What Keeps You Alive (2018)

Talk about a relationship with serious obstacles.

Jules (Brittany Allen) and Jackie (Hannah Anderson) are a married gay couple who go off for a romantic weekend to a well-appointed house in rural Canada that belongs to Jackie’s family.

In horror movies, romantic weekends are second only to make-out pot parties as an invitation to trauma. What Keeps You Alive is no exception.

What’s different here is the source of the threat. Soon after their arrival, the couple is visited by Sarah (Martha MacIsaac), a local who recognizes Jackie, but calls her by the name “Megan.”

The next morning Jackie tries to murder Jules by pushing her off a cliff. This unexpected development caused my friend Kaja to remark, “I guess she fell for the wrong girl.”

Jules does not die in the fall, so Jackie begins tracking her, shouting conciliatory messages about how sorry she is, and that she wants to take Jules home.

The single scariest moment in What Keeps You Alive is when Jules, hiding behind a tree from Jackie, sees her wife’s flat emotionless face while she’s yelling endearments.

Presently, Jackie gets tired of playing the concerned mate and informs the unseen Jules that she knows the woods like the back of her hand and escape is impossible.

The sexual dynamic between the two lovers hovers over the carnage, occasionally referenced in flashback, as writer-director Colin Minihan explores the depths of betrayal that Jackie has orchestrated.

There’s plenty of nail-biting action, including a riveting rowboat chase across the lake, that will keep your hand close to the panic button.

Minihan alternates between closeups of injured and frightened Jules running through the house, and long establishing shots of the unforgiving terrain, effectively adding weight to the already considerable tension.

There are enough twists and reversals to keep even the most astute thriller fan off balance, and both Allen and Anderson bring everything they have to their respective roles.

We’re predisposed to root for Jules, who proves tougher than she looks, but Jackie’s unfolding madness is spellbinding. She shifts and sheds personalities seemingly at will to keep Jules on the defensive. Whether she’s cajoling, cursing, or crying it’s impossible to get an accurate read on Jackie.

Mercenary? Maniac? Misunderstood?

At one point, Jules demands an answer. “What happened to you? Was it your father? Did he do something to you?” she asks.

“It was nature, not nurture,” Jackie answers deadpan.

Definitely worth your time.

Willy’s Wonderland (2021)

S’okay.

Granted, Willy’s Wonderland is an entertaining movie, but director Kevin Lewis and writer G. O. Parsons ultimately underdeliver on the fright front. Yes, Nicolas Cage gives a spirited performance as a mute janitor battling Satanic forces inside a cursed restaurant, but much of the action feels like missed opportunity.

A man of few words (Cage) blows a couple tires while traveling the backroads of the country. Local entrepreneur Tex Macadoo (Ric Reitz) and his tow-truck driving flunky (Chris Warner) take charge of the situation, offering to fix the stranger’s bitchin’ car in exchange for a night’s work, cleaning up Willy’s Wonderland, a former family eatery (think Chuck E. Cheese) inhabited by evil mascots who made a deal with the devil.

Cage agrees to the terms, and thus embarks on an earnest quest to restore the decaying fun zone to its former pristine condition. There are even inspired montage sequences that feature serious deep cleaning by NC that made me laugh.

The squad of evil automatons (a gorilla, an alligator, a Mexican bandit, a fairy, a knight, and a weasel) are one of those aforementioned wasted opportunities, as they turn out to be easily disposed of by the industrious janitor.

The only thing keeping Cage from really cleaning house, is a recurring gag that has him taking breaks in the middle of combat, where he guzzles an energy drink and plays pinball for a while. The bit gets tiresome and momentum grinds to a halt.

Comic actress Beth Grant (The Mindy Project) is on hand as a corrupt sheriff keeping the town’s dirty secret, and she provides a level of energy and commitment that compensates for some of the script shortcomings.

Willy’s Wonderland has moments of divine lunacy. There could and should have been more.

One Dark Night (1982)

The dueling subplots in One Dark Night don’t actually connect until about three-quarters of the way through the movie, but when they do, something magical happens. The big subplot eats the little subplot.

