticking.

Fortunately, we learn (in a training scene that includes a shower interlude—good call, Tony) Sarah is an expert in martial arts and her friends thoughtfully chipped in to buy her a katana! So we get a savage kung-fu showdown—with the plucky Sarah dressed as Elvira—in addition to buckets of viscera and a little gratuitous nudity.

It’s My Party and I’ll Die If I Want To is an amateur production with a capital “A”, even with a Tom Savini cameo. But Wash and his team work hard to get most of the details right.

And he borrows liberally from Raimi (the main creature is pretty much a Deadite), George Romero (The EC Comics segues are straight out of Creep Show), John Carpenter, and even Tarantino, which should be enough for horror geeks to suck on like an all-day lollipop.

It was for me, anyway. Someone give this kid a few bucks, eh?

Pontypool (2009)

Leave it to those clever Canucks.

Bolstered by a poweerhouse performance by Stephen McHattie, Canadian horror flick Pontypool successfully utilizes the zombie genre to make a point (not a subtle one, but a point nonetheless) about the power of language.

More specifically, about media and its unwholesome influence on our collective consciousness.

Directed by Bruce McDonald (Hardcore Logo, Dance Me Outside), Ponytpool unfolds in the small Ontario town of the same name and stars veteran bad guy McHattie (A History of Violence, Shoot ‘Em Up) as Grant Mazzy, a conspiracy minded radio personality in the middle of nowhere who drinks too much and sounds off about small-town news developments.

When the station’s weather correspondent on the outskirts of town reports that a violent mob is running amok, Mazzy, his producer (Lisa Houle) and engineer (Georgina Reilly) must hunker down in the station and defend themselves.

The premise is Zombie 101: Take a small cast, put them in a claustrophobic pressure cooker, add undead army. What becomes apparent as the movie progresses, is that the zombies in this instance have been driven to madness by some kind of viral phenomenon that’s sound-based.

Mazzy and his coworkers discover that the English language is “infected” and words attract the unwanted attention of the bloodthirsty masses.

So they start speaking French.

I could go on till third period about the message McDonald and writer Tony Burgess hammer out about the irresponsibility of the Limbaughs, the Hannitys, and similar braying asses for inspiring paranoia and the worst tendencies in their listeners, but the main thing you need to know is that Pontypool is a tight, thoughtful thriller that delivers.

McHattie, whom you will recognize from countless roles as a “heavy” (he looks like a slightly more Mephistophelean Lance Henricksen) is superb as a man who is trying his damndest to figure out what the hell is going on.

There are moments when he appears to be acting in his own self-interest (keeping his beleaguered reporter talking on the air even while he’s not in a safe location) but beneath his devilish veneer, Mazzy is a compassionate thinker and a genuine humanitarian.

True, there’s not much zombie action (eating, rending, shuffling) in this one, but the threat is imminent and feels very real.

And for a movie with only one locale and a handful of characters, that’s an amazing feat. I could even see Pontypool becoming popular as aHalloween play.

Good writing wins again.

Red State (2011)

No two ways about it, Kevin (Clerks) Smith is an indie filmmaker with a following and cred up the wazoo.

To an entire generation of cynical, grown-up, comic-book fans, Smith is the light, the way, and the Buddha, the schlubby embodiment of he who rose from the basement and fed the masses with nachos and Big Gulps.

Now, every overeducated film nerd who feels more at home in front of a monitor of some kind, can point to their shitty screenplay and justifiably announce to friends and family, “It worked out for Kevin Smith!”

Been there.

Anyway, I’ve seen just about everything Smith has done, from his Clerks debut through his unfortunate infatuation with mainstream rom-com, and I’m prepared to say Red State is his best work, and that horror (or at least thriller) should be his genre of choice.

His deft camera work and ability to gracefully ratchet up the tension here ably demonstrates his genre bona fides.

Nutshell: Three horny high school kids from a nowhere Nebraska town visit a website for swingers and discover that an older woman the next town over wants to knock boots with (wait for it) three horny high school stud(ent)s.

They drive out to her trailer for some discreet nookie and are promptly taken captive by a local fundamentalist cabal that’s a cross between the Branch Davidians and the Westboro Baptists. And then all hell breaks loose.

When I finished watching Red State I was dumbfounded and said aloud to the nearest sleeping dog, “That movie kicked my ass!” My ass is still kicked. It’s relentlessly provocative as you shift from laughter, to uneasy laughter, to quiet awe.

If you’re the kind of viewer who gets confused when a movie changes tone dramatically, then this isn’t your candy bar. Is it a horror movie? Yes, it’s horrifying. But it’s much more than that.

It’s the best movie I’ve seen this year.

Michael Parks (Kill Bill, Dusk Till Dawn), Melissa Leo (The Fighter) and John Goodman (you know who John Goodman is for Chrissakes!) all deliver chilling, straight-faced performances and I hope their combined star power and some web word-of-mouth is enough to earn Red State the cult status it so richly deserves.

The Reef (2010)

If you’re a fan of Shark Week like OldSharky, nothing gets your flippers in a fuddle like a little fresh blood in the water. And there’s plenty for everyone in the Aussie survival-fest, The Reef.

It’s a low-rent production with a lot of stock footage of sharks feeding, but there’s legit tension throughout.

A crew of reasonably attractive young sailors and their ladies fair set to sea in a beautiful pea-green sailboat. Boat hits rock and capsizes. Luke (Damian Walshe-Howling) advises they gear up and swim for the nearest land.

Warren (Kieran Darcy-Smith) inexplicably stays behind on the capsized boat. The entire area is teeming with sharks that seem extraordinarily peckish.

Who lives? Who gets their ass chewed off?

Why anyone would enjoy a sailboat outing along the Great Barrier Reef (aka, Shark Central) is beyond comprehension. Again, I’d like to think that my innate cautious nature would spare me from vast amounts of horror-movie sorrow whilst traveling the world.

The Reef isn’t top-shelf entertainment. It’s more like the junk drawer of passing time.

High Lane (2009)

High Lane is a smartly crafted French thriller that earns a respectable round of applause from yours truly. It’s kind of a two-fer, since the terror stems from different directions.

A passel of adventurous, reasonably attractive young-uns decide to climb a fabled mountain in Croatia (mistake no. 1, of many). The climbing footage itself, to me, is disturbing enough (me no like high places), especially after it turns out that one member of the team is scared of heights and has to be led around like a sniveling cub scout.

Great, I’ve got a character to identify with—and he’s a shithead.

As if coping with a panic-stricken climber isn’t enough, it turns out they are not alone up there. Somewhere, a creature dwells. And really, that’s all that needs to be said.

So with High Lane you get vertiginous frights augmented by the presence of a freaky whatsit. Any way you slice it, that’s good value.

It also helps that director Abel Ferry has a good eye for both picturesque countryside and high-altitude drama.

I’d watch it again.