Dead Shack (2017)

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Warning: Stranger Things template in full effect.

A trio of nosy teens and their piss-poor adult supervision spend a weekend at a cabin in the woods. What could possibly go wrong? Since the name of the film is Dead Shack, we can assume they don’t get their cleaning deposit back.

Jason (Matthew Nelson-Mahood) gets roped into a camping trip by his obnoxious friend Colin (Gabriel LaBelle), which works out fine since he has a major crush on Colin’s sister Summer (Lizzie Boys).

Along for the ride are Colin and Summer’s party hearty dad Roger (Donavon Stinson) and his bored alcoholic girlfriend Lisa (Valerie Tian), who has zero interest in bedding down in the boonies with a bunch of goofy adolescents. At least not while sober.

Inevitably, the snoopy kids stumble upon a neighboring house owned by a lady in body armor (Lauren Holly) with a passel of undead kinfolk who need regular meals. Tonight’s Special: You!

Unfortunately, Roger and Lisa are too busy playing cards and getting plastered to listen to such an outlandish story, so it’s up to these wily misfit teenagers to save the day.

Dead Shack lives up to its potential and delivers splashy fun and flying body parts in Raimi-esque abundance.

With all the baggage present, director Peter Ricq could simply have allowed these characters to speak their minds, give voice to their dissatisfaction, and engage in Dysfunctional Family Feud for the entire weekend, but then we’d have a Tennessee Williams play instead of a grisly and often-amusing Zombie Comedy (Zom-Com).

We liked it. Worth a look.

 

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Cold Skin (2017)

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It’s not always smooth sailing, but French director Xavier Jens (Frontiers) charts a bold course in Cold Skin, a chilly atmospheric tale with tendrils of Joseph Conrad, Rudyard Kipling, and Lovecraft slithering through its evolutionary DNA.

Friend, an English sailor (David Oakes), is transferred to a remote and inhospitable island near the Antarctic Circle, during the height of the First World War, to serve a 12-month stint as a weather observer. It’s never made clear what possible use old weather patterns were to the war effort, but let’s just go with it.

Once ensconced on his wave-tossed rock, Friend wastes no time in setting his cabin on fire after a nocturnal attack by his new neighbors, an army of nimble fish people from the briny deep. Bereft of his surf shack, he turns to Gruner, a misanthropic lighthouse keeper (Ray Stevenson), for shelter and succor, only to end up an accomplice in an all-out war against the fish folk.

Like Sam Peckinpah, Jens explores the questionable dynamics of men under pressure, honor under fire, and all that other stuff we acknowledge when the bodies pile up.

Gruner, a despotic tyrant, is bent on domination and control, a certifiably mad cause that nonetheless swallows up the ambivalent sailor, even as the latter begins to lose his thirst for mayhem. The annihilation of a heretofore unknown aquatic race can weigh heavy on the soul, after all.

The photography, sets, costumes, and effects are uniformly divine, which helps solidify a script that meanders a bit, but never bores. There are indeed epic battle sequences in Cold Skin that pay homage to masters of the craft (Sir David Lean, John Huston, among others) that both stir the blood and make us question our own motives for shedding it.

 

Swamp Freak (2017)

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I’ve reviewed nearly 200 movies on this site, and Swamp Freak might just be the stinkiest poop in the pot. In fact, I’m complimenting writer/director David DeCoteau by referring to this shambling mess as a movie, rather than what it actually is: a relentlessly tepid tapestry of Vancouver Island establishing shots that a character or monster sees fit to visit occassionally .

There isn’t a single frame with more than one character present. Swamp Freak appears to have been dutifully assembled from an abundance of cutting-room floor footage, with an emphasis on creating a somnolent atmosphere rather than advancing the flimsy plot.

Every chicken-scratching scene boils down to static primeval photography lingering over the leaves in a pond; lichen-stitched tree bark; a decaying dock. This numbing repetition continues until you’re hypnotized into watching the agonizingly slow narrative that reveals itself with all the grace of a stripper with hiccups.

Nutshell: A professor of cryptozoology disappears in the boonies while searching for the legendary “Reed Cove Swamp Freak,” an ambulatory pile of moss and rain gear that is summoned from H20 hibernation by the Freak’s brother Isaac (Michael Timmermans), who definitely got the good looks in the family.

Gradually, after hearing three offscreen lectures about the origin and motives of the drippy cryptoid, several students—none of whom are theater majors—appear one at a time, hot on the trail of their missing mentor, and presumably an assload of extra credit.