Welcome back to the 1980s when teenagers were actually much older than they look. Golden boy Steve (David Mason Daniels) has got to be pushing 30, and his Queen Bee Bitch ex-girlfriend Carol (Robin Evans) is from a similar demongraphic.

Carol is the leader of a girl gang imaginatively named The Sisters, comprised of Leslie (E.G. Daily, forever known as Dottie, from Pee Wee’s Big Adventure) and Kitty (Leslie Speights), a sassy black teen with a toothbrush in her mouth.

Hmmph. Three girls. Some gang.

The latest initiate into The Sisters, Julie (Meg Tilly, in her debut), is Steve’s new flame, so Carol cruelly demands that she spend an entire night in a mausoleum!

To add to her discomfort, Kitty gives Julie Demarol, a powerful painkiller, instead of the sleeping pills she promised. All the better for her to be in a tripped-out state of mind when the other girls sneak back into the mausoleum to frighten her with their lame ghost costumes.

Mean girls. Always been a thing.

The other narrative involves the death of a famous Russian psychic named Raymar, recently discovered alongside a pile of dead girls. The psychic’s daughter Olivia (Melissa Newman) is warned by a mysterious albino (Donald Hotton) that her father had figured out how to drain “bio energy” from people and save it up to return from the grave.

Which he does.

By the time Raymar, crackling with psychic energy, kicks his way out of the crypt, Julie is high as a kite and her tormentors are getting mobbed by freshly revived corpses.

Coffins come springing out of the walls revealing folks in various states of decomposition who quickly dogpile on Kitty and Carol, smothering them in rotting flesh. Ewwww!

It’s this twisted, nightmarish conclusion to One Dark Night that rescues a small-scale, perfunctory movie that’s also bereft of blood and guts. A modest round of applause goes to writer-director Tom McLaughlin for successfully pulling his fat out of the fire.

Moral of the Story: Even if you’re a budget-strapped director with maxed-out credit cards, you need to deliver on some horrific level to get respect around these part.

Editor’s Note: Fans of 60s-era Batman will be disappointed in the amount of screen time allotted to Adam West, as Olivia’s husband. He doesn’t get to do shit.

Vampires vs The Bronx (2020)

And they’d have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for those meddling kids. It’s a long-standing tradition that the biggest threat to imminent world domination is nosy teenagers.

Writer-director and Saturday Night Live alum Oz Rodriguez has a blast with villainous bloodsuckers disguised as real estate developers in Vampires vs The Bronx, a fast-paced, family fang feature from Netflix.

All over The Bronx businesses are closing down or getting bought out by Murnau Properties, a real estate firm with a logo depicting Vlad The Impaler. Gotta say one thing for those vampires, they’re a subtle bunch.

The nerds that save the day are a charismatic crew. Miguel, better known as Lil Mayor (Jaden Michael) is the golden boy, a community organizer/hustler who wants nothing more than to save his beloved Bodega from the wrecking ball.

Along with his friends Luis (Gregory Diaz) and Tommy (Gerald Jones), Miguel stumbles onto a vampire-driven plot to gentrify the neighborhood, but finds that it’s hard to get people to believe your story when the newcomers are affluent white folks throwing money around.

Besides, who’s going to listen to some stupid kids?

Jordan Peele correctly identified Class War Horror as a hot topic, and Rodriguez makes the most of his turn at bat. Cleverly setting the threat of Caucasian expansion in a comic-horror milieu, Rodriguez leaves us with no hard ethical decisions to make. Real estate developers bad. Neighborhood scalawags good.

Now let’s all forget our differences and drive out the suckheads!

The cast is 100 percent delightful (including Method Man as a priest!), the action is frequent and not too messy. Naturally, there will be valuable lessons for everyone. It’s not every day we get a vampire adventure fit for all ages, so get it while it’s hot.

The Devil Below (2021)

It’s always the right time for comfort-food horror, and in The Devil Below we are served up another doomed expedition searching for answers in a subterranean hellhole.

We’ll have a double helping of monsters, and don’t spare the giblets, please!

