Altar (2014)

You might as well toss a coin. Heads we watch, tails we skip.

Based on the well-worn premise that shit can always get worse if there’s a ghost on the loose, Altar is haunted house hijinks with a decent cast. At its best, the British production, written and directed by Nick Willing, serves up The Shining Lite for viewers satisfied with pedestrian paranormal thrills.

Renovation specialist Meg Hamilton (Olivia Williams) packs up her family and moves from London to the shadowy and desolate Yorkshire Moors, to restore a shadowy and desolate mansion once owned by a sorcerous couple back in Victorian times.

Husband Alec (Matthew Modine), a frustrated artist, immediately falls under the house’s malign influence after cutting his thumb and thoughtfully bleeding all over the goddamn place. He then retreats to his artist studio to brood and bleed some more.

With the parents absorbed in their respective career dramas, daughter Penny (Antonia Clarke) starts seeing spooks, while younger brother Harper (Adam Thomas Wright), is repeatedly told to go to his room by an increasingly frazzled Mum.

The story offers nothing new, as Alec eventually goes full-on Jack Torrance, and Meg is left to defend herself and the kids from Psycho Dad and his newfound enthusiasm for occult rituals.

Olivia Williams gives it a spirited go, but the spectral events in Altar are pretty routine, save for the ending itself, which is delightfully grim.

Whether an inspired conclusion is worth sitting through a mostly tepid setup, is something I can’t speak to at the moment.

Heads or tails, it’s your call.

 

Sweetheart (2019)

It’s a rare day in May when I can get the long-suffering Missus Sharky to watch a monster movie with me. Rarer still when she actually enjoys the experience.

Bolstered by a rocket-hot performance from actress Kiersey Clemons, Sweetheart is an absorbing and inventive survival thriller that pits lovely castaway Jenn (Clemons) against a nameless terror from the briny deep.

Nutshell: After a yachting kerfuffle, Jenn washes ashore on a tropical island, along with a soon-to-be-deceased shipmate. Despite some tears and false steps, the plucky party girl proves to be a natural hunter/gatherer, and for a brief movie moment, her basic needs are adequately met.

Cue monster.

It gradually dawns on Jenn that she’s competing for resources with a hulking amphibious biped that strolls from the surf on a nightly basis in search of snacks.

Her aquatic adversary sends Jenn back to basics, namely Fight or Flight. When her flotation device fails its buoyancy test, she’s left with the former option.

Time to sharpen some sticks.

Director and co-writer J.D. Dillard paints a fascinating creature feature that checks a number of positive boxes for me. What’s not to love about a resourceful (and OMG beautiful) heroine faced with a formidable, frightening foe, set on a scenic stretch of white-sand paradise?

Dillard’s camera eye emphasizes the wild desolation of the island and Jenn’s desperate measures to hide from, and observe, a creature the likes of which she’s never imagined.

Kiersey Clemons radiates fire, vulnerability, and kick-ass charisma as Jenn, a true survivor who simultaneously finds her inner warrior and rids herself of a condescending asshole boyfriend.

More likes this, please!

 

 

 

 

Would You Rather? (2012)

I knew the state of health care in America was bad, but having to submit to torture?

Actually, nothing is a surprise anymore. It’s just entropy in action.

Seeking a specialist for her dying brother, Iris (Brittany Snow) accepts an invitation to a VIP dinner thrown by philanthropist weirdo Shepherd Lambrick (Jeffrey Combs) in the hopes that she can wangle some dough out of him.

Lambrick and his “foundation” are known for lending a hand to folks down on their luck, and all Iris has to do to secure funding is win a game of Would You Rather? with seven other cash-strapped saps, while enjoying dinner and drinks.

It starts out with relatively low stakes. Iris, a vegetarian, chows down on a filet mignon for $10,000. Conway (John Heard), a reformed alcoholic, collects $50,000 for guzzling a decanter of whiskey.

After the preliminaries, the guests begin tormenting each other with a whipping stick, an ice pick, and a car battery.