The Action: Student talks on cellphone. Student completes call and shuffles around the same track of wilderness for what feels like days. Student senses they’re being watched, because they are, by the Swamp Freak, who half-heartedly gives chase, but sadly wasn’t built for speed. Student runs away for several hours. The Swamp Freak appears unexpectedly and delivers a devastating (and bloodless) blow. This happens five times without the slightest variation.

Even at 75 minutes the tedium is stultifying and oppressive, like being stuck wearing a winter jacket in a hot room. As aimless students wander through a damp and dreary landscape, the viewer is doomed to flounder for meaning—as well as the remote.

 

Mohawk (2017)

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My tri-corner hat is off to Mohawk, a harrowing revenge tale rooted in a particularly dark corner of American history, that comes out with guns blazing and blood flowing.

This is one of those gutsy, low-budget efforts that should earn director and co-writer Ted Geoghegan (We Are Still Here) a long-term contract to do whatever the hell he wants. His filmic instincts consistently hit their marks, allowing him to create vivid, indelible tableaus out of the rawest materials.

During the waning days of the War of 1812, a trio of “outlaws” are pursued deep into the forest primeval of upstate New York by a vicious posse of American soldiers, seeking vengeance for the sneak-attack killing of several members of their company.

As Mohawk warriors Oak (Kaniehtiio Horn) and Calvin (Justin Rain), along with their friend, British agent Joshua Pinsmail (Eamon Farron), flee further into uncharted Mohawk territory, the pot really boils for both hunter and hunted, leading to a showdown best described as otherworldly.

Like Michael Winner’s Chato’s Land (1972), which also features a ruthless posse chasing an American Indian (Charles Bronson, no less), it’s the white guys in charge who prove to be the real savages, even as the reluctant grunts quake in fear at the thought of being captured and tortured by natives.

Led by the unbending Colonel Hezekiah Holt (Ezra Buzzington) and his froggy voiced scout Sherwood Beal (Robert Longstreet, wearing an outlandish set of Antiques Roadshow spectacles), the company, including massive WWE wrestler Luke Harper, inevitably shrinks down to the last man, as Oak becomes an avenger following a seemingly divine encounter.

The ironic subtext about the dangers of immigration is on-point timely, and shouldn’t be lost amongst the deft brutality and gripping vistas. These foreign invaders (a.k.a. Americans) are indeed a deplorable bunch, who think nothing of eradicating entire societies in its lust for land, money, and revenge.

 

Don’t Breathe (2016)

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There’s much to admire about Don’t Breathe, a nasty, audacious thriller directed and co-written by Fede Alvarez and released by Sam Raimi’s Ghost House Pictures. The technical finesse demonstrated throughout adds considerable impact and Raimi-esque style to the action, which unfortunately becomes increasingly preposterous under the weight of too many plot points.

Rocky (Jane Levy) is a hardworking single-mom burglar with dreams of relocating to sunny California from her blighted hometown of Detroit (actually filmed in Hungary—way to save money, team!). She and her coworkers Alex (Dylan Minnette) and Money (Daniel Zovatto) tumble onto a caper that looks like a piece of cake: bust into a blind man’s pad and steal a pile of cash that is supposedly on the premises, the result of a huge settlement he reached after a rich girl killed his daughter in a car accident.

The little old blind man (a superb Stephen Lang) turns out to be a chiseled combat veteran with a Rottweiller and a labyrinthine basement full of dangerous secrets, and the bad-ass burglars are soon trapped in a dark house with an even badder-ass “victim.”

The twists and turns that ensue range from deft and effective to downright ludicrous. If Alvarez didn’t feel the need to pad the script with unnecessary dramatic tropes (dead daughter, bad mother memories, male suitor rivalry, pregnancy), he might have had a lean, mean survival flick in the tradition of John Carpenter or Wes Craven. To his credit, he almost pulls it off.

The contrast between the lithe tracking shots of abandoned neighborhoods being slowly retaken by nature, to the tightly focused and creeping claustrophobia of the blind man’s lair is skillfully rendered, and Alvarez earns bonus points for keeping tensions taut.

What really detracts from those tensions is the director’s penchant for telegraphing every development well before it happens with a barrage of cutaways to objects that will play a significant role further down the line.

It’s an annoyingly condescending move designed to eliminate any obligation on the viewer’s part to pay attention. Alvarez cheerfully introduces us to a hammer, a piece of glass, a crowbar, a remote, a couple pairs of shoes, and a pistol hidden under a mattress just so we aren’t surprised when they reappear later. Raimi can get away with this chicanery in his own movies, but here it falls flat and goes splat.

