Attack The Block (2011)

Even my wife watched this and enjoyed it—and to say that she dislikes horror movies is like saying the Koch brothers aren’t too fond of organized labor. (I was trying to think of some really zippy metaphor to reel you in. This is the best I could do. Sorry.)

Barbara (that’s her name) looked up Attack The Block on Rotten Tomatoes and was impressed that it received a “90 percent fresh” rating. But I really hooked her when I told her the movie reminded me of Misfits, an insanely original BBC superhero (sort of) series we both loved.

Indeed, the two share a strategic reliance on anonymously industrial council-block housing for scenery, as well as a charismatic cast of scruffy young tearaways to inhabit it.

Here, a gang of not-too-scary teen hoodlums led by Moses (John Boyega), encounter a strange critter while out patrolling their neighborhood.

Patrolling means mugging young women and setting off fireworks, mainly.

The gang corners the beast (“looks a monkey mated with a fish”) and kick it to death. Fantasizing about selling the specimen to the highest bidder, the kids pay a visit to dope dealer Ron (Nick Frost, who runs off with every scene he’s in) to smoke and unwind.

Unbeknownst to our “heroes,” a whole battalion of bigger, meaner, and hungrier aliens are en route to find out what happened to their advance party.

The ensemble cast, led by Boyega, and ably supported by Frost, Jody Whittaker, and Alex Esmail, is fantastic. It doesn’t matter if they’re brawling, fleeing, or getting stoned—these kids are as resilient, resourceful, and honor-bound as any John Wayne posse.

Writer-director Joe Cornish (part of the Edgar Wright/Simon Pegg/Nick Frost Brit Pack) acquits himself quite well. His dialogue is fast and funny, the pace is breakneck, and the aliens—agile wolfish anthropoids with no eyes and glowing teeth—are brilliantly realized.

Attack The Block effortlessly balances a monster movie premise with deft action-film finesse and Western movie heroics. I will watch it again. And so will Barbara (probably).

Swamp Devil (2008)

My beef with this craposaurus is pretty basic. When you have a title like Swamp Devil, you’d better deliver something at least on a par with Swamp Thing, a movie that was made 26 freakin’ years before this one.

In other words, I want to see a sodden, drippy, slime-covered mess of a monster—and not something that looks like one of those wacky inflatable arm-flailing tube men you see at car lots. It’s that simple.

There’s a barely-there plot about a murderer who haunts the swamps after he was killed by a vigilante mob. Nicholas Wright (a poor man’s Robert Carradine) plays the human face of the “Swamp Devil,” a carelessly CGI’d stalk of celery that’s nearly as menacing as the Little Green Sprout.

Bruce Dern is in this, for some reason, as a former lawman turned-fugitive and Cindy Sampson (who was quite good in The Shrine—scream queen in the making?) plays his daughter.

I’m really trying to come up with some justification for sitting through Swamp Devil, but I’m drawing a blank. I suppose Dern is more than adequate in his role, but really, he has the look of a man hoping he won’t miss the last bus out of town—and that his paycheck doesn’t bounce out the window.

Speaking of Dern, I seem to recall him on The Tonight Show many years ago talking to Johnny Carson about the worst film he’d ever made. Dern recounted his experiences as a young actor on the set of The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant (1971), a grimy, low-budget shocker co-starring Casey Kasem that was part of the now-extinct “Guy With An Extra Head” movement of the early 70s. (It consisted of two movies: this one and the slightly more famous The Thing With Two Heads, starring Rosie Grier and Ray Milland—recommended!)

Anyway, Dern says after the shooting wrapped, he went to get his final check from the slippery producer—and the office, set, and trailers were all gone. Not a trace of them. Perhaps the next time he’s asked that question, Bruce could share a story about Swamp Devil. I, for one, would love to hear it.

The Shrine (2010)

Imagine my surprise and color me impressed: this gritty Canadian feature kind of rocks.

