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.

Head Count (2018)

The moral of the story: Don’t use the internet, it’s evil.

Evan (Isaac Jay) is a college kid on spring break looking for love and adventure. Careful what you wish for, my lad.

Instead of Lake Havasu, he heads for Joshua Tree to crash with his older brother Peyton (Cooper Rowe), and maybe bond over some hiking and camping.

Rather than pitch a tent, Evan ditches his brother at the first opportunity and falls in with a bunch of bohemian millennials renting a nearby house. Seeing attractive folks his own age that party all night is sufficient temptation for Evan, especially the beguiling Zoe (Ashleigh Morghan), a photographer currently without a boyfriend.

Scenes of low-key hedonism (weed, shrooms, booze) are followed by everyone gathered around the ol’ campfire for ghost stories. Since Evan doesn’t know one, he is directed to a website where he mistakenly recites a summoning spell for a shapeshifting demon.

Editor’s Note: Check and verify your sources, people! How dumb do you have to be to read an incantation that warns you not to say a certain name out loud? What hayseed community college do these nitwits attend?

None of them are going to have to worry about graduation requirements, if it’s any consolation.

The malevolent entity called a hsijie can appear to look like anyone and even these inebriated dorks begin to notice that various members of their group seem to have gained the ability to be in two places at once.

This is called a clue, and Evan is the only one present who picks up on it. The carefree weekend takes on a distinctly ominous tone after pretty Zoe walks off a cliff and injures her ankle.

Did she jump or was she pushed?

Other than Evan and Camille (Bevin Bru), the rest of the group can’t be bothered to examine the evidence that’s all around them, preferring beer pong and Never Have I Ever to thoughts of self-preservation.

Head Count succeeds as a low-budge (but not to its detriment) thriller with a nifty paranormal threat that remains largely out of sight. Even so, writer-director Elle Callahan (Witch Hunt) brings tensions to a boil with strategically placed pointers amidst all the scenes of collegiate cavorting that inevitably ensue when the parents are out of town.

I told you kids! No parties! You’re all grounded.

Six feet deep.

Monstrum (2016)

Directed and co-written by South Korean filmmaker Jong-ho Huh, Monstrum is an exquisitely crafted 16th century period piece about a legendary beast that is decimating the population of Mount Inwangsan.

It is also a very astute political thriller about a beleaguered king (Park Hee Soon) who is being undermined by his cabinet ministers. The powers behind the throne conspire to keep the peasants wary and fearful by fueling rumors of a horrible creature that not only kills its victims but spreads the plague throughout the countryside.

Naturally, the peasants would like to see something done to mitigate the mutilations, so the king summons a loyal general (Kim Myung-min) to lead a party of warriors and farmers to hunt down and destroy the thing known as Monstrum.

The plot bubbles with palace intrigue and betrayals as a persistent rumor turns flesh (fur) in the form of a monstrous black cat that’s grown to massive proportions thanks to a steady diet of disease-ridden corpses.

The Monstrum itself isn’t the best CGI critter ever, but it’s far from the worst. Thematically, it represents man-made corruption, dishing out death as an equal opportunity destroyer, feasting on peasant and noble alike.

The monster is generally on the money in Monstrum, but the movie’s also chockful of superb swordplay and martial arts choreography that dazzles the senses. It’s no Crouching Tiger, but it’s definitely a hidden gem.

It also boasts terrific cast chemistry and you’ll have no trouble rooting for the scrappy band of heroes that takes on the vicious monster and stands up to a cadre of treacherous politicians.

And like Masque of the Red Death or Brotherhood of the Wolf, Monstrum uses a deadly plague to illustrate the indifference of the aristocracy to the suffering of an impoverished working class.

Twas ever thus.

It Waits (2005)

If your expectations are not currently residing in a lofty skyscraper, then It Waits should do the trick. The time passed and I was engaged, despite the teensy budget and a general lack of dramatic ability from the cast.

First and foremost, this is a story about redemption. Yes, there is a winged monster that dismembers campers, and plays cat-and-mouse with the lovely Danielle (Cerina Vincent), an alcoholic ranger stationed at a lonely tower in the forest primeval.

See, Danielle recently got shitfaced with her friend Julie, and was at the wheel of their jeep when it crashed, killing her bestie. Since then, she’s retreated to the solitude of her fire-watch perch to sulk and drink some more, with a wisecracking parrot as her primary companion.

If only there were some way for her to save the day, and earn back her self-respect!

Meanwhile, a bunch of stupid college students blast a hole in the side of a mountain, freeing a demon/gargoyle that’s resided there for ages and ages. After dispensing with the hors d’oeuvres, the monster plays the long game with Danielle, waging a gruesome terror campaign and reducing everyone around her to bloody mulch.

