Stoker Hills (2020)

Funny, I thought with a title like Stoker Hills, that there might be vampires in the vicinity.

Nope, not even a nibble, though blood is drained if you pay attention. I’m not advising you to do so.

Three students enrolled in Professor Tony Todd’s community college film class get themselves kidnapped while working on a zombie movie, and must escape the clutches of a fiendish killer in an underground labyrinth.

Ryan (David Gridley), Jake (William Bedford-Hill), and Erica (Steffani Brass) set out with the noblest intentions to create a cinematic hybrid of “The Walking Dead and Pretty Woman.”

Shooting B-roll of a trolling Erica decked out in hooker garb goes south when she gets snatched by a goon in a creepy car. The dufus bros take off in hot pursuit, eventually leading to a secret trailer in the woods, where they too are set upon and abducted.

The camera is found by a fireman and turned over to the cops.

What looks to be a promising setup is soon squandered, as director Benjamin Louis and scenarist Jonah Kuehner unwisely shift gears into the police investigation that follows their disappearance.

We are summarily introduced to a pair of plodding detectives (Eric Etabari and William Lee Scott, the former inexplicably garbed like he’s auditioning for Guys & Dolls) who manage to grind narrative momentum to a screeching halt.

We’re handed scene after scene of these two dull dicks mulling over the found footage for clues, occasionally cutting back to the tied-up victims trying laboriously to escape their shackles, as if to remind us that there’s still a plot that needs resolving here.

The storyline twists and rebounds with their ponderous investigative revelations, including a serial killer with a pig heart (Jason Sweat) in need of fresh blood. The outré details don’t add up to much of anything, until the very last scene.

At that point, you will have the privilege of deciding if Stoker Hills is a clever little film with a “Gotcha” ending, or a low-budget time-waster with the lamest finale since, “Gosh, what a crazy dream!”

It’s an awesome responsibility when you think about it.

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The Menu (2022)

Chef’s kiss for The Menu, a daily special filled with dark delights.

Directed and dressed with considerable panache by Mark Mylod, from a script by Will Tracy and Seth Reiss, The Menu is pitch-black comedy, skewering pretentious food snobs like so much shish kabob.

Twelve affluent diners are picked up by ferry and transported to Hawthorn Island, a self-contained culinary colony dedicated to growing, raising, and cooking food that’s showcased at its exclusive Hawthorn restaurant.

Here, Chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes) prepares mind-boggling tasting menus for $1200 a head. But this particular evening’s service is special. There will be no coming back for seconds.

In fact, there will be no coming back at all! Class warfare has seldom been served up with so many diabolical surprises.

Among the doomed diners are the Queen Bee food critic (Janet McTeer); a has-been Hollywood star (John Leguizamo); a multi-cultural trio of blowhard bros (Mark St. Cyr, Arturo Castro, Rob Yang), and fawning foodie fanboy Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), accompanied by his dazzling date, Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy).

Like a master showman in the guise of a humble cook, Chef Slowik meticulously describes each course. While doing so, he drops not-so-cryptic hints about the various axes he has to grind with each guest.

And when Slowik announces that there will be no bread served with the evening meal, because of its necessity to a working-class diet, the assembled eaters become even more uneasy.

Many timely topics are trotted out in The Menu—celebrity worship, commitment to ideals, pitiful power plays—and they all get seared by the heat of righteous service industry anger.

The quieter scenes of Slowik and Margot, slowly revealing themselves to each other, give us a breather between the mayhem of each successive course, until the feast’s fiery finale unfolds.

Margot wisely orders a cheeseburger to go. No surprise, it’s delicious!

You’ve gotta try this.

Barbarian (2022)

We’re seeing an upswing of Air B&B-based horror movies, and writer-director Zach Cregger’s Barbarian currently sits alone at the top of the heap. It’s a stylistic cousin of Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, as mood and tone careen crazily between multiple storylines that converge in one really bad house.