You keep thinking you know “what kind” of movie you’re watching, and then suddenly you don’t. The Shrine manages the difficult trick of being able to switch gears without wrecking the engine.

It starts out as a warning to tourists against touring Eastern Europe without letting others know your whereabouts—because the worst will happen.

Guaranteed.

In this case, an American backpacker disappears in a small Polish town, which motivates a trio of journalists to investigate the enigmatic community, where such occurrences are all too common.

I might add that this is a grossly inaccurate portrayal of a journalist. Anyone still fortunate enough to work for a newspaper or magazine at this time is most decidedly not curious about anything—unless it’s figuring out how to hold onto a job that will soon be farmed out to interns.

Then comes the first shift, and now you’re watching one of those creepy Iron Curtain faux snuff films, and you consider getting up to water the plants.

But then Sam Raimi arrives and everything goes all Evil Dead. To conclude the festivities, we get a metaphysical mud-wrestling match, straight out of The Exorcist.

The Shrine works because it subverts our point of view so deftly that we don’t even realize that we should probably pick a side in this apocalyptic death match.

Not only that, but it succeeds in the way that (earlier reviewed film) Spiderhole failed—it provides us with a valid reason for scenes of squirm-inducing cruelty.

I swear, if you know that someone is being savaged as part of the plot, and not simply because we like the sound of screaming, it goes down a lot easier.

And now, a hearty round of applause for writer-director Jon Knautz, who did a superb job of juggling themes, tones, and terror. So tell us Jon: What’s next?

Dying Breed (2008)

Another entry in the “isolated cannibal clan” genre, Dying Breed is way better than the earlier-reviewed Hillside Cannibals (but then, so is an average episode of Three’s Company), thanks in no small part to its being set in the deep, vibrant woodlands of Tasmania.

Zoologist Nina (Mirrah Foulkes) plunges into the harsh and unforgiving forests of Western Tasmania seeking evidence of the presumed-extinct Tasmanian tiger—the same mysterious beast that her zoologist sister Ruth was chasing several years earlier, before the latter turned up disfigured and drowned. (Dunno Nina, think I’d leave this one alone.)

Along with her boyfriend Matt (Aussie Leigh Whannell, who also wrote Insidious and a couple Saw movies), his obnoxious buddy Jack, and Jack’s cupcake, Rebecca, Nina wanders hither and yon before stumbling upon the rustic and remote township of Sarah.

As luck would have it, the town is populated by the descendants of Alexander Pearce (aka, “The Pieman”), an escaped convict who eluded the police in that area nearly 200 years earlier.

Pearce was later captured and hanged under a cloud of suspicion that he had resorted to chowing down on his chums while hunkered in the bush. Needless to say, the party soon finds itself firmly ensconced in the soup. (Or they end up in quite a pickle, your choice, but I like soup a little better.)

Instead of intrepid ineptitude (again, see Hillside Cannibals), Dying Breed is a grim, well-executed “don’t-go-in-the-woods” fable, directed, plotted, paced, and acted with unwavering efficiency.

The Tasmanian locale carries the same palpable sense of dread and foreboding as the back country of Pennsylvania in Deliverance (a movie that’s referenced here), and the local color is even more bloodthirsty.

Trigger Warning: There are some highly unpleasant implications vis-a-vis “women as breeding stock” here, which may not play in your particular domestic Peoria.

Alligator X (2010)

Ain’t no way to sugarcoat this shit pill: Alligator X (a.k.a. Xtinction: Predator X) sucks rope, and the fact that I made it all the way through is a modern-day miracle.

The giant prehistoric gator brought back to life by mildly mad scientist Charles LaBlanc (Mark Sheppard) generally appears as an underwater animation, so we’re left with the questionable dramatic talents of the actors as the primary means of propelling the plot.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but Sheriff Tim (Lochlyn Munro, a poor man’s David Arquette), Laura LeCrois (Elena Lyons), and Froggy (Paul Wall) are about as realistic and well drawn as the titular critter.