Director Steven Monroe recognizes that Danielle is the focus of the feature, so she’s never far from the camera, an aesthetic gamble that pays off. While her emotive capability seldom rises above school play levels, actress Cerina Vincent pumps the gas when action is called for and spends the majority of her screen-time looking absolutely ravishing.

The creature also gets a fair amount of camera time, and it’s a sturdily built costume that wreaks plenty of havoc, resembling Pumpkinhead with a wingspan. In fact, the diabolical monster seems rather too formidable for the plucky ranger.

Fortunately, dynamite is a great equalizer. Keep expectations on the ground floor and you will be reasonably pleased with It Waits.

We Need To Do Something (2021)

There are moments in We Need To Do Something in which director Sean King O’Grady and writer Max Booth III manage to make us forget that the movie is mostly about an annoying family trapped in their bathroom.

There is a powerful storm. Dad, Mom, daughter Melissa, and son Bobby hole up in the master bath. A tree crashes through the roof imprisoning the bickering clan in the can.

The presence of a rattlesnake in the restroom livens things up a bit, and provides some semblance of actual danger.

Further, the subplot about Melissa (Sierra McCormick) and her girlfriend Amy (Lisette Alexis) casting a spell on a nosy classmate that apparently results in the Earth’s destruction is intriguing, and could have been developed.

However, there is just so much horror that can be plumbed from living in a loo. Robert (Pat Healy), the twitchy family patriarch proves to be utterly useless in a crisis, impotently raging around the room, making life miserable for everyone—including the viewer.

As the face of toxic masculinity, Healy is an angry, unstable child whose very presence makes any situation 100-times more unbearable.

This gets old real fast.

Diane (Vinessa Shaw), Robert’s wife, is preoccupied with buoying Bobby’s (John James Cronin) spirits, particularly after the latter’s encounter with the roving rattler.

Single-set monotony takes over, and the lack of legitimate threats beyond Robert’s rapid decline into lunacy (it was a short trip) do not inspire much in the way of suspense.

Will Melissa cop to the crime of crashing civilization? Will anyone survive the dangers lurking beyond the camera’s reach? Will someone please kill Dad?

In the final reckoning, We Need To Do Something falls short of achieving any sort of entertainment momentum, since it’s forced to rely on offscreen developments to move the story forward.

Rather than a movie, Max Booth’s script suggests the sort of exercise in stale irony that one endures in community college playwriting classes.

Feel free to skip this class. You won’t learn anything.

Better Watch Out (2016)

Once again, the poor babysitter is left to deal with the devil while bourgeois Mom and Pop drink the night away. And right before Christmas! After watching Better Watch Out, I know of one kid who’s getting a load of coal dumped in his yard.

On the verge of leaving town for college, Ashley (Olivia de Jonge) takes one last babysitting gig for the Lerners (Patrick Warburton and Virginia Madsen), keeping an eye on their son Luke (Levi Miller).

Unbeknownst to Ashley, Luke and his flunky friend Garrett (Ed Oxenbould) have contrived a “home invasion” to frighten her, in the hopes that a heroic-looking Luke will win her heart.

Yep, 12-year-old Luke has the hots for his sitter and his worst instincts take over. What starts out as Home Alone-inspired high jinks gets real dark, real fast, as Luke continually ups the stakes revealing him to be a vicious and clever sociopath.

“One-hundred one uses for duct tape,” he says merrily, as he binds Ashley to a chair.

The angel-faced kid is all bad, but when it comes to creating murder and mayhem he’s definitely a prodigy. They should probably consider moving him up a couple grades so he can torment older kids.

Miller is truly disturbing as Luke, imbuing him with a fiendishly high I.Q. His improvisational methods for dealing with a situation rapidly spinning out of his control impressive, to say the least.

De Jonge, for her part, is formidable as the object of Luke’s grotesque affection who goes to extreme lengths to thwart his sinister scheme.

With Better Watch Out, director and co-writer Chris Peckover has left a distinctive mark on the Babysitter Horror subgenre, where the evil is always coming from inside the house.

Iron Sky (2012)

Nazis from the moon plan a planetary invasion in the Finnish production of Iron Sky. Directed by Timo Vuorensola, it’s an irreverent, low-budget space opera filmed in the same retro style as Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, that harkens back to cheesy old sci-fi serials like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers.

In an attempt to boost her flagging popularity, the President (Stephanie Paul, who looks and talks like Sarah Palin) sends James Washington (Christopher Kirby), an African-American model to the moon, where he’s captured by low-tech Nazis, who’ve been hiding out on the dark side since their defeat at the hands of the Axis Powers in 1945.

