The Happening (2008)

And back for a return visit to the director’s chair is our ol’ pal M. Night Shyamalan! Hope he brought snacks.

The Happening is one of those Shyamalan features that feels very insubstantial, with an ending bound to elicit cries of “That’s it?”

Nigel Floyd from Time Out, summed it up thusly: “At first, a great deal happens, then nothing much happens for quite some time, then something so underwhelming happens that one is left wondering, ‘Did that really just happen?'”

It doesn’t help that stars Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel have precious little chemistry as Elliott and Alma Moore, a couple on the run from an unspecified menace.

Shyamalan can take some of the blame. His dialogue is so wooden you could build a raft out of it.

It could be argued, however, that MNS movies are seldom character studies in the traditional sense, but rather about subjects adapting to extreme situations.

In this case, the Moores, along with most of the eastern seaboard are fleeing from a mysterious ill wind that upon contact motivates humans to destroy themselves in gruesome fashion.

Fortunately, Elliott is a science teacher so he hypothesizes his head off, and figures out the virus is being produced by sentient plant life. Needless to say, the shrubs are pretty damn unhappy with our stewardship of the planet, and their intent is to pull a few weeds out of the garden.

Timing is everything in show business. The Happening wasn’t a commercial or critical success upon its release, but it certainly has more impact on an audience today, having collectively experienced the Covid-19 crisis and an ongoing pandemic.

Not only that, my allergies are killing me. I think MNS deserves credit for anticipating floral warfare.

Frankenstein: Day Of The Beast (2011)

Frankenstein: Day Of The Beast is the low-budget shocker being watched by the doomed audience in The Last Matinee when the maniac (played by Ricardo Islas, the writer-director of this film) goes on his cinematic killing rampage.

Truth be told, I was intrigued enough by the footage to give it a shot, and it turned out to be worth the effort.

In this version of the Frankenstein tale, Victor Frankenstein (Adam Stephenson) has fled to a remote island to wed his beloved Elizabeth (Michelle Shields).

Victor has employed a squad of mercenaries to keep her safe, but the monster (Tim Krueger, who’s quite good) has promised his creator that he would appear on his wedding night to take her.

Islas stays fairly faithful to Mary Shelley’s source material, but departs from the template in significant ways. This incarnation of the Frankenstein Monster is pure evil, with no grey area. He kills in extravagantly brutal fashion, bifuracting one unlucky guard with intestines on full display. Another gets his spine removed, and a blind man is forced to swallow his own cane.

The monster also eats human flesh, so there’s that. Apparently mangling his victims wasn’t sufficient to inspire terror. This guy bites faces off and rips throats out with his teeth.

How downright monstrous!

As the title implies, Frankenstein: Day Of The Beast is a more elemental take on a familiar story, one that doesn’t hold back on the blood and guts, and allows no sympathy for the monster, who doesn’t speak, but occasionally laughs cruelly.

The aforementioned budget limitations show up in various forms, from flimsy sets to terrible acting by supporting characters, but Islas clearly understands what makes Frankenstein’s creation so damned frightening. He is a relentless enemy who can’t be destroyed.

So what are you gonna do? As the vengeful Mohawk says to Max in The Road Warrior, “You can run, but you can’t hide.”

Ghost Team (2016)

I don’t generally award points for amiability, but somehow Ghost Team managed the feat.

A bunch of goofy ghost chasers get a shot at a real spook surveillance mission, where they must confront dark forces and come together as a team.

As you’ve already guessed, it’s a crew of unhappy misfits looking for something meaningful in their failed lives. Team leader Louis (Jon Heder) is a nonentity who owns a copy shop in a strip mall.

Louis’s depressed BFF, Stan (David Krumholtz), lives on the couch, unable to get past the delusion that his fiancee was abducted by aliens—on their wedding day.

“Why else wouldn’t she be there?” he asks Louis between sobs.

Every team needs a tech wizard, so we also meet Louis’s nephew Zak (Paul W. Downs), a sarcastic prick with access to killer gear, thanks to his job at a Big Box electronics store.

