Bone Tomahawk (2015)

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The comedian Patton Oswalt was tweeting about this one recently, his observations growing increasingly agitated—and no wonder. Bone Tomahawk is a horse opera throwback that any John Ford fan will recognize without too much difficulty. It’s your basic, “OK men, let’s get us a posse and go save our womenfolk” tale, that gradually winds its way into an atavistic nightmare and a grueling denouement. And having goddamn Kurt Russell as the dutiful and superbly mustachioed sheriff doesn’t hurt one bit.

Russell portrays Sheriff Franklin Hunt, a turn-of-the-century lawman who watches over the frontier town of Bright Hope, situated somewhere in the Southwestern badlands. One fine evening, he and Chicory (the amazing Richard Jenkins), his backup deputy and comic sidekick, spot a fugitive in their midst (David Arquette), a craven bandit on the run from a tribe of bloodthirsty cave-dwelling savages, who have trailed him to his present location. Oh, and they’re cannibals.

The next morning, Hunt discovers that the bandit, Mrs. O’Dwyer (Lili Simmons), and Deputy Nick (Evan Jonigkeit) have been abducted by the fearsome flesh eaters. A posse consisting of Hunt, Chicory, John Brooder (Scott Fox), a sartorially splendid gunfighter, and Arthur O’Dwyer (Patrick Wilson), a rancher with a broken leg, and husband of the kidnapped damsel, sets off in pursuit.

For most of Bone Tomahawk‘s two-plus hours running time, we plod along with the cowboy quartet on a near-hopeless quest. Hopefully, the pace won’t cause any premature bailouts, because this is where writer and director S. Craig Zahler demonstrates a sure hand. Alternating between meandering scenes of Larry McMurtry-esque cowboy banter and violent episodes of gunplay, Zahler keeps a tight rein on his players, moving them stoically forward to a hellish confrontation with a horrible enemy. And to their credit, the principle cast members (especially Russell and Jenkins) acquit themselves smashingly.

Hunt and his men prove to be fallible, but honorable avengers, capable of extraordinary acts of courage, even under extreme circumstances. These include helplessly watching a captured comrade writhe in agony as a clan of troglodytes readies him for supper. Suffice to say there’s more to this meal preparation than washing your hands.

Bone Tomahawk has its cringe-worthy moments, but the savagery is a vital story component, serving as a chillingly effective worst-case scenario, and not merely a cheap excuse for guts and gore. On the other hand, if you’re hungry for guts and gore, you surely won’t be disappointed by the time they arrive. Strong work!

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The Collector (2009)

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A good franchise is hard to find. When it comes to the contemporary horror film, how does one find the next Freddy or Jason or Leatherface? Is it Jigsaw that keeps ’em coming back or is it the cunning intricacy of his traps? Now that Rob Zombie has rebooted Michael Myers, do we have a deeper empathy for him because we’ve been privy to his bleak-ass childhood? Is Victor Crowley a ghost, a monster, or a waste of space? For that matter, what about The Collector?

Nutshell: Arkin (Josh Stewart) is an ex-con forced to ripoff a hot gem from the homeowner that’s employed him as a general contractor. See, he needs the money ASAP to square his wife’s debt with some gangsters. Not important, but it does reveal that the protagonist is basically a decent guy, despite his shady profession.

Coincidentally, the very house that Arkin is busting into has also been targeted by the title character, a mysterious (deformed?) masked man in black (Juan Fernandez). Instead of jewelry, the Collector prefers building clever booby traps, playing sadistic cat-and-mouse games with his captives, and then making off with a single survivor—presumably for more finely tuned abuse in his lair.

Director and co-writer Marcus Dunstan does create sufficient interest in his diabolical mastermind, who seems to be both a cool, calculating entomologist and a deranged, howling maniac. He walks with a curious gait, suggesting an injury or disability, but he’s also dexterous and deadly quick. There are quirks and inconsistencies to be found here, and they make me want to know who the Collector is and how he got to be this way.

I plan on watching the sequel (The Collection) soon, so we’ll see if we have a viable franchise on our hands or just a pair of movies with the same quirky killer.