A foxy sympathetic Nazi scientist (Julia Dietze) takes a liking to Washington and gives him an Aryan makeover so that he can accompany her uber-ambitious fiance, Klaus Adler (Gotz Otto), on a scouting mission to Earth.

Adler wants nothing less than to be the new furhrer, resting control from sickly Wolfgang Kortzfleisch (Udo Kier), and perhaps, with the help of some wild analog technology, rule the galaxy.

Director Vuorensola and screenwriter Michael Kalesniko wisely chose to embrace their budget limitations, rather than hide them, and created a highly stylized model universe that almost glows with soft-focus close ups of heroes and villains, playing out against a hulking backdrop of obsolete machinery.

It’s also funny as hell, with a pinch of Dr. Strangelove satire, as when the president yells at members of the U.N. for having secret space programs of their own.

When they protest that she also broke her word, she says matter-of-factly, “We always break ours. That’s just what we do.”

Apparently, there is a sequel to Iron Sky released in 2019 titled Iron Sky: The Coming Race, with many of the same principals attached.

I will be watching the skies.

Girl on the Third Floor (2019)

I haven’t followed professional rasslin’ for the last decade or two, so I’ve missed out on the rise of CM Punk, a straight-edge, comic book-loving, butt-kicking atheist who’s managed to win several championship belts in the early part of the 21st century.

In Girl on the Third Floor he tries on a tool belt to restore an old Victorian mansion with a bad reputation as a peace offering to his pregnant wife, Liz (Trieste Kelly Dunn).

Don Koch (Punk), is a financial con artist who’s cut a deal with the feds to stay out of prison, despite draining several pension funds. Having proven himself to be a liar, a drunk, and a womanizer, Don has vowed to turn over a new leaf, and “make everything right” by fixing up a former brothel into a dream home for his burgeoning family.

Unfortunately, a leopard can’t change his spots and you can’t build a dream home on a rotten foundation. The man formerly known as King Don, immediately starts drinking beer and lying to his wife on their daily phone calls, which doesn’t say much about his commitment to the project or to his marriage.

While fumbling through basic carpentry and getting loads of gross fluids dumped on him in at every turn, Don entertains Ellie Mueller (Karen Wooditsch) a gabby nun from the church next door and Sarah Yates (Sarah Brooks) a simmering sexpot who seems to come and go at will.

Don gets characteristically drunk, smokes weed, and knocks boots with Sarah. Like Michael Douglas in Fatal Attraction, he soon regrets giving in to his toxic masculine desires when his one-night stand turns out to be a vengeful spirit.

It’s a morality play, duh.

The house itself consumes the protagonist, serving as a warning to faithless spouses seeking redemption for their misdeeds.

Punk is up to the task, and acquits himself as an able, agile leading man, losing his marbles in entertaining fashion and getting tossed around like a pumped-up Bruce Campbell in Evil Dead II.

Watching the misadventures of the angry, bumbling, and ultimately remorseful Don Koch, writer-director Travis Stevens gives us a virtual Power Point illustration of the terrible fate that befalls an ethical weakling.

Maybe try couples counseling, instead.

Warning: The dog dies. Steel yourself emotionally.

The Deep House (2021)

Why would anyone want to explore a haunted house at the bottom of a lake? Talk about looking for trouble. The Deep House follows Ben (James Jagger) and Tina (Camille Lowe), a couple of thrill-seeking social media climbers that specialize in visiting creepy-ass abandoned buildings.

They don’t get much creepier than an eerily preserved house on the floor of a deep French lake, so they gather their diving gear and make a splash, guided to the secret spot by a chainsmoking local (Eric Savin).

Their life aquatic isn’t pleasant, to say the least. They find the house and Tina doesn’t like the atmosphere one bit. When they discover buoyant corpses and evidence of human sacrifice things really go off the rails.

Written and directed by Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo, The Deep House will make you uncomfortable in interesting new ways. The prospect of running out of air surfaces early in the film, as Tina practices holding her breath in the bathtub prior to arrival.

If the idea of an empty air tank under hundreds of feet of water while being chased through a submerged spook-house by swimming ghouls doesn’t freeze your blood, then you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din.

Furthermore, Ben is anxious to become media famous, while Tina has a stubborn streak of common sense that often runs counter to her partner’s ambition, a situation that could spell doom for both of them.

Ben has a camera drone that provides aerial views and also follows the couple into the lake, so visually they’ve got all their angles covered. And we can see what’s lurking around the corner.

As soon as the viewer forgets that Ben and Tina are underwater, something floats by and we get a fresh wave of panic.

There’s no big moral lesson in The Deep House. What Ben and Tina find in the house at the bottom of the lake is something that should have stayed there. Is that so hard to wrap your head around?

Again, why go out of your way to get metaphysically mangled? Good movie, though.