Rest Stop (2006)

Next time you’re driving through remote, unfamiliar terrain and you feel the call of nature, please consider making other arrangements.

Nicole (Jaimie Alexander) and her BF Jess (Joe Mendocino) leave drab Oklahoma in the rearview and take off on a road trip to begin a new life in Los Angeles.

The only things standing in the way are Jaimie’s tiny bladder and a wily serial killer in an old Ford pickup.

After having sex and getting lost, the couple pulls into a grimy Rest Stop where Jaimie must pee in a substandard Ladies Room. She emerges to find Jess has disappeared, apparently abducted by a guy in a yellow pickup, that patrols the area like a shark.

Trapped in the grotty commode, Jaimie passes the time by reading doomed messages written over the years by victims of the trucker-capped fiend known as KZL 303—the very same maniac currently forcing her into a vicious game of cat and mouse.

Rest Stop is a nifty (and nasty) example of the Killer on the Road genre, which includes the likes of Joy Ride, The Hitcher, Breakdown, and of course, Duel, directed by a young Steven Spielberg.

Writer-director John Shiban successfully taps a rich vein of dread by constantly reminding us of how vulnerable we are once we leave the highway. So much so that even a seemingly benign comfort station can be a deadly trap.

As a lifetime horror fan, my advice to incontinent road trippers is to keep driving. And never accept a ride from a Winnebago.

 

 

 

From The Dark (2014)

It’s time to play Name That Creature!

Vampire? Ghoul? Revenant? Other?

A reasonably attractive couple experiences car trouble while touring the Irish countryside. This wouldn’t normally be a big deal, except their mishap coincides with the accidental resurrection of an undead dude by a clumsy sod farmer.

After holing up in the farmer’s house, Fay (Niamh Algar) takes charge of their situation, maintaining a level head under extreme duress. Mark (Stephen Cromwell) reverts to a whiny little piss pants.

Fay figures out the monster is extremely light averse and sensibly surrounds herself with headlights, lanterns, candles, lamps, lighters, and a cell phone, all while trying to keep her doofus husband conscious and motivated.

Writer-director Conor McMahon (Stitches) skillfully renders From The Dark in miniature, with only four characters in the whole movie, including the living dead one (Ged Murray). The events unfold in real time, with no atmospheric cutaways.

McMahon keeps the camera tightly focused on Fay’s anguished face, her head on a swivel trying to get a bead on a shrouded figure who’s at home in the darkness.

But what is it?

A vampire, probably, but at times behaves more like a slobbering ghoul, this creature doesn’t speak a word. He just comes and goes until the inevitable showdown right before dawn.

It’s a well-conceived monster, if a bit insubstantial at times.

There are pacing problems. From The Dark roars out of the gate like a cyclone and calms down considerably in the Second Act, as the couple sweats it out in captivity.

But that sweet, sweet tension is never far away, and Fay knows she’s in for a real street fight.

 

 

 

Screamers (1979)

You can tell Screamers is pure Italian schlock because the monsters are dripping with olive oil.

Originally titled Island Of The Fishmen, it’s a bit of an H.G. Wells mashup of Mysterious Island and The Island of Dr. Moreau, as Claude, a young naval doctor (Claudio Cassinelli) washes ashore in the Caribbean after the sinking of the prison ship to which he was assigned.

He and two surviving prisoners are taken to the wicker plantation home of wealthy misanthrope Edmond Rackham (Richard Johnson) and his stunning lady friend Amanda Marvin (Barbara Bach, aka Mrs. Ringo Starr). Together they preside over a household of voodoo enthusiasts, led by high priestess Shakira (Beryl Cunningham).

A tired-looking Joseph Cotten shows up long enough to play Amanda’s mad (but seemingly decent) scientist pappy, who is determined to create a new race of oily gill men to populate the oceans of the world. His experiments are then employed by Rackham as cheap labor to loot the treasure vault of a nearby submerged temple.

Oh yeah, and it’s a volcanic island that’s gonna blow any second.

Directed by giallo veteran Sergio Martino (Slave Of The Cannibal God, Torso, Blade Of The Ripper), Screamers isn’t nearly good enough to be lost treasure, but it’s brisk, watchable trash with a decent budget, and Barbara Bach is radiant.

I already checked, you don’t have anything better to do.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Blackout: Invasion Earth (2019)

No need to overthink it. The Blackout is a slam-bang, sci-fi, action blockbuster from Russia that’s certain to hold your attention long after the Milk Duds harden.

