It Follows (2014)

MV5BMTUwMDEzNDI1MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzAyODU5MzE@._V1_SY317_CR2,0,214,317_AL_

It Follows is a real corker, and you should watch it, like right now.

Daring and original, writer-director David Robert Mitchell’s tale of teens in trouble with … something relentless (Ghost? Evil spirit? Demon stalker?) is fascinating, freaky, and, above all, extremely well crafted.

Even as the constantly escalating sense of dread threatens to drag us down into perpetual darkness, observant eyes can’t fail to register Mitchell’s uncanny arsenal of 360 degree pans, unexpected angles, and sneaky shot compositions that prevent the viewer from getting comfortable with a stable perspective—thus ratcheting up our discomfort to strange new levels.

Even mundane shots of characters watching TV or going to the movies are rife with tension, accompanied by discordant synthesizer static reminiscent of an early John Carpenter flick.

Nutshell: Heroine hottie Jay Height (Maika Monroe) gets dumped by mystery man Hugh (Jake Weary) after surrendering her virtue in his car. In this case, getting dumped entails fobbing sweet Jay off on a malevolent shape-shifting entity that can look like anyone, as it slowly, inexorably pursues its quarry. Hugh hastily explains that Jay needs to “pass it on” by having sex with someone else. “You’re a girl, it should be easy,” he tells her.

Jay’s sister Kelly (Lily Sepe) and neighborhood friends Paul (Keir Gilchrist) and Yara (Olivia Luccardi) valiantly attempt to keep her moving and close ranks around her, but it (Ghost? Evil Spirit? Demon stalker?) just keeps coming, forcing the group to make some very, very difficult decisions.

There’s almost no gore or computer-generated mayhem to be found in It Follows, and it doesn’t make a bit of difference. The hellish situation thrust on Jay and her friends is so confounding and unearthly, that fear of death and dismemberment places a distant to second to the awful, inevitable pursuit by … something really bad.

Whether Jay’s running, driving, or hiding in a vacant beach house, we know there’s no escape—and eventually so does she.

Metaphorically, the implacable follower could represent any number of things: mortality, STDs, original sin, guilty conscience, loss of innocence, you name it.

Unfortunately, Jay is too busy fleeing and concocting desperate schemes to really consider these implications.

The Battery (2012)

MV5BMjAxMTk2NDcxM15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMjQ0ODA0OQ@@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_AL_

I suppose The Battery qualifies as a zombie movie—but just barely.

Until the finale, you can count the number of undead appearances on one hand. First and foremost, it’s a post-apocalyptic road movie that owes more to Samuel Beckett than it does George Romero.

Gorehounds with ADD are going to hate this film because it’s slower than a senior citizen square dance and probably a lot less bloody. It’s also an extremely frugal production. Seriously, the budget was probably less than what I have in my checking account.

I am currently unemployed—thanks for asking!

Even with so many things stacked against it, I have to give an admiring thumbs-up to The Battery and to writer, director, and star Jeremy Gardner, who bravely ran with the idea of having very little money at his disposal, and used that freedom to create something unique: a bleak, absurdist buddy movie about two minor-league baseball players dodging the dead on the backroads of Connecticut.

After months on the road, our two main characters have become a study in contrasts. Ben (Gardner), the team’s catcher, is a bearded outdoorsman, a brawny survivor-type who does most of the heavy lifting (hunting, fishing, zombie-killing) in the relationship.

Mickey (Adam Cronheim), a relief pitcher, is a sullen romantic who spends most of his time lost in thought with a pair of headphones fixed over his ears. Despite the presence of the jovial and optimistic Ben, Mickey is depressed and desperately misses his old life.

One fine day, the pair pick up a stray communication on their walkie-talkies, leading them to believe there is a fortified community in the area. Ben, who is content with camping and living outside, wants to steer clear. Mickey wants a home. A bed. A roof over his head. And maybe a girl.

This is the doomed conflict at the heart of The Battery—the terrible necessity of freedom, as personified by Ben, who refuses to be trapped in any situation, and Mickey’s need for comfort and security.

In the end, freedom trumps comfort, as one might expect given the dire circumstances. But Gardner’s languid, lengthy scenes of Ben and Mickey brushing their teeth, playing catch, listening to music and generally farting around, imply that it takes two souls to make a life worth fighting for.

