Brother’s Keeper

The Devil You Know

by George Wolf

A morality play rooted in family bonds, The Devil You Know looks to carve a modern-day Cain and Abel allegory from the ripples of a brutal murder.

Marcus (Omar Epps) is an ex-con who finally has a handle on sobriety and is hopeful for the future. He has a solid new job as an L.A. bus driver, a promising relationship with new girl Eva (Erica Tazel), and an extended family always ready to offer support.

But at the big family party in his honor, Marcus stumbles across something that appears to link his wayward brother Drew (William Catlett) to the home invasion killings that are dominating the news.

Should Marcus tell detective McDonald (Michael Ealy) what he knows? Or should Marcus keep quiet, covering for his brother and hoping that the local hoods Drew runs with (B.J. Britt and Theo Rossi) don’t eye him any more suspiciously than they already do?

Writer/director Charles Murray (TV’s Luke Cage and Sons of Anarchy) layers a compelling crisis of conscience through family strife that feels authentic thanks to a fine ensemble including veterans Glynn Turman and Vanessa Bell Calloway. It takes more than just stoically reciting the word “family” into the camera multiple times to reveal strength in conflict, and Murray has a good feel for this nuance.

Less successful are the TV and news reports of the murders (like old-age makeup, these continue to be a conundrum for filmmakers) and the tendency of Murray’s script to retrace some of the moral terrain it’s traveling. As a result, you start to feel the nearly two-hour run time as the pace develops some unmistakable drag.

But Murray seems like a TV vet with potential for compelling features. There is a thoughtful and effective thriller at the heart of The Devil You Know, and it’s often glimpsed through the moments of bloat that hold it back.

They’re at the Gate


by Hope Madden

Why is the dinner party such a ripe concept for horror? Or at least trauma?

Indies It’s a Disaster and Coherence bend time and space. The Invitation takes things in a bloody direction, The Humans picked more familial scabs. What they all have in common is that intimate gathering where familiarity breeds contempt.

They also require few locations and minimal cast, so they’re not too tough to mount on a small budget.

Director/co-writer Charles Dorfman takes all that into consideration with his feature debut. A veteran producer, Dorfman co-writes this fearsome tale with another longtime producer making his creative debut, Statten Roeg.

Together they spin the story of birthday boy Adam (Iwan Rheon, Game of Thrones). He and girlfriend Eva (Catalina Sandino Moreno) await their two guests. Eva is a sculptor, and she and Adam have been living in the first of what will be many exclusive new homes developed on ancient, isolated, mystical UK land.

The developer, Lucas (Tom Cullen and his exceptional beard), is Adam’s polar opposite: narcissistic, ambitious, full of shit. Today Eva unveils her big sculpture, she and Adam sign final paperwork to own the house, and Adam blows out the candles on his dream of making it as a director in London in favor of quiet country life.

Well, maybe not because a) Lucas has had another offer, and b) masked intruders threaten the whole evening.

Part comedy of manners, part home invasion thriller, Barbarians finds itself on uneven footing.

With its monolith and fertility festival masks, the film not-so-subtly conjures 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Wicker Man. It can’t deliver on either promise, though.

More problematic is the way Dorfman discards the themes and character development so carefully articulated in the first half of the film. The fact that the invasion itself never matches the tension of the simple dinner —what with its evasions, lies, manipulations — becomes Dormfan’s biggest problem. At dinner, the filmmaker tends to the themes of the film, twisting discomfort into a knot that’s too easily untied by some intruders in animal masks.

Gun for Hire

The Contractor

by Hope Madden

Chris Pine is Hollywood’s unsung Chris, isn’t he? Under-sung, anyway. Just because he’s not an Avenger. He is a dependable, charismatic presence in any film, though, which is why each of his efforts deserves a little optimism. Even one as seemingly unremarkable as The Contractor.

Pine plays James Harper, a Navy Seal with 5 tours under his belt. One shredded knee, one worthless lung and a host of other physical consequences from his time under fire mean that Harper is no longer of use to the US military. Debts at home have him entertaining offers he probably shouldn’t.

After too lengthy an Act I, The Contractor pivots to tight action thriller. Pine delivers vulnerability and honor as the damaged service vet, and director Tarik Saleh surrounds him with able support.

The great Ben Foster arrives about 20 minutes into the feature, and that’s never a bad sign. The film’s biggest draw is the chance to see Pine and his Hell or High Water co-star reunite. Foster is among the most effortlessly authentic actors working, every character’s backstory hanging on his face and haunting his eyes.

He and Pine have a lived-in camaraderie that goes a long way toward deepening the emotional underpinning of what is otherwise a blandly repetitive, unimaginative military action flick.

The real surprise is that Saleh — who began his career with the bizarre and amazing dystopian fantasy Metropia — couldn’t produce something a little more intriguing. The by-the-numbers script from J.P. Davis doesn’t help, but aside from a handful of decent fisticuff sequences, Selah does not prove himself as an action director.