Security guard Ross (Justin Long) is a reasonably brave moron with a military fetish, and Victoria (Amy Sedaris) is a sketchy cable-access clairvoyant looking to get paid.

Finally, there’s Ellie (Melonie Diaz), the pretty Latina who works at the nail salon next door to Louis’s print shop. She signs on to do hair and makeup since everything is being filmed.

The various members of Ghost Team suffer from comically low self-esteem related to their crummy careers, except Stan, who doesn’t have one.

“You remember when you were a kid, and you dreamed one day you’d own your own print and copy shop?” Louis asks Ellie. “Me neither.”

Underdogs. Nerds. Nobodies. The odds are certainly stacked against them. Spirits are lifted with the arrival of matching yellow Ghost Team t-shirts. Sadly, they couldn’t afford the sweet jackets.

Through a timely tip from a copy shop customer, Ghost Team stakes out a remote, boarded up farmhouse and bust out Zak’s “borrowed” ghost-busting gadgets.

Instead of paranormal pratfalls, they stumble upon a meth lab staffed by junkies, who look and act like traditional zombies, leading to a splashy paintball shootout.

Jon Heder provides earnest strength as Louis, the fledgling leader who shows genuine concern for his newfound comrades.

Written and directed by Oliver Irving, Ghost Team is a consistently amusing haunted house caper with heart, one that works best as a team-building exercise. No, it’s not very intense, but if you’re not careful you will be won over by a winning cast of losers.

The Deeper You Dig (2019)

“Tell my mother what happened to me!”

“It was an accident!”

The admittedly tragic circumstance at the heart of The Deeper You Dig is indeed, an accident. What comes after is not. You would do well to pay attention.

Somewhere amidst the wintery rural recesses of upstate New York, Ivy Allen (Toby Poser) makes a living as a phony fortune teller, and apparently does well enough to support her 14-year-old daughter Echo (Zelda Adams), a sullen goth whose musical tastes include early 20th-century hit parade.

Just down the street, Kurt Miller (John Adams) is the new guy in town, fixing up a decrepit house in the hopes of a quick flip. This is all the setup we get before having to deal with a deadly event that traps all three characters into a single tense, tormented timeline.

Co-written and directed by Adams and Poser, and featuring their daughter, Zelda, The Deeper You Dig is a tight-as-a-drum domestic horror/occult revenge drama without an ounce of flab on it.

Kurt and Ivy’s parallel stories (him trying to escape a grim fate; her finding a missing daughter and rediscovering her gift), collide when Echo’s ghost comes a-haunting, effectively bedeviling Kurt by permanently fixing his radio to the Oldies Channel.

Meanwhile, Ivy interprets the signs left for her and finally makes direct contact with her daughter’s shade by mystical means.

The reunion scene in the forest, where Echo hovers above Ivy in the trees, is genuinely weird and otherworldly.

Major props to Toby Poser and John Adams (they even composed the screechy electronic score!) for concentrating not on their measly budget, but on inventing a dark and detailed world. Evildoers are not only punished here, they are recycled, reused, and renewed.

Fewer carbon footprints is a good thing.

Till Death (2021)

We’ve all had one of those nights. Maybe not quite as bad as the one in Till Death, but you know what I mean.

After an evening of sweet lovemaking at their secluded lake house, Emma (Megan Fox) awakens handcuffed to her very dead, attorney husband Mark (Eoin Macken).

As if this wasn’t enough of a predicament, the same thug (Callan Mulvey) that stabbed her during a robbery years before, is apparently dropping by to finish the job.

The vast majority of Till Death‘s running time tracks Emma’s excruciating adventures as she slides awkwardly into survival mode, with her late hubby serving as a constant ball and chain.

Director SK Dale and writer Jason Carvey make things rough on poor Emma, who proves to be more resilient than a powerful man’s trophy wife should be.

Tellingly, of all the items she has at her disposal, it’s Emma’s wedding dress that serves her best, both as bandage material, and as a travois for hauling a stiffening corpse around the frozen countryside.

Till Death works as a teeth-grinding thriller and as a visceral metaphor for the honeymoon being over in a big way. It’s in darkly comic top form when all the desperate parties are present and the cards are on the table—the same one Emma attempts to turn on her would-be assailants.