Positive and negative, yin and yang, pitcher and catcher.

Fun Fact: “The Battery” refers to the pitcher and catcher in ye olde baseball vernacular.

Almost Human (2013)

almosthuman

It’s no work of art, but writer-director Joe Begos has successfully crafted a nifty low-budget, alien-abduction thriller. If you can get around some amateurish acting and an uneven plot that provides few answers to nagging questions (e.g., Where do these aliens come from and how come we never get any idea of what they’re up to?), Almost Human delivers decent gore and a respectable body count.

Rural Maine citizen Mark Fisher (Josh Ethier) disappears one evening after a visit from his buddy Seth (Graham Skipper), who seems agitated in the extreme over the disappearance of another mutual friend. Mark’s house is bombarded with weird lights from the sky accompanied by horrible, paralyzing banshee shrieks, and neither Seth nor Mark’s girlfriend Jen (Vanessa Leigh), who witness the abduction, has any idea of where Mark has gone.

Two years later, Seth is a nervous wreck while Jen has moved on with her career (waitressing at the local greasy spoon) and her love life, getting engaged to Clyde (Anthony Amaral III), who presumably furnishes her with a more stable, down-to-earth relationship. The long-missing Mark is soon discovered nude and freezing in the woods by a pair of hunters, who quickly become the first casualties of his alien-augmented rampage.

In an interesting turn, Mark chooses to keep his victims close in order to secrete goop all over them and transform the newly departed into not-very-capable killer zombies. He’s also got a plan to get back together with Jen and start their own little litter of star-spawn.

If expectations are kept to a minimum, there are enough shocks and jolts in Almost Human to keep the viewer engaged—if not exactly enthralled. There are even a few subtle nods to The Thing, Evil Dead and Reanimator lurking in the details, if you need additional stimulation.

CHUD II (1989)

MV5BMTY3Mzc5NTE4Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMDE4NjkxMQ@@._V1_SY317_CR3,0,214,317_AL_

Without a doubt one of the lamest, tamest brain-dead horror-comedies of all time.

CHUD II has nothing whatsoever to do with the original CHUD (1984), a decent fright flick about Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers (CHUDS) who roam the sewers and tunnels beneath New York City devouring whatever stray sucker that encroaches on their turf.

CHUD II isn’t even on the same level as the average Troma Team release—and that’s saying something. The credits list David Irving as director and Ed Naha as writer, but the whole thing seems like it was derived from a none-too-bright sixth grader’s “really weird dream.”

Steve (Brian Robbins, a sort of poor-man’s Corey Haim) and Kevin (Brian Calvert) accidentally lose the cadaver that’s supposed to be on display for their biology class and decide to steal another one from a nearby disease control center.

To complicate matters, the new stiff, nicknamed Bud (Gerritt Graham, a really funny actor who, to his credit, gives it the ol’ college try), is actually a hungry hungry zombie that was created by the military to be an eating and killing machine.

Once reanimated, he falls in love with Katie (Tricia Lee Fisher), Steve and Kevin’s lab partner, and creates a mob of zombie pals through his contagious bite. One of the zombies is Steve’s poodle. Idiotic, unfunny hijinks ensue. You will not laugh.

If you’re a fan of Murder She Wrote, you might get a kick out of all the cameo appearances from a veritable Who’s Who of television actors from yesteryear, including Larry Linville (M*A*S*H), Norman Fell (Three’s Company), June Lockhart (Lassie, Lost in Space), and Jack Riley (The Bob Newhart Show).

Or perhaps you’ll appreciate Robert Vaughn’s (The Man From Uncle) hammy turn as a deranged army colonel. Oh yeah, and Bianca Jagger appears at the very end of the movie for some reason.

But I’m betting you won’t make it that far. Frankly, I’m surprised I did.

Frankenstein’s Army (2013)

MV5BMjA1NDE0MzcyMF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNTU2MzA3OQ@@._V1_SY317_CR5,0,214,317_AL_

OK, this bad boy rocks.

If you haven’t seen anything worth inviting into your Netflix queue lately, Frankenstein’s Army is a brilliant remedy.

What we have here is a disturbing Weird War tale with steampunk accoutrements fitted into a “found-footage” frame, with a visual aesthetic that’s bold and nightmarishly distinctive.

