Dead Shack (2017)

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Warning: Stranger Things template in full effect.

A trio of nosy teens and their piss-poor adult supervision spend a weekend at a cabin in the woods. What could possibly go wrong? Since the name of the film is Dead Shack, we can assume they don’t get their cleaning deposit back.

Jason (Matthew Nelson-Mahood) gets roped into a camping trip by his obnoxious friend Colin (Gabriel LaBelle), which works out fine since he has a major crush on Colin’s sister Summer (Lizzie Boys).

Along for the ride are Colin and Summer’s party hearty dad Roger (Donavon Stinson) and his bored alcoholic girlfriend Lisa (Valerie Tian), who has zero interest in bedding down in the boonies with a bunch of goofy adolescents. At least not while sober.

Inevitably, the snoopy kids stumble upon a neighboring house owned by a lady in body armor (Lauren Holly) with a passel of undead kinfolk who need regular meals. Tonight’s Special: You!

Unfortunately, Roger and Lisa are too busy playing cards and getting plastered to listen to such an outlandish story, so it’s up to these wily misfit teenagers to save the day.

Dead Shack lives up to its potential and delivers splashy fun and flying body parts in Raimi-esque abundance.

With all the baggage present, director Peter Ricq could simply have allowed these characters to speak their minds, give voice to their dissatisfaction, and engage in Dysfunctional Family Feud for the entire weekend, but then we’d have a Tennessee Williams play instead of a grisly and often-amusing Zombie Comedy (Zom-Com).

We liked it. Worth a look.

 

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Cold Skin (2017)

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It’s not always smooth sailing, but French director Xavier Jens (Frontiers) charts a bold course in Cold Skin, a chilly atmospheric tale with tendrils of Joseph Conrad, Rudyard Kipling, and Lovecraft slithering through its evolutionary DNA.

Friend, an English sailor (David Oakes), is transferred to a remote and inhospitable island near the Antarctic Circle, during the height of the First World War, to serve a 12-month stint as a weather observer. It’s never made clear what possible use old weather patterns were to the war effort, but let’s just go with it.

Once ensconced on his wave-tossed rock, Friend wastes no time in setting his cabin on fire after a nocturnal attack by his new neighbors, an army of nimble fish people from the briny deep. Bereft of his surf shack, he turns to Gruner, a misanthropic lighthouse keeper (Ray Stevenson), for shelter and succor, only to end up an accomplice in an all-out war against the fish folk.

Like Sam Peckinpah, Jens explores the questionable dynamics of men under pressure, honor under fire, and all that other stuff we acknowledge when the bodies pile up.

Gruner, a despotic tyrant, is bent on domination and control, a certifiably mad cause that nonetheless swallows up the ambivalent sailor, even as the latter begins to lose his thirst for mayhem. The annihilation of a heretofore unknown aquatic race can weigh heavy on the soul, after all.

The photography, sets, costumes, and effects are uniformly divine, which helps solidify a script that meanders a bit, but never bores. There are indeed epic battle sequences in Cold Skin that pay homage to masters of the craft (Sir David Lean, John Huston, among others) that both stir the blood and make us question our own motives for shedding it.

 

Swamp Freak (2017)

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I’ve reviewed nearly 200 movies on this site, and Swamp Freak might just be the stinkiest poop in the pot. In fact, I’m complimenting writer/director David DeCoteau by referring to this shambling mess as a movie, rather than what it actually is: a relentlessly tepid tapestry of Vancouver Island establishing shots that a character or monster sees fit to visit occassionally .

There isn’t a single frame with more than one character present. Swamp Freak appears to have been dutifully assembled from an abundance of cutting-room floor footage, with an emphasis on creating a somnolent atmosphere rather than advancing the flimsy plot.

Every chicken-scratching scene boils down to static primeval photography lingering over the leaves in a pond; lichen-stitched tree bark; a decaying dock. This numbing repetition continues until you’re hypnotized into watching the agonizingly slow narrative that reveals itself with all the grace of a stripper with hiccups.

Nutshell: A professor of cryptozoology disappears in the boonies while searching for the legendary “Reed Cove Swamp Freak,” an ambulatory pile of moss and rain gear that is summoned from H20 hibernation by the Freak’s brother Isaac (Michael Timmermans), who definitely got the good looks in the family.