Our heroine Tess (Georgina Campbell) is on her way to Detroit for a job interview with a documentary filmmaker. She arrives at her rental, the only livable dwelling in a blighted suburb that looks like World War II ended last week.

To complicate matters, it’s a dark and stormy night. To further complicate matters, she finds her house already occupied by Keith (Bill Skarsgard), a somewhat intense fellow who seems determined to put her at ease, offering to share the house with Tess for the evening.

Eventually, and against her better judgment, Tess accepts Keith’s hospitality and the two get better acquainted over a bottle of wine.

Meanwhile, in another part of the movie, TV sitcom star A.J. Gilbride (Justin Long), is having a rough time with the #MeToo movement, causing his career to crumble.

He’s advised to liquidate his holdings, including some rental property in his native Michigan, currently occupied by Tess, Keith, and something else entirely.

There is a fearsome creature at the heart of Barbarian, but like any good monster, she’s highly sympathetic, certainly more so than the two male leads, neither of whom can adapt in the unexpected survival situation they all stumble into.

AJ in particular is a loathsome example of masculinity; a whiny, raging, mama’s boy, who proves to be the biggest obstacle in Tess’s escape from a hell-house that rivals the Sawyer Farm in Texas.

Frank (Richard Brake), the owner of the house and its hell, gets his story told in a narrative hopping flashback, and we realize that the thing haunting this hacienda is not the real monster here. In fact, she’s a remarkably nurturing creature considering her grim origin.

There’s a hell of a lot happening in Barbarian, and it understandably leaves the viewer a bit rung out. It’s shocking, periodically funny, and superbly realized by Zach Cregger, formerly of The Whitest Kids You Know.

Cregger’s commitment to creeping (and grossing) us out is impressive as layers of awfulness just continue stack up like mildewed laundry.

It’s also a film that’s not afraid to sound off on a laundry list of anxiety topics, including motherhood, property values, Cancel Culture, incest, hospitality industry paranoia, and awkward first dates.

Barbarian is a wild ride and there are no seat belts in this buggy.

Speak No Evil (2022)

Trauma warning: Speak No Evil is very dark and will probably leave a mark.

Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch) and Bjorn (Morten Burian) are an attractive Danish couple on holiday, with their young daughter Agnes (Liva Forsberg). They happen to meet Patrick (Feja van Huet) and Karin (Karina Smulders), who are from Holland, traveling with their quiet son Abel (Marius Damslev), who is about Agnes’s age.

The two families have dinner together and promise to keep in touch.

Meanwhile, Sune Kolster’s musical score is erupting with sinister and ominous trumpet flourishes all over the place, as if Max Cady had just been released from prison and wandered over from Cape Fear.

What is happening here?

Director and writer Christian Tafdrup is actually tipping his hand. My first assumption was that the overblown soundtrack was parody and meant to mislead or exaggerate a threat.

This is not the case. The brass barrage is meant to be a warning of impending danger to the characters, and probably the viewer as well.

Speak No Evil is an excruciating slow death of a thousand cuts. What at first unrolls like a comedy of manners—urban, Danish sophisticates spend an uncomfortably rustic weekend as guests of less civilized Dutch acquaintances— gradually reveals itself to be mounting torments of the damned.

“It’s perhaps a bit too long to spend with some people we barely know,” Louise offers sensibly.

“What’s the worst that could happen?” Bjorn asks a short time later.

This moment in time is played for (uneasy) laughs, but the answer to Bjorn’s question is a bottomless pit of micro-aggressions and red flags that culminate in a finale that is blistering, not only in the brutality it depicts, but in the utter hopelessness on the parts of Louise and Bjorn, who face a fate as grim as any I’ve witnessed at the movies.

Like Godard and Buñuel before him, Dutch director Christian Tafdrup has no sympathy for the bourgeoise.

Speak No Evil is not a cheaply made shocker. Tafdrup trains a razor-sharp eye on Bjorn’s smug boredom with middle-class domesticity as more than reason enough to seal their doom.