In the waning days of World War II, Russian troops are streaming into Germany, wreaking havoc along the way. One such unit is accompanied by Captain Dimitri (Alexander Mercury), a cameraman making a documentary about these “heroic” soldiers.

While holed up in a bombed-out village, the group discovers a church converted into a mad scientist’s lab and are soon set upon by the most outré pack of Nazi zombie-robot-monsters I’ve ever seen.

Frankenstein’s Army is a Czech/US/Netherlands co-production filmed in the Czech Republic, which perhaps goes a long way toward explaining its unique appeal.

A hearty shake of my flippers goes to director and story man Richard Raaphorst, who hits a horror home run his first time at bat.

Admittedly, the lengths needed to preserve the found-footage premise become increasingly (and purposely, I think) absurd as a 70-year-old Soviet movie camera is able to capture pristine audio while getting tossed around like a Samsung at a frat party.

But Raaphorst is a filmmaker with vision: his nimble mind invents extraordinary beings, and like Dr. Frankenstein (Karl Roden), he has the ability to bring them to life.

He’s clearly not just another fawning acolyte of Sam Raimi or Tim Burton—if anything, his work reminds me of England’s once-reigning madman, Ken Russell.

Take it from me, Frankenstein’s Army is some very fresh hell, indeed. Highly recommended.

World War Z (2013)

MV5BMTg0NTgxMjIxOF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMDM0MDY1OQ@@._V1_SX214_

I haven’t read the book by Max Brooks, but the lovely Barbara assures me that the movie is a major departure. Instead of an oral history of a war with the undead as told by the survivors, World War Z tucks us into Brad Pitt’s hip pocket as a battle-hardened U.N. inspector who swings into action to find an antidote for the latest zombie plague.

One fine day, while shepherding their two darling daughters to school in Philadelphia, Gerry Lane (Pitt) and his wife Karin (Mireille Enos, from The Killing, who is criminally underutilized) encounter a traffic jam caused by a rampaging band of zombies who look an awful lot like those depicted in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later. They’re fast and insanely violent, more like bitey berserkers than your traditional Romero-inspired shambling flesh eaters.

Lane is apparently quite an in-demand figure, as he spends most of the film being whisked all over the globe by helicopter, trying to root-source the cause of this worldwide catastrophe. His bacon is saved several times by phone calls to his U.N. superior (Fana Mokoena), who for some reason sees his former coworker as the last, best hope for humanity. Lucky him! And while the rest of the world is engulfed by hungry, hungry humanoids, Lane is repeatedly snatched from the jaws of fate.

You will not be bored by World War Z; it moves lickety-split from one dire scenario to the next, always with swarms of zombies in pursuit, clambering over each other to mount the walls and get at the yummy remnants of humanity. But despite their formidable swarming capabilities, the zombies are virtually indistinguishable and often resemble blurry video-game creations. It’s a CGI world we live in I’m afraid, and that makes for an altogether less frightening zombie holocaust.

Scary Or Die (2012)

MV5BMjQ2NDkxOTA4M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMjk2OTk2Nw@@._V1_SY317_CR4,0,214,317_

Any true aficionado of horror has got to have a soft spot in his/her heart for the anthology film.

Emerging from such firmly entrenched precedents as old EC Comics (and adapted works based on them, e.g., Tales From the Crypt and Creep Show), radio spook shows Lights Out and Inner Sanctum, classic TV fear fodder like Boris Karloff’s Chiller, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Night Gallery, Tales From the Darkside, and Twilight Zone, not to mention short fiction collections ranging from M.R. James to Stephen King, the horror anthology is an effective method of giving the consumer maximum bang for the buck in terms of mood and menace.

And unlike an entree on Chopped, it is possible to enjoy or hate individual sections without the need to judge the work as a whole. Of course, you’re entitled to do that too—it’s your dime, it’s your time.

Scary Or Die‘s wraparound premise focuses on an anonymous ghoul doing some late-night web surfing, selecting different horror tales from a menu of choices. (How bloody contemporary!)

