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 is 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.

Editor’s Note: 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 co-conspirators 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 beware, 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)

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.

Eden Lake (2008)

Talk about grueling; Eden Lake makes Straw Dogs look like a Frankie and Annette double feature. Writer-director James Watkins (The Woman in Black) methodically stokes the fear furnace until the tension is nearly unbearable—but you don’t dare look away.

By firmly establishing his protagonists as something more than pale quaking stereotypes, Watkins succeeds where Eli Roth and James Wan fall short; namely giving the viewer a good reason to be shocked and horrified about the cruelties inflicted on them.

In search of a romantic weekend, Steve (Michael Fassbender) and his girlfriend Jenny (Kelly Reilly) drive way out to hell and gone in the English countryside to camp on a secluded beach that’s about to become the centerpiece of a condo development. The couple incurs the wrath of local juvenile delinquents on BMX bikes and things rapidly spin out of control. Sure, it’s all a big joke, till someone gets hurt—or in this case, killed.

While Steve and Jenny definitely do not deserve their eventual fates, it can be rightly said that the awful shit pit they land in is due mostly to Steve being a colossal asshole who should have just walked away before everything went to hell. He has several chances to do so, but his idiotic pride won’t let him.

Eden Lake should look familiar: the plot is nearly identical to The Strangers (or Deliverance, The Hills Have Eyes, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Wrong Turn, for that matter). Above all else, never ever pitch your tent in an isolated rural area, especially after witnessing the casual cruelty of the locals.

But there is a critical difference. There’s no explanation for the amorality and astonishing lack of empathy on the part of the teens in The Strangers. Boredom maybe? Gangsta rap? Point and shoot video games? Guess we’ll never know.

In Watkins’ film, the young miscreants are squarely under the sway of Brett (Jack O’Connell), the group’s psychotic Alpha male, who, like any good tyrant, whittles away his subjects’ humanity with bullying and threats. (I kept thinking of African child soldiers, forced under impossible pressure into remorseless killers.)

Each nightmarish escalation of the action is presented as a transgression that could have been avoided, but also as a disturbingly believable development, considering the hellish circumstances the characters find themselves in. And that is why Eden Lake is so damn terrifying and transfixing.

Spiderhole (2010)

Four reasonably attractive English art students decide that paying rent is for suckers, so they take up residence in a creepy, boarded up old mansion. Sure, squatting seems glamorous, but there are always unforeseen obstacles.

For example, no running water or electricity. Mysterious sounds in the night. And let’s not forget about the downstairs tenant, a deranged surgeon who periodically gasses his new guests, straps them to an operating table, and removes their body parts—while the latter scream, curse, and plead.

It’s a well-dressed effort by writer/director Daniel Simpson (the setting is suitably bleak and dreary), but Spiderhole is neither gory or excruciating enough to be torture porn, and it’s too damn slow to be a haunted-house hack ’em up.

Simpson valiantly tries to tie several gossamer-thin plot points together, but fails, as if finally throwing up his hands and admitting, “To hell with the story, let’s get back to cutting up the kids.”

He haphazardly chooses to reintroduce a minor subplot about a girl who’s been missing for 10 years (who cares?!) at the very end of the film, but by then the viewer has forgotten all about this earlier allusion that  amounts to nothing, anyway.

The same pointless nihilism that (to me, anyway) makes Hostel and all those Saw movies so uninteresting is at work here. Simply binding a victim and hurting them while they struggle and cry (and maybe even escape a time or two), is skull-crushingly dull, unless there’s a reasonable explanation for doing so.

Otherwise, you have, what exactly? Shrieking? Not scary, but very annoying, to be sure. Call me old fashioned, but I want to know why the victims are screaming and what they did to deserve it.