Beneath Still Waters (2005)


I figured Beneath Still Waters was worth a gamble since Brian (Bride of Re-Animator) Yuzna produced and directed this Spanish-UK collaboration. While there is ample gore and some stellar scenes of Bosch-like depravity, the pace is glacial—endless talky exposition and needless character development.

Nutshell: A town in Northern Spain is flooded after the construction of a new dam. The cover story is that the dam brings jobs, cheap power, and prosperity to the region, but the naked truth is that the “drowned town” was inhabited by a kinky cannibal cult led by a sinister Aleister Crowley acolyte named Salas (Patrick Gordon, as the Richard Lynch-style creepy cult leader).

Fast-forward 40 years later and the ghost or spirit or reanimated corpse of the evil magician returns accompanied by a very small band of fairly scary zombies, and a vendetta against the granddaughter of the former mayor who flooded the town.

There’s a good chunk of memorably nightmarish imagery thanks to the hallucinatory, low-tech, Euro-art school FX (think Méliès rather than Lucas), and Salas’s habit of tearing his victims’ heads off never gets old.

But it’s a pretty slow 90 minutes, most of which look like a made-for-TV movie from the 1970s, so prepare for rough sledding.

Mask Maker (2010)

How many times have we seen a movie wherein a young couple hoping for a fresh start moves into a house with an evil, awful, scary, drippy history? I think I lost count at a gajillion.

The thing that chafes my cheeks is when a low- to no-budget horror film has exterior footage of a huge, mysterious, fog-shrouded Gothic mansion, only to cut to interior shots that look like they were filmed in your Aunt Tillie’s country condo.

The stairs and hallways of the accursed manor that once housed Satan himself, are festooned with smoke alarms, paintings of dogs playing poker, and three-prong outlets? It’s a hard one for me to overlook.

Thankfully, Mask Maker (original title: Maskerade) manages to disguise its measly budget well enough, and you’ll likely be sufficiently invested to turn a blind eye to some bad mattes, continuity errors, and a weird chronology of events.

A couple of reasonably attractive college students elope to a decrepit plantation-style house in the middle of nowhere that Evan (Stephen Colletti) has bought for the very reasonable sum of $10,000.

The house comes with 40 (haunted) acres, is a goldmine of valuable heirlooms, and even has a priceless wine cellar.

What the Realtor neglected to mention is that a woman, accused of witchcraft like, 50 years ago (when Kennedy was in office, presumably), and her demented son were lynched on the property.

One thing leads to another, and the son rises from the grave (that looks all of  two feet deep) and, for reasons we never learn, murders the interlopers and steals their faces to make scary masks.

It sounds pretty lame, but director Griff Fuest is generous with the gore and there’s even a splash of nudity. The script is nothing special but it isn’t dealbreaker dumb.

Bonus points for casting Treat Williams and Michael (The Hills Have Eyes) Berryman in small parts.

And Jason London, on a weekend pass from rehab, also makes an appearance.

You could do worse.

 

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006)

Humor in horror movies is a tricky thing. It’s a great tension reliever, but too much, too often, and you end up watching a “spoof.” (Spoof = lame). Director Scott Glosserman strikes a judicious balance of horror and ha-ha in Behind the Mask, a faux documentary about a film crew of college students shadowing a wannabe serial killer.

As Leslie, the cheerful, upbeat (but very focused) killer, Nathan Baesel brings vast amounts of nuance to a role that could have been a corny caricature. In fact, he kind of reminds me of Rob Lowe’s character in Parks & Recreation, a most amiable and chatty fellow.

He is by turns funny, cunning, weird, and frightening as a man who has chosen to do battle against the forces of good. (“There can’t be good without evil,” he explains.) The lion’s share of the film details Leslie’s extensive preparations as he stalks his victim, a pretty waitress named Taylor (Angela Goethals).

The real hook is that Leslie takes great pains to debunk the supernatural aspects of cinematic serial killers like Jason Voorhees, Michael Meyers, and Freddy Krueger. He trains relentlessly, studies the disappearing tricks of Houdini, practices yoga, and gets sage advice from Eugene (the always excellent Scott Wilson), a retired killer who lives next door.

It’s a smart film and no one behaves in predictable fashion—unless it’s part of the stalking-and-killing ritual. Small parts featuring Robert Englund as Leslie’s “Ahab,” Dr. Halloran (a ringer for Donald Pleasance in Halloween), and tiny Zelda Rubenstein as the librarian with a red herring, add to the fun.

Behind the Mask is a highly ambitious little movie that brings brains to the table.

Frozen (2009)

Here’s a scenario we’ve not seen before. Two snowboard buddies, one with a girlfriend in tow, are stranded on a ski lift in the dark as the resort closes down for five days. No cell phone reception, in case you’re wondering. What to do?

During the majority of Frozen’s running time, while the trapped trio is dangling in the dark trying to figure a way out, we’ve got a tense little thriller on our hands. Old animosities boil over, and various escape plans prove fruitless.

And then the wolves show up. (Wow! Who knew there was a pack of hungry timber wolves roaming the slopes of a popular ski resort?) At that point, although the tension remains palpable, the plot takes a turn for the ridiculous.

Sticking it out to the end isn’t too painful, but it seems like director Adam Green (Hatchet) squandered a decent set-up, and blew the chance to be more provocative.

Mulberry Street (2006)

See the crummy neighborhood, its streets and alleys awash in sweaty, hustling, vibrant humanity.  Puerto Ricans, Italians, blacks, whites, all doing what they have to to get by. They live in a tableau of small but clean apartments with crappy plumbing, narrow hallways, and crumbling basements. The scene thusly set, the panic points that pop up in Mulberry Street seem natural, even organic. And panic does indeed pop up in the form of huge, surprisingly vicious rats that have a taste for warm human flesh.

That in itself might be frightening enough as the plot for a gritty, inner-city entropyfest, but things definitely take a turn for the worse, as bite victims start mutating into crazed, hairy, blood-thirsty varmints. Were-rats? Whatevs. Anyway, friends are now enemies, families are now food.

Speaking of families, Clutch (Nick Damici) is the protagonist, and he’s a goodhearted ex-boxer awaiting the return of his battle-scarred daughter from her tour in Iraq.  While he waits, he does a pretty good job of looking after the other tenants in his building when the unfortunates infected with rat rabies begin flipping their wigs.

Amidst the chaos and the killing, the assorted characters, including a drag queen, a middle-aged Italian guy and his father who totes his oxygen tank with him everywhere he goes, and a lonely single mom, all display surprising humanity and warmth, which isn’t easy when hordes of rabid rodent-thropes are trying to chow down on their asses.

It’s always a bonus when characters show that they have some grit and integrity rather than succumb to the always-popular “every man for himself” option. Definitely a cut above the average.