The first, “The Crossing,” stars our old friend Bill Oberst Jr (who could ever forget A Haunting In Salem?), as Buck, a despicable truck-driving redneck vigilante, who hunts illegal immigrants along the border between Arizona and Mexico. In the blunt-as-a-brick denouement, Buck, his dumbbell pal, and inexplicably hot gal, who, bless her heart, doesn’t approve of killing unarmed Mexicans, meet a very sorry fate when a whole graveyard of Buck’s past victims crawl out of the ground with a vicious case of the munchies. It’s gross, crude, and predictable, but reasonably satisfying.

“Taejung’s Lament” is an elegant stylistic contrast, the story of a man (Charles Rahi Chun) who ghost-walks through his days, forever mourning his late wife, until he rescues the beautiful and mysterious Min-ah (Alexandra Choi) from an assault, and presto, he’s completely under her spell. (Note: We figure out she is a vampire way, way before he does.) Tastefully shot at night in Los Angeles, this one has a haunting, minimalist quality that visually compensates for a twistless plot.

In “Re-Membered” a hit man (Christopher Darga) gets more than he bargained for when his latest mark turns out to be a clever and very-hard-to-kill sorcerer. It’s another adequately suspenseful entry with few surprises.

The strongest episode is “Clowned,” about an amiable coke dealer named Emmett (Corbin Bleu) who suffers an unwanted clown bite at his little brother’s birthday party.

The idea that clowns, like vampires and lycanthropes, can create more of their kind through a bite, is quite a good one, and soon poor Emmett begins to undergo a hideous (and hilarious) transformation. Oh yeah, and he craves human meat, especially that of his innocent hermano.

This one also has an unexpectedly funny exchange of dialogue between two detectives arguing over the difference between a clown and a mime. I’m sorry, but if you can’t appreciate the universally grotesque charm of flesh-eating clowns, then what good are you?

The final segment, “Lover Come Back” is a standard tale of love and revenge, with a voodoo priestess (Shannon Bobo) rising from the grave after she’s betrayed by her faithless lover.

Moral: Don’t fool around on your sweetie if she’s got strange and terrible powers. Seriously, I need to tell you that?

Writer-directors Bob Badway and Michael Emanuel don’t bring anything new to the table (aside from the cannibal clown mythology) in Scary or Die, but neither do they commit any egregious errors. There’s not much depth here, but your hunger pangs will be sated.

Monster Brawl (2011)

MV5BMTMxMTgwMTQ3Ml5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMDY4OTc0NA@@._V1_SX214_

It’s feather-light on substance, but writer-director Jesse T. Cook’s heart is in the right place.

Monster Brawl imagines a pay-per-view event that pits eight screen creatures (Frankenstein’s Monster, the Werewolf, Zombie Man, Swamp Gut, Cyclops, Lady Vampire, the Mummy, and Witch Bitch) against each other in an other-worldly rasslin’ match—and only one shall emerge victorious.

What could have been a totally brainless exercise in lowest-common denominator yucks, though not brilliant by any means, does fit the bill if you need to clean out your head with 90 minutes of reasonably clever mindless fun.

The good: Buzz Chambers (Dave Foley, from Kids in the Hall) and “Sasquatch” Sid Tucker (Art Hindle) are the commentators calling out the action, and really, their game commitment to the roles is probably the best thing about Monster Brawl.

Buzz is the flask-swigging play-by-play guy, while former champ “Sasquatch” Sid is the voice of ring experience. Both actors acquit themselves with straight-faced aplomb.

We should also acknowledge the efforts of resourceful actor Jason David Brown, who plays no less than three parts (Swamp Gut, Cyclops, and the Gravedigger)! That’s a helluva lot of time to spend with your ass planted in the makeup chair.

There are occasional splashes of gore that are entirely adequate (e.g., the zombie head squish). Lance Henriksen supplies some voice-over work.

Not so good: The monsters are at best, serviceable. Frankenstein’s Monster (Robert Maillet) is a decent interpretation, though the fact that he’s wearing a pullover from Land’s End is not to his sartorial credit.

For the most part they remain in character, though Witch Bitch (Holly Letkeman) is a disappointment, because she uses wrestling maneuvers against Cyclops, instead of her own vaunted sorcery.

Bad: The presence of annoying wrestling manager Jimmy “The Mouth of the South” Hart (who once managed Hulk Hogan!) adds nothing to the proceedings, though his two bikini-clad sidekicks are welcome eye candy in an otherwise desolate landscape.