How can you screw up such a basic recipe? Director Bradley Parker and writers Eric Scherbarth and Stefan Jaworski manage to do so almost immediately and never really gain their balance.

The Devil Below is a rote, budget-strapped feature, which wouldn’t be so bad, except it also fails to register any decent gore or creature shocks, quite an unforgiveable sin in my book.

A ragtag team (is there any other kind?) of geologists guided by Alpha Gal Arianne (Maria Sanz) is tasked with investigating an Appalachian coal mine that’s been burning for decades.

They soon discover that the real cause for alarm is a race of tunneling trogs who can’t decide if they’re Lovecraftian (starfish face) or just mole people in baggy clothes.

It’s really hard to say, since we never get a proper look, but they do brandish a poison claw that immobilizes the victim. Shawn (Chinaza Uche), a soon-to-be late geologist hypothesizes that they’re a new species that colonizes, like insects, but that’s as far as the analysis goes.

Veteran character actor Will Patton is onboard as a grizzled mine owner trying to avenge his dead son, but despite everyone’s best intentions, we end up with a pale and bloodless version of The Descent, a movie that remains the undisputed high watermark in the Underground Horror genre.

With its modest body count and some of the vaguest monsters on the block, The Devil Below is below average viewing, and I’m stuck for a compelling reason to sit through it.

You have been warned.

V.F.W. (2019)

At first glance, VFW plays out like an ol’ time blood bath, somewhere along the lines of John Carpenter’s Assault On Precinct 13, as waves of drug addicts storm a little bar defended by a determined band of geezers.

Carpenter-esque synthesizer stabs punctuate the carnage and gang members are decked-out in faux-leather bodywear, as if they’d just returned from a Spandau Ballet video shoot.

The uber-violent skirmish gets rolling when street urchin Lizard (Sierra McCormick) rips off Boz (Travis Hammer), a theatrical drug-dealing psychopath, and seeks shelter at a local watering hole inhabited by combat veteran ass-kickers itching for a little action.

Boz and his ruthless bodyguard Gutter (Dora Madison) inflict some damage, but ultimately they underestimate the tenacity and loyalty of these ancient warriors, resulting in an explosive comeuppance.

The action is nonstop, the blood is plentiful and stylishly rendered. You need further recommendation? VFW is a Fangoria production, so don’t expect a whole lot of dialogue.

Even so, somewhere during the third act, Fred the bartender (Stephen Lang) yells “Come on, you lazy bastard!” at his old foxhole buddy Walter (William Sadler), who responds, “I’m coming, dammit!”

Not a super noticeable moment unless you’re a fan of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, but it demonstrates that director Joe Begos (Almost Human) and writers Max Brallios and Matthew McArdle know and respect their antecedents when it comes to movies about hopelessly outnumbered men fighting for a cause.

In addition to Lang and Sadler, the pedigreed supporting cast includes Martin Kove (The Karate Kid), Fred “The Hammer” Williamson (From Dusk Till Dawn), George Wendt (Cheers), and David Patrick Kelly (Twin Peaks, Commando), all of whom have swell screentime dismembering, impaling, and perforating platoons of savage tweakers.

Kelly, who distinguished himself as the evilest gang member ever in Walter Hill’s classic The Warriors, is particularly poignant as an old stoner on his last legs who chooses to die with his boots on.

Peckinpah would be proud of this bunch. Carpenter too, probably.

Shadow in the Cloud (2020)

Who knew there was a Palm Springs Film Festival?

In any case, Roseanne Liang distinguished herself there as a “Director To Watch” based on critical reception to her Weird War horror-drama Shadow in the Cloud, currently showing on Hulu.

Set during the waning days of the Second World War, protagonist Maude Garrett (Chloe Grace Moretz) is a plucky pilot who’s managed to fast-talk her way onto a departing B-17, also known as a Flying Fortress, with some top secret cargo.

Maude is an attractive woman, so the male crew wastes no time in bitching about her presence on the plane, that is, when they’re not making lewd suggestions to her over the com-link.

Eventually their suspicions are justified, as Maude proves to be a stowaway with a baby tucked into her carry-on bag. Unfortunately, she’s not the only surprise passenger.

