Harbinger Down (2015)

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No need to beat around the bush, Harbinger Down is an above-average homage to John Carpenter’s The Thing, set aboard an Alaskan crab boat, skippered by Lance Henricksen. The story goes, that the film’s creature effects team, ADI, apparently worked on the 2011 prequel of The Thing, only to see their contributions largely cut in favor of CGI.

Harbinger Down, written and directed Alec Gillis, is a crowd-funded production that gives ADI’s shrieking, flailing aliens some needed screen time. The results are nothing Rob Bottin needs to lose any sleep over, but are nonetheless far superior to the usual CGI gravy flopping around on SyFy network these days.

Welcome aboard the good ship Harbinger, a Bering Sea commercial fishing vessel, with the roomy interior of an oil tanker. Seriously, my family is in the fishing business, and I’ve never set foot on a crab boat with so many winding passageways.

Henricksen plays Graff, a grizzled old salt, who don’t take any lip, either from his feisty crew, or his granddaughter’s research team, who’ve hopped aboard to study whales or something. (If wardrobe had been on the ball, they would have given Lance a captain’s hat and a corncob pipe to complete his Popeye’s Pappy ensemble).

Along with a few tons of Dungeness, the Harbinger hooks some space wreckage that contains the remains of a Soviet craft, complete with a frozen cosmonaut carrying a hostile alien. You know, mutating space organism, it can look like anyone, lots of tentacles, you either freeze it or burn it. Sound familiar?

Given the premise, the script is little more than an afterthought, though Gillis misses the opportunity to create some much-needed distinctive supporting characters, by making sure that any and all dialogue is played hopelessly straight.

This is why Carpenter’s characters, stranded in the Arctic, or Ridley Scott’s characters, trapped in outer space, (definitely some Alien in this critter’s cinematic DNA), are memorable ones. They way they conduct themselves under extreme pressure (“I ain’t going with Windows, man!”), tells us everything we need to know about them, their final witticisms forever burned into our memory banks.

Here, the crew is just a bunch of nobodies, with the exception of ol’ reliable Lance, and perhaps Winston James Frances, as Big G, a courageous giant, the Harbinger equivalent of the Nostromo’s Parker (Yaphet Kotto). Nope, nothing new here, but Harbinger Down passes the time with flying colors.

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It Follows (2014)

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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.

Deep in the Darkness (2014)

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A rather tepid adaptation of Michael Laimo’s book of the same name, Deep in the Darkness concerns a new-fish doctor (Sean Patrick Thomas) who takes over a rural medical practice on the outskirts of Nutsyville, where the simple inhabitants share a terrible secret about the lurkers in the forest.

As per Laimo’s book, the story has decent potential as the rather clueless Dr. Cayle (Thomas) gets acquainted with a race of nasty troglodyte tunnel-dwellers that call the shots with the local hillbilly population. The doc’s new neighbor, Phil (Dean Stockwell, who tries his best), attempts to get Cayle on board with the idea of sacrificing animals to their vicious little landlords, but the latter dithers and procrastinates, while his wife (Kristen Bush) seemingly has little trouble adapting to their strange new surroundings. Next thing you know, she’s preggers! (You’d think a doctor would have better access to contraception, but such is not the case.)

Neither director Colin Theys or writer John Doolan bring much enthusiasm to the project, and significant story points spill out in haphazard fashion, with all the care of a starving hobo going through a Dumpster. Then after what seems like an eternity (actually just 100 minutes), we’re presented with an unsatisfying left-field ending that packs all the wallop of a question mark materializing after “The End” credit appears.

Other than the casting of Stockwell and Blanche Baker, Deep in the Darkness has precious little going for it. It’s not awful by any means, but genuine frights are few and far between. The only real question you need to ask yourself, is “Why bother?”

Suburban Gothic (2014)

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It took me a few minutes to figure it out, but Suburban Gothic appears to be a piss-take version of Zach Braff’s Garden State. Yes, that decade-old cinematic testament to post-grad honky malaise that helped coin the term Manic Pixie Dreamgirl (Google it), and gave the Shins a modest career boost. If this is indeed the case, then my sombrero is off to writer-director Richard Bates Jr. Well played, sir. *Golf clap*

Matthew Gray Gubler (aka, Dr. Jeremy Reed on CBS procedural Criminal Minds) is both droll and goofy as Raymond, a latent psychic with an MBA, forced by circumstances to boomerang home to live with emotionally fragile Mom (Barbara Niven) and asshole football coach Dad (Ray Wise). Shortly after his arrival, the Mexican landscaping crew at his parents’ house uncover a child’s skeleton in the backyard—and a-haunting we will go!

When Raymond isn’t mowing the lawn or dodging bullies, he gets booze and sympathy from Becca the bartender (Kat Dennings, hubba hubba!) a former classmate with a former weight problem, who becomes his foxy, wisecracking Watson in the Case of the Kid in the Ground in the Yard.