She was not a good wife. But Emma refuses to go down with the sinking matrimonial ship.

Lucky for her, she got custody of the survival instincts.

Tourist Trap (1979)

It’s always a trip to catch a TV icon in a weird little genre film. In the case of Tourist Trap, we’re fortunate to observe The Rifleman himself, Chuck Connors, chewing the scenery as the deranged proprietor of a roadside museum called Slauson’s Lost Oasis.

Written and directed by David Schmoeller (Puppet Master, Crawlspace), Tourist Trap begins with car trouble on a lonely road for five young adults (20? 30?) who are “rescued” from the elements by Slauson (Connors), an overall-clad rube who once ran a profitable frontier wax museum in the area.

Sadly, the new highway choked off the customer flow to Lost Oasis, so now it’s just Slauson and a house full of mannequins that occasionally come to life and scream their displeasure.

The victims, including future Charlie’s Angel Tonya Roberts, wisely decide to go explore the creepy manor house one at a time so they can be easily captured by Slauson (or his masked transvestite brother) and converted into shaking mannequins.

So lifelike! Such realistic skin.

In what may be a case of gilding the lily, Slauson also has telekinetic abilities that he uses to shake things up and kill people remotely when his presence is required elsewhere.

Now that’s multitasking!

To his credit, Connors is marvelous as a really kooky dude who misses his wife and his livelihood. He’s not quite as over-the-top batshit as Rory Calhoun in Motel Hell, but he constantly introduces new facets to Slauson’s madness, creating a more well-rounded maniac.

I believe Tourist Trap was remade in 2005 as House Of Wax, a vehicle for the thespian talents of Paris Hilton. There’s less blood in the original, but it’s way wackier.

Vintage weird that’s worth the search.

The Last Matinee (2020)

We’re rolling down South America way for a truly international salute to Italian giallo cinema, that takes place inside a cinema.

In The Last Matinee, a handful of unlucky patrons and staff encounter a thoroughly disgusting maniac who eats the eyeballs of his victims!

Me? I prefer Junior Mints.

Writer-director Maxiliano Contenti hails from Montevideo, the capital city of Uruguay, where The Last Matinee unfolds on a furiously dark and rainy evening in 1993.

Industrious engineering student Ana (Luciana Grasso) is taking a shift in the projection booth, hoping to dodge the clumsy attention of Mauricio (Pedro Duarte) a boring usher with no game to speak of.

In the theater itself, a few parties settle in for a viewing of Frankenstein: Day of the Beast. There’s a couple on their first date, a little kid (Franco Duran), who hides in the aisle to see a grisly horror film, a trio of smart-ass teens sipping on a hooch bottle, and a grumpy old geezer who just wants to enjoy the movie.

While their collective gaze is locked on the onscreen atrocities, a beefy lunatic in a trench coat (Ricardo Islas) is stealthily carving up the “crowd” until the small audience gets noticeable smaller.

Editor’s note: Ricardo Islas, who plays the killer, also directed the gruesome Frankenstein feature being watched by the victims. How’s that for symmetry?

Contenti assembles a dreary little theater world peopled by very mundane citizens. When the action ramps up, the safe and predictable reality is shattered, heralded by blasts of dissonant synthesizer that generally indicates a crazed killer has entered the building.

Once the madman has announced his presence with a few preliminary cuts, the lurid elements of operatic horror (there is a poster of Dario Argento’s Opera on the wall) snap into place.

Doomed moviegoers are artfully slain and fall, like snack-bar sweets, to the cinema floor as seen through the eyes of poor little Tomas, the urchin who spends most of the film cowering in the darkness from authority and maniac alike.

A little parental discretion would have been a good idea. Tomas is going to need years of therapy.

Contenti isn’t the first filmmaker to draw a parallel line between screen violence and the behavior of deranged of individuals, but The Last Matinee is reverently rendered as a tribute to the giallo school, even if it lacks some of the top-drawer flair demonstrated by the masters of the craft.

The message comes through loud and clear, to those of us watching. We willingly put ourselves in the grip of horrifying stories. Buying a ticket is a contract that puts us is in the same line of fire as the characters.