The crew’s original mission of tracking Japanese naval positions comes up now and then, but the real guts of the movie focus on Maude defying gravity in a slugfest with a nasty gremlin, a sabotage-minded creature that’s taken a fancy to her bambino.

Apparently, a top-secret mission wasn’t spicy enough. Let’s throw a monster in the mix! This is always a good idea.

Seriously though, the vertiginous scenes of a kick-ass mom rasslin’ on the wings of an airplane with a savage little monster sent my blood pressure through the ceiling. If you factor in a high-altitude juggling act with a baby stashed in a satchel, it’s practically panic inducing.

At this point in the film’s trajectory, Shadow in the Cloud abandons any pretense of earnest storytelling in favor of white-knuckle action, and I’m okay with that.

Moretz shines bright as Alpha Female on a Plane, protecting her identity, her child, and indeed, most of the sexist dickheads aboard.

All in a day’s work for a single mother with superior survival skills.

Shadow in the Cloud awkwardly jumps a few genre fences but the engine maintains a full head of steam screaming into Thrillsville Station.

I’m going to join with the good citizens of Palm Springs in their enthusiasm for the emerging talents of Roseanne Liang. *Golf clap*

Hunter Hunter (2020)

Originally published in Mystery and Suspense, April 25, 2021

A backwoods survivalist pursues a rogue wolf that threatens his family—and finds something infinitely worse, in Shawn Linden’s Hunter Hunter

Somewhere in the wilds of Manitoba, Joseph Mersault (Devon Sawa), his wife Anne (Camille Sullivan), and daughter Renee (Summer Howell), grind out a primitive existence by trapping critters and selling their pelts. 

While this lifestyle is ideal for Joseph, a laconic hunter and woodsman, Anne is tired of hauling furs to the store to bargain for food, and communicating with her husband via Walkie Talkie. Most of all, she wants Renee to go to school and have real friends.

Joseph has been arduously training his daughter to be self-reliant in nature, so Anne’s pitch for a return to civilization doesn’t mesh with his mission. 

“We don’t run from our problems,” he reminds her. 

“You’re scared of people,” she counters.

“This is our home,” Joseph declares. “And nothing pushes us out of our home.”

Future plans are put on hold when Joseph finds carcass evidence of a vicious wolf stealing from their trap lines. As expected, Joseph, the seasoned hunter, disappears into the forest primeval to track the animal and kill it. A solid plan except for one detail: He doesn’t return. 

“Joseph, are you there?” Anne despondently asks her Walkie Talkie, as hours turn into days.

In his absence, Anne nervously tries to put food on the table, relying on Renee’s advice on skinning a fawn for their evening meal. Eventually, Anne hears someone calling for help in the darkness. Instead of the long-missing Joseph, she comes upon Lou (Nick Stahl), a badly injured stranger. Anne loads Lou onto her sled, brings him back to the cabin, and nurses his wounds. 

Renee doesn’t see the point. “He’s a stranger. Dad says we’re not supposed to trust strangers.”

“We’re helping him because that’s what you do when you find someone who needs help,” her mother explains.

But where’s Joseph? And who is Lou?

Writer-director Shawn Linden brings the great outdoors down around the viewer like a shroud. He employs his camera as a stealthy tracker shadowing Joseph, Anne, and Renee through the woods blurring the line between stalker and quarry.

Linden is unsentimental and straight forward in his depiction of frontier living, which includes knowing the correct way to skin and dress prey, so that it won’t ruin the food that’s necessary for survival. 

Anne is not as skilled as her husband and daughter, but she understands necessity.

Hunter Hunter maintains a heady tension for the duration of the film, which builds to a shockingly bloody conclusion. Anne’s final confrontation with the dangerous predator is not as a hunter, but a terrible avenger, and it will leave a mark on your psyche. 

Phantom of the Paradise (1974)

One of the great overlooked rock ‘n’ roll movies of the ages, Phantom of the Paradise has heart, soul, and everything else going for it. If you’ve not had the pleasure, you should rectify that situation.