Idiosyncratic auteur John Waters has a small part in Suburban Gothic, which should give you an idea of the farcical low-budget aesthetic that’s in play here. Fellow fringe dwellers Jeffrey Combs, Sally Kirkland, and Mackenzie Phillips show up as local color, but it’s the haunted-house action that remains the most intriguing element, with Raymond and Becca making one of the wittiest team of mystery solvers since Nick and Nora. Can they please have their own series on Showtime? It would be way better than the current season of True Detective.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)

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Just when you think the vampire genre has finally been laid to rest, ingloriously felled by a wooden stake autographed by the cast of Twilight, along comes a stunner like A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, giving us a vibrant new milieu to consider. With seemingly minimal resources (tiny cast, spare dialogue), writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour has bestowed a dazzling gift on jaded horror fans. What we have here, is a striking black-and-white horror Western, featuring a skateboarding vampire girl (Sheila Vand), instead of a laconic gunslinger, stalking a desert town like an avenging angel.

Welcome to Bad City, Iran. It’s a lawless patch of sand with a high murder rate surrounded by oil pumps and miles of godforsaken badlands. Arash (Arash Marandi), is a dutiful James Dean-ish gardener with a junkie dad (Marshall Manesh), who owes money to local crime boss Saeed (Dominic Rains), a reptilian goon dabbling in drugs, prostitution, and loansharking. Saeed is indeed a bad man, but almost comic opera in his appropriation of American gangster swag, like the cheap neck tattoo that reads simply, “Sex.”

One night, after shaking down a hooker (Mozhan Marno), Saeed encounters a pale, mysteriously cloaked woman (Vand, looking like a punky Heathers-era Winona Ryder), whom he invites to his swinging pad for cocaine and bad techno music. Saeed gets more than he bargained for.

Later, Arash, dressed like Dracula, meets the very same girl, while he’s blitzed out of his gourd on Molly, and soon falls in love. But is love enough when your new lady friend has a serious drinking problem?

Employing closeups of white faces surrounded by darkness, Amirpour has a ball with light and shadow, fashioning one ingenious frame after another, as if Carl Dreyer (or possibly Jim Jarmusch) were directing a budget film noir. I was hooked from the opening scene of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night—and it just kept getting better. Get this one in your queue ASAP.

You’re Next (2011)

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Except for one small detail, You’re Next is a satisfying plunge into dark domestic waters, shaping up as a nail-biting cross between Straw Dogs and Strangers. Aussie starlet Sharni Vinson is dynamite as a resourceful guest defending a dinner party at an isolated manor house against a trio of murderous invaders. The tension level continually hovers near the ceiling and the pace is relentless.

When Crispian (AJ Bowen) brings new girlfriend Erin (Vinson) to the family estate to meet the rest of his affluent clan, all heck breaks loose, as assorted neighbors and dinner guests find themselves perforated by crossbow bolts and chopped into corpse kindling, with the grisly tableaux usually accompanied by the bloody message, “You’re next!”

As luck would have it, plucky Erin grew up in a survivalist camp and has the skills to fight back against a team of assassins hidden behind creepy animal masks. There’s nifty gallows humor and gritty kills, and the cast includes genre veteran Barbara Crampton as the family matriarch.

My question for director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett is this: Is art director Nathan Truesdell color blind, or did you sign off on the brown blood? During a few key scenes, stabbing victims look more like sloppy sundae eaters, with faces and clothes soaked in a distinctly caramel-colored goo. It’s a noticeable distraction in an otherwise exciting flick.

The wheel is not reinvented, but You’re Next packs more than enough thrills to keep a body riveted, even if it is covered in chocolate syrup.

 

I, Frankenstein (2014)

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As you may have surmised having seen the previews, I, Frankenstein is a big stinky turd burger of a movie. Yes, some numb-nuts executive actually green-lighted this $65,000,000 shit show, and handed the keys to writer-director Stuart Beattie, who wrote Michael Mann’s Collateral and had a hand in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. The results are a migraine-inducing mess of CGI gargoyles, a dull, witless script, and Aaron Eckhart—who alternately resembles Denis Leary and Christopher Lambert—playing the monster (or “Adam Frankenstein” if you prefer) with fluctuating scar tissue and jaw set at permanent clench.

Nutshell: The monster not only survived the Arctic escapades that claimed the life of his creator, but he hasn’t aged a day in 200 years. He becomes a pivotal player in a dismally boring war between gargoyles, who for some reason feel obligated to protect mankind, and demons, who want to populate the earth with damned souls inhabiting a whole army of freshly minted Frankensteins.

The bad guys are led by a demon prince called Naberius, played with modest verve by Bill Nighy. There are scores of unwieldy effects-heavy battle sequences in which dispatched demons go down in flames and fallen gargoyles ascend into heaven. (Speaking of: The gargoyles spend half their screen time flexing and posing with their stylish edged weapons—probably designed by a producer’s D&D-playing nephew.)

Other than the reliable Nighy, the acting is hammy and leaden, ideally suited to the ghastly dialogue. There’s precious little fun to be had here, unless you’re hosting a drunken viewing party with plenty of high-spirited heckling.

I grudgingly admire that Beattie at least tried to concoct a cosmology that would be inclusive enough to squeeze Mary Shelley’s creature into an obscenely budgeted Judeo-Christian sword soiree. But I, Frankenstein is such a joyless enterprise, I wonder why he bothered.

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