Gradually, after hearing three offscreen lectures about the origin and motives of the drippy cryptoid, several students—none of whom are theater majors—appear one at a time, hot on the trail of their missing mentor, and presumably an assload of extra credit.

The Action: Student talks on cellphone. Student completes call and shuffles around the same track of wilderness for what feels like days. Student senses they’re being watched, because they are, by the Swamp Freak, who half-heartedly gives chase, but sadly wasn’t built for speed. Student runs away for several hours. The Swamp Freak appears unexpectedly and delivers a devastating (and bloodless) blow. This happens five times without the slightest variation.

Even at 75 minutes the tedium is stultifying and oppressive, like being stuck wearing a winter jacket in a hot room. As aimless students wander through a damp and dreary landscape, the viewer is doomed to flounder for meaning—as well as the remote.

 

The Meg (2018)

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[To be read with Australian accent]

“That’s not a shark. (pause) Now that’s a shark!”

You win. The Meg stars the biggest shark in sea monster cinema history, so it’s got that going for it. There’s also oodles of action heroics by the reliably shirtless Jason Stathem, a laconic swab with the gumption to save a darling little Pekinese dog from a watery grave right before the end credits.

This is hardly a spoiler. The titular apex predator is indeed a massive beast, but it wreaks precious little carnage on the civilian population. The body count is supplied principally by members of an underwater research station bankrolled by slacker billionaire Morris, played by Rainn Wilson.

His gonzo turn is a standout among a cast that includes such standard plug-and-play characters as a sassy black scientist (Page Kennedy) who sure as hell can’t swim and never signed up for any of this shit.

Stathem is Jonas Taylor, a hard-drinking rescue diver still haunted by a few lives lost during a risky mission several years before. In need of redemption, Taylor returns to the briny deep when his ex-wife Lori (Jessica MacNamee), is marooned and besieged by a prehistoric killing machine at the most remote spot on the ocean floor.

Rather than rekindle with the ex, Taylor is more or less thrown into the arms of Suyin (Bingbing Li), a fetching single mom marine biologist whom he obligingly rescues on several subsequent occasions. For sheer volume of last-second escapes, The Meg is up there with Raiders of the Lost Ark.

But it’s an earlier Steven Spielberg blockbuster that fans still venerate as Lord of the Deep in the giant critter genre. At that point in his career (1975), young Spielberg hadn’t become commodified as the ultimate family friendly filmmaker.

In Jaws, the dog disappears. Remember the kid on the beach throwing the stick to a black lab named Pippet? You see the dog swimming and then the stick washes up on the shore. Spielberg’s movie is both bloodier and scarier, even 40 years later. Current audience research indicates a missing dog won’t cut it with a 21st century crowd.

There is certainly nothing as hair-raising as Ben Gardner’s floating head in The Meg. Instead, it’s a serviceable CGI popcorn flick content to elicit a few gasps—rather than a chorus of screams.

The Endless (2017)

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I was introduced to the writer-director duo of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead by way of Spring, an audacious rom-mon-com reviewed right here on this very site. I was smitten by the look and feel of the movie, a charmingly low-budget love story with a monstrous subplot. So natch I was jazzed to check out the latest Benson-Moorhead joint, The Endless, a cult film starring the plucky filmmakers themselves!

Set in the roles of siblings Justin (Benson) and Aaron (Moorhead—kudos for easy to remember character names!) The Endless recounts the brothers’ quest to unravel the mystery surrounding the hippie-dippy UFO cult they escaped years before.

Elder brother Justin, the skeptic and the instigator of their earlier flight, insists that the eventual goal of the group was suicide. Aaron, the sensitive brother, wants to know more about Camp Arcadia, the commune where they grew up. Road trip!

Not only is the commune intact, it’s turning a profit as a craft brewery! Justin and Aaron are welcomed with open arms by humble guru Hal (Tate Ellington) and beguiling beauty Anna (Callie Hernandez), and invited to crash as long as they want.

Aaron is taken with the communal vibe, healthy food, clean air, and Anna (not necessarily in that order). Justin, on the other hand, can’t shake the feeling that there’s a rotten core to this paradisiacal apple. He is proved correct and the boys come face to face with dreadful evidence of an eldritch entity that rules the roost.

