Sam’s Lake (2006)


I’m on the fence about Sam’s Lake.

It’s a slow-burner, but it’s got gorgeous scenery. The body count is low, but the story is fairly intriguing. There’s no bloodletting till around the 43 minute mark, and the carnage is minimal.

Despite all this, I felt compelled to see it through.

Sam (super-cute Fay Masterson) brings a carload of her partying friends up to a remote cabin on the lake where she grew up.

Once ensconced, Sam’s childhood pal and local garage mechanic Jessie (William Gregory Lee) drops in to share a chilling campfire story about a kid who escaped from a nearby mental hospital (there’s always a nearby mental hospital) and wasted his entire family with a pointy stick.

As is so often the case, this tall tale is no legend, as the campers soon become painfully aware.

The “twist” in Sam’s Lake isn’t very twisted, especially since it’s pretty damn obvious from the get-go that somebody here is a 24-carat killer. Even so, the buildup is sturdily constructed and the showdown contains genuine surprises.

Fay Masterson delivers a charged performance as a deviously clever protagonist. On the down side, there’s not much happening on the horny or hacking front. If you pass on Sam’s Lake, you haven’t missed anything. If you give it a chance, your patience will be ever-so-slightly rewarded.

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Night of the Scarecrow (1995)

Call it a by-product of living in accelerated times. It’s getting to the point where I look at movies made before the turn of the century as “quaint.” I’m sure this happens to everybody on our relentless trek to the boneyard, but it seems when I watch perfectly good horror films from the ’80s and even the ’90s now, they look like relics from another world that I’ve forgotten.

“OMG, look at that poodle hair! Is that a Members Only jacket? Ned’s Atomic Dustbin?”

With the passing of time the cultural signposts of eras passed start to get a little blurry. I have younger friends who are into movies and they usually won’t rent something more than 10 years old, claiming “it looks cheap and weird,” and “the FX are gonna suck.” I’m still adjusting to being the “old guy” in these situations.

So Night of the Scarecrow is a film fossil from 16 years ago. It’s good. Satisfying, even. It’s like dinner at an old-school steak house after having nothing but rice and tofu for a month. There are no surprises but everything is served just the way you like it; meat and potatoes, a stiff drink, and no sass.

What I appreciate most is that it’s a movie that doesn’t dilly-dally; the plot races along like Richard Petty at Daytona. Within, oh, 15 minutes or so, we know all the characters who live in the nice little town of Hanford—the one with the dark secret.

Over 100 years prior, the town fathers made a deal with a passing warlock (I guess there were warlocks roaming the west during the Ulysses Grant administration). In exchange for fertile soil and a temperate climate, the warlock could do whatever he pleased in Hanford.

The horny wizard turns out to be an advocate of sex magic, luring the town’s women into awesome episodes of debauchery. The menfolk decide that ain’t cool, drug the warlock, and crucify him in the cornfield.

Cut to “modern” times. The warlock, now in the guise of a button-eyed, sack-headed scarecrow, starts slaughtering the Goodmans, descendants of the guy who betrayed him and stole his book of spells.

These include brothers George (Dirk Blocker), Thaddeus (Bruce Glover, Crispin’s dad) and William (Gary Lockwood), who all perish in ghastly fashion, while William’s daughter Claire (Elizabeth Barondes), and her mimbo Dillon (John Mese, who looks like a stand-in for Scott Bakula) try to find the spell that will banish the malevolent mage.

A better-than-average cast helps. Stephen Root (O Brother Where Art Thou, Red State) plays another incompetent sheriff, while John Hawkes (Deadwood, Winter’s Bone) delivers the goods as the asshole delinquent who unwittingly frees the warlock.

But the real scene-stealer is Glover, chewing the scenery like a hungry goat as a weak-willed preacher with a hot-to-trot daughter that gets defiled by Hawkes’ town rowdy. Seriously, Glover’s overacting is almost operatic, maybe a notch below bad Shakespeare. And it’s just another reason to watch this unexpectedly satisfying sleeper.

It’s My Party and I’ll Die If I Want To (2006)

There are a thousand things wrong with It’s My Party and I’ll Die If I Want To—and I still dug it.