Borrowing from well-sourced material like Starship Troopers, Alien, and War of the Worlds, directors Egor Baranov and Nathalia Hencker have dropped a fairly epic slab of space spectacle on our heads, featuring a cast of brave comrades from the former Soviet Union battling an unearthly menace.

Nutshell: The Earth has gone dark except for one small circle of civilization in Eastern Europe. Russian troops are deployed, but prove mostly useless against an unseen enemy that sends wave after wave of brainwashed bears and people at their shrinking defenses.

All seems lost until the arrival of Id (Atryom Tkachenko), an alien with godlike powers (but no mouth), who offers the beleaguered survivors a possible solution to the impending invasion.

“But at what cost?” as the saying goes.

Seen mostly from the grunt’s-eye view of two soldiers, Oleg (Aleksey Chadov) and Grubov (Pyotr Fyodorov), The Blackout serves up balls-to-the-wall military gear excitement and plenty of narrow escapes, while bodies pile up to the heavens.

Having the aliens enslave millions of human subjects and making them fight against the Russian holdouts is a brilliant strategy that also saves tons of money on the special effects budget.

No need for Godzilla to stomp Tokyo when there’s plenty of domestic cannon fodder at hand.

Thankfully, even at 2-hours plus, there’s no lag time in The Blackout, and that’s worth plenty in my book, especially since it’s light on CGI.

Turns out there’s nothing wrong with old-fashioned blood and guts.

 

 

 

 

The Marshes (2018)

Another camping trip gone to hell thanks to poor social distancing. Let’s face it: Maniacs have no respect for boundaries.

Three biology students from an Australian university are studying water samples in a vast, remote marshy area. As is usually the case in rural communities, the eggheads run afoul of Aussie-brand hicks, hunters, and hillbillies, who take time out from their skinning and gutting duties to harass the learned strangers.

Pria (Dafna Kronental) assumes a leadership role, but her group’s proximity to the bloody and brutal poachers erodes her confidence and she starts having bad dreams.

Gradually, the three academics intuit they’re being stalked by an apex predator with a taste for human burgers.

From a biological standpoint, Pria and her comrades are now a trio of tasty specimens caught in a primitive web, and as the tagline blithely exclaims, “When Science Ends, Survival Begins.”

The spider rapidly making its way toward them is a legendary swamp cannibal known as the Swag Man (Eddie Baroo), presumably because he gives his victims free t-shirts and lighters before devouring their flesh.

Writer-director Roger Scott keeps us off-balance with an eye-popping arsenal of swinging camera moves and perspective shifts that make the marshland scenery appear impenetrable, menacing, and steadily encroaching on the anxious scientists.

Certainly The Marshes would fit snugly alongside any number of “trespasser beware” features, including Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, and Wolf Creek, another grueling import from Down Under.

For a non-horror comparison, I was also favorably reminded of director Walter Hill’s Vietnam metaphor, Southern Comfort, which remains an all-time favorite survival shocker.

Overlord (2018)

Underwhelmed is more like it.

By most standards, Overlord is a pretty cool WW II movie about a platoon of parachutists dropped behind enemy lines in occupied France. Told from the point of view of a nervous black soldier (Jovan Adepo), the squad members who don’t perish upon landing hit the ground and regroup near a small village.

Their mission is to blow up a strategic tower held by the Nazis to pave the way for the imminent Allied invasion.

The soldiers discover that the Nazis are performing weird science experiments on the local peasant community and Boyce (Adepo) pauses the mission to lend a hand.

This is all well and good, if you’re in the mood for a bracing war movie. My complaint with name producer J.J. Abrams is that Overlord underperforms as a horror movie.

While the battle sequences are reasonably compelling, we don’t get to the monster portion of the program till well past the 70-minute mark.

And to be honest, it was just okay. Fine even.

The effects, makeup and set demolition are on point, and Kommander Wafner (Pilou Asbaek) is a formidable uber-villain.

But director Julius Avery and writer Billy Ray spend far too much screen time cooped up in the attic of plucky French partisan Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier), establishing the presence of Chloe’s dopey kid brother Paul (Gianny Taufer).

As we all know, this is for the sole purpose of predictably using him as a hostage bargaining chip going forward.

I wish that the brain trust behind Overlord would have allotted more time and energy to creating memorable monsters, with less concern for conventional plot devices.

The nasty Nazi hybrids that we spend the entire film waiting for, are too few and far between to mount much of a threat, and that’s my chief beef.

I recall a trailer for Overlord two years ago that blew me away, breathlessly hinting at Third Reich abominations the likes of which we’ve never seen.