Some swell establishing footage of the bayou is thoroughly wasted as the principal characters alternately run from, and after, a “pleasaur” resurrected by Dr. LeBlanc.

Why he wants a monstrous gator for a pet is anyone’s guess, but it sure comes in handy for eating people that piss him off, such as Pappy LeCrois (Phillip Beard), who owns a swamp tour business on property that LeBlanc covets—for some reason.

Pappy’s daughter Laura watches in horror as LeBlanc’s redneck accomplices ring the dinner bell and toss her pops into the juicy jaws of fate. Meanwhile, Sheriff Tim is trapped (for a really long time) on a pylon out in the bayou, after the gator chomps up the boat driven by Pappy’s Cajun employee Froggy, who somehow doesn’t get eaten and returns later in the movie as a bad guy.

Oh yeah, the sheriff has an idiot brother named Henry (Caleb Michaelson) who serves as his bumbling deputy, and later bleeds to death after getting shot by a swamp rat. There are some other characters too. They all die, mostly.

All you need to know about the craft and intelligence at work in Alligator X can be summed up by the final scene, in which Laura and Sheriff Tim casually tease and flirt with each other—less than 24 hours after she saw her daddy get chewed into chum, and about 20 minutes after the sheriff discovers the corpse of his younger brother.

Oh well, at least there’s a happy ending. I for one, was overjoyed to finally see it.

Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil (2010)

For anyone, anywhere who relishes a hack-and-stack about nitwit teens and disastrous camping trips, this one’s your Apocalypse Now.

Somehow, against all odds, Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil subverts the horror trope of kids-as-kindling and the vicious hillbillies who stalk them, and manages to be funny and charming, while still delivering the gory goodies

As you’ve no doubt heard, the premise depicts Tucker (Alan Tudyk from Firefly) and Dale (Tyler Labine) as virtuous and kindly rural types who want nothing more than to fix up a little cabin in the woods so they can have a getaway for their fishing and beer-drinking weekends.

Enter a carload of snotty college students led by paranoid and delusional Chad (Jesse Moss), who has the hots for sweet Allison (Katrina Bowden), and the stage is set for a riotous epic of blood, lethal misunderstandings, and even a sweet, timid romance. Surprise!

In lesser hands, this might have turned into a gimmicky, unfunny satire (see the Scary Movie franchise), but writer/director Eli Craig really digs deep to bring out the good-natured decency of the titular hillbillies, even while splashing the screen with enough viscera to appease hardcore genre hounds.

Tudyk and Labine are funny and genuine as virtual innocents who have no idea why these preppy campers are freaking out and trying to kill each other—especially after they go to all the trouble of rescuing their friend Allison from drowning.

What the hell’s wrong with kids today? As someone who generally roots for the killer in these films (Look, I hate teenagers!), Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil is a welcome and diverting variation on a theme.

The Legend of Bloody Jack (2007)

If the cover blurb, “Based on the the terrifying true events behind America’s scariest campfire story,” is accurate, then I must confess that I’m really out of the loop on my lumberjack legends.

Is there really a ghost story about an ax-wielding hayseed who practices black magic? I must have missed that one. If the campfire tale is anything like this low-wattage lump of shit, I’m glad I did.

A pair of quickly dispatched investigators summon the spirit of the swinging sorcerer. Two days later, a van bearing seven soon-to-be-butchered mannequins from Abercrombie & Fitch arrives for one of those idyllic camping trips that never seems to materialize.

Whether it’s the abysmal acting, the seemingly random and feckless decision-making of the characters, or an irritatingly banter-filled screenplay that sounds like it was written by a miserably untalented college freshman, there’s plenty of blame to be shared for this stink bomb—but since it was written and directed by Todd Portugal, the lion’s share should be reserved for him.

The questions accumulate as the action (I guess you could call it “action”) slowly unravels like a third-generation Santa sweater. Why are the doomed 35-year-old kids who are trapped at the cabin in the woods waving flashlights around? The entire film takes place in bright sunlight.