Director and writer (also editor, composer, and several other titles) Tony Wash had the brass to make his film on a budget so puny you can practically hear the car washes, garage sales, and bake sales (not to mention the ringing of credit cards) that went into the financing.

There are continuity errors, mushy sound quality, community theater acting, and it looks like it was shot on a flip phonw. Even so, Wash and his creative cohorts have some audacity and style. True, it’s a young Sam Raimi’s style, but nonetheless…

Sarah (Adrienne Fischer) thinks her friends have forgotten her 18th birthday. Geez, how could they forget? It’s on Halloween! And that means a costume party in an old house with a sinister reputation.

Part of that reputation, truthfully, should be because of its periodic ability to drastically change size and shape. The interior layout of Burkitt Manor is incomprehensible.

It turns out Sarah’s bland assortment of acquaintances have hit upon the brilliant idea of rigging up the old Burkitt Manor (where in either 1908 or 1930 a despotic husband beat his family into hamburger) as a haunted house to scare the bejeebers out of her.

Who knew kids were so motivated?

After 67 or so slow exposition scenes, the Karo syrup finally starts to fly, as the evil spirit of the house takes possession of young schmuck Travis (Oliver Lucach), and the body count clock is ticking.

Fortunately, we learn (in a training scene that includes a shower interlude—good call, Tony) Sarah is an expert in martial arts and her friends thoughtfully chipped in to buy her a katana! So we get a savage kung-fu showdown—with the plucky Sarah dressed as Elvira—in addition to buckets of viscera and a little gratuitous nudity.

It’s My Party and I’ll Die If I Want To is an amateur production with a capital “A”, even with a Tom Savini cameo. But Wash and his team work hard to get most of the details right.

And he borrows liberally from Raimi (the main creature is pretty much a Deadite), George Romero (The EC Comics segues are straight out of Creep Show), John Carpenter, and even Tarantino, which should be enough for horror geeks to suck on like an all-day lollipop.

It was for me, anyway. Someone give this kid a few bucks, eh?

Pontypool (2009)

Leave it to those clever Canucks.

Bolstered by a poweerhouse performance by Stephen McHattie, Canadian horror flick Pontypool successfully utilizes the zombie genre to make a point (not a subtle one, but a point nonetheless) about the power of language.

More specifically, about media and its unwholesome influence on our collective consciousness.

Directed by Bruce McDonald (Hardcore Logo, Dance Me Outside), Ponytpool unfolds in the small Ontario town of the same name and stars veteran bad guy McHattie (A History of Violence, Shoot ‘Em Up) as Grant Mazzy, a conspiracy minded radio personality in the middle of nowhere who drinks too much and sounds off about small-town news developments.

When the station’s weather correspondent on the outskirts of town reports that a violent mob is running amok, Mazzy, his producer (Lisa Houle) and engineer (Georgina Reilly) must hunker down in the station and defend themselves.

The premise is Zombie 101: Take a small cast, put them in a claustrophobic pressure cooker, add undead army. What becomes apparent as the movie progresses, is that the zombies in this instance have been driven to madness by some kind of viral phenomenon that’s sound-based.

Mazzy and his coworkers discover that the English language is “infected” and words attract the unwanted attention of the bloodthirsty masses.

So they start speaking French.

I could go on till third period about the message McDonald and writer Tony Burgess hammer out about the irresponsibility of the Limbaughs, the Hannitys, and similar braying asses for inspiring paranoia and the worst tendencies in their listeners, but the main thing you need to know is that Pontypool is a tight, thoughtful thriller that delivers.

McHattie, whom you will recognize from countless roles as a “heavy” (he looks like a slightly more Mephistophelean Lance Henricksen) is superb as a man who is trying his damndest to figure out what the hell is going on.

There are moments when he appears to be acting in his own self-interest (keeping his beleaguered reporter talking on the air even while he’s not in a safe location) but beneath his devilish veneer, Mazzy is a compassionate thinker and a genuine humanitarian.

True, there’s not much zombie action (eating, rending, shuffling) in this one, but the threat is imminent and feels very real.

