Final Prayer (2013)

Let sleeping gods lie. They wake up cranky.

In writer-director Elliott Goldner’s found-footage frightmare Final Prayer (original title: The Borderlands), a team of investigators from the Vatican gets swallowed up by a powerful pocket of pagan worship in rural England.

As we all know from The Da Vinci Code, the Catholic Church has its fingers in dozens of occult pies, and always stands ready to dispatch expert emissaries should the need arise.

A report of supernatural hijinks at a remote country church is reason enough for the Pope to assign hard-drinking clergyman, Deacon (Gordon Kennedy), Gray (Robin Hill), a novice film and audio tech, and officious Vatican rep Mark (Aidan McArdle), to confirm or debunk the phenomenon.

The tiny congregation is headed by Father Crellick (Luke Neal), who fervently believes that the sounds of babies crying and objects moving by themselves in his church are proof of a miracle.

The team has different ideas. Mark thinks it’s a hoax; Gray is perplexed and frightened, while Deacon sees parallels with an older case that didn’t end well.

Fortunately for us, the protagonists get so used to wearing their headset cameras and mics during the course of the investigation, that we get the inside scoop before All Hell Breaks Loose, which happens in spectacular fashion during the final scene.

I advise patience during the first 45 minutes or so. Final Prayer takes a while to get rolling, but the slow burn pays off with a finale that is outré in the extreme.

By then, you’ll be on the hook with the rest of us.

Highly recommended.

 

 

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.

 

The Pyramid (2014)

What, no Mummy?

You’d think a horror movie called The Pyramid would have the decency to trot out a few bandage-wrapped shufflers for Old Times’ sake, but director Gregory Levasseur (better known as the writer for High Tension and The Hills Have Eyes) decided to go another way.

Nutshell: An archaeological expedition enters a previously undiscovered pyramid, awakening several inhabitants, including feline zombie servants of Bas, and apparently the god Anubis himself.

Egyptian curses. We never learn.

The defilers of the sacred tomb spend the majority of their screen time crawling through ancient, perfectly symmetrical tunnels in search of an exit, triggering deadly traps and getting mauled by a wrathful jackyl-headed CGI monster that’s actually not too shabby to behold.

The most riveting sequence involves a woman helplessly impaled on wooden stakes being slowly eaten by undead cats. Needless to say, this predicament doesn’t sit well with the victim, who howls for release.

Though The Pyramid is ostensibly a found-footage feature, the POV is all over the place so it’s best not to focus on this aspect.

Instead, settle in for a fast-moving conveyer belt of doomed tomb raiders meeting their fates in memorably macabre fashion.

Again, no mummies are featured in The Pyramid. But the curse is a killer.

Rest Stop (2006)

Next time you’re driving through remote, unfamiliar terrain and you feel the call of nature, please consider making other arrangements.

Nicole (Jaimie Alexander) and her BF Jess (Joe Mendocino) leave drab Oklahoma in the rearview and take off on a road trip to begin a new life in Los Angeles.

The only things standing in the way are Jaimie’s tiny bladder and a wily serial killer in an old Ford pickup.

After having sex and getting lost, the couple pulls into a grimy Rest Stop where Jaimie must pee in a substandard Ladies Room. She emerges to find Jess has disappeared, apparently abducted by a guy in a yellow pickup, that patrols the area like a shark.

Trapped in the grotty commode, Jaimie passes the time by reading doomed messages written over the years by victims of the trucker-capped fiend known as KZL 303—the very same maniac currently forcing her into a vicious game of cat and mouse.

Rest Stop is a nifty (and nasty) example of the Killer on the Road genre, which includes the likes of Joy Ride, The Hitcher, Breakdown, and of course, Duel, directed by a young Steven Spielberg.

Writer-director John Shiban successfully taps a rich vein of dread by constantly reminding us of how vulnerable we are once we leave the highway. So much so that even a seemingly benign comfort station can be a deadly trap.

As a lifetime horror fan, my advice to incontinent road trippers is to keep driving. And never accept a ride from a Winnebago.

 

 

 

From The Dark (2014)

It’s time to play Name That Creature!

Vampire? Ghoul? Revenant? Other?

A reasonably attractive couple experiences car trouble while touring the Irish countryside. This wouldn’t normally be a big deal, except their mishap coincides with the accidental resurrection of an undead dude by a clumsy sod farmer.

After holing up in the farmer’s house, Fay (Niamh Algar) takes charge of their situation, maintaining a level head under extreme duress. Mark (Stephen Cromwell) reverts to a whiny little piss pants.