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Man Vs (2015)

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Back in the days before cable television released the kraken, the three major networks made their own budget-minded movies that were broadcast on different nights. “The ABC Friday Movie of the Week” or “The CBS Tuesday Movie” and such like.

Usually these were formulaic dramas for aging network stars like Rock Hudson and George Peppard, but occasionally something supernaturally cool would come down the pipe. Who can forget Kim Darby fighting off vicious pygmy horrors in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, or Bo Svenson on the trail of an abominable yeti at a ski resort in Snow Beast (recently remade)?

While they weren’t cinematic jewels, these small-screen frighteners succeeded in leaving a mark on impressional minds (like mine) that were allowed to stay up past bedtime  “just this once.” Filmmaker Adam Massey’s talents were honed by his work in television, and in this case, his instincts for tension and pace are solid as cement.

Massey (A Lobster Tale) has directed over 200 commercials, and he brings that lean efficiency to Man Vs, a harrowing sci-fi/horror/reality show hybrid that scores a lot of points from all over the court. There are some obvious flaws to be found, but the watchability here is very high, as we witness the disintegration of an arrogant TV show host who slowly tumbles to the fact that he’s not alone in the remote wilderness of Northern Ontario.

Leading man Chris Diamantopoulos is spot-on as Doug Woods, a sort-of Bear Grylls Lite forced into mortal combat with an extra-terrestrial predator while trying to film his own Mickey Mouse survival  series. His transition from control freak to just plain freaked-out is expertly rendered—the supposedly self-reliant Woods nearly wets his Patagonia rain pants when he realizes he’s the one being stalked for s’mores by a largely unseen enemy. “Why couldn’t we have picked the Bahamas or Santa Barbara?” he laments to his camera. 

Perhaps the enemy should have remained unseen. Among the previously mentioned flaws are the anticlimactic appearance of a nondescript CGI alien predator (complete with that familiar chittering) at around the one-hour mark. Also, the idea that a guy camping for five days could be the basis of a TV show simply isn’t credible. Dude! Haven’t you seen Alone or Naked & Afraid? The bar has been raised.

In spite of its shortcomings, Man Vs delivers an action-packed happy meal without unnecessary plot contrivances, not to mention a first-rate reluctant hero. Diamantopoulos plays Woods as a gutty, resourceful protagonist despite being obviously scared shitless by the severing of contact with civilization. 

Sidebar: I was entertaining a story idea about a survival show that turns supernatural after seeing a recent episode of Naked & Afraid that had the contestants cowering in their shelter because they thought they’d glimpsed a man in a ceremonial mask watching their camp. It was a genuinely unnerving moment, and the incident was never explained. It’s a juicy concept, and Massey got their first.   

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Train To Busan (2016)

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In this case, go ahead and believe the hype. Yeon Sang-ho’s nervy South Korean zombies-on-a-train epic is getting rave reviews, and deservedly so. Not only is Train To Busan a tightly wound horror movie, it’s also a tense disaster film in the spectacle tradition of Irwin Allen.

First and foremost, Train is an expertly paced thriller that darts deftly between hysteria-inducing sequences of undead mobs running amok, and scenes of quiet love and devotion between a father (Gong Yoo) and his daughter (Kim Su-an) that actually succeed in developing their characters to the point where we can root for them in good conscience.

Harried, overworked fund manager Seok-woo must escort his demanding daughter on a train trip to visit her mother and his estranged wife. As so often happens, real life gets in the way of even the best-laid plans, as a nearby chemical leak causes average citizens to turn hungry, fast, and ferocious. The featured zombies have a rubbery acrobatic grace as they gamely snap back to life after succumbing to lethal bites.

All too quickly the train is overrun with bloodthirsty berserkers, and the supporting players emerge from the chaos. There’s a tough guy and his pregnant wife; a high school baseball team; a sociopathic tycoon, and a pair of spinster sisters. Alliances form and crumble, and as we learned in Romero’s original, a house divided cannot stand. As usual, the rich guy can’t be trusted.

Nonetheless, these characters routinely sacrifice themselves for the good of the remaining survivors, continually casting humanity in a noble light. Seok-woo begins the story as an ineffectual office drone, but through attrition and necessity, evolves believably into a hero to save his child.

Director Yeon Sang-ho displays uncanny action-film finesse at times, contrasting the closed-room claustrophobia of the train interior with sweeping panoramic views of an embattled choo-choo chugging down the tracks to its final destination. Train To Busan is indeed a grim ride to survival, but it’s a satisfying one. And the scenery is magnificent.

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