And for a movie with only one locale and a handful of characters, that’s an amazing feat. I could even see Pontypool becoming popular as aHalloween play.

Good writing wins again.

Red State (2011)

No two ways about it, Kevin (Clerks) Smith is an indie filmmaker with a following and cred up the wazoo.

To an entire generation of cynical, grown-up, comic-book fans, Smith is the light, the way, and the Buddha, the schlubby embodiment of he who rose from the basement and fed the masses with nachos and Big Gulps.

Now, every overeducated film nerd who feels more at home in front of a monitor of some kind, can point to their shitty screenplay and justifiably announce to friends and family, “It worked out for Kevin Smith!”

Been there.

Anyway, I’ve seen just about everything Smith has done, from his Clerks debut through his unfortunate infatuation with mainstream rom-com, and I’m prepared to say Red State is his best work, and that horror (or at least thriller) should be his genre of choice.

His deft camera work and ability to gracefully ratchet up the tension here ably demonstrates his genre bona fides.

Nutshell: Three horny high school kids from a nowhere Nebraska town visit a website for swingers and discover that an older woman the next town over wants to knock boots with (wait for it) three horny high school stud(ent)s.

They drive out to her trailer for some discreet nookie and are promptly taken captive by a local fundamentalist cabal that’s a cross between the Branch Davidians and the Westboro Baptists. And then all hell breaks loose.

When I finished watching Red State I was dumbfounded and said aloud to the nearest sleeping dog, “That movie kicked my ass!” My ass is still kicked. It’s relentlessly provocative as you shift from laughter, to uneasy laughter, to quiet awe.

If you’re the kind of viewer who gets confused when a movie changes tone dramatically, then this isn’t your candy bar. Is it a horror movie? Yes, it’s horrifying. But it’s much more than that.

It’s the best movie I’ve seen this year.

Michael Parks (Kill Bill, Dusk Till Dawn), Melissa Leo (The Fighter) and John Goodman (you know who John Goodman is for Chrissakes!) all deliver chilling, straight-faced performances and I hope their combined star power and some web word-of-mouth is enough to earn Red State the cult status it so richly deserves.

The Reef (2010)

If you’re a fan of Shark Week like OldSharky, nothing gets your flippers in a fuddle like a little fresh blood in the water. And there’s plenty for everyone in the Aussie survival-fest, The Reef.

It’s a low-rent production with a lot of stock footage of sharks feeding, but there’s legit tension throughout.

A crew of reasonably attractive young sailors and their ladies fair set to sea in a beautiful pea-green sailboat. Boat hits rock and capsizes. Luke (Damian Walshe-Howling) advises they gear up and swim for the nearest land.

Warren (Kieran Darcy-Smith) inexplicably stays behind on the capsized boat. The entire area is teeming with sharks that seem extraordinarily peckish.

Who lives? Who gets their ass chewed off?

Why anyone would enjoy a sailboat outing along the Great Barrier Reef (aka, Shark Central) is beyond comprehension. Again, I’d like to think that my innate cautious nature would spare me from vast amounts of horror-movie sorrow whilst traveling the world.

The Reef isn’t top-shelf entertainment. It’s more like the junk drawer of passing time.

High Lane (2009)

High Lane is a smartly crafted French thriller that earns a respectable round of applause from yours truly. It’s kind of a two-fer, since the terror stems from different directions.

A passel of adventurous, reasonably attractive young-uns decide to climb a fabled mountain in Croatia (mistake no. 1, of many). The climbing footage itself, to me, is disturbing enough (me no like high places), especially after it turns out that one member of the team is scared of heights and has to be led around like a sniveling cub scout.

Great, I’ve got a character to identify with—and he’s a shithead.

As if coping with a panic-stricken climber isn’t enough, it turns out they are not alone up there. Somewhere, a creature dwells. And really, that’s all that needs to be said.

So with High Lane you get vertiginous frights augmented by the presence of a freaky whatsit. Any way you slice it, that’s good value.

It also helps that director Abel Ferry has a good eye for both picturesque countryside and high-altitude drama.

I’d watch it again.