Then it’s on to Let’s Make A Deal.

One by one, the contestants “drop” out of the competition until Iris is left with a moral dilemma; a seemingly lose-lose situation.

As I’ve previously stated, Torture Porn is one of my least favorite tropes. I honestly don’t care how ingenious the trap, or how hellish the torment—I need a good reason for these poor bastards to suffer.

If you can establish that, then by all means have at it.

In this case, as Lambrick points out, the dinner guests are requesting a great deal of money for their own reasons. Therefore, it’s only reasonable to give the prize to the one who proves they need it most. The financial straits that put them in Lambrick’s clutches are unimportant.

What matters are the principles they’re willing to sacrifice to improve their situation.

Would You Rather? is not a wholly original concept. I’m reminded of The Hunger Games, or The Simpsons episode where Homer humiliates himself for the amusement of Mr. Burns, who gives him cash for each dangerous stunt.

Yet it serves as an effective metaphor for a reality that is not fiction to millions of us. You know those death panels? They’re real.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pandemic (2016)

Nothing like a little light entertainment to help shake those quarantine blues.

Can we interest you in a first-person, point-and-shoot craptacular, with a side of zombie dressing?

Sporting a tagline of “You are humanity’s last stand,” Pandemic puts the viewer squarely behind rotating POV cameras in a breakneck race to save uninfected survivors in post-plague Los Angeles.

Nutshell: A virulent contagion has swept the nation, transforming average citizens into berserk cannibals. After the fall of New York, survivor Lauren (Rachel Nichols), heads to LA where doctors are in short supply.

Assigned to a four-person rescue team tasked with rounding up survivors and testing them for infection, Lauren, Gunner (Mekhi Phifer), Wheels (Alfie Allen), and Denise (Missi Pyle), cruise the streets in a retrofitted school bus, dodging and dispatching meat-seeking freaks and armed gangs of plunderers.

Although the team has been specifically ordered not to go in search of family members, this directive somehow gets lost in all the excitement, and personal agendas threaten to derail the mission.

My wife commented that Pandemic is more of a sketch than a movie, and there is truth to that. With only minimal time given to character exposition, it’s the seat-of-the-pants mayhem that’s designed to carry the story, and indeed, there’s no shortage of high-speed splatter.

Unfortunately, director John Suits doesn’t generate much actual adrenaline, and the action seldom rises above (old) video game quality. When the POV perspective shifts rapidly to different characters, it becomes disorienting trying to follow the identities amidst a barrage of choppy, spastic editing.

Instead of freely reveling in post-apocalyptic/undead shenanigans, it took Dustin Benson’s screenplay shifting its focus to Lauren’s private mission, to keep me involved on a basic level.

Rachel Nichols brings surprising depth to a role that could have been adequately filled by a CGI sock puppet, and her supporting cast, particularly Phifer and Pyle, more than pulls its own weight.

Pandemic does not break new ground or offer much in the way of spectacle, but time passes quickly, allowing us to put our own viral anxieties on the back burner.

That’s gotta be worth something, right?

 

 

The Witch In The Window (2018)

Heartwarming horror for the whole family?

Sure, why not? No one’s going anywhere in this pestilence.

Even without gushing gore or a massive body count, The Witch In The Window successfully induces chills the old-fashioned way, with well-written characters that find themselves in over their heads.

Simon (Alex Draper) is a dutiful part-time parent to Finn (Charlie Tacker), an articulate 12-year-old suffering from abandonment issues and existential dread. In an effort to bond with the moody kid, Simon invites Finn along to help him restore and flip an old house in rural Vermont.

It’s a realistically awkward trip, with plenty of failed conversations. The estranged duo eventually form an alliance when they realize the former tenant was an evil witch (Carol Stanzione) who’s trying to make a comeback.

Like that Spielberg dude, writer-director Andy Mitton strategically places the father-son dynamic squarely in the middle of the action, as Simon, a perpetual underachiever, decides that what he wants most is “a good house” for his family.