Best dialogue exchange

BUZZ: And here comes Frankenstein!

SID: Technically, it’s Frankenstein’s Monster, if you want to be a dick about it.

28 Weeks Later (2007)

MV5BMTUxMjc2MTcxNV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMzgzOTY0MQ@@._V1._SY317_CR0,0,214,317_

I avoided the follow-up to 28 Days Later (2002) for the simple reason that it wasn’t written and directed by Danny Boyle. As it turns out, this is akin to skipping Aliens because Ridley Scott wasn’t on board. Writer-director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo is no James Cameron, but 28 Weeks Later is very much a worthy successor to Boyle’s original. In fact, Boyle himself served as executive producer and reportedly did some second unit direction, so this lightning-paced, action-packed production was in good hands from the get-go, never straying far from the dark frenetic chaos of the first film, even as it chases a different thematic agenda.

About six months after the outbreak of the original rage virus in England, a US military deployment has succeeded in carving out a bit of safe territory in London. British government man Don (Robert Carlyle) managed to escape mutilation at the hands of roving maniacs by bravely lobbing his wife Alice (Catherine McCormack) at them to cover his exit strategy. (OK, slight exaggeration, but he did scamper like a bunny chased by greyhounds, leaving the Mrs to fend for herself.) Imagine his surprise when soldiers recover not only his son Andy (Mackintosh Muggleton, love that name) and daughter Tammy (Imogene Poots, ditto), but also his previously jettisoned wife, who appears to have a rare blood type that renders her immune to the virus—which soon makes an unwelcome reappearance. The lovely Rose Byrne from Damages gets plenty of screen time as a military supervisor who decides to protect the kids and their valuable blood at all costs, aided by Jeremy Renner as a rough-and-ready sniper.

In 28 Days Later, Boyle focused on the breakdown of authority and the fallibility of leaders in a time of crisis. 28 Weeks Later is more of a domestic morality play, as Carlyle’s character is punished for his cold feet and faint heart by becoming an alpha maniac who relentlessly pursues his children in a perverted act of devotion, somehow trying to reunite his fractured family in death. Naturally, the kids want no part of this nonsense, and much carnage ensues.

ParaNorman (2012)

MV5BMjA1OTU1NDM3N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMjYxNTg0Nw@@._V1._SY317_

I live in Portland, so I like to keep up on what the locals are up to. ParaNorman is the second feature from Laika Studios, the stop-motion animation outfit from neighboring Hillsboro that was responsible for the Neil Gaiman adaptation Coraline from a few years back. I dug that one, and I also quite liked ParaNorman, though it was less visually stimulating than its predecessor. Still, for a piece of family entertainment, it was surprisingly entertaining.

Norman Babcock is a young man with the uncanny Sixth Sense ability to see ghosts as easily as he sees the living bullies who torment him on a daily basis. He’s a friendless outcast—except for happy-go-lucky imbecile Neil—and even his mom, dad, and ditzy blond sister Courtney don’t understand him.

Norman lives in Blithe Hollow, a community cursed by a witch who was hanged 300 years before by the superstitious citizenry. Every year the witch threatens to come back, raise the dead, and exact her revenge on the town. And this year, she’s going to succeed, unless weirdo Norman can save the day.

Writer/director Chris Butler creates a vivid array of characters that manage to transcend cliche by imbuing them with the ability to learn from their mistakes and grow. The parents, the bully, the dumb jock, the paranoid townspeople, the zombies, even the witch herself—a raging ghost with a grudge—are given the chance to redeem themselves and move on as better people (or monsters or whatever).

There are thoughtful and delicate layers to the story that prove hugely rewarding. It’s also a damn funny film (a rarity in the “family friendly” department), and I thoroughly enjoyed the scenes where Norman watches zombie movies while his dead grandmother sits knitting on the couch nearby, or when his friend Neil gets to play fetch with the ghost of his pug, who’s now in two pieces after getting run over by a car. Cute for sure, but also genuinely affecting.

My only real beef is with the art direction, as the movie’s color palette is a relentless combination of brown, black, and purple, and my eyes got a little bored. It’s also rough and unpolished looking, but I believe this is deliberate, since ParaNorman is at heart a homage to the title character’s beloved Grade-Z, cheap-o horror movies.