Fay figures out the monster is extremely light averse and sensibly surrounds herself with headlights, lanterns, candles, lamps, lighters, and a cell phone, all while trying to keep her doofus husband conscious and motivated.

Writer-director Conor McMahon (Stitches) skillfully renders From The Dark in miniature, with only four characters in the whole movie, including the living dead one (Ged Murray). The events unfold in real time, with no atmospheric cutaways.

McMahon keeps the camera tightly focused on Fay’s anguished face, her head on a swivel trying to get a bead on a shrouded figure who’s at home in the darkness.

But what is it?

A vampire, probably, but at times behaves more like a slobbering ghoul, this creature doesn’t speak a word. He just comes and goes until the inevitable showdown right before dawn.

It’s a well-conceived monster, if a bit insubstantial at times.

There are pacing problems. From The Dark roars out of the gate like a cyclone and calms down considerably in the Second Act, as the couple sweats it out in captivity.

But that sweet, sweet tension is never far away, and Fay knows she’s in for a real street fight.

 

 

 

The Vast Of Night (2019)

Whether or not The Vast Of Night qualifies as horror is debatable. Whether or not it’s truckloads of fun is not, because it is.

Amazon bought the rights to writer-director-editor Andrew Patterson’s 90-minute sci-fi joyride after it developed noteworthy buzz on the festival circuit.

Nutshell: In the late 1950s, a tiny New Mexico town experiences extra-terrestrial shenanigans on the night of the big basketball game at the high school gym.

Fast-talking disc jockey Everett (Jake Horowitz) and his telephone operator sidekick Fay (Sierra McCormick) stumble upon a strange audio frequency and instantly find themselves hip deep in government coverups, eerie phone calls, and quite possibly visitors from outer space.

Can this gabby duo solve a mystery that’s out of this world?

The Vast Of Night is a camp stew of War of the Worlds (the radio station Everett works at is WOTW), X-Files, and Close Encounters, all familiar elements laid out like generous buffet stations.

It’s when Patterson’s visual acuity takes charge that the story soars to marvelous heights.

The movie plays out as an episode of Paradox Theater, a thinly disguised vintage stand-in for The Twilight Zone. Scenes open in fuzzy black and white before the characters come into focus, and then color gradually returns.

It’s a mesmerizing effect that binds us to the evolving narrative like there was never any choice in the matter.

Patterson’s boundless drone photography is bold and borders on gimmicky, but it lends exhilarating movement and flow to a movie that often slows down to let people talk for a spell.

A word of warning: Everett and Fay’s nonstop verbosity will irritate some members of the audience. If you dig well-written banter, there’s plenty to savor and save for later.

Don’t let the whimsical retro trappings fool you, though. The Vast Of Night contains a dilly of a conspiracy that might contain clues to our current chaos.

Keep watching the skies.

 

Screamers (1979)

You can tell Screamers is pure Italian schlock because the monsters are dripping with olive oil.

Originally titled Island Of The Fishmen, it’s a bit of an H.G. Wells mashup of Mysterious Island and The Island of Dr. Moreau, as Claude, a young naval doctor (Claudio Cassinelli) washes ashore in the Caribbean after the sinking of the prison ship to which he was assigned.

He and two surviving prisoners are taken to the wicker plantation home of wealthy misanthrope Edmond Rackham (Richard Johnson) and his stunning lady friend Amanda Marvin (Barbara Bach, aka Mrs. Ringo Starr). Together they preside over a household of voodoo enthusiasts, led by high priestess Shakira (Beryl Cunningham).

A tired-looking Joseph Cotten shows up long enough to play Amanda’s mad (but seemingly decent) scientist pappy, who is determined to create a new race of oily gill men to populate the oceans of the world. His experiments are then employed by Rackham as cheap labor to loot the treasure vault of a nearby submerged temple.

Oh yeah, and it’s a volcanic island that’s gonna blow any second.

Directed by giallo veteran Sergio Martino (Slave Of The Cannibal God, Torso, Blade Of The Ripper), Screamers isn’t nearly good enough to be lost treasure, but it’s brisk, watchable trash with a decent budget, and Barbara Bach is radiant.

I already checked, you don’t have anything better to do.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dead & Buried (1981)

Dead & Buried is a 40-year-old fright flick that has remained available on cable since the Reagan Administration. Now that’s staying power!

We open on the quaint seaport town of Potter’s Bluff, where friendly townsfolk frequently gather to savagely murder unlucky tourists, all caught on camera for those special vacation memories.

