House of Frankenstein (1944)

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Sticklers for truth in advertising could make an excellent case for renaming this tepid Universal horror entry House of Niemann, but by the waning days of World War II the lack of a sure-fire marquee name wouldn’t have put many butts in the seats.

Boris Karloff, the most iconic star in the Frankenstein cosmos, plays Dr. Niemann, an admirer of the original mad scientist who first charged-up the monster that bears his name.

Like his mentor, Niemann has a hunchback assistant (J. Carroll Naish) and enough ambition to raise the dead. After a fortunate spate of bad weather, he and his spine-damaged flunky escape from prison and waste no time in carjacking a couple of wagons owned by Lampini (George Zucco), an itinerant sideshow impresario.

The sideshow’s star attraction? Dracula’s skeleton, which seems to have a doorstop stuffed into its sternum. Once revived, John Carradine does his best, but lacks the physical presence to truly terrify. He also insists on wearing a ludicrous top hat, as if he was just stopping in for a nip of O negative before dashing off to a Gilbert & Sullivan opera.

The titular creature (Glenn Strange, taking over Bela Lugosi, who just didn’t cut it in Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman) doesn’t even make an appearance till 45 minutes into the movie, and for the most part remains either frozen in ice or strapped to a table.

The hunchback falls in love with a gypsy dancer (Elena Verduga), who in turn has hot pants for part-time lycanthrope, Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr), thawed out while Niemann is searching the ruins of Frankenstein’s castle for the doctor’s Cliffs Notes on creation.

The three key monsters never interact, which is a rather disappointing turn of events, especially since we have to sit through several soggy scenes of Talbot and the hunchback whining about who’s life sucks worse.

This movie, as directed by horror veteran Erle C. Kenton (Ghost of Frankenstein, House of Dracula, Island of Lost Souls), is patchy and episodic with only perfunctory thrills. Hell, the Wolfman’s lone kill takes place offscreen, while Dracula’s attack on the burgermeister is performed as a shadow play! Pretty weak tea, if you ask me.

In the long-awaited finale, villagers arrive at the laboratory with torches and chase the monster and Niemann into a quicksand bog. Karloff’s panicked face sinking into the swamp is the last thing we see before the end credits, which is only fitting since he’s the biggest star on the block—and the chief reason to sit through a rather pedestrian film. House of Frankenstein is no classic, but definitely rates a low-expectations look.

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Krampus (2015)

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When it comes to seasonal horror fare, Christmas is starting to give Halloween a run for its money, even if you don’t count deranged Santas stalking overbaked adolescents.

Michael Dougherty’s Krampus qualifies as first-rate family entertainment capable of engaging several generations of house pests. It’s got suspense and a bit of gore, but not much actual violence. Think of it as more dark urban fairy tale, or perhaps a Scrooge variation conceived by Tim Burton. (I even watched it with a sensitive friend to make sure it passed the brutality test.)

Like the Dickens’ tale, Krampus is appropriate for the whole clan because of the valuable lessons it imparts. When young Max (Emjay Anthony) is forced to spend another holiday with his cretinous cousins, his increasingly bad humor brings down the wrath of the titular Yuletide deity, an angry “Anti” Claus who will bloody well give you something to cry about, if your Christmas spirit is found wanting. In other words, he takes instead of gives.

Soon, his family’s snug suburban home is a frozen wasteland with menacing snow men appearing in the yard, setting the table for ol’ Krampus and his hideous helpers to work some dark magic.

A spirited cast, led by Adam Scott (Parks and Recreation), Toni Collette (United States of Tara), David Koechner (Anchor Man) and Alison Tolman (Fargo) work some magic of their own, giving expert comic performances across the board. The movie certainly qualifies as a dark comedy, but the characters reveal surprising depth and decency. Co-writer and director Dougherty shows a firmer hand with heroism here than he did with either of the X-Men features on his resume.

Like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (Gene Wilder, RIP), Krampus relishes in the teaching of lessons to naughty kids and their clueless parents. All the petty griping, selfishness, and stupidity gets shoved aside as survival becomes the season’s hottest gift idea.