How come when Tom (Josh Evans) disappears, his supposed “best friend” Nick (Craig Bonacorsi) won’t go look for him because “it’s too dangerous,” but later he decides that they should go in search of Deputy Vince (Jeremy Flynn), whom they saw drive away in a truck about 15 minutes before?

Why is Lisa (Jessica Szabo) so blasé after seeing her boyfriend George hacked into jerky? Why? Why? Why?

On the positive side of the street, the gore is plentiful (though amateurish), and there are three nude scenes by the 30-minute mark. That’s about it.

There’s also a nitwitted “surprise” ending that feels like it was hurriedly tacked on after Todd Portugal looked at his footage and smelled dead fish.

And what the hell is up with the title? Unless I was really asleep at the switch, I didn’t hear a single mention of anyone called Jack, bloody or otherwise, during the interminable 84-minute running time.

Spiderhole (2010)

Four reasonably attractive English art students decide that paying rent is for suckers, so they take up residence in a creepy, boarded up old mansion. Sure, squatting seems glamorous, but there are always unforeseen obstacles.

For example, no running water or electricity. Mysterious sounds in the night. And let’s not forget about the downstairs tenant, a deranged surgeon who periodically gasses his new guests, straps them to an operating table, and removes their body parts—while the latter scream, curse, and plead.

It’s a well-dressed effort by writer/director Daniel Simpson (the setting is suitably bleak and dreary), but Spiderhole is neither gory or excruciating enough to be torture porn, and it’s too damn slow to be a haunted-house hack ’em up.

Simpson valiantly tries to tie several gossamer-thin plot points together, but fails, as if finally throwing up his hands and admitting, “To hell with the story, let’s get back to cutting up the kids.”

He haphazardly chooses to reintroduce a minor subplot about a girl who’s been missing for 10 years (who cares?!) at the very end of the film, but by then the viewer has forgotten all about this earlier allusion that  amounts to nothing, anyway.

The same pointless nihilism that (to me, anyway) makes Hostel and all those Saw movies so uninteresting is at work here. Simply binding a victim and hurting them while they struggle and cry (and maybe even escape a time or two), is skull-crushingly dull, unless there’s a reasonable explanation for doing so.

Otherwise, you have, what exactly? Shrieking? Not scary, but very annoying, to be sure. Call me old fashioned, but I want to know why the victims are screaming and what they did to deserve it.

Scarecrows (1988)

Hmmm. I saw this one more than 20 years ago and I seem to remember it being a better movie.

Memories can play such cruel tricks…

Actually, it’s not half bad, but since it was made in the 1980s, you’ll have to overlook goofy haircuts.

Five military trained crooks make off with 3.5 million bucks from Camp Pendleton’s payroll department. The movie opens with the bad guys being flown to Mexico by a pilot and his daughter who are held at gunpoint.

No honor among thieves with this bunch, as one of the robbers, turncoat Bert (B.J. Turner), grabs the loot and bails out, landing in a creepy deserted cornfield.

Deserted by everyone, that is, except for the titular murderous scarecrows, who come to life and bag their limit.

Only the vaguest of reasons are given to explain why the scarecrows rise up and go on a killing spree, so if you’re a stickler for motivation, this won’t be your cup of grue. Suffice to say, the previous tenants of the family farm were into something devilish.

You might notice, too, that Bert’s dialogue seems to come out of nowhere, since we hear it while his lips clearly aren’t moving. Is he thinking out loud or is he a practicing ventriloquist?

Whatever the case, it’s distracting.

Also, the rest of the characters, in their quest to avoid being gutted and nailed to a pole, engage in some monumentally stupid behavior, which tends to suggest that their prowess as paramilitary bandits was more like a momentary stroke of luck.

To give writer-director William Wesley some credit, the cornfield setting is reasonably spooky and the scarecrows themselves are a pretty nasty bunch. Sadly, Scarecrows isn’t the action-packed fright fest that I remember, either.

Must have seen it during my drinking days—which should come to an end sooner or later.