Prey (2010)

Are pigs scary? Sure, why not?

In the French thriller Prey, some really vicious swine bedevil a wealthy family of corrupt industrialists. Mayhem ensues.

Nutshell: The aforementioned 1 percenters gather at the family mansion for various reasons: the family business (pesticides, natch) is in trouble, and the youngest daughter is considering marriage and a move away with her fiancee (Grégoire Colin).

Before anyone can make any sort of decision, a herd of deer commit suicide by throwing themselves on an electric fence. The menfolk get their shooting irons together and investigate.

Enter monstrous, mutated killer pigs.

I liked this one quite a bit. The hunting party is a pack of privileged assholes who slowly come unraveled in the wilderness (Sorry, I love that motif) and get everything they deserve.

The action then asks us to consider, “Who are the real pigs here?”

Prey  (Proie en Francais) is a righteous little movie and proof positive that pigs—yes, pigs—are a formidable foe with much potential to plague mankind.

All hail the coming of Swinecore!

The Canyon (2009)

My sweet baby and I like watching a show on Discovery Channel called I Shouldn’t Be Alive, that features depressing dramatizations of unlucky camping trips, plane rides, skiing vacations, and the like, wherein folks get marooned, injured, lost or otherwise completely screwed thanks to a wrathful Mother Nature.

The Canyon reminds me of a longer version of the show—and that’s not such a bad thing. Both the TV show and the film have one vital theme in common: How do people react when things just keep getting worse?

Nick (Eion Bailey)and Lori Conway (Yvonne Strahowski) are the reasonably attractive newlywed couple who decide to take a guided tour of the Grand Canyon by mule for their honeymoon. Gosh, how romantic. Lori wants no part of the plan but her douchey new husband insists.

They end up being escorted by Henry (Will Patton), a grizzled, hard-drinking old trail hand they meet in a bar. Yep, it promises to be a swell honeymoon. Henry gets waylaid by rattlesnakes and the tenderfooted couple end up lost in the Grand Canyon with next to no provisions. Awesome.

Lori quickly evolves into the alpha while Nick proves to be a wussy little twerp. Hats off to the lady for dealing with hungry wolves (again with the wolves?), an avalanche, and a whiny, useless husband.

The pace quickly accelerates from slow and sun-baked to a fairly believable struggle against the elements, predators, and their own civilized veneer.

Just stay home, you fools!

 

 

Mask Maker (2010)

How many times have we seen a movie wherein a young couple hoping for a fresh start moves into a house with an evil, awful, scary, drippy history? I think I lost count at a gajillion.

The thing that chafes my cheeks is when a low- to no-budget horror film has exterior footage of a huge, mysterious, fog-shrouded Gothic mansion, only to cut to interior shots that look like they were filmed in your Aunt Tillie’s country condo.

The stairs and hallways of the accursed manor that once housed Satan himself, are festooned with smoke alarms, paintings of dogs playing poker, and three-prong outlets? It’s a hard one for me to overlook.

Thankfully, Mask Maker (original title: Maskerade) manages to disguise its measly budget well enough, and you’ll likely be sufficiently invested to turn a blind eye to some bad mattes, continuity errors, and a weird chronology of events.

A couple of reasonably attractive college students elope to a decrepit plantation-style house in the middle of nowhere that Evan (Stephen Colletti) has bought for the very reasonable sum of $10,000.

The house comes with 40 (haunted) acres, is a goldmine of valuable heirlooms, and even has a priceless wine cellar.

What the Realtor neglected to mention is that a woman, accused of witchcraft like, 50 years ago (when Kennedy was in office, presumably), and her demented son were lynched on the property.

One thing leads to another, and the son rises from the grave (that looks all of  two feet deep) and, for reasons we never learn, murders the interlopers and steals their faces to make scary masks.

It sounds pretty lame, but director Griff Fuest is generous with the gore and there’s even a splash of nudity. The script is nothing special but it isn’t dealbreaker dumb.

Bonus points for casting Treat Williams and Michael (The Hills Have Eyes) Berryman in small parts.

And Jason London, on a weekend pass from rehab, also makes an appearance.

You could do worse.