Unfortunately, I’ve seen Frankenstein’s Army, and it’s a much better and weirder horror movie, along similar lines.

Despite my ire, this isn’t a negative review. Overlord is solid entertainment that promises more than it delivers, never really cashing in on the story’s monstrous potential.

 

 

Demon Wind (1990)

Sam Raimi and The Evil Dead = The Velvet Underground.

I accept that it’s not a perfect analogy, but you get where I’m coming from. It’s an undeniable influence.

Nearly 10 years after Raimi and Bruce Campbell caught lightning in a bottle, Charles Phillip Moore and his crew unveiled a delightfully unfettered homage, Demon Wind, about another bunch of old teenagers assailed by occult forces in a rural location.

Corey (Eric Larson) and his girlfriend Elaine (Francine Lapensée) meet up with a group of friends and stereotypes to solve the mystery of Corey’s grandparents, who perished under mysterious circumstances during the Great Depression.

Turns out the family farm (more of a tattered theater set, really) is on land originally claimed by a devil-loving preacher and his followers who were set ablaze by townsfolk with no taste for human sacrifice.

Once Corey and his comrades reach the farm, all hell breaks loose, and suddenly, we’re at a Dead show, with ghouls coming out of the woodwork.

I’m not recommending Demon Wind because it’s a brilliantly conceived film that was nurtured to life by the artistic vision of writer-director Charles Phillip Moore.

Rather, it’s the sort of slap-dash amateurism (it was filmed in seven days) that drove Ed Wood to create flying saucers out of paper plates and a cockpit from a shower curtain.

Necessity is indeed the mother of invention, and the makeup and practical effects on Demon Wind, though plentiful, range from barely adequate to comically half-assed.

Moore employs a similarly scattergun approach to the narrative, seizing and abandoning ideas with random enthusiasm.

One of the doomed kids, Chuck (Stephen Quadros), is a magician with a black belt. His friend Stacy (Jack Forcinito) has a shotgun with unlimited ammunition.

Chuck still carries a torch for Terri (Lynn Clark) who now belongs to homophobic meathead Dell (Bobby Johnston).

Poor Bonnie (Sherrie Bendorf) gets turned into a doll, and no one seems to care.

Magic spells are cast. You can tell because that’s when the bloopy, hand-drawn animation appears.

The entire cast looks as though it just stepped out of a Huey Lewis video. Feel free to hit pause and ridicule the myriad lame looks available to pre-grunge adolescents.

And don’t worry about Corey’s friends dying. When the pack gets thin, Amazon thoughtfully sends more.

Stinky cheese makes the tastiest snack, no?

Terrifier (2016)

Move over, Pennywise. There’s a new clown in town, one without pity or dialogue.

Ladies and gentlemen, Art the Clown (David Howard Thornton).

There’s little setup necessary in Terrifier. It’s Halloween. There’s a killer clown at large. What else do you need?

After a night of fending off creeps, Tara (Jenna Kanell) and Dawn (Catherine Corcoran), a couple of pickled party girls, stop off for a slice of pizza in the hopes that one of them will eventually be sober enough to drive home.

While perusing the menu, they are in turn perused by the next customer, a plainly fiendish harlequin, who says nary a word. Incapable of miming his toppings, the clown gets 86’d by the brusque owner of the establishment (Gino Caferelli).

And thus the fuse is lit and the carnage cannon can commence firing.

Art the Clown kills people because he thinks it’s funny, explains a character identified as Cat Lady. “But it’s not funny, because people die,” she concludes.

Talk about a weird sense of humor. Art the Clown doesn’t merely murder his victims, he creates gory performance art installations.

He chases victims atop a wee tricycle with a little beeping horn. He stomps one guy’s head like a pumpkin (big shoes!), and removes another head to make a jack-o-lantern.

For his big-finish showstopper, Art non-magically saws a woman in half.

Even when he prosaically resorts to using a gun, it’s not for the sake of efficiency, but because he likes to make holes in people’s faces.

Terrifier is an absurdly gruesome and bloody spectacle, and writer-director Damien Leone leaves no jugular unsevered, layering one darkly delicious death on top of another like an evil cake boss.

The silently menacing clown, a sinister cross of Harpo Marx and Pagliacci, is indeed terrifying. Actor David Howard Thornton demonstrates an impressive range of skills, including dexterity and marvelous comic timing.

Only it isn’t funny because people die. Fortunately, they do pass in entertaining fashion.

 

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!