Written and directed by Brian DePalma, with a score by star Paul Williams, it’s a fabulous ’70s freakout on The Phantom of the Opera, with sensational songs, staging, and costumes that positively revel in the pageantry of those high, hedonistic times.

Williams plays Swan, a seemingly ageless music industry Svengali who needs a new sound to open his ultimate rock palace, The Paradise.

At a show featuring one of his bands, Swan happens to catch the opening act, a nobody singer-songwriter named Winslow Leach (William Finley). Swan sends his agent, Philbin (George Memmoli), to bamboozle the hapless composer out of his entire song catalogue—and set him up to take a fall for dealing heroin, just for good measure.

Sentenced to life in Sing Sing Prison, Leach vows revenge against Swan, manages to escape, and becomes hideously disfigured in a record press accident while destroying Swan’s property.

Now a scarred mute monster, Leach returns to The Paradise, steals a really awesome costume and begins his life as the Phantom, orchestrating a terror campaign against Swan, who is busy trying to arrange Leach’s rock opera to be performed by Beef (Gerritt Graham, who steals the show), a Frank N. Furter-esque Glamazon.

Swan tracks down the Phantom/Leach and puts him under contract to write songs for Phoenix (Jessica Harper), a beautiful backup singer that’s captured his fancy.

The innocent and naive Phoenix is being groomed for success, but Leach doesn’t trust Swan and tries his best to protect her from the malevolent mogul’s diabolical reach.

Brian DePalma (The Untouchables, Dressed To Kill, Body Double) is at the height of his considerable cinematic powers, utilizing snappy split-screen and multi-screen perspectives to keep tabs on several characters at once.

This camera tactic becomes increasingly important as we approach the finale, a gloriously staged wedding extravaganza that culminates with a live assassination on the air.

I could go on for days about the variety of catchy tunes (“Upholstery/Where my baby sits up close to me/That’s supposed to be what life is all about!”), Williams’s masterful turn as Swan, and all the jaundiced observations about show business that still hold true today.

However, I would rather not deprive you of your own dive into this terrific time capsule. The 1970s ruled. Here’s the evidence.

We Summon The Darkness (2019)

Three metal chicks meet three metal dudes at a metal show. When they take the party back to Alexis’s (Alexandra Daddario) posh country house, things go horribly wrong in We Summon The Darkness, a cautionary tale of our times, if it were still 1988.

Alexis, Val (Maddie Hasson), and Beverly (Amy Forsyth), a trio of leather-clad hotties are on a road trip to a heavy metal concert in the late 1980s. Despite televised warnings of murder and Satanic corruption from an outraged preacher (Johnny Knoxville), the girls just want to have fun.

When they fall in with Mark (Keean Johnson), Ivan (Austin Swift), and Kovacs (Logan Miller), the two threesomes decide to pair off. Alexis suggests her nearby mansion for the after-party, and the boys eagerly follow them for implied good times, which needless to say, never materialize.

Instead, the lads are drugged and trussed up, unwilling participants in one of those Satanic rituals that nervous parents are always reading about.

Will a hero emerge? Depends on your definition of the word. The tables get turned, some people switch sides, and there’s a surprise reveal. There’s bloody murder and burning heads, which helps compensate for the lack of supernatural sizzle.

Written by Alan Trezza and directed by Marc Meyers, We Summon The Darkness meets the minimum requirements of a dark-comic slasher. As cinematic events unfold, we learn there isn’t a compelling reason for it to exist in a bygone decade, as opportunities to lampoon ’80s culture are mostly ignored.

Fair enough, but WSTD could have used some pepping up. The young actors, particularly Daddario and Hasson, acquit themselves in noble fashion and tension is made available, but there’s not much popping here in the way of style points or zippy dialogue.

It’s the actors, and the lunacy that ensues after all the cards are on the table that rescues We Summon The Darkness. I admit, the scenes of metalhead boys reduced to whimpering victims and hiding from lethal women were oddly satisfying. Probably because in 99.9 percent of all horror movies, a reversed gender dynamic is the predictable norm.

Movie-wise, it’s an itch that needs scratching.