Gillian Jacobs, Fares Fares, Eddie Marsan and Kiefer Sutherland — all underused — do what they can to bring nuance to underwritten characters, but it’s not enough to salvage the film.

Rather than elevate a bland picture, the performances feel wasted in this derivative and formulaic thriller.

Love Bites

Let the Wrong One In

by George Wolf

First off, someone has earned a victory lap for that title, Let the Wrong One In. It’s perfect. Five words, and we instantly expect this film to be about vampires, and we expect it to be silly.

Done and done.

Writer/director Conor McMahon, the Irish goof behind Stiches and Dead Meat, brings his trademark nuttiness and thick, sometimes caption-worthy brogues to a story of love among the bloodsuckers.

Bachelorette Sheila (Mary Murray) is bitten during her hen party (in Transylvania, no less). Sheila comes home to the Emerald Isle and bites Deco (Eoin Duffy), whose sudden aversion to sunlight and garlic french fries doesn’t go unnoticed by his brother Derek (Jordan Lennon).

“You’re a vampire!”

“What are you insinuating?”

After calling in Dr. Henry (Anthony Head from TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer), the boys discover that the doc is also a vampire hunter (and train enthusiast) on the trail of his fiance Sheila and her gang of vamps.

There’s a showdown looming between the living and the undead, with McMahon and crew leaving a blood and guts-splattered trail along the way. The effects are low-rent and cheesy, the gags often obvious but always affable, and the nods to Kubrick and Edgar Wright unmistakable.

And if you’re thinking What We Do in the Shadows, this is a slightly different neighborhood. Let the Wrong One In is more working class, unbridled and often scattershot in its delivery.

But it does end up delivering on the promise of that title, with just enough zany bite to make the lifeless stretches easier to bury.

The Horrors of Garage Entrepreneurship


by Christie Robb

Madeline (Brea Grant, Eastsiders) and her husband Owen (Parry Shen, General Hospital) are two independent scientists working on a time travel device in their garage laboratory. Everything seems to be going well. They successfully moved an orange across time and space. They secured investment capital from their backer Rory (Richard Riehle, Office Space/legendary “that guy”). And they are all set to try experimenting on human subjects.

But one night, Madeline starts coding after she’s had a few too many wines and sends herself into the future only to return and find out that, due to a typo in the code, she and Rory can expect a new Madeline to return from the future every day at the same time for 3,600 days. What to do?

It’s a real conundrum.

Directed by Jason Richard Miller (who produced Frozen—no, not the Disney one) and co-written by Brea Grant, the film manages to entertain despite its minuscule cast of three and limited setting. A lot of the credit goes to Grant, who gives individual quirks to the various Madelines that she embodies.

Matt Akers’s 80s-inspired synth score is also a real delight, providing the entire project with a late-night direct-to-syndication guilty pleasure vibe.

It’s not a movie that can stand up to much logical scrutiny, though. And both the horrific and comedic elements could have been dialed up somewhat. But as an experiment, I think the team is on to something.

Flipped Perspectives

Guantanamo Diary Revisited

by Tori Hanes

“Forgiveness is an act of revenge”.

This line- spoken by director John Goetz- echoes through every action taken by his film’s subject, Mohamedou Ould Slahi.

The center of a well-documented stain on United States history, Slahi was detained at Guantanamo Bay for 14 years without any charges officially brought against him.

In his book Guantanamo Diary (written in 2005, declassified for release in 2012, and the basis for the 2021 film The Mauritanian), Slahi accuses the United States government of extreme torture tactics, which to this day have been denied by special forces connected to his case. In what he considers to be the ultimate act of revenge, Slahi uses Goetz’s documentary to achieve his lofty goal: peacefully reconnect with the men and women involved with his torture in the name of forgiveness.

The documentary gets off to a rocky start. Goetz does not seem dedicated to the backstory that consumes the first half of the piece. Heavy-handed voiceovers spoon-feed us the questions Goetz wants us to be asking, as the film dutifully trudges through Slahi’s complicated past. Ironic, really, since Slahi is clear from his first moments on screen. His intention is exclusively to look toward the future.

Goetz competently introduces the key players: former special forces members connected to Slahi’s case, ranging in importance from a low-level guard to head of the operation. Goetz pushes uncomfortable recounts from each person, eventually finding the meat of his story.

The film becomes a power struggle over control of the narrative. Obviously disturbed by Slahi’s presence in the media, the individuals involved are desperate to clear either their name or their conscience. The story takes a turn from Slahi’s already well-publicized narrative and tackles the mental aftermath inflicted on his torturers.

In a case of trauma begetting trauma, a murky view of these people emerges. Questions surrounding complicity in immoral government sanctions, personal responsibility, and humanity in extremity are posed. Simmering on the backburner of the film, Slahi waits for his ultimate act of revenge.