Mr. Hush (2011)

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Nope, no sugarcoating around here. Your life will not be enhanced in any way, shape or form by watching Mr. Hush. It’s a terminally amateurish effort from writer/director David Lee Madison about a dude named Holland Price (Brad Loree, a poor man’s, I don’t know, Eric Roberts?), an unfortunate soul who opens the door to the wrong trick-or-treater. Here’s a life hack for you buddy: Don’t let a man into your house who is dressed as a priest and calling himself “Father Flanagan” (Edward X. Young) on Halloween night unless you’ve been looking forward to seeing your wife’s throat cut and your daughter abducted.

Bad luck, right? We leap 10 years into the future and Price is a dish dog at a greasy spoon with a tiny little crush on Debbie (Connie Giordano) the new waitress. She’s a widow with a teenage daughter, he’s a widower with a perpetual case of the blues, so they tentatively embark on a relationship. Oh hark! Is that a knock at the door? Before Price can say “boo” to a goose, the very same maniac reappears, looking not a day older, to carve up his new special lady. What are the odds?

Mr. Hush would be utterly unwatchable without the meaty contributions of Edward X. Young, as a charmingly hammy community theater villain who seems to be enjoying the hell out of himself, even firing off a perfectly terrible joke after he’s impaled by the shards of a Louisville Slugger. And yep, that’s Evil Ed from Fright Night, Stephen Geoffreys, as the killer’s psychotic little helper who dresses like a homeless backup dancer from Michael Jackson’s “Bad” video. Sadly, it’s not enough to compensate for the leaden pace, goofy-ass script and fatal cheapness of the production.

Frontier(s) (2007)

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Parisian robbers on the run pick the absolute worst place in the universe to hide out. Frontier(s) writer-director Xavier Gens was obviously smitten with genre classics like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes, but I suspect there’s a sneaky tip of the beret to French New Wave provocateur Jean-Luc Godard, as well. See? I studied film.

A quartet of reasonably attractive thieves flees the political turmoil and violent protests in Paris for the anonymity of the French countryside in order to count their loot. Sidebar: What could people in Paris be upset about? You live in Paris! Have another creamy pastry and wash it down with some fine wine. Sheesh!

Unwilling accomplice Yasmine (Karina Testa) and her three coconspirators decide to hole up in a bed and breakfast/pig farm staffed by Cannibal Nazi Hillbillies (Canazibillies?) and are soon horrified to find themselves on the menu. The Canazibillies have little trouble subduing the brash bandits, but then old resentments boil over during the divvying of the spoils and the Master Racists are reduced to fighting amongst each other.

Even as Paris is awash in violence after the election of a right-wing candidate, Yasmine and her friends use the opportunity to commit robbery, preferring cold, hard cash to either side of a political demonstration. I believe it is their cynical lack of commitment to a cause that makes them suitable candidates for torture and a trip to the pantry. What happens when shameless opportunists meet fanatical sadists? Well, it ain’t pretty that’s for sure.

Even if the revolutionary subtext is stretched thin to the point of invisibility, Frontier(s) provides effective shocks to the system with frantic regularity as captor and captive alike meet a succession of grim fates. Perhaps Gens is pointing out that the fruit born of violence, whether calculated or chaotic, is equally bitter and deadly. Don’t worry, this won’t be on the test.

Crowsnest (2012)

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Another found-footage cautionary tale about the dangers of a rural partytime weekend with your buds. Seriously! It sounds like a good idea on paper, especially, as in this case, if the hot-girl-to-dude ratio is 3:2. But just look at what can happen! And if you must roister in the wilderness, for the love of gawd, don’t videotape every moment along the way. To be fair, this doomed crew has a better excuse to shoot endless footage of their misadventures than most (documenting evidence of a crime), but it’s become apparent to me that one look through the cursed viewfinder is enough to cook your goose.