This is cosmic horror done right, where the story takes prominence over CGI buffoonery. Benson and Moorhead once again combine fearless camerawork with an outré narrative that is compelling and provocative throughout.

See, in Camp Arcadia, immortality exists—and it kinda sucks. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it’s not much different than being a self-aware character stuck replaying the same scene for eternity. On the positive tip, you have a long time to figure out an escape plan. And that, dear friends, is our life’s work.

 

 

Giant From The Unknown (1958)

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He’s husky, but I wouldn’t call him a giant.

It’s pretty obvious truth in advertising laws don’t apply to monster movies made in the 1950s. Former boxer Buddy Baer (uncle of Beverly Hillbillies‘ Jethro, Max Baer, Jr) stands about 6-7, and tips the scales at a solid 250, as the titular creature. Impressive measurements, but well short of beanstalk status.

Still, when he dons his conquistador clothes after waking up from a 500-year nap, the local citizens of a California mountain town wet their collective knickers.

Enter leading man geologist Wayne Brooks (Ed Kemmer), Professor Cleveland (Morris Ankrum), and Janet (Sally Fraser), the prof’s sassy daughter, who are soon on the case, at first searching for fossil evidence of a rogue band of Spanish soldiers that kicked around the vicinity centuries before, led by a large inarticulate fellow called Vargas.

After about 35 minutes of zero action—other than Wayne and Janet’s awkward flirting—the trio deduces that Vargas (Baer), has shaken off the effects of suspended animation after being struck by lightning, and has slaughtered a bunch of nearby livestock (woke up hungry, I guess), sending area rubes into a panic.

The movie is over in 80 minutes, leading to thoughts that the whole thing might have been a diet-inspired hallucination. Highlights include Vargas throwing small rocks at his pursuers, a midnight make-out sesh with Wayne and Janet, and doomed secondary characters named Charlie Brown and Injun Joe who fall victim to the massive Spaniard’s rampage.

Giant From The Unknown is an actual relic, a funny ol’ fly in amber from Tuesday afternoon matinees on Channel 12, when harried housewives had a moment to drain a fast pitcher of martinis before returning to domestic servitude.

Note to Joel: It’s also a prime candidate for Season 12 of Mystery Science Theater. Just sayin’.

 

 

Mohawk (2017)

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My tri-corner hat is off to Mohawk, a harrowing revenge tale rooted in a particularly dark corner of American history, that comes out with guns blazing and blood flowing.

This is one of those gutsy, low-budget efforts that should earn director and co-writer Ted Geoghegan (We Are Still Here) a long-term contract to do whatever the hell he wants. His filmic instincts consistently hit their marks, allowing him to create vivid, indelible tableaus out of the rawest materials.

During the waning days of the War of 1812, a trio of “outlaws” are pursued deep into the forest primeval of upstate New York by a vicious posse of American soldiers, seeking vengeance for the sneak-attack killing of several members of their company.

As Mohawk warriors Oak (Kaniehtiio Horn) and Calvin (Justin Rain), along with their friend, British agent Joshua Pinsmail (Eamon Farron), flee further into uncharted Mohawk territory, the pot really boils for both hunter and hunted, leading to a showdown best described as otherworldly.

Like Michael Winner’s Chato’s Land (1972), which also features a ruthless posse chasing an American Indian (Charles Bronson, no less), it’s the white guys in charge who prove to be the real savages, even as the reluctant grunts quake in fear at the thought of being captured and tortured by natives.

Led by the unbending Colonel Hezekiah Holt (Ezra Buzzington) and his froggy voiced scout Sherwood Beal (Robert Longstreet, wearing an outlandish set of Antiques Roadshow spectacles), the company, including massive WWE wrestler Luke Harper, inevitably shrinks down to the last man, as Oak becomes an avenger following a seemingly divine encounter.

The ironic subtext about the dangers of immigration is on-point timely, and shouldn’t be lost amongst the deft brutality and gripping vistas. These foreign invaders (a.k.a. Americans) are indeed a deplorable bunch, who think nothing of eradicating entire societies in its lust for land, money, and revenge.

 

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