And that’s the thrill of it all. Just ask Tomas, if you can find him.

To his credit, Contenti’s most vivid creation is the eyeball-chomping killer. Shortly before the conclusion, a few tattered survivors witness the fiend lustily chowing down on his favorite snack, just as they were minutes before with popcorn. This moment is such an over-the-top freakout, you could get whiplash.

It’s a surefire scream scenario that also folds in neatly with an earlier visual point of reference. Nicely done!

The Last Matinee is not the last we’ll be hearing from Maximiliano Contenti, that’s for certain.

Settle in and get comfortable, because there’s no walking out once the movie starts.

Antlers (2021)

“It all makes sense, you see. I mean, our ancestral spirits never died. They were here long before we were, and they’ll be here long after we’re gone. But now, they’re angry.”

Dark times call for dark movies. Antlers is a coal mine at midnight.

The opening observation comes from Warren Stokes (Graham Greene), the former sheriff of Cispus Falls, a blighted Oregon town where mutilated citizens are appearing with alarming frequency.

The current sheriff, Paul Meadows (Jesse Plemons), is seeking counsel. He’s out of his depth and confused, hypothesizing a cougar or bear attack is responsible for the mayhem.

Meanwhile, Paul’s schoolmarm sister Julia (Keri Russell) is trying to figure out why her sullen student Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas) is drawing pictures of demons and monsters.

In Antlers, all the dots connect to the decline of the planet’s structural integrity. Our systematic “pillaging of Mother Earth” has opened the door to indigenous spirits, most notably the Wendigo, a voracious cannibal that inhabits evil men.

Just below the narrative surface of this riveting supernatural thriller lurks mounting evidence of an infected society that has no access to spiritual vaccine.

Cispus Falls is a moribund mining town, an urban landscape littered with old machinery and empty storefronts, where the only thriving business is meth production.

Deep-rooted trauma is the norm. Julia, a recovering alcoholic with her own childhood of parental abuse, eyes liquor bottles at the store with palpable longing, searching for strength and comfort from any source.

In the background, the news drones on about the opioid epidemic, failing industries, and environmental collapse.

Kerri Russell owns her role as a damaged, unhappy woman who realizes her altruistic motives for helping Lucas are likely futile, but it’s marginally better than giving in to the despair that runs deep in these parts.

She recognizes the telltale signs of abuse in Lucas’s haunted face, a reflection of a home life that is literally hellish. He is a child doomed to maintaining the monstrous status quo at his house, while his younger brother Aidan (Sawyer Jones) is held captive by something that used to be their meth-cooking father (Scott Haze).

The thing Lucas calls “New Dad” is growing increasingly hungry and his grocery list requires fresh meat.

“Is God really dead?” Aidan asks Lucas. “Daddy said God is dead.”

Director Scott Cooper, working alongside executive producer/malevolent maestro Guillermo del Toro, has constructed a thoroughly ravaged world with precious little light—one that is bone-chillingly familiar.

Hey, isn’t that our civilization crumbling?

There are moments of brain-freezing terror in Antlers, including horned creature craft with genuine nightmare potential, a del Toro calling card.

Yet it’s the overall tone that proves the most unsettling factor, because it presents a terminally ill worldview, a pandemic of the soul that never ends.

There may be small victories to be had, individuals worth saving, but the inescapable conclusion is that humanity is fighting a losing battle with havoc we’ve wrought on ourselves.

In nearly every scene, Julia and Paul (the good guys) are stymied by inadequacy and failure. The coroner is apologetic because he can’t explain how the victims were killed. A doctor is unable to predict if a patient will recover. The harried school principal (Amy Madigan) tells Julia she isn’t allowed to intervene on a student’s behalf.

Even Paul admits he was reluctant to take the sheriff’s job, which mainly consists of evicting local homeowners.

“Everyone thinks these problems are just going to go away, and we know that they don’t,” Julia tells him. She could be referring to any number of societal symptoms depicted in Antlers.

The wound runs too deep, there’s no saving this patient. The downward spiral is well under way and no one’s getting off.

Hope you like it bleak.