You have to admire that kind of commitment.

As an avid peruser of unattainable real estate, I could have told Simon that a good house in the country is hard to find. There’s always unforeseen issues with the wiring or the foundation or whatever, and it pays to be a flexible negotiator.

To Simon’s credit, he gets a killer deal. This place has acreage, a pond, and functional outbuildings.

On the downside, there’s a live-in caretaker whether you want one or not.

 

 

Hell House LLC (2016)

In which the haunters become the haunted.

Five friends form a professional haunt company, staging elaborate Halloween tours in creepy locations. The opening of their latest attraction is not entirely successful, as most of the staff ends up deceased in gruesome fashion.

The police and civic authorities shut down subsequent investigations, but five years after the Halloween Holocaust, a documentary crew attempts to solve the mystery by tracking down and interviewing the lone survivor.

For fans of the found-footage genre, Hell House LLC doesn’t disappoint. Writer-director Stephen Cognetti peppers the premises with ghosts, demons, a Satanic cult, a big scary clown, and enough paranormal pageantry to make up for any quandaries about who’s supposed to be running the camera in this scene.

I cheerfully recommend the movie, and may go so far as to check out the two sequels it inspired.

Note to filmmakers on a budget: Behold the beauty of a found-footage film; the iPhone cinematography actually enhances the dreadful atmosphere, forcing the trembling viewer to strain for every grainy terror captured.

The very existence of sequels to Hell House LLC proves that someone made their money back—and that’s enough to keep the iPhones rolling.

 

Body At Brighton Rock (2019)

Two words: Deceptively simple.

On the surface, writer-director Roxanne Benjamin’s Body At Brighton Rock is about a novice national park employee (Karina Fontes) who discovers a corpse on a remote hiking trail.

Benjamin vaults from this premise into a a vast, confusing wilderness where predators lurk behind every tree, and a tenderfoot’s training is put to the test.

We quickly learn that part-time park guide Wendy (Fontes) isn’t the most motivated employee, after she shows up late (again) for the daily assignment posting. Wendy’s friends waste no time in reminding her that she’s more of an “indoor” type and not really suited to the more rugged demands of national park stewardship.

Shamed by her coworkers’ low opinion, Wendy swaps duties with her pal Maya (Emily Althaus), and sets out on a lengthy hike to post new seasonal signs all the way up a distant peak.

As it turns out, Wendy’s posse is very perceptive. The neophyte ranger loses her map and ends up in the middle of nowhere with a dead cell phone and a walkie-talkie that looks like it came out of a cereal box.

Let’s add one dead body, a vaguely menacing stranger (Casey Adams), and claw marks on tree bark to ensure young Wendy spends a sleepless night jumping at every snapped twig.

Body At Brighton Rock looks and sounds like a survival situation, and it is. But Benjamin intuitively pushes a number of buttons that ramp up the tension to include Wendy’s understandable self-doubts about her ability to handle some very intense circumstances.

The movie also works as an engrossing coming-of-age vision quest with a bit of Hitchcock’s The Trouble With Harry thrown in for good measure.

Deceptively simple, highly recommended.

 

Babysitter Wanted (2008)

The subject is babysitters. Talk about a thankless job. Minimum wage, shitty snacks, bratty kids, and knife-wielding maniacs? Hard pass.

But what can you do when you have no bed to sleep in? Get a job, slacker.

Angie (Sarah Thompson) is a new student at a Northern California community college, with a dorm room that includes a sullen stoner roommate, but sadly, no bed. Beneath a bunch of Missing Person fliers on the community bulletin board, she finds a number for a babysitting job.

Once employment is secured, Angie looks forward to eventually getting a good night’s sleep.

Complications abound. The job is way out in the boonies and Angie’s shitbox car won’t make it. Also, there seems to be a horribly scarred bald dude following her.