Once Goetz cracks into the heart of his story, a gritty, complicated spectacle is born. In a narrative that is so seemingly black and white, the gradience of humanity is found.

Fright Club: Closets in Horror

There are few spots on earth that generate more terror than a closet. Maybe the woods, the darkness beneath your bed, but what else? And why? We look into our favorite scary moments in cinematic closets for the latest episode, joined by filmmaker Timothy Troy, who knows a little bit about this topic.

5. Poltergeist (1982)

There are so many moments in Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg’s Eighties gem to point to. But the clown alone, or the meat face alone, or any one of those memorable moments alone wouldn’t have made the film the classic it is. It needed that closet.

We’re used to seeing a closet as a small, dark, creepy space but at Cuesta Verde, it’s a gateway to another dimension. One that could suck your little pajama-clad daughter in. One that could belch out a giant beast that will eat your family whole.

4. Halloween (1978)

The scene has been done to death by now, but when John Carpenter and co-writer Debra Hill first put Laurie Strode in that louver doored closet, audiences lost their shit.

Why would she do it? To buy time for the kids to escape because she’s smart and selfless. And then what? She’ll fashion a tool to take down the intruder. The scene cements Strode as the film’s true hero, but waiting in that tiny little space with slats of light and Michael’s breathing was a test of endurance for the audience. One that hundreds of horror movies have ripped off but none has recreated.

3. The Ring (2002)

Who saw that coming? No one, that’s who.

2. Carrie (1976)

Piper Laurie turns in one of the most gloriously villainous mother characters in cinematic history, terrifying and self-righteous. But this is a moment in Carrie White’s life (a luminous Sissy Spacek). Carrie is fighting back.

And you know what that means.

That means the closet.

1. The Conjuring (2013)

We are very rarely fans of the jump scare, but we give it to director James Wan. He is the master.

And yes, it’s technically a bureau rather than a walk-in closet, but man, we jumped.

Wicked Woods

Sideworld: The Haunted Forests of England

by Hope Madden

Jonathan Russell and George Popov have been exploring England’s haunted history for a number of years now. For their first feature collaboration, 2017’s Hex, the co-writers/co-directors took us into the woods for a spell.

In 2020 the pair co-wrote – this time with Popov flying solo behind the camera – a modern exploration of folk horror with The Droving. Once again, the two unveiled a spooky history where primitive behavior meets supernatural forces deep in England’s woods.

The filmmakers’ latest suggests a serious preoccupation at this point. Their documentary Sideworld: The Haunted Forests of England walks us through some of the spectral history that likely influenced their earlier dramatic efforts.

Where Kier-La Janisse’s recent doc Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched dove into dramatic recreations of folk horror, Popov and Russell dig into the myths that inspired the fiction.

Russell writes, Popov directs and lends vocal talents to the fairly brief excursion into local folklore surrounding three different forests: Epping Forest, Cannock Chase and Wistman’s Wood. Their stories tell of pig beasts and howling dogs, weeping children and witches, tragic lovers and highwaymen.

They don’t stop with musty legend, though. Links to contemporary crime help to bridge the modern with the ancient in a way that sheds light into how tales of hauntings originate.

Though Popov narrates most of the film, he’s joined on occasion by Suzie Frances Garton and William Poulter. The film would have benefitted from more vocal variety, particularly since the filmmakers avoid any kind of talking-head footage. A little commentary from folklorists or experts would also have helped the film deliver a bit more relevance.

You can’t fault the spell Sideworld casts. Richard Suckling, who did such a beautiful job as DP for The Droving, again develops an atmosphere of beauty and dread. His cinematography mesmerizes from the opening moment. Paired with Matthew Laming’s haunting, whispering whistle of a score, the forests of Popov’s exploration easily convince of spectral menace.

Polar Express

Compartment No. 6

by George Wolf

She’s a Finnish archeology student on the way to study some ancient cave paintings in remote northern Russia. He’s a blue collar Russian just traveling to where the work is. They share tight quarters in Compartment No. 6, a measured and often beguiling look at the mysteries of human connection.

Laura (Seidi Haarla) thought she’d be taking this trip with her girlfriend Irina (Dinara Drukarova). Instead, she’s solo on the train to Murmansk, and her first impression of roommate Ljoha (Yuriy Borisov) is not a good one.

He’s drunk and crude. She’s quiet and introspective. So the air in their little compartment might just get as bleak and cold as the view outside the train’s sterile, fogged up window.

Adapting the source novel by Rosa Liksom, director/co-writer Juho Kuosmanen draws effective contrasts between the two environments, especially when one of them begins to thaw. Buoyed by the two excellent lead performances and moments of dark humor in the script, Kuosmanen leans into the 1990’s setting to evoke a world that seems adrift in time and space.

Last year’s Grand Prix winner at Cannes, the film often feels like a slow journey for us as well, but don’t mistake the unhurried pace for aimlessness. Be patient and take the ride. Compartment No. 6 has a warm fuzzy feeling at the last stop.