Sheriff Gillis (James Farentino) is inevitably handed the case, but he’s distracted at home by his wife’s (Melody Anderson) increasingly strange behavior, which includes teaching her fourth-grade class about voodoo.

Gillis consults with dapper Dr. Dobbs (Jack Albertson) the jazz-loving town coroner, who complains that closed casket funerals are a drag, because no one can fully appreciate the artistry it takes to make a comely corpse—especially ones that have been burned alive or had their throats sliced.

The murders continue unabated, while the sheriff dutifully gathers clues that point to pretty much everybody.

The ending is Rod Serling-meets-Angel Heart, as Gillis realizes he has more in common with his neighbors than he’d care to admit.

Most of Dead & Buried‘s notoriety comes from being the followup to Alien for screenwriters Ronald Shusset and Dan O’Bannon, as well as makeup mastermind Stan Winston, whose gore effects are brutally efficient here.

In some ways, this is a dated artifact that looks downright hokey at times. Compared to Alien, it’s all the way down to earth and mundane in appearance.

That said, Dead & Buried is creepy as hell and full of small-town weirdness, like Norman Rockwell taking a stab at Dorian Gray.

It’s also the final live-action appearance of veteran actor Jack Albertson, best known as Charlie’s bedridden gramps in Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory.

In Dead & Buried, Albertson goes out in grand fashion, as a hepcat mad doctor with delusions of grandeur and visions of immortality.

We should all be so lucky.

 

The Blackout: Invasion Earth (2019)

No need to overthink it. The Blackout is a slam-bang, sci-fi, action blockbuster from Russia that’s certain to hold your attention long after the Milk Duds harden.

Borrowing from well-sourced material like Starship Troopers, Alien, and War of the Worlds, directors Egor Baranov and Nathalia Hencker have dropped a fairly epic slab of space spectacle on our heads, featuring a cast of brave comrades from the former Soviet Union battling an unearthly menace.

Nutshell: The Earth has gone dark except for one small circle of civilization in Eastern Europe. Russian troops are deployed, but prove mostly useless against an unseen enemy that sends wave after wave of brainwashed bears and people at their shrinking defenses.

All seems lost until the arrival of Id (Atryom Tkachenko), an alien with godlike powers (but no mouth), who offers the beleaguered survivors a possible solution to the impending invasion.

“But at what cost?” as the saying goes.

Seen mostly from the grunt’s-eye view of two soldiers, Oleg (Aleksey Chadov) and Grubov (Pyotr Fyodorov), The Blackout serves up balls-to-the-wall military gear excitement and plenty of narrow escapes, while bodies pile up to the heavens.

Having the aliens enslave millions of human subjects and making them fight against the Russian holdouts is a brilliant strategy that also saves tons of money on the special effects budget.

No need for Godzilla to stomp Tokyo when there’s plenty of domestic cannon fodder at hand.

Thankfully, even at 2-hours plus, there’s no lag time in The Blackout, and that’s worth plenty in my book, especially since it’s light on CGI.

Turns out there’s nothing wrong with old-fashioned blood and guts.

 

 

 

 

The Marshes (2018)

Another camping trip gone to hell thanks to poor social distancing. Let’s face it: Maniacs have no respect for boundaries.

Three biology students from an Australian university are studying water samples in a vast, remote marshy area. As is usually the case in rural communities, the eggheads run afoul of Aussie-brand hicks, hunters, and hillbillies, who take time out from their skinning and gutting duties to harass the learned strangers.

Pria (Dafna Kronental) assumes a leadership role, but her group’s proximity to the bloody and brutal poachers erodes her confidence and she starts having bad dreams.

Gradually, the three academics intuit they’re being stalked by an apex predator with a taste for human burgers.

From a biological standpoint, Pria and her comrades are now a trio of tasty specimens caught in a primitive web, and as the tagline blithely exclaims, “When Science Ends, Survival Begins.”

The spider rapidly making its way toward them is a legendary swamp cannibal known as the Swag Man (Eddie Baroo), presumably because he gives his victims free t-shirts and lighters before devouring their flesh.

Writer-director Roger Scott keeps us off-balance with an eye-popping arsenal of swinging camera moves and perspective shifts that make the marshland scenery appear impenetrable, menacing, and steadily encroaching on the anxious scientists.

Certainly The Marshes would fit snugly alongside any number of “trespasser beware” features, including Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, and Wolf Creek, another grueling import from Down Under.

For a non-horror comparison, I was also favorably reminded of director Walter Hill’s Vietnam metaphor, Southern Comfort, which remains an all-time favorite survival shocker.