And what a dark little doom it is!

My advice? Never ever wonder out loud about how bad something can get, unless you want to find out. Or maybe you enjoy being punched in the stomach really hard.

Stonehearst Asylum (2014)

An able cast saves the day!

Loosely based on Poe’s The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether, and directed by Brad Anderson (The Machinist, Session 9, Transsiberian), Stonehearst Asylum is a Victorian madhouse shocker in which the inmates literally take over the asylum.

Doctor Edward Newgate (Jim Sturgess), an idealistic, Oxford-trained physician lands a job at a remote English asylum for wealthy lunatics, where he is taken under the wing by its director Dr. Silas Lamb (Ben Kingsley).

Lamb chooses to leave the patients unmedicated and in some cases, even encourages them to pursue their delusions, as with the aristocrat who fancies himself a dog.

Newgate is drawn to Eliza Graves (Kate Beckinsale), a posh patient suffering from hysteria, and almost immediately begins devising escape methods on her behalf, even as she warns him to get his own ass outta town.

Stonehearst Asylum takes its sweet time about getting anywhere, but when you’ve got a cast that includes Kingsley, Michael Caine, Brendan Gleeson, and David Thewlis as Lamb’s psychotic bully boy, Mickey Finn, it’s probably best to let these guys ham it up a bit.

Same goes for the ever-enchanting Kate Beckinsale, the ideal template for the role of the beautiful, mysterious madwoman in peril, with whom Newgate has no choice but to fall in love and try to rescue.

Who is she? Who is Newgate? Who is Lamb? Who is anybody in this picture?

Joseph Gangemi’s script wanders like a hippie on an OG Kush bender, but Anderson somehow guides his players to a blazing finale when murderous Mickey Finn bursts into flame and sets the whole place on fire.

I would characterize Stonehearst Asylum not only as a goth-styled thriller, but existing in the same cinematic universe as Roger Corman’s Poe adaptations, and some of Hammer Films’ more outrageous period pieces, that likewise usually conclude with the house burning down.

I almost added Ken Russell to that group. Stonehearst Asylum stops short of achieving anything as stylistically unhinged as Russell’s maddest work, which is a tall order to be sure.

On the other hand, if you enjoy kooky costume drama with a first-rate cast attached, this is an Everything Bagel.

Choose Or Die (2022)

Video games are bad, ‘mkay?

Choose Or Die takes place in a slightly dystopian future that looks like the present, where our protagonist, Kayla (Iola Evans), ekes out a living cleaning clean offices every night, plus whatever she can scrounge by refurbishing obsolete technology.

During a visit with her friendly fence Isaac (Asa Butterfield), she discovers an old text-based video game from the 1980s called Curs>r that more than lives up to its name.

Isaac informs Kayla that there’s an unclaimed $100,000 prize that supposedly awaits the player worthy enough to win.

The bummer is that it’s a sentient game made with sorcerous runes that can take over reality, forcing the player to make impossible choices, usually having to decide which friend or family member gets maimed in grisly fashion.

Therein lies the tension in all its one-dimensional glory. Dig it, or don’t.

Choose Or Die gets a needed boost from actress Iola Evans, who invests Kayla with brains and bravery. Even with loved ones in constant peril, she keeps her focus while trying to hack the sinister system.

Writer-director Toby Meakins does an adequate job of creating a cold and confusing reality in which financially trapped citizens like Kayla engage in risky occult business in hopes of a prize that will rescue them from wretched poverty.

You know, like in The Hunger Games.

Though Kayla is a talented programmer, she can’t get her foot in the door anywhere, leaving her stuck with mindless labor as the only way to keep the drug-dealing landlord (Ryan Gage) from stringing out her junkie mom.

You should be entertained by the painful predicaments pondered in Choose Or Die, and you will definitely root for the plucky heroine. But it’s all pretty one-dimensional. Hopefully that’s enough.