Old (2021)

We’ve discussed M. Night Shyamalan’s work here before, and true to form, his new feature, Old has elicited sharply mixed reviews. Rotten Tomatoes has them squarely at 50 percent favorable.

Siting precarious fantasies such as The Village, The Happening, and Lady in the Water, fanboys and critics alike have pummeled the acclaimed genre director with charges of proffering half-baked, preposterous plots that don’t pay off. MNS routinely gets written up for Twilight Zone endings more befitting the small screen rather than a theatrical feature.

Stylistic quibbles aside, MNS is and always has been an artful storyteller, and in Old he delivers another dark fable, this time about a family’s vacation to a tropical resort that turns tourists into unwilling test subjects.

Having adapted the French graphic novel Sandcastle, Shyamalan fades in on a European household on holiday, comprised of Guy (Gael Garcia Bernal), wife Prisca (Vicky Krieps), daughter Maddox (Alexa Swinton), and son Trent (Nolan River).

Along with a few other hotel guests, Guy’s group is bundled off to enjoy an afternoon of food and frolic at a secluded beach of postcard quality. Everything seems serene and wondrous, but time gets away from these blissful beachcombers, and they start aging in fast-forward.

The lion’s share of Old is spent with the unfortunate tourists as they try every method at their disposal to leave the beach, with very little success. Kids grow up. Young adults get old. Old adults get older and die.

Trent, a curious and open-minded lad, is soon replaced by successively older actors, but continues to try and puzzle out their predicament. He takes a quick time out to father a child with another guest on a similar biological clock, yet he remains committed to the task of liberating his loved ones.

Shyamalan gets credit for covering a lot of ground here, gracefully transitioning from drama, to horror, to deep questions about the ethics of scientific research.

Of course, we also get plenty of sentimental Mom and Pop moments to remind us that time slips away quickly so be sure to tell everyone you love that, blah, blah, blah.

In this fashion, MNS has always been able to have his cake and eat it, too. By combining humanity’s plight with forces at work beyond our comprehension, we are forced to consider perspectives other than our own.

Visually, Shyamalan continually disorients the viewer by having characters wake up in a daze and seeing familiar looking, but different people standing around them. Who are they?

A sunny, postcard beach isn’t supposed to this sinister, right?

This ambiguity provides the dark current that will keep you watching. It’s just like in real life, but in Old, we can feel the time passing. And it hurts like hell.

They Remain (2018)

Two biologists working for an anonymous corporation are dispatched to the former site of a Manson-type cult compound to investigate strange animal behavior in the area.

Keith (William Jackson Harper) thoroughly explores the acreage, setting up camera feeds to monitor the fauna. Jessica (Rebecca Henderson) examines the data trying to find anomalies.

This goes on for the majority of the movie, as we observe the scientific method gradually give way to something far older and more primitive.

As so often happens, the more time they spend at the accursed locale, the more things break down. Keith hears voices. Jessica hears knocking at the door. Keith chases a wolf. Keith and Jessica drink whiskey.

They Remain is a subdued film, and it helps if you’re in the mood for subtlety. Writer-director Philip Gelatt adapted Laird Barron’s 30 for the screenplay, and it’s told largely from Keith’s perspective, which gets less reliable as time rolls on.

“I trust everybody, just not people,” he says to Jessica during one of their Happy Hours.

Keith dutifully collects his data, but the more he ventures out into the silent forest the less confident, and more unmoored he becomes.

Jessica, who is white, is the obsessive one, and Keith, a black man, worries that she’s not telling him the truth about their situation. Though he’s an experienced woodsman, he finds that his senses aren’t much help when faced with something that doesn’t track like an average specimen.

In fact, we’re never quite certain who is observing whom in They Remain. Whether it’s ghosts, hallucinations, cave dwellers, or just the effects of isolation, the feeling of someone watching is quite inescapable.

In scene after scene, Gelatt’s camera finds Keith hunkered down in the bush, but he doesn’t blend into his surroundings at all. He’s nervous because he isn’t safe, and he can’t hide in what is rapidly shaping up to be a hostile environment.

That’s a scary position to be in. They Remain is a profoundly unsettling movie and a very effective one.