At this point, Angie could probably write off her anxiety as a bad case of freshman jitters, since Jim Stanton (Bruce Thomas) and his wife Violet (Kristen Dalton) appear to be honest, hardworking farmers who just need someone to watch their little boy, Sam (Kai Caster).

What could possibly go wrong? Let’s put it this way: the scary scarred dude is the least of her worries.

In my estimation, writer and co-director Jonas Barnes utilizes the babysitter premise far more effectively than Ti West did in the similarly themed House of the Devil, which came out the following year in 2009.

While West is undoubtedly a gifted visual stylist, HotD comes across as a painfully self-aware exercise in genre clothes. The onscreen shocks were distant and removed, as though filmed through a dispassionate filter.

Babysitter Wanted is savage and satisfyingly visceral, with a cast that plays it to the hilt, including the always-dependable Bill Moseley in a rare non-maniac role.

Sarah Thompson, who looks a bit like Jennifer Garner, imbues Final Girl Angie with fire and fortitude, which comes in mighty handy when the kid she’s being paid to watch wakes up hungry as hell.

Wouldn’t you know it? He’s got dietary restrictions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Void (2016)

Have a hankering for some top-notch cosmic horror? Then come and get it, Lovecraft Lovers! The Void is a veritable smorgasbord of guts, gory rituals, and tentacled abominations from beyond time and space.

Writer/directors Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski are clearly captivated by the works of John Carpenter (particularly The Thing and Assault On Precinct 13), Stuart Gordon, and the body horror of David Cronenberg. Their approach is to dole out generous portions of oozing carnage that saturates the landscape like blood gravy on hell-baked biscuits.

Daniel Carter (Aaron Poole) is a small-town deputy getting ready to call it a night when he encounters a stumbling, bloody stranger (Evan Stern) in need of assistance. You can tell it’s a small town, because the nearest hospital is on the verge of closing and only staffed by a skeleton crew, including Carter’s soon-to-be ex-wife Allison (Kathleen Munroe) and kindly old Dr. Powell (Kenneth Welsh).

Things go from bad to nightmare bad as the hospital inhabitants discover they’ve been cut off from civilization by a squad of whacked-out cultists in white robes awaiting a cosmic event. To make matters worse, patient and doctor alike begin changing—and not for the better.

There are no slow parts to The Void; it opens with a woman being set on fire and never pauses for breath. The requisite character development is handled swiftly and cleanly, coming to light as needed when Carter, Allison, and Doc Powell take extreme measures to fill their own personal voids.

The results are cataclysmic. Turns out when the stars are right, you can change the world. And not for the better.

 

Dead Birds (2004)

Just a quick note to would-be bank robbers: Make sure you have a safe hideout after the job.

It’s part of your due diligence. I mean, how hard is it to send over a priest or gypsy to check the place out for evil spirits and whatnot?

A band of confederate renegades rip off a gold shipment from an Alabama bank during the War Between the States. They shoot lots of folks in the attempt and once their financial goals are met, the bandits beat a hasty retreat to wait out a storm at an abandoned plantation.

Natch, there’s friction within the organization. William (Henry Thomas) is in charge, but subordinates Clyde (Michael Shannon) and Joseph (Mark Boone, Jr) have designs on moving up by stealing the loot before they rendezvous in Mexico.

William’s younger brother Sam (Patrick Fugit) took a bullet during the robbery, and seems to be fading fast. Todd (Isaiah Washington), a runaway slave, gets creeped out by an occult grimoire he discovers in the barn, and Annabelle (Nicki Aycox) wants the hell out of there, ASAP.

Director Alex Turner and writer Simon Barrett meticulously wrap the action in a constricting shroud of understated, slow-burn dread, and the production is better for it. Tensions mount incrementally as the thunderstorm roars to a crescendo over the evil house, awakening the former tenants.

At this point, Turner and Barrett wisely turn the taps on full, and let the pinot flow. Dead Birds is a curious film and definitely worth watching as an intriguing stylistic anomaly. It’s not every day you find a Lovecraftian Western with a decent body count.