Spring (2014)

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A very nifty flick that can be thoroughly enjoyed by any and all genders and temperaments. Much like A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, Let the Right One In, or Near Dark,  Spring is a deliciously dread romance, as a nice-boy protagonist gets sucked into a dangerous new friendship. Co-director and writer Justin Benson borrows a page or two from Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and creates an oddly pleasing hybrid; a convincing creature feature about love and acceptance, that is rendered exquisitely.

After his mom conveniently kicks the bucket, Evan (Lou Taylor Pucci) decides to ditch his hayseed hometown and take a trip to Italy. His “aw shucks” demeanor and cornfed gusto prove irresistible to lovely research student Louise (Nadia Hilker), and before you know it, charming and witty dialogue gives way to a crisp series of scenic seduction sequences.

A whirlwind fling in a picturesque Italian coastal town ensues, and the star-crossed couple demonstrates palpable chemistry. Even so, there’s something a little odd about Louise. Is she a junky? Does she have a mysterious medical condition? Where did her pet rabbits go?

It certainly helps that Spring gets high-caliber performances from Pucci and Hilker, as a likable couple we have no trouble rooting for, especially since Evan and Louise seem to be having as grand a time as we are.  The whole thing is almost entirely too delightful, an extremely volatile ingredient when it comes to the horror movie.

Bone Tomahawk (2015)

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tomahawk

Patton Oswalt was tweeting about this one recently, his observations growing increasingly agitated—and no wonder. Bone Tomahawk is a horse opera throwback that any John Ford fan will recognize without too much difficulty. It’s your basic, “OK men, let’s get us a posse and go save our womenfolk” tale, that gradually winds its way into an atavistic nightmare and a grueling denouement. And having goddamn Kurt Russell as the dutiful and superbly mustachioed sheriff doesn’t hurt one bit.

Russell portrays Sheriff Franklin Hunt, a turn-of-the-century lawman who watches over the frontier town of Bright Hope, situated somewhere in the Southwestern badlands. One fine evening, he and Chicory (the amazing Richard Jenkins), his backup deputy and comic sidekick, spot a fugitive in their midst (David Arquette), a craven bandit on the run from a tribe of bloodthirsty cave-dwelling savages, who have trailed him to his present location. Oh, and they’re cannibals.

The next morning, Hunt discovers that the bandit, Mrs. O’Dwyer (Lili Simmons), and Deputy Nick (Evan Jonigkeit) have been abducted by the fearsome flesh eaters. A posse consisting of Hunt, Chicory, John Brooder (Scott Fox), a sartorially splendid gunfighter, and Arthur O’Dwyer (Patrick Wilson), a rancher with a broken leg, and husband of the kidnapped damsel, sets off in pursuit.

For most of Bone Tomahawk‘s two-plus hours running time, we plod along with the cowboy quartet on a near-hopeless quest. Hopefully, the pace won’t cause any premature bailouts, because this is where writer and director S. Craig Zahler demonstrates a sure hand. Alternating between meandering scenes of Larry McMurtry-esque cowboy banter and violent episodes of gunplay, Zahler keeps a tight rein on his players, moving them stoically forward to a hellish confrontation with a horrible enemy. And to their credit, the principle cast members (especially Russell and Jenkins) acquit themselves smashingly.

Hunt and his men prove to be fallible, but honorable avengers, capable of extraordinary acts of courage, even under extreme circumstances. These include helplessly watching a captured comrade writhe in agony as a clan of troglodytes readies him for supper. Suffice to say there’s more to this meal preparation than washing your hands.

Bone Tomahawk has its cringe-worthy moments, but the savagery is a vital story component, serving as a chillingly effective worst-case scenario, and not merely a cheap excuse for guts and gore. On the other hand, if you’re hungry for guts and gore, you surely won’t be disappointed by the time they arrive. Strong work!

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.

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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Darkness

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?”

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