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.

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 are 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.

The Platform (2019)

Welcome to The Platform, a dystopian future where a prison sentence becomes a daily feeding frenzy or a grim kick in the guts, depending on what level of the prison you’re incarcerated.

Somewhere in Europe there is an immense tower with hundreds of floors. Called a Vertical Self-Management Center (or simply “the hole”), the tower has two prisoners per floor.

Once a day a platform with the remains of a grand feast is lowered to each floor, and famished convicts shovel as much food as they can into their mouths, caring not one whit for the unfortunates beneath them.

Prisoners on the highest floor gorge themselves, while those below Level 50 or so, find less and less to eat.

And if you’re on Level 172? Improvise.

Lest we think this set-up perpetually favors the higher floors, there’s a catch. After one month, the prisoners are put to sleep and moved to another level. So one day, you might be fine dining on prime rib, the next, your cellmate.

If you guessed that this is a brutal allegory of class warfare, give yourself a star.

The protagonist, Goreng (Ivan Massague), awakens in the tower, with vicious little cellmate Trimagasi (Zorion Eguileor) as his only company. Gradually, he gets used to the ugly routine, watching as Trimagasi literally pisses on the prisoners housed below them.

As Goreng serves his time, whether starving or stuffed, he attempts to talk to those above and below about a means of cooperation to feed everyone in the prison. Though his efforts are routinely scorned, he sees a bigger picture in the small solidarity movement.

Director Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia (The Platform is in Spanish with subtitles) has created his own Stanford Prison Experiment, where guards are only necessary once a month. The inmates provide their own cruelty, happily spilling blood over a chicken leg or an extra mouthful of wine.

Goreng, a fundamentally decent fellow who only wants to help, is forced into several violent confrontations with fellow prisoners. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it’s all rather harsh sledding and not intended for the squeamish, especially if cannibalism is a trigger.

As concepts go, “Eat or Be Eaten” isn’t especially profound. Fortunately, Gaztelu-Urrutia is an ambitious, inventive visual stylist, painstakingly painting a nightmare society that is literally devouring itself.

The Platform isn’t the least bit subtle. Sometimes a sledgehammer is the best tool for the job.

The Hills Run Red (2009)

Boy, do they ever!

A gruesome splatter fest about our devotion to cult films, The Hills Run Red is a lot like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, only the family business is cinema instead of meat.

And instead of Leatherface, we have Babyface.

Movie nerd Tyler (Tad Hilgenbrink) is obsessed with a notorious horror film from the 1980s called The Hills Run Red that up and disappeared, along with its director, years before.

Tyler tracks down the director’s daughter Alexa (Sophie Monk), a junkie stripper with a heart of gold. After helping her kick heroin, Tyler arranges for Alexa to guide them into the “deep woods” where the movie was filmed.

Tagging along for this road trip in search of cinematic buried treasure is cameraman Lalo (Alex Wyndham) and Tyler’s restless girlfriend Serina (Janet Montgomery).

In a clear case of Careful What You Wish For, Tyler eventually gets to see the legendary film, only to discover that he and his friends are reluctant cast members.

Gallons of gore ensues, but The Hills Run Red isn’t just another homage to vintage slice-and-dice. There are astute discussions on the fly about horror movies, that bring up interesting points about what fans really want, e.g., Emotional Connection versus Violent Spectacle.

Director Dave Parker opens with a hellish montage sequence and keeps his foot near the gas pedal at all times, which means some plot points end up on the cutting room floor.

No matter. As the title implies, there is blood and there are guts, and they are used judiciously and effectively.

I also noticed on a number of occasions, the character Lalo offers sensible advice to his friend Tyler, that is completely ignored. He observes that horror movies take place away from civilization, so one should never leave the city.

They go anyway. To the woods.

Lalo also tells Tyler that maybe The Hills Run Red was hidden for a reason. Tyler should have listened.