A quintet of assholes (really, is it too much to ask that our protagonists have at least one or two attributes that aren’t thoroughly annoying?) pile into their four-wheel drive for a roadtrip to a remote cabin. Needless to say, they never arrive, because the dudes brilliantly decide to take a detour to the middle of nowhere (Canada? Upstate New York? Can’t remember. It ain’t important.) so they can buy a bunch of half-priced beer. Seems like a solid plan until they find themselves pursued by a pack of cannibals in a Winnebago. Yep. Hungry, hungry hillbillies.

The camera gets passed around from one victim to the next, followed by the inevitable chaotic, shaky handheld footage as the unfortunates get chased through the tall timber by mostly unseen predators looking to restock their larders. After all, winter’s coming.

Crowsnest contains some genuinely grueling scenes of savagery, and the gradual decay of trust and friendship amongst the assholes is effectively documented. It’s a fairly slow journey into terror, but once you’re there the blood and guts come pouring down in buckets. Writer John Sheppard and director Brenton Spencer aren’t reinventing the wheel here; they’re just reemphasizing a lesson we know all too well. A carload of attractive jerks doesn’t stand a chance out there.

Shadow (2009)

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You’ll have to roll with some changes in this Italian horror import, but ultimately, I think it’s worth it to do so. Shadow begins as a fairly standard-issue case of strangers run afoul of rural ruffians (fine, if you want to call them “hillbillies,” I won’t squawk), before shifting gears about halfway through into a nasty bit of torture porn, and finally revealing itself in a Twilight Zone-meets-Dalton Trumbo finale.

David (Jake Muxworthy), an American soldier recently returned from the front lines of Afghanistan, decides a bicycle trip through a remote patch of Eastern Europe will help him unwind. He meets a pretty fellow cyclist (Karin Testa) who invites him in to share her tent, and soon both are on the run from a pair of bloodthirsty poachers. (Ottaviano Blitch and Chris Coppola). But wait! There’s more! After a few skirmishes, David and the poachers find themselves the unwilling guests of the evil Mortis (Nuot Arquint), a bony, bald albino with a penchant for inflicting pain—which he does. And then there’s a twist ending that actually works for me.

What Shadow has going for it is devilishly effective tension escalation. Circumstances get increasingly grim without deteriorating into a pointless bloody mess, and Mortis has to be one of the creepiest kooks to come along in a long time. Some of you will not care for the conclusion, but I appreciated the “one last surprise” card being played. Rather than a rip-off, I consider it a rather creative solution. See for yourself. I doubt you’ll be disappointed, because this trip is a trip.

Dread (2009)

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A beastly unsettling adaptation of a Clive Barker short story by writer/director Anthony DiBlasi, Dread doesn’t require supernatural elements—other than bad dreams—to really make us squirm in our seats. Sure, Barker’s psycho-sexual hot potatoes (blood, sex, domination, and cruelly testing one’s limits) are in play, but it’s a character-driven nightmare first and foremost, as a student film about mapping out the territory of fear runs amok and lives are annihilated in the process.

Film student and Johnny Deppleganger Stephen Grace (Jackson Rathbone) meets Quaid (Shaun Evans), a charismatic loner, who wastes no time in reeling his new pal into exploring the roots and boundaries of real fear, and soon a student film project is born. With the help of Cheryl (Hanne Steen), a fellow film studies major, the young auteurs interview a range of students about their earliest and most profound memories of fear. Quaid, who seems to be majoring in villainy with a minor in degradation, believes their project lacks juice, so he takes it upon himself to “take things to the next level.” By the way, never trust anyone who uses this expression.

Dread succeeds on the strength of its well-drawn characters, particularly in the homo-erotic jousting between the curious, but virtuous, Stephen, and the increasingly deranged and manipulative Quaid, a fellow who was obviously, in the words of the most articulate sociopath in the world, Dexter Morgan, “born of blood.” DiBlasi takes his time, slow-cooking the horror till it’s falling off the bone. And in Quaid we have a charming sadist with his own terrifying baggage, who actually believes he’s helping people “confront the beast” by tormenting them with the things they fear the most, in the hope that they be destroyed and born anew, as fearless warriors. Needless to say, his victims don’t appreciate the